Friday, May 27, 2011

HOTEL REVIEW – Sheraton on the Park Hotel – Sydney

We have stayed previously at this luxury 4-start hotel in the centre of Sydney city, and like those other times, we were so impressed with our stay.

On this occasion, we stayed for two nights – one of their many online packages and specials – and also paid for a buffet breakfast for both of us for the two mornings we were there.

After flying in, we caught the airport train into St James Station, from where it is about a 5 minute walk to the Hotel. The Hotel is located on Elizabeth Street, right opposite the beautiful Hyde Park, and right in the Centre of Sydney City.

Inside the Hotel, the lobby is very welcoming and opulent. There are plenty of Hotel staff members to assist with carrying bags and with checking guests in. We were checked in after about 5 minutes. A friendly staff member (as they all are) confirmed our reservation and breakfast, and even offered to upgrade us – but for an extra charge!

Up to our room on the 20th floor, facing the city – our view was overlooking Castlereagh Street and further to Sydney Tower, of which we could see all of it, and it looks spectacular!

The room features a huge King-Size bed, as well as a desk and office chair, and a sitting chair. There were a pair of big wardrobes in this room, which were opposite a massive bathroom (biggest I’ve ever seen!) with bath, shower, toilet, and heaps of floor space.

The room also features air conditioning, wide-screen Plasma television, with free cable television channels and pay-per-view movies. There is also a full mini-bar and tea and coffee making facilities. There are also lots of little extras like robes, slippers, writing paper, sewing kits, show polish, to name a few, that just make your stay a little nicer! Incidentally, most of these items are also available for purchase too!

The only downside with this room was its location next to the elevators – we had the constant growl and noise with the workings of these – nothing major though.

Breakfast in the mornings was in the main restaurant on Level One of the Hotel. We had pre-paid for the full Australian breakfast, consisting of hot and cold buffet. The breakfast is thoroughly worth the money – there is a massive selection of tasty hot and cold foods – and this is a great way to start a day of tourist activities in the harbour city!

We love the Sheraton on the Park Hotel – I have no doubt that in our future travels to Sydney, we will again use this Hotel as out base. Its location in the centre of Sydney is perfect for tourists like us to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of this great city.

Monday, May 23, 2011

HOTEL REVIEW – Sofitel Melbourne on Collins Hotel – Melbourne

The Sofitel Melbourne on Collins Hotel is a luxury 4-start hotel in the centre of Melbourne city on Collins Street, a stone’s throw away from just about all of the main tourist attractions and points of interest in the ‘Garden City’.

We stayed here due to its proximity to the Princess Theatre, Melbourne Museum, Melbourne Cricket Ground, Eureka Tower, as well as some of Melbourne’s best shops, which were all on our list of things to do and see. Most of these places are in easy walking distance, with an average walking time of about half-an-hour (30 minutes).

We loved every minute of our stay at this hotel – we found the place okay after driving from the airport – and were greeted by a friendly valet who unloaded our bags and pointed us in the direction of the opulent reception lobby. Also on this floor is one of the Hotel lounges with a bar/coffee shop.

Plenty of staff to assist at the Hotel, and soon we were checked-in and assigned a room on the 47th floor of the tower. The Hotel is actually on top of a section of offices, and rooms start on about the 30th floor of the building.

A view of Melbourne is therefore always guaranteed – and the view from our room on the 47th floor was spectacular!!

The room is quite big and features a huge King-Size bed, as well as a desk and chair, and sitting chairs. There is plenty of luggage storage space, and a lovely fully appointed marble bathroom, which is a little small though.

The room also features air conditioning, wide-screen plasma television, with free cable television channels and pay-per-view movies. There is also a full mini-bar and tea and coffee making facilities. There are also lots of little extras like robes, slippers, writing paper, sewing kits, show polish, to name a few, that just make your stay a little nicer! Incidentally, most of these items are also available for purchase too!

We didn’t partake of any meals at the hotel – we did have one opportunity to have dinner at the Hotel’s main restaurant, however, there weren’t any tables available until quite late into the night. That was a bit disappointing – especially on a Sunday night. Book early to avoid disappointment!

Overall, the Sofitel Melbourne on Collins Hotel was a fantastic place to stay. Of course we couldn’t fit everything we wanted to see into this visit, so when we return, we will definitely be staying at this Hotel again!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

HOTEL REVIEW – Best Western Reef Resort Motel – Mackay

My wife and I were ‘forced’ to try another motel in Mackay due to the poor customer service of our ‘regular’ place – we rang three times one day and couldn’t get a hold of anyone – not even an answering service!

So I looked online and found the Reef Resort Motel right next door to other place, and thought that we might give it a go.

And we weren’t disappointed!

Firstly, the Reef Resort Motel is not really a Resort, merely a motel, much like the other motels along Nebo Road in Mackay, where this one is located. Guests can drive in off Nebo Road, and on first impressions, there is plenty of parking and heaps of good sized and varying standard of rooms.

We booked into a standard room at the far end of the motel away from the main road. The room was of a good size and even featured an outdoor area out a rear sliding door. Facilities are quite nice with free cable television, tea and coffee making facilities, air conditioning, ceiling fans, and even a minibar in the refrigerator. Outside, there is a barbeque area and a beautifully landscaped pool area.

The bathroom is quite large, with a shower, toilet, and massive vanity unity that extended the length of the bathroom. The only concern was the huge amount of ants that seemed to make the bathroom home!

There is also a lovely restaurant onsite – Pipers Restaurant – that is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Room service is also available.

On the whole, we were very impressed with this motel. It was a very clean and comfortable place that has great facilities. For a comparable price to some other places we have stayed at in Mackay, the Reef Resort Motel will certainly be a place where we will stay again.

One downer for me was that unfortunately, just before we arrived, they dropped out of the Qantas Frequent Flyer Scheme.

Friday, May 13, 2011

TRIP REPORT - Sydney to Mackay - Virgin Blue Airlines - Embraer E-170

Trip Report – Sydney to Mackay – Thursday 21 April – Virgin Blue Airlines – DJ1473 – Embraer E-170 – VH-ZHD.

Searching for the cheapest and 'best' way to get from Sydney to Mackay I found Virgin Blue was (as always) offering the cheapest fares by some margin over Qantas/QantasLink. The main issue I have with Virgin Blue though, is that most of their flights connect through Brisbane, and as we have unfortunately discovered, a late departure out of Sydney can mean a missed connection out of Brisbane.

Fortunately the direct Sydney to Mackay flight (one per day ONLY with Virgin Blue) was available and while it wasn’t the cheapest option, with the price about $20 more expensive each than the connecting flights, for the guarantee of getting to Mackay in one flight, and no chance of missing a connection, we decided to take them!

On the day we took the Sydney Rail Link from the City and got to the Domestic Terminal 2 at the Airport in no time. The crowd in the Virgin Blue terminal was pretty big with two queues to choose from – one to check-in and one for bag drop. There was also big lines for people running late for their called flights – as an aside, I can't understand how people can turn up at the airport just as their flight is being called... I couldn't do that.

We used the check-in kiosk and much to my surprise Virgin Blue’s seating allocations had split my wife and I into different rows and opposite sides of the cabin. Too make it worse, the cabin map had every seat taken so we couldn’t possibly change our seating.

So over to the queue and half the people joining the queue were being ushered either into the bag drop queue and into the Check-in queue even if they already had a boarding pass. We joined the Bag Drop queue, but soon found that the check-in queue was moving much faster.

Turns out most of the Bag Drop counters were being used to check-in the late comers for the called flights, and, the distance we had to queue was also shorter – so there’s a tip!! I was probably not a happy camper – I could see some nice planes taking off outside too!!

Anyway, after about half an hour, we got to the front of the queue and approached the counter. We politely asked the young Virgin Blue lady about being seated together, and to my surprise, she looked a little confused about what I was asking about. She soon realised and with a few clicks on her computer, my wife and I were seated together in Row 15. She even apologised about the mix up.

No exit row seat available as we were to travel on one of Virgin Blue’s Embraer E-170 aircraft, which only has the four exits – 2 at the front and 2 at the back. 2X2 seating is in the main cabin, and Virgin Blue have made the first three row ‘Premium Economy’ seating which cost much more that the normal seats!

We passed smoothly through the now infamous Terminal 2 security check, where days earlier an officer had 'tripped' on a loose cord and shut down the terminal for a couple of hours, resulting in hundreds of passengers being affected by delayed and cancelled flights.

We found Gate 35, but went further down to the end of the terminal, to the windows at the end, where we watched the plane action and took some photos for a couple of hours!

After spotting some nice planes, and having a nice cup of coffee, boarding time approached, so we went back to Gate 35, and there were plenty of seats. Boarding the E-170 was quick and easy, despite the plane being full for today’s flight.

Some interesting sights around the plane - Virgin Blue (now Virgin Australia) new B737 VH-YFC parked next to us!

Even though there are no Exit Rows, the seats are fairly comfortable – I managed to just fit my 6-foot plus frame into the space as shown. Although, I would have been a little more squeezed up if the person in front of me put their seat back!

Pushed back on time and started our taxi to Sydney’s Runway 16L – interestingly Sydney Airport was under SODROPS (Simultaneous Opposite Direction Runway Operations) with Runway 34L used for arrivals.

Rolling start and lift off, with two left turns and a nice view down the coast over the water and South to Cronulla and further.

A little while later, we crossed the coast near Newcastle before the flight plan would take us overhead Narrabri then onto Taroom in Queensland, then Rockhampton and on to Mackay.

The seat belt sign went off pretty quickly and the crew of three swung into action, with the food and drink service about to start. After providing the tech crew with their lunches, we had to wait about another 20 minutes for the trolley to eventually make our row. Most of the passengers had decent meals like sandwiches although I decided to have just the crackers and some water. I also had M&Ms and all up this cost $10. Not too bad.

After the trolley disappeared, the rubbish was quickly collected - although a lot of the passengers, including me, hadn’t finished eating/drinking, so we had to hold onto our rubbish until the crew did another collection!

About 15 minutes later the crew was back and so with rubbish collected, I settled back for the nearly 2 hour flight North.

No in-flight entertainment so magazines and the outside view had to do!

Eventually the Queensland coastline came into view and as well as Gladstone and then Yeppoon and the Keppel Islands. We were obviously overhead Rockhampton (as planned), and soon after the Captain came on the PA and announced we would soon be descending into Mackay for an on time landing.

Smooth descent over the water with lovely views over the Whitsunday Islands.

There was some cloud - not much - more thicker clouds out the left side of the plane with some scattered showers easily seen. Nice views of Abbott Point Coal Wharf and waiting coal ships.

Turning down wind the seat belt sign came on and all were to be seated. Mackay Harbour came into view and with a series of left hand turns we were on visual approach and finals for Runway 14 at Mackay.

Smooth landing and short back taxi onto stand 4 on the apron.

Off the plane via the front stairs, and through the new terminal, to the same old baggage collection area, where surprisingly, our bag was one of the first off!!

Off to the parking ticket machine and after a $100 Bill was paid we were off to lunch!

It is a shame these lovely little E-170s are leaving the Virgin Blue fleet – this was probably the first and last time I would travel on one. The direct flight option is such a simpler and better option than getting a connecting flight through Brisbane. There is no worry about missing a connecting flight – or not having bags make it Mackay. The 2 hour flight time does fly by when you have good reading material and the seats aren’t too uncomfortable as it seems Virgin Blue aircraft seats are just that little bit extra spaced apart than that of other airlines!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

TRIP REPORT - Mackay to Brisbane to Melbourne - QantasLink/Qantas Airways - Dash-8-Q400 NEXT GEN / B737-800

Trip Report – Mackay to Brisbane – Saturday 16 April – QantasLink (Sunstate Airlines) – QF2511 – Dash-8-Q400 NEXT GEN – VH-LQB.

It was an early start for this flight with a 6.40am departure out of Mackay. Put the car in the undercover long term carpark at Mackay Airport, and off to the QantasLink counter.

This was the first time I had used Qantas/QantasLink online checkin – I checked both my wife and myself through to Melbourne the previous day and received four boarding passes which were easily saved and easily printed! Dropped our bags off at the counter and after a little wait time (there was also a QantasLink flight heading North due out shortly after ours) and they were checked all the way through to Melbourne.

I had a quick look around and took a few pictures of the Mackay Airport terminal redevelopment. There has been nearly $3.5million spent on terminal facilities including a new newsagent/book store and a bar. There has also been refurbishments made to the snack bar, car hire desks, and security screening, which have also changed locations within the terminal building. Eventually when the redevelopment is complete, there will be around 700 seats in the new and expanded passenger waiting area.

For the first part of our flight was to Brisbane. We were given seats in Row 11, about half way down the cabin. QantasLink’s brand new Bombardier Dash-8-Q400 NEXT GEN aircraft – VH-LQB – was parked outside and this was to take us South. The NEXT GEN Dash-8-Q400s have nicer mood lighting system on the inside as well as bigger overhead storage lockers.

Leg room is still ample on in these Dash-8s as well.

After some mucking around with final paperwork we eventually taxied away from the terminal about 5 minutes late. But being a quiet morning we taxied straight out onto the runway, all the way down to the end of Runway 14 at Mackay. Straight off and up through some low cloud before the seat belt sign was eventually turned off about 10 minutes after take-off. Mind you it was still a little bumpy but it was bearable.

Cabin service commenced soon after with breakfast consisting of a hot Danish pastry as well as a pack with yogurt and a muesli bar, and some juice. I also had a coffee. A lovely breakfast on this flight - similar timed flights with QantasLink out of Emerald provide a little less breakfast than this!

Cabin crew were very efficient and had the cabin cleared up after another 20 minutes or so. With this longish flight (one and a half hours) we then spent about an hour of reading and entertaining ourselves with the cabin crew never to be seen.

Descent started and the seat belt sign came on as we started to break though the cloud layer over South-East Queensland. Nothing majorly uncomfortable but there were some bumps with a couple of the bigger ones making some passengers gasp!

We touched down pretty much on time onto Runway 19 at Brisbane. Our captain obviously wanted a quick exit off the runway and some heavy breaking was applied (heaviest I've experienced) and we managed to make taxiway A4 and then straight onto the QantasLink apron - where VH-LQB is pictured below later in the morning.

We had a gate on the QantasLink remote parking (Gate 15 I think) and after a short wait for a bus we were soon in the terminal and straight through security to head upstairs in the Qantas terminal and the next part of our flight to Melbourne.

Trip Report – Brisbane to Melbourne – Saturday 16 April – Qantas Airways – QF617 – Boeing B737-838 – VH-VZD.

We got upstairs at the Brisbane Domestic Terminal, but didn't know which to gate to go to, so we took a guess and walked to the end of the Qantas terminal finger in the Brisbane terminal as this is where the ‘City Flyer’ services operate from. Sure enough, we were to depart from Gate 16.

The other good thing about waiting in this area is some good plane spotting opportunities of aircraft at Brisbane taxing to and from Runway 19.

I decided to ask at the Qantas desk about exit row seats and after a bit of passenger shuffling, much to my surprise we were changed to Exit Row 13 - complete with a window!

I do remember from previous flights on Qantas B737s - which we were on today to Melbourne – that the space and legroom of the regular seats in the aircraft is actually quite limited, and for a 2 hour flight, it would probably start to get a bit uncomfortable for my 6-foot plus frame. Better to sit in a roomy seat than squeeze into some other seat!

Anyway, some plane spotting done, boarding was on time and when we sat down, the amount of legroom in the exit row is really fantastic! The B737 features three abreast seating and we did have a person sitting next to us but still the amount of room was fantastic!

Push back was on time and after a short taxi to Runway 19 (past some spotters at the Acacia Street Loop Road) we had a rolling start and take off for the trip South. Nice sweeping left turn after departure on the Laravale SID, which took us toward the Brisbane Bayside, followed by a slow right turn down toward Armidale, and further South.

As we climbed up through the clouds the seatbelt sign was turned off after about 10 minutes, although there still a few bumps with the occasional bigger bump. Captain came on and welcomed us aboard and advised of a 1 hour 55 minute flight to Melbourne, so we settled back and enjoyed the radio with the occasional change to the cabin TV where an episode of Top Gear was playing – no news on weekends!

I noticed that the cabin crew were aged a little older and more experienced than other Australian airlines I have flown with recently. I didn't think they were as was friendly as some of the other airline crews I've had, but they were fine to me and most of the other passengers.

Cabin service began but as the trolley got to about row 10, we hit some pretty heavy turbulence and the seat belt sign quickly came on – but only briefly. Once service resumed we were served a lunch choice of a sandwich or quiche, followed by a drinks service. I had the quiche and some water. The quiche was so fantastic that I asked for more but they had run out they were so good! Even the crew missed out! Oh well…

My wife took the other options of sandwiches, and she also had a (mini) Coke!

I settled back and enjoyed the entertainment and after what didn’t seem like much time at all, the captain came over the PA with the good news that we had picked up a tailwind and we would land about 20 minutes earlier. So a 2 hour flight time became a 1½ hour flight. Nice!

Descent was uneventful with the seat belt sign coming on as we were breaking through some low level cloud. Touch down on Melbourne’s Runway 16 was smooth. Off the runway and taxi past the Virgin Blue terminal and the International terminal, with a Qantas A380 parked on the remote stand.

We taxied onto the Qantas apron and onto our parking gate. Shortly after, we were off the plane and after a couple of plane photos (Singapore Airlines B747-400 in Star Alliance Colours), we went downstairs to collect our bag and pick up our hire car. Our bag was actually one of the last ones out – but at least it made it all the way from Mackay!

It was really great to be travelling with Qantas again – I don’t get to travel on this full service airline much, and I enjoyed it. Although not the friendliest crew to speak to, they were thoroughly professional and really good at their Job. All up, great food, good service, and a great seat although as mentioned, we were lucky to sit in the exit row seat, and be comfortable for the entire flight.