When I Travel
When I Travel, I want to to really experience the place I am visiting. I don’t want to spend my time in the hotel eating room service and watching TV.
When I travel, if I can, I partner up with a local. I want to know where they eat, where they drink and how they live. By a local, I don’t mean a hired guide (necessarily), nor does partner up with mean spending all day everyday with them.
When I travel, I research beforehand. I use everything from TripAdvisor, to Michelin, to just plain ‘ol Google. If I can find a local City Magazine online I will read about the hot new places. That’s how I found all the great places Downtown LA earlier this year (read about that here, here and here). You’d be surprised what not-so-hidden gems you can find with a little help from Mr. Google.
When I travel, I ask everyone from the taxi driver, to the concierge to the bell boy to the valet attendant to the bar tender: “Where do YOU eat?” Not “Where do you send guests?” I keep pushing until I get a real answer. I had to ask this question 5+ times to the fine folks in Memphis a few years ago until I finally got directions to a basement BBQ joint with stellar food a block or two off Beale.
When I travel, I ask the hive mind of Facebook, G+, Twitter and readers here where I should go.
When I travel, food is an important part of my journey, but not the only part. I’ll hit the museums (both acclaimed and hidden). I’ll take walking tours. I will rent a bike ( I love cities with bike share programs).
How do you travel? How do you recommend I improve my travel?
I recently wrote a post pontificating on the way I travel. I mentioned how I will often push people, when I travel to tell me about their favorite restaurants. “Tell me where you eat.” I don’t care where they send other out of towners, where do YOU eat?
In Memphis a few years ago, while I was still recovering from the Crippling of Tim, I asked several people at the Doubletree….yes, I was a Hilton guy for a year or two. The woman at the front desk took good care of me – she got me extra pillows (I needed a bunch because I needed to sleep in a certain position to ensure my arm wouldn’t get hurt overnight), she gave me three cookies (1 because I was checking in and two because I was “a funny white boy”). She was great.
I thought I had a rapport with her. When I asked about her favorite restaurants around, she gave me all the official crap within walking distance. She gave me chain restaurants. She gave me hotel restaurants. She wouldn’t answer the question though.
I felt like I was battling her. She finally admitted that she doesn’t know where her favorite restaurant is. Not as in she as too many to pick just one, but that she has never actually visited her favorite restaurant. The lead valet goes to get her BBQ sometimes and she loves it. She said she would let him know I wanted food and he would go get it for me.
I politely declined and made my way to the valet stand. I found the young man who the woman at reception had mentioned. Like her, he was very hesitant about giving me details. After about 5 minutes, he acquiesced. The place was just a block or two from the hotel, not far off Beale and down the the basement of some building.
I walked in and felt marginally out of place. I was one of 2 white guys in this dank basement that smelled of amazing BBQ. I was the only one wearing a suit too. I was between meetings that evening and didn’t want to change then change back.
I sit at the counter and was greeted by a young round beautiful woman. She was probably 20. I asked what she recommended and our interaction still makes me smile today:
Her: My favorite? Do you trust me?
Me: Sure, why not.
Her: How much you wanna spend? Cash only.
Me: Cash Only?? I’ve got $20.
Her: Shit, you can buy the whole restaurant for $30 (everyone around laughs….mostly at my expense). I got you baby.
A few minutes later she brings out my meal, which was a basic buffet of all of their items. I had ribs, tips, brisket, beans, corn, slaw and even a dessert (I had a choice between a twinkle and a ho ho, I chose the latter).
The food was stellar, the people looked shocked that I was sitting with them eating at the counter. Most people were getting theirs to go. The gentleman next to me was having a heated phone conversation. As he hung up, it was clear he had some business to take care of. He angrily stood up, slammed his gun (nary a gun, but a veritable hand cannon) on the counter, pulled out a wad of cash and handed it to the waitress, gave her a hug – he did this to the chef as well – bid them adieu and walked out. Before he got to the door he turned and yelled back “When you bringing your baby girl back in?” To which the waitress said “She’s got school now, she’ll be back this summer.” It was a surreal experience.
I finished every bite on my plate, for two reasons. For one, it was truly a great meal and two, every eye in that place was on me. I asked for my check and was given a hand written receipt that showed I owed $13. I thanked her, gave her the $20 bill I had in my pocket and left. She shook my hand and gave me a very heartfelt thank you.
As I crossed the threshold at the entrance to this restaurant she yells up to me, “Next time your in town, we best be seeing you again.”
I am so happy I pushed the hotel employees for a recommendation. Speaking of, when I finally made it back to the hotel, after dinner and after my evening meetings, I was walking to the elevator and both the valet and the woman from reception asked if I enjoyed dinner. They waited with bated breath. The sense of relief was visible on their face, but the food was fabulous, I told them. I told them of the man with the gun and they were disappointed, not shocked though.
I continued to the elevator and I hear my name (not Tim, but by my surname), I turn around and see the woman from reception holding two glasses of wine, one white and one red, each with saran wrap atop. She reminded me that I had missed the hotel lobby happy hour and didn’t know what kind of wine I liked, so she save one of each for me. The white was kept in the cooler too.
I loved this interaction with the folks at this Doubletree. It took some work, but I got what I wanted and they were able to share something wonderful about their home.
I love travel. How about you?
Bordeaux in November
Each year we take a trip for Thanksgiving. We’ve visited:
- Mexico City
- Burgundy / Switzerland
This year we want to head back to France. During our last trip to France, we started the trip off in Paris, this time we want to close out our adventure in the City of Lights. We want to go someplace with good food, good wine, something to do and still have the ability to relax. Our initial thought was to bum around in the Loire Valley, but I read an article in Wine Spectator that got me excited about Bordeaux. Our plan now is to land in Paris, hop on the train and head down to Bordeaux.
We want to spend a few days in Bordeaux, then spend a day or two working our way back to Paris. I want to be in Paris for Thanksgiving and we return home the Saturday following the holiday. I’ve got Thanksgiving dinner all planned: Tour d’Argent and their world famous Caneton à la presse.
I need your help with Bordeaux. Where should we stay? There aren’t any Starwood Luxury Collection properties in Bordeaux, so our preference is to go local, but we don’t want a hostel or a cramped little room in a far off corner of the city. We’d like something central, walkable and if possible historically significant.
Where should we eat? Not all of our meals need to be Tour D’Argent quality, but we want good French food. It doesn’t even have to be consistently Bordelais, just good food, traditional or modern – we want to experience both old world Bordeaux and the newly invigorated City.
Where should we tour/taste wine? What tour company should we use to schlep us between vineyards? We don’t need a master sommelier to drive us from place to place, but someone with knowledge of the history of the area, the wines/grapes of the region and the wine making process.
My favorite question too: what should we NOT do whilst in Bordeaux? Is there something you did that you wished you hadn’t? Was it a waste of time and/or money?
What am I forgetting?
Palacio del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel (Cusco)
It didn’t take us much convincing to select the Palacio del Inka, a Luxury Collection Hotel by Starwood as our home base in Cuzco, Peru. I’ve been quite happy with the other Luxury Collection Hotels we’ve visited in the past. After checking the various pricing options, we decided to book using the points and cash option. We had to pay $75 + 5,000 Starpoints per night. The cash option was closer to $300/night. For me it was really a no-brainer. We booked this hotel about two months before our trip and I applied my Platinum Suite Night Upgrade Certificates immediately upon booking. We wouldn’t know if the upgrade would clear until a few days before we arrived. We weren’t planning on spending too much time in the room, but if we could get an upgrade, we’d take it.
I kept checking the SPG website to see if the rate would adjust downward. If it had, I would have rebooked to save money or points. Unfortunately the price didn’t go down, it actually went up, so I was happy I booked when I did. A few days before arrival we received an email that our upgrade had cleared. Our room was upgraded from the standard room to a one bedroom suite.
We took a taxi from the Cusco Airport to the hotel, which took us about 20 minutes and cost us about 50 PEN (Peruvian Soles) or 15USD. There wasn’t a train or a clear/easy bus to the hotel. The hotel itself was just a couple of minutes walk off of the main square – Plaza de Armas.
There was a ton of activity in the lobby when we walked in around 10h30. We were greeted by a gentleman who directed us to a pretty uncomfortable couch to complete our check in. He immediately offered us some coca tea, which the Incas used to help alleviate many health issues, including altitude sickness. We had a cup.
The check in process was smooth as can be. We handed over passports and a credit card and waited for the hotel contact to return and provide us our room key. Once he returned, he gave us the run down of the hotel, including info on the bar, restaurant and breakfast. Evidently he was stalling was because our room was still being serviced. We arrived long before announced check in of 15h00, but we emailed earlier outlining our expected arrival time and they were kind enough to accommodate us.
We were escorted to our room by the gentleman who helped us with check in. We were on the third floor about half way down the hall.
You enter the room into the front living room area. This space had a chair and a surprisingly uncomfortable chaise, plus a desk looking out the window. As you immediately walk into the room you come across a half bath, which I really like when traveling with someone. I don’t want to wait for the bathroom and it is just generally more convenient.
The main bedroom area had, what seemed like, a very large king bed. We have a king at home, but this one seemed much bigger than we are use to. This room was pretty sparse, with bed, a wall mounted TV, a couple of side tables and a small bench. There was a lot of unused space in this room.
To reach the main bathroom in the room, you walk through a very large walk in closet. I love closets like this in hotels, but it seems like I’m only in rooms like this for a day or two and when I’m staying for a week or more at a hotel, I end up without a closet at all. Do you unpack when you are in a hotel?
My hot button items when it comes to hotel rooms were really not an issue here. Anytime I wanted hot water, it was there – and the water pressure was consistently great, whether I showed at 07h00 or 18h00. Loved it. The bed was large and quite comfortable. I need to do some additional research to figure out what kind of bed this is and upgrade our home mattress. The final major hotel pet peeve of mine is electrical outlets. Each side of the bed had access to electrical outlets and my side even had a barely used power strip — I’m not sure if that was just forgotten from a previous guest or a new amenity from the hotel – either way, it worked out perfectly for me.
We ate breakfast in the hotel each morning, which had a lovely buffet setup with fresh squeezed juices (the mango juice was very disappointing – nearly flavorless), cold cuts, cheeses, made to order eggs or other items including French Toast or an omelette. We ate breakfast each morning in the courtyard, which was so relaxing. There were women in traditional Inca garb, weaving in the courtyard – you could purchase their products if you wanted, but they weren’t in your face trying to sell you anything though. The breakfast service was very attentive, but not in an annoying way. If you needed something, they were there but they weren’t hovering.
We had about 2 hours one day to kill before we took an afternoon tour – more on that later – so we decided to get a quick massage. It was really a hit or miss experience. The spa facilities are small – there is only one shower in the men’s spa. Granted, we were a bit rushed, but the masseuses were in no hurry whatsoever. The rooms weren’t prepared for our visit and the oils were very cold. There wasn’t any “spa music” playing either, so you’d hear the rustling of the massage oil bottles, then the ice cold oil hitting your skin. It was more of a sensory experience than I had expected. My masseuse was a very light touch, almost as if nothing was happening. It wasn’t all that relaxing for me. She would stop regularly to get more oil, or to wipe oil off of me. The experience was full of fits and starts. The 60 minute massage took about 90 minutes, which usually I don’t have a problem with, but we had someplace to be today AND the massage was mediocre, so I wanted to be done.
MS had a really great massage – none of my issues were present: he had warm oils, firm pressure, soothing background music – all in all, his experience was what it should have been. I guess the moral of the story is spa experiences are a crap shoot.
The final experience we had at the hotel was in the bar. Each night at 18h00 the bar tender teaches a class on making a true Pisco Sour. Evidently the Pisco was invented at this hotel…it was also invented at two other hotels we visited…just ask their bartenders.
The Pisco Sour class was well done at Palacio del Inka. The bar area was full of Australians, Brits and us two Americans. The bartender told us about the wine regions in Peru, where Pisco is grown and how it is produced. He then showed us how to make the Pisco Sour. His one piece of advice, was not to let anyone blend your Pisco Sour – it should be shaken. Blending it crushes ice and waters down the drink, or if they don’t use ice, the drink is lukewarm. I’ve never been a big fan of Pisco Sours for that very reason, most places do not serve them chilled. Our bartender showed us how you can use a blender and make a cool refreshing Pisco Sour. It was a simple fix that hadn’t crossed my mind. Basically, you put the ingredients (Pisco, lime juice, simple syrup and egg white) into a blender and blend until frothy. He then put a bag of ice (still in the bag) into the blender bowl to chill the drink. He poured them into an old fashion glass and garnished with Angostura bitters. The drink was perfectly frothy while being very cool and refreshing. A perfect Pisco.
I really enjoyed this property and will return without question. The rooms were well appointed and comfortable, the service was attentive and the location was perfect for exploring the city. Have you visited Cusco? Where did you stay? What do you think about Pisco Sours?
Silvercar Rental – First Experience
Regular readers know I hate road trips. The idea of a road trip is fine, but once we execute, I am miserable. I’m bored, I am cranky, no matter how many activities or snacks I have, I turn into a 5 year old. For the sake of all my relationships, I don’t do road trips.
We spent the long Independence Day weekend in Arizona visiting the in laws and a friend from college. We flew in on Friday night, stayed the first night in Phoenix (we didn’t want to drive 2.5 hours after working all day and flying 4 hours). Saturday morning we’d drive up to Prescott, spend a day, then return to Phoenix, see a friend then return to Chicago on Monday. For this trip, we needed a rental car.
I’ve never had any rental car loyalty, I just try to find the cheapest solution. Basically, I think all rental car companies suck. You’ve heard my rants about Sixt here and here. We decided to try Silver Car, which is a relatively new rental company. They only offer Audi A4s as a rental option. We have an Audi A4 at home and it is a lovely piece of machinery. I am the farthest thing from a car guy, but I do enjoy the ride.
Silver Car operates out of 14 locations, mostly airport spots but they do have locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn too. It is much more of a modern company compared to legacy rental car companies.
Like every car rental we’ve made, we booked online. We found a great promo code, saving us $75 on our first rental. That promo code has since expired, just head over to Google to find a code that works for you.
Once we landed at PHX and pushed our way through the crowds of people who looked like extras from Breaking Bad or Sister Wives, we hopped on the consolidated rental car shuttle. While on board, we opened the Silver Car App, which gives you an easy avenue to text the folks at Silver Car, letting them know you are in the way.
At PHX, Silver Car is actually off airport, so you text them while on the bus so they can come pick you up and drive you the 5 minutes to their car pick up location. We waited and waited for Silver Car to come pick us up. And waited. And waited. We waited 25 minutes to be picked up. It was 22h00 and it was 35C.
We were eventually picked up by a young woman who was very apologetic. She loaded our luggage into the trunk, offered us cold water and began to explain the Silver Car model.
She explained that we didn’t need to fuel the car if we didn’t want to, they would just charge us for the actual cost of the gas, plus a $5 convenience fee (that better than pay $7 per gallon with Hertz). She also explained the details of the A4, which we didn’t need, since we have one at home. One thing that we don’t have, but made the road trip (I know, 2.5 hour drive one way, isn’t a real road trip, but is for me) great – in car wifi. While MS drove, I screwed around on the Internet, which totally kept my crankiness at a manageable level.
Another Silver Car renter followed us as we dropped off our vehicle. A silver car employees quickly approached us, confirmed our name, the status of the car (everything in working order, issues, etc). He did the same for the other driver, then asked if we would be OK with sharing a shuttle (which is again, is just an Audi A4), which of course we were fine with. We hopped in the car and he drove us directly to the terminal. I was afraid that he’d drop us off at the Rental Car Shuttle and we’d have to wait for the next shuttle. I was very pleasantly surprised.
All in all, our experience with Silver Car was great. I really hated to wait for nearly 30 minutes to get picked up at the rental center, so much so I was actively checking prices for other companies as our car pulled up. We have already scheduled another rental for an upcoming trip to Yosemite. Let’s hope the folks at SFO are more on the ball.
Have you rented with Silver Car? What issues did you have? How were they resolved?