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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

San Francisco, Anchorage & Fairbanks March 2017 [Day 7] 

Today's the day. Or rather, the night! Hopefully we managed to get the Aurora on our very first try! We booked the Aurora tour with the Aurora Chasers, and they will be picking us up at our hotel at 2215hrs. They sent an email a couple of days prior to confirm and inform us of the pickup time. Since we have the entire day free, we just pretty much lounged around and went out for food and some grocery shopping before going back to the hotel to get ready for the aurora trip.

So we got ready for the pickup and were downstairs just in good time to meet up with the people from The Aurora Chasers, but we forgot out golves, so we had to run back in real quick to get them. The Aurora Chasers went round to pick up a couple more people and then they distributed the gear for people who had rented from them. I had rented a full set of gear from them because I don't have a set of gear that is properly maintained and it's just way easier for me to pony up the cash and get the gear. It's all properly set up and I don't have to bring or worry about anything. I did bring an SD card but I forgot to bring it out along with me so I bought one from them at USD 20.

The Aurora Chasers kept a close eye on the weather conditions so that they could decide where to bring us to catch the Aurora. We drove to somewhere about 27 miles north out of Fairbanks because the clouds were rolling into Fairbanks. Apprently, last night they had to go 200 miles just to find a hole in the clouds! They don't call themselves the Aurora Chasers for nothing!

When we reached the location, they helped us set up the cameras on the tripods and double checked the settings. When Marketa pushed the shutter, and the photo turned up on the LCD, it was amazing what a difference the photo and the actual view from our eyes was. With the eyes, it seemed like just a fuzzy cloud / smoke thing floating by. But when the photo was taken, you could see the lights! It was really amazing!

We spent the rest of the night taking photos of the Aurora, and by the end of the session, they prepared hot drinks for us to warm up. They even had their own personalised reusable mugs! Honestly, I think Fairbanks is easily the best place to catch the Aurora, and going with the Aurora Chasers was a really good idea!

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

San Francisco, Anchorage & Fairbanks March 2017 [Day 6] 

Nothing really much to do in Anchorage, so we stayed in the hotel until check out time, left the luggage at the hotel and went out for lunch at F Street Station. The reviews online were that the food was pretty good but you see the odd review that the service was less than expected. So I was a bit worried going there. However, during my visit, the service was impeccable. The server kept coming around to check if we needed anything else. Whether that was a way to get us out faster, I don't know and I don't really care. I just thought that was pretty good.

The food was pretty ok too. Can't say much about the relative quality compared to other offerings in the area, but I think it was good enough for me. My mains was fried calamari, while my mum had the halibut salad. Also ordered the garlic bread. The whole meal cost us USD 38 which I thought was a pretty good price for a seafood meal.

After lunch we popped over to the Anchorage 5th Avenue Mall to hang out at the Starbucks there for a couple of hours, afterwhich we walked back to the hotel and collected our bags to head off to the airport.

We checked in almost 4 hours before the departure time and went through the TSA Prechk, so there was hardly any crowd (we were told that most flights from Anchorage leave late at night) and found a McDonald's to eat at. That took us only 2 hours lol. Went to wait at the gate till boarding time and it turns out that the flight was delayed due to technical issues. In the end we took off about 75 mins after the scheduled time, but the pilots hightailed it to Fairbanks, cutting 15 mins off the flight. Awe even had a drinks service, so this must be the shortest flight I've ever had, AND has a drinks service.

The Fairbanks International Airport is not very big. It has 2 levels, and the terminal is split in half with departure and arrival. We managed to get the hotel to send us a shuttle and finally got settled in the room by about 0200hrs.

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Monday, March 27, 2017

San Francisco, Anchorage & Fairbanks March 2017 [Day 5] 

My mum definitely woke up bright and early, and I don't even remember telling her the meetup time for today's tour.

I, on the other had, was my usual self. We got ready and was down at the lobby of the hotel by 0917 ( yeah 2 mins late :( ) but the vehicle had not yet arrived, so we were good! I had booked a Dog Sledding tour with the Salmon Berry people (as recommended by the people at The Aurora Chasers) and our guide for the day was Sarah Engstrom. She is very bubbly and full of information that she shared with us. We first took a drive of approximately 45 mins to a rest stop, and then on to our lunch location at Sheep Creek Lodge where we had a great and extremely full lunch. I picked the Sourdough Crumble which is basically potatoes, eggs, bacon and ham! Heaven on a plate I tell you!

After lunch, we went on to Dallas Seavey's kennel for the dog sledding. The dogs in the dog yeard were so excited when our bus pulled up, and when we went into the dog yard, the dog would come up to you and lean on you to get affection. It was really nice and fun! Just don't injure any of the dogs because they are actual race dogs!

The dog sled ride was really fun as we took a ride through the snowscape. You also do smell dog poo here and there as the dogs do poop as they run. Just don't fall off the sled and into the poop ya. This is really an experience to be had and I do recommend booking with the Salmon Berry people!

Sarah checked out our weather gear in the morning just to make sure that we were good enough for the weather and when we reached the kennel, they were concerned with our boots (we ended up fine). It's very reassuring to know that they do look out for clurless tropical people like us!

Gotta do dog sledding in Alaska!

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

San Francisco, Anchorage & Fairbanks March 2017 [Day 4] 

Today, was planned to be an around town day since I was not able to book a day trip (procrastination strikes!). No biggie right? Just saunter around the city and all that. But oh dear, downtown Anchorage is actually quite tiny. It's like 2 or 3 shopping malls and that's it. I'm not kidding. We did go to the Anchorage Museum which is a pretty good place to learn about the history of Alaska. And burn a few hours. Admission is USD 15 per pax.

Before we went to the museum, we had subway lunch in a mall. Pretty humdrum stuff eh? Went to the museum.. and after the museum we ended up wandering around a bit more, grabbed dinner at the mall again before heading back to the hotel to sleep earlier than we have been the previous nights (my mum was only done with wash up at 3 AM the previous nights due to the late flights). We'll have a Dog Sledding tour tomorrow which meets at 0915, and we ain't gonna miss that!

Just winding down from the sipping around cities from the previous days. Taking a break.



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Saturday, March 25, 2017

San Francisco, Anchorage & Fairbanks March 2017 [Day 3] 

After spending a splendid night at Four Points by Sheraton Seattle Airport South, we woke up and decided to have breakfast in the hotel. It was quite a great choice as the breakfast buffet (USD 15 less taxes) was splendid. The breakfast area was not crowded, perhaps beecause most people do not stay to have breakfast in the hotel? Or maybe just lower occupancy at that time.

We checked out at 12 PM and took the hotel shuttle to the airport. Alaska Airlines only allows baggage to be dropped off 4 hours before the flight (BOOO! Yay to Virgin America!) so we dropped off our bags at the paid storage facility (USD 28 less taxes) and went on our merry way into downtown Seattle via the Link Light Rail.

We hopped off at Westlake Station and strolled over to Pike Place Market amidst the light drizzle. The Pike Place Market is really quite a nice place, expecially if you like seafood. My mum bought a Dungeness Crab Cocktail for USD 11 from Pike Place Fish Market, that shop where they will throw your fish in to be weighed and packed. And a snapping Monkfish invites you in for a closer look. :)

Of course, I would have to visit the Starbucks in Seattle. That's like a sacrilege if I didn't. I didn't actually realise where it was until I heard a guy say "That's Starbucks" and holy moly the queue was redonculously long. No way I'd be queueing up that long. Maybe if I were alone or I had friends who wanted to, but not with my mum around, no way. So I decided to go to the Starbucks at 1st & Pike. Turns out that it is the 1 Starbucks Reserve Store and so it's cool... still a 1st Starbucks! Bought a Limited Edition Starbucks Card. I wonder if it was limited Edition to the 1st and Pike Store though, as I didn't see it in any other Starbucks I passed by after that (and there are many Starbucks in downtown Seattle near Pike Place.

After sitting, chilling in Starbucks while the rain drizzled down, we started back to the airport. We picked up our luggage, checked in and got TSA Prechk status again!! Yippee! Flight's at 2045, but we went to the gate early so we could chill out there. After an uneventful flight, we landed in Anchorage and got a taxi to our hotel, the Sheraton Anchorage.

The building has definitely seen some years though the decor appears updated. The lift, however, is clunky and I will definitely not recommend staying near the lift. There was no complimentary bottled water in the room either (for SPG) and the front desk stated that was because they no longer offer complimentary water. However they sell the bottled water for USD 4 per bottle. It's a tiny little thing but when you arrive late at night, you'd really like to have some water. :(

Since I paid USD87.28 for the room, I wasn't that bothered. However, this is a SPG Category 4 hotel. I am not familiar with the ranges throughout the categories, but I just had a much better stay at a Category 3 hotel so I think this hotel is poor value as a Category 4, or if you have to pay the currently listed price of approximately USD 170 (I checked for reference). Then again, I don't think there are that many choices in Anchorage anyway.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

San Francisco, Anchorage & Fairbanks March 2017 [Day 2] 

Today we will be moving onwards to Seattle, continuing our journey towards to Aurora Borealis!

As the place we stayed at does not provide storage, I decided to check out the baggage storage options at the airport. SFO International Airport provides baggae services at a charge / piece of luggage. But it's either that or you have to go around San Francisco with the luggage... totally not a great idea for me.

So we checked out at noon, and headed towards to the airport on the hotel shuttle. Upon reaching the terminal, I wondered if we could check in 8 hours early. If we could, that would take care of 2 large pieces of luggage... leaving only the cabin luggage to drag around town. There is, of course the option to also check in the cabin sized luggage, but at USD 25 a piece, no. I don't think so.

Anyways, I queued up and asked the Virgin America staff if I could check in early and they said yes!!! Whoo hoo! Home free! I'm starting to love Virgin America! Such a shame that today I received an email that said that Virgin America as a brand will cease to exist by 2019.

Our next destination was Golden Gate Park. I thought I would just take an Uber there, but an Uber there at that time would cost around USD 30... so I decided to scratch that idea. Can't be splurging all the time you know. I don't (yet) own a money printing plant. So I took the BART (DBS blocked my card after this top up!) and transferred to the MUNI Metro (N Judah) to get to Golden Gate Park. The N Judah line travels along the Golden Gate Park about 1 street south, so you can pick which part of the park that you want to go to and drop off the MUNI from there. Take note that not all stops above ground are marked on the map with names. There are some unnamed markings which are still stops. Just listen to the announcements.

We walked for about 2 hours in the park and headed back to the airport. Did I mention that we were given TSA Precheck?? It's cool! So all we have to do to pass security is exactly what we do in Changi Airport :) except we don't even have to remove the laptop. People without TSA Precheck must remove shoes and outer coat. I don't know why I got it but I'm happy for little blessings.

Now on to the flight. Virgin America is cool! They have a cool safety video and their crew is excellent! Even though it's a low cost airline, you get drinks on board! And not just a bottle of water. You can choose juice and sodas too. And not limited to one drink! So sad that the day I take Virgin America for the very first time is when they announce that in 2019, Virgin America will be no more, rebranded to Alaska Airline :(

Virgin America, try it!!

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

San Francisco, Anchorage & Fairbanks March 2017 [Day 1] 

Ah. The much planned trip. Actually I have been quite reluctant to actually do this trip due to the cold weather. I don't do well with the cold.

Anyways. just briefly, I'm on the way to bring my mother to see the Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks. Hope we get something!

Started Day 1 with a 0920 flight on SQ32 SIN - SFO. Was actually quite worried about this direct flight because it'd be the longest flight Ive ever had. The flight was pretty good as the plane was new and the crew (well there was one lady in particular that stood out but I missed getting her name) was really nice. Just had this one crew on another aisle who seemed to make her sentences sound rude due to choice of words.

Lovely large inflight monitors which was unfortunately pretty much always reclined towards my face... *sigh* and the lady in front made me worry if the chiar would break as her movements were quite sudden.

Landed in SFO just past 0800hrs, which was 1 hour earlier than when I started flying... so it was like woooooo.

Grabbed a meal at Wendy's at the SFO International Airport South Food Court before moving off to wait for the shuttle to the hotel.

Stopping for the night at Vagabond Inn Executive San Francisco South. But check in timing was 1500hrs ... so we were hoping to be able to drop off our luggage at the hotel without checking in, so that we could go walk around in San Francisco. Turns out that they don't have storage (probably because they are more a motel rather than a hotel?) but the lovely receptionist told me to hold on.... and so I waited for like 15 mins and she checked me in to a room! Woohooo!!

The room was up on the 3rd floor, but that doesn't matter to me. We went up and it is a good sized room with 2 queen size beds that looked so inviting (as we were bushed). So we decided to rest a bit... and napped till 1730hrs. The original plan was to drop stuff off and take the hotel shuttle back to the airport and take the BART to the city. Due to our wonderful snooze, that had to be scratched and I took my first ever Uber ride (with a free ride up to USD20!) to Chinatown, because that is the one place that I had confidence would be serving food past 1800hrs. Not too sure what I could get elsewhere anyway. The Uber ride was USD 21.48. so it ended up costing me just USD 1.48.

So we ended up eating at this restaurant called the Grand Palance, but it's the chinese name that's even cooler. 万寿宫。 Auspicious sounding name no?

Decided to order one fried rice each (bad choice cos one plate serves like 2 or 3 easily, 4 if you don't really want carbs) AND also half a peking duck because my mum thought it'd be nice to try their version... hokay! The best part is that my mum had seen the leftover fried rice on another table but assumed that the caucasians who ordered it didn't find the food to their liking...

We absolutely ordered too much food. Thank goodness when we called for the bill they asked us if we wanted to pack the food (which we decided we had to anyway but it's so much nice when it's offered!). Plenty of food for a midnight snack! Gotta watch the ordering... especially in cash places (apparently this place does accept credit card but doesn't like that) since I don't have an endless supply of USD and today's food cut my supply by just over 10% :(

After dinner we strolled down Kearny St down to the Montgomery BART station where I bought a shiny new prepaid travel card. Love those for the convenience! We took the BART back to the airport so that we can get the hotel shuttle from the airport. Turns out the BART ride from Montgomery BART station to the SFO airport costs USD 8.95. For 2 people, that was 17.90. Uber was definitely cheaper and more convenient! Hotel to Chinatown for USD 21.48, no transfer required. If you were alone, than it'd not be worth it, but 2 or more pax, Taxis, Uber etc would be the way to go in such an instance as we were travelling out of city.

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