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!)

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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.

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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

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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:

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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!).

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

Vietnam 2016: Hanoi hotels

For the second half of our Vietnam trip we were in Hanoi twice, first for a single night, then for two nights. We carefully chose places based on quietness and breakfast options; unfortunately for us, we didn’t get to stay at either of our bookings.

For our single night we wanted to try the Art Trendy Hotel. Given our late evening arrival and the taxi scams that run in Hanoi we arranged for the hotel to pick us up. We knew something was strange when there were two drivers holding a printed sign with Leandra’s name… then the guy holding the Art Trendy sign with the matching code directed us to leave with the driver holding the other (fake?) hotel sign! Without much more explanation we drove off and arrived at the Art Trendy ~30 minutes later. We were warmly welcomed with a fancy banana drink and fruit.

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After a few minutes we were told that due to a recent extermination treatment our room had a strong chemical smell, and we were offered a room at their sister property, the Hanoi Marvellous Hotel (also the name of the hotel on the second sign at the airport). The doorman called us a taxi and escorted us down the street where the night staff at Marvellous were waiting for us.

Our room was certainly a bit more luxurious and trendy than the one in Hue, with a small bench seat, robes in the closet, and a fairly comfortable bed. The room had multiple outlets available for charging, and was fairly quiet as it was an interior room.

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In the morning we noticed a small window in the corner that had an unremarkable interior wall view. The bathroom was nice with a rain shower head and a window that looked out at plants in an internal air shaft. Toiletries were probably the best of the trip, with a nice lemony scent.

Breakfast was served on their bright and cheery top floor. A rather small buffet was available, as well as items off a menu. It was totally fine though not as memorable as Hoi An or the Vedana Resort. As we sat down the staff asked and remembered our names which was a nice touch. After a quick breakfast we checked out and began our four-hour trip to Halong Bay, so we didn’t get a chance to see much of the hotel or surroundings in daylight. Overall, our few hours there were quite nice.

As we were returning from Halong Bay, Leandra’s phone re-connected to the cell network and she received a series of messages concerning our next hotel, Hanoi Charm Hotel. Essentially, our guaranteed room had been cancelled, and Booking.com was trying to work with the hotel to find us a new place to stay for the next two days. We emailed back asking for details and options, but response time was slow, and we eventually decided that we should just show up at the original hotel and figure it out from there.

Upon arrival at Hanoi Charm, we received the customary juice and fruit. The manager then came by to explain that they had recently been notified by the local authorities that their several year old building was too tall, and that they were in the process of removing their top floor! So, for the second time in Hanoi, we were escorted to another hotel, this time literally walked, as the Silk Queen was just around the corner.

The Silk Queen’s location along a main road was less desirable as it lead to more noise and exhaust. Our 6th floor Queen Suite had a terrace, which was nice in theory, but outside was noisy and the ground was covered in a layer of soot for our three day stay. The windows were also on the thin side, so we each slept with earplugs to drown out the road noise from below.

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The room was fairly spacious, with a decent sized wardrobe, desk, and a reasonably comfortable bed. As we were unpacking we noticed that the bathroom door wouldn’t latch shut, so on our way out we asked the front desk to have it fixed and when we returned later that night it was working again.

Breakfast was lackluster at best. Served in a dimly-lit space on the ground floor, you needed to provide a signed ticket with your room number, and we had to get new tickets from the front desk for each day. The food quality was OK but there were few options. The customary omelets were fine, and at least there was fresh passion fruit on the first morning. Unlike every other hotel in Vietnam, the staff here didn’t seem to do much besides take your ticket and occasionally deliver an omelet. Even the coffee was self serve; Leandra watched two bored employees stand around and chat while she helped herself. Overall our stay was fine, but we wouldn’t have chosen the Silk Queen, and I don’t see us returning.

On the upside, to help compensate us for our hotel issue, the Hanoi Charm Hotel provided a complimentary car for our trip to the airport. Just as we were buckling in, the manager hustled up and thanked us again for our understanding, giving us a small gift bag with Vietnamese coffee and coffee maker. Given their level of attention I would definitely try to stay at their (shortened) hotel in the future!

Vietnam 2016: overwater villa at the Vedana Lagoon Resort

Between Hoi An and Hue we spent two nights at the Vedana Lagoon Resort. Quiet and peaceful, it was a nice change from the hustle and bustle of the towns. Upon arrival our bags were whisked away and we were invited to sit on the couches in the open air lobby for check-in. After our long drive from Hoi An (about 3.5 hours) the hot ginger tea and fresh towel were quite pleasant. I was even able to add spicy crystallized ginger from a huge jar on the table. At this point we were given a thorough overview of resort options, and they also recommended against our planned tour to Bach Ma National Park due to lousy weather on the mountain.

Our assigned villa was #7. Talk about a nice view!

our overwater villa

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our lagoon view (from bed)

There was a massive deck with a roof overhang for shade/rain protection. The bed was huge, probably two queens put together and very comfortable. Opposite the bathroom there was also a large daybed with window. Plenty of space and options for lounging about with a book – which is how we spent most of our time in the room!

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The marble bath tub shared our bedroom private lagoon views and there was also an outdoor shower and toilet (which we would have preferred be indoors). Each night we had a turn down service after dark — two ladies came sweeping in to set up mosquito coils at the front entrance and bathroom doors, light a citronella candle in the bedroom, draw the shades, and quickly tidy the room.

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In general, the food at the resort was very good. It was more expensive than the meals we had in Hoi An but not so outrageous considering there weren’t any other close options! For lunch on the first day I had the crispy pancake with the usual assortment of greens and dipping sauces while Eric sampled the Bun Thit Nurong (pork and rice noodles).

lunch @ Vedana Resort  pho for breakfast
pork and rice noodles w/ peanut sauce; beef pho for breakfast

my smiley dinner companion

For dinner the first night I had the Bo Nurong la lot (beef rolled in local leaf) and Eric had Ga Nurong Sa Ot (grilled chicken with chili and lemongrass). We also couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a nice bottle of bubbles. On the second night we split a bottle of Chilean white (a popular wine region for Vietnam) and I enjoyed the green papaya salad with beef while Eric tried the Heo Rim Vurong (stir fry pork). There is no photo of the amazing passion fruit mousse we had for dessert because we ate it too quickly.

The included breakfast buffet was very extensive, plus they had a range of made-to-order items available as well. I think more people were at the resort the second day as the buffet also had expanded options. The apple tartlets and creme puffs were especially good and of course, we both ate a ton of passion fruit.

Each villa was assigned two bikes to help speed up transportation around the resort, so I had a bit of fun on our bike ride off property.

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cow hanging out by the side of the road  fishing boats and rice paddies

We explored for about 45 minutes, then headed back to the room to read before I had my 3pm Swedish massage appointment at the spa. I arrived 30 minutes early to choose my oil preference (lavender) and camp out in the sauna for a bit before my treatment. My therapist, Ms. Mi, did a wonderful job and the whole experience was very relaxing and pleasant. Plus, I didn’t feel like like a slicked pig at the end of the massage. I tried to talk Eric into one but I think he’s still dubious after the Bali experience.

While the weather was grey and drizzly and the views quite monochromatic we still enjoyed the peaceful setting at Vedana for a few days.