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Tim Foolery

Home » 2017 » January (Page 2)

Monthly Archives: January 2017

Casa Andina – Private Collection (Arequipa)

Our trip continued to Arequipa, Peru.  We wanted to get away from the western hotel chains for a bit on this trip and since we’d already stayed at a couple of Starwood properties (Westin Lima Convention CenterPalacio del Inka, A Luxury Collection HotelTambo del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel) we decided to stay in a local hotel.  We found great reviews for the Casa Andina hotel on both Booking.com and TripAdvisor.  The pictures and reviews coupled with the pricing and the location made this a no-brainer.

We arrived from Cuzco on the early flight and made it to the hotel before 09h30.  Traffic in Arequipa was non-existent. We entered the hotel from the street and walked directly into the beautiful reception area which was bordered by the stunning courtyard.  Check-in was very quick and the young woman at the desk was so welcoming – each time we came across her during our stay, she called us by our last names.  While it isn’t that hard, recognition by staff while bumming around the property shows me that they care – they put in a little bit of effort to help their guests truly feel welcome.

The room was on the third floor – we took the elevator only twice, once at check-in and again when we were checking out.  Carrying the luggage up the stairs wasn’t in our future.  The elevators moved at a decent pace, but in general I prefer to take the stairs.

The room wasn’t anything fancy – a small, utilitarian room that fit our needs perfectly.

Small room, but a full king sized bed with a small table.

Small room, but a king sized bed with a small table.

Small seating area - or hat storage, in our case.

Small seating area – or hat storage, in our case.

An armoire was the only closet in the room. It also housed a mini bar and the safe.

An armoire was the only closet in the room. It also housed a mini bar and the safe.

While not luxurious, a perfectly functional and clean bathroom.

While not luxurious, a perfectly functional and clean bathroom.

Bathroom with ample counter space.

Bathroom with ample counter space.

The complementary toiletries

The complementary toiletries

We took our breakfast one day in the hotel and it was perfectly acceptable.  I’m not a big breakfast guy, in general.  I’m fine with a couple pieces of fruit and some juice.  We did use the courtyard lounge area each night of our stay.  We sampled the cocktails at the bar and sat in the open courtyard (covered by tenting) while writing post cards or reading up on our next destinations.  It was such a quiet and relaxing way to close out the evening each day.

The courtyard lounge at the Casa Andina is a great place to relax and close out a day of vacation.

The courtyard lounge at the Casa Andina is a great place to relax and close out a day of vacation.

If our journey takes us back to Arequipa, I would definitely stay at this property again.  The combination of the perfect location, wonderful staff and truly relaxing environment was perfect for our short time in the city.

Where do you prefer to stay in Arequipa?  What about other cities? What are key points you look for in a hotel?

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Sheraton Broadway Plantation Resort Villas – Myrtle Beach, SC

I needed to be in Myrtle Beach, SC the first weekend in January. I was visiting my mother and my aunt and because we can never seem to communicate clearly, I booked a hotel room (I thought my cousin and her husband were taking the guest room, and I’m too old to sleep on the floor or the couch). I decided to book a Starwood Property (shocker). I chose to stay at the Sheraton Broadway Plantation Resort Villas, just 10 minutes from where my family lives.

I usually don’t stay at Resort Villas. When I vacation, I am usually pretty active and these properties are often designed to keep you onsite, at least for a portion of your trip.  The Resort, was a 3 minute drive from Broadway at the Beach, an entertainment area in Myrtle Beach, with chain restaurants (Margaritaville, for example), traditional stores you’d find in Every Mall USA  (Sunglass Hut) and stores I never heard of (Man Cave….or something like that). There are lots of things for kids, like an aquarium, a topsy-turvy science house, a wax museum, etc. This is really a family vacation destination and not a place where I would spend my limited vacation time. Nothing wrong with it, but since I am childless, it doesn’t interest me.

The Resort is made up of several buildings each with a dozen or so rooms. The rooms all have outside doors (like a motel). The resort has pools, hot tubs, movie and board game rentals.

After a long day of travel (delayed flight, 2+ hour drive, family time), I checked into the resort around 19h30. I think I startled the employees as when I walked in the door, they all scurried off to their stations. Check-in was easy and the woman working reception couldn’t have been nicer. My favorite part, other than her genuine Southern Charm, was that she would ask if I wanted to hear about a part of the resort before she just went off on autopilot. I had no plans on using the pool or hot tub, so no need to hear how to get a towel. I wasn’t going to rent movies or a board game, so we skipped that too.

I didn’t realize it when I booked the room, but since it was off season, there was no place to eat on Property. That would have been nice to know when booking. It may have altered my decision on where to stay.

I was put in building 26, room 27. This one bedroom villa was an upgrade over the room I booked (I think it was slightly larger). From the main door you entered into the kitchen, which had all the amenities you would need for a family stay (stove, refrigerator, microwave and even a washer and dryer). There was a small dining table that sat four people between the kitchen and the living room.

The living room had a couch and two chairs facing the TV. A small balcony was off the living area – I failed to take a picture of this area because the weekend I stayed here it was unseasonably cold (-xx /20F), so I had need to spend any more time outside than absolutely necessary. The room looked out into the pool deck and at night it looked quite lovely, but my photos didn’t come out very good, so I trashed them.

The bedroom, had a very comfortable king sized bed with another TV and a small chair. There were a many outlets near the bed, I was in heaven!


The bathroom was huge and divided into a few different areas. Right off the bedroom there was a large bathtub with a single sink. Then through pocket doors you found the shower, another sink and the WC. The layout would be great if a family were to be staying there. So much space and a great layout which allowed for a little more privacy.

 

 

I went to bed early the night I stayed here and was up and out of the hotel  by 07h30. I didn’t hear a peep from other guests. While the resort was quite empty, the rooms near me were occupied. I don’t know if the insulation / soundproofing is that good, or if my neighbors were quite and respectful.

The only complaint I had at the resort was the amount of available hot water in the morning. I got half way though my shave before the water turned tepid. I showered after the shave and it was brisk. I assume that since the property had low occupancy levels, all the boilers weren’t on because if that is how the hot water works in peak season, I’d move to another property the first morning I froze in the shower.

Based on my limited experience at this Property, I would stay here again. The people were genuine and helpful. The room, while quite dated and a bit rough around the edges but served me well.  I think would be a great place for a small family you stay – you could expand this into a larger room by opening the connecting doors – scalability is great here.

What do you look for when staying at a resort property? Would you stay someplace if the bars and restaurants on site were closed? Where do you stay when visiting Myrtle Beach?

I Don’t Rent Cars

Not that there’s anything wrong with those that do, but I don’t rent cars. I don’t drive for that matter. In 2001, before moving to Chicago, I sold my car. There is no need for a car here. I did just fine with public transit and the occasional taxi and now with Uber my need for a car is almost nil.

When I travel I never rent a car. If I travel for work, I will either Uber everywhere, or I will travel with someone who is renting. Same with personal travel – I haven’t needed to rent a car since 2009. I have taken trips where one of our group will rent though.

Today, I schlep to Myrtle Beach, SC and am forced to rent. I couldn’t make the times work to travel in and out of MYR directly. I had to opt for a flight to CHS instead. While this allows me to visit for the weekend and not have an overnight in Cleveland in order to be back to work on time Monday morning, it does mean I have a two hour drive each direction.

It’s not that I can’t drive.  My choice is not to. I got a new boss two years so and as he reviewed my expenses he asked why I didn’t have rental cars on the report, to which I responded “I don’t drive, I am driven.” He still gives me shit for that to this day.

I booked this trip, signed up for a National Rental Car membership and thanks to my American Express Platinum Card.  They immediately granted me Emerald Elite status…which really means nothing and does nothing for me. I chose National because it offered the cheapest option for my needs this weekend.

When I have a car when traveling, I don’t feel more free, I feel chained to it. You need to deal with parking, fuel, etc. I’d rather just be able to hop out of the Uber and head to my gate, or run into the restaurant. I also haven’t driven a car in 26 months. This weekend day will be an adventure.

When you travel do you prefer to have a rental car or use public transit / taxis? How do you choose a rental car company – elite benefits or cheapest cost?

United Airlines – Premier Platinum

For years I’ve earned United Premier Gold Status – what use to be called Premier Executive.  This required flying 50,000 paid miles annually.  I first earned this status when I was flying back and forth to PDX when my dad was sick and have managed to keep that status for more than 8 years.  Luckily, I travel a bit for work each year, which helps me get a leg up on the status treadmill.

This year, I was able to achieve the next status level with United – Premier Platinum.  This threshold requires earning 75,000 Premier Qualifying Miles, plus $9,000 Premier Qualifying Dollars.  As I mentioned in a post earlier this month, I didn’t actually fly 75,000 paid miles this year, but with more reasonable pricing for premium cabin flights, I was able to earn bonus qualifying miles.  I found that I could pay for first class (domestic) for only $100 more round trip on many flights to the west coast. Paying for first changes your mileage earning – you get twice the Premier Qualifying Miles.  For an additional $100 round trip, that breaks down to just $12.50 per hour for the better seat, a mediocre meal and complimentary booze.  Mostly, it allows me more room to get work done on the flight – unfortunately, I can’t get reimbursed for first class tickets nor for paid upgrades.

So what does this status change actually mean?  You can take a look at the full benefits chart on United.com. For me, two biggest benefits – that I’ll actually use – are 1) Higher Priority for Complimentary Upgrades and 2) Increased Award Miles.

Higher Priority for Complimentary Upgrades.  As a Premier Platinum, my complimentary upgrade could clear 72 hours before departure, where the upgrades only clear 48 hours prior with Premier Gold.  If the upgrade doesn’t clear before departure, you are also higher on the upgrade list as a Platinum.  You’ll be behind Global Service Members and Premier 1K, but you’ll be ahead of Gold and Silver members. I will see how much this status bump actually impacts my ability to get complimentary upgrades.  I found, as a Premier Gold, I’d be often somewhere between number one and number 15 on the upgrade list — AFTER all the seats were taken.  I often would joke that I was the first loser on the upgrade game.  If the logic is true, then I should be seeing many more upgrades during my travel year in 2017.  Premier Platinum members also get two Regional Premier Upgrades, which put you even farther ahead on the upgrade list.  Since you only get two of those, I’ll need to plan my use strategically.

Increased Award Miles.  A few years ago, United changed the way in which you earn award miles – instead of being based on the actual amount of miles flown, times a multiplier based on your elite status, you know get award miles based on the cost of your airfare, times a multiplier.  That multiplier for Premier Gold is eight times the fare, with Premier Platinum you get nine times the fare.  While this isn’t a huge increase, it should give me an additional 9K miles each year.

premier-platnium-photo

You also get additional benefits like an extra checked bag for free – bringing your total to three bags for no charge.  Unless I’m fleeing the country or moving, there is no way I’m checking three bags. The idea of lugging that much luggage around gives me a panic attack.  One also with Premier Platinum status you board with Group One – as a Premier Gold you board with Group Two (the people who have the United Explorer Credit Card get to board with Group Two).  This isn’t necessarily a big deal, except when you are on a smaller plane with very limited overhead space.

How did your airline status end up this year?  Did you keep your status or were you like me, fortunate enough to make it to the next level?  What benefit, of any status level, do you most value?

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu was the main attraction on this trip.  I remember seeing pictures of it as a child and my mother telling me all that she read about it and how much she really wanted to see the site.  Our trip to South America was built around our day at Machu Picchu.

We were up and in the restaurant at Tambo del Inka at around 05h30.  In my post about the hotel, I talk about my thoughts on hotel breakfasts and the interesting sheen of the cold cuts I chose to eat and our train ride to Machu Picchu.  We pulled into the station that serves Machu Picchu a little before 09h30.  This was the end of the line and everyone was excited and scurried off the train to find their guides, most of which were meeting us at this station.  My first thought – where is the bathroom.  Yes, the shiny cold cuts were already causing issues.

We found our guide who immediately checked to make sure we had water, sun screen and then suggested we buy a hat because the sun can really bake down on you at the ruins – we did and like the time we bought a hat at Angkor Wat, we paid about 8USD for two — which made both us and the retailer happy – which means we got ripped off.  I find markets like this to be the true free economy – you pay whatever you think it is worth, trying to get the best deal and in the end, if the retailer can’t make money, they won’t sell it to you.

We walked with our guide over to the long line of buses that would take us from Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu.  There were a ton of people, as to be expected.  We patiently waited in line for about 10-15 minutes until it was our turn to board.  I got the last seat on the bus, which was sitting right next to the driver.  I had a perfect view out the front window – I could see every turn and the sharp drop off just centimeters from our tires.  I found that seat to be comforting as my bird’s eye view left nothing to my imagination – I knew exactly what was happening, while the folks behind me were just along for a wild ride.

We arrived at the main entrance for the ruins after about a 20 minute ride up the mountain going over about a dozen switchbacks and passing a good number of other buses which pushed us right to the edge of the road.  I decided to pop into the washroom again before we began our actual tour.

There was a spot where you could get your passport stamped with a quasi-official Machu Picchu stamp – we decided to get stamped but I’m sure I’ll regret that once I run out of pages in my passport!

Machu PIcchu Passport STamp

Machu Picchu Passport Stamp

Our guide did a really great job of telling us the history – who rediscovered the ruins, his passion for the area and how he just wouldn’t believe that the folk tales of this ancient city were all false.  He knew something was there, just over grown.  Our guide moved quickly all the while telling us great facts on the history of the area including details on the Indigenous Inca people as well as Spanish Conquistadors, modern archaeologists and historical geological changes.  He did a great job.

The views were spectacular – although they were exactly as I had seen in thousands of pictures.  I always love finding a new angle or vantage point, but I couldn’t find one on this trip.  Our guide was good about taking our cameras and getting pictures of us at the ruins – a thing that some guides aren’t all that skilled at.

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Picture Perfect Machu Picchu

At one point, out guide asked if we wanted to take a bit more strenuous of a hike to see an old bridge.  This was pretty early in the tour, so I was still feeling somewhat fine.  We took a 15 minute (one way) side trip to see and old Inca bridge.  The trek out there was along a narrow path that hugged the side of the mountain – with little to no room for error.  One slight misstep and you’d be over the edge.  We couldn’t cross the bridge as it was too dangerous (and the path was closed long before the bridge – closed at the perfect spot so you could get a great picture).

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The hike down to see the Inca Bridge was narrow and one false step would be an awful way to spend a vacation.

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A handful of people joined us on the walk to see the Inca Bridge, but it was by far the quietest part of the visit.

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Evidently this technique was used throughout the Inca Trail – a portion of the path was cut away and replaced with wooden planks.  This was a defense mechanism – if raiders were coming after the residents of Machu Picchu, they could flee and pull the planks up and the offending parties would be stuck on the other side.  Pretty ingenious, if you ask me.

We continued our exploration of the ruins and I was honestly surprised at how many elderly people were there hiking.  They weren’t necessarily in the best shape either – they were walking with their walking poles and were determined to see everything at the site.  I do hope when I get to be their age I am as active as they are.  They were so passionate about the ruins too – it wasn’t just a bucket list trip for them either.

As we got back to the main attractions (away from the bridge, which not everyone visited), we encountered a ton of tourists.  We ran into a ton of people with selfie sticks, trying to get the perfect picture.  Then when they’d hit you with their phone on a 2 meter long stick, they would get pissed at you!  Just like everywhere else in the world.

We had walked through the part of Machu Picchu that was for the upper class and priests and were working our way through the neighborhood where the normal people would live.  I was starting to feel awful at this point.  My stomach was doing cartwheels. I was thirsty, but with every sip of water, I was afraid I would begin vomiting.  I was sweaty and lightheaded.  I continued on.  We learned about the ancient sun dial and how the buildings were perfectly positioned to allow light to flow in during the solstices.  Everything was so perfectly planned.

At this point, it was about 13h15 and I just wanted to sit down…no, I just wanted to lie down and rest.

Our tour included a buffet lunch at the Sanctuary Lodge.  We arrived long before the lunch rush.  I waited in line for the washroom.  I return to our table and MS and our guide just now realize something was wrong.  I had done such a good job of hiding my utter miserableness.  I sat at the table while they ate.  I grabbed a piece of bread but couldn’t bring myself to eat it.  I revisited the washroom a few times while they ate.  This was one of those times where you wish you could just transport yourself someplace – anyplace.  The idea of the winding road down to the train station – then the 3 hour train ride back to the hotel made me even sicker.  And then it started to rain.

The lines to take the bus down the mountain were so long. There were hundreds of people all trying to leave at the same time.  I left MS and the guide a couple more times to visit the washroom.  Then the sun came out and it was sweltering.  I’m sure my fever didn’t make this any better.

Eventually we boarded the bus and headed back down to Aguas Calientes to board our train back to Tambo del Inka.  I visited the washroom again at the train station.

The return trip on the train was even slower than the outbound trip.  We left a little late, so we had to wait a few times for trains going up the mountain to pass us on the single track.  We were also surrounded by people coming back from actually hiking the Inca Trail – they were young, loud and drunk.  I use to be one of those people.  This trip, I was the sick, cranky old man.

When we arrived back at the hotel it was dark. It was cold.  It was wet.  I was in a foul mood. I had a fever with chills.  I just wanted to crawl into a ball and die.  I asked MS to run into the town and get me some saltines and some Gatorade – which of course they had. You gotta love visiting a tourist area where people encounter stomach issues from time to time.

Machu Picchu was one of those sites whose beauty takes your breath away (and I’m not making an altitude pun).  As you can see from the photos, we were there on a perfectly beautiful day.  Our views were as beautiful as any photoshopped picture anyone could take and manipulate.  I could have sat on the edge of one of those rocky outcroppings and stared over the ruins of this former great city, wondering what their daily life was like, why did they leave (disease, enemies, rumors of the Spanish?), was it really a lost city that no one knew the location of until the early part of the 20th century?

Despite being on the brink of utter destruction caused by bad hotel breakfast food poisoning, this day at Machu Picchu was wonderful.  I don’t think you need more than one day to see everything at Machu Picchu.  You could stay at Aguas Calientes and get up early to see the sun rise, which I hear is utterly spectacular – the same goes for the sunset.  Other than that, I don’t think you’d get much more from another full day at the ruins.

Our tour was coordinated through out hotel and we used Tikariy as the tour operator.  Everything was coordinated over email and once we arrived at the hotel we had a quick meeting with the operator who gave us another rundown of the tour.  She also gave us our train tickets, bus passes and Machu Picchu entry tickets.  Of course this tour went off without a hitch (other than the Starwood Food Poisoning) – this is what they do – they coordinate day trips to Machu Picchu and they did a great job of it.