Tim Foolery

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Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Sights of Stockholm

I didn’t have much time to spend in Stockholm so I put together a list of things that I just had to see before I boarded my return flight home.  The first thing on the list was the Vasa Museum, which I wrote about recently.  I had also heard many good things about the ABBA Museum, but I’m not a huge ABBA Fan (perish the thought, I know) and the museum entry was quite steep – I just couldn’t pull the trigger.

Interestingly enough, Stockholm was dramatically warmer than Chicago the week I visited.  Chicago was -40C (-40F) when I left and Stockholm was 5C (41F), which was downright balmy!  By my second day in Stockholm the temperature had dropped closer to freezing and a bit of snow dropped overnight.  Despite the weather change it was still quite comfortable and didn’t impact my plans at all.

My visit list included a walk around Gamla Stan – or old town Stockholm – and while there I visited the Royal Palace and Museum and the Nobel Museum (which was undergoing some reconstruction work).  In addition to these main attractions, I wanted to get a better feel for the City – see the architecture and learn more about the people and history of the City.  This last goal required me to just wander around the City, turning down streets that looked interesting, popping into bars and restaurants that had an appeal and chatting it up with the locals.

The view of Gamla Stan from my hotel room…before the snow came in.

Old Stockholm. Despite being a bleak and dreary January day, the colors of these buildings and boats just popped.

The Nordiska Museum is dedicated to the cultural history and ethnography of Sweden. A truly stunning piece of architecture.

The Royal Guard – all buttoned up and warm. Unlike the Beefeaters, he was very friendly and we chatted for a bit.

The canons standing guard at the Royal Palace Museum with a fresh blanket of snow from the previous night.

My appetizer of herring with a potato, cheese and crackers.

Proper Swedish Meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberries. What trip to Sweden would be complete without eating your weight in the delicious meatballs.

I will usually check out TripAdvisor and see if there are any places that hadn’t made my list, but should have – or to check out the self-guided walking tours offered on the TripAdvisor App.  There was an interesting one for Stockholm – a tour of the various art pieces found in the Stockholm Subway Stations. Yes, I used my three-day transit pass to schlep between stations to checkout the modern and classical installations.  At a couple stations, locals asked me what I was photographing – so I told them about the self-guided tour I was on, and talked to them about the object I was there to see.  It was a really unique way to explore the art of the City.  At each stop, I also made sure to go above ground and at least take a walk around a block or two to see where I was and what the neighborhood was like.

Station Art depicting the devastation of the natural environment.

Ancient statuary adorned one of the Subway Station Art Stops.

Portuguese tiling surprised me at one of the stations. Beautiful, but completely unexpected.

The people of Stockholm were very welcoming and anytime I had a question (if I had gotten myself lost or needed a recommendation, for example). Even when I was just walking around the City, I didn’t hear Swedish being spoken – only English – which was a little disappointing.  On the flight the announcements were only in English and not Swedish.  I understand that everyone (or nearly) in Stockholm speaks English, but I was hoping to hear some of their native tongue.

What was the thing you just loved about Stockholm?  What did I miss on my visit?  Am I nuts for going to Sweden in January?

The Vasa Museum – Stockholm

The one recommendation that EVERYONE I talked to about Stockholm gave me was to visit the Vasa Museum.  The Vasa was a Swedish warship built in the early 1600s.  It actually sank on its maiden voyage after sailing a bit more than a kilometer.  Some items of value (cannons and other weaponry) were salvaged later in the 17th century, but the ship was basically forgotten until the middle of the 20th century.  It was raised in 1961 and housed in a temporary location until it moved to its permanent home in 1981.  The Vasa museum is dedicated to the history of the ship, the salvage efforts and the period in which it was constructed.  

I decided to visit the Vasa Museum my first day in Stockholm and I figured I’d spent about 90 minutes exploring the museum, maybe grab lunch at the museum cafe and then head on out to make headway on my to do list.  That plan fell apart pretty quickly, once I arrived at the museum.  I was enthralled!

I was utterly surprised at how interesting the museum actually was.  The Vasa was so much more grand than I was expecting.  While you can’t actually go on the ship itself, you can walk around it getting amazing views of the craftsmanship.  The brackish water really preserved the ship – 400 years underwater and the boat looks amazing.  The museum worked with craftsmen to repair parts of the ship that were damaged while it was submerged or during the recovery process.

The aft section of the Vasa – enormous in scale and history.

The intricate carvings transfixed me.

While you couldn’t tour the boat itself, the museum did have a ton of interactive exhibits where you could see what life would be like on board.

A sampling of the ornate carvings that adorned ships of this era.

I ended up spending nearly four hours exploring the Vasa Museum.  I did also grab some Swedish meatballs and a beer.  I’ve recommended this museum to others, with the simple comment that you’ll need more time than you initially think and everyone tells me that the did indeed spend hours longer there than they anticipated.  Who knew a 400 year old boat that sank immediately upon completion would be so fascinating?

Swedish Meatballs, Potatoes and Pickles at the Vasa Museum. Really great for Museum Food!

Have you been to the Vasa Museum?  How much time did you spend there?  The meatballs were pretty tasty too, weren’t they?

Is Hotel Status Worth Chasing?

Hotel status is an interesting animal for me. On one hand, I really dig the suite upgrades and the additional points earned for stays, but on the other, the upgrades are so infrequent, why worry about them? I’m Platinum with Starwood and Marriott (their not-so-recent merger allows for a status match between programs). I earn this status by staying 50 nights a year at SPG Properties (plus the nights/stays credited because of the co-branded credit cards). I do struggle maintaining this status because sometimes my work travel doesn’t afford me the opportunity to stay at an SPG Property.

Prince de Galles Macassar Suite – Upgraded because of my SPG Platinum Status

Does Platinum Status even matter any more?

Friends have commented on how Marriott isn’t all that generous with their Platinum members – negligible upgrades being the biggest issue. What minimums do I expect from a hotel program? I expect high speed internet for at least three devices (I need my phone, tablet and laptop all connected…and if I’m traveling with anyone else, we need at least four devices connected), I would like access to a club lounge with bottles of water and some snacks and cocktails (even grocery store wine is an acceptable amenity). I don’t care about breakfast, complimentary parking, or discounts at the on-property restaurants. A room free of feathered linens and located away from the elevator is also high on my list.

In reality, I can get all my hotel needs met with a mid-tier (Gold with SPG, Marriott and Hilton) status. I get access to upgrades (that rarely materialize even with Platinum status), I get free internet and I get access to the club lounges. I get this status without running on the Hotel Stay/Night hamster wheel.

The American Express Platinum card offers Gold Status with both Hilton and Starwood. United offers Gold Status at Marriott for flyers who maintain Gold or higher status with MileagePlus. I’ve got all the major programs covered, why should I push for Platinum Status? Should I just find the best rate at the best hotel and use whatever savings I’m getting to pay for a nicer room when I really need it.

Since the Marriott and SPG loyalty programs will likely be combining in 2019 and I have confidence that it will look more like Marriott Rewards than SPG, I’m changing my hotel strategy – Find a hotel with a good rating, great rate, close to everywhere I want/need to be and call it good. I hope it feels freeing that I don’t feel obligated to stay at a property I’m just not digging because I need the Stay/Night credit (I’m looking at you, Westin Arlington, VA).

What is your hotel strategy for 2018 and beyond? If you are a Marriott fan, tell me how your luck has been with your upgrades and elite recognition.


Avalon Hotel Palm Springs

Our flight from Chicago landed 45 minutes early, which meant we had just that much more time to enjoy a beautiful fall day in the desert.  We were in Palm Springs for a wedding and had nowhere to be until 16h45.  Our first stop was the Hotel.

The front gates at the Avalon Palm Springs decorated for the holidays.

Located just 15 minutes from Palm Springs International Airport, the Avalon Palm Springs is just a block off of Palm Canyon Drive at the far southern end of the strip.  We arrived at the reception desk at around 11h30 and were fortunate enough to be able to get into our room straight away.  I booked directly from the SPG App a few days prior to our arrival, and did indicate an early arrival.  It is a crapshoot though.  Will the room be available or not?  Luckily, not only was our room available, we were upgraded to a nice suite.  As we were being escorted to the room by the bell staff, the woman working reception offered us some prosecco, and you know me, I’m not going to turn down prosecco.  It was served in those cheap plastic cups you get pre-departure on planes. They should have used real glasses, we were staying on property, c’mon.

Our room was over the hill and through the woods and upstairs.  We looked out upon the main pool and bar/restaurant area with a perfect balcony to enjoy the beauty of the property but still have some privacy.

Our one bedroom suite was equipped with two full bathrooms, a mini bar, a huge (and remarkably empty) living room and a bedroom with a king sized bed.

The focal point of the master bedroom was the papered ceiling – I dig it!

The king sized bed filled the bedroom completely and was quite comfortable.

The en suite bathroom was efficient, but quite dated. Reminding me of an older apartment building.

The en suite bathroom wasn’t very high end, but perfectly functional.

The second full bath almost went unnoticed. I love rooms with multiple bathrooms.

The mini bar was full of mismatched glassware, but the addition of a proper wet bar was great.

The room was a little rough. It was clean and comfortable, don’t get me wrong.  The room was dated, paint was peeling and chipping. It reminded me of a college apartment (not the furnishings of course, just the bones).

The couches and chairs were comfortable and we got good use out of them, even for just our one night stay.  We slept like logs as well.

The main living area was large – with plenty of room for another small seating area.

The hotel was doing some renovation work during our stay, which included work on the roof of our room. They were out with ladders working early in the morning. Luckily, it is Palm Springs and we always get up very early when we visit (seriously…I’m not being sarcastic).  There is something about Palm Springs that pushes me to wake early.  It is probably the fact that the sun goes down behind the mountain in winter so early, you are ready for bed by 21h30.

After checking into our room and grabbing lunch off property, we returned to the hotel for some much needed pool time. We ventured off to the pool on the southern edge of the Hotel, where the sun was still shining bright.  I ordered a drink…yes, a piña colada with a double dark rum floater (hey, it was vacation).  I relaxed, nursing the previous night’s holiday party hangover.  I even grabbed an avocado toast (I’m not a millennial, so you can skip the mortgage jokes…just barely not a millennial though).

I dipped my foot in the pool and it was very cold. It wasn’t warm enough outside to need a polar plunge, so I just lounged by the pool and ate, drank and read.  

Enjoying the December sun and a lovely cocktail poolside.

The Avalon hotel is very close to the mountains and the sun ducked behind them around 15h15, and while it was still light, it cooled off very quickly. Our pool time was over, which was fine since we had places to be.

We ended up grabbing a late night snack and a cocktail too at Chi Chi, in the hotel. The service was good and the snacks were exactly what we were looking for. I’d been to Chi Chi’s once before. They offer both indoor, outdoor and poolside dining and cocktailing, with pretty prompt service. I’d swing by again, even if I wasn’t staying on property.

This was my first stay with the Avalon and while there may be newer and fancier hotels in Palm Springs, I really enjoyed my stay there and would definitely return – I’m actually planning a return with a friend as I write this!

Have you stayed at the Avalon Palm Springs?  What is your favorite Starwood Property to call home whilst in Palm Springs?

Language and Travel – Parlez vous la langue locale?

I love language. English is my native tongue. I studied Spanish for three years in high school, German for two years in College and I’ve been taking French as an adult for a couple years now. I love the nuances of each languages, but I truly dig the similarities between different languages.

My Spanish, German and French are good enough to order in restaurants, ask for directions, get tickets to things and of course, ask if someone speaks English.  My mind struggles with formulating a response to a question…even if I completely understand the question. I just need more time to put the words together in my mind…but the question poser usually switches to English and I’m done with my language experimentation for that conversation.

When I travel someplace new, someplace where I have no knowledge of the language, I will pull together a few words or phrases that I can use to show I’m not a total dolt.  Things like Please, Thank You, Hello, How Are You?, I’m Fine, Do you Speak (English / Spanish / German / French)?, Where is…. These all at least shown that you’ve tried to learn about the culture you are visiting.

Last year, we flew on EVA to Taipei from Chicago (en route to Myanmar). I knew the stews would speak English, but I wanted to learn a critical phrase in Mandarin. Critical for me.  No, not “Where is the bathroom”, but more important “I would like some champagne please.”  I googled this phrase and practiced the day of our departure.  Once we boarded and had settled, I turned to the stew and said, in my best Mandarin “Hello, how are you? I would like some champagne please.” She was shocked and giggled while covering her mouth. She responded in Mandarin, which I didn’t understand. She returned with the Purser and a glass of wine. The Purser said she couldn’t open a bottle of champagne because of Cook County taxing rules, but I could have a glass of sparkling wine.  Good enough for me.

Unfortunately Hello Kitty could not help me in my champagne search. I tried though

Fast forward two month, I’m at an annual meeting for my company, which is being hosted at a Marriott near O’Hare. The bar was packed and service was slow and confused.  I was standing around several senior leaders from my company (several C-level and a couple EVPs). I noticed our server had a Chinese flag on her lapel, so when she came over, I used my limited language skills and ordered a champagne.  She flashed me the biggest smile and took off, not taking anyone else’s order. She returned a few minutes later with a bowl of bar snacks and a flute of champagne. One of the executives I was standing with turned and asked with a smirk – “What just happened? Did you just order a cocktail in Chinese?” We are not a multinational organization, so using Mandarin isn’t part of our daily lives. Luckily this woman didn’t ask me any follow up questions.

At the end of the day, this is just an amusing anecdote we tell around the office and the only real benefit was that I got my drink quicker than others.  That being said, I think you earn a lot of street cred when you at least try to pick up some of the local tongue. Who knows, you may be able to show your resourcefulness at a hotel bar and impress your executive leadership team.  Also remember, if you know just two phrases, don’t act like the cock of the walk – you memorized a couple of sounds, you’re not a polyglot, but you could end up just being a jerk.

Do you try to learn a few key words and phrases before you hit the road?