Views of San Francisco from My Hotel

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On my trip to San Francisco this week, I picked the Marriott Marquis on 4th and Mission as my hotel while I attended a conference in the city.  It seemed well situated and nice, at least on the website photos.  I did not miss with this property and you can read my review in TripAdvisor (where I am very active as a Top Contributor!).  I did not have time to explore San Fran some more but I did get a couple of good eats at RN74 and Venticello.

I got a room on the 28th story and it was a corner room so I had views south and east (best I could tell).  Here are the views from my room at different times of the day.  They are not the best photos as the windows were quite dirty on the outside but they get the point across (I hope!).

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The Moscone conference center is the massive building lower left

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The San Francisco Giants stadium

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And below here are two pics of the same general view at different times of day – love the difference the sun’s position can make on a photo!

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Manila Relaxation

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I love to travel and explore new places.  I enjoy it a lot.  But I also like to relax and do not much of anything worth writing about.  Yes, I have been known to cram a lot into a trip when I set my mind to it (like my Croatia/Bosnia & Herzegovina/Montenegro chaser to my week in Rome a year ago).  But the diversity of experiences is what draws me to travel and that does not just mean different geographies and cultures – that also means pace.  While I am not much of a beach bum (a couple of hours and I am itching to do SOMETHING), I appreciate what people find in just laying about and letting the world go on.

In my short visit to Manila I was intending to see all I could about the city in 3 days.  However, there was something liberating in knowing that I could not experience all that the city is in three days so that gave me the opportunity to take the pressure off myself to do all I could (and especially after day one when I realized this is a place I would want to come back to).  But what really sealed the deal was my hotel.  It says something when a hotel makes you want to stay in and, I imagine, many hotels aim for that.  The Marriott Manila had that effect on me.  Amazingly, I was not jet lagged and needing to rest.  (Jet lag actually did not affect me with sleepiness or confused time zones, something confusing in and of itself.)  I. Just. Wanted. To. Be. There.

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They love chocolate carvings/sculptures at the hotel – here one of the current President

The spaces

The room was spacious and comfortable (without being a suite).  All the offerings/amenities of the room worked without a hitch (yes, EVEN the wi-fi).  There was actually great lighting in the room (read #4 in my top 5 hotel pet peeves).  The shower/tub combination was quite unique as was the division between it and the main room – clever.

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Look at the white half-wall in the background…

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… and all of a sudden it opens up to “connect” the room to the shower!

The Executive Lounge, unlike most U.S. Marriotts, was huge.  At non-peak times, it is easy to find a spot and feel like you are on your own, which is nice if you have work to do.

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The lounge

The lounge faces the golf course which gives it a great view…

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View of the city from the lounge (unfortunately, on a rainy day)

The lobby is a series of spaces designed to flow well and pull you in.  The main seating area seamlessly integrates into the bar.  You just want to hang there.  And do people watching…

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Lobby space

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Lobby space

… or have a drink.

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The bar area faces the edge of the golf course. I like the light fixtures

Finally, facing the golf course, there are nice outdoor areas for those times when you get cold indoors (the A/C really is PUMPING!) or want to jump in the pool.

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Outdoor seating area right by the bar

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Though a rainy day, a nice pool area

The food

On my first full night in Manila, after having done a walking city tour in the rain, I decided to eat in at the hotel.  Since I had a slight sore throat, I asked for some chicken noodle soup.  Boy, was that a chicken noodle soup!  It was beautifully served and was delicious: with noodles, greens, diced up chicken, and carrots.  I don’t think I have used the phrase “beautifully served” before but the solid ingredients were nicely set up in the main oblong bowl with the broth actually brought in a separate teapot-like container.  I especially appreciated it because I wanted to shower before eating and the way they served it allowed me to not have to eat it as soon as it was brought to my room.

The next day, I had the choice of taking breakfast in the Executive Lounge, a hangout spot for a regular like me (the one in Santiago’s Marriott, I called my living room when I stayed there most of 2010!), or go to the Marriott Café.  I opted for the latter to see what food they would offer in the buffet.  It did not disappoint as it clearly had many local specialties some of which I tried and some that I did not want at breakfast (e.g., anchovies).

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Kakiage (like tempura, in the back) and chicken tonkatsu (on the front) – delicious

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On the fishier side of breakfast…

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Some good-looking sushi

Location

The Marriott Manila sits very close to the Manila airport in an area called Resorts World.  I am not 100% clear on the plans for the area but there are other hotels, shopping center, etc. and a lot of development going on in the area; it looks like a small town is actually sprouting.  While one half of the hotel looks over the domestic part of the airport, the other half overlooks a very nice and lush golf course with the Manila skyline in the distance.  I am not sure how it is during regular weekday hours but my ride to the business center of Makati was pretty easy and fast on mid-day Saturday.

I have to admit that before I came, I assumed that given its location (near the airport and not far from the Makati business district), the Marriott would mainly appeal to business travelers.  Once I stepped in it, I saw how off my assumption was.  Lots of leisure travelers AND many locals coming for events at the hotel.

Service – leaving the best for last (but proverbial “not least”!)

I mentioned earlier my slight sore throat.  I stopped at the front desk and asked when I came in from sightseeing to find out where I could get some lozenges or something to alleviate my discomfort.  The informed me that connected to the hotel, right after the entrance to the mall was a medical clinic.  I thought to myself how convenient that was.  Not only convenient but freeWith a doctorOn a Saturday evening.  Yes, indeed.  Imagine that ANYWHERE in the U.S.!  They really are prepared to take care of guests!  The doctor just recommended something to gargle which the hotel concierge went to get for me.  It really says something about a hotel when they can handle not only the “normal” stay but when something like this arises.

Which leads me to my top takeaway from this stay… The amazing staff at the hotel.  They are well prepared to make you comfortable and assist you.  They smile and it actually feels genuine.  No wonder I just wanted to stay in, right?!

I have stayed at many Marriotts in my work life and logged many “career stay nights”.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, one of the things Marriotts do best is give the business traveler a consistent experience so that you feel you are somewhere familiar.  But the Manila Marriott simply blew me away.  Few hotels have made me feel so welcome, comfortable, and cared for.  You can bet that if – no, when – I return to Manila, I will be making a stop here!

Thanks to the Manila Marriott for hosting part of my stay.  Opinions are my own as always.

From Suite to Tent: What Made Accommodations Memorable in Jordan

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Throughout all my travels, I have experienced different types of accommodations.  A rented apartment in Tuscany, Krakow, Paris and SofiaNo-frills basic hotels in Stone Town, Moshi, Aswan and Brasov.  Bed & breakfasts in Sonoma, the Dordogne, and Tavistock.  Middle-of-the-road hotels in Reston, Stellenbosch and Venice.  Top-of-the-line in Santiago de Chile, Mykonos, Boca Raton, and Washington D.C.  And a camping tent in Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The type of place I stay at is not happenstance – though staying at a youth hostel in my very late 30s in Oslo was due to no hotels being available for my business trip…  quite the experience!   I select the type of place I stay at based on many factors, such as:

  • am I going solo or with others
  • nature of the trip (business or personal)
  • am I staying in one place for the most part or roaming
  • what I want to spend,
  • what am I looking to experience in this vacation (I may only need a bed or I may want to enjoy a royal experience in my lodging).

But seldom do I experience many types of lodging in one trip.  And that’s exactly what I did in my recent trip to Jordan.  My trip to Jordan confirmed for me that that special something is what makes accommodations truly enjoyable and memorable (which is just as important as enjoying them at the moment!) regardless of the type of accommodation.

Here are the places I stayed at and why they each became as memorable a part of my trip as the many of the sights and sites I got to see in awesome Jordan.

Standard nice hotel

I got to continue my Marriott stays quite accidentally (as I did not have a hand in choosing this time), in both Amman and Petra.  Marriotts give you that standard feel that provides continuity for the very frequent traveler who moves around towns and hotels.  I can count on standard amenities, service and comfort in these.

The Amman Marriott first surprises because it feels like it is in the middle of a neighborhood.  Then you have to go through security – and odd thing but one that I am sure they do to keep me safe and unconcerned.  I felt both.  The restaurant offers a great breakfast buffet.  The outdoor pool area is spacious enough but there is ALSO an indoor pool and and jacuzzi so something for everyone’s water preferences.  The hallways in the room floors feel very luxurious and the rooms are nicer than the regular Marriott I have experienced and I separate this from the room I actually got which was an upgrade due to my Platinum Elite status with the chain:  I got quite a nice suite!!!

Marriott Amman Jordan lobby photo Canon EOS Rebel

Amman Marriott: A great lobby to hang out and read your paper

The Petra Marriott is a smaller hotel than the one in Amman – but what it lacks in size (no executive lounge, for example) it makes up for in the view.  The hotel faces the mountains around Petra from a high vantage point which makes it a great place to watch sunset as well!  The breakfast buffet was also smaller when compared to the Amman one and the staff not as “going out of their way” but it was still a good breakfast.

Lobby of Petra Marriott in Jordan

Lobby area

Atrium in the Petra Marriott in Jordan Olympus

Atrium

Beautiful sunset looking towards the mountains by Petra

Sunset view towards Petra and the hotel’s pool area

Clearly the view from the Petra Marriott made it most memorable but that feeling of arriving at a “second home”-type of place was also pretty darn cool.

Roughing it in a camp

One night we actually “roughed” it at Camp Rummana in the Dana Biosphere Reserve where one can see nature at its best is this part of Jordan.  I put rough in quote because, though sleeping in a tent and using a common bathroom facility are not high-styling it, these tents beat the tent I slept in while climbing Kilimanjaro for sure.  The tents were spacious and they had mattresses on the ground.  There was a common bathroom facility (a hike away if you woke up in the middle of the night and “had to go”) with showers and also a dining area where we had our meals.  Closer to the sleeping tents, was a set of large tents to hang out after dinner before bedtime – true to the Bedouin way.

Inside of a tent in Camp Rummana in the Dana Biosphere Reserve Olympus

A mattress and the basics

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The sleeping tent area of the Rummana camp

Dining area in Camp Rummana in Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan

The dining area. No, he is not a giant.

Nothing like being so close to nature to make a place memorable and the Rummana Camp definitely connected me with the great setting.

An ecolodge

After the hike through the Dana-Feynan canyon, we arrived exhausted at the Feynan Ecolodge, right in the heart of the Dana Biosphere Reserve.  It has been rated one of the world’s top 50 ecolodges by National Geographic’s Adventure magazine. A partnership between the Royal Conservation Society of Jordan and EcoHotels, this lodge seeks to fit in not only with the terrain but also by respecting the local traditions and culture and providing the opportunity for an economic livelihood for the locals of the area.  There is a LOT that is done right by this ecolodge, so remote from main roads and anything urban yet surrounded by some incredible landscapes and skies as well as by the welcoming Bedouins of the area.

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The ecolodge as one approaches it – unassuming!

Feynan is an ecolodge which means little or no electricity available (you can re-charge your device on one of two power outlets in the lobby) which is tough but, at the same time, we are too connected some times so maybe this is a good break?  It also means it only offers vegetarian fare as meat would require refrigeration.  But the food was delicious and quite diverse much to my surprise!  The rooms are very nice; no frills but nice.  Each has its own bathroom.  Oh and water is free – straight from a mineral spring so it is safe to drink!  Now, if it is a hot time of the year, know that the rooms have no fans or A/C (of course) – but you are here for the adventure, right?  Finally, it also has a rooftop telescope – a great place to explore the skies at night.

Room at Feynan Ecolodge in Jordan's Dana Biosphere Reserve Olympus

Room at the ecolodge

Earthen jar or pitcher in the Feynan Ecolodge - mineral watier

Earthen pitcher of mineral water awaits in the room

The ability to get close to the locals without being taken to a “shop” definitely made the Feynan Ecolodge quite memorable to me as was the interesting sunset I got to watch.

A place with an experience

After exploring the Wadi Rum by pick-up truck well into the evening, we arrived at a Captain’s Desert Private Camp to spend the night.  But it was not just to have dinner and spend the night.  There was to be music and more of a soirée experience.  The tents were different than the Rummana Camp‘s but no worse, no better.  There was a nice area to have dinner and hang out, and, in fact, some folks opted to sleep there under the stars.  What was really cool about this place was that it was nested in canyon walls and it was beautiful in the morning.

Captain desert camp in the Wadi Rum, Jordan

Tents in Captain’s Desert Camp

Captain desert camp in the Wadi Rum, Jordan

Hanging out at the camp

The Bedouin experience and the setting made the Captain’s Desert Camp quite a memorable place to stay.  I wish I had been feeling 100% that night to enjoy it more!

A hideaway

We got to stay at this hideaway two times each for one night.  The Evason Ma’in Six Senses hotel may have some details to work out, mainly in its managerial/front office efforts, but the place is in an idyllic and very secluded setting.  Further, it provides great comfort in its rooms, offers great views, and is around hot springs that offer great relaxation.

Room at the Evason Ma'in Six Senses hotel in Jordan

Room. Really like the wooden shutter doors and spacious comfort

Lobby of the Evason Ma'in Six Senses hotel in Jordan

Lobby area

Lobby of the Evason Ma'in Six Senses hotel in Jordan

Detail of the lobby area

The uniqueness of the setting and the proximity and relative isolation of the hot springs as well as the inviting rooms made this place a memorable part of my trip.

And the “living-it-up” resort

My last night in Jordan was by the Dead Sea, where great resorts are located.  I stayed at the Mövenpick, a 5-star resort with a great view, a great offering in terms of food and fun, and an interesting design whether in architectural details or in the concept itself.

Movepick resort Dead Sea Jordan luxury comfort

Incredible details in the decorations at the main entrance

The room was not as luxurious as I would have expected but it was comfortable and spacious for sure.

 

The hotel grounds had several pools including one only for adults (closest to the Dead Sea).

Pools Movenpick hotel resort Dead Sea Jordan Olympus

One of the all-ages pool overlooking the Dead Sea

The main hotel building had many different areas to lounge in with very nice decorations and details.  The restaurant was outstanding in the diversity and quality of the buffet it offered for dinner and breakfast.

Room at Movenpick resort Dead Sea Jordan Olympus

Room

Lounge Movenpick resort by the Dead Sea in Jordan Olympus

One of the many sitting areas

At night there was an area that offered music and belly dancing without the corniness typically associated with belly dancing in the U.S. (where there HAS to be audience participation); you could just really appreciate the art form here without worrying you were going to be called upon to make a fool of yourself…

Movenpick Dead Sea Jordan resort outdoor Olympus

Outdoor area for drinks and entertainment in the evening

What made this place the most memorable was the amazing sunset I got to live through and watch…

Sunset Dead Sea pool Movenpick resort Jordan amazing awesome infinity Olympus photo

The lowest of the pools, closest to the Dead Sea during a GREAT sunset

Glorious, eh?

Sunset Dead Sea birds tree Jordan Canon EOS Rebel, photo

Is this a sunset scene or what??!!

Nuff said!

 

During this trip, I was a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board.  That notwithstanding, the stories I share were my real experiences and nothing else.  As they always are!

Photo of the Week: The Mayflower Hotel Decked out for Christmas

I wrote in an earlier post about this grand hotel of Washington, D.C.:  The Mayflower, a Renaissance Marriott hotel.  I just stayed there again and got to see it decorated for Christmas.  I’d though I’d share this beautiful photo of its lobby area decorated for the holiday season.

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all!

Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. decorated for Christmas

A Historical Landmark Welcomes Me in Washington, D.C.

Luxurious lobby at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

As I often travel to Washington, D.C. for business, I seek a place to stay where I find both convenience (including very close to work), comfort, and an overall great experience.  The Mayflower Hotel, a Renaissance hotel, is one of my favorites as it combines all these key aspects.

Mayflower Hotel logo in Washington, D.C.

The Mayflower logo!

I normally do not write a post focused only in a hotel but since I have stayed here so many times, and since I enjoy my stays there, I decided it merited a post.  (This is an unsolicited and non-compensated post in any way, shape, or form!)  There are many good reviews of hotels in D.C. out there so if you are looking for more info (the real scoop) on a hotel, all you need to do is a search!

Mayflower Hotel entrance in Washington, D.C. - a Marriott Renaissance property

Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., a Renaissance hotel in the Marriott family

Facade on Connecticut Ave. just north of L. St.

History

This hotel, the longest running hotel in the capital, has quite a story.  Located about four blocks away north of the White House, it was built in the 1920s and opened in 1925.  It is supposed to be the largest luxury hotel in D.C. and that is quite impressive given some other strong challengers in the category that I have not explored.

Many famous events have taken place here or many famous guests/residents have stayed here.  The hotel has signs in many places outlining some of its history – it is pretty neat to read them.  The hotel used to have a part that was dedicated to apartments where, for example, Sen. John F. Kennedy stayed.  Calvin Coolidge’s Inaugural Ball was held here and, since FDR days, the hotel has hosted inauguration day parties.  Truman stayed here as President during some of the repairs of the White House that took place during his time.  J. Edgar Hoover had lunch here regularly during his prime.  Lots of history make this hotel quite unique.

Mayflower Hotel signs sharing its rich history

There are signs everywhere in the hotel highlighting its rich history

Of course, some of the history is notorious… including that it allegedly hosted JFK’s mistress, where Monica Lewinsky stayed at some point when the scandal with Clinton was unfolding, and where then Governor of NY, Eliot Spitzer paid for a high-end prostitute’s services…  These don’t have signs around the hotel – that I have found anyway!

Around the ground floor of the hotel

The hotel, currently in the midst of major renovations in the front of the house (the new check-in counters are finished, now they are working on the ground level bar/café), has a style that does take one back to the glamor and style of the era in which it was born (or thereabouts).  Nothing like the ground level of the hotel or the elevator area to the former apartment section of the building to appreciate the elegance characteristic of this hotel.  A lot of these details were hidden in renovations done a long time ago as an effort to modernize the hotel but, fortunately, the beautiful original details have been uncovered and restored.

Lobby area of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Luxurious lobby at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Area on the ground floor where the main ballrooms are

Elevator lobby at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. in the former apartment tower

The rooms, though renovated, are detailed to connect well with the rest of the building.  A great example are the cabinets around the bathroom sinks.

Hallway at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C., a Renaissance property

The Executive Lounge

One of my most prized features as a frequent business traveler is access to a nice lounge where I can get water, perhaps a simple breakfast, and if I am lucky free drinks and hors d’oeuvres.  The Mayflower’s has most of these but, like other Marriott chain hotels in the U.S., wine and beer are not free (this is different than international properties and, for that, I am thankful!).  But then the hors d’oeuvres sometimes are like a real meal.  So, on a busy day, I don’t have to bother going on or ordering from the room service menu (which gets rather repetitive).

But my favorite part about this lounge versus others is how large it is!  As large as it is, some mornings it can be hard to find a table to sit at but more often than not, that is not a problem.  The spaciousness of the lounge makes it a great place to hang out as it also has a couch and couple of related chairs.

I will never forget that after the quake of 2011, when the office building I worked at closed, it was the lounge I came to to avoid sitting around in my room for more hours than were necessary!

The gym

One of the features that most hotels get so wrong is their gym.  I can count with half the fingers in one hand hotels whose gyms are better than the average hotel.  Granted, this does not mean they are gyms I would choose to normally go but it is certainly nice to see hotels that beat that nasty stereotype of a gym hotel (usually a former room converted by placing mirrors on all the walls and then having exercise equipment from the times before exercising was important!).

The Mayflower’s gym is certainly spacious.  While the aerobic equipment (treadmill, bikes, etc.) could be better, it is adequate and there are plenty – all with TVs.  There are also a number of weight training machines and equipment.  Finally, there is space to place mats and stretch, do abs, etc.  Apples, water, towels, and -for the really daring- a scale!

The food

I have not actually tried the main restaurant itself but have sampled the room service menu which is consistent with the menus in other Renaissance properties in the U.S. (I do wish for a little more variety or at least a re-do of the menu every few months… However, the hotel’s chef is more than ready to take special requests and I am forever thankful!)

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The Mayflower is most definitely a landmark in this city of landmarks.  If you have a chance, stay.  But, if not, walk in, check it out and imagine all the history this magnificent grand dame has seen!!

Logo in the Mayflower Hotel door (Washington, D.C.)

Note:  I paid a public rate for my stay.  I received no special services or attention in return for this post.  I wrote it because I like this hotel.

Having a Good Time in Willemstad, Curacao: Beach, Food and Music

Map showing Mambo Beach, Curacao

Last year, I visited Curacao, formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, with a couple of friends after spending a few days in Trinidad and Tobago.  Curacao is an interesting place – the Netherlands in the Caribbean, for sure, but also an incredible melting pot – many folks speak Spanish due to its proximity to and semi-shared history with nearby South America.  Yet it also shares a lot with the other Dutch islands in the hood as well with Surinam, another former Dutch colony.

Curacao, license plate

Even the license plate shows off the beautiful architecture

There is much to write about this island.  I struggled with how to not write about it all in one long post.  So this post will focus on the food, fun and beach as I experienced in a very short visit.  I did not get to scratch the surface of what Curacao has to offer so I will, upfront, tell you that and then challenge you to discover Curacao yourself and perhaps share back with me what you discovered!

An upcoming post will focus more on the incredible charming architecture of this island.  Enjoy!

My hotel

First, Curacao’s capital, Willemstad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), has two sides along the canal that splits it:  Punda and Otrobanda.  Punda is the better known side with the pretty pictures folks normally see whenever Curacao is mentioned (more on this in the next post!).  Otrobanda is or was the poorer side though it contains some neat/charming architecture too.

I chose the Renaissance in Curacao (part of the Marriott family) as my hotel, located in Otrobanda right by the canal entrance.  While the hotel was not an all-around knock-out (e.g., the confusion at breakfast on what was included in my rate and what was not), there were a couple of things that hit it out of the ballpark.  One was the upgrade they welcomed me with.  A corner suite was definitely a great way to greet a Platinum guest.  Thank you for that!!  I wish I had had others sharing the room with me but that was not the case so the space was not taken advantage of.  But what I did greatly enjoy was the humongous bathroom!  Larger than my master bedroom at home!

A cruise ship passes my hotel room at the Renaissance in Willemstad, Curacao

The view from my room includes passing cruise ships!

But what really blew me away was the infinity pool.  Now you may say “seen one, seen them all” but, my friends, this was no ordinary infinity pool:  it was a beach on an infinity pool!  You walked into it as you would on a beach from the sand and the beach chairs.  It was huge and at the far end, the wall dropped down to the rocks by the sea.  When I first exited the hotel and looked at the pool, it seemed the sea was part of the water in the pool – I did not realize it was a pool at all!!   Bravo, Renaissance!

Infinity beach pool at the Renaissance hotel in Willemstad, Curacao

Heavenly!

Beach

Curacao has lots of beaches to choose from, 38 or so.  Some of the best are on the west end of the island.  Beaches in Curacao are not the typical long stretches of sand and surf that we typically envision.  Instead they are smaller, less obscenely huge places to enjoy the sun and surf!   We picked Mambo Beach just for being convenient to us as we were staying in Willemstad and had not rented a car.  I imagine it is far from the best beach but it was definitely enjoyable.

Map showing Mambo Beach, Curacao

Food and Entertainment

We ate at a couple of places that also doubled as entertainment with live music.  I could have kept returning to these places except I ran out of nights!

On our first night, we decided to watch sunset at a high vantage point on the fortress walls in Otrobanda at the entrance to the canal leading to the bay/port.  It was very near to the hotel and these places offered the right angle at sunset to look -or stare- at beautiful Punda!

View of Punda at sunset from Otrobanda in Willemstad, Curacao

Beautiful Punda at sunset

Wine as we enjoy the view of Punda from Otrobanda in Willemstad, Curacao

Wine sets the right mood…

Along the fortress wall in Otrobando in Willemstad, Curacao

Along the city wall we were lounging at

Later that night, we went to Avila Blues Bar for both dinner and entertainment.  The hotel is well known for hosting the Dutch royal family (allegedly, the heir to the throne comes to play here, wink, wink).  The blues bar is on a pier by itself so you are sitting above the sea.  The band plays on a loft-like second story above the bar.  The food was great and so was the music.  More importantly:  great atmosphere!

Avila Hotel Blues Bar by the sea near Willemstad, Curacao

For lunch one day, we sat at one of the average cafés right by the canal that is the entrance to large bay (St. Anna Bay).  While the food was not spectacular, watching people, ships and the movable-floating bridge (aka, Queen Emma Bridge) was fascinating or, at least, entertaining (notice the mist in the picture below coming out under some umbrellas).

Waterfront cafes and restaurants in Willemstad in Curacao by the entrance to the bay

Curacao floating bridge in Willemstand

The floating bridge passes us by as we ate lunch

The Queen Emma "floating" bridge in Willemstand, Curacao is for pedestrians

When not pulled away to let boats pass, the Queen Emma “floating” bridge is for pedestrians

Another night, we went to a Cuban place near the old fortress walls in Willemstad called Mr. Congas.  Its owner is a friendly but serious Cuban guy – the music is authentic (take it from this son of Cubans!) and the food is decent (but I have had and can cook it better!).  The place has an indoor space built into the former fortress walls and an outdoor area where the live music plays.  It was a great evening to sit outside, listen to music (dance for those so inclined), eat, and have a few drinks!

Live Cuban music at Mr. Congas in Willemstad, Curacao

Cuban food at Mr. Congas in Willemstad, Curacao

Cuban food at Mr. Congas in Willemstad, Curacao

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Curacao has a lot to offer – much beyond beaches.  Beautiful architecture, sun, surf, food and a lively entertainment scene.  It is a definite must-see in the Caribbean!

Couple enjoying the view of Punda across from Otrobando in Willemstad, Curacao

Into the Land of the Dracula Legend (Or Is It?) and Moldova

Brașov, Romania, Black Church, White Tower, Black Tower, Transylvania

So my trek to Romania is fast approaching.  I shared here about the hike in Romania in support of a local orphanage (donations welcome at www.trekkingforkids.org; mark me as the trekker!).  I have been preparing and planning to visit the Alps in Transylvania, made famous (or better known) by the story of Dracula…

The Hike

The hike will take place over 4 days where among other places we will stop at the castle that inspired the story of Dracula (Bran’s Castle).  We will staying in chalets or other accommodations in the area and we will visit other castles in the area.  We will be hiking for 5-6 hours every day and ascending to upwards of 9,000ft above sea level.  I have done 3-4 hr hikes in Kennesaw Mountain, about 20 minutes north of Atlanta, along trails they have up and around the mountain.  I have also been relying on the treadmill doing hour-long walks at 10% incline or more.  I sure hope this and my overall general fitness level help make this hike something less than a painful experience!

Pre-Hike Visit to Moldova

I don’t generally miss an opportunity to see a new place so I thought to myself that if I am going to Romania, I needed to do something in addition to Romania in this trip.  In terms of Romania, I get to see Bucharest, Brasov and the Transylvanian Alps so I was leaning to go somewhere outside of Romania.

The Greek Isles definitely beckoned but the lack of direct flights to the islands (taking into account all the stuff I will be lugging around for the hike) made me -sadly- kill that option.  A strong contender was neighboring Serbia.  But as I looked at the map more, there was one obvious candidate destination that I may otherwise not get to… the ex-Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova.  I hear it still feels somewhat Soviet but I have also heard great things about fortresses, monasteries and wineries so it makes sense for me to explore it.  I decided to make it there before the hike.

Through a recommendation from someone in TripAdvisor, I contacted a local guide who will take me around for the 3 days I will be in Moldova to explore this -to me- mysterious country.  The local guide recommended I see Romania’s cultural capital, Iasi (population ~350K, inhabited since 400BC!), very close to Moldova on the west and that he could pick me up there.  So Iasi got added to the itinerary though I will spend less than a half a day there unfortunately.

Iasi, Romania

Iasi (photo courtesy of: RomanianMonasteries.org)

Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, will be my base those three days.  I have decided to stay at the Best Western Flowers which seemed well located and got good reviews in TripAdvisor (one of my preferred sources).

Map showing my tour of Moldova (based in Chisinau)

Map showing the areas I will explore on the three day visit

I am excited to get to explore one of the smallest and lesser known European countries and enjoy its charms before I do the hike.

Getting to Romania

I wanted to use frequent flyer miles to get to Bucharest but, as everyone has heard, airline miles keep losing value.  I had hoped to make the trip business class as I never get to do that on international flights.  However, what used to be a 90,000 mile business class seat can be now over 200,000 miles!  Inflation of awards outpaces any normal inflation metric…  Clearly a mental note has been made to earn points where possible outside of frequent flyer accounts (Marriott, for example, has a great and valuable rewards program).

Sure enough, I couldn’t get anything under 200,000 miles.  I had more miles than that to use but I refused to spend that many miles.  I tweeted in frustration, promising I would diversify my airline choices in the future.  A direct message came in from the airline asking if there was anything they could do to help.  I replied, rather skeptically, explaining further and adding “if you can get me there on business class for much less, I’d take it”.  Long story short, that person contacted me 2 hrs later (after various exchanges clarifying date flexibility, etc.) with an itinerary that was 150,000 via Amsterdam (trans-Atlantic leg with KLM! but 8-hr layover…) BUT it could not get me out of Bucharest to the gateway city (Paris) – I’d be on my own for that.  I was quite pleased.  I realize 90,000 was a dream especially in peak summer season so I understood  that I got as good a deal as possible.  My itinerary though does require 2 stops going over and 2 coming back BUT on the return I have to overnight in Paris anyway so I will make it a 2 night/1 day visit (I lived in Paris for 6 months many years ago so getting to stop there is like going home for me).

Getting to Moldova

Now, the only item left was getting to Moldova.  Trains are a great way to see more of a country but I was trying to maximize time in Moldova and the train ride was not a short one.  Since Iasi, Romania seemed worthseeing, I was going to fly there from Bucharest and then just return to Bucharest to join the hike group by flying out of Chisinau.  I land in Bucharest from the US at around midnight on the night of the 15th of July and catch my flight to Iasi at 11AM the next day.  Clearly I will not have time to unpack and repack for this 4 day trip so I will have to pack my bags in the US so it is a matter of leaving my hike luggage at the hotel in Bucharest and take one smaller bag for the Moldova trip.  (I am scoring a room at the JW Marriott for practically nothing!  I will stay there again the night I come back from Moldova.)

But heaven help me if the Romanian airline’s (TAROM) website wasn’t a royal pain the rear!  After many attempts, I ended up just going to good ole Expedia to book my flight and end the non-sense.  I hope the experience with TAROM is not a sign of things to come!

Bucharest

Sadly, I will only have one good day to see Bucharest so I will book some sort of tour to be efficient about seeing the key sights.  I hate not getting to spend more time and get a feel for the city but checking Iasi and Moldova out seemed more off the beaten path and that will always trump other options!

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So with less than 2 weeks to go, I am slightly daunted by the logistics of packing up all the right things for a hike in the mountains:  do I have all the things I need (they gave us a gear list but still trying to decide what to buy, what to borrow, and whether to buy cheap alternatives or the real things…), which bags are the ideal bags (my huge backpacker backpack, a duffel bag, etc. considering the multiple plane changes and the darn hiking poles), and how to strategically pack my bags.

However, any anxiety or eagerness to resolve all these pales in comparison with the excitement about the hike, the orphanage we are working with, and the sights and sounds I am about to experience in this corner of Eastern Europe!

Picture of the Week – Awesome People Facing Sunset in Copenhagen

You cannot tell this sunset is happening in Copenhagen.  But it is.  This is from our hotel (the Marriott, an awesome property in the chain!) facing the Tivoli Gardens on a beautiful mid-June sunset.

And these two are some of the most important special people in the world to me:  my nephew and my niece.  No amount of money, of travel experiences, or anything tops having these two.  I love this picture and I think will treasure it more as the years go by…

Sunset over two people

(Picture taken with Canon EOS Rebel T1I)

Musings of a Frequent Traveler Point Chaser

A friend confessed to me a couple of months ago that he had become a mile/point whore with airlines and hotels.  I laughed because I related to what he was saying though perhaps my interest wasn’t to the level of obsession as may have been the case with him.  That is, until I started thinking…

I normally do care about my points and stick to one or two programs to ensure my miles accumulate properly.  I also keep an eye out for special offers, rare as they may be, to get extra points.  But with my friend’s comment I started thinking “what else could I do?  have I maximized what can I do without going overboard?”

Delta Airlines AMEX Credit Card

I had always wondered whether getting an airline credit card was worth it.  Especially since my Costco AMEX gives me cash back which is considerable given my business travel is charged through it.  Cash on hand is better than points with a company that could change award levels, could go bankrupt, etc.  So the questions that had been triggered by my friend the point whore intersected earlier this year with my desire to retain top elite status (Diamond) with my hometown airline (Delta).  I have had that status since 2010 and thought earning it for 2014 would be cool, especially since simple math told me I would easily attain the level below Diamond (Platinum).

So on I went with research that I normally find tedious.  Delta offered several AMEX types so I started by figuring out which would yield the Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) that I may need to top off my actually flown MQMs this year to reach 125,000 MQMs (the Diamond requirement).  I then had to understand if the spend required on the card to earn those MQMs was realistic given my normal spend.  After determining if that worked out (it did for the Platinum card), I had to see if the fee was worth it.  It definitely seemed a reasonable fee given all the MQMs and non-MQMs I would receive plus the earning of the desired elite status.  So, on I went with getting the new card.

I also learned in the process that having this card was yet another factor that could help me move up in regular and upgrade standby/wait lists.  You would think this should not be much of a factor since as a Diamond and Million Miler I should be towards the top of the list.  Most of the time that is true but nothing stings more at the gate before a flight to see you were the first or second person to miss out getting the upgrade!  So for as much as it may help, I figured that was another bonus about the airline card.  At least tête-a-tête with another Diamond Million Miler, the card could give me the edge if they didn’t have one.  (I wish I knew the pecking order of factors leading to the placement on these lists!)  Of course, what may be getting me some times is the fare basis paid for the coach ticket since I do have to follow the rules on fares purchased for my business travel.  But I figured I have done all I could now, save travel more to maximize my MQMs and getting extra miles for free travel!

How about hotels?

I did give a thought to hotel credit cards but, for me, there seems to be little difference that I care about between, say, a Gold and a Platinum level.  Again, I say that I care about because there are differences; it is just that it may be for things that I don’t need (I don’t do a lot of last minute travel, for example) or don’t care enough for.  I also don’t want to have more credit cards than absolutely needed so it was either an airline one or a hotel one.  My drivers for doing all this lined up more with the airline points so there you go!

I do monitor hotel special offers as they offer an easy (if you travel enough) way to score major points but if you are not paying attention, you may miss them since they are not automatic (similar to the rare airline special offers) – you have to “register” to earn them.  I like Marriott’s typical offer of stay X nights in Y months and get ZZ,000 extra points.  In 2010 when I spent most of the year in a Marriott in Chile, I made a killing with those deals – I got the max points every time which was far from chump-change!  Now, I still get points but not the max every time since I may not be traveling every week in questions.  Again, an easy way to get extra points.

What’s in a word?  Points hoarder or chaser?

I originally had thought about ending the title of this entry with “Hoarder” instead of “Chaser” but hoarding implies collecting and never using which is FAR from yours truly so I decided that would paint a different reality.  In 2011, I used over 600K airline miles to travel with family.  Point hoarder I am not!  Points are to be used and, if you have plenty, to share with those you want to travel with.

There are many other techniques and tips about maximizing points earning beyond those I have mentioned.  Of course, plenty of boards and websites out there where good ideas and discussions happen (e.g., http://www.flyertalk.com/).  But still interested in hearing about your “point chasing” goals and strategies!

Exploring Some of Copenhagen, Denmark

My trip to Copenhagen involved 9 people from three different starting points.  My aunt and uncle from Miami drove to Tampa to meet the rest of the group (minus me) there.  Then the group was flying from Tampa to Atlanta to then connect with me at Hartsfield to catch the flight to Copenhagen.  Needless to say, everyone was excited and eager to get the show on the road a few months after the trip was first conceived.

The flight over to CPH was mercifully very smooth.  Not so the reception by the Danish immigration official who, for some strange reason, threw my 68-yr old Mom’s passport back at her so that it went all the way to the edge of the counter and fell to the floor (she had not said anything to him so he could not have taken issue with her on anything she said).  That must have satisfied some power trip or, we hoped not, given us a first glimpse how we would be treated in Denmark.  Fortunately, the latter did not seem to be the answer.  But, Denmark, those first impressions count…  In any case, after some initial confusion for some family members as to currency conversion and the ATM machine, we proceeded to load 9 of us in 3 taxis and head to the hotel – the Copenhagen Marriott where my points took care of the rooms (!!).

The hotel is beautiful and has a good location along the canal which gives it great views over to Christianhavn and, on the opposite side, to the city.  The area where the hotel is does not have restaurants or shops right there, though they are a 10 min walk away which is not too bad.

The red “M” is the location of the Marriott

After settling in and a quick break from all the traveling, we opted to do a Hop-On/Hop-Off (the yellow route)  the first day to orient ourselves and take it relatively easy for my parents, aunt, and uncle (less walking).  It was a great way to get our bearings as well as see some of the city.  As we got off the bus after having completed a loop, the green route bus was about to leave on its last run of the day so we jumped on it to get to see other parts of town like Christiania and Christianhavn.  The ticket for the bus was valid for 2 days which was perfect as we then took it the next day as a way to move between the attractions that were furthest from each other.  I normally would walk everywhere but given the group, it made tons of sense to use the bus to our advantage.

One of our first stops was the Little Mermaid.  I personally do not quite see it as something worth all the attention – there are so many statues in most cities – but because it is so famous, I agreed we had to see it.  I expected to be further from land that it was.  Mercifully, the bus made a 15-min stop there since there is not much else to do right there and saved us standing waiting for the next bus…  Our next stop was to see the Anglican Church , the Resistance Museum (http://www.copenhagenet.dk/CPH-Map/CPH-Resistance.asp), and the Gefion Fountain .  All this was next to the Kastellet or citadel dating from 1662 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kastellet,_Copenhagen) which we did not get to explore to my chagrin. The Resistance Museum was free, as were other museums in the city, and was very well laid out to present the story of Denmark during WW II.  I enjoyed learning about WW II from the perspective of a country other than the big ones (Germany, France, the US, the US, and the USSR) and to learn about the courage of those who tried to resist and fight.

Copenhagen does have a few current and former palaces all in relative close proximity.  Amalienborg is the one where the current monarch resides.  It is one of 4 buildings placed around a plaza that is open to the public.  Another of the 4 buildings is where the crown prince lives.  We got there, by coincidence, when the change of guard was taking place.  It was unique in that there are guards at each of the 4 buildings so the change of guards was longer than I am used to.

Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark

Amalienborg Palace

After walking around Nyhavn, a canal lined with colorful and beautiful buildings (though maybe too crowded), we walked down the Stroget, the pedestrian shopping street in the city center.  As it turned out, Carnival was being celebrated (though it was June!) so the walk became much more interesting than originally expected!

Parade in Copenhagen, Denmark

Our most memorable meal in Copenhagen was a small place called Restaurant & Cafe Nytorv, sort of hidden away in the middle of things, fairly close to the Stroget.  I had a fried pork place that was delicious.  And the decor felt more like a smalltown eatery than a restaurant in a European capital, which was exactly what I was hoping for so big thumbs up.

It is worth noting that exploring the opposite side of the Stroget from Nytorv gets you to where a church and a university are.  The residential streets in that area are worth walking around as they give a different feel for the place.

Other key sights were the City Hall Square, the Tivoli Gardens (which we actually did not visit), the Danish Museum, Rosenborg Palace, and Christianborg Palace.  Lots to see in this city and, unfortunately, not enough time…

What Makes All the Difference on a Business Trip…

I am sitting on the 22nd floor of my hotel room in Santiago wanting to catch up on my writing and talk about my trip to Valparaiso, Chile, catch up on earthquake impacts to a trip to the lake district, and other discoveries about Santiago.  But I’m too distracted.  Too distracted with work.  With getting to the U.S. for most weekends and hurrying through keeping in touch with those I love back home.  With planning a vacation with a cousin to Bulgaria and Denmark with a 1-day trip to say hi to a friend in Sweden.

But what is compelling me to sit in front of the PC for yet another 1/2 hour is wanting to talk about those people who are strangers to you for the most part but who make your time away from home -at a hotel in another city other than your home- get as close to “real” as you get when on business trips.

I normally haven’t had my own access to the “special” lounge at my regular Santiago hotel (Marriott) but get access normally by going with colleagues who do have access.  Of course, after this week, I get access on my own right because of reaching the 50 stays in one calendar year.  Anyway, through past visits, we have met some of the staff at this special lounge.  Some are strict about the rules that say at 830 PM the wine and other liquor is retired from access.  And then there are those employees who seem to get that we all don’t just come to another country on business because we work 9 to 5 and have the luxury to get back to the hotel between 630-830PM to enjoy the special treats…

Those employees who realize that the key to great customer service is about making us, the weary travelers, have a sense that we can get that one (or two…) free glasses of wine at a lounge so we can sorta feel maybe we could be at home.  Don’t get me wrong, I still have sat in the lobby and paid for drinks when able to go to the special lounge at the “right” hours – the scene at the lobby can be quite interesting.  So I am not just after a free drink or two or three or…  But going to the lounge does also give you contact with other human beings who recognize you and through the small talk make you feel you are not just a stranger, a number, a credit card at this hotel.

So, to these folks I say, salud.  You are doing an awesome job and I hope your employer, Marriott, realizes that you are doing more to retain my loyalty than even the ability to use my points gets them.  Emilio, Fernando, Katherine, Baruk:  may your employer realize the value you are to them and I wish you the best.  Thanks for helping us feel not totally away from a place like home. You guys are piola.

Santiago Visit Continues – Lucky Me

Mountain biking in Curico, Chile

So, I came back to Santiago after 18 yrs.  That was 3 weeks ago.  I went to the US and then I turned right around to come down to Chile!  Crazy?  Heck, no.  I don’t mind coming to this town and country!  I am traveling here for business but seldom is business travel the vehicle to get back to a place I want to keep coming back to…

On the first trip, I traveled 3 hours south of Santiago to an area right outside of the town of Curicó.  Why Curicó?  Well, my friend’s son was competing in the national championship of Chilean motocross, of course!  I have never been to a motocross race before and it was definitely a fun event to be at.  But the best part was the drive down there with the Andes to my left and the lesser range of mountains to my right.  The views were great.  However, though I stayed in the shade most of the time, I got quite sunburnt unintentionally.  One has to remember that the sun here hits harder!

Mountain biking in Curico, Chile

That first week, most of my free time was spent with fellow co-workers on the same trip as me.  But I did get to sample two great local restaurants, one in Bellavista and the other, well, in a part of town whose name I can’t remember.  The former was a seafood place in a very artsy-bohemian part of town named Bellavista.  Pablo Neruda’s (former!) home is located there.  Also, that is the place where you go to go up Cerro Santa Lucía for great city views (on the less-smoggy days…).  Bellavista is practically littered with cheap bars and eateries where lots of young people hang out as well as better dineries and an area called Patio Bellavista with good shopping and more places to eat and have a drink.  Azul Profundo, the name of the restaurant on Constitución 111, was simply outstanding.  The seafood, as pretty much anywhere here, is quite fresh.  http://www.flip360.cl/ver_local.php?id=1035&ver=panorama&idPanorama=1035&categoria=51

Azul Profundo restaurant in Barrio Bellavista, Santiago, Chile

I then was taken another night to a Peruvian restaurant called La Mar (actually, a ¨cevichería”) on Nueva Costanera (http://www.biggi.cl/4DCGI/Noticia466).  It seems Peruvian restaurants are the bomb these days not sure if because more Peruvians live here or just because.  This was a classy place with very cleverly designed indoor and outdoor seating areas.  You can go there for sure and sit outside and people-watch (both in the restaurant and also those who walk down the streets).  It is located in a very nice residential neighborhood and I highly recommend their food!

I am staying at the local Marriott (OK, this is not a backpacking it kind of trip! it is a beautiful building!  As I was looking for a pic of the 40-story hotel, I found a Spanish wikipedia entry that says the building can stand an 8.0 earthquake – I will sleep well tonight!) where 3 weeks before I came, a small bomb was found and detonated outside.  It is a little weird because I don’t associate Chile with crime like that.  So, I remain undisturbed about it.  The hotel has a good sitting area downstairs where in the evening between 7 and 9 PM they have happy hour with free hors d’oeuvres.  I have once or twice opted to go for pisco sours (yes, more than 1!!) and these hors d’oeuvres for dinner.  Don’t get me wrong, there is FINE dining in this city for sure.  But after nights of going out, it is nice to just camp.  The added bonus is that it seems that locals like to come to this happy hour so you get to be with locals though you are at the hotel.  I have noticed that every night there are several groups of local women who apparently choose to meet here to have a night out at one of the nice hotels in town.  I do not exaggerate, these women look like upper class folks who meet here for kicks (it isn’t a cheap place so my observation is likely not off the mark).

HotelMarriott.jpg

Next to the hotel there is a very nice mall called Parque Arauco.  It has the usual types of stores but also a great outdoor area with many restaurants.  El Otro Sitio, a Peruvian (!) restaurant, was quite good and reasonable in terms of price.  In these Peruvian restaurants, ceviche is typically the draw, as only Peruvians can make it – phenomenal stuff!

Alright, I intend to think about what these two quick back-to-back trips have meant to me and I have to say that the main conclusion is how awesome it is that today I feel as strongly as I did 18 yrs ago that I love this city and this country.

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