January 27 2015

Birmingham, England: My Day in Pictures

You don’t visit England for the weather, especially in January.

Yesterday it was 45°F in Birmingham. A California girl, I would normally consider that freezing cold. But on this occasion, being fresh off the boat plane from New Brunswick, anything above 20 felt lovely (if not downright warm).

Rain and snow are anticipated later this week, so I took this window of opportunity to have a stroll through town.

Enjoy some pictures from the 10-minute walk between Brindleyplace (next to Birmingham’s canals) and Cathedral Square (near the business district).

P.S. I hope everyone in the path of the nor’easter is safe and warm.

Brindleyplace
Brindleyplace
A waterbus on the canal
A waterbus on the canal

Bridge

Library & Rep
Birmingham Repertory Theatre (left), The Library of Birmingham (right)
Hall of Memory Exterior
Hall of Memory, a war memorial
Hall of Memory Interior
Hall of Memory (interior)
Victoria Sq
Victoria Square
Street
Street
Food Truck
Food truck
Urban Outfitters
Urban Outfitters
Trocadero
Pub
Shopping
Shopping!
Birmingham Cathedral Interior
Birmingham Cathedral

 

January 20 2015

Visiting Buenos Aires: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Posts from this trip:

It took me forever to start writing this wrap-up post about my trip to Buenos Aires because I didn’t know where to start (or end).

After a two-month stay, there’s a lot to say. But I’m certain nobody wants to read that much material. So I will try to stick to the highlights, knowing much will necessarily be omitted.

Recoleta
Recoleta, the neighborhood I stayed in

 

The good

THE STEAK

I am not a foodie at all. I’ll pretty much eat anything non-poisonous (and have probably consumed a few potentially-poisonous things too). So I rarely even remember the food of a place, let alone write about it after leaving.

Since I’m not a big beef eater, I made the mistake of not even trying the steak until several weeks into my trip. Once I did, I was hooked and ate steak almost every day the rest of the trip. Probably exceeded my remaining lifetime beef quota, but oh well.

South America in general seems to have good steak – to this day I still think the absolute best steak I’ve ever eaten is from a decade ago at a parilla in a small town in Chile almost 500 miles south of Santiago. But something about Argentina’s beef justifies its reputation of having the thickest, juiciest steaks anywhere.

An honorable mention in the food category is the pastries. There were confiterias (pastry shops) seemingly on every street and it was impossible to resist popping in for a pastry when walking by. They’re so inexpensive too – about 5 pesos (50 cents, more or less). I probably gave myself diabetes eating so much sugar every day.

THE PEOPLE

There are good people everywhere and there are bad people everywhere. While I did meet a few snobs, on the whole porteños (Buenos Aires residents) were some of the most polite people ever encountered in my travels.

This is how they wait at a bus stop:

Bus stop

Neatly lined up in order of arrival. No barging into another’s personal space. No frantic every-man-for-himself dash to grab a seat first.

Even street protesters are polite. One day, while walking home minding my own business, I encountered a small demonstration.

Now, I am very risk-averse when it comes to safety. If I’m walking around in a foreign country (or any country, at that) and there is a street protest, I get the bloody hell out of the way ASAP.

But this one didn’t look threatening so…I stood around and watched.

And saw well-mannered protestors who looked like they might as well have been marching in a holiday parade…

Protest

…and calm-looking riot-geared police who, as far as I could tell, never had to lift a finger to control the crowd:

Riot police

Even vendors, who I normally assume (rightly or wrongly) are constantly out to rip off tourists, were lovely to deal with. I never had to haggle – their prices were more than fair to begin with – and never felt taken advantage of. In fact a few times I think I (unintentionally) ripped them off and they were too polite to say anything.

THE HISTORY

Among my favorite sites were Recoleta Cemetery and La Casa Rosada. I wrote separate posts on each so I won’t bore you writing about them again here, but another favorite was El Ateneo, a gorgeous bookstore.

Ateneo 1
El Ateneo Bookstore

Physical books are a dying medium, but I was still tempted to sit down and just read something there.

The store is housed in a former 1,000-seat theater. Much of the ornate theater architecture remains intact – the balcony boxes are still there, and the stage is now the bookstore café.

I took probably a hundred pictures in the bookstore alone.

Ateneo 2

THE TANGO

It is far more enthralling in person than anything you will ever see on TV. Trust me on this, and if you visit Buenos Aires make it a point to watch the tango performed live. Options range from expensive dinner shows to milongas to street performances at the San Telmo Fair.

Tango
Tango dancers at San Telmo’s street fair

THE AFFORDABILITY

Finance-minded readers know the US dollar is currently very strong. For those with dollar-denominated assets, that’s a great travel benefit with regard to lots of destinations.

For those traveling to Argentina, an additional “quirk” makes things even more favorable.

Argentina’s economy is not stellar. Indeed, a few months ago the government committed a much-publicized debt default.

Additionally, the government heavily restricts citizens’ ability to exchange currency (to discourage capital from leaving the country).

The government also sets “official” exchange rates for the Argentine peso (to artificially prop up its value).

Nevertheless, high inflation caused the peso to devalue rapidly. As a result, Argentines covet US dollars and euro (perceiving both to be more stable for storing wealth) and are willing to pay well above the official exchange rate for them.

This appetite for dollars and euro gave rise to a black-market exchange rate. Argentines call it the “blue rate.”

At this writing, the official exchange rate is about 8.6 pesos to one USD. The blue rate is about 13.5 to 1. (At times the gap has been even wider.)

In an already-affordable country, things get even more affordable when you can basically buy the local currency at a significant discount. But that requires knowing how to get the blue rate (more on that next).

 

The bad

THE MONEY ISSUE

To take advantage of the blue rate, you must carry a lot of USD or euro into Argentina. Bringing cash is key because credit, debit, and ATM transactions only process at the official rate.

Traveling with a lot of cash is not only inconvenient but potentially unsafe.

Then there’s the matter of converting that money to Argentine pesos once you arrive.

Many people use underground exchange businesses that give the blue rate. Although very widely used, they’re technically illegal. Hence, there is (1) some inherent sketchiness, (2) the moderate risk of getting counterfeit bills, (3) the exceedingly-small risk the business gets raided (in, say, a government crackdown) while you’re there, and (4) the opaque process of finding a reliable exchange business in the first place because, since they are illegal, they don’t advertise (hint: troll the TripAdvisor forums).

Alternatively, other travelers use a service like Xoom to obtain pesos at a favorable rate. With Xoom you can electronically send US dollars (from your bank account or credit card) to a recipient (who can be yourself). The recipient receives the funds in Argentine pesos.

Although Xoom’s exchange rate (11.8 pesos to a dollar at the time I write this) is inferior to the blue rate, it is significantly superior to the official rate.

I opted to use Xoom because (1) it’s not illegal, and (2) I didn’t want to carry two full months’ worth of cash on me while traveling; I preferred the option to electronically transfer smaller amounts to myself over time as needed. But Xoom turned out to have its own complications, and in the end I did not feel entirely safe with this method either.

To retrieve your pesos, you have to visit a Xoom pickup location in Argentina. Unlike the clandestine exchange businesses, Xoom’s locations are public information – their addresses easily found on the company’s website. So when you visit one, people assume you’ll walk out with a lot of cash (even if you’re actually carrying only a little cash – or no cash at all, for that matter).

Which makes you a sitting duck for any pickpockets and muggers who might stake out the place.

To be fair, I never got mugged or pickpocketed leaving a Xoom location. But I always felt uneasy about it. (Tip: location-wise, the office on Libertad is one of the least sketchy in Buenos Aires proper.)

Ultimately, it’s probably unfair to characterize the currency issue as a negative per se. It is just the downside to obtaining a very favorable exchange rate. One can simply choose to forgo the better rate and use credit cards and ATM withdrawals instead.

Like most things in life, it comes down to a subjective risk-reward analysis.

 

The ugly

And finally, the ugly. That would be me.

My trip home entailed a 28-hour travel day with three flight segments – all in coach, with the longest segment lasting 10 hours. In between, both layovers were not only long but also in airports where I did not have lounge access.

Since I cannot sleep in coach, I felt quite wretched by the end.

Don’t cry for me. I know I’m not entitled to sympathy for being able to travel the world, let alone do it for almost free. (I used miles for the flights and only paid $87 out of pocket for taxes).

But, to be sure, it was ugly.

So after this trip I resolved to step up my miles-earning game because I hope to never, ever have to do another travel day like that in coach again.

Life is too short, I am too old, and miles are too easy to earn!

December 2 2014

La Casa Rosada: Argentina’s Executive Mansion

Posts from this trip:

The first time I walked by The White House, I didn’t even realize it. If you’ve been there, you know the mansion is pretty close to the sidewalk.

I mean, it was right there – and I didn’t notice.

I’m proud to be an American, but I must say our executive mansion is…modest. Had the friend I was walking with – a Washington, DC local – not casually pointed it out (“oh by the way, that was The White House”) I would’ve missed it entirely.

Granted, I had not intended to see the house that day and, since I was with a local, did not pay attention to where I was walking. And it was a different “era;” security around the house was more subtle then.

To be clear, I am not complaining about our White House. I think it’s stately, if small. More importantly, it’s funded by me and my fellow taxpayers. I am thrifty and I like my tax dollars spent in the same manner.

Unlike our White House, Argentina’s executive mansion is not easily missed.

First, it’s (very) pink. In name – La Casa Rosada, which translates to The Pink House – and in appearance.

1 CasaRosada fr PdM
La Casa Rosada, seen from Plaza de Mayo

Second, it’s enormous. While I could not find exact measurements, I am sure it easily dwarfs the White House’s 55,000 square feet.

The building is the focal point of Plaza de Mayo, itself a large square in central Buenos Aires.

Although La Casa Rosada is the seat of Argentina’s executive branch of government, the President does not live there. (She resides at another mansion in a suburb of Buenos Aires).

3 WhiteRoom

Nonetheless, I was surprised by how much public access is available. While you must be on a tour to see most of the interior, the tour itself is publicly available and requires no prior arrangements. You just show up and get in line.

Most surprising is that these tours take visitors into the President’s actual office.

They put away the “sensitive” stuff before the public traipses through – for example, telephones were covered (no seeing who President Kirchner has on speed dial!) – but it is still quite interesting just to be allowed in.

Understandably, the guards watch you like a hawk during that part of the tour. You cannot meander; they line you up in single file and hustle you through in quick procession. Lingering is (politely) admonished and photos are strictly prohibited.

Another highlight of the tour is walking onto the balcony. This balcony is the setting of many important moments in Argentine history; the very spot from which its Presidents have announced wars.

But it is probably most famous as the spot from where Argentines were addressed by their beloved Evita (or sung to by Madonna, if you prefer).

2 BalconyToPdm
On the balcony looking out to Plaza de Mayo

 

Tips and logistics

Public tours of the interior are only available on weekends and holidays. Tours are free, well organized, and last about an hour (not including time spent queuing for a ticket and then waiting for your ticket to be called).

4 TourWaitRoom
Visitors awaiting tours

If you would like an English-speaking guide you should specifically request one (and might have to wait longer for one). I had heard and read that most tours are bilingual so it didn’t occur to me to ask. They just placed me with the next available guide – who spoke no English.

The fact that I spoke only Spanish to the person assigning tours probably didn’t help make my preference for English obvious either. Doh!

In the end it was do-able as I understand Spanish, but it’s not my first (or second) language so the experience was not optimal. The guide was very nice and offered to speak slowly, but my processing skills were sometimes even slower. Plus there were like 30 other people in the tour group so I didn’t want to be the moron holding things up asking the guide to repeat himself all the time.

Even still, I enjoyed the tour and would recommend a visit to La Casa Rosada if you find yourself in Buenos Aires on a weekend.

5 InteriorCtyd
Interior courtyard of La Casa Rosada

 

October 27 2014

Reno: Brief Thoughts and Hotel Review of Harrah’s

I seldom talk about my domestic travel, but last month I spent a few days in Reno and found it so unremarkable that, ironically, I thought it was worth a few words. Just in case anyone is on the fence about visiting.

And while I’m at it I figured I’d review the hotel I stayed at too.

Please note this post is only about downtown Reno. My thoughts do not apply to surrounding areas (such as Lake Tahoe) or even areas within Reno but outside the downtown core (such as the Peppermill Resort’s location).

Thoughts about the city

My only prior first-hand experience of Reno was transiting its airport on the way to and from ski trips to Lake Tahoe, never spending any meaningful time in Reno itself. From that narrow perspective I assumed Reno would have a Tahoe “feel” and draw a similar crowd. In reality, not so much.

(To be fair, this stay was in September, skiing’s off season.)

Reno calls itself “the biggest little city in the world.”

Reno Arch
Reno Arch

I’d say “little” is the more fitting adjective of the two.

Downtown Reno is literally three blocks long (from 2nd Street to 5th Street) by one street wide (North Sierra Street) – in practice if not in legal terms.

If you keep within that bubble, the area has some appeal. A few of the casinos are pretty nice (though there are no mega-properties as in Las Vegas). And if you’re the type who gambles for entertainment – rather than with designs on actually winning – you can place relatively smaller bets, meaning it takes longer to lose the same amount of money and therefore you can be entertained for a greater length of time.

Inside the Eldorado Resort Casino
Inside the Eldorado Resort Casino

Wander outside the bubble – even by just a block or two – and the ambience changes entirely, ranging from deserted to dodgy.

Deserted yet less than a block from North Sierra Street
Deserted yet less than a block from North Sierra Street

Although I did not feel particularly unsafe downtown, I would not have liked walking around alone at night (while don’t hesitate to do so, for example, almost anywhere in Manhattan or on the Las Vegas strip).

Unless you’re into gambling (in which case I think Las Vegas holds more allure – and is cheaper to fly into with LAS being a larger airport), I simply don’t see the appeal of visiting Reno other than passing through for a day or two enroute to or from Lake Tahoe. If even then.

Harrah’s Reno Hotel and Casino

I stayed at Harrah’s. Compared to (the small universe of) other hotel-casino properties in Reno, I’d say the hotel is probably mid-range.

Most sources rate it 3.5 stars, and I think that’s accurate to slightly generous.

The complimentary airport shuttle was great – it arrived early, departed at the exact posted time, and had complimentary bottled water on hand.

Check in was efficient and cordial but not super friendly.

The location

The location is good, with the property’s main entrance next to the Reno Arch (pictured above). Again, downtown Reno is only three blocks long by one block wide, and Harrah’s sits at the southern end of that stretch.

The room

The room was spacious with plenty of space for two queen beds, a sitting area and coffee table, mini-fridge, dresser, and desk.

Main

Main 2

Things were somewhat clean, but not at all spotless. For example, the linens had numerous small tears and a few stains. Not enough to call housekeeping for replacements, but enough that I feel it should be mentioned in a review.

Two other glaring cleanliness issues were that the shower curtain smelled moldy/sweaty and the tub was dicey-looking enough that I wore flip flops while showering.

Bathroom

Speaking of housekeeping, there were envelopes [plural] in the room for tips. I know tip envelopes are controversial; Marriott recently introduced them – to much criticism. But I usually don’t mind finding a [singular] tip envelope in the room. I tip housekeeping anyway and a dedicated envelope eliminates ambiguity. (Otherwise, housekeepers sometimes don’t take the tip I leave, probably unsure whether it’s a tip or money I just happen to have in the room.)

But two envelopes was tacky; the equivalent of holding your hand out.

Tip envelope #1: on desk
Tip envelope #1: on desk
Tip envelope #2: strategically propping open the safe deposit box (you know, where people place their money)
Tip envelope #2: strategically propping open the safe deposit box (you know, so you can’t miss it when putting away your money)

On the other hand, the HVAC system was great. It was cold the day I arrived so I cranked up the heat and the room got toasty quickly.

If you need to get work done from the room, power outlets are scarce. There were two under the desk (though one had a lamp plugged into it), two on a wall (though one had the mini-fridge plugged into it, as seen below), and two in the bathroom. Remaining outlets were either behind heavy furniture I didn’t want to move or otherwise not reasonably reachable.

Mini-fridge
Mini-fridge

Internet came with a fee, even for a Total Rewards member (although I’m just a base-level member; elites might get complimentary Internet). In-room Internet was $10.95/day, but there is a Starbucks inside the hotel if you just need minimal Internet.

The amenities

After forgetting to take pictures of the amenities on three hotel reviews in a row, I was determined not to screw up this time.

I made a deliberate effort to get pictures of the gym and pool.

And, in my always-impeccable timing, I got there after both were closed.

So this is all I have of the gym and pool 🙁

Gym & Pool Hrs

But I did manage to snap pictures of the lobby/casino and hallway. (Yay me!!!)

Lobby & Casino

Hallway

Trip cost

Since I booked it for next-to-nothing, my stay at Harrah’s was a very good deal. Using a Travelocity offer, I paid $88 for three nights ($82 for room and tax, $6 in city fees). Unlike most of its competitors, the hotel did not assess a resort fee.

Deducting the $20 food and beverage credit I received, my net cost was $23/night.

For flights, I used British Airways (whose distance-based award chart is great for short flights) miles to book award flights on American Airlines for 4,500 miles each way. Cash outlay was a combined $8 for taxes/fees on the flights.

Link to hotel website.

 

August 1 2014

The Amalfi Coast

One of my favorite places in California is the oceanfront city of Monterey. Set on a rugged peninsula with a rocky coast, the town is memorialized in several John Steinbeck novels including Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. If you ever find yourself near the Northern California coast, please don’t miss the scenic 17-Mile Drive.

With that cognitive anchor, I expected a Monterey-esque setting when visiting the Amalfi Coast in Italy.

With all due respect to Monterey, the southern Italian coast is far more splendid.

The towns are charming, the coastline is captivating, and the cliffs are dramatic. Adding to the drama are lush canyons, steep ravines, and a photogenic cathedral.

Amalfi Cathedral
Amalfi Cathedral

Even the towns’ names are alluring (at least to this non-Italian speaker who has no idea what they mean): Sorrento, Salerno, Positano, Ravello, Tramonti, Minori, Scala, Cetara…

Looking at the private homes, many of which I presume have been passed down in families through generations, I daydreamed about being a resident rather than a visitor. And I’m a city girl – it takes a lot to get me dreaming about life in a sleepy coastal town!

Beyond that, I don’t know what more to write about Amalfi because its beauty is fully appreciated only in person. So before leaving you to enjoy the scenery, I have just a few logistical tips and thoughts.

Amalfi Coast - ravine

Despite my summer visit, it was overcast and even rainy at times. In person things do not look gloomy as some of these pictures might suggest. Also, many photos were by necessity taken from a moving car (don’t worry, I wasn’t driving) as it is inconvenient – and often infeasible – to stop and get out along the narrow cliffside road.

Amalfi Coast - rainy
Rain

The ~50 km drive from Sorrento to Salerno is a great way to see the coast (the most scenic section is the middle 2/3 of that stretch). However, I would not recommend driving yourself. The road is narrow, twisting, and occasionally steep. Some spots are downright scary. You really have to pay attention to your driving – which means you miss the scenery. So just hire a driver and consider it a cheap life insurance policy.

Amalfi Coast - road
Not the best picture, but the only one I have of the road

You can also take a group tour or public bus. If you do, be sure to secure a seat on the “correct” side of the vehicle (the side closest to the water). Which side that is depends on the direction of travel, but it is well worth the effort to find out in advance. Allow the less savvy travelers do didn’t do their homework to get stuck on the wrong side and miss out greatly. 🙂

Amalfi coast - lunch spot
View from our lunch spot
Amalfi Coast - coastline
Coastline
Amalfi Coast - canyon
Canyon
Amalfi Coast - pulley
Instead of lugging beach gear down the steep cliffside, locals use this pulley to lower it

 

 

July 17 2014

The Nile is More Than Just a River

The Nile is the world’s longest river, flowing for approximately 4,200 miles and serving as a water source to eleven countries.

By both measurements, it easily beats the Amazon (~3,900 miles, 7 countries), the Yangtze (~3,800 miles, one country – albeit a massive one), and the Mississippi (~3,800 miles, 2 countries).

To ancient Egypt it was more than just a river; it was a primary source of sustenance. Although bordered by several large bodies of water – the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Suez, and the Gulf of Aqaba – Egypt is mostly arid desert. (Hint: avoid visiting at the peak of summer.)

The Nile creates a fertile green valley amid that great expanse of desert. Without it, one wonders if ancient Egypt could have risen to its heights. Egypt’s position was based on agricultural wealth, which in turn was attributed to the river.

In my infinite wisdom, I did visit at the peak of summer. But the 115-degree weather was survivable, and the highlight of my 12-day trip was sailing the Nile for four nights aboard the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV.

Sun Boat IV Outdoor Dining Room
Outdoor dining room on the Sun Boat IV

The boat itself was very nice – of the 200 or so that regularly cruise the Nile, Sanctuary’s four boats are among the most luxurious. But the sights along the way were spectacular. Indeed, while seeing the Pyramids was the motivation behind the trip, these sights further south left a greater impression.

That structures built in 2,000 BC (meaning they are 4,000 years old!) are still standing at all is impressive. That some are nearly unblemished is astounding. You can still see not only intricately carved designs, but even the colors of some painted surfaces.

Sailing from Luxor to Aswan, here are some of the sights along the way.

Luxor

The Temple of Karnak – an enormous complex of halls, temples, and other structures built over a span of almost 2,000 years – is located on the east bank of the Nile near Luxor.

A series of ram-headed sphinxes lines the approach to the temple complex:

Ram-headed sphinxes at the Temple of Karnak
Ram-headed sphinxes at the Temple of Karnak

Perhaps Karnak’s best-known feature, the Great Hypostyle Hall:

The Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak
The Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak

Also on the east bank is the Temple of Luxor:

The Temple of Luxor at dusk
The Temple of Luxor at dusk

Several statues of Ramses II (AKA Ramses the Great) at the Temple of Luxor are well-preserved, offering a detailed look at the pharaoh’s features:

Ramses the Great at the Temple of Luxor
Ramses the Great

On the west bank lies the Necropolis of Thebes, where many of Egypt’s pharaohs (including Tutankhamun, AKA King Tut) were buried in the Valley of the Kings. There’s not much to see above ground:

The Necropolis of Thebes
Valley of the Kings

The action is in the tombs below, though unfortunately the semi-dark environment doesn’t photograph easily.

Inside the tombs of the Necropolis of Thebes
Wall carvings inside a tomb

Near the Valley of the Kings is the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first female pharaoh:

The Temple of Hatshepsut
The Temple of Hatshepsut

These are the Colossi of Memnon, two enormous statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III designed to guard the entrance of his funerary temple (though little remains of the temple itself):

The Colossi of Memnon
The Colossi of Memnon

Dendera

The very well-preserved Temple of Hathor, goddess of love and joy, is near the small town of Dendera:

Inside the Temple of Hathor in  Dendera
Inside the Temple of Hathor

The ceiling was being cleaned at the time. In this picture, one side has been cleaned and the other hasn’t:

Ceiling of the Temple of Hathor in Dendera
Half-cleaned ceiling in the Temple of Hathor

Kom Ombo

The Greco-Roman temple at Kom Ombo is a double temple – it is one building containing two temples, each with its own entrance and chapel. One is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god; the other to Horus, the falcon god (and one of several sun gods).

The Greco-Roman temple at Kom Ombo
The double temple at Kom Ombo

Aswan

Near the city of Aswan (famous for its dams), the Island of Agilkia houses the Temple of Philae.

Because its original location, the Island of Philae, is now submerged, the temple was moved to Agilkia and reconstructed stone by stone.

The temple itself is fine (it’s actually very nice, but honestly I was templed-out at this point); however, the setting on an island in the Nile was by far my favorite temple setting of the whole trip.

The Nile River seen from Agilkia Island
The Nile River seen from Agilkia Island
Coffee break inside the Temple of Philae
Coffee break at the Temple of Philae?

Logistics note

My entire 12-day trip was booked with tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, which has an excellent reputation in Egypt. (The reputation is deserved, in my opinion.) At the time, in 2012, tourism in Egypt was extremely low as a result of the Arab Spring and the company offered rates that probably only allowed it to break even – at best. (I have no inside information, I’m only speculating.)

While I have not seen rates so appealing since, I would say the rates on the company’s website as of this writing are still reasonable for what you get – a well-executed tour with a luxury operator.

As for safety, I can only offer my personal perspective which is that I never felt unsafe during my visit despite the political circumstances. (A&K provided armed guards who traveled with us, which I appreciated but considered an abundance of caution rather than a necessity.)

Perhaps the news coverage we receive in the United States is hyped, perhaps I just lucked out that nothing happened the days I was there, perhaps the tour operator did a good job of insulating its clients from the “real world,” and perhaps it’s other things that don’t occur to me. But I can definitely say I had a great visit and never once felt threatened.

Better yet, when you go while no one else is going you get the sights almost to yourself. I have heard that on an average day several hundred tour buses visit the Pyramids of Giza. I counted five the day I visited. Granted, I wasn’t there the entire day, but one can reasonably infer that the volume of tourism was greatly diminished.

And I was very pleased to have gotten a 5-star, professionally organized tour at a vastly reduced cost – probably less than half of what I could have arranged on my own for comparable accommodations (even with my deal-scrounging habits).

With that, let me leave you with some pictures of life along the Nile as seen while sailing.

Life along the Nile (1)

Life along the Nile (2)

Life along the Nile (3)

Life along the Nile (4)

July 1 2014

Hotel Review: Holiday Inn Express Amsterdam-Schiphol

Trip report index:

 

I had an early flight the next morning that required waking up at the butt crack of dawn. Since I didn’t fancy complicating the ordeal with a city-to-airport commute (and waking up even earlier to allow buffer time for mishaps) I stayed at an airport hotel my final night of this trip.

To me, airport hotels are mostly utilitarian – all I need is for them to be clean, safe, comfortable, and easily accessible to/from the airport.

By that standard, the Holiday Inn Express Amsterdam-Schiphol easily beat expectations and I would definitely consider this property again in the future.

The location

Google Maps says the hotel is 8.2 km from the airport, and that’s more or less how far it felt.

The surroundings looked semi-industrial, but I was told there are a few restaurants in walking distance. I didn’t venture out as I’d already had dinner in the city and just wanted to pass out early at that point.

HIE AMS view

The hotel operates a complimentary shuttle, which I used twice. The first time was on arrival – I took the train from the city to Schiphol Airport, then took the hotel shuttle from the airport to the property. It did take a while, but I cannot complain as the hotel says the shuttle comes every 30 minutes and that’s basically how long I waited. My timing was impeccable as always.

(If you’d rather go directly between the hotel and the city, without using the airport shuttle, there is a train stop about ten minutes from the hotel on foot. I didn’t check it out so I can’t comment on whether the walk is safe or pleasant, however.)

I took the shuttle again the next morning to the airport. The shuttle starts running at 5:45 AM (I’m not sure what time it stops at night) and I had a 7:30 flight so I felt I was cutting it close for an international flight, but it worked out fine.

I went downstairs at 5:35 to allow time to check out, and the driver was already waiting in the lobby. We left at 5:45 on the dot.

The room

It was clean and comfortable, which again is basically all I expect from a budget airport hotel.

HIE AMS beds

The interior had a modern but minimalist look.

HIE AMS desk

The shower was roomy.

HIE AMS Shower

The bathroom had no individual toiletries; just a liquid soap dispenser by the sink and a shampoo/bath gel dispenser in the shower.

HIE AMS sink

There was no closet per se; only an exposed bar with a few hangers. I liked that setup as it was easy to get to my stuff without needing to open and close a closet door.

HIE AMS closet

The service & amenities

The hotel restaurant only serves breakfast (included in the room rate). If you get hungry outside of breakfast hours, there is a small selection of drinks and snacks (including a few hot snacks) available for purchase in the lobby and from a vending machine. Also, as mentioned above, I was told there are a few restaurants in walking distance.

Since breakfast service doesn’t start until 6:30 and I had to leave earlier, during check-in I asked if there would at least be a few bagels I could grab in the morning. They said they would pack a breakfast bag for me instead.

When I showed up to check out in the morning, the agent automatically handed me the bag. I’ve had to-go breakfasts from all kinds of hotels – including 5-star properties where the bag itself was like embossed in gold or something – and none were as substantial in content as this.

There were two varieties of bread, a croissant, several types of cold cuts (individually sealed), cheese, jam, yogurt, and fresh fruit. I was a happy camper.

Summary

Solid choice for an airport-close, budget hotel.

Pros:

  • Clean and modern.
  • Great service – see my comment about breakfast. 🙂

Cons:

  • No on-site restaurant aside from breakfast service.

Cost:

  • I redeemed 20,000 IHG Rewards points for one night. Received a 10% rebate from my co-branded credit card for a net cost of 18,000 points.

Link to hotel website.

June 26 2014

The Ancient City of Pompeii

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it single-handedly obliterated the once-thriving ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

But the meters-thick layer of volcanic ash and rock that buried the town served to preserve it in stunningly minute detail for some 1,500 years – until its initial (and mostly ignored) discovery in 1599 and more comprehensive rediscovery in 1748.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pompeii in its day boasted a 20,000-capacity amphitheater, a sporting arena, government and religious buildings, and commercial structures ranging from stores to restaurants to brothels.

PompeiViva sign

To be honest, I hadn’t expected much of this visit. Having seen lots of ruins – Greek, Roman, Mayan, Egyptian, Turkish, you name it – I was kind of “ruined out.” On the other hand, the upside of having low (or no) expectations is that there’s nowhere to go but up.

However, Pompeii turned out to be quite interesting in its own right.

Because it is so well preserved, a visit to Pompeii affords an almost-intact look into the Pax Romana period – not only the structural and urban planning features of its towns, but also the daily life, occupational pursuits, and artistic expression of its citizens.

Sights

The amphitheater, located near the site’s main entrance, once hosted gladiator fights:

Pompeii Amphitheatre

The streets are varied. Some, like the one below, are relatively straight and flat; others are rockier, narrower, and harder to navigate.

Pompeii street

My guide seemed to talk a lot about brothels, so I ended up with many photos of them. Here’s one:

Pompeii brothel

Likely a restaurant, given the oven:

Pompeii restaurant overn

Tips

As you might imagine for the ruins of an important city, the site is sprawling. To get the most out of your visit, I would read up beforehand on not only the site and its history but also the major structures. That way, once you get there you will know what to look for and navigate toward.

Pompeii next to last

Likewise, be sure to grab a map at the entrance (or bring one), otherwise the site will seem like a huge labyrinth of rocks that start to all look the same. The place is very conducive to getting lost.

Audio guides are also available at the main entrance and from some surrounding shops.

Wear good walking shoes – there is a lot of walking to do, much of it on uneven surfaces. (Flip flops would not be ideal.)

Pompeii last

Finally, while I did not have opportunity to see it, many advise that the Garden of the Fugitives is not to be missed. It contains plaster casts of several victims – in the position where they fell and died.

For this visit I pre-booked a tour with a guide and transportation. I’m not a big fan of tours (being too ADD to appreciate lengthy lectures on historical topics, no matter how skillful their delivery), but I was pressed for time before this trip so I did not follow my own advice and read up on the site beforehand or even research transportation options. I also didn’t have much time on the ground during the trip itself, so a tour saved all kinds of time and hassle. However, I am told the site is easily accessed by train from Naples.

June 23 2014

Hotel Review: InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam

Trip report index:

 

I have stayed in all kinds of accommodations – from sleeping bags in flimsy tents, to fleabag motels next to freeways, to mid-range business hotels when traveling for work, to luxury resorts with nightly room rates exceeding most mortgage payments.

When forming an opinion of an accommodation, I try to bear in mind the kind of property it is. At a St. Regis, it takes much more for me to say I had a good stay than it would at a Ramada Inn. After all, the latter costs far less (whether in cash or points).

So when I say my stay at the InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam was “okay,” it is a relative assessment. In absolute terms, the hotel is top notch.

But if someone is considering spending €500/night (more for some dates, less on others) – plus tax – for a room, I believe they’ll want an opinion on whether it’s worth the expense and not simply whether it’s nice. So let me approach this review from that perspective.

The location

Compared to the other IHG property in town (which I loved, by the way), the Amstel is not as centrally located. It is by no means totally out of the way – in fact I could walk to Museumplein (the Museum Quarter) in about 20 minutes – but certainly farther from the city center than other options.

So if you are seeking a hotel that is convenient for seeing the city on foot (which I think is the best way to see Amsterdam, by far) then this one isn’t ideal.

On the other hand if you’re looking for a more tranquil location outside the bustle of the city center but still close to it, this would be perfect.

The hotel isn’t just near the Amstel River, it’s on it. In fact, it almost looks like a floating hotel given how close to the water it is.

The hotel exterior
The hotel exterior

Walking up and down the Amstel River is as pleasant as can be. It’s also a quick way to reach the Hermitage Museum, the Jewish Historical Museum, and Waterlooplein. And the photogenic Skinny Bridge is en route.

While the true city center is not close enough to be a comfortable walk in my opinion, there are metro and tram stops only a block away – although I have a feeling most hotel guests don’t use public transport. (When I declined the bellman’s offer to arrange a car to the airport saying I’d take the metro instead, he looked at me as if I was nuts.)

The room

The view from my room was divine. Now, this is Amsterdam – pretty much everything is next to water. Even then, the view from this hotel must be one of the best in the city.

View of the Amstel River from my room
View of the Amstel River from my room

Not all rooms face the river so be sure to get a river-view room if that is important to you.

The Dutch décor isn’t my personal style, but that is purely a matter of taste (and I don’t think I’m the target demographic for this property).

Dutch decor
Dutch decor

The bathroom was large and luxurious with a tub, separate rain shower, and water closet. Bath amenities included robes, slippers, and even a nice jogging map for exercise-minded guests.

IC-AMS bathroom
Bathroom

Of note, this particular room featured a step-down bedroom with several steps between the bathroom and bedroom.

Steps from bedroom to bathroom
Steps from bedroom to bathroom

While it added character, I thought about the safety implications. It is one thing to have character in your own home, where everything is familiar to you, but in a hotel this can be a hazard if you forget it’s there when you make a middle-of-the-night trip to the bathroom while half asleep.

While I don’t think the hotel can do much to remedy this, I do think it’s worth mentioning. And if you have trouble negotiating steps in general, then I would be sure to get a room without them.

The service

As you might imagine, the service was most polished. It’s not the more laid-back, friendly type of service I described at the sister property across town, but there was no fault to be found with the service here either.

Check-in was seated at a desk, with the agent accompanying you to your room after completing the paperwork. Although I can appreciate that some guests like this extra touch, personally I have never been a fan of having an agent stand inside my hotel room droning on about its features. I find it awkward and unnecessary (I already know how to work a light switch, and I’m tired so please leave already).

Since I also dislike evening turn-down service, I hung up the do-not-disturb sign when leaving for dinner. I removed it as soon as I returned and, within 60 seconds of the sign coming down, a housekeeper knocked and offered turndown service. Maybe she was already nearby, but I thought that was very attentive and observant and I almost felt bad declining the service.

By the way, the embossed leather-like sign was so nice I wanted to steal it thinking it would’ve been a fun decorative piece for my home. (But I didn’t.)

IC-AMS DND sign
Do not disturb sign (looks much cooler in person)

The amenities

As with my review of the Crowne Plaza across town, I completely neglected to take pictures of any hotel amenities on this trip. I will blame it on a senior moment (or more like a senior week), but please excuse the oversight and fire up your imagination as I describe them without visuals.

The lobby was decorated in the same old-world style as the guest rooms, with a grand staircase in the center making for a great photo spot. However, I never saw guests actually sitting in the lobby (the environment felt more uppity than cozy) and the view isn’t that interesting (the river is not visible).

There’s a fitness center with a heated indoor pool overlooking the river – which you must see even if you don’t intend to work out or swim – and an outdoor terrace with lounge chairs.

The two restaurants looked marvelous in terms of setting, and one of them – La Rive – is very well regarded. But as a general rule I prefer eating around town to eating in hotels so I cannot comment on the food except to say I’m sure it would have been great, albeit priced to match. (In fact I’ve heard exactly that from acquaintances who stayed on another occasion.) 24-hour room service is also available.

Summary

Overall this is a very elegant, classic hotel as you would expect from its reputation of being the best hotel in Amsterdam and one of the best in the world. However, I personally would not pay “retail” to stay here as (1) I like to explore on foot and the location is not ideal for that, and (2) the old-world style and décor are not my thing.

If you intend to use private transportation for your stay then the location is not an issue; it is certainly close enough to be a quick car ride to the city center.

Pros:

  • Fabulous views of the Amstel River.
  • Elegant atmosphere.

Cons:

  • Not within easy walking distance of the city center (but only one block to tram and metro stations).

Cost:

  • I redeemed 36,000 IHG Rewards points for one night. (It is actually 40,000 points, but I received a 10% rebate from my co-branded credit card.)

Link to hotel website.

June 19 2014

China’s Stone Forest

Every time I say this someone flames me, but I find some of China’s more mainstream attractions underwhelming.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I think the Great Wall would be more aptly named the Pretty Good Wall, mostly because I would like to think the problem is mine for having only seen a small (and very touristy) portion of it.

But you know you’re in a tourist trap when they’re peddling this:

GreatWallCert

However, one spot in China that captivated me was the Stone Forest in Yunnan Province.

StoneForestCarvings

Part of the South China Karst UNESCO World Heritage Site, the “forest” is actually of stone – tall, imposing pillars of limestone that form a vast, surreal landscape.

StoneForestGreenery

Features of the 90,000-plus acre site include a lake, caves, and of course the stones.

StoneForestLake

Many stones are so intricate they’re named after the animate figures they resemble.

StoneForestCross

If you didn’t come with a guide, one can be hired on the spot – although I thought the process appeared a bit odd.

Available guides, dressed in the traditional attire of the Sani (the ethnic group of the surrounding area), wait in a “Tour Guide Service” area to be hired. I had arrived with a guide so I didn’t participate in the “selection” process, but from appearances it just seemed not the most tastefully handled. Almost “meat market-y,” for lack of a better description. On the other hand, perhaps it beats the chaos of an alternative system.

StoneForestGides

Either way, I would say hiring a guide is a good idea (but not essential). The rocks start to blend together after a while and it’s difficult to know what you’re seeing without guidance.

And if you’re interested in the legend behind the forest, read up on the story of Ashima, the young girl after whom one of the stones is named.

StoneForestPagoda