London: One of My Favorite Cities

I often get asked about my favorite cities in the world and it is hard to not put London at the top of chart.  I have been about 30 times over the years and always look forward to my return.  As Samuel Johnson famously said, “If you have tired of London, you have tired of life.”

If you think about it, the American equivalent to London would result if you pushed Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC together.  London is the political capital, the historical center, the financial hub, and home to the arts and theaters.  It is easy to get around on foot and via public transportation and has, over the past 10 years or so, dramatically improved from a culinary scene perspective.

The laundry list of attractions and sites is exhaustive and easily found in any guidebook or website and it is not my attention to supply a “top 10″ list.  However, I might highlight a few or my favorites that are not necessarily hidden gems, but might not be at the top of everyone’s list.

Hotel

I again find myself at the Strand Palace Hotel for this trip.  While I have stayed at a number of different properties in and around London, the Strand Palace is almost impossible to beat for location, amenities, and cost.  Every once in a while I will stay at a Hilton property if I am using points and have been in about eight of the London locations, but one can rarely book at night in one of their properties for less than 150 GBP.

By contrast, I’m staying at the Strand Palace for 100 GBP per night with free wifi and a free travel card for each day of my stay.  The room is very small but functional and I’m literally steps from Covent Garden, the West End, four tube stations, and tons of restaurant options.  The only thing to consider with this property is that the rooms do not have air conditioning so you might regret a stay on a hot week in July.

Two New Finds

This week, I walked by a new business several times and finally popped in to try their service.  Ted’s Grooming Salon is in the Holborn area just east of Covent Garden.  They have been in business for about four months now and every time I passed, it was busy.

While they offer haircuts, I opted for a traditional shave complete with all the works.  First, he gave me a quick shampoo with cold water to help me cool down from all the walking around I had been doing that day.  This was followed by a face balm that was massaged into my face followed by old-style hot towels wrapped around the head.  Then, warm shaving cream applied with a brush and a straight blade shave that is surely the closest shave I’ve had in a long time.

The most unusual thing about the entire experience came towards the end – after the hand and arm massage.  I smelled something burning about the time I felt him gently tapping me around my ears.  I was a bit surprised to open my eyes to see him with a small metal torch that was lit and that was what he was tapping me with.  He was actually burning some of the small hairs off.  It didn’t hurt, but was unexpected.

All of this for just under 20 GBP and this is a an indulgence I look forward to on my next trip.

The second discovery I made this week was the Top Secret Comedy club in the same neighborhood.  With a 1 GBP cover charge (and voluntary donation at the end), we got four acts plus an emcee who may have been the funniest of all of them.  A small venue where you get to sit close, it was a great time.  By contract, I went to the 99 Club the next night and, while more critically acclaimed, it did not measure up to the previous evening.  The other London area comedy club I could recommend is Up the Creek in Greenwich which is a fairly large venue that attracts top talent.

Definitely will go back to the Top Secret club..

Hampton Inn – Waterloo: New Option in London

Over the years I’ve been visiting London, I’ve had a chance to stay in many of their properties in and around central London.  In the past two years, they have expanded their DoubleTree brand and have now introduced the Hampton brand.

This property offered an outstanding “Points and Money” option for the dates of my travel and, given the high cost of hotels in London, I jumped at it.  This four night stay cost me 20,000 points and 55 GBP per night.  My total bill was right about 250 GBP – the equivalent of just over $400 USD in a town where nice hotels routinely run to $250 USD per night and higher.

The location, 157 Waterloo Rd., is just two blocks south of Waterloo Station, a major transportation hub and a fairly short walk of 15 minutes can take you past the Southbank area and over the river to the West End.  Several restaurants and pubs are in close proximity and the famous Old Vic theatre is on the same block.

I did have the opportunity to have dinner at the very popular pub The Fire Station, which is named for the building it inhabits with ample evidence of its previous function.  This place is absolutely packed after work but offers a separate dining area that has a high-end menu and excellent steak offerings.  A ribeye dinner with two pints of beer ran to 42 GBP, so it is not inexpensive but I was very happy with the meal.

The Hampton is very modern, the rooms were comfortable and clean, and the service was always outstanding.  They have been open for only two months but seem to have hit stride quickly.  Their lobby has a unique approach with a bar area that is an extension of the front desk and service by the front desk personnel during non-peak times.  It reminds me of a bigger version of Hyatt Place’s combined front desk/bar area.

This is definitely a good option and one that I will check on when making future bookings in the London area.

 

Headed Home on Thai Air – PEN – BKK – FRA

I’ve never flown Thai Air before but had a short 2 hour flight this morning from Phnom Penh to Bangkok where I picked up my 12 hour flight to Frankfurt, Germany for overnight stay.  My seats were booked in their “Royal Silk” business class so was looking forward to their offering.

What I Liked about Thai

  • Service was very attentive and professional
  • The menu and wine list impressive if one is into high cuisine.  There was some stuff I tried that I didn’t particularly care for but it was all presented nicely.  For instance, the various appetizers and sides included foie de gras, salmon, shrimp, and various items that I do not recognize and did not particularly care for, to be honest.
  • I’m not a wine connoisseur but was impressed they were serving a 2004 Bordeaux as an option.
  • In Bangkok, they have a spa where they provide a complimentary massage pre-fight.  You can choose a neck and shoulders or foot massage.  I opted for the neck and shoulders which lasted about 20 minutes and was very good.
  • While I didn’t really partake of it, their food selection in their business lounge was pretty varied and had enough heft that one could make a meal of it.

What I Didn’t Like about Thai

  • Really only one thing, their business class seat.  I was on the Airbus 340-600 with an angled lie-flat seat.  It just wasn’t very comfortable in any position.  And, it was very noisy when changing positions as the person across the aisle seemed to do for most of the flight.

Hilton Garden Inn – Frankfurt, Germany

Upon arrival, I was very happy with my selection of the Hilton Garden Inn at the airport.  Since I’m only staying overnight for an 8:00 a.m. flight in the morning, I wanted something easy and reliable.  I did not even have to step outside as the hotel, and the adjacent Hilton, are connected to the terminals by walkways and are just by the rail link station.

Tomorrow morning, I finish the trip.

Vietnam/Cambodia – Hotel Arrangements

After getting my initial flights in place, the next question was developing my itinerary within these two countries.  The easiest part of deciding on hotels was for my first and last ones since I knew I would be starting the trip in Hanoi and finishing in Phnom Penh.

However, throughout the hotel planning process, I faced one dilemma.  On the one hand, good hotel rooms can be very inexpensive in both Vietnam and Cambodia.  Depending on location, $25 – $65 USD can get you a room in a nice hotel with air conditioning, free wireless internet, breakfast, and, maybe, a pool.  At the same time, my plan was to use hotel points to stay in great hotels for no cost.  At the end of the day, I used a blended method based on which city I will be in and what hotels are available.

In Hanoi, my plan was to stay with a tried and true program that I know will take care of me.  I will have been traveling for about 27 hours when I arrive and, while the Business Class experience will be good, I will be tired and ready to get situated quickly and with no hassle.  Therefore, I’m booked into the Hilton Hanoi Opera.  Of course, this gives rise to jokes about staying at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” where American POW’s were kept, but this will be a much nicer accommodation in the French Quarter.  As a Diamond HHonors guest, I will likely get a room upgrade, will have access to their Executive Lounge, have free wireless internet, and breakfast and snacks in the evening.  Based on my previous experiences in Asia, the amenities and Executive Lounges are outstanding.

In Hoi An, there are not really any options in the realm of the major hotel chains and this presents a great opportunity to try a smaller, local hotel.  Based on reviews on TripAdvisor, I settled on the Vaia Boutique Hotel at a price of $78 that includes all taxes and service charges.  The location, within walking distance of the major sites and Old Town, was a major factor in settling on this property.

In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), I’m back to a major chain with my booking at the Park Hyatt hotel on Hyatt Gold Passport points.  Park Hyatt’s have a sterling reputation and the ability to book here at only 15,000 points was a great value and will provide me a outstanding location in a crazy, hectic city.  I will continue on in luxury as I stay at the Park Hyatt Siem Reap when I head to the temples in Angkor.  Again, only 15,000 points a night and it will provide me with top notch amenities.

For my two nights in Phnom Penh, there were chain options available, most notably with Accor’s Sofitel location.  But, I opted for the smaller, local option in a great location based, again, on TripAdisor reviews of the 240 Hotel.  I splurged for an upgraded room with a “Mini Plunge Pool” for a total of $63 USD per night.  It is named for the street it is located on, 240 Street, which offers all types of shops, restaurants, and boutiques.

So, I ended up with a blend of upscale hotels for free on points and the chance to experience smaller, local properties that should still provide a good stay at a very reasonable price.  I’ll give more info and reviews on the hotels I selected as I stay at them and form an opinion.

In my next post, I’ll share my packing and preparation considerations for the trip.

Hotel 57 Renaissance – New York, NY

Hotel Review

A couple of months ago, I needed to be in NYC overnight on business and the hotel rates were through the roof, even by NYC standards!  While I rarely use points when on a business trip, this was a situation where it seemed like a prudent choice.  A colleague of mine, who is a devoted Marriott brand patron, suggested Hotel 57, a Marriott Renaissance property just around the corner from where my meetings were to be held.

For 35,000 Marriott Rewards points, I was able to avoid a $500+ bill at this boutique-style property.

After staying there, I would say it was well worth the points.  I wouldn’t say my room was spectacular but it was very functional and stylish with great internet connectivity.  The lobby featured a well-appointed bar, the Opia Bar & Lounge, that also provides light dining.  They also have a lovely rooftop lounge with great views of the NYC skyline including the Chrysler building.

Due to my short stay, I did not have the need to avail myself to the services the Navigators there, whom my colleague says are “top notch,” or to dine in their French restaurant.  But, my impression of the property and service was very favorable and I would definitely consider this property again if I could find it at a good rate.

Final Grade: A+

Marriott Introduces “Cash + Points” Awards

Marriott recently joined the ranks of hotel programs that offer award redemptions that combine points and cash.  These options have been offered by Hilton’s HHonors program and Starwood Preferred Guest program and I have found them to often be a great value.

For instance, I previously posted about the values I got in Europe this past summer with Hilton at their Munich City hotel and the London Olympia and with Starwood at their Sheraton property in Salzburg, Austria.

I haven’t had a chance to try out Marriott’s new program but hoping that it will offer similar options and value.

Atlanta Marriott Buckhead – Atlanta, GA

Hotel Review

As a result of this year’s first quarter MegaBonus promotion, I had two free night certificates for any Marriott property that is Category 4 or below which expired Sept. 30, 2012.  I had tried to use these for friends or family members earlier in the year but was reminded that these certificates must be used by the member who earned them.  With the deadline fast approaching and my wedding anniversary coming up, my wife and I were able to go to Atlanta and stay in the Buckhead area for two nights for free.

The Buckhead area has lots of shopping (Lenox Square Mall and Phipps Plaza) and wonderful restaurants in the area.  This Marriott is obviously an older property as evidenced by the dull, concrete exterior that Marriott used to think looked good.  But, the hotel was fresh, the staff was attentive, and the location was great.  There is a newer JW Marriott just a few hundred yards away but that location is a Category 5 property and has higher room rates.

We ate at the Shula 357 Grille in the hotel and it was very good.  While there is still a football motif focused around Don Shula’s coaching days, it is not the clubby steakhouse that you find in a full Shula’s restaurant.  They still had some great steaks but also a nice variety on the menu that is necessary in a hotel restaurant.  Breakfast in the dining room was very well done with a high-energy chef at the omelette station and attentive service.

All in all, a very good value for the money and a nice base if you want to be in this part of town.

Final Grade: A

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