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Tim Foolery

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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Paris Trip Recap — Hotel de Crillon Bar Review

I had a few locations on my Paris list that weren’t major tourist attractions, but had some literary or historical significance.  As you may know, I am a huge Ernest Hemingway fan.  My favorite book is The Sun Also Rises. I’ve visited Hemingway’s birth home in Oak Park, Illinois; his home in Key West, FL and plan on visiting his home in Cuba, once that becomes available.

At the Place de la Concorde we found the Hotel de Crillon.  This beautiful hotel was commissioned and built in the late 18th century.  This hotel is where Lady Brett Ashley broke her word to meet protagonist Jake Barnes.  Rumor has it, Hemingway along with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald all drank (excessively) here.  Of course this location was extremely high on my list.

No, that is not Brett & Jake behind us.

We decided to go have a drink before dinner our last night in Paris.  MS and I arrived around 19h00 and JB/RK arrived around 19h30.  MS and I ordered a bottle of rose and sat in the beautifully maintained bar in the lobby — a piano bar, no less.  Even more exciting for me, I know.  The bar was pretty small, but was amazingly maintained.  The mirrored wall behind the bar, which seated about 8 people, was surrounded by dark wood.  Several crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling casting soft light throughout the relatively dark room.  The room is done in red and gold with a dozen or so tables sprinkled throughout.  It was tight quarters, but I just loved the place.

The waiter recommended a lovely rose that was reasonably priced. The bar was pretty empty but he managed to provide excellent service — I hate when the bar is empty and you get one of two waiters: the over attentive guy who just wants to hang out and chat or his evil twin, the guy who delivers your drink (if you’re lucky) and you never see him again.  This guy was perfect.

Our dinner reservations were at 20h00, which was a 15 minute Metro ride away and a 10 minute walk in addition.  We were running late so I asked the concierge at Hotel de Crillon to call and reschedule our reservation for 20h30 — he did it without missing a beat and was happy to do it. Unlike the folks we had to deal with at the Hilton le Defense.  Granted, guests of de Crillon pay upwards of $US1,000 per night, so you’d expect this type of service.

I would love to stay at this hotel on my next trip to Paris.  I could stay at Hotel Jeanne d’Arc for 10 nights for the price of one at de Crillon, but it would be a great experience.  If you are a Hemingway fan, you must visit this location.  You are stepping back in time at this hotel.

When you travel do you find obscure literary locations to visit — or is it just me?  Would you rather stay in the ultimate lap of luxury in a City like Paris or would you prefer a reasonable hotel and blow your money on something else-food, booze, spa, clothes?  Have you stayed at de Crillon before?

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Paris Trip Recap — Hilton Le Defense Review

The Hotel Jeanne d’Arc wasn’t available our entire visit in Paris, so we opted to cash in some points and stay at the Hilton Le Defense — in the business district of Paris.  Paris is so expertly planned and when they needed to build the business district, they didn’t tear down old classical buildings (like so many Cities did) they pushed the new high rises out into the near suburb area.

We didn’t do a whole lot of research on the hotel or the area.  We erroneously figured this area would have many things to do and would be like the other neighborhoods we visited.  Nope.  It’s actually a lot like the Loop in Chicago — quiet/dead after business hours and not a hell of a lot to do after hours.  The price was right though.

 We transferred to the hotel around 4pm and after standing at street level for a few minutes we finally found the hotel sign. Yet again we were lost/confused by the obvious.  At least we are consistent. We proceeded to check in and were greeted by a cold front desk employee.  Since we were using points (from MS’ account) I pulled out my Gold Elite card and asked if we could get access to the Gold Benefits.  The gentleman informed me that we couldn’t change accounts at this point and when I reminded him that we didn’t want to earn or redeem points on my card, just get access to Elite benefits (which I’ve been able to do two times in the past 6 weeks).  He kindly (hmmm, make that rudely) reminded me that Hilton Elite Benefits are a privilege and not a right — which I do understand.  He told us they were one of the smallest Hilton’s on the planet and they choose not to offer any Elite Benefits.  I then asked if they could help us make reservations if I gave them some options we were interested in.  They agreed.

Fine.

This Hilton is in a shopping mail/train station.  We were offered an upgraded room (for 25€), this room would have a window that looked outside of the building, as opposed to the interior of the mall.  We opted to save our $US37.50 and take an internal room.

Linens? We don’t need no stinking linens…

We head on up to our second floor room.  The room was large but laid out extremely poorly.  The bed also had no pillows, blanket or duvet.  This obviously wasn’t going to work. I pick up the phone on the nightstand — it doesn’t work.  I walk over to the desk and realize there is no way I can walk between the desk and the bed.  Luckily this phone worked.

I called downstairs to explain the issues and the woman at the front desk suggested we leave our room for a while and they will send someone up to make up our room.  No, this isn’t acceptable.  The other alternative was to schlep our suitcases back down and talk to another person and find another room.  That option is not ideal either.  I suggested someone meet us at our current room with keys to our new room and walk us to our new room.  They quickly agreed to this — shocking, I know, considering the front desk interaction earlier.

Tight Fit Between Bed/Desk

The gentleman who assisted us at initial check in was in our room in less than 3 minutes – surprising again.  He escorted us to a new room with a same layout (and another room with a view of the interior of the mall), but this room had bed linens, working phones and enough space between the bed and the desk to make it useful.

I decided to take a shower while MS went out to get some water and check out the music selection at the mall our room looked out upon.  I grabbed a wash cloth and found a dingy black dirt stain.  Lovely.  I used an alternate wash cloth, shaved and showered.

No Room Between Desk/Bed

MS returned and we had a list of three restaurants we wanted to try for our final night in Paris.  I called the front desk and asked for reservation assistance .  Two of the three restaurants were closed but we were able to get into the third option.  It was nice to have someone help us with reservations.

We were shocked when we received our bill and we were charged 9€ for the three phone calls we asked them to make.  Perhaps it is my naivete, but asking for a simple concierge service we shouldn’t be charged $US14.  I asked about this when I left, but they wouldn’t speak to me about it since my name wasn’t on the reservation.  Lovely.  When MS left he had a long discussion with the front desk folks and they did agree to remove this charge.

Filthly Wash Cloth

I emailed the hotel twice to find a resolution to the poor service, the initial bad room and the inappropriate phone charges and I have heard nothing from the hotel.

I am a new Hilton Gold member — a partnership with United granted Premier Exec members Gold Status until 2013.  I had never stayed in a Hilton before, but had a really great experience in Toronto and every interaction with customer service has been top notch.  For example, two weeks after my stay in Toronto my points hadn’t been credited to my account, I tweeted my concern at the delay and within 20 minutes everything was taken care of.  Although my experience with Hilton customer service has been limited they have been fantastic (except for this whole Paris experience).

Dirty/Dingy Hallway Walls

I must admit, I will never stay at the Hilton Le Defense again.  I will definitely stay at a Hilton in the US again though — and am not opposed to staying at another international Hilton again.

When traveling abroad do you choose to stay with American chains or local hotels?  How do you deal with customer service issues at hotels: email, letter, phone call or online reviews?  Have you had the great service, I’ve traditionally had at Hilton?  Are you enjoying the Premier Executive Gold Status with Hilton (I know I appreciate it and am enjoying my stays).

UPDATE:  I wrote this post on Tuesday (9/27) and forwarded a link to the US Hilton twitter folks — who have always been beyond helpful with any question I have.  They responded almost immediately asking for some stay details and forwarded the issues on to the hotel manager who would reach out to us.  Well, the hotel still hasn’t gotten back to me.  I did receive a nice email from Mr. Hall who is a Guest Assistance Specialist apologizing for the lack of response from the hotel.  Again, I have to say, I’ve been extremely happy with the customer service I receive in North America and have only had one non-North America experience (this one) which was very subpar.  Will I continue to visit Hiltons in the future, yes.  Will I stay at a Hilton in Paris, yes…Le Defense, probably not.  Kudos to the US costomer service folks — thank you for all help.

Paris Trip Recap — Shopping

When I travel, I don’t usually focus on shopping.  Living in Chicago I can get almost anything I want without an issue.  Travel is time to explore a new area, meet new people, learn about yourself and of course to sample new food and wine.  This, of course, was my thought before I visited Paris.  Before I left, I knew I would be looking for one specific item – shoes.  I wanted new dress shoes that didn’t look like the crap you find most places in the US.

The shoes I wanted had leather uppers and soles, with a wooden heel.  I wanted it to have a more pointed toe.  I didn’t want the square or rounded toe shoe with rubber soles and heels.  I had a pair of Hugo Boss shoes that fit this bill perfectly, but some crazy stew on a UAL flight ran over my shoe with the drink cart, cutting the leather.  After this issue, I began searching for modern replacement shoes — with no luck. I search in every store I could find.  Looking at options from Aldo to Bruno Magli and found nothing.

I settled on a couple pairs at Nordstrom that I didn’t love, but I could tolerate — this transaction happened 3 days before my trip to Paris.  Once we landed in Paris, I found several shops that had amazing shoes in the window.  So many great shades, perfect shapes and a wide range of prices.  While shopping doesn’t make it high on my list of vacation activities, it did become an important part of my Paris trip — unfortunately I waited until Sunday afternoon (following out walk through Saint-Germain-des-Pres) to begin my search in earnest.  Most places were closed — of course they were.

As we walked back to our hotel we found a place called Rudy’s Chaussures, and it was devine.  They were having a pretty big sale. I popped in and using my imperfect French I managed to request a few pairs of shoes in certain sizes and then ineloquently describe what didn’t work with each option.  I finally settled on two pairs of shoes.  I bought a pair of black capped toed shoe and a pair of brown shoes. The brown shoes fit like a glove, while the black pair needs to be broken in a bit –they’re a little tight across the toes.

I debated on buying a pair of chocolate brown suede shoes, but decided against it because I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough opportunity to wear them.  What a silly thought.

Here’s the best part — the two pair of shoes I bought cost a whopping 128€, which was less than a third of the price of the shoes I bought at Nordstrom just a week prior.  Thankfully, Nordstrom has a very liberal return policy.  I wish I had purchased a couple more pairs, these are such great shoes.  If you happen to stumble across shoes by John Mac Gray, buy them.  They are just fantastic.  If you happened to be heading to Paris and will be in the Marais and would like to pick up a couple pairs for me, let me know and I’ll let you know the style/size — I will reimburse you, don’t worry.

Is shopping a key part of your travel plans?  Have you been looking for a certain article of clothing forever and just stumbled across it while on vacation?  Do you put this much thought, effort into something as simple as shoes?  Have you had good luck buying shoes in a foreign language?

Paris Trip Recap — St. Germain/Latin Quarter

We stayed just across the river from the Latin Quarter, in the Marais and managed to make a couple trips to this area on our short trip to Paris.  Once we left the Louvre, we decided to head over to Saint-Germain-des-Pres for lunch and then work our way to the neighboring Latin Quarter to see Place St. Michel, the Sorbonne, Musee de Cluny and the Pantheon. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any of these things, but we did have a great time exploring this area.

We crossed the river near the Louvre and wandered around the tiny winding streets peering in the windows of so many (closed) art galleries.  These galleries showcased modern paintings and photography and not classical pieces — which was quite refreshing.  I love the classics, but we all know there is more to art than pre-19th Century pieces.  Some of the photography was quite amazing – many “slice of life” pieces that focused on the contemporary architecture and how modern life related to this architecture — right up my alley.

We wandered down one of the streets that we visited on the bike ride the prior day.  We knew there were tons of restaurants, some high end, some low end, but most looked tasty and reasonably priced.  We spent a decent amount of time reviewing menus and trying to find the “right” restaurant for us.  After about 30 minutes of trying to track down the perfect restaurant we settled on a little crepe place off the main road we were exploring.  The waitress didn’t speak much English, so I was able to use my limited French (again without any real problems).

While we ate our crepe and drank our wine I saw a business acquaintance of mine walking down the street. I popped out of the restaurant and tried to catch up with him, but we never connected.  I was 99% sure it was him, but didn’t actually confirm this until we returned to Chicago and I chatted with him.  What a small world, eh?

After lunch we popped over to a gelato shop — we tried to eat there on the bike ride, but the line was too long.  Today the line was non-existent so of course we had a few scoops of heaven.  We continued through St. Germain and walked over to the Latin Quarter.  I wanted to swing by some little tourist shops near Notre Dame because I wanted a few scarves for fall, which I managed to pick up (white, black and purple).  This is where we ran into so many loud, obnoxious Americans demanding everyone around them speak English.  I was quite embarrassed for my countrymen.  Perhaps Americans shouldn’t have passports if this is how we are going to act while abroad.

I would have liked to have spent more time exploring the art galleries in this area.  There were a few restaurants that had quite extensive wine cellars, which I would love to explore as well.  I will definitely be spending more time in St. Germain next time I am in London.

When you travel do you just pick a neighborhood and explore without any thought/care or research — just see where the day takes you?  Do you find yourself drinking more wine when you are on vacation than you do in the US?  What about wine at lunch–do you find it a requirement while abroad?  What about back home, do you miss wine at every meal here?

Paris Trip Recap — Louvre

Ah, the Louvre, the quintessential attraction in Paris. Since my time in Paris was limited, I didn’t have the luxury of sleeping in like a bum (like I try to do on vacations), I had to get up and hit the museum early.  JB was the smart one and found that the Louvre is free on the first Sunday of each month (which is when we would be there).  Obviously the museum would be absolutely crazy on a free day, so dillydallying until noon would not be ideal.

We got up at 08h00 and planned on being at the Louvre shortly before it opened (like my plan for Versailles, that didn’t quite work out as planned).  We were out of the hotel by 08h45 heading to the Metro (which was closed, interestingly enough).  We grabbed a pain au chocolat and an jus d’orange and waited for the bus, which would take us directly to the Louvre.  Like the Metro, the bus arrived very quickly (not at all like I’m use to in the US) and we had to toss our breakfast in the trash and hop on the bus.  The bus ride took 15 minutes and we were there.

The line was quite long at 09h10, but the guidebook and several friends told us not to enter through the main door, go through the side door – the Porte des Lions.  I thought this was too good to be true.  We skipped the long line of people standing in the rain and headed 200 meters into the grounds and found the entrance — with no one in line.  Was this all a scam?  We entered the outer doors, went through the metal detectors, bought tickets and were in.  IT WORKED!  This entrance isn’t open on Fridays, but it is every other day — even the free day.

I hate being a standard American tourist, but I had a handful of things I wanted to see and I wanted to hit them early and guarantee I didn’t miss the major things.  I immediately went to visit Mona Lisa — we got there so early, there were less than 2 dozen people in the room with us and her.  It was great to see her and to get up close and personal, but I must admit it was a bit anti-climactic. I’ve been waiting a long time to see this piece of art and it was amazing, but not the knee quaking jaw dropping spectacle I thought it would be.  Perhaps I am too jaded and cynical.

From Mona we moved on to Winged Victory.  So many people were around taking pictures and demanding no one was in or near them when then were snapping pics. That’s just outrageous. I’m not going to stand off to one side for 20 minutes waiting to cross the room because you want a picture of you 10 month old in a stroller at the foot of Winged Victory.

The other areas I wanted to see was the Middle Ages area and both MS and I wanted to see Spanish Paintings.  I also wanted to see the history of the Louvre, in the basement.  We saw some of the items we saw at Versailles, which looked more impressive here than at the palace.  We had a small break for pastries and juice after we saw the Middle Ages and the Spanish items then we headed back down to the basement for the history — at this point the museum was absolutely full of patrons. It was uncomfortably full.  We realized that this wasn’t working for us and we’d just have to see the historical pieces another time and we got the hell out of there.

It was about 12h30 now by the time we got out of the museum and headed to take some more pictures outside.  I must say, visiting the Louvre was great — something that everyone must do while in Paris.  My advice, you must make a plan before you go.  You won’t have time to look at everything, but you must do more than the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory (which are very close to each other).  Pick a section and spend time admiring the art.  You must also enter through the Porte des Lions — it’s worth it to get up early and enter in the door without a line.  It’s a great thing…do it!

When at the Louvre, what is your go to piece of art? Do you visit the Louvre on every visit to Paris or are you a one and done visitor?  What other Louvre secrets do you have that I am not aware of?