Monday, April 15, 2013

Toronto on Bicycle during a Winter Storm+Skydiving 13,000 Feet Over Canada

Flying over Greenland
View from the room
I had the opportunity a couple of days back to travel to Canada for a short one day business trip and I wanted to make the maximum of what little free time I had while in Canada and thus the journey follows below. As always, you can visit for my previous travelogues.

While I usually always prefer Jet Airways for my trips, I flew Etihad Airways this time around as I was lucky enough to get a 50% off on their Pearl Business class fare, they were flying to Toronto directly from Hyderabad via Abu Dhabi and they also had the shortest travel time among all the options available. Thus, Etihad turned out to be the best choice all around.

It's always a pleasure to fly out from Hyderabad airport. Immigration was extremely quick. The Plaza Premium lounge had fantastic food as always. Among all the lounges in the country, I would say the Plaza lounge in Hyderabad has the best food. Their food even beats the food at Jet Airways' dedicated lounge in Bombay. The flight was half-an-hour late. Etihad is operating the Airbus A320 on their HYD-AUH sector but the aircraft was the older variant as there was no personal in-flight entertainment system. Audio on demand was however available. Since this is a short-haul route, there wasn't a full flat bed but the seats were very comfortable nevertheless and they reclined to a considerable extent. The seats had an in-built massage system and also had in-seat power sockets to charge your electronics but the power sockets weren't working. A welcome kit was provided which consists of a comforter, eyeshades and socks. Though non-branded, the amenities were of high quality. I miss the good old days when Jet Airways used to provide Bvlgari amenity kits on their international routes (they no longer do). The welcome drink was Lemon and Lime tea. The a-la carte breakfast menu was extensive and I chose to have the following:

Bread: Onion and olive focaccia bread with house butter
Starter: Natural yoghurt with berry compote
Mains: Sweet pancakes topped with apple compote and drizzled with maple syrup
Water: San Pellegrino Sparkling Water
Drink: Evervess Ginger Ale
Separate stainless steel cutlery was provided for each portion. Breakfast was excellent and the dental floss provided post breakfast was a nice touch. The crew was pleasant so it was a comfortable flight overall.

On landing at Abu Dhabi airport, I headed over to the Etihad lounge in Terminal 3. The lounge was small and very crowded and the food choice was extremely limited so I was not al all impressed. However, on my return journey, the Etihad lounge in Terminal 1 was fantastic but we will come to that later. All the Etihad lounges at Abu Dhabi airport have a Six senses spa with complimentary spa treatments so I headed to the spa and booked my appointment. Since there was anyways no space to sit in the lounge, I hung around the lounge and worked from there while waiting. My turn came and the spa treatment was excellent which turned out to be the saving grace in the otherwise lousy lounge.

Finally, I headed for my AUH-YYZ flight which was being operated by Etihad using a Boeing 777-300ER. The cabin was the latest design that Etihad had to offer. The Etihad Pearl Business has a 1-2-1 seat configuration. If you choose the window seat which I did, they are the most comfortable as you get plenty of storage space between your seat and the window and open space on both your sides. Plus it's like a dedicated cabin to yourself as compared to the centre two seats. The seat was enclosed in a privacy shell with a 6ft 1-inch full-flat bed and a 49-inch seat pitch. The seat width was 20.0". There was a 15-inch touch screen and remote operated entertainment screen with noise-cancelling headphones. The in-seat power sockets worked this time around. The seats had an in-built massage system. Apart from the amenities provided the previous flight, in addition, earplugs, toothbrush, hand and face cream and lotion and a pen were also provided. However, unlike Jet Airways, a pair of sleeping suit was not provided. The cabin was equipped with mood lighting to ease jet lag. Plus, each seat had it's own personal lighting and setting options. You also had the option of connecting your personal devices to the entertainment system and playing your personal media on the screen. However, I found the range of movies on the entertainment system extremely limited. You had a few stars like Lincoln and Skyfall, but overall the choice was disappointing. The sitcom choice was however slightly better with Mike and Molly, Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men being some of the shows available but the number of episodes for each were limited. Hence the in-flight entertainment choice was nowhere close to what you would find on a Jet Airways flight.

The welcome drink was Lemon and Mint. There was an extensive choice for the post-takeoff drink and I chose the Champagne Jacquart Brut Mosaique France. This is said to be a well-balanced and complex Champagne as it contains grapes from exceptional terroirs which include Grands Crus of Cote des Blancs and Montagne de Reims. It also includes 20% of reserve wine to ensure the regularity of style and more than 3 years ageing. A pale yellow colour with bouquets of pear, almonds, figs and hints of orange blossom are complimented by a very fruity palate which makes this a great aperitif. The champagne was accompanied with spiced nuts. For lunch I chose:

Bread: Italian tomato and oregano filled kraftkorn bread with house butter, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Starter: Roasted tomato soup sautéed pepper garnish
Mains: Vegetable lasagna
Dessert: Warm honey-nut cake served with pomegranate syrup.
Water: San Pellegrino Sparkling Water
Drink: Etihad on it's long haul flights has a personal chef and Food and Beverage Manager. One of his roles is to suggest what distinct drink you should have with each portion of the meal above based on what you order. The choices could be Champagne, a variety of red wines, white wines or dessert wines, mocktails and cocktails etc. However, I just chose to go with the Evervess Ginger Ale again.

Lunch was fantastic and it beats the food served on Jet Airways. There is also a 'Kitchen Anytime' option on board. This is to say that you can ask the Chef to make most of the menu options for you at anytime during the flight. During the course of the flight, I also had apple pie served with vanilla and chocolate sauce, arabic baklava, potato crisps, spiced nuts, green tea with moroccan mint and chamomile tea. Each was excellent. The crew was very prompt and courteous and they ensured that your glass stayed filled with something or the other throughout the flight.

For reasons I am unaware of (in hindsight I should have asked the cabin crew), the flight did not fly in a straight line path to Toronto from Abu Dhabi but actually travelled in a semi-circle path over Greenland. This allowed me to catch a glimpse of Greenland below covered in snow with a beautiful dark blew cloudless sky (pic attached). Finally, I made it to Toronto. The day I landed in Toronto, winter had decided to make a cameo appearance and the city was getting hit with ice pellets and freezing rain and temperature was slightly below freezing. You could see ice on the plants and during my journey out of Toronto, there were even some patches of snow visible here and there. Though many flights were considerably delayed or cancelled due to the weather, my flight was only half-an-hour late and I had to catch a connecting bus so I worried I would not make it on time. However, immigration was done in a jiffy and my checked-in luggage was already on the carousel by the time I reached baggage claim and so I headed out. My work is not in Toronto but in a place at some distance from Toronto. Since it's a small place, I chose to stay in a bed and breakfast inn that is closest to work. The room was spacious and very homely. It however did not have an ensuite bathroom and I had to work across the hallway to access the bathroom assigned to my room which was a bit inconvenient. The homemade breakfast at the inn was however excellent. The owner made this fresh fruit custard with cream which was excellent.

Friday all day was at work and I headed out in the night back to Toronto. I chose the Sheraton Gateway Hotel as that is the only hotel located in Pearson International Airport with direct terminal access. My flight was leaving at 10:45pm on Saturday so essentially I had one day in Toronto. My request for a runway facing club room was graciously entertained and as a result I had a magnificent view (pic attached). As you can see, on Friday too the sky was overcast and it was continuously raining. It was like being in London.

I had to skip breakfast and head out early next morning as I had to catch a bus at 6:30am to a town called Innisfil, which is 80km north ofToronto, for my skydive. My skydive was scheduled at 7:00am but due to the weather it kept getting pushed back and finally I was able to do my skydive at around 11:00am. I spent the hours learning from the pilots and the ground crew what factors effect the skydive, cloud formations at different altitudes etc and the chats were very insightful. The last time I did a skydive in Australia, I got scared when it was time to sit on the edge of the plane and dangle your legs out and this time at around the same time, I got scared when it came to putting my legs out and sitting at the edge for the jump. In terms of differences, my skydive in Australia was in much warmer weather. Over here, as we began to ascend, it became very, very cold and it was also a bit windy. Once I jumped out and started free falling with speeds reaching as high as 194kmh, it was absolutely chilling and this made it a new experience as compared to the Australia skydive. The thrill was as great as ever. However, note I chose Innisfil for the skydive as it was the closest option available. If you have time in Canada, I recommend going to a town called Port Colborne for your skydive. This is around 150km south of Toronto  and close to the US border. If you do a skydive from there, you will have an amazing view of Lake Erie, Niagara Falls, Lake Ontario and the US border when you do your skydive.

Having completed my second skydive over a second continent, I headed over for my Toronto bicycle tour. Going slightly off tangent here, the second 't' in Toronto is silent, something I learnt while in Canada. Whenever possible, I prefer to see cities on a bicycle rather than a bus as I feel you then get to ride on and off the beaten path, get a better feel of the place and see much more of the life of the city and places that traditional tours don't cover. By the time I reached Toronto again at around 12:30pm, the winter storm was beginning to set in again. Though temperature was above freezing this time around (around 3 degrees), it was very windy and it was raining. Most of the people for the bicycle tour had therefore dropped out. Only me and one other lady from Australia had turned up. The guide hence gave us an option if we want to continue in this weather and we were like hell yes! Ready with our 7-gear ratio bicycles, we headed out to explore Toronto’s downtown core in a way that is only possible by bicycle. As always, I used an awesome app called Google MyTracks (well it's Google, so it has to be awesome, otherwise it just wouldn't be Google), to record my entire cycling route and you can view the route I took over here. You can download Google MyTracks for your Android powered device (you are using iOS or BB? Embrace the change people!) from the Google Play store here.

This was a 4.5-5 hour bicycle ride and as there were only two of us, the guide was able to show us a lot more and a lot more areas as there were less constraints as compared to a larger tour. As we headed out, the major difference when cycling in Toronto is that unlike other cities such as Tokyo, there are no dedicated bicycle lanes here or lanes within the footpath. So you essentially cycle with the traffic staying as far right as possible. Having never cycled with regular traffic before this was a bit intimidating for me in the beginning but got really enjoyable later on. A lot of times the right of the road is used by cars to park so you essentially lose your space and have to drive around and watch to your left for oncoming traffic. Another aspect is that Toronto has trams so when you have to take a left turn you have to ensure there is no tram behind you. It is pretty fun driving over the tram tracks and turning your wheel a bit to ensure your wheel does not get stuck in the tracks. It is a different experience to be cycling and have fast traffic whiz past you and startle you sometimes. But overall, the vehicles respect cyclists and give way which made the experience very pleasant. I felt that all the above factors made the bicycle tour more unique. Plus, as it was raining, there were virtually no other bicycles on the road so all throughout it was just three bicycles travelling everywhere and due to the rain, the vehicular movement always gave way and pampered us. I just had to be careful when it got windy as I had to ensure I maintain my abalance so as not to veer left into the fast vehicle lane.

We started our journey at Grange Park to view the Art Gallery of Ontario. We visited St Lawrence Market which was named the world's best food market by National Geographic in April 2012. Canada accounts for 90% of the world's mustard production and the mustard varieties available in the market were unimaginable. I ended up picking up a bottle of Curry mustard. The market was also teeming with numerous varieties of cheese with plenty of free samples. I ended up picking up some Oka cheese. Oka cheese was originally manufactured by the Trappist monks, who are located in Oka, Quebec. 

When we visited Osgoode Hall, there were these bunch of squirrels playing around. There was this baby squirrel who was super inquisitive as to why we were there and kept frolicking around our legs without fear which was pretty cute. The squirrels were extremely healthy so I guess they have no shortage of food there. Osgoode Hall is a landmark building in downtown Toronto constructed between 1829 and 1832 in the late Georgian Palladian and Neoclassical styles. It houses the Ontario Court of Appeal, the Divisional Court of the Superior Court of Justice, and the Law Society of Upper Canada. The portico of Osgoode Hall's east wing was built at the head of Toronto's York Street to serve as a terminating vista.

We visited Royal York Hotel which is famous for being the tallest building in all of the British Empire when constructed until the construction of Canadian Bank of Commerce tower. The hotel has been the residence of choice for Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the Canadian Royal Family when in Toronto. In July 2008, the Royal York installed three beehives on its 13th-floor rooftop terrace to serve its in-house garden, which already provides its nine restaurants with fresh herbs, vegetables and flowers. Three queens and their 40,000 workers provide the chefs with up to 700 pounds of honey. We visited the inside of Toronto's Union Station which is the largest and most opulent railway station in Canada. 

We also saw CN Tower which when completed in 1976, became the world's tallest free-standing structure and world's tallest tower at the time. It held both records for 34 years until the completion of Burj Khalifa and Canton Tower in 2010. It remains the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere, a signature icon of Toronto's skyline, and a symbol of Canada.  

We visited Sugar Beach which is triangular-shaped and built next to Redpath Sugar's refinery - the park's name references the nearby sugar refinery. This is a really unique sight as at one end you have the beach, then a industrial sugar refinery in the middle and then right next to it, high income residential properties.

Another unique sight was Baldwin Village, which has cafes spanning every world cuisine possible on a single street. The saying goes that if you don't know what to eat, you go and decide at Baldwin village.

Another interesting sight was Sherbourne Common which is the first park in Toronto that includes storm-water treatment facility. This Torontopark follows through on water efficient landscaping, while the Pavilion meets Toronto's Green Building Requirements and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Storm-water treatment facility in the Pavilion is powered by the renewable energy sources. Purified water is pushed through three concrete public art objects, each 9 metres high, into the man made water feature e.g. canal. Excess purified water is released into Lake Ontario.

We also cycled to the financial district to see Bay Street. Bay Street is the financial hub for Canada. Just as one says, I work on Wall street in the USA, a similar terminology is used in Canada. We saw Commerce Court which is a complex of four office buildings. The main tenant is the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC). The buildings are a mix of Art Deco, International, and early Modernism architectural styles.

Another important visit was the Harbourfront and Lake Ontario Lake Ontario is part of the Great Lakes, consisting of Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, they form the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, containing 21% of the world's surface fresh water.

We also visited:
Cathedral Church of St. James: Home of the oldest congregation in the city. Every part of a Gothic cathedral is directly related to a “core dimension” which is used as an effort to achieve harmony and organic unity within the building where everything is linked rationally and proportionally, creating a coherent whole.
Entertainment District: Home to theatres and performing arts centres, Toronto's four major-league sports teams, and an array of cultural and family attractions. The area is also home to most of the nightclubs in Toronto.
City Hall: One of Canada's most distinctive landmarks. The City Hall is nicknamed "The Eye of the Government" because it resembles a large eye in a plan view.
Rogers Centre: The stadium will be the centrepiece of the 2015 Pan American Games as the site of the opening and closing ceremonies
Toronto Eaton Centre, which is Toronto's top tourist attraction, with around one million visitors per week.
Massey Hall: A performing arts theatre
Scotia Plaza which is Canada's third tallest building.
Hockey Hall of Fame: There was a lot of activity here as a major game was scheduled to be played on Saturday night
Ontario College of Art and Design

It was therefore an extremely extensive cycle ride and we covered numerous other nooks and crannies, went into obscure alleyways to see different architectural styles and hear local folklore. All in all, a brilliant ride. As we headed back to base, I was dead tired. Having missed breakfast and lunch, I quickly had a 'veggie delite' at a local Subway. Etihad offered me a complimentary pickup from the place where the bicycle tour ended to the airport. Etihad sent a Lincoln Town Car to pick me up and so it was pretty rad that I got to sit in a car that is used by various country Presidents even today. The last Lincoln to be used as a Presidential state car in the United States was a 1989 Lincoln Town Car that was commissioned for George H. W. Bush.

I headed back to the airport. The Etihad check-in attendant seemed new as she was just not able to print my boarding passes and as I later learnt, she also forgot as I would later learn to tag the baggage tag with priority handling. I was surprised to find that there was no exit immigration process (essentially there is no exit stamp on my passport). Etihad uses the Plaza Premium Lounge in Toronto. The lounge was lovely and an extensive food spread but sadly only one vegetarian dish which was really bad. Boarding was announced and I had the same cabin crew like last time which was lovely as I had got to know them and their cabin manager the last time around and put in a good word of their service. I was therefore treated to a super warm welcome and pampered all the way. The plane, though a Boeing 777-300ER, had Etihad's older seats and hence missed the nifty little add-ons seen earlier such as the additional storage spaces and the mood lighting. My entertainment screen's touchscreen was not working and the remote was erratic in operation. I however was dead tired so soon after take-off, I dozed off all the way only to wake up two hours before landing. Hence, I wasn't able to enjoy any of the culinary delights on this flight. Before take-off though, there was fresh carrot juice and fresh orange juice as the welcome drink. I wasn't keen on either so the chef made a mixture of both with some spices and the resulting mocktail was excellent.

This time around, I was in Terminal 1 and the Etihad lounge here was fantastic. It was very spacious, ample seating space, had an amazing food spread. Coincidentally, the Six Senses spa here had the same masseuse I had last time in Terminal 3, a gentleman who as I had learned from speaking to him the last time around was from Jordan and had previously worked with the Venetian in Las Vegas and Macau. The spa treatment was fantastic.

The return journey to Hyderabad was serviced by a Airbus A320 and for dinner I chose:

Bread: Onion and olive focaccia bread with house butter, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar
Starters: Decided to skip.
Mains: Beans palya served with tandoori vegetables, bhindi masala and turmeric rice

The main course was extremely average in taste and hence I couldn't even complete it. It was however served with red wine, namely George Wyndham Founder's Reserve Shiraz 2010 Langhorne Creek South Australia. George Wyndham became father of Australian Shiraz after growing the first commercial Shiraz vineyard in 1830. This deep coloured wine boasts of dark red berry fruit and plums on the nose with hints of mint and cedar oak. On the palate the blackcurrant, dark cherry and plum flavours complement the velvety tannins.

For dessert, I had mango semolina pudding with cherry compote, fresh strawberry and almond flakes. The dish was heavenly and was served with dessert wine, namely Gramps Botrytis Semillon 2008. To make this wine, the fruits are hand harvested, gently pressed, carefully fermented and oak-matured before blending and bottling. The bouquet of preserved lemon and apricot with orange rind and hints of vanilla are complemented by the freshness and the smooth viscosity on the palate.

On landing my baggage took forever to arrive (aka forgotten priority handling at Toronto). Finally my baggage did arrive and Etihad offered me a complimentary home drop in a Mercedes-Benz E Class 250CDI. Neat!

So overall a hectic but memorable trip. I really enjoyed Canada and the people were really friendly and hospitable. I do hope I get to visit the country again some day and see more of it.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

World Heritage - China

To view high-resolution images, please click on the images above.
Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Cultural heritage and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located. For this year’s World Heritage stamp series, UNPA has chosen six sites in China. 

Stamp Designs:
46¢ - Mogao Caves
$1.10 - Imperial Palace - Beijing
F.s. 1,40 - Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa
F.s. 1,90 - Mount Huangshan
€ 0,70 - The Great Wall
€ 1,70 - Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

Special First Day Cancellations:
On 11 April 2013, special first day hand-cancellations for the “World Heritage—China” stamps will be available at United Nations Headquarters in New York, the Palais des Nations, Geneva, and the Vienna International Centre, Vienna. These hand-cancellations can be seen in the scanned FDCs' above.

Date of issue: 11 April 2013
Designer: Sergio Baradat (United Nations)
Photo credit: Age Fotostock, Getty Images, Masterfile, Eric Phan-Kim
Denominations: 46¢, $1.10, F.s. 1,40 F.s. 1,90, € 0,70 and € 1,70
Stamp size: 50mm x 36mm
Printer: Joh. Enschedé Security Print
Perforation: 14 x 13.75