On Sunday, I witnessed an amazing new World Record: 433 hot air balloons took off simultaneously at Lorraine Mondial Air Ballons (LMAB), the biggest international hot air balloons gathering in the world! The festival takes place every two years at former United States Air Force base Chambley-Bussières, 35km east of the French city Metz.
More than ten years ago, I downloaded a wallpaper for my computer of the famous ‘Great Line’ mass ascent at Lorraine Mondial Air Ballons festival and said to myself ‘One day I will witness this in real life!’ Fast forward to last week when I realized LMAB 2015 was only a 3-hour drive from Brussels. I decide to make it a weekend trip and booked a nearby bed & breakfast via Airbnb. LMAB15 had started on Friday July 24th. I arrived on Saturday afternoon which allowed me to inspect the site and its surroundings. This edition had been unlucky with the weather so far, as they normally have flights every morning and evening for 10 days in a row but there hadn’t been any flights on Friday or Saturday due to the bad weather. On sunday morning, I woke up at 4:30am and headed to the base. There was a briefing for the pilots at 5:45am and final approval was given by the weather service and organization to attempt to break the previous mass ascent World Record dated July 31st, 2013 with 408 balloons.
Pic: ‘The Great Line’ at Chambley-Bussières air base (click!)
The spectacle is called ‘The Great Line’ as hot air balloons line up in three rows on the 2377m runway. It took until 7am before all balloons were filled with hot air when a car started driving down the runway sounding its horn to indicate balloons could take-off. A slight breeze blew in our direction which resulted in the balloons heading over the crowd (which wasn’t that large, seems not that many people liked to wake-up so early!) The next couple of minutes we were surrounded by balloons… it was AMAZING!
Pic: The ‘crowd’ on Sunday morning at LMAB 2015
Pic: Lorraine Mondial Air Ballons 2015 World Record
I was chasing the balloons like a little kid, amazed by the spectacle. Not only the sights were impressive, the sound of the dozens of gas burners was awesome as well! Check my short video which was featured at TIME magazine and Mashable!
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Pic: Qatar Airways B787 Dreamliner Business Class Seat
Business Class fares have dropped significantly in the past couple of years. It’s not uncommon to see Business Class fares from Europe to Asia for ~€1200 or less these days. One of the airlines routinely offering extreme low Business Class fares is Qatar Airways, Skytrax 2015 Airline of the Year. In May, I flew Qatar from Brussels to Bangkok via Doha on the B787 Dreamliner (QR196 BRU-DOH) and A380 (QR836 DOH-BKK). The Qatar Airways B787 Dreamliner is serving Brussels Airport since December 2013.
Pic: Qatar Business Class – Pol Roger 2006 Rosé Champagne
Qatar Airways, renowned for its excellent inflight beverages, was serving Billecart-Salmon Brut and 2006 Pol Roger Rosé Champagne on my Business Class flight from Brussels to Doha. They also had the exceptional 1974 Kopke Colheita Port on the menu!
Pic: Qatar Airways Business Class – Classic Arabic Mezze
Pic: Qatar Airways B787 Dreamliner Business Class Cabin
Pic: Qatar Airways Business Class – Gourmet Ice Cream
Forget about getting this kind of ice cream served in Business Class on one of the US or European legacy carriers! Once exception maybe: DO&CO catering onboard Austrian and Turkish Airlines.
Pic: Qatar Airways Arrivals Lounge in Doha
The brand new Hamad International Airport, which opened in April 2014, hosts some impressive Qatar Airways facilities. For arriving passengers there’s a stunning Arrivals Lounge just after immigrations & customs. It has plenty of seating, showers and meeting rooms.
Pic: Seating at Qatar Airways Doha Arrivals Lounge
Pic: BMW Limousine ride to InterContinental Doha The City
The Qatar Airways Arrivals Lounge agent arranged me a limo to InterContinental Doha The City where rates were exceptionally high that weekend due to the Doha Diamond League taking place. I used 25K IHG Rewards Club points instead of paying 1900 QAR (€481) to book my room and was upgraded to an Executive Suite. Excellent value!
Pic: Nighttime view from InterContinental Doha The City
Pic: View from my room at InterContinental Doha
Confusingly, there are two InterContinental hotels in Doha with similar names. On Saturday, I moved to InterContinental Doha which has the longest private beach in Doha. I used 35K IHG Rewards Club points to book my superior room instead of paying 1030 QAR (€260) and was upgraded to a Deluxe Sea View room. I wasn’t too impressed with the service at the pool bar and lobby restaurant nor did I get my Ambassador Welcome Amenity. After complaining about it, the guest relations manager offered me a complimentary limo ride to the airport at check-out. Ka-Ching!
Pic: Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar
Instagram follower Katia, who works for Qatar Foundation, invited me for a brunch with her expats colleagues and showed me around in Doha. Highlights were the Qatar Foundation campus, the Museum of Islamic Art (a masterpiece by architect Pei) and The Torch Doha.
Pic: Cantilevered Swimming Pool at The Torch Doha
Pic: Qatar Airways Business Class Check-In in Doha
Qatar Airways has the most stylish Business Class check-in area I have ever seen. There’s plenty of seating around the check-in area with complimentary drinks and refreshment towels and you get a box of Belgian Godiva chocolates at check-in!
Pic: Qatar Airways Check-in Welcome Amenity
Pic: Hidden gem in Qatar Airways Al Mourjan Business Lounge
And then there’s the mighty Qatar Airways Al Mourjan Business Class Lounge. Beautifully designed and furnished with excellent food and beverages featuring a restaurant with table service! Hidden gem in this lounge: they serve Krug Grande Cuvée Champagne on demand which retails at ~€150 per bottle!
Pic: Qatar Airways A380 – Flight QR836 from Doha to Bangkok
The Qatar Airways A380 aircraft has 8 First Class seats and 48 Business Class seats on the upper deck. (QR A380 seat map) I was surprised to see another 8 rows of economy class seats tucked away behind The Lounge, the inflight bar for Business and First Class passengers on the A380. I had selected business class seat 15K which looked identical to the seat on the B787.
Pic: Qatar Airways A380 Business Class Cabin
Pic: Qatar Airways A380 Upper Deck Economy Class Cabin
Pic: The Lounge bar at Qatar Airways A380
Another highlight at Qatar Airways is the very impressive bar onboard the A380 called ‘The Lounge’. It’s incredibly spacious, has a beautiful color scheme, stunning chandeliers, leather seats, fresh flowers and servers the best Business Class Champagne in the world… Heaven! :-)
Pic: Qatar Airways – Fresh Roses at The Lounge bar
Pic: Drinks selection at Qatar Airways A380 The Lounge
The Lounge even features its own menu: Intro & Food Selection, Champagne Spirits Wines Beers Cocktails and Mocktails & Beverages.
Pic: Krug and Taittinger Rose Champagne at The Lounge
Pic: Bart at Qatar Airways A380 The Lounge Bar
Conclusion: It didn’t come as a surprise when Qatar Airways won the ‘Skytrax 2015 Airline of the Year‘ award at the Paris Air Show in June. Qatar delivers in terms of aircraft cabin, food & beverages, inflight service, lounges and ground services. The only area of improvement is customer service: I requested to receive some feedback about a remark I made during my first flight, but was never contacted. It’s clear His Excellency Akbar Al Baker (CEO of Qatar Airways) has a meticulous attention for detail which shows in the product his teams delivers. Qatar Airways, highly recommended for your next premium class trips! Feel free to share your Qatar experiences in the comments of this post. PS: Make sure to follow me on Twitter and Facebook to get instant updates when Qatar Airways published new low Business Class fares!
Pic: Lufthansa A333 First Class Champagne Bar (Jun 2015)
For my return from Canada to Belgium, I used 85.000 Miles & More miles (+€383 in taxes & fees, ouch!) to book Vancouver to Munich in First Class and Munich to Brussels in Business Class. The required miles were earned with my Brussels Airlines Premium American Express card. This wasn’t my first time flying the ‘new’ Lufthansa First Class, I had previously enjoyed LH F on the B747-400, A380 and A340-300. This trip added the A330-300 to the list with the B747-8i and A340-600 still to go.
Pic: Lufthansa First Class pre-departure Champagne
The ground services at Vancouver airport were rather disappointing. Lufthansa uses the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge for its First Class passengers, a business class lounge which doesn’t even have showers. Star Alliance partners ANA, Swiss and Air China must have realized how bad this lounge is as they invite their premium passengers to the nearby Plaza Premium Lounge which does have showers. I reported my disappointment to Lufthansa via Twitter and to the inflight manager. The latter must have filled a report, as I received a call from Lufthansa Customer Relations a few days after my flight to apologize and provide me with 7000 miles as compensation. Excellent service!
Pic: Lufthansa First Class seat 2K on A330-300
Once onboard, I settled in my favorite seat (2K) which offered a nice overview of the cabin. I immediately noticed the interior looked very new with no stains or scratches. I assume this A333 was one of the more recent aircraft which got retrofitted with the ‘new’ First. FYI As of June 27, 2015 all Lufthansa aircraft offer the new First Class.
Pic: Enjoying the spacious Lufthansa A333 First Class
I was welcomed by the cabin purser and offered a glass of Louis Roederer 2007 Vintage Brut. The menu read as follows: Dining menu intro, Dinner, Breakfast, Vinothek intro, Champagne + Aperitif, White Wine, Red Wine, Dessert Wine + Liqueur and Port, Spirits, Cold Beverages, Hot Beverages.
Pic: Louis Roederer 2007 Vintage Brut with macadamia nuts
Boarding was already well underway when a German family with baby took their seats in First Class. Fortunately, the kid slept most of the flight, so there were no inconveniences.
Pic: Lufthansa First Class Caviar Service
Once airborne, inflight dining started with my favorite course: caviar! To my surprise there hadn’t been any caviar served on my Etihad, Qatar and British Airways First Class flights earlier that week, so I was happy to indulge myself with two rounds of caviar!
Pic: Lufthansa First Class Caviar – delicious black gold!
The courses which followed didn’t impress. I returned the appetizers as they didn’t look fresh: Seared Pacific Diver Scallops, Farmers Charcuterie and Marinated Feta Cheese with Sweet Peppers. The Pier 39 San Francisco Cioppino was disappointing as well. Unfortunately, this has been a returning issue on all my Lufthansa flights, the food is never really good, except for the caviar! I wish they got rid of their LSG Sky Chefs and switched to the excellent DO&CO catering which Lufthansa uses at their First Class terminal in Frankfurt. The food is so much better at DO&CO catered flights! (e.g. Austrian or Turkish Airlines)
Pic: Lufthansa First Class – Cheese platter and Dessert
As a sweet tooth, I couldn’t skip dessert: Warm Apple Crumble with Vanilla Ice Cream. I also had a cheese platter with Danish Blue, White Cheddar & Oak, semi soft cheese, Goat & Champfleury cheese served with Fig Chutney. A nice extra was the Pralinenmenu with a selection of premium Coppeneur chocolates.
Pic: Lufthansa A330-300 First Class – Movie time!
After dinner, I had a flight attendant convert my seat into a full flat bed and enjoyed some movies. I was excited by the much improved In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) system with a bigger high-resolution screen and new navigation menu compared to my previous LH F flights. A much needed upgraded for Lufthansa, as competitors like Etihad and Qatar are now offering huge high definition IFE screens in First Class.
Pic: Lufthansa First Class limo service at Munich Airport
Upon arrival in Munich, I was fortunate to have our plane at a remote stand resulting in an enjoyable Mercedes-Benz S-Class limo ride to the terminal!
Pic: Healthy breakfast at Lufthansa First Class lounge in Munich
I was a bit confused when my driver guided me to the Lufthansa First Class lounge and had me skip immigrations. Once at the lounge, it became clear they had their own dedicated immigration officer to process my passport, quite neat.
Pic: Taking a bath at Lufthansa First Class lounge in Munich
One of the fantastic privileges of flying premium class tickets is the ability to take a shower (or bath in this case) before / after your flights…except if you end up in an Air Canada lounge! ;-)
Pic: Lufthansa First Class Bar at Munich Airport Lounge
Pic: 2002 Pommery Cuvée Louise Champagne at First Class lounge
After a late breakfast and relaxing bath, I headed to the First Class restaurant where the menu read as follows: Buffet, Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, Champagne & Red and White Wine, Beer, Soft Drinks, Hot Drinks. I had the 2002 Pommery Cuvée Louise and ordered a T-Bone steak with fresh asparagus.
Pic: T-Bone steak at Lufthansa First Class Lounge Munich
At boarding time, a lounge attendant came to see me and guided me to the reception area where a white Porsche Cayenne was waiting for me to drive me to the plane. The enthusiastic driver was in his twenties and told me it was his sidejob. I opted to wait until all passengers had boarded the plane to Brussels and used the opportunity to have the picture taken below.
Pic: Porsche Cayenne chauffeur service to plane at Munich airport
Conclusion: Overall another great Lufthansa First Class experience with some minor hiccups like the Air Canada lounge in Vancouver and the average LSG Sky Chefs onboard catering. I loved the new retrofitted cabin and the enthusiasm of both the inflight crew and ground staff at Munich airport. Also great follow-up by Lufthansa Customer Relations on my comment about the AC lounge with 7K miles as compensation.
Pic: Bart at Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Canada
After my First Class flights to Los Angeles the journey continued to Calgary, Canada. I had booked Hertz’ cheapest rate but was lucky enough to receive a brand new car for my 3-day roadtrip (map) in the Canadian Rockies. When I arrived at Radisson Calgary airport on tuesday night, the weather was gloomy and the forecast wasn’t really encouraging. Fortunately, this turned out to be an advantage when the weather cleared up on Thursday. It was exceptionally quiet in the parks which offered me the opportunity to enjoy the sights without the summer crowds!
Pic: Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Canada
A short stop to buy a rain jacket at the town of Banff and off I went to beautiful Moraine Lake and Lake Louise in Banff National Park. I stayed at Paradise Lodge & Bungalows, a 5 minute drive from Lake Louise. Not the cheapest place to stay, I paid $228 Canadian dollars (~€165) for my last-minute booking of a Preferred Fairview Suite, but what a relaxing experience! Nothing feels better than a hot shower after hiking all day in the rainy woods!
Pic: Bart at Icefields Parkway, Canadian Rockies
On Wednesday, the weather cleared up right in time for The World’s Most Spectacular Journey: Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper. What a FANTASTIC route! Probably the nicest I’ve done in my entire life.
Pic: Lake along Icefields Parkway (click for larger version)
Pic: Boat to Spirit Island on Maligne Lake
Once in Jasper National Park, I headed to Maligne Lake to visit the world famous Spirit Island. Peter Gales’ image of Spirit Island hung in Kodak’s Colorama showcase in NYC’s Grand Central Station for many years which made the island a popular vacation hunt for commuters.
Pic: Spirit Island, Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park
Pic: Black Bear near Maligne Lake Jasper, National Park Canada
On my way to Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, I was fortunate enough to spot several black bears along the road, even a mother bear with cubs! Amazing how easy it was to encounter wildlife in the park!
Pic: Dramatic mountain backdrop at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
HotelTonight had the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge available, a property with rather dated lodges, but spectacular settings. For breakfast, I drove to Jasper town where Bear’s Paw Bakery served delicious danish.
Pic: Glacier Skywalk Jasper National Park
On the way back to Calgary, I made a stop at Glacier Skywalk, Columbia Icefield. Tip: visit the Skywalk before 11am to avoid the crowds.
Pic: Bart at Glacier Skywalk, Jasper National Park
It was only a brief 3-day visit to the Canadian Rockies, but the memories will last a lifetime…highly recommended! Have you been in Canada before? Any tips to share? Are you aware of road trips which are as beautiful as Icefields Parkway? Please do share your experiences in the comments of this post. Thanks!