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Important Changes to Marriott / Starwood Redemptions: Act Now!

Marriott acquired Starwood in 2016 but had a very slow and methodical integration of their loyalty programs. Kudos to them. Doing it right is better than doing it fast. I’d prefer to remain an SPG member, but the changes that Marriott is making are pretty reasonable. These changes are much better than we’ve seen with other travel related acquisitions.

The new program launches on August 18 and with that there are changes in Elite Status, Earning Rates and Redemption Rates. I can’t do anything about Elite Status or Earning Rates, but I can use the Redemption changes to my advantage.

For example, I have another trip to Austria coming up later this summer and I found that my favorite hotel, the Hotel Bristol, is going to cost 14,000 points more per night. Now this hotel only costs 12,000 SPG Points (which are worth 36,000 Marriott Points). After August 18th, the hotel will cost 50,000 Marriott Points to book. Booking now, I’ve saved myself 14,000 Marriott Points — there are about 1,700 Marriott (and Starwood) hotels in the world were those 14,000 points could get my one or two free nights.  I’d be a fool to ignore this savings!

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The main seating area was enormous and filled with classical music our entire stay.

This also goes the other way too. If you were planning on staying at the St. Regis San Francisco, that property will cost 30,000 points less than it does now! You can go ahead and book it now, but just know that you won’t automatically get those points refunded, you’ll have to call and ask for them to be credited back.

Marriott has a great website that helps you review their properties, how many points it takes now and how many it will take in the future. Go check out your upcoming travel plans and see if you should book now or after August 18th.
Where are you traveling and how are you favorite hotels working out with this change?

Holiday in Belgium – Final Thoughts

I kicked off this trip report noting that Belgium wasn’t high on our lists of locations to visit, but it was on the list.  Extenuating circumstances pushed this Holiday in Belgium up a bit to this year.  My expectations weren’t set especially high. I really didn’t do too much research before setting off on this trek.  Looking back, I really enjoyed the extra long weekend we had in Flanders.  Next time let’s head south so I can practice my French language skills.

The people were lovely and accommodating, the food was generally good and our selection of accommodations only had one hiccup (FYI: Booking.com did refund my money and I haven’t heard a peep from Lozercasteel since).  I would highly recommend that anyone in the area to take a couple days and explore the City of Ghent, and if you can, do so by bike.

The old Post Office in Ghent turned into a beautiful boutique hotel. Thoughtfully designed and centrally located – a must visit.

Before you set off for Flanders, take some time to read two books. These will help reset your knowledge of WWI and build on your understanding of the area:  All Quiet on the Western Front and War and Turpentine. Lovely and intense reads.  While exploring the WWI battlefields near Ypres, be sure to take a moment and read In Flanders Fields – these 97 words really have new meaning when you are standing near the front lines.

The symmetrically placed markers for each of the soldiers laid to rest here.

Have you spent time in Flanders?  Any recommendations for your fellow travelers?  I often like to hear about the things that one SHOULDN’T do at a location – maybe it is too touristy, too expensive without enough of a payoff at the end.

Brussels Airlines – Business Class (BRU-JFK)

After the surprisingly long trip into the airport, the slow moving lines at the border and the dreaded SSSS on my boarding pass, I got to the gate after boarding had already started. I pushed my way through the disorganized crowds around the main boarding door and was greeted by a Brussels Airlines employee who scanned my boarding pass, took my roller suitcase (I thought he was going to check it), but he just took it down the gate for me and put it in an overhead bin. Now that is service.

The SSSS markings are dreaded among savvy travelers, especially those running late!

I opted to sit in seat 5K, which is one of the throne seats – ample table space and no neighbors. A perfect way to spend about eight hours to New York.

Business Class and a Kir Royale

The throne seat on SN501 BRU-JFK. Seat 5K provides ample privacy to sip a pre-departure Kir Royale.

As I was getting situated in my seat, you know, getting tablet and headphones out, finding reading materials and charging cables, one of the flight attendants came by with pre-departure beverage options. This was the most comprehensive beverage tray service I have ever seen. In addition to water (both sparkling and still), he was offering orange juice, champagne and a Kir Royale.  My choice was easy, I’ll take a Kir any day of the week.

Kir Royale and Brussels Airlines (Mediocre) Amenity Kit

The amenity kits were distributed immediately after the drinks were delivered.  The amenity kit was quite an embarrassment though.  A poor quality spongy bag with an eye shade, socks, a pack with toothbrush and paste, ear plugs and a pen.  I love to reuse an amenity kit – I’m currently using a simple canvas bag from Lufthansa to store my travel cables.  This kit went right into the garbage once I got home.  I did like the unique color and aesthetic design – it just wasn’t functional and it sure didn’t have any feeling of luxury about it.

I told you, the Amenity kit on Brussels Airlines was pretty mediocre.

Nearly 30 minutes after I boarded, the main cabin door closed.  The flight attendants were making several announcements throughout the boarding process in English, Dutch and French.  It always amazes me that foreign airlines can make the same announcement in three different languages and still be done quicker than US airlines.  The Belgian captain welcomed us on board and announced our flight time of about 7 hours 15 minutes – 45 minutes shorter than booked.  This time on the ground allowed me ample opportunity to explore the relatively light in-flight entertainment and the seat functions.

There were only 47 TV episodes available and a few dozen movies.  That’s why whenever I travel, I always bring at least two-hours of pod casts and one-hour of video (TV or Movies) for every hour of flight.  Never get caught without entertainment on a trip!

Limited Television Options

In general, I thought the seat on Brussels Airlines was pretty comfortable for the relatively short hop across the Atlantic, especially for a daytime flight.  The biggest downside is the cubby where your feet go when the seat is in the bed position.  To efficiently fill the Business Class Cabin, the seats are staggered.  My throne seat had two seats in front of it and my feet had to fit into the small alcove between the two seats ahead of me.  Check out the design on Seat Guru – this picture doesn’t quite to the tightness justice, but you get the idea.  It really wasn’t a deal breaker for me, I’m on the taller side and often find that I need to sleep with bended knee on a flight.

Business Class on Brussels Airlines – Courtesy of Seatguru.com

We taxied for another 25 minutes and were airborne at 10h52.  Unlike many other flights, my Kir had been refilled after the door closed and while we were taxiing.  It wasn’t the best Kir Royale I’d had (it was a little warm), but it was the best on a plane and a great kick off to this flight.

After a choppy climb out of Brussels, the menus were delivered – we were a good 30 minutes into the flight and just a little north and west of London.  I was quite excited to see what the menus had to offer as I knew Brussels took pride serving Belgian specialties and had a nice Belgian beer list.

Another round of drinks were served with a couple amuse bouche, which I thought were surprisingly good.  The Smoke Eel Rillette was a great way to kick off the lunch.  I selected the King Crab and Lamb Saddle.  The King Crab was stellar.  Not only did it look great, but it tasted wonderful – I’m not usually a big King Crab guy, but this was prepared perfectly and the addition of artichoke made my day.  I wished it was a bit bigger though.

Apero snack
Smoked Eel Rillette with Granny Smith Apple Jelly

King Crab, Ponzu and Artichoke Carpaccio

King Crab, Ponzu and Artichoke Carpaccio

Main Course
Saddle of Lamb stuffed with glazed tomato, olive gnocchi.
Mediterranean vegetable gateau, rosemary jus

Main Course
Saddle of Lamb stuffed with glazed tomato, olive gnocchi.
Mediterranean vegetable gateau, rosemary jus

As I moved from the seafood to the meat course, I switched to red wine, from bubbles.  Unfortunately they didn’t stock the Pinot Noir that was advertised in the menu, but they swapped it out for a bold Zinfandel that was just too much for the lamb, so I decided to drink a Bordeaux   This wine wasn’t stellar, but it did pair much better with the lamb than I think the Zin would have.

Le Comte de Malartic Red 2014, Pressac-Leognan, Bordeaux, France

After the entree, I switched to the Oregon Chardonnay, which I thought would go nicely with the cheese course.  I’m not a traditional Chardonnay guy either, but I do love Oregon wines and I find the style of Oregon Chardonnay is much easier on the palate than a Californian wine – it’s all personal preference though, so taste, try and drink!

Selection of various cow’s milk cheeses

The meal service took just about two hours (11h25 – 13h45) from the time the first in-flight drinks were served until the final dessert plate was removed.  I enjoy a leisurely lunch in flight – especially on a daytime flight.  In the evening, especially to Europe, I’d like to speed things up and hopefully allow me to get a bit of sleep.

Speaking of sleep, I did manage to nap off and on for a few hours on this flight.  I didn’t want to sleep too much as I wanted to get a full and proper sleep at home and start the day off right for work the next day.

The champagne continued to flow throughout the flight and despite the menu indicating there was a mid-flight snack of ice cream, it also wasn’t on board.  I did prefer the other snack that was left out from the time before we menus were distributed until after we were deplaning.  Two 64 piece Neuhaus Chocolate boxes were left for Business Class passengers to enjoy.  Each time I made a trip to the lavatory I snagged a couple chocolates going and coming.  When the boxes were about half empty, the flight attendants replaced them with brand new boxes, then walked through the cabin asking if anyone would like the chocolates from the first box.  This happened twice while we traveled.  Yes, I ate a TON of chocolates on this flight.  They were superb.

Back to the Laurent-Perrier La Cuvee Champagne

I visited the lav more than I normally would, just so I’d have an excuse to eat more chocolate.  The lavatory was a standard airplane lavatory, but it had some pretty strange mood lighting.  Very blue. Very strange club like.  But the bath products were a minor upgrade from traditional lavatory options.

The club like blue lights in the lav. Strange.

We landed in New York at 12h02 and arrived at our gate at 12h32 a full 20 minutes early.  As we were deplaning each Business Class Passenger was given a large box of Neuhaus Chocolates – containing 16 pieces of dark chocolate.  It was a surprise that I loved.  The lady deplaning in front of me didn’t want hers, so I asked for Stew if I could have hers and he was only too happy to oblige.  SCORE.  Since I didn’t have any time at the airport to pick up gifts for the office, I used one for the office and one for me.

Is the Business Class service offered by Brussels an innovative experience? No.  Is it fun and unique? Absolutely.  The food and beverage (and the chocolate) service was definitely better than I’ve had on most other trans-Atlantic Star Alliance Flights (Austrian is better though).  The seats are much better than Business Class on Lufthansa or United (especially because United is still flying that awful eight-across business class product on their B777s).  Other than the tight foot cubby, my only other issue with Brussels is that they don’t fly to Chicago and I hate having to make another domestic connection when traveling.

I wanted to fly Brussels before Lufthansa (who just recently purchased the airline) makes changes to the product.  I don’t know if they have any plans to do so (Swiss and Austrian remained pretty much intact), but I didn’t want to risk it.

Have you flown Brussels Airlines before?  What did you love the most about it?  Anything that you utterly hated?  Did they lose your luggage – I’ve heard that they have some tough times keeping passengers and luggage together.

European Supermarkets

I often make a point to stop off in a grocery store when traveling.  I started this habit when I was in Portugal in 2010 and have always loved popping in and taking a few minutes to see what is being sold.  In general you see the same things you’ll see in the US, but some areas are dramatically better. I love European Supermarkets!

The meat and cheese counters often have a much wider selection than you can get back home.

European Supermarket Cheese Case

Various cheese as far as the eye can see!

European Supermarket Meat Case

Delicious meats – don’t they just look better than we have here in the US?

European Supermarket Meat Case

Look at the variety!

Another wonderful area to scope out – the prepared food area.  A little grab and go section is often right up front in these small markets in large European cities.  Here you can find quick ready-to-eat meals for busy city-dwellers. This isn’t fast food, it’s so much better.

Packaged tapas from a European Supermarket

Packaged tapas for a quick dinner or snack.

Do you have any strange traditions while you travel?  Do you love foreign grocery stores or markets as much as I do?

Hof van Cleve – Belgian Fine Dining

When traveling we love to explore local cuisine and if we can pair that with a fine dining experience, we will do everything we can to make that happen. I find myself looking more toward the World’s Fifty Best Restaurant list first, before Michelin or other fine dining guides as the World’s Fifty Best is in more locations are isn’t always showcasing restaurants of extreme price points.

I had no expectations of finding a restaurant in the areas we were visiting, they were touristy Bruges (particularly) and Ghent seemed less of a fine dining city, but I was pleasantly surprised when I found the restaurant that is ranked number 50 on the World’s Best Fifty list was located just a few dozen kilometers from Ghent. I knew that we weren’t going to drive back to Ghent after the tasting menu so we decided to stay at Lozerkasteel about 6 kilometers from the restaurant Hof Van Cleve. If you haven’t read about the beautiful Lozerkasteel, coupled with their shady business practices, I suggest you take a look at my review before booking with them.

We made reservations online about 3 weeks prior to our visit to Belgium and there were some hiccups when it came to booking, but after a couple emails with the surprisingly quick to respond team at HvC, we were booked with reservations at 19h30 on my final Tuesday in Belgium.

Our hotel arranged for a taxi which dropped us off at 19h15 and we were immediately welcomed in and seated.

The gardens leading to Hof van Cleve

Most of the tables were being seated at the same time. The meal is such that I believe they only do one seating a night, but it isn’t all at the exact same time – I don’t think they were turning tables during the night, so the guest who had that table had it for the whole night.

The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the uniforms: beautiful grey pinstriped suits for everyone. They even had matching belt buckles that I thought said HvC, but it was actually a Belgium designer who helped create the loom. I was envious, but couldn’t find a tactful way to ask for their belt “Excuse me sir, would you take off your belt”, and I didn’t have time to track down this designer. That’s next on my post trip research plan.

As we sat, a glass of champagne was offered and I don’t think I have ever turned down a glass of quality champagne in my life. Menus were delivered and we had already made up our minds that we’d be doing the full tasting menu with wine pairings. Hell, that’s why we stayed at the double-charge guesthouse. Menus were removed and our glasses were topped off.

Each course progressed the same. A new glass was delivered, then a couple minutes later the wine poured with a brief, yet detailed description of the selection was offered. Then the food arrived with another detailed description, and often details as to why the wine was chosen to pair with the course. Stellar service.

Any detailed questions on the wine were directed back to the sommelier, which I appreciate. You can’t expect servers to be fully versed on all aspects of the wine, that being said, when I asked about the region the wine came from they knew where it was from, some basic characteristics and the neighboring regions. They were definitely ahead of the competition.

The restaurant was celebrating their 30th anniversary, their Golden Anniversary. The tables were decorated with golden accents, many of which were custom created for the occasion by local artists. Even the courses were accompanied by gold garnishes.

Tomato + Rocket + Shrimp

Amuse Bouche

Bread Service with Sea Salt and Amazing Olive Oil

Seafood Amuse Bouche with Roe

Line-Caught Sea Bass
Grapefruit + Sorrel + Quinoa

Lobster “Oosterschelde”
Bear’s Garlic + Cauliflower + “Old Bruges” Cheese

Lobster “Oosterschelde”
Bear’s Garlic + Cauliflower + “Old Bruges” Cheese

Codfish Northsea
Green Asparagus + Cockle + Lovage

King Crab
Parmesan + Curry + Bouillabaisse

Milk-Fed Veal “Lozere”
Green Pea + Pointed Cabbage + Morel

Second preparation of Milk-Fed Veal “Lozere”
Green Pea + Pointed Cabbage + Morel

The Cheese Trolley – A Delicious Addition

Beautifully decadent cheese course

Strawberry “Mariguette”
Rhubarb + Mascarpone + Salty Lemon

Chocolate Van Dender “Mexico” 70%
Sea Buckthorn + Bergamot + Apple

The chef joined us for a few minutes midway through our dinner. We had a bit of a communication breakdown. I congratulated him on his 30th anniversary. He paused and asked if we were celebrating our anniversary….which technically we were, so we confirmed. Well, before the main desserts were served, a small cake with a candle came out. The server asks which of us were having our “anniversaire”…which is French for birthday. Ugh. The chef thought we were telling him we were here for a special birthday, not congratulating him. The worst part, this conversation was in English, so I wasn’t butchering the French language. Double ugh. I made Mike blow the candle out and eat the cake immediately. We were both embarrassed.

The misunderstood anniversary surprise

The other funny part of the even came about ¾ of the way through the meal. I asked the somm if he could call our driver at the appropriate time for a proper pick up. Evidently we had asked WAY TOO EARLY. The driver said to call an hour before we wanted to be picked up. The somm did that oh-so-typical French thing where he looks at you, puffs up his cheeks then slowly blows the air out. It is the equivalent of a less rude eye roll / shoulder shrug. He looks at me and says he’ll take care of it, but worst case scenario the cab is late and we all hang out and they serve us more wine. Yeah, that’s an awful option. The cab arrived before we were ready, but they waited without an additional fee.

Hof van Cleve was such a unique experience. The food was wonderful, but the service really knocked the whole meal out of the park. It was definitely an expensive meal. It wasn’t the most expensive meal I’ve ever had, but it was a close second. This restaurant isn’t for the faint of heart, but I loved it so much more than Steirereck in Vienna, which ranked much higher on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

Have you been to Hof van Cleve? Where did you stay? Was your wait staff surprisingly hot? What was your favorite course? Mine was a tie between the Tomato + Rocket + Shrimp Amuse. or King Crab.