Pacific NW 2017: Introduction & where we stayed

For the past two years we’ve had a Southwest Companion Pass that lets us buy one ticket, get one free. With only a few months to go before the pass expires we made it a priority to get back out to the Pacific Northwest, home to many friends and many of our favorite wineries. As luck would have it, prices for the weekend before Halloween were quite good, so we made plans to largely revisit our Oct 2015 trip.

Originally we considered exploring the Columbia River Valley in Eastern Washington for part of our time, but after checking drive times realized we could just as easily return to the Willamette Valley in Oregon where we are already club members of two wineries. So we did just that, driving the 3.5 hours from Seattle to Dundee, OR on Thursday, then returning on Saturday, leaving Sunday and Monday for wine tasting in Woodinville, WA. We experienced fantastic weather and fall color, caught up with a half dozen friends, tried some great wine, and may have come home with more bottles than our wine fridge can actually store. As usual, Washington and Oregon left us planning future return trips…

our wine haul!

La Bastide B&B – the Provence Room

Our room was large and spacious with the sink open to the main room, and the shower and toilet in a separate room. Two luggage racks and plenty of windows for natural light.

La Bastide B&B

our room @ La Bastide B&B

A refrigerator in the main dining room is available for guests, which we took advantage of for a bottle of wine. Leandra also tried out the coffee machine in the evening.

Given the nice weather we grabbed some of the backyard chairs and enjoyed the sunset one night.

enjoying a drink on the back lawn

Breakfast was rather fancy, and quite delicious, with a set menu each morning:

  • Friday:  Fresh fruit with coconut cream followed by egg custard with chanterelle mushrooms, salad and toast. Local roasted coffee and orange juice.
  • Saturday: Broiled grapefruit with toasted coconut to start, followed by french toast stuffed with brie and marionberry puree topper with rosemary toasted pecans.

We would definitely consider returning given their convenient location, friendly staff, comfortable rooms, and great breakfasts.

Hyatt House Redmond

We stayed here in 2015, so we knew the location was convenient for wine tasting in Woodinville. As with our last trip, our room was quite spacious with a large bed and wall of windows looking out over the trees.

our room @ Hyatt House Seattle/Redmond

our room @ Hyatt House Seattle/Redmond

Breakfast is quite good here, with an omelet station, several hot buffet items, breads, cereal, etc. This stay was as good as our previous stay, so we would definitely return in the future.

Paris 2017: introduction

In February 2017 I had an important decision to make – should I share a good deal ($385) on flights from Raleigh to Paris with Leandra? If I did, it would mean returning, and while it was nice enough, Paris hadn’t been high on my list of interests for a return visit. However, we hadn’t seen the museums or several other sights on our first trip, so with that in mind, we scheduled a 4-day trip for October.

Since we had quite a few parts of Paris we wanted to see, we decided to get 5-day tourist pass which provided unlimited rides in any of the 5 paris zones, including the airport. Given the number of metro rides we took it certainly worked to our advantage. However, we will likely look into the Navigo Découverte pass for a future trip, as it was significantly cheaper. Something to remember for next time.

Although I was less excited about this particular trip than Leandra, in the end, we both enjoyed absorbing the art, the wine and food, and we’d return for a less touristy trip if the price was good in the future.

Where We Stayed

Grand Hotel Malher

We spent our first two nights in this cozy little hotel in Le Marais, well located two blocks from the Saint-Paul metro stop and surrounded by shops and cafes. Check-in was speedy, and we just barely fit our two bags into the elevator with us for the ride to the fourth floor. Our room faced the street, and a good amount of street noise came through the windows, so earplugs are recommended. Leandra was also annoyed by the lack of a coffee maker / electric kettle. Otherwise the room was comfortable, and the bathroom was spacious and clean.

our room @ Grand Hôtel Malher

Hilton Paris Opera

For nights three and four we switched to the Hilton since we had a free weekend pass to use up. Check-in was easy, and elevators large enough for us and bags. Our room was a little bigger than at Malher, and did have a coffee maker. The bed was rather firm, too much for us, and the pillows were very soft.

our room @ Hilton Opera

Breakfast on the second floor was quite nice, with a good assortment of baked goods, meats, and cheeses. Notably they had a very nice fresh orange juice, not that common in our Europe experiences.

The Hilton is next to Gare Saint-Lazare, so there are several metro and train options available, as well as a large shopping mall, but we didn’t find any interesting restaurants in the immediate area.

Scotland 2017: waterfalls and whisky!

Back in late November, whilst enjoying the end of a warm day in New Zealand, we discovered some great deals to the UK. After some discussion we booked two trips, one to London in February, and a second that had us flying into Inverness, Scotland in late April.

With tickets in hand we knew we’d want to spend one or two days at the Craigellachie Hotel so we emailed a reservation request (yes, they don’t have an online system…). A day after an initial confirmation we received a notice that the hotel prices were higher for our weekend of interest due to a whisky festival, the Spirit of Speyside. This was the same festival we had just missed on our April 2015 trip, so in a stroke of serendipity, we had now had a chance to try it.

Of course, we also wanted to see some new parts of Scotland, so we planned two daytrips from Inverness, followed by two days of whisky events from Craigellachie. Altogether, this latest trip to Scotland lead to some beautiful views and amazing experiences.

 
where we were in Scotland; a detailed driving map (click image for larger version)

Plus a few new items for our collection…

our haul from Scotland!

Where we stayed

Eskdale Guest House – Inverness

A small B&B on the corner of A82 and a few blocks from the river and the downtown restaurants. Our room was comfortable and a good size, though a little loud given its location on the corner of the main road (earplugs helped there). The owner was very friendly and provided a tasty and quite filling breakfast – especially the banana bread, which was amazingly good.

eggs and salmon @ Eskdale Guest House 

Also, off-street parking was a great perk. We would return on our next trip to the area.

The Craigellachie Hotel

As mentioned above, this hotel is a little quirky with regard to reservations, as we had to email. That may be in part due to their location in a tiny village along the river Spey. The hotel lobby had a lovely little fire going while we checked in, and we were given a heavy salmon key fob with directions to a room above the lobby. The rationale for that became clear when we headed up the stairs to find no numbers on the doors!

Our room was smallish and sparsely decorated but had enough space with a closet and desk on one side, and the firm but comfortable bed on the other. Of note, both places we stayed provided Walkers shortbread biscuits, a nice treat. The bathroom was nicely appointed but the shower was a little too small, and it was hard not to bump into the sides.

'snug room' @ Craigellachie Hotel  our bathroom @ Craigellachie Hotel

Breakfast was served in a bright room off the lobby, and included pastries and other cold items on a small buffet along with menu items made to order. Very tasty and filling!

Of course, we had chose The Craigellachie Hotel for its location in the heart of Speyside and for the Quaich bar, and it’s hard to beat either! We certainly hope to return in the future.

scotland-112

Hilton Garden Inn London Heathrow Airport – London

A good spot for our overnight given its location one tube stop from the airport along the main Piccadilly line. We’ve stayed here several times previously, and they’ve renovated since our previous visit. This time we were assigned a king room on the 7th floor. As usual, the windows are great at keeping sound out, and the room is great for an overnight. Since our Heathrow lounge access has changed, this time we tried the breakfast buffet, and it was quite good with a range of hot and cold items. Overall a nice stay.

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.