Not Just a Travel Blog

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Happy Matteo outside our building on the walk to preK

I realized recently that while I love writing and traveling, I don’t love writing about traveling. At least not exclusively. This blog was originally intended to be a journal of sorts to remember the travels we take as a family, particularly during our expat years. And while I still want it to include details of our trips here, I also want to open it up to include other information about our lives. I want to remember what this time in Abu Dhabi was like beyond just our travels.

While we are nearing the end of Tony’s initial 2 year work contract, we are not planning to move back to the USA this summer (we are visiting). About a year ago Tony and I began the “what if” conversations and decided that as long as he had the option, we wanted to extend our time here at least one more year. Planning beyond that is difficult, as much depends on how the next year goes. For now, the three of us are very happy here and the benefits to staying another year are clear — the continued opportunity to travel, save money, and have quality time together as a family. Tony remains very happy with his job and so will extend his contract for the 2017-2018 school year.

Matteo is doing well. He is enjoying his class at preK and has a “best friend” — a little boy from Peru who shares his love for superheroes. Tomorrow is his preK graduation ceremony, though the term continues through most of June. I’m not sure yet when Matteo will take his summer break — for now, I plan on him going as the time with the other children really benefits him. This boy — he is our pride and joy. He brings us so much happiness ever day of our lives and we feel so grateful that we get to be his parents.

In Abu Dhabi, children begin kindergarten when they are 4 (by September 1st). That means Matteo (my baby!) will be going to kindergarten in September. Kindergarten spots in Abu Dhabi are incredibly competitive, but we are happy that he has spots at two great schools. We are leaning towards one over the other, and will have to decide in the next week where we want to send him. Will share more information about that soon :).

We’re getting very excited for our summer travel plans. Tony has outdone himself in planning a summer packed full. Want to feel dizzy with me? Here’s a bulleted list of the places we will be visiting this summer (please don’t hate us):

  • Riga, Latvia
  • Tallinn, Estonia
  • Helsinki, Finland
  • Livonia and Traverse City, Michigan (USA! USA! USA!)
  • Cincinnati, Ohio (USA! USA! USA!)
  • Toronto, Ontario
  • A few more days in Helsinki (where Tony will be running his first marathon!)
  • Budapest, Hungary (we will pick up a rental car to road trip the rest of our time in Europe)
  • Kosice, Slovakia
  • Zakopane, Poland
  • Krakow, Poland
  • Ostrava, Czech Republic
  • Bratislava, Slovakia
  • Back to Budapest for our flight back to Abu Dhabi

I am equally excited and nervous for the summer ahead. I guess Tony decided that in case this is our last summer as expats, he needed to pack the travel list FULL. I’d say he succeeded.

So thats our brief update from Abu Dhabi. I hope we can see as many family/friends as possible when we’re in the USA this summer. More to come!

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Langkawi, Malaysia

I am so behind recording our travels since this summer. Last I left off, I was writing about our time spent in the US — we spent several weeks in Michigan, Arizona, and Ohio before leaving and stopping in Amsterdam on our way back to Abu Dhabi. While I still want to write about those trips, I want to record our Malaysia trip while its still fresh in my mind.

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View of the beach at the St. Regis from the main patio

Tony read about the St. Regis in Langkawi, Malaysia while working on some travel hacking research. He searched the dates for time that he knew he would have off at the end of November/beginning of December for the UAE’s National Day. The rates for this 5 star property were dirt cheap and Tony was able to find a good deal on flights as well. The caveat on being that our travel day would have 3 legs both on the way there and back — Dubai to Doha then Doha to Kuala Lumpur and finally Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi.

Knowing my own limits and those of Matteo, I was hesitant to book simply because of the worry of that travel day. Typically, for shorter trips (week or less) we try to avoid complicated, long travel days, but this was one of those times when the opportunity presented itself and it felt like now or never — so we went for it.

The travel days were hard. I’ll state that clearly, right out front. We flew overnight, and while we slept better than we had over our summer economy overnight flights, it was still not enough rest. That said, the flights themselves (our first on Qatar Airlines) were as comfortable as you’re going to get in economy. Purely from a parent with a small child perspective, they were great — Matteo had a child’s meal provided quickly and it was food that he would actually eat (well, part of it) which was a first for us. They also had a great inflight entertainment selection and provided a Monopoly themed activity kit that we had so much fun with.

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When we arrived in Langkawi, we were met right outside the luggage area by our driver and escort from the St. Regis resort. They showed us to the BMW 7 series that was waiting for us in the parking lot, complete with refreshing towels, cookies and chilled water. What a relaxing way to end a loooonnngggg overnight of travel. The drive to the resort was about 30 minutes. As soon as we pulled in to the St. Regis’ private driveway we began to enjoy the beauty of the resort.

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Tony and Matteo at the entrance to the St. Regis

As gorgeous as the St. Regis is, I admit that this was not a perfect trip. There were several hiccups at the beginning of our trip, things that are not becoming of a 5 star resort. Tony addressed his concerns with the property management though and they were eager to make things right, starting with upgrading our room to a pool suite.

We were disappointed in the weather while in Langkawi, as the rain and clouds prevented us from doing some of the items on our wish list. Still, we had a blast spending a day at the Wildlife Park — where Tony and I each had a parrot on our shoulders, and we fed birds straight from our hands. I wish I had photographs of this, but they would only allow their photography (which they then charged outrageously for prints) so just take my word it was neat!! Matteo in particular had SO much fun feeding the animals and learning about the displays.

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View from the Westin property on Langkawi

The St. Regis’ sister property the Westin is right next door so one day we spent the morning over there, enjoying their pools and beach. They also had very cheap kayak rentals which Tony was able to enjoy. The Westin property wasn’t as new or lavish as the St. Regis but the property’s multiple pools and outdoor activities would make it a GREAT choice for families. The St. Regis definitely had more of a romantic feel, though there were several families with young children staying there.

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Tony heading out on his kayak

Our room rate included two meals a day, breakfast and either lunch or dinner. With the time change, we tended to eat breakfast late in the morning and would then chose to eat dinner. We also had a $100 USD equivalency daily credit that we could spend on food or at the spa. Typically, we used it on drinks at the pool but the $100 credit was quite generous with the prices at the resort and we never spent the full amount.

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No sun but a break in rain meant we went to the beach!

This was our first trip to Asia. Some of our assumptions played out as expected — neither of us loved the more traditional food, which I know will cause some who enjoy Asian cuisine to want to throttle us, but we tried, I swear! The one thing that kept this trip from being a home run was honestly the weather, nothing we could control. Had we had sun and clear skies, the beauty of Langkawi would be unmatched. We’ve been so fortunate, on our travels, to have great weather. That streak had to end at some point. Matteo sure had a blast though. By the last day, he was begging us to live at the hotel!

Now we’re back in Abu Dhabi with just enough time to adjust back to this time change and prepare for our Christmas trip. We leave next week for Paris!

Park Hyatt Dubai

During the first weekend in May, Tony, Matteo and I packed up and made the 1.5 hour drive to Dubai for a long weekend spent at the Park Hyatt Dubai.

Park Hyatt Dubai

We love to stay at Hyatt properties because of our award status with the chain, which gives us extra benefits like suite upgrade when available, late check out, free breakfast, etc. This Dubai property followed in the footsteps of the other Park Hyatt properties we’ve stayed at, it was absolutely beautiful with fantastic service.

The property is spread out, with separate buildings attached by breezeways and walkways. Every square inch of the property was gorgeous — with the blue and white theme, and modern, luxurious furnishings leaving us saying “wow!” throughout our stay.

Upon check in, we were upgraded to a suite which meant that we had a large bedroom and a separate living area (where we could roll Matteo’s cot at night). Also of note? The gorgeous bathroom that featured a HUGE tub!

With several restaurants, a great pool, gym, and spa, we didn’t feel the need to leave the property for the duration of our weekend stay. Because it was Mother’s Day (US) weekend,  Tony and Matteo surprised me with a morning at the spa where I received a wonderfully relaxing massage.

Our weekend was quiet and relaxing — the perfect preparation for the end of school year crawl that awaited us back in Abu Dhabi as we wait for our mid July summer break and the exciting line up of travels we have planned (UK > US > Netherlands).

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We will definitely make plans to return to the Park Hyatt Dubai property for a future visit when we want to get away, but don’t have the time/inclination to leave the UAE. A great, relaxing weekend!

Luxury to London

 

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Etihad Apartment on the A380

Abu Dhabi to London is neither a quick nor easy flight by most people’s standards with about 8 hours in flight time from runway to runway.  It certainly seems out of the way to go for an extended weekend break. Thanks to the world of airlines miles and points traveling, though,  this route can be a once in a lifetime experience on its own even without experiencing the destination. Having just returned from 4 nights in London, I can easily say that this trip served as a wonderful reminder of why we started earning miles and points and got into this travel hacking game in the first place.

For 40,000 American Airlines miles each way and about $350 in taxes I was able to find availability to experience the most luxurious and private cabin in air travel booking the Etihad A380 “apartment” in the sky en route to London to watch Chelsea take on Stoke City on March 5.  My trip began Thursday morning with a 9:00 am departure and finished on Monday night with an 8:30 pm arrival back into Abu Dhabi from Heathrow.  In between I was able to explore London, get a taste of a real winter, take in a Chelsea match, and take a day trip to Birmingham to visit some friends.

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Etihad Lounge Abu Dhabi 1st Class Section

 

The travel expereince began early on Thursday morning as I was greeted with a chauffeur at my apartment, picking me up in an Audi A4 — this pick up service is complimentary for all premium cabin passengers traveling aboard Etihad.  After a quick 10-minute ride to the airport, I was greeted curb side with a luggage porter who quickly grabbed my bags and escorted me to the private business/first class check in in Etihad’s dedicated Abu Dhabi Terminal.  At the first class check-in counter there was at least a dozen agents in the lobby and I was the only guest.  I was quickly greeted, offered a new boarding pass, and then escorted the 25 steps to a dedicated passport control agent.  Before I knew it, I was past security and on my way to the Etihad premium lounge.

The lounge itself was large and fairly crowded, but there was plenty of space to stretch out, relax, and order an omlette.  First class passengers were given a roped off area in the lounge offering more privacy and were also offered a complimentary treatment at the lounge’s Six Senses Massage facility — including the option of a haircut or shave in the barber shop.  At 8:00 am, I made my way to enjoy a wet shave prior to boarding — I had a wonderfully close shave with a straight razor — and then headed a few hundred meters down to Gate 10 where passengers were already boarding.

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Barber Services @ Shave
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View of the A380 from the jet-way in Abu Dhabi

Boarding the A380 was an unusual experience since it is a double decker plane; the premium cabin is on the upper deck and had a separate boarding gate from economy passengers.  Aboard the plane there are 8 private apartments and one 3 room “residence” which comes with a personal butler.  Of the 8 available apartments,  5 were occupied on my flight in addition to two passengers in the residence up front.  Upon arriving in my booked apartment 3K, I was blown away at the amount of space and the beauty of the cabin.  The color tone and designs worked perfectly together. The entire cabin was inspired by many of the design elements of Islamic architecture and the middle east that emphasize symmetry, patterns, and creative lighting.  The apartment is designed to have a seating area, that faces a long bench which can be folded out into a bed (made up upon request).  Additionally, there was a mini-fridge, a lit vanity, drawer for personal storage, personal coat closet, and 24” TV screen that rotates so it can be viewed while laying in bed or stays flush with the cabin wall for viewing while seated.

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One of 8 apartments aboard the A380
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Etihad A380 Apartment from the aisle
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My home for 8 hours, Apartment 3K
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Plenty of room

After taking in the beauty and luxury of the cabin, the flight crew came over one by one to introduce themselves and offer me a pre-flight drink.  I ordered a cappuccino that came on a beautiful silver tray complete with dates, a hot towel, and a hand written welcome note from the crew leader on board.  Shortly after I had my drink, the on board chef came by and went over the “on-demand” dining menu and I ordered an omlette to be served after takeoff along with a sparkling water.  I was also given my choice of timings for taking a shower during the flight and booked an appointment for an hour before landing.   As we reached cruising altitude I was served some tea, along with a dish of warmed almonds, cashews, and a few olives.  My omlette was delivered to my apartment about 30 minutes after we reached cruising altitude and the dining experience was nothing short of five stars with a table cloth, fine china, and Etihad branded designer flatware.

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Bench and Blanket
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Seat Control/Storage/Entertainment remote

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Wonderful Personalized Welcome

After breakfast the table was cleared and I scrolled through the in flight entertainment which featured live TV and radio stations in addition to hundreds of on demand movies and television shows for streaming.  The “E-box” selection was extensive and it included many new releases; during this flight I watched The Big Short and Apollo in addition to streaming BBC news and CNN international live.  About 4 hours into the flight, I had the bed made up and decided to get in a little nap and test out the bed. The crew made up the bed ,outfitting the bench with a mattress pad, sheets and an additional pillow for sleeping.  While they made up the bed I changed into my Etihad sleepwear which was handed out at the start of the flight.  When I returned the bed was made up and I got a quick hour of sleep.  I didn’t want to sleep too long since it was the middle of the day, but if this were a red-eye flight it would be easy to get hours of uninterrupted rest as I found the bed quite comfortable;  it was on the firm side which is perfect for me.

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Etihad Apartment in Bed Mode
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A lovely Rose
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Fried Tomato 

After my brief nap, I ordered the salmon lunch which was delicious.  Along with the Salmon I had a glass of Duval Leroy Brut Rose along with a glass of sparkling water.  The salmon was phenomenal and the entire presentation was amazing again.  After the salmon, I had a cheese tray along with a glass of 12 year Glenlivet.  Shortly after lunch, I was given a towel and taken to the shower suite as it was time for my designated appointment.  Last summer on our Amtrak trip from LA to Seattle, we had a shower in our train cabin, and while this shower was larger than the Amtrak option, it was not large by any means.  The shower was a bit of a novelty but it was also quite refreshing to arrive in London showered and ready to explore the city.  Though not large, the shower’s water pressure was good, the body wash and shampoo were terrific, the water was hot and the experience was memorable.  After heading back to my apartment, I ordered a gin and tonic (of course) and settled in for the last 45 minutes or so of the flight.

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Cheese & Scotch

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A380 Shower
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Shower View
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Arrival into London
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Chaueffer at Heathrow 
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Ride into Town

The flight arrived in London early and by the time we were at the jet way it was about 12:15. All premium passengers were given fast track cards for passport control and this allowed me to breeze through the airport stopping only briefly at the passport counter and then waiting an additional 5 minutes for my checked bag to arrive.  At Heathrow there was an Etihad counter with the chaffier driver’s ready to take passenger’s to their final destination and this was complimentary up to 100-mile radius of the airport (an additional charge for anything past 100 miles).  My chauffer met me and escorted me to a beautiful BMW 7 series and we headed into London to my Airbnb in the Victoria neighborhood.  It was about a 45 minutes ride with traffic and it was great to head straight to my destination without having to bother with the Heathrow Express into town.

By 1:00 pm I was at my destination and ready to begin the next leg of my weekend adventure in the UK.  Overall, I was thoroughly impressed with every aspect of the flight and transfer in both Abu Dhabi and London. Etihad has really spared no expense or detail when it comes to their premium 1st class product.  It was a memorable experience and it made me excited to try again in a few days time upon my return from London.

An Afternoon in the Desert

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Sweihan Desert Abu Dhabi (camel farm to the right)

One of the differences in working in the UAE compared to the U.S. is that schools are gender segregated pretty much from Grade 1 onwards.  This means that the staffs are all male or all female for local schools which is the standard around the region, and while this takes a little getting used to at first it does foster a sense of camaraderie and brotherhood amongst colleagues which is strengthened by often sharing meals and enjoying staff outings 4-5 times per year.  Another nice perk of working in the UAE is the ability to learn about and taste the various national dishes from many of the regions and countries that are prepared authentically by the locals.

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Lamb in the large pot, yoghurt reconstituted in the smaller pot
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Almost Ready
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Well worth the wait….an authentic Mansaf

Earlier this week after school was dismissed a few dozen of us headed out to the desert for a traditional Jordanian Mansaf.  Mansaf is a traditional Jordanian dish served at special occasions and holidays that is popular in many countries in the region but perfected (so I’m told by my Jordanian friends) in Jordan that is prepared by boiling bone-in lamb along with herbs and onions and serving it in a sauce made from fermented and preserved yoghurt from a few specific regions in Jordan which is carefully salted, frozen, and preserved until needed.  The Mansaf is served on a platter with a thin flat break (shark) which is then filled with rice, then the lamb is added and finally the yoghurt sauce is poured over the top.  A handful for the guys headed out to the desert early to begin building the fire and preparing the Mansaf our in the desert about 4 hours before the main group got there to eat.  The preparation is true to its bedouin origins, a small fire pit is created out, wood and brush are gathered, and then a giant pot is filled with water brought to a boil and the lamb is slowly cooked over a few hours.

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Enjoying the desert 
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Relaxing
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Top of the dunes

The meal is eaten in traditional arabic style on the ground in various platters with no utensils.  After the meal its time for tea and then an offering of nuts and seeds.  We were out in the desert among some excellent sand dunes to go explore and get great pictures.  Before and after the meal a few of us hiked around and to the top of the nearest dune to get a great view of the area complete with a few semi-permanent camel  farms spread out along the desert.  All in all we had a great time in the desert and enjoyed a delicious Jordanian Mansaf, definitely an experience to remember.

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Locals stuck in the sand (they were towed out eventually)

Ringing in the New Year @ 36,000 Feet

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Etihad A330 Business Class Cabin

So far since our move to Abu Dhabi, we have booked two award trips as a family which allows to save money while still traveling in more comfort than we could reasonably afford other wise.  We originally booked a return from Munich on Air Berlin and had a long layover in Dusseldorf.  A few weeks before we left for the trip I was able to find a direct flight to Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways in business class.  This upgrade cost us an additional 10,000 American Airlines miles each — the award ticket is 30,000 miles one way for business class as opposed to 20,000 miles in economy from when flying from Europe to the Middle East.

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Chocolate Santa’s in the Atlantic Lounge @ Munich Airport (not our Chanel bag)

Upon arrival at the Munich  airport we were fast tracked through check in, bag drop, security, passport control, and boarding (though admittedly none of these areas had any delays or lines since the airport was pretty quite at 7:00 pm on New Years Eve).  We found ourselves in the Atlantic Lounge in Munich in no time at all with more than 1.5 hours to spare before boarding.  While we enjoyed the pre-flight treatment traveling in business class, we would have had lounge access anyhow thanks to our priority club membership. The real reason we wanted this flight was for the onboard experience of Etihad business class.

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Toasting to the New Year at Altitude 

Remade our way to our departure gate at about 9:00 pm where we quickly boarded through the jetway and made our way to the business class cabin. The cabin was configured in a 1-2-1 formation allowing direct aisle access for every seat.  Jen and Teo had two adjoining seats, angled into each other which allowed her to help him with his meal/ipad/bed without having to move around the cabin to reach him thanks to the “honeymoon” style setup.  I was seated in the row in front of them with my seat facing out towards the aisle which gave much more privacy even though the seat next to me was empty the whole flight.

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Couldn’t wait for his “bed seat”

We have flown Etihad economy half a dozen times the last year and have always been impressed with their crews, service, and attention to detail.  We had another wonderful service experience by the business class team who paid attention to every last detail and made sure to give special attention to Matteo (including giving him a special children’s amenity kit which he loved).  Pre-flight drinks were immediately handed out and my champagne flute was refilled every time I turned around.  As soon as we reached cruising altitude, the crew sprang into action with a 3 course dinner service that started with a ramekin of warm nuts, followed by a starter, main course, dessert, and finally a cocktail or coffee/tea.   I chose the Artichoke soup as my started (which was delicious), went with the salmon main dish (good but a touch  over cooked), and finished with a cappuccino and some strawberry ice cream.

After watching some TV episodes on the expansive Etihad in flight entertainment during the meal, we all fell asleep for a good portion of the flight and before we knew it we were prepping for our landing. We were ready to get home to Abu Dhabi as it was now 7:00 am local time after losing 4 hours through the night to time changes.  We were given fast track passes to go through immigration and once we landed we flew through immigration, collected our bags which were awaiting us at the carousel and then headed to the Etihad Arrivals lounge.  We stopped to freshen up and grab a quick snack for breakfast.  One of the nice touches of Etihad premium cabin tickets is that it includes chauffeur service to anywhere in the UAE upon arrival.  We didn’t have to worry about a cab or airport pickup as we had a brand new Audi A6 awaiting us to quickly shuttle us home in style.  Overall we had a terrific flight home which was possible only through earning points and redeeming them for terrific value.

Vienna in December

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Christmas Market Outside Karskirche (St. Charles Church)

We kicked off our holiday travel taking an early morning flight from Abu Dhabi to Dusseldorf before our final transfer to Vienna.  We arrived in Vienna at about 7:30 pm local time and checked in to our room at about 8:30 pm.  It was a full day of travel but given the crazy stories many have had to endure during this time of year we had a very easy go of it.  We got to the airport early and had a quick breakfast in the Al Dhabi Lounge before heading to our 9:00 am Air Berlin flight.

The flight was amazing and luckily we only had about 30% of seats filled on board.  We were able to stretch out across our entire row and watch a good selection of In-Flight Entertainment and were very impressed with the service and food options even in economy.  The layover in Dusseldorf was a comfortable and uneventful 4 hours in the Hugo Junkers Lounge.  Our final flight was to Vienna was fully booked but it was a quick hour flight and we were in the Vienna airport breezing through to the City Airport Train in no time.

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Relaxing on our AirBerlin flight 

Stepping out from the subway station was beautiful, we arrived on a cool, wet night and it started to rain a bit but it was refreshing coming from the Abu Dhabi sunshine.  We went the wrong way initially from the station but eventually we found our hotel and it was absolutely gorgeous.  We were greeted warmly and treated to a stunning Park Hyatt Suite which was the nicest room in which we have ever stayed. Before going to the room we were given a personal tour of the property which had just opened in June 2014 after a massive conversion from the buildings original purpose as a 100-years-old bank.

The property managed to preserve some of the cool architectural details of the old bank such as the restaurant “The Bank” which makes use of the old bank lobby and teller stations, and the indoor pool which is located in the old bank vault.  The hotel also had a beautiful lounge on the main floor, including an adjacent whiskey and cigar room which featured an extensive selection of premium whisky and cigars.  All in all, we both agreed that this was the nicest property we have ever visited and the service was top notch.  Every day when we returned they kept the stroller in the lobby for us so we didn’t have to haul it up and down the building and stairs throughout the lobby.

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Park Hyatt Exterior with Christmas Market
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Entrance to Park Hyatt Suite
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Walk In Closet/Changing Room
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Bedroom looking in from Living Room (and a sleepy Matteo)
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Park Hyatt Suite Bathroom
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Pool inside the Old Bank Vault
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Beautiful Fitness Center Looking into the Pool (state of the art machines)

We had a lovely time exploring Vienna and enjoying quality family time while seeing some beautiful sites.  Vienna is a large city but not overwhelmingly so; it has a very efficient public transportation system which we accessed by purchasing a 3 day Vienna Card . The Vienna Card allowed us unlimited use of subways/trams/buses and gave discounts on tickets at many attractions and restaurants.  With our hotel located in the “inner ring” of the city, we found that it was incredibly easy to simply walk out the hotel doors and  explore.

The Christmas markets were a main draw for us in choosing Vienna as our holiday destination, and they did not disappoint. The markets were fun to wander through, while drinking some coffee of mulled wine, eating some amazing treats, and shopping for some unique gifts.  The city was alive with people; most of the attractions and sites we visited were fairly crowded but the crowds gave a good energy to the city especially over the Christmas Break.

After 3 days of touring the city we had seen most of the major landmarks and sites that were open in the winter.  We enjoyed the food scene, had a great time wandering around the city, and always felt safe and comfortable walking around and bringing Matteo along.  If you plan a trip to Austria, be prepared that dogs are allowed everywhere including restaurants, subways, trains, shops, and hotels.  I have heard it stated in more that one place the the Viennese like dogs more than kids. The dogs we saw out were always very well behaved and leashed,  never really causing us to give them a second thought after our initial curiosity was satisfied.

All in all, Vienna was a beautiful city and we both agreed it would be a great place to return to in the summer or spring months when the weather allows for new activities to explore.  After our three days in Vienna, we made our way to the train station to hop aboard on our way to Salzburg for Christmas.