2 Dec 2010

So, friends – the show is over. No more Quality Hunting from this day. My colleague, Wolfgang, already said au revoir and counted how many miles he flew in 60 days. I wish I’d done the same, counted the miles that is, but all I can say is, that it’s A LOT. More than some people fly in a lifetime.

As predicted my most memorable experiences on this trips has not been food, hotels, sights or flights (sorry Finnair, but it hasn’t). What I’ll remember most is the people I’ve met during these past two months. People I already knew and people I met for the first time.

In Tokyo Melinda Joe taught me to enjoy sake and shared her knowledge on Japanese food with me. Hanae was the loveliest company and answered all my silly questions about Japan. And in Osaka Dave volunteered as my tour guide on a day trip to Kyoto.

When I got sick in Prague Marino and Hana offered to drive me to a doctor although they’d never met me. And in Budapest David and his friends were kind enough to let me in on the communist pizza secret.

In Berlin all the amazing people in Biebricherstasse took me in, fed me, washed my clothes and showed me Berlin. Thank you Anna & Co. In London friends once again welcomed me into their home and took me for a Sunday Roast – thank you Gabrielle and Chris. And when I arrived in Stockholm one of my dearest friends picked me up at the bus station and for three nights his home was my home and he cooked me dinner and listened to all my crazy travel stories.

Along the way I’ve even had friends, who flew to Hong Kong and to Paris to see me and spend time with me in my search for quality for Finnair. I believe that’s what you call true friends – Emmanuelle and Gertrud, thank you so much.

And thank you to the Finnair aircrew on my flight to Hong Kong for giving me a wonderful experience.

The biggest thanks of all, is to all the readers and the people who have actively engaged in discussions on travel and has been commenting on my posts. Without the comments and the feedback it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun writing the blog, also when the feedback has been negative and when you guys didn’t like, what I wrote.

I’d like to make a Top Ten list of things I liked and disliked during the trip, but at the end of the day quality for me might not be quality for my neighbor or for the readers of the blog. So instead of a hit list I’d rather encourage you readers to venture the world to find out what is quality for you.

All there is left to say is Goodbye, thank you for the music and for following my journey. And a Merry Christmas to everyone.

2 Dec 2010

So, we have come to the end.

After two months of travelling, blogging and eating (!) I have finished my mission as a Quality Hunter. Was it an eye-opener? Yes. Quality is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. And the best part of this project was realising how diverse quality can be between cities. My best experiences weren’t the ones where I spent a lot of money or was given special treatment. They were those were I felt comfortable, valued and at home. I have seen some crazy things along the way- from chained elephants to 22 light switches in one room, but the bad experiences of quality have only reinforced my acknowledgment of good quality when I come across it.

So, without further ado, I present to you Ella’s Quality Oscars!

Best City- I thought Copenhagen was my perfect match, but then I met my Seoul-Mate. Sorry Danes, but you were pipped to the post at the very last minute. Despite being a sprawling mass that would confuse the most seasoned traveller, Seoul was full of surprises, with some of the friendliest locals I have encountered. Good food, a burgeoning design scene and an diverse range of districts and neighbourhoods, this city has something for everybody.

Most Underrated City- Frankfurt! I was told to expect boredom and gloom in advance, but I feel that Frankfurt offers a lot more than is expected. I loved the fact that I encountered many things to do that involved spending no money whatsoever, which is incredibly difficult in some cities. My only advice to the city would be to toot it’s horn a bit more!

Best Meal- Wow. This is like Sophie’s Choice. I really can’t choose. Probably the meal I had in Phuket in a family run shack by the beach- perfectly cooked Thai style crab and  rice for about 5EUR. 5EUR would just abotu buy me a crab sandwhich in London!

Most Interesting Individual-Tirawan. The hospitality of this woman left me awestruck; inviting me into her home and showroom to give all of us a glimpse into her life and how she defines quality. Tirawan was quality personified and I am so grateful to her for taking the time to introduce me to Quality, Thai style.

Best Hotel- It’s between Sokos Levi and the Park Hyatt Seoul. I’ll go for Sokos because it was one of the cheapest hotels I stayed at (60EUR per night) yet one one of the very few which delivered free internet- always a winner in my book!

Best Flight- New York-Helsinki. Okay, so it’s hard not to have a good time in Business Class, but everything on this flight was good- the service, the food and the fact that I accomplished the unthinkable- a full night’s sleep on a plane. It could be that it was also my first Business Class flight with Finnair too, but it will always be memorable as the first time in my life that  I took a flight without complaining once!

Best Airport- Rovaniemi. Two rooms, four shops, easy check-in, free internet. Easy and simple. Enough said.

Destination I Will Be Returning To ASAP- For the reasons stated above, it has to be Seoul. But I’d also like to return to Helsinki because despite visiting the city consistently throughout this journey, I never really got to explore the city. I’ve made some amazing friends here and it almost feels like a home from home. Except my real home is never that cold.

Most Impressive Sight- by about week three, it was hard for anything to ‘take my breath away’. Not because I was bored or had seen it all, but when you see so many landmarks in such a short time, you don’t really get a chance to savour and contemplate each of them. But St Marks Square (week eight I believe) left me speechless. In fact the whole of Venice did. It was at moments like these that I felt truly lonely though because when you see something so amazing you want to share the experience with somebody in person. Thank goodness for the blog!

Best Overall Quality- I can’t answer this since everywhere had highs and lows and for me, that is the beauty of travel. Every place is unique, with both surprises and letdowns and the best part of this trip was that I was given the opportunity to explore these elements with the support I had.

So, there you have it. Logging off and back to London. Follow me on Twitter if you’d like to be kept updated on any of my future travels or if you would just like to keep in touch. I would like to thank Finnair for providing me with the opportunity of a lifetime despite my age and lack of experience in comparison to the other Hunters. I hope I delivered! And most of all thank you to the readers, especially the regular ones who I feel like I almost know now- Patrick, Stephan, Dana, Mariel, Michael, Peter, Lauren, Lara, Mandy and anybody I have forgotten. Thank you for taking the time to read my posts and comment- I really, REALLY appreciate it.

Happy travelling and a Merry Christmas!!

1 Dec 2010

After now 60 days on the road, 17 flights, 15 different hotels in 14 cities and 60164 km flown, it´s time for some reflection on the quality of the services received. It purely reflects my personal opinion and obviously is highly biased, but nevertheless might give some indications for those who have been following this blog for the last nine weeks.

My business card

In most of my valuations, I have refrained from pointing out the “worst case scenario” (excemptions prove the rule) and tried to be as neutral as possible in my judgements.

Best Dinner: In Barcelona with my friend Jorge – fresh seafood, nice wine

Worst Dinner: Restaurant Millesimés, Paris – bad service, mediocre seafood, expensive, no charm resto

Best Hotel: Langham Place Hotel, Hong Kong  – Brilliant location, perfect rooms, nice service, wonderful club lounge, great    Spa — my absolute favorite in Hong Kong

Smallest hotel room: Holiday Inn, Vantaa airport

Noisiest hotel room: Hotel Nasco, Milan

Most charming city: Barcelona

Most interesting city: Hong Kong

Most boring city: Duesseldorf

Most polluted city: Beijing

Worst concierge: Sheraton Hotel New Delhi – always grumpy, only wanted to sell hotel services which were expensive

Best value for money hotel: Hotel Viktoria, Duesseldorf

Cleanest city: Geneva

Most expensive internet rate: Marriott Hotel Manchester – 15 pounds per day

Best airline business lounge: Escape Lounge at Manchester airport

Worst hotel breakfast: Hotel Leidse Square Amsterdam – coffee and juice out of container, food not eatable for 10 euros

Best public transport: Hong Kong

Cheapest public transport: Beijing – 20 cents wherever you go

Quickest check-in and security check: Shanghai

Best scenic flight: Delhi to Helsinki – clear skies with superbe views on Himalaya mountains, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan

So far so good folks – this has been a great journey with its ups and downs. 9 weeks non stop is a long time and some places are for sure more exciting than others, but thanks to your support we stayed in the race and hopefully provided some interesting entertainment for you all.

Thank you to all of you for your comments being them positive, neutral or negative – they were all valued. Hope you enjoyed it – so long!!

30 Nov 2010

It is not for everybody, but for sure it is one of the best cities for those who like to gamble. I am talking about Macau. Situated about 1 hour by ferry to the west of HongKong, it has always been the El Dorado of Gamblers for the last century in Asia as it was one of the few places in the whole of Asia where gambling was legal.

I was very curious to see for myself what the fuzz was all about and embarked on a day trip to the island. Leaving HongKong from the China Ferry Terminal, you have to clear customs as you leave the country and then board the fast ferry catamaran from First Ferry bound for Macau.

Ferry Terminal Hongkong

First Ferry Catamaran

The ferry itself is super comfortable with nice leather seats – better than in any airline eco class – and lots of space.

First Ferry Eco class

The first impression of Macau was dismal – I had to wait 45 minutes to clear customs as weekenders from Hongkong and the mainland were pouring onto the island. So for those who plan a trip there – do not go on weekends as the ferry prices are 30% up from those during the week, waiting lines at customs are long and the city is super crowded.

After the shock, I walked out of the terminal – at least twenty courtesy buses waiting to take you to one of the casinos of your choice.

Casino Hunters

I took the free bus to Casino Lisboa which brought me right in the center of town – nobody asks whether you really want to go to the casino.

Casino Lisboa

The city center itself is rather small – the central plaza Largo do Sentado and the Ruinas de Sao Paulo are the highlights.

Largo do Sentado

Ruinas de Sao Paulo

The rest is pur gambling – the large casinos being the Lisboa, the MGM, the Sands or the Wynn. And it is amazing – at three in the afternoon, all the tables at the Lisboa were occupied. Gambling seems to be big business in China as I did not see a single western looking person on the tables.

Gambling Mania

After two hours of walking through the halls of fame in the various casinos I had enough and took off in style …

Wolfgang going home...

29 Nov 2010

When my Parisian friend Emmanuelle was a little girl, one of the things she looked forward to the most during the year was the window display every Christmas at the department stores Gallerie Lafayette and Printemps. She looked forward to see the little creative wonders in the windows and to see what the people behind the displays had come up with this time.

Unfortunately Emmanuelle wasn’t here to join me, but when I saw her jus a few weeks ago in Asia, she urged me to go and see the displays, when I was in Paris.

And I can’t describe it any better than the people standing next to me, who kept saying:

“C’est magnifique’.

It was truly magnificent and the windows, where the displays were you almost had to battle with little kids and their parents to get a glimpse of the windows. Many, many people had turned up to see the displays and there was the most wonderful atmosphere of childish Christmas excitement.

At Gallerie Lafayette there was an Abba theme or at least Mama Mia theme and at Printemps it was a Mozart theme – both of them amazing.

The displays featuring dancing teddy bears or dolls are followed by windows with French Haute Couture at its best. B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L…

Paris in December is filled with even more light than normal and I can highly recommend taking a trip to Paris during the Christmas month even though there are enough expenses in this month. It is definitely worth it.

29 Nov 2010

Hongkong is heavily influenced by water – sure it is an island you might say. But the whole of Hongkong territory consists of tens of larger and smaller islands which all need transportation to either the other islands or the mainland. Today the larger islands such as Lantau or Hongkong island are well connected by trains and highways running either high above ground via bridges or under water through extensive tunnels.

But the transportation mode of choice are for a lot of citizens the almost round the clock operating ferries – the best known being the Star Ferry as described by Christina in an earlier blog.

From Hongkong island all ferries leave from the newly constructed Central Pier.

Hongkong Central Pier

Entering the building, one might get confused about the multiple choices of piers and ferries and if you do not pay attention you might end up on the wrong island.

Where to stranger?

Traffic is brisk especially within Viktoria harbor which one of the busiest water straits in the world as Hongkong is the number 3 harbor worldwide for commercial freighters after Shanghai and Singapore.

Busy Viktoria harbor

And the tourisme industry has also discovered Hongkong as a lucrative destination.

Hongkong as prime tourist destination

29 Nov 2010

“Make sure you go to the N Seoul Tower”.

I heard these words again and again, both prior to my trip to Seoul and once I arrived. It seems Seoulites are extremely proud of their looming landmark which sits atop Namsan Mountain in the middle of Seoul.

Measuring in at 237 metres, the tower certainly isn’t amongst the world’s tallest, but standing at 479 metres above sea level the observation level gives unbeatable views over the city’s skyline. As I mentioned before, Seoul is a huge sprawling city with the greater Seoul area home to just over 23 million people. As such, it’s sometimes impossible to understand this from the ground. You do get the sense that you are in a huge city, but because there are no visible ‘boundaries’, it appears limitless and its actual size is difficult to fully comprehend. Not so from up here:

Offering 360 degree views of the city, I could finally get an idea of where I was. Seoul is vast, tall and at times frightening (not in terms of safety, just in terms of trying to actually navigate your way around the city). Overlooking the numerous clusters of high-rise structures juxtaposed next to districts of seemingly stout traditional houses, the views from the tower were also a great way to get an idea of how Seoul has changed over the  past few decades- transforming itself from the capital city in what was long considered a developing country to a lead player in world technology and design.

The tower itself was a great structure- you have the option of doing a guided tour at an extra price or, with the standard entrance fee of 3,000 KWN (around 2EUR), you can just wander around the observation deck alone and make what you wish of the 360 degrees views.

This following picture of me looks like one of those digital photos where they superimpose your image against a scenic backdrop, but I kid you not- it’s real!

Usually I find that gift shops at tourist-friendly attractions such as this are full of cheap, yet overpriced trinkets that nobody wants. But at the Seoul Tower (which also features a revolving restaurant above the observatory), the shop was a pleasant surprise, offering well designed objects at a surprisingly reasonable cost and could probably survive as a standalone.

And of course, I’m always looking out for products for travellers:

On the way back down, I took the cable car (I took a taxi on the way up which was surprisingly just as cheap, give or take few Won, as the cable car itself). I have quickly learned in that Korea pushing and shoving when boarding trains, planes and, er, cable cars is the norm. It’s not done in an aggressive or malicious way, but was initially quite shocking for me. Anyhow, the cable car was packed and I got a few elbows in the face; all part of the Quality Hunting experience, eh?

The jostling begins…

But the view is worth it

Once you get off the cable car, there is yet another lift to take you down to the Myeong-dong district in central Seoul (remember the tower is 479 metres above sea level), but I decided to take the stairs to burn of all that Korean BBQ I have been eating. Plus the idea of a ‘floating cube’ as a lift, didn’t instill me with the most confidence…

The bizarre second lift

I love this city!

Have any readers visited before (I know Stephan has)? What did you make of it?

28 Nov 2010

In just a few days King Winter arrived to the Swedish capital leaving a duvet of snow over the city and resulting in minus 10 – 15 degrees. Brrrr… very cold, I’ll tell you. But apart from the cold the winter atmosphere in Stockholm is just beautiful and going for a walk in Stockholm’s old quarter ‘Gamla Stan’ this time a year is a real joy, but remember to dress very warm (yes, long underpants is a good idea) and if you get too cold along the way there are plenty of small cafes, where you can buy something hot to drink.

Rosenbad - Sweden's parliament

Christmas atmosphere in StorKyrkan

Selling caramelized almonds and glögg

28 Nov 2010

When people think about Hongkong the majority will talk about Kowloon and its sizzling city life or about Hong Kong island with its skyscrapers and the Star Ferry. But there is also another side of the island which is geographically literally on the other side of the Peak with small villages like Aberdeen, Repulse Bay and Stanley.

It is rather easy to get there by bus from Hong Kong Central – double deckers bring you in about 30 minutes for less than one euro to these small villages and the ride is spectatcular. Up the hill in long and winding serpentines offering phantastic views on the various bays and beaches and suddenly the village appears.

I went to Stanley which had been founded by the British – no surprise – and today is a very expensive reclusive habitat for very rich Hong Kong residents who like to be out of the city for lodging. The village is rather small, but has a nice market for tourists and a wonderful seaside promenade.

For those who like to relax a nice and calm beach is just close by where I spent a lazy afternoon in the warm sun.

Stanley Beach

Going back after the afternoon nap, I passed by one of the shops – and suddenly remembered that I had promised to send my mother a postcard home for her 76th birthday. The choice was difficult given the hundreds of different cards on display – but I then settled for the “Hong Kong by Night” version.

A difficult choice

The traces of the British are everywhere…

… but the German are right behind them.

A nice place to spend an afternoon, stroll along the pier or visit the Maritime Museum.

Stanley Pier

27 Nov 2010

Visiting HongKong you have several choices how to proceed – by bus, metro, taxi or by foot using the tens of kilometers of moving escalators. Escalators are particularly popular on the island of HongKong as the usual way always is up. It is normal to have escalators in shops or within the metro stations, but to establish a mode of transportation for a whole area in the city – that is HongKong , the Escalator.

The Escalator

It runs from Queen´s Roadclose to the harbor up to Conduit Road which is pretty high up on a total length of 792 m – with various options to get to the belt and to leave at clearly signed exit stations

Escalator entry station

Exit station

It is a great system as the road uphill is rather steep and just walking would be too much for most people. Only disadvantage: If you want to go back down, you only have one choice: to walk

Escalator is a one-way street

Escalators are a way of life in HongKong – they are everywhere and try to make life as easy as possible.

Escalator highway

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