Qantas, the Shangri-La and our first hours in Sydney, Australia
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
We’re en-route to Silversea’s newest luxury expedition vessel, the 120-guest Silver Discoverer, which we’ll embark on Monday for a 12-day voyage from Broome, Australia to Bali, Indonesia. But it would be criminal to fly all the way to Australia and not stop over in Sydney, which is why I am spending two nights here at the gorgeous Shangri-La Hotel Sydney.
Yesterday (or is it today?), I flew from Vancouver to Los Angeles to board Qantas Flight 108 from LAX to Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport. From LA’s Tom Bradley International Terminal, Qantas flies to Sydney, Melbourne & Brisbane, making it an extremely popular gateway to the famous land ‘Down Under.’
But as I stood at Gate 154 looking at the sparkling-white Boeing 747-400 that would take me to Sydney, I was a bit intimated by the flight duration. Fourteen hours is a long time to spend on an airplane, and even moreso when you’re travelling in economy. But those fears went away when I got onboard; my 747 (VH-OJT) has been entirely reconfigured to match the product found aboard Qantas’ massive Airbus A380 aircraft. To that end, new Boeing 777-style luggage bins have been added and seats have been changed out for a newer, sleeker model. The plane first flew in 1999, but you’d never know it; it could have just left the factory.
I fly a lot, and when you’re up in the air as much as I am, you tend to see the same things over and over again. Not so on Qantas: even in Economy Class, there were so many firsts on this flight that I had a tough time keeping track of them.
Some notable Wow! moments:
- Being provided with a grab-bag of snacks before the cabin lights were turned off for the evening. A clear transparent “Refresh” bag with two orange drawstrings was distributed to each Economy Class passenger. Inside was a bag of potato chips; a bottle of water; an Apple-Cinnamon Fig Bar; and a Kit-Kat. Awesome touch!
- Realizing the pillow provided was a real pillow, miniaturized, and not one of those overstuffed Kleenex ones most airlines utilise.
- The foot rest that actually cradled your feet. No kidding! A large mesh pouch at the bottom of your seat can be used to store items or it can be used as a little cradle for your feet. In fact, that’s what it was designed to do! With your feet off the ground and the seat fully reclined, even standard economy felt like it was closing in on the comfort level of Business Class aboard some airlines.
- The In-Flight Entertainment System that Worked – and was actually good. Not all IFE’s are created equal, and most are an exercise in frustration, with low-quality video, terrible sound, and unresponsive controls. The IFE on Qantas is modern and interactive, with hundreds of movies and entire seasons of popular television shows like Downton Abbey.
But for me, the real litmus test is sleep. The only times I’ve actually had a refreshing, restful flight overseas have all been in Business Class. But between the pocket for your feet, the comfort of the seat itself, the real pillow and the high-quality blanket, I actually managed to sleep for 6.5 hours – a new record for me. If you’re reading between the lines, I’m basically admitting I had a better sleep in Seat 53K on Qantas than on some of the flights on other carriers where I’ve been in Business Class.
Bottom line: I’d love to see Qantas come to Canada. Until that happens, I’m quite content to fly through Los Angeles in order to take them overseas to Australia, and I’m very much looking forward to my domestic journey aboard one of their Airbus A330-300’s on Sunday when I fly from Sydney to Perth.
International arrival formalities in Sydney are a three-pronged process. First, you go through Customs & Immigration, which is separated according to the type of passport you’re holding, and whether or not that passport has an E-Passport chip embedded in it. Following that, you collect your luggage and then proceed with your luggage to Quarantine; a staging area where officials may find it necessary to search your luggage. In my case, I was directed to stand on a red rectangle while a drug-sniffing dog went about his duties with my luggage. Satisfied with what he found, I was able to then leave the secure area of the airport and emerge into the arrivals area.
If you’re flying Qantas, you may also be the fortunate recipient (depending on your Frequent Flier status or class of travel) of a special Express Pass that speeds you through the entire process. I was fortunate to have one of these today, and the entire process only took perhaps 30 minutes from leaving the aircraft until I was in the terminal.
Once I was in arrivals, I had a few options for getting to my home-away-from-home for the next two nights: the gorgeous Shangri-La Hotel Sydney, located on Cumberland Street in the heart of downtown Sydney. I could take a taxi, which would run around AUD$50 and could – in traffic – take nearly an hour. There are also airport shuttles that offers service to many hotels, but they take even longer.
Or, I could take the AirportLink train that runs directly from Kingsford Smith Terminal 1 (International) and Terminal 3 (Domestic) to Circular Quay Station in the heart of the city. It takes about 15 minutes, and cost $17.50 one-way. So, I did just that, and it was a fantastic experience. Walking up the San Francisco-esque Essex Street was decidedly less fun with 20 kilos of luggage, but if you’re traveling light and staying at the Shangri-La, I’d recommend the train. Otherwise: take the taxi!
There are cities that almost demand you stay at a prime property, and the Shangri-La Sydney is the very definition of “prime.” It looks out over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House from its perch adjacent to an area of Sydney known as ‘The Rocks.’
There are 563 guest rooms and suites at the Shangri-La Sydney, and I feel very fortunate to occupy one of 25 Premium Grand Harbour View rooms that offer views of both the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the iconic Opera House.
At 60m2 (645 square feet), these Premium Grand Harbour View rooms are really cleverly designed. As you enter, a small vestibule contains a closet and a special raised platform to set your luggage on so that it can be kept out of the main living area of the room. A long hallway then leads into the main living and sleeping areas of the room.
The main part of the room is situated in a subtle V-formation, with the bed on one side bordered by wrap-around windows. A swiveling flat-panel television set is located in the middle, and a seating area is located on the far area of the room.
My absolute favorite feature, though, are the padded leather “bench” seats located on the sill of the bay windows. It’s the perfect place to sit down with a glass of wine or enjoy some good conversation, and I like that the hotel is actually encouraging guests to sit and take in the view.
But, I should point out that there’s really no such thing as a ‘bad’ room here. The hotel was purposely designed so that no suites would be without views, and the base rooms that look out over Darling Harbour still measure a very generous 40-50m2 (430-538 square feet) and feature the same soothing Asian-inspired décor that reflects the Shangri-La’s roots, coupled with a colour palette that is distinctively Australian.
The hotel also earns major brownie points for featuring complimentary guest internet access in rooms and public areas.
For lunch today, I dined at the hotel’s Café Mix, located on the first floor which, like Europe, would be considered the Second Floor in North America. Café Mix is one of four restaurants and bars at the Shangri-La Sydney, and their menu is extensive, with numerous culinary offerings from land and sea.
Dishes range from traditional Asian specialties to Australian cuisine to classic American favorites like a burger and fries. Of course, in typical Shangri-La style, these are very elaborate, indulgent burgers.
I, however, couldn’t tear myself from the Teriyaki Grilled King Fish with seasonal wok-fried vegetables. And the Sushi buffet, where the offerings were just as good as back home in Vancouver. And, apparently, the assorted ice creams for dessert, all four scoops of which went into my hollow leg. I also learned that in Australia, if you want a black coffee, you’re better off asking for a “long dark” than you are with just “coffee.” Saying you’d like a coffee might net you a cappuccino or a latte instead.
Café Mix isn’t inexpensive (nothing in Australia is, really), but the quality is there. I’d rather have a $30 main that’s fantastic than a ho-hum main that’s $15.
One thing I wish I would have booked ahead for is Altitude Restaurant, located on the 36th Floor overlooking the harbour. Headed up by Chef de Cuisine Matthew McCool (yes, that really is his last name), Altitude could be one of Sydney’s most rewarding dining experiences, with a total of 11 talented chefs working under McCool.
Besides being situated by floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House, Altitude offers menus that are changing constantly, with specialties prepared by each chef. On weekends, a four-course degustation menu is offered for $125 per person, with an alternate menu offered on weekdays.
For a truly original experience, however, you should splurge for the surprise: a nine-course degustation meal that is created entirely from scratch after consulting with guests about dietary needs and preferences. Guests won’t know what’s coming until it arrives, brought out to their table by the chef who created it. At nine courses, $165 per person (or $235 per person with wine pairings selected by the sommelier) isn’t that bad. Guests and locals clearly think so: Altitude is booked solid all weekend.
After lunch, I went for a quick stroll around The Rocks, where it became apparent that the Shangri-La Sydney is in an ideal location – even if it is a little ‘hilly.’ I was at the Overseas Passenger Terminal dock in less than 10 minutes, and the stairs to the Sydney Harbour Bridge are just a few metres down the street from the main entrance on Cumberland Street.
A few images from my stroll:
It’s also worth noting that, like any good luxury hotel, service here is unfailingly nice. Staff are genuinely eager to please, and not a single person has passed without a smile or the offer of a good day. It’s one of the reasons I sought the Shangri-La Sydney out; I wanted a hotel that will mirror the experience I’ll be enjoying aboard Silver Discoverer in a few days.
I was told the hot place to be tonight was the Blu Bar on 36 which, as the name suggests, is situated on the 36th floor of the hotel. Overlooking the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House on one side and Darling Harbour on the other, there was already a queue backing into the elevator bank when I arrived at 5p.m. sharp. I found a seat for one at the glass table overlooking Darling Harbour and the roadway far below, ordered a cocktail from the Lounge’s massive drinks menu, and sat back and admired the setting sun falling over the horizon.
It was the most absolutely perfect end to a fabulous first day in a faraway land.
Silver Discoverer, The Kimberley Coast, Australia to Indonesia
|May 9, 2014||Day 1 - Arrival Down Under|
|May 10||Day 2 - Sydney and the Shangri-La|
|May 11||Day 3 - Perth|
|May 12||Day 4 - Embarking Silver Discoverer in Broome|
|May 13||Day 5 - Exploring the Kimberley, Day 1|
|May 14||Day 6 - Exploring the Kimberley, Day 2|
|May 15||Day 7 - Exploring the Kimberley, Day 3|
|May 16||Day 8 - Exploring the Kimberley, Day 4|
|May 17||Day 9 - Exploring the Kimberley, Day 5|
|May 18||Day 10 - Exploring the Kimberley, Day 6|
|May 19||Day 11 - Wyndham, Australia|
|May 20||Day 12 - At Sea|
|May 21||Day 13 - Savu, Indonesia|
|May 22||Day 14 - Komodo & Pink Beach, Indonesia|
|May 23||Day 15 - Waikelo, Indonesia|
|May 24||Benoa, Bali, Indonesia|