Italy 2017: overview

Last summer (2016) we noticed several good sales to Europe, so we contacted my parents to see if they wanted to go on another trip with us. Italy was their favorite option so we booked a week-long trip starting in Bologna and ending in Rome. They’ve traveled with us before so they knew what they were getting into! We ended up spending one night in Bologna, three in Florence and three in Rome.

Tidbits:

  • Bologna has lots of covered walkways with beautiful stone floors.
  • If you are on the train in Economy Plus, you must get your snack and drink on their first pass, otherwise it costs money.
  • In March the crowds weren’t too bad, so we probably didn’t need to pre-purchase our Vatican and Uffizi tickets.
  • Watching people park in Rome is oddly fascinating, as it takes quite a bit of skill and daring to get into some of the available ‘spots.’
  • Unexpectedly, we enjoyed Rome more than Florence.

Where we stayed

Hotel Metropolitan, Bologna

This hotel was in a really good location for us — a 5 minute walk to the main piazza and less than 10 minutes to the train station. Check-in was quick and both rooms were ready before 10am. The front desk was quite friendly, providing suggestions to sights around and town and making a dinner reservation at Donatello’s for us.

Our room was on the smaller side with a white leather couch and a reasonably comfortable bed. We faced the alley, and while traffic on the nearby road was light, we could easily hear each vehicle go by. The interior of the hotel was also noisy with quite a few banging doors early in the morning. All of that was even more surprising since the interiors felt new, so we thought the door and window would have been better sealed. We definitely suggest earplugs.

Hotel Metropolitan  our room @ Hotel Metropolitan 

The bathroom shower was fairly large but suffered from weak pressure, and given the setup, water tends to leak on the floor. Our room featured a tub that looked nice but we didn’t get a chance to try it.

Breakfast was OK – fruit, yogurt, toast. Unfortunately the milk was spoiled so cereal was a no-go. Good number of pastries, and coffees made to order were good.

Overall, the hotel has a great location and was fine for a night – we’d consider other options for a longer stay.

Residenza Castiglioni, Florence

Residenza Castiglioni is a small B&B occupying part of the third floor in a mixed-use building. It was only a few minutes walk from the train station, and about five minutes to the main plaza for Santa Maria. Getting in is a bit involved with a locked gate and an (slow) elevator or stairs. Once we made it to reception we were assigned four keys to get into the building and room!

Our rooms were just off the reception room and rather stuffy. Thankfully, the big windows open wide for air movement. The room itself was a good size with a wardrobe in one corner, a small chair in the other, and a teeny TV over the desk by the window. Bathroom was fine, a little small but serviceable.

room #25 @ Residenza Castiglioni  bathroom @ Residenza Castiglioni

We had two main problems here. One, the windows were not sealed, so it was very noisy at night – we could easily hear the dishwashing from the restaurant down the street for example. Plus, internal noise started at 7am with breakfast setup. Earplugs are definitely needed here.

Secondly, the wifi was terrible. The main option was to login with your social media. Right away that feels sketchy, but even worse, it just wouldn’t work for our phones. After 20 minutes of struggling we went back to the front desk and got a passcode from the reluctant front desk person. Once we were on the network we still needed to login every time we returned to the room and the service was slow.

Breakfast was OK – a few cheese and meat options, cereal, and some pastries. Coffee and hot chocolate was quite good, and served with a smile(y face).

 
our assortment of keys; latte with a smiley face

Overall there were too many issues, and we would definitely not return to this B&B.

Om2Rome

Om2Rome is in the Prati neighborhood of Rome, near the Vatican, and about 10min walk to the metro. Once again, this B&B is in a mixed-use building, with business offices on other floors.  Both reception people were quite friendly and had several good pieces of advice for exploring town (where to catch bus for coliseum, restaurants, taxi, etc.)

We were assigned room 16, quite good-sized with minimal contemporary furniture: bed (firm but comfortable), desk, small nightstands.  One of the nicest parts was the large terrace looking onto an interior courtyard. Thankfully this room was very quiet!

 

Breakfast was very small – toast and croissants, with a few other items. Weakest offerings of the trip, but it’s so easy to find tasty food in Italy that it wasn’t a big deal. The space was tight when there were a few people eating at the same time but the room was whimsically decorated.

We would suggest wine glasses and corkscrew in rooms, or at least accessible. Also note that this was the only place we stayed in Italy without a fridge but it got chilly at night so we kept the bottle of wine out on the patio.

Overall, we enjoyed our stay at Om2Rome and would definitely consider them for a future stay.

Malaysia: trip overview and where we stayed

In early 2016 we started planning an Asian business class trip to take advantage of the points required before the forthcoming American Airlines miles devaluation. During planning we settled on Malaysia fairly early, but went back and forth over where to go in (Borneo? Penang? Langkawi?) and timing (should we go during Chinese New Years?)  We had been in other parts of Asia (Hong Kong and Singapore) near Chinese New Years, but never during the celebrations. In the end we decided to experience Chinese New Years, and choose Penang for the majority of our time.

Some interesting tidbits we picked up on this trip:

  • Every hotel room had an arrow pointing the way to Mecca.
  • Lime juice was almost always an option = happy Eric.
  • The New Year Lion Dances to clear out bad spirits were VERY loud and fun. We witnessed four of these.
  • Uber in Malaysia was very easy and very cheap. We wound up using it all over Georgetown, instead of the metro in KL, and to transfer hotels.

Where We Stayed

Sama-Sama Hotel KL International Airport

Landed in KL and took the cute buggy ride to the hotel.

waiting for our hotel shuttle

Checked in quickly and then up to our spacious room. After so many hours on planes we needed to stretch our legs so we explored around the hotel for 20 minutes before getting some much needed rest in an actual bed.

On checkout the hotel erroneously charged us for valet service; I wrote to the hotel and the charge was reversed about two weeks later. Overall, this was a convenient stay given our late evening arrival and morning flight.

Lone Pine Hotel, Batu Ferringhi

The hotel bills itself as the ‘only luxury boutique hotel’ in the area, which is strange since there are definitely more luxurious places to stay nearby. I guess the boutique part is correct. We had a deluxe room which was spacious and overlooked the grounds with a water view mostly obscured by trees. The bed was comfortable, the bathroom amenities were nice, and I liked the available fridge, but overall our room felt pretty worn. My main complaint, however, was the noise. We could hear leaf blowers, jet skis, and children yelling throughout the afternoon as there was no glass, only shutters, for windows. Thankfully we brought earplugs with us and didn’t need to awake with an alarm so we managed to sleep fine.

   
hotel entrance; the pool area; view from our room

Eastern And Oriental Hotel, Georgetown

The Lone Pine and E&O are sister properties, and there is a transfer shuttle between the two. Unfortunately, the shuttle to the E&O was only at 10:30am and 2:30pm, so with a noon checkout, it didn’t work for us.  Instead, we sat around the pool for a bit, then took an easy Uber ride at 1pm.

From the moment we arrived at the E&O you could feel something special. We were checked in promptly, then made our way to the 11th floor. Our studio suite room was amazing(!) with large closets, a comfortable bed, and a nice covered patio. On the bathroom side we had double sinks, a large tub, and a separate shower.

our room @ the Eastern & Oriental

our bathroom @ the Eastern & Oriental

the view from our balcony
view from our 11th floor balcony, looking south

Breakfasts were quite an elaborate affair, with a large collection of hot and cold buffet items, fresh juice made to order, and several custom cooking stations (street food, omelets, and others). Most everything was tasty and it was a great way to start the day.

Each evening at 5pm the E&O hosts a complimentary cocktail hour in the 6th floor lounge near the pool, which was quite a nice perk. The pool itself was also very nice, with lounges in the sun and shade. Combined with the nice breeze due to the 6th floor location, it was a very relaxing spot to read a few books during our stay.

crows hanging out by the pool  hotel happy hour = free wine and snacks!

6th floor fountain  the view from the seawall @ the Eastern & Oriental

We loved our experience at the E&O and would definitely return on a future trip.

DoubleTree Kuala Lumpur

Known as one of the better point redemptions in the Hilton brand, we stayed at the Doubletree for our first two nights in KL. Located inside the Intermark Mall, it was a little tricky to find from the (relatively) nearby metro station.

Our room on the 21st floor was a good size with a couch and comfortable bed. The bathroom was well appointed and featured a large window wall with a switch-controlled shade. Overall, reasonably comfortable.

Breakfast was a large buffet that did tend to get crowded. There were a lot of options, including the obligatory juice bar, but the quality seemed a step down from what we had just experienced at the E&O. Not bad, just not as good.

On our first night we tried the ‘Cellar Door’ wine bar, which had some decent happy hour specials on cocktails. Our drinks were served with a ginormous bowl of peanuts that we greatly enjoyed!

Aloft Kuala Lumpur Sentral

With an early-ish flight we wanted to be close to the KL Sentral train station for easy access to the airport in the morning. Located across the street from the station, the Aloft was an a good pick for our last evening in KL.

Our room was standard aloft style room, good size, with a large bathroom. The hotel’s pool is located on the roof and had some wonderful views of the city at night.

One knock was checkout in the morning – there was only one person manning the counter, and quite a few travelers trying to get the airport, so the queue was building.

San Sebastian: where we stayed

For the San Sebastian part of our trip we wanted to be near the old town (for all the wonderful pintxo bars), but not necessarily in the old town (due to noise). We eventually found El Concha Centro, a one-bedroom apartment with a great location – a five minute walk to the beach, five minute walk into Old Town, and surrounded by shopping!

The owner met us promptly out front and showed us how to work all of the appliances. She even sat down with us and recommended several museums, sites, and best spots for good eats.

our apartment for three days - cozy and great location

The living area had plenty of room for the two of us, with a comfy couch and dining table. The adjacent kitchen was great, with a huge fridge, coffee machine and washer/dryer combo (big bonus on long trips!)

spain-63   spain-64

The bedroom was comfortable and the huge bathroom had everything we needed.

The only downside was the lack of air conditioning, which normally isn’t a problem except that during the two days we were in town there was a heat wave and temps rose into the mid-80sF. Thankfully there was a box fan, so we moved it from bedroom to living room as needed, but this was just a bit of bad luck as we found the place charming and perfect for our stay.

Bilbao: where we stayed

Eric had reviewed a bunch of hotels and narrowed the list to a handful to choose from, and I decided on the Caravan Cinema due to location in Old Town and the quirky room decor.

Checking in was a bit of a pain as the lobby is on the second floor and you need to be buzzed into the building. So, we had to telephone the cleaning lady to buzz us in, leave our bags and come back later — all communicated in very poor Spanish (me) and English (her).

Once we returned (had to call yet again), the owner was there to offer lots of advice on things to do, show us the room and set us up with the app that would allow us to buzz in to the hotel. Interestingly, we never saw this woman again during our three day stay!

The Fellini room was large and comfortable and located just off the landing on the third floor. The window was interior-facing, so even though we were on a busy street, we never heard any street noise, a big plus for us.

our room - bed  our room - bath

The amenities were fine and the bathroom had everything we needed. The faucets were a bit finicky but the shower had good water pressure.

No breakfast was included but there were plenty of bakeries and restaurants nearby. The location was very good, next to Plaza Nueva, which houses several bars and restaurants but we discovered that we would have preferred a location closer to Moyua as that was where our favorite pintxo places were, as well as most of the shopping.

Our biggest issue was the lack of a front desk presence. We checked at the reception several times during our stay, but no one was there in the late afternoon to ask questions. Our only option to speak with someone seemed to be calling the hotel phone number. This lead to problems at checkout since we wanted to change the credit card we had used to book the room and leave our bags while we walked around before catching our 3pm bus. After texting didn’t work, we called and apparently no one was scheduled to work until the mid-afternoon, on a day when they had several rooms checking out in the morning! And, of course, our ability to buzz back into the building expired right at noon. Thankfully the housekeeper was able to help us somewhat, but it should have been handled better.

Overall I think this was a fine place to stay if nothing goes wrong, but getting help from the front desk just wasn’t possible as no one was staffing it.

Eric’s 40th: Iceland overview

After a two hour flight from London we landed in Keflavik airport. Volcanic rock, virtually no trees, and a very windy, cloudy 45 degrees met us on arrival – it felt like a totally different world.

Much of our time in Iceland was spent driving, and over the course of six days we put approximately 1,100 miles on our non-four wheel drive rental and we still only saw a relatively small portion of the island.

iceland_map
click map to enlarge

Iceland is rather expensive but there were a few money-saving tips we heard about before we arrived:

  • Buy alcohol at the airport duty free for a 30-50% discount. This is indeed accurate, as alcohol is only available through state-run stores with a significant tax attached. There is a duty free store conveniently located in the baggage claim.
  • Skip restaurants and go to grocery stores – especially for breakfast and lunch items.
  • Laundromats aren’t readily available, so for longer trips bring clothes that are washable in a sink or look for an apartment that has a washing machine.

Also, Iceland has a wonderful weather app, Vedur, that is highly recommended on an island that sees a lot of bad weather as it will provide alerts for storms and heavy winds.

Where We Stayed

Mengi Apartments

With a location close to the famous Hallgrimskirkja church and within walking distance to all of downtown this was a great place for us to stay our first and last evenings of the trip. On our first night we were in the top 2nd floor unit. Featuring lots of windows in a large living room, and a bedroom away from the street, we really liked this apartment. The kitchen was great with helpful items for serving our takeout and breakfast. Bonus points for the record player and Icelandic vinyl!

our loft apartment in Reykjavik

iceland-hotel-1

On our last night we stayed in the ground floor apartment, which has its entry on the street. This apartment is partially underground, so the living room windows have a foot-level view of the sidewalk. Given the proximity to the sidewalk this apartment is not nearly as private, and a bit louder. The bedroom is on the side and faces an alley off the street, so it is also a little louder than upstairs. Though a little smaller, there is still plenty of room.

The con to both apartments- in both bathrooms, the towels were really, really rough, and the shower soap was empty. Also, the water smelled a bit like sulfur. Relatively minor, and if we were staying more than a night I’m sure it could have been addressed. We’d definitely consider staying here again, and would look to reserve the 1st or 2nd floor units for the additional privacy they would provide.

Bella Apartments

We stayed in one of the double rooms which was OK – we had enough room for our luggage, and the bathroom was adequate.

However, our stay here was definitely strange.  First, the building is still under construction, including the lobby. So there is construction dust and it is not fully functional. For example, this is the landing on the second floor:

iceland-hotel-3
free instant coffee is thoughtful but who is going to iron here?

There was no front desk to check in but Leandra spotted our receipt and keys so she grabbed those and we headed upstairs to our room. Later that evening the owner(?) asked for her receipt back as it was her only copy. Considering others did the same thing we did, we wondered why she would leave out her only payment copy in the open lobby?

Second, the website still states “Free Wi-Fi access is available throughout the entire property as well as a washer and a dryer.” Wifi was available everywhere (although weak in our room), but a washer and dryer are only available in the apartments. We argued with the on-site person about this poorly worded statement on their website (who was using one of the rooms as the office since the lobby is still under construction) and they eventually let us use the washer in one of the apartments. A month later they still haven’t changed the wording on their website.

Third, for a brand new hotel there were a few small issues with paint, dirt, etc, that surprised us. The location was fine and although Selfoss isn’t a very large town the sidewalks aren’t great for walking so we just drove most places.  Overall, I can’t recommend staying here over the next few months given the continuing construction and experience we had.

Icelandair Hotel Vik

After our time in Selfoss, the comfort level definitely improved with the Icelandair Hotel Vik. Our room was comfortable and surprisingly spacious, and the bathroom was the nicest we had in Iceland with an amazing walk-in shower (and no rotten egg smell!).

iceland-hotel-4  iceland-hotel-6
our hotel from across the street; the lobby/bar area

Our rate included breakfast, and we enjoyed our experience each morning with a range of pastries, granola, meats, cheeses, and a waffle maker.

iceland-food-1

The one negative was a fairly territorial oystercatcher that insisted on pecking at his reflection in the window. Silly at 10pm, extremely irritating at 3am. Can’t really fault the hotel for it, but definitely try to get a room off the ground floor…

iceland-hotel-5
the guilty party with a friend at breakfast

Eric’s 40th: where we stayed in London

DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel London – Tower of London – located a block from the Tower Hill metro stop, this hotel is well positioned for exploring Tower Bridge, Bermondsey, Shoreditch, and other parts of East London. Upon check-in we were given the famous Doubletree cookies and a voucher for a free drink in the lobby bar or the rooftop bar.

Our upgraded room was at the end of the hallway on the 8th floor, with a nice partial city view. Everything was quite comfortable – a comfortable bed, clean bathroom, handy outlets for charging, and plenty of space.

That evening we tried the rooftop bar and found it to have a swanky clientele plus an amazing view.

DoubleTree Tower of London rooftop views

Breakfast the next morning was quite busy at 9:30am, but after a short wait we were seated and enjoyed the range of buffet offerings, including a cafe latte for Leandra.

We would definitely consider staying at this hotel on a future visit.

DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel London – West End – located between the Holborn and Russell Square tube stops, this hotel is well situated for exploring central London, especially Covent Garden and the British Museum.

We were assigned a room on the 1st floor that was a bit tired with some furniture wear. The bathroom was fine, though there was little room for toiletries around the sink.

One problem was the temperature of our room – when we arrived the room was quite chilly, colder than than the outside air even, and remained so several hours after changing the thermostat. We asked the front desk to have someone look at it, but when we returned at midnight it was even colder. Of course the front desk staff had changed by then, so they didn’t know if someone had been sent, and all they could offer was a space heater. It helped some, but it was a poor interaction overall.

Leandra did manage to secure a bucket of ice from the front desk to chill a bottle of cava she had purchased on the sly for my birthday. Interestingly, that bucket with melted water sat in our bathroom for nearly two days until we checked out.

Breakfast was quite good with very friendly staff and a good array of choices.

Unfortunately, our experience was better at the Tower of London Doubletree than at this location, so we’d be hesitant to return here on future visits.

Middle East 2016: Introduction

We’ve long wanted to visit the UAE and Oman, and we’ve really wanted to try out the Etihad First Class apartments. When seats became available this winter we booked a relatively quick trip for the weekend after Easter that would take us to Muscat, Oman on Qatar Airways, then return us on Etihad with an all-day layover in Abu Dhabi.

oman-map

Oman was a beautiful country to visit with a great contrast of blue-green sea abutting rock headlands along the coast, and large dusty mountains and canyons in the interior.

Unusually for us, the flights themselves were a draw on this trip.

Grand Hyatt Muscat

The Muscat hotel market is fairly high-end and expensive, so after looking around we reserved the Grand Hyatt with a combination of a free night plus cash and points.

About two weeks before our trip we emailed the hotel to book Friday brunch, a popular activity in Muscat. However, the first responder told us that brunch was closed for a private event, and that there would be an option for an Italian Brunch. We had to email a second time to discover that the price was higher (24 OMD). We found it quite surprising that the hotel was so indifferent and wouldn’t have a better option for hotel guests, but I think it sums up their general attitude.

We arrived to the front entrance where they had free valet parking, a nice perk. The doormen took our bags and pointed us to the front desk. Thankfully our room was ready, and we did receive a nice upgrade to a suite. The front desk clerk originally pointed the direction, but after we got lost he escorted us – thankfully – because the hotel is quite large and rather maze-like after a long flight. Once we got there we found a very large, if a bit dated, room.

the ginormous bedroom
bedroom side of the suite

The bedroom itself was huge, with two large closets and a comfortable bed. Complimentary water bottles were located in several spots around the room, and we were quite grateful for them over the next few days. The bathroom was similarly massive, with a tub and separate shower, though the sink area could have had more room for our toiletries.

our entry lounge  spacious bathroom
living room; master bathroom

The living room had a desk with convenient plug access for charging our electronics, plus a nice seating area as well.

Just off the bedroom was a nice patio with a view toward the ocean.

our view toward the sea
view from our balcony

Overall our room was quiet and comfortable, more than enough for us.

The pool area was fairly nice, with lots of seating both in the shade and sun. Getting to the ocean was quite easy, but the beach itself is very small and public, so it was better for walking rather than lounging. The Grand Hyatt does have a private lounge chair area on a grassy spot but it just wasn’t that interesting to us.

Being a resort, food and drink are way overpriced, so after looking at a menu we skipped dining at the hotel altogether in favor of other restaurants.

Overall we liked our stay at the Hyatt, as it had a decent location and the rooms were comfortable. We’d consider staying there again the future.