By Millie Ball
March 3, 2013
KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic — We had been collecting frequent-flier points for years. My husband, Keith, and I thought that, yes, of course, we would use them. We would fly around the world. Business class. Maybe next year.
Queen Latifah shoved us out of our fantasy and onto the planes.
It happened after we watched "Last Holiday" one more time. In it, Queen Latifah portrays a shy New Orleans department store clerk with a crush on fellow employee LL Cool J. Her dreams are confined to a scrapbook of "Possibilities." But when her character is told she has three weeks to live, she cashes in her savings and leaps into the good life from a scrapbook page: the Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary, surrounded by snow-covered Alps.
"I want to spend New Year's Eve at the Grandhotel Pupp," Keith said.
We called to book for Dec. 30 and 31, shrugging when the reservationist said apologetically, "Hotel not in mountains."
Keith said, "Let's keep our trip going."
So we each cashed in 260,000 Continental Airlines points (mostly miles but some credit card points) and paid $223.16 apiece in taxes for two airline tickets that the reservations agent said would have cost $12,000. Each.
Thus began our journey: eight flights, 24 time zones, 26 days. We went from New Orleans to Frankfurt, Germany (by way of Washington Dulles); to Bangkok, Thailand; to Singapore; to Tokyo; to Honolulu; to Houston and home to New Orleans.
Yes, our ultimate trip was realized, but were we nuts?
We left on Christmas. Our holiday lunch at the airport was a hot dog, smoked sausage and two bottles of water, for $19.
"This may be better in concept than in reality," Keith said.
Planning the trip
Continental merged with United in 2012, so we used United's around-the-world desk, which is staffed with agents skilled at assembling complicated trips. You get six stops free if you're using points. All flights are required to go in the same direction — no zigzags — on United and other Star Alliance member airlines.
Flexibility mattered because free seats weren't available for all the flights we wanted when we booked in June. But more seats opened in the fall, and some opened as late as two weeks before the trip.
We reserved hotels in advance, pre-paying to get discounts whenever possible, and decided not to push ourselves. Time-zone changes can be a killer. After overnight flights, we napped on arrival days. We hired a guide online for two days in Bangkok, the only major city on our trip I had never visited, but in other places, we went wherever we wanted on a whim.
And we set out for …
New Orleans to Frankfurt
United, 16 hours, 2 minutes flying time from New Orleans by way of Dulles
We rented a car to drive to Dresden, Germany, and Karlovy Vary, instead of Prague, which we had visited twice.
Why Dresden? The city was devastated in 1945 by Allied bombs in retaliation for the German bombing of Coventry, England, and after World War II it was part of East Germany. In recent years, much has been restored in this jewel of a city.
We made the required (by us) stop at the meticulously rebuilt Frauenkirche, an 18th century church destroyed in the bombing. Now its interior is painted storybook colors — white and pastel green, peach, baby blue. The Green Vault museum was a construction site a decade ago; now its nine rooms showcase treasures of August the Strong, an 18th century Saxony ruler with Donald Trump spending habits.
After cultural overload at museums, we wandered into a courtyard market where mobs of families clutched pitas stuffed with beef and oozing white cheese. The aroma of garlic and grilled meats was overpowering, but oompah music was playing, so we did a quick two-step instead.
I thought that if the rest of the trip went as well as Dresden …
Karlovy Vary, we were delighted to discover, is a hilly spa town with a thermal spring, a graceful colonnade and several Art Nouveau buildings lining a canal-size river. The sprawling white Grandhotel Pupp is in the middle of it all.
We splurged on a premier suite, cream and powder blue. It had six French doors that opened onto balconies. It wasn't as glamorous as Queen Latifah's suite (filmed in a hotel in Prague, we learned), but we had fun exploring the hotel and finding locations featured in the movie.
Petr Brodsky, the front-desk manager, was a kindred spirit. He quoted Queen Latifah's character, who said, "I wasted too much of my life being afraid."
"She was fantastic," he said. "She was always in her jogging pants, running in the parks."
We skipped the hotel's formal New Year's Eve parties for dinner a deux, Champagne and sandwiches in our suite while watching our DVD of "Last Holiday" on my laptop. At midnight, the sky began exploding with 25 minutes of fireworks in a rainbow of colors. We looked from each of our six balconies and agreed that it was the perfect way to welcome 2013.
Frankfurt to Bangkok
Thai Air: 10 hours, 10 minutes
Hotel: Banyan Tree Bangkok
Why? We'd never been here.
Bangkok was a six-hour time change and a 60-degree increase in temperature. Many residents wear masks because of the smog. Photographs of the king hang from high-rises; our guide said it was forbidden to criticize the king, which doesn't bode well for productions of "The King and I."
BKK Tours was our conduit into this city of 8 million. Co-owner Air Reamsan arrived with a van and driver at 7 a.m. By then, our bodies didn't have any concept of time.
We spent the first tour day outside of Bangkok, intrigued by the packed Railway Market that extends to the railroad tracks. Vendors methodically rolled back their metal trays displaying seafood, grilled frogs and vegetables to make way for the commuter train, which arrives eight times daily.
A nearby market consisted of women paddling long boats, from which they sold cooked dishes and produce. Reamsan also took us to visit a brother and sister in their 60s who worked nonstop over a fire to produce coconut sugar. Reamsan said the sister told her, "We like it better when we fall from a big palm tree.... We have more time to think about how we're going to land."
The second day, we stayed in Bangkok, touring under a brutal sun but low humidity. The city's elaborate palaces and temples are as impressive as anything I've seen.
We had inexpensive massages at Wat Pho Temple's compound after walking past the 140-foot-long Reclining Buddha. Reamsan made a donation, then gave us each a metal bowl with 108 coins. "You say a prayer as you drop the coins in 108 bowls along the wall," she said. By the end, I had blessed the driver's family, third cousins, people in line. And, like Thai people, I bowed a namaste-style greeting to almost everybody.
Bangkok to Singapore
Singapore Airlines, 2 hours, 30 minutes
I spent a week in Singapore in 2003, visiting gardens, the zoo, museums, Chinese and Malay neighborhoods, food carts, restaurants and temples. Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, I like Singapore. And the fact that reflexologists are everywhere offering foot massages.
We took a city tour so Keith could see highlights, but the real reason for our two-night stopover was to stay at Raffles, a world-renowned, 125-year-old white colonial hotel with courtyards, verandas and 98 suites.
Even though we were staying in standard accommodations (all are suites), we were welcomed like longtime clients in a top suite. Standard was more than good enough; our accommodations lived up to expectations, with creaking hardwood floors, Oriental carpets, ceiling fans, antiques and silky sheets.
As I took a Diet Coke from the mini bar, Keith said, "Wait! It's 9 Singapore dollars," or about $7.33 U.S. The exchange rate had changed considerably in 10 years. I didn't open it.
A staff member confided that a grocery store across the street in Raffles Mall sold Diet Cokes for 90 cents, so that's where I indulged my soft drink habit. We ate Chinese dishes at the mall food court too, and I nodded off during a $44, hourlong foot massage at Reflexology Co.
Singapore to Tokyo
Singapore Airlines, 6 hours, 30 minutes
Hotel: Courtyard by Marriott, Ginza
Why? We wanted to see Tokyo again after 25 years.
There's a certain freedom in revisiting a city; you don't feel pressured to see everything. Except for a day getting lost on the Metro on the return trip from Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine in a huge park, we mainly stayed in Ginza, eating at department stores and window shopping outside designer shops.
The best — and most expensive — tempura was said to be at Ten-Ichi. Bill Clinton's face grinned from the front window, but inside the décor was traditional Japanese. Two men in black suits and two women in navy kimonos bowed a welcome.
A young chef cooked lightly battered tempura for us and four men. The least expensive, a $95 set lunch menu, included two tempura fish, two tempura shrimp, two tempura asparagus, miso soup, salad and green tea. Obviously enjoying the experience, I took iPhone photos and smiled at the chef. After the others left, he gave us more tempura. "Shrimp." "Squid." "Eel." Finally, "Last one." I bowed and said, "Arigato." Thank you.
Tokyo to Honolulu
United, 6 hours, 30 minutes
Hotel: Turtle Bay Resort, North Shore of Oahu
Why? We liked the low-key ambience we experienced here on a day trip in 2005.
Tooling around Oahu's North Shore in a red Mustang convertible was our grand finale — total relaxation. Turtle Bay's six-story hotel is the only high-rise, and food trucks are among the recommended restaurants. The aroma of ubiquitous garlic shrimp drifts toward the beaches.
The North Shore is filled with surfers wearing flip-flops and carrying their boards to Sunset and other beaches. We shopped with them at Foodland. We swam in our hotel's pool with Australian families and their toddlers. We walked Waimea Valley, a lush park with a garden path to a waterfall. We will return.
Honolulu to New Orleans, by way of Houston
United, 9 hours, 34 minutes
Home. Sleep. Remembering. Thanking Queen Latifah. The reality was better than the concept. And now we know it. Oh, how we know it.
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