I usually look for an interesting place to spend a couple of months at the beginning of the year to escape Chiang Mai’s smoky season. With high hopes for the adventure of a lifetime, I picked Italy. (I know, right?)
I set off for Sicily in January, stopping in Bangkok to burn two Chase anniversary free nights at InterContinental Bangkok, and Dubai, where I spent one night at a tired little Holiday Inn Express (20,000 points). After a night at Catania’s NH Catania Parco Degli Aragonesi, I grabbed a cannoli and headed for Siracusa, catching a glimpse of Mount Etna on the way to the train station.
I had booked ten nights at a townhouse there and another ten nights at an apartment in nearby Ortygia. Andrea, my Airbnb Superhost, met my train and drove me to Via Caltanissetta (his former bachelor pad), located in a gritty, working class neighborhood in the central area of the city.
I soon realized I was in trouble. I didn’t speak Italian, signage was in Italian, few people in the neighborhood spoke English, I couldn’t read the labels on anything at the grocery store, I couldn’t call a cab, I couldn’t make out the recycling instructions, which changed daily, I couldn’t find an ATM, and there were no cafés. None! Bars yes–lots of them. But no cafés.
What kind of neighborhood was this? After a few Google searches, I realized that bars are cafés in Italy and in no time I was bellied up to the bar saying “Buongiorno. Cappuccino e due biscotti, per favore.” The more I walked around, the more at home I felt. It just took a little time to adjust.
The ten days passed quickly and, finally, I was off to Ortygia–the highlight of my trip–where I stayed in a grand three-bedroom, two-bath apartment on the quiet side of the island, near the two bridges that connect it to mainland Sicily.
Ortygia contains many historical landmarks, such as the Cathedral of Syracuse, whose origins date to prehistory, and the anterior Piazza del Duomo, where fashionable Italians gather in the evening for the passeggiata, strolling at a leisurely pace in order to absorb the surroundings and socialize.
It’s a small island, measuring only about one kilometers long by 600 meters wide, and easy to navigate on foot. Sunsets on the western side of the island are indescribably gorgeous, turning the sky a brilliant red and orange. People gather at nearby bars at dusk every evening, Aperol Spritzes in hand, to enjoy the breathtaking display.
The entire 22 days I was in Sicily, I only saw one tourist wearing a surgical mask.
Soon I was off to Catania again, this time by bus (it goes to the airport). From there I flew to Malta for ten nights: four at InterContinental Malta (135,000 points/fourth night free), one at the Holiday Inn Express next door (20,000 points) , and five at Hilton Malta (204,000 points/fifth night free). The InterContinental was a huge disappointment on nearly every level, especially the room, location, and view. The Hilton, on the other hand, turned me inside out, with an achingly beautiful view.
Service at the Hilton was outstanding, my large, bright room was newly refurbished in luscious shades of blue, I had an enormous private terrace, and the elegant lounge was very comfortable, private, and relaxing, with outdoor seating on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean. I made two new friends there, too, and we had a wonderful time.
Visiting Valletta (Malta’s capital) one day, I noticed a few people wearing surgical masks and decided to buy one. I was surprised to find that they were sold out nearly everywhere. I bought one in a pharmacy for four Euros–just in case.
Having booked a charming penthouse apartment in Palermo’s Il Capo district for the month of March, I headed north via Air Malta (32,000 Lufthansa miles/worst redemption ever) for the next leg of my trip. The walk-up apartment had a large kitchen, wrap-around terrace on the main floor, and a smaller rooftop terrace. The view was spectacular!
I loved it there. Until I didn’t.
One day things were normal. The next day we were in lockdown. Yikes! (I previously wrote about what it was like there before and after lockdown.) It was as different as night and day. Everything was closed and everyone now wore a mask. Some even wore gloves. When I went down to the market to investigate, police were there ordering merchants to close. It took me a couple of days to figure out what to do.
Go home, I decided. Now! I cut my trip short and left Italy on March 14th–my birthday.
I took a Lufthansa flight (PMO-FRA-BKK-CNX) to Thailand, where I’ve been ever since, arriving just days before the Thai border was closed, even to people like me who hold a retirement visa. Otherwise, I’d probably be fluent in Italian by now.
The A380 was packed and I wore protective gear the whole way (the mask from Malta!), foregoing meals. By the time we arrived in Bangkok, Thailand was no longer issuing visas on arrival. A French couple who boarded with me in Catania was denied entry and sent back to France. Because the EU failed to stamp my passport when I entered, the Thai officials didn’t know what to do with me, so they just sent me on my way.
I went into self-quarantine at home and didn’t leave my apartment for fifteen days. I wrote three posts about that experience for a local blog about quarante in Chiang Mai: Plan Ahead, Setting Up My Cocoon, and Halfway
Sadly, I missed experiences I had planned for mainland Italy in April, including much-anticipated stays at Hilton Sorrento Palace, and Rome Cavalieri, visiting the Amalfi Coast, and Easter Sunday Mass at the Vatican, for which I had a coveted ticket. I also lost out on my first Q Suites flight, including a stopover in Doha and a stay at The Westin Doha Hotel & Spa. Fortunately, all my miles and points were refunded.
I skipped my annual trip to American, too.
Bloom Where You’re Planted
In late June, while I was sitting on the couch in my PJs, bored and browsing my in-box while half-watching yet another rerun on TV, this offer from AirAsia popped up:
Thailand had managed COVID-19 very well (we didn’t run into trouble until mid-December) and I felt safe traveling domestically, so I snapped up a pass for $97.23! Really.
As I moderate the IHG Rewards Club Members group on Facebook, it’s important for me to know what’s in my backyard. With lots of points in my IHG account because of cancelations, I decided to go to Phuket, Hua Hin, and Pattaya to visit three InterContinental Hotels I’d never been to.
I stayed five nights at InterContinental Pattaya Resort (60,000 points/fourth night free)–a tropical beach oasis with unsurpassed views of the Gulf of Thailand and beyond. My spacious, modern room had architectural features reminiscent of Bill Bensley properties. I enjoyed going into town every day for long walks on the beach and shopping at Central Festival Pattaya. It was great to get out of my PJs and lace up my trainers!
The InterContinental Phuket Resort (four nights: 120,000 points/fourth night free), nestled on the powder-soft sands of Kamala Beach, is simply spectacular! Sleek, sophisticated and elegant, the beachside hideaway is cocooned by jungle-covered hills and offers heavenly views of the Andaman Sea. I couldn’t get enough–especially at sunset. They lounge and restaurants were lovely, with good service. I never left the property. You can see why!
The main attraction at InterContinental Hua Hin Resort (five nights: 130,000 points/fourth night free) is the beach, set alongside sparkling gulf waters. Well-known for its spectacular sunrises, Hua Hin’s main beach is a four-kilometer white, sandy strip that fringes the Gulf of Thailand. The hotel is connected by walkway to Blúport Hua Hin Resort Mall, where I enjoyed walking, shopping, and dining.
I stayed five nights , eagerly following the US election and nervously watching the returns from a beach chair.
Before my AirAsia pass expired, I squeezed in four short trips to Bangkok and was able to redeem a free weekend night at InterContinental Bangkok and two Chase anniversary nights at the new Kimpton Maa-Lai Bangkok. I also took advantage of a great promotion for two nights at Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok and stayed two nights at Hilton Sukumvit Bangkok (34,000 points). The newly-opened Kimpton is over-the-top gorgeous–a lush, serene oasis in the heart of bustling Bangkok.
While in Bangkok, I enjoyed shopping (Central World, the new Apple store, Siam Paragon, and Gaysorn Village), dining at Michelin-starred Bo.Ian, Jay Fai, and Gagan, Sunday brunch at the Park Hyatt, and tea at the Siam Kempinski. Without tourists, wait times were short and making reservations easy. The highlight was getting a front row table at Jay Fai, where I was able to watch her make her famous crab omelette. And eating one!
And–of course–massages at Kannikar Medical Massage!
On my last day in Bangkok, I took a flight to nowhere at Thai Airways headquarters, unaware I’d soon be grounded, too.
Things in Thailand took an alarming turn in mid-December due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the south, so travel is out of the question right now. We flattened the curve in March and had nine good months so I’m not complaining. I know I was fortunate to be able to travel just a little this year. I look forward to better days when everyone can do the same. Thanks for reading and sawasdee pee mai ka!
I flew 19,115 miles this year (22 segments on 8 airlines), passing through 11 airports in 5 countries, on two continents:
New Country: Malta
CTA – Catania Fontanarossa
MLA – Luqa (Malta)
PMO – Palermo
HHQ – Hua Hin Airport
UTP – U Taphao International (Pattaya)
New Airlines Flown: Flydubai, Air Malta, Ryanair
Aircraft Flown: Airbus A320, Airbus A319, Airbus A380-800, Boeing 737-800, Airbus A321, Boeing 777-200(ER)
Hotels: IHG (27), Airbnb (32), Hilton (7), Hyatt (2), NH (1)
The Great Circle Mapper, including all software, data, and the compilation and presentation of data is Copyright ©1996-2021 Karl L. Swartz. All rights reserved.