Kudos to American Airlines

2 04 2019

I must say that American Airlines has upped their game a LOT in the past few years. The new Flagship Lounges at the major airports (I’ve tried Chicago and now JFK) are wonderful, with good selections of food (not just stale cheese and crackers) and drinks, friendly staff, good showers, oodles of power outlets, good seating for working at a laptop (Qantas could learn something from this… too many of its lounges have very low [and round] tables which are fine for putting a cup of coffee on, but not conducive to working on a laptop without severe stress on your back).

And the flight I just took from Boston to JFK? Amazing! It was on an A321 (flight 1140), and even though I’d booked and paid for Economy, I was seated in Main Cabin Extra (I think that’s what it’s called), which was akin to a full international Business Class, with lie-flat seats, two each either side of the aisle. The First Class cabin was a real First Class, with single suites either side of the aisle. Because it was such a short flight (about 45 mins in the air) and bumpy, there was little service where I was seated—just a bottle of water. And being a noon flight and so short, I didn’t need to lie flat to try to sleep. I didn’t pay any extra for the seat either—just the normal Economy fare—but I think my status as Qantas Platinum (OneWorld Emerald) meant that I was able to choose the seat that I did for no extra charge. I had no idea it would be as good as it was.

This is streets ahead of what many of my previous experiences with American Airlines have been.

QV2018: Day 20: Houston Quilt Festival

13 11 2018

A very lazy day today. First task of the day was to pack my second suitcase.

Then I had brunch at Poitin with some Houston friends (I worked with Jason in Perth, some 10+ years ago; he and his wife Natalia have been living here for much of the intervening time). It was good to catch up with them again, and brunch was amazing, as were the two cocktails I had — yes, before noon!

This afternoon I wandered back to the exhibition and vendor mall — both were pretty quiet and the mania of the crowds on Thursday had gone. Memo to my future self: Unless there’s something specific you want to buy, wait until Sunday to check out the vendor area! I stopped in at the booth run by my friend Kim’s mom, and caught up with her for a while. Then as a group we convened near Michelle’s second prize entry, and she talked about how she and Sophie made it. Next stop were Helen’s two quilts, where Helen explained how she had made them.

For our last night, I had dinner with Michelle, Helen, Carol, and Lyn, and a ring-in Carol from New Zealand. And then it was all over.

Tomorrow some head off for other destinations, and I head off earlier than the others to IAH for my flight to DFW. Most of us are on the same DFW-SYD flight, though some will be in different classes and different parts of the plane. Once in Sydney (Wednesday), we lose the Tasmanians, the Canberran, and the Sydneysider, and I fly back to Perth on a later flight than those that remain.

And that’s it for another QuiltVenture. We don’t know yet if there’ll be another in two years’ time, and if so, where it will go. But travelling with a group of similar women and the friendships that ensue, can’t be underestimated. Many thanks to Michelle, especially, for being our fearless leader, and for organising yet another AMAZING trip. There’s an enormous amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to make it all seem so easy, and Michelle is responsible for all that. Thank you, my friend.

QV2018: Day 19: Houston Quilt Festival

11 11 2018

The only class I had today was in the afternoon, so I had a leisurely breakfast with Mary Beth and her husband. I first met Mary Beth at the first-ever Quilting Adventures workshop I went to in New Braunfels, Texas (2012). I’ve since met her at Festival. This was the first time I met her husband.

After breakfast, I wandered back over to the quilt exhibition to see a few more sections in detail, and to check out some of the vendor mall — it wasn’t so crazy busy today as it was on Thursday, thank goodness (for me as an attendee; perhaps not so much for the vendors). Then back to my room to pick up my class supplies and to call and catch up with Kim, the ex-owner of Quilting Adventures (now closed). Kim’s mom has a booth in the vendor mall, which I missed, so I’ll check that out tomorrow when I go say hi to her. My class was on Super Fast Binding and Piping with Melody Crust, and it was super fast — I was done in half the allocated time!

This evening we had our final group dinner at The Grove restaurant in Houston, and said goodbye to Miss Pat, the lovely Texan who joined this mad group of Aussies on this trip — she leaves early tomorrow morning.

Here are some more photos of quilts on display at Festival this year:

One of Jane Sassaman's quilts -- I did a whole day drawing workshop (Abstracting from Nature) with her

One of Jane Sassaman’s quilts — I did a whole day drawing workshop (Abstracting from Nature) with her

QV2018: Day 18: Houston Quilt Festival

10 11 2018

I had three classes today — morning (Floating Forest, with Rita Lynne), afternoon (Improv Color Blocks, with Cindy Griselda), and evening (Professional Quilt Edge Finished — The Envelope Edge, with Grace Errea). See https://rhondabracey.com/2018/11/11/qv2018-houston-classes/.

I met Sara, a friend of mine from Texas, for lunch, then had about 45 mins after lunch to look more closely at some of the quilts on exhibit, specifically the SAQA (Studio Art Quilters Association) exhibition and the quilts up for the silent auction.

Some of the most intricate quilting is coming out of Spain, and it's by men -- I'm pretty sure this is one of them

Some of the most intricate quilting is coming out of Spain, and it’s by men — I’m pretty sure this is one of them


QV2018: Day 17: Houston Quilt Festival

9 11 2018

I did two classes today — Luscious Landscapes (Peggy Martin) and Modern Simplicity (Jodi Robinson). See: https://rhondabracey.com/2018/11/11/qv2018-houston-classes/

After class, I met a friend from our first tour group in the bar, and others from the current group joined us. Some of us had a late dinner at a local restaurant (late because it’s almost impossible to get a table at any restaurant in the vicinity when Festival is on). Then it was time for bed. I have 3 classes tomorrow (morning, afternoon, and evening), so it will be a full day.

QV2018: Day 16: Houston Quilt Festival

8 11 2018

Today was my first day of classes at the Houston international Quilt Festival. I had an all-day drawing class (‘Abstracting from nature‘ with Jane Sassaman. I don’t think I’ve ever spent 4+ hours drawing in one day, and it was surprising how much better I got with that sort of practice!

After class, the Festival opened for 2 hours to delegates, before the general public could gain access to both the quilt exhibition and the vendor mall. As in previous years, my strategy is to start from the back, work the whole back section, then move to the front section — by then, the crowds have started to head back. It’s worked well before and so it did again tonight. My other strategy is to walk quickly, take photos of quilts that appeal to me, and get a sense of what I want to go back and revisit over the next few days. I’d walked the whole exhibition and taken some 150 photos in 90 minutes! And yes, my feet hurt — in previous years, my Fitbit has told me I do >15K steps in that 90 mins.

Once I’d finished with the exhibition (for now), I went to the vendor mall (still only delegates, so not HUGE crowds yet), and made a beeline for two booths that had two of the items on my five-item list. Then it was off to put my vendor mall strategy in play — start from the far end at the back, ignore any booths that have things that don’t interest me (e.g. beads, yarn), ignore any booths that have things I can’t take back to Australia on the plane (bulky goods, electrical goods, etc.), and only look (quickly) at those that might be of interest. However, I wasn’t able to put my strategy into play, because just as I got to the back corner of the vendor mall, an alarm went off with an announcement to evacuate the building. Somewhere in that announcement was something about fire/smoke (but not in a panicky way). By the time I got to the centre section of the mall, I could smell smoke, and a couple of the vendors said they’d smelt it for 10 mins (I presume they’d let the building security know). The smell dissipated the closer I got to the exit doors. It was still 20 mins before Festival opened to the public, so I hope the evacuation didn’t affect the organisers or the vendors for too long. I don’t know when it re-opened — I went back to my hotel room to process my photos and rest my feet!

Here are just a few of the ~150 photos I took tonight.

This is Sophie Standing and my friend Michelle's 2nd prize winning quilt in the Animal category -- 'Roaming free'

This is Sophie Standing and my friend Michelle’s 2nd prize winning quilt in the Animal category — ‘Roaming free’

QV2018: Day 15: Calgary to Houston

7 11 2018

We were up around 3am this morning, for a 4am gathering in the hotel lobby and a 4:15am pickup for Calgary Airport and our flight to Houston. It was COLD — minus 5C or colder — and snowing, but we knew it was going to be 30C or more in Houston, and humid. Most of our group dressed for Calgary weather, gradually discarding jackets and thermals from the airport onwards! (And yes, they had to de-ice the wings)

We flew on WestJet, a Canadian airline I’ve never heard of, let alone flown, before. And I doubt I’ll ever fly them again, at least not on one of their 737-600/-700 series planes! Six of us paid quite a bit extra for ‘Plus Economy’ seats, the only thing WestJet has other than standard Economy. Their website says the seats are larger, have more legroom, meals are served etc. What a crock!

Instead the seats are NARROW — ‘Plus Economy’ seats are effectively just three economy seats with the middle one used for an arm/drinks rest. They are certainly not equivalent to Premium Economy or Business Class (or First Class on US airlines). None of these seats have open arms, which means you can’t ‘spread’ a little past the width of the arms. You’re boxed in. There may be a tad more leg room, but there’s NO more width. Yes, I can blame my bum for being bigger, but when you pay a lot extra for seats that are described on their website as being bigger, you sort of expect slightly wider seats. Those in economy had no shoulder or bum room, and were very up close and personal with their neighbours. Fortunately, for those in our group seated together, we’ve got to know each other quite well the past few weeks…. Plus Economy also boasts a ‘meal’ for flights over 2.5 hours (ours was a 4-hour flight). That meal for breakfast was a boxed turkey wrap (stale; ‘use by’ date tomorrow) or a boxed ham and cheese croissant. With it came some packaged apple slices that had a ‘use by’ date two days previous. This was an international flight from Canada to the US. And yes, I’ve been spoilt by Qantas…

Enough! Let’s get on with the trip!

We arrived early into Houston and went straight to our gate. Once the luggage came through (that took a bit longer than expected), we exited into a wall of heat and humidity, and then onto the blissfully air-conditioned bus. (We’d cleared US immigration/customs in Canada, but that’s another story for another day, so our flight was treated as a domestic one.)

Once at the hotel we exited into the heat again, then into the lovely cool hotel lobby. Some of our rooms were ready straight away, while others had to wait several more hours for theirs to be ready. My first port of call was the International Quilt Festival registration desk to pick up my name badge, program, final room assignments for classes, IQF pin for 2018, etc., then I went with one of the new ladies this tour to show her where the Phoenicia market was.

At 5:15 our group gathered and went over to the convention centre to line up for Winners’ Circle — the ceremony announcing all the award-winning quilts for 2018 — from Honorable Mentions, to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize winners in each category, to the final eight quilts that won big prize money, including the Best of Show.

There were too many people crowding to quilts for me to take many photos of them, but photos of all the winning quilts (but not close-ups, unfortunately) are here: http://quilts.com/fqf18/iqawinners/list.html. I’ve put some of the photos of my favourite quilts in this post.


QV2018: Day 4: North West Trek

27 10 2018

Off to Eatonville, Washington on the bus this morning. Why? To go to North West Trek, an animal park about an hour or so’s drive south of Seattle. I was last there about 20 years’ ago, and I was pleased that it had hardly changed.

We started with the two grizzly bear cubs (less than 12 months old), which are only on display twice a day for about 2 hours each time) Next was the 3-carriage trolley safari bus thing to see the large prey animals on the 435 acres of open land — bison, elk, black-tailed deer, wild sheep, moose, etc. Awesome stuff, but as it rained quite a bit today, most of my photos didn’t turn out very well.

After the trolley tour, we were on our own until lunch. I walked to the wolf and fox exhibits, but saw nothing (if they had any sense, they were sheltered out of the rain). Next were the cats — I saw the back of a bobcat sleeping in the humpy, no cougars, and a lynx. The owls on display were the snowy owl (his photo came out looking like a bright white blob!), barn owl, golden eagle, and turkey vulture. Others also saw the otters and raccoons, but I didn’t get there,

After we got back to the hotel, a few of us went to the top of the Columbia Center (73rd floor) for some amazing views over Seattle. We had a few drinks up there as the sun set, then made out way back to the hotel to pack. The drink in the photos below was sort of like a margarita, but with red wine poured over a spoon on the top, and an ‘eyeball’ for Halloween (it was really a bubble gum encased in a hard sugar coating). It was as nice as it looked!

Roosevelt elk (male with antlers)

Bison bison

There’s a grizzly bear cub in there!

Bison bison

Seattle at sunset from the 73rd floor


QV2018: Day 3 Seattle

26 10 2018

In case you’re wondering why there’s no Day 1 and Day 2, that’s because I didn’t join the QuiltVenture 2018 (QV2018) tour group until their Day 3 in Seattle. I’d gone on earlier to New Orleans for a conference, and didn’t get into Seattle until very late on their Day 2.

Day 3, which is where I start my journey with them, was a workshop day. We did a workshop with Sherry Rogers-Harrison, learning her technique for painting quilts. She provided us with a kit with two different colourways — I chose to do the aqua/purple colours, not the copper/fall colours. She also did a trunk show of her amazing work (just a few photos below). Some were miniatures, others full size art quilts.


We had a lot of fun, interspersed with long moments of concentrated silence as we focused on painting between the stitched lines.

This evening some of us are going to the ‘Come From Away’ musical, based on the true story of the people of Gander in Canada, who took in thousands of stranded passengers whose planes were grounded immediately after 9/11. I expect it to be rather emotional, so am making sure I take some tissues. (see the update below)

Tomorrow we go to an animal park, where I’ve heard there are bear cubs to be seen! (though at this time of the year, I’d expect them to be several months old by now).

Update: ‘Come From Away’:

OK, so here’s the thing. I’m not a fan of Broadway-style musicals, or even much of a fan of live theatre. But tonight in Seattle I saw probably the BEST show I’ve ever seen or heard on stage. It was full of humour, sadness, compassion, emotion, more humour, great music, excellent singing, and sheer brilliance. It finished with a 10-minute standing ovation from a full theatre (5th Avenue Theatre) on a Thursday night — and I was right there standing and clapping too. What was this brilliant show? ‘Come From Away’. Yes, you’ve probably never heard of it, and yes, over time you will. If you get the opportunity to see it, do.

When I first heard that some of my tour group might go, it was touted as a musical about 9/11. My first reaction? No way on Earth would I go to that. But I looked it up and saw that it was actually about the town of Gander in Newfoundland that ended up with 38 grounded planes when all air traffic into and in the US was stopped as a result of 9/11. 38 planes and 7000 passengers, in a sleepy little town about the same size. A town that fed and clothed them, took them into their homes, and said goodbye when they finally left. A town that those passengers have never forgotten.

If ‘Come From Away’ comes to your town, see it. You won’t regret it.

Amtrak: California Zephyr: Day 3: Colorado to Chicago, Illinois

21 04 2018

Day 3: Sometime overnight we passed into Nebraska from Colorado, then around 6:30 am we passed into Iowa (IA), so I missed Nebraska entirely. Some may say that was a good thing. Fortunately, I’ve driven across Nebraska before, so I know what it looks like (from the Interstate, anyway) and how pretty it can be. (Bonus: I just added another US state to the list of those I’ve visited — Iowa! I think I’ve now visited some 40 of the 50 US states.)

This is the third and last day on the train. We’re scheduled to arrive at Chicago’s union Station at 2:50 pm, but as we were an hour late leaving Denver last night, I don’t expect us to get there on time, unless they made up a lot of time overnight. This is possible, because we’re no longer in the mountains and so the train can go faster.

Observations from today:

  • I slept reasonably well last night. I took an Advil (?) PM tablet before I went to bed, AND I put in my much better ear plugs (not the little foam ones given out on the plane). Then there was the wine, and the fact I had hardly slept the previous night. All in all, my sleep was much longer and stronger, though I did wake several times during the night.
  • For breakfast, I had the omelette and asked for it with guacamole, which came in a squeeze packet!!! I’ve never seen that before. Tasted fine, but there was a LONG list of unreadable ingredients, so who knows what was in it to stop it discolouring.
  • 8:15 am: We’re currently stopped at Creston, IA. There’s no cell service that I can connect to here, so I’ll have to wait a bit before I can post.
  • It’s very cloudy today — that overall grey nothingness that casts a dull pall over everything and just absorbs any light. As expected, the landscape is gently undulating farmland, with silos (grain?, corn? soy?), barns, farmhouses, and little towns. The trees appear to be bare — no leaf and flower buds are discernible yet from a passing train, though you can see birds’ nests. There are some patches of green grass, but mostly the fields are bare soil, waiting for the spring burst of life for the crops. Some fields have cattle in them. The predominant colours? Grey, brown, and yellow, with small patches of green.
  • Haha! Announcement from the conductor that marijuana is a federal class 1 drug, and that while it is legal in Colorado, it’s only legal there and not on this train, which is run by the federal government. She said that the DEA would be happy to invite anyone carrying marijuana to the DEA’s ‘hotel’, and she suggested if you did have marijuana that you get off at the next stop or dispose of it. I think the implication is that the DEA may get on the train at a stop in the future, or that the Amtrak Police officer I spoke to the other day has the authority to act on the DEA’s behalf. While the announcement was quite funny in its delivery and the words she used, there’s a bit of an issue here — passengers in rooms and roomettes CANNOT lock their room from the outside, which means that while you’re at meals or out of your room for any other reason (in the viewing car, perhaps), anyone could come into your room and plant drugs there.
  • After 2 days of travel, rain, and snow the windows aren’t looking as spotless as on Day 1.
  • I sat with the Amish couple at breakfast — they have 8 children, 33 grandchildren, and 7 great great grandchildren. She had her last child only a few weeks before her firstborn had their child. One of their daughters also has 8 children. They sold their farm (Elkhart [?], Indiana) to one of their daughters.
  • 8:40 am: 10 mins out from Osceola, IA, and still no cell service…. now I have cell service, but my laptop isn’t connecting to my mobile hotspot. Reboot everything… 1 bar, but no connection. 2 bars, no connection, but at least Google Maps on my phone has updated itself with Iowa locations. Got connected very briefly, then lost it again.
  • 8:55 am Next stop is in 75 mins, so hopefully I can connect properly by then. This time my SIM is from AT&T (previously T-Mobile) and up until now, I’ve been impressed with the coverage I’ve had in places where I didn’t expect to have it. But so far it’s not so great out here in the flyover states.
  • 9:20 am: Cariton, IA. No cell service…
  • 9:50 am: And today is brought to you by the colours grey and yellow! Fortunately, I’ve lived in this sort of country [Ontario, Canada] and I know how pretty it can be in full spring, summer, fall, and the depths of winter. It’s only during this nothingness between winter and full-blown spring that the colours are so dull. Add to that a very dull cloudy sky, and everything just sucks the light.
  • 10:20 am: 10 mins outside Ottumwa, IA, I got a little bit of cell service, the first all day that allowed me to do anything.
  • Early lunch today, which they started announcing at 10:30 am!! They’ve run out of a few items, so I had the Black Angus burger again. It’s still grey and yellow outside…
  • 12:00 noon: Crossed the mighty Mississippi from Iowa into Illinois, at Burlington, IA. Final stretch to Chicago now underway. We’re currently about 90 mins behind schedule, so if they don’t make up that time (unlikely with the freight traffic on this line), then we’ll be into Chicago after 4:30 pm. That’s OK for me — online reviews had indicated you could be an hour early or up to 8 hours late on this train, so I booked a hotel room for tonight so that I wasn’t under pressure to collect my rental car at a particular time. In hindsight, that was a wise move!
  • After the Mississippi, the undulating land turned into FLAT land. Still greys and yellow, but now flat. Flat as a pancake, except even pancakes have rounded edges. Did I mention it was flat?
  • We were late into Naperville, and are now 20 mins behind the time we were due into Chicago, which is about an hour away. No surprises there, with the accumulated delays we’ve had along the way. So instead of the scheduled 52 hours, the eventual trip will be about 53.5 hours. Actually, it took 53 hours — we got in just one hour late.

Bottom line: Was taking the train halfway across the US worth it? Absolutely! A great way to see parts of the country you may never have seen before, a great way to relax and let someone else take care of the driving and navigating and the meals, and for some I’m sure it’s a great way to meet people (I only went to the viewing car once, so only met new people at meals).

But to do it properly and without feeling claustrophobic, and if you have the funds to do so, consider a ‘bedroom’ in preference to a ‘roomette’, or a ‘roomette’ in preference to ‘coach’. With the bedrooms and roomettes, all your meals are included in your fare AND you get a bed to sleep in (though it may be the top bunk!). With the bedrooms, you get your own (tiny) toilet and shower, and power outlets; with roomettes, you have shared toilet/shower facilities (and possibly power outlets). I’m not sure if coach passengers get the option of a shower, and they have to pay for their meals, and sit up the entire way.

There was no wifi on the train I was on (California Zephyr), but with cell service (patchy and non-existent in places), I was able to hotspot my phone and get connected. For some, no connection at all for 3 days would be part of the charm.

Despite not having much contact with people (my choice), I wasn’t bored. The landscape changed so frequently that you didn’t have a chance to be bored. I just wish I knew more about geology so that I could’ve appreciated the Utah and Colorado landforms better.

Other hints: Take ear plugs for sleeping, and possibly a sleep-inducing drug if you have trouble sleeping on things in motion, such as planes. You can bring your own snacks and drinks, but be discreet and consume them in your own room, not in the public areas (there’s a snack bar that sells food, drinks, and alcohol, but they may not have the brands you want). Don’t bring in marijuana from Colorado! 🙂 Bring your own toiletries. The car attendant just showed me the storage area in my room near the hand basin where there were toiletries, wash cloths, tissues, and spare toilet paper!

Would I do it again? With enough time, a route that suited my plans, and sufficient funds — YES.

 One final thing: They have accessible bedrooms in the lower level of the sleeping carriages. I’m not sure how they deal with meals for those in these rooms — perhaps the staff bring them down? The stairs to the upper level are very narrow, though they do have handrails on both sides. Very large people or those with mobility issues may have trouble negotiating the stairs, as well as the toilet/shower facilities in the bedrooms (I believe the shared toilet/shower facilities downstairs for the roomette people are bigger.)

See also: