Sheraton Fishermans Wharf San Francisco: Outrageous Charges!

In short, I would say to everyone not to get close to this hotel. There are a lot of other hotels around that would cost the same or less (Radisson, Holiday Inn, Hyatt, Argonaut, Courtyard Mariott – where internet is free!, etc.) but without the scandalous additional charges.

Room ****

I have nothing to complain about the room, other than the fact that they don’t provide a fridge. How weird for a Sheraton! If my trip isn’t a road trip, this might not be a problem at all. But since this is a three-week road trip, we keep chocolate, drinks, fruits (yes, we continue to eat fruits every day even when we travel!), and takeaway food because food portion in the US is outrageously big

Facilities *

While this hotel has everything a normal Sheraton would have (minus a fridge and a shower cap …), the charges for using these services are what I consider a scam. In the age where many hotels offer free wireless internet in the room, Sheraton charges US$14.95 per IP address (or per computer) per day! Our family of three, which bring three laptops and my husband also uses iPhone 3G, ended up being charged almost US$58 for internet for one day because the staff didn’t inform us about it and the internet use terms and conditions also did not explain that the charges are per IP address, not per room per day. Yes, we know that wireless internet is free from the lobby. But doing a business Skype call from the lobby, while his wife and kid sits next to him in the lobby to play computer games while he’s busy with work, each one of us in headphones so we don’t bother then 30 or so other people in the lobby? Figure that! 🙂

They also charged us $49 per day for parking, while surrounding hotels can offer it at half that or even free!

Had we not pre-booked and pre-paid the room months earlier, we would have fled from that hotel before receiving our key!

Location ***

Location is right in the Fishermans Wharf area, so it’s walking distance to the cable car, the wharf, and many restaurants. However, being so strategically located in the touristy neighborhood also means noise and crowd. We heard noise from outside (and from the room above us) constantly throughout our four-night stay – there’s never been a quiet moment in and around the hotel. Checking in and out was also troublesome because of the long queue … when we checked out, the front entrance was overcrowding with luggage trolleys and people who were waiting for their valet car to arrive. The scene looked more like a school trip dismissal rather than a four-star hotel experience.

We had to wait about half hour before our car got out, with no one attending the luggage and no security standing by. If anyone wanted to steal a couple of laptops or camera … that would have been the perfect scene because it was so crowded and understaffed, no one would pay attention.

So … just stay away from this hotel if you don’t want anything to ruin your holiday mood in San Francisco 🙂

The Venetian Macau: Wow, My Bed is Made! :-)

venetianmacau_beautyshotI’ve stayed at The Venetian Las Vegas before (read here for the review) so I won’t repeat my comments about that fake Italian feeling. If you haven’t read my Venetian Las Vegas review, please read that first to give you a better picture of why I write the things that I write below 🙂

Service ****

The service is impressive compared to the one that I encountered in Vegas. They have free shuttle buses to the ferry terminal and airport, the staff were largely knowledgeable, the ever-present security guards were courteous, occasionally amusing when they chase away the professional call girls in mini skirts from the lobby. With at least half of the service staff being Filipino, I didn’t have any problem understanding their English.

Having said that, some of the staff do need to know their surroundings better. At least two staff members gave us wrong directions on how to get to the main lobby from the south lobby, and one even said, “I don’t know …” In a hotel as big as the Venetian, every guest is guaranteed to be lost and every staff members should be trained to address this problem.

Room****

The room was identical to the one in Las Vegas. Actually, not just the room …. EVERYTHING about the hotel is identical to Vegas. The only problem with the room is the lack of shelf space in the shower, which means we have to put our shampoo, shaving cream, soap etc. ON THE FLOOR while showering. Fairly minor though … everything else about the room was great 🙂

Facilities & Surroundings ***

Just like Vegas, Venetian Macau is full of shops. But it doesn’t just focus on high-end retail shops. They have Giordano alongside Tiffany & Co., Guess as well as Chanel. And they have a mall-style food court, selling everything from Korean bibimbap to Chinese charsiu rice. I find this a nice combination, because I don’t do much high-end retail therapy.

Many shows, including Cirque de Soleil, are housed here. So does 20 restaurants and bars. And the largest casino in Macao. So basically you can stay here for several days without needing to step out from the hotel for entertainment.

However, kids are not allowed to enter the casino area … not even if they’re just trying to take a short cut to the other end of the hotel, accompanied by their parents. Every time we had to walk the long and winding route to get to the other side of the hotel, simply because the casino hogs the center spot of the hotel and we can’t walk through it.

Furthermore, the signage is as poor as the one in Vegas. Maybe they do this intentionally so guests would get lost in the shops before ever finding an exit. There are signs everywhere, but it doesn’t tell you where to go. You have one sign saying “LEFT to Grand Canal” but that sign would be nowhere to find at the next intersection. Signs are located on the side of the wall, not right in front of your face, and often not big enough for normal tourists to see.

Another annoying thing about the hotel is the multitude of Chinese tour groups in the hotel. There are virtually thousands of tourists visiting the Venetian every day (a few of them smoking while walking around, most of them have no regards for queuing whatsoever), and it made Venetian look like a total joke …. Italian design, Filipino workers, Chinese chaos 🙂 It also means that you would have to fight with them to get the attention of a concierge, because they will cut you off and push you aside even as you’re speaking to the concierge.

For some quiet, relaxing, retail time … my husband and I prefer to walk to the next shopping arcade, the Four Seasons, which is tourist-free.

Food ****

Great selection of food from Korean, American, Chinese to Portuguese. Starbucks, Fatburgers and McD are available for those who don’t like exotic stuff. We recommend the food festival for those who want yummy, affordable fast food from all nations. The pizza and burgers there are not bad either :-)Some restaurants (like 3 Monkeys) are child-friendly. Having said that, none of them compare to the delight of eating at Fernando’s in old-town Coloane 🙂 Even the Portuguese restaurant at the Venetian (Madeira) couldn’t compare with the richness of Fernando’s flavors 🙂

Grand Hyatt, Seoul: Pleasing in The Eye, but …

grand-hyatt-grandroomThis hotel came to us highly recommended by quite some people, so we decided to try it because our favorite hotel, Lotte Hotel Seoul, was full. It was a nice, predictable, Hyatt experience, but nothing more. Here’s why:

Location ****

Location is nice because the rooms will give you a view of downtown Seoul from the hill, which is very pretty at night. The hotel also provides free shuttle bus to Itaewon (the main hangout area for expats, full of nice shops and restaurants) and Myeong Dong (a less-touristy area, but still a nice place to visit) until 9pm. The main issue with their location is that nothing is walking distance. You have to take a taxi, or shuttle bus, to find the nearest restaurant or convenience shop. Office buildings and commercial districts are also not within walking distance. This place is definitely for business travelers who do not like crowds and noise after they’re finished with work 🙂

Room ****

We got a corner room (free upgrade, thanks to my husband’s colleague) which was renovated two years ago. The room is quite spacious, with display shelves that don’t usually exist in a hotel room, two wardrobes, and a separate corner to make tea and coffee. Very pleasing in the eye from a design standpoint.

But I find quite a lot of things that are not practical in the design … the two wardrobes are definite waste of space (which business traveler would have enough clothes to fill up two wardrobes in one trip?). The shower door left a gaping hole, so the bathroom floor is always flooded after we shower. There are two sets of racks in the wardrobe that makes it hard for us to reach to the left end of the wardrobe (you won’t understand it unless you’re there … but believe me, it’s kinda annoying). They put a set of racks on the tea-making table that makes it hard to pull out the kettle from its base without hitting a glass or cup.

Another thing that might be minor but important to us is pillows. They only have soft, mushy pillows, which goes down immediately after you put your head on it, but the rest of the pillow will stay high and fluffy so when you sleep on your side, you will end up with the side of that pillow blocking your respiratory system (aka nose).

Internet was slow when we used it …. and it really bugged my husband because he needed to do some work on his office e-mails … 😦

Service *****

The service is excellent, as is usually the case with the Grand Hyatt. Everyone is friendly, speaks good english, and is efficient. The hotel’s marketing department even throw a complimentary bottle of wine and fruit platter there, which is nice 🙂

They also have a choice of newspaper, including International Herald Tribune and Wall Street Journal to deliver to the room. Way better than forcing everyone into reading a local newspaper. They also have a nice choice of reading material in the room, from the normal hotel and touristy magazine to Newsweek – my favorite! 🙂

Will I recommend this hotel to people? YES if you’re a business traveler traveling alone, NO if you’re there for leisure or there with your family. If you’re a business traveler traveling on your own, then the gaping hole in the shower and the super space in the wardrobe wouldn’t bug you. But if you’re traveling with your husband/wife plus kids, forget it … stay in a hotel where it’s easy to buy snacks and get anywhere by foot 🙂

Lotte Hotel, Seoul: Exactly The Place To Be

info_photo_17_1My husband’s company is a corporate customer at Grand Hyatt Seoul, yet my husband always choose to stay in this hotel. I have no idea what Lotte is (for all I know, it’s a brand of chewing gum ….), but after staying there myself I can totally understand why it’s my husband’s best choice for hotel in Seoul. And here’s why:

Location *****

Can’t beat the location. My husband can walk to his company’s headquarter near Insadong. Insadong itself is an area filled with shops and restaurants, a popular place for tourists and locals alike. Between the walk from the hotel to his office, he would walk through a man-made river that is also a public square with all kinds of activities from concerts, flea market, night-time food stalls, water fountain shows, etc.

Lotte itself houses a huge shopping mall with all kinds of branded goods, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and all kinds of Korean food. A walk around the area will give you everything from nail spa, massage house, Korean fast food, pizza, convenience stores to street-side snack sellers (you have to try this! Korea has one of the best street food!).

There is a subway (MRT, underground, whatever you call it) station right outside the hotel. Popular places like Namdaemun, Dongdaemun, Nanta Theater and Deoksugung Palace is an easy stroll away with subway from Lotte hotel.

From location standpoint, I can’t see a better five-star hotel in Seoul – whether you’re a business traveler or a tourist like myself. The location itself is enough reason for me to go there time and time again, especially knowing that traffic can be bad in Seoul during rush hour.

Room *****

The room and bathroom is super spacious, with a great view of downtown Seoul. We were there just before winter in 2007, and of course the bathtub, sink and toilet seat could be super cold. It therefore came as a pleasant surprise to find the toilet equipped with seat warmer and warm water (excuse me) butt washer! 🙂

The bathroom’s size is very generous. If you open the blinds, You can have a view of downtown Seoul from your bathroom.

Service *****

The concierge spoke good English and gave me a lot of useful information, from how to travel around in Subway, purchasing tickets in an all-Korean ticketing machine, to how to get to Nanta Theatre in Gangbuk. Check in and check out is totally painless. In addition, they know that my husband is a frequent customer there, and the hotel gave us free morning and afternoon tea (with snacks) in their club lounge even though breakfast is not included in the price. That is nice 🙂

Food

I can’t be the judge of this. Korean food doesn’t necessarily taste better when you pay a higher price, so we stuck to eating street food and visiting local restaurants, giving the hotel food a miss. But I remember their morning and afternoon tea, which is quite nice although I can’t say it’s great …

Price is about the same as other five-star hotels in Seoul, which I find quite surprising because you would think that a local chain wouldn’t charge as much as a global hotel chain. However, I think it’s definitely worth it, given the location and the fully decked-out funky toilet seat 🙂

What to do in Ho Chi Minh City

This is my last night in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and I can’t even wait to get back to Singapore before I write this. Ho Chi Minh City is full of life, dynamic, and flavorful. I find myself at home in the midst of basil and lemon-smelling meals, friendly people with limited English, motorcycle fumes, maddening traffic jam in rush hour, and flood waters during high tides along Saigon river. And here’s some of the things I get to see:

1. Cho Ben Thanh Market. Open from 5 or 6am to late at night (at least 9pm), this is a good place to look for anything from arts and crafts, clothes, Vietnamese traditional dress aozai, food, flowers (fake or fresh), tropical fruits, ground coffee to electronics. My friend who’s lived here for 11 years said, “If you can’t find it at Ben Thanh market, you don’t need it.” Bargaining skills a must, and don’t believe the price tag if they put it, because they can jack up the price to 10 times more if you are a foreigner. The general bargaining rule is to consider the maximum price that you’re willing to pay for it (factoring in how much these things might cost in other countries or your country), then start at half that. The sellers take US dollars as well as Vietnam Dong (VND).

2. The shops around Ben Thanh market. If you can’t find anything at Ben Thanh market, or is not big into bargaining, keep walking pass it to Le Loi street (where there is a public park), Nguyen Trung Truc, Dong Khoi or Pasteur Street. These streets are filled with shops and boutiques, mostly selling arts and crafts or silk and linen products. Note that you can also bargain a bit here. For example, I got myself a stunning silk cocktail dress for US$40 from what was originally a $90 – in a posh boutique in Dong Khoi. But the shopkeeper of Ipa Nima boutique on Pasteur Street wouldn’t let me buy a silk skirt for US$15 … from its original tag of US$29 🙂 Note that although most of these stores are individual boutiques, they are not necessarily more expensive than Ben Thanh market. I got myself a wine rack for US$5 in a souvenir boutique, and this would have costed me US$35 at Ben Thanh market if I don’t have any bargaining skills.

com-nieu-sai-gon
The entrance - not attractive, but the restaurant is unbelievably neat and tasty

3. Com Nieu Sai Gon – a popular restaurant that serves delightful Vietnamese and Chinese food. Eating here is a great experience. They cook the rice until it’s dry and crispy in a clay pot, then they break the clay pot and throw the dry rice to your table (imagine a flying saucer across a 10 x 8 meter room). A skillful waiter will catch that rice right next to your table, put some seasonings on it, and serve it. The taste and smell of everything they serve in this restaurant is surreal … it’s a memorable culinary experience! It’s on Tuc Xuong street, and every taxi driver knows this place.

Street-side coffee shop
Street-side coffee shop

4. Drink coffee with condensed milk. Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee exporter, so you must try their coffee. If you think you have a tough stomach, I suggest you to visit a street-side coffee house or sports bar (meaning … a little coffee shop with a lot of deck chairs facing the TV) and buy coffee, hot or cold, with condensed milk for 5000-8000 VND a cup (no more than US$50 cents). I do this every single morning.

If your idea of drinking coffee must include a Starbuck-like cozy lounge and air conditioning, then try Highlands Coffee or Trung Nguyen Coffee … both present in all corners of Ho Chi Minh City. You have to pay around 26-35,000 VND for a cup of coffee there. Still only half the price of Starbucks, and often times they give you free wi-fi internet too 🙂

5. War remnants museum. I didn’t get to go there myself, but my friend who’s lived there for ages said that it’s worth-visiting, especially if you’re an American. This will give you the story of Vietnam war (the American war, as the Vietnamese call it) from a different perspective. The displays are not interactive, but the point here is to learn about this war from the Vietnamese’s perspective (or the Vietnam government’s perspective, at that 🙂 ).

6. Massage at Ngoc-Anh Therapy Massage. Check www.ngocanhspa.com for their locations and price list. I went with a friend to the one at 348 Cach Mang Thang 8 (Tam) street, which is their smallest location. It’s not air-conditioned (ceiling fan only) and the staff speak little English … but the massage is GREAT and the price very reasonable (I spent 110,000 VND, or US$6.5, for 90-minute foot and back massage). If you like a strong massage, definitely try Ngoc-Anh. They use a combination of shiatsu and Thai massage techniques. If you do the full-body 90-minute massage, they will give you hot-stone massage too.

I would probably recommend the therapy massage place on Nguyen Binh Kiem street (the therapy massage place on second floor, NOT the beauty spa that charges you only in US dollars) rather than the one I went to. The one on Nguyen Binh Kiem is a bigger location and I think they would have the more experienced therapists there. Note: DON’T GO to Ngoc-Anh by taxi during rush hour … it’s a futile attempt! If you want to go there during rush hour, go by foot or motorcycle taxi 🙂

fruit-market
Fruit section of Ben Thanh market

7. Go to the fruits section of Ben Thanh Market and buy any fruits you’ve never seen before. I come from a tropical country that shares all of Vietnam’s exotic fruits. But I was here with friends from Cuba, Zimbabwe, the US and Switzerland who have never seen dragon fruits, rambutan, durian, sapodilla (or sapote, or sawo), soursop and the like. So one night I just went to the fruit market, bought one or a few of those exotic fruits, brought them back to the hotel, and had a fruit-tasting feast. Unlike the normal souvenir or clothes sellers at Ben Thanh, the fruit sellers don’t mark up the price. Make sure you go to a shop that has the price list of their fruits on a white board so you can guess how much would be a reasonable price (more or less) although you have no idea what’s written on the board because it’s all in Vietnamese 😀

There are many other things to see and do, such as visiting the Reunification Palace (or Independence Palace), Cathedral Notre Dame, watching the water puppet show – uniquely Vietnam, take a dinner cruise along the Mekong river, or just hang out at a public park on a week end night to people watch. I had other things to do while in HCMC that prevented me from experiencing everything touristy on my first visit, but I guess that’s a good thing .. I have a reason to come back here. 🙂

Mantra Hervey Bay: A Comfortable Launching Pad

The Room *****

The rooms are self-contained apartments, with kitchen and all supplies (kettle, spoon and forks, pots and pans, knives, you name it!), washing machine and dryer, clothing lines, and microwave oven. It has a separate living and dining area, and the sofa is also a pull-out bed. Every room has a balcony, either looking into the town or the harbour. It feels like being in a proper home, with a nice view.

The best thing about this hotel is the in-room facilities and the size of the room itself. It compensates for the lack of distinctive character in other areas (service, facilities, etc.) and I would recommend this hotel to anyone visiting Hervey Bay.

The Facilities ***

People can’t swim in Urangan, so the hotel makes up for it by having a nice pool overlooking the harbour. It has a dining table on the balcony of every room, which is a great plus. But other than that, nothing really distinctive about this hotel’s facilities.

The Location *****

It’s right next to Urangan boat harbour, which is the launching pad for barges and ferries to Fraser Island and whale-watching trips. The ferry straight to Kingfisher Bay Resort also starts here. Urangan also houses several cafes and nice little stores, and the Esplanade (the main shopping and entertainment strip) is a short drive away. This hotel is great for a transit before moving on to Fraser Island or the Great Barrier Reef, or an overnight getaway before or after a whale watching tour.

The Service ****

Our stay was short and we didn’t really ask for much service. Having that great room was more than sufficient for us. We were happy just relaxing in our room, from the time we checked in until check-out time. But generally speaking, check-in and check-out was efficient. The staff were friendly and helpful. Nothing to complain about, the service met our expectation.

This is a great place for an overnight stay, to relax and refresh yourself after a long road trip. I wouldn’t recommend staying more than 1-2 days here … there aren’t really much to do at Hervey Bay  … not much when you compare it to Fraser Island, the Gold Coast, or the Great Barrier Reef.

O’Reilly’s Mountain Resort: One Night is Not Enough

While I was studying on the Gold Coast, I visited Lamington National Park (just south of the Gold Coast) almost every month for a bush walk, and always wondered how would it feel to stay for a few nights at the famous O’Reilly’s Mountain Resort (www.oreillys.com.au). Twelve years later, I finally got a chance to stay there and the stay felt too short. Here’s why.

The Location *****

Situated just behind the bustling entertainment city of the Gold Coast and in Lamington National Park, this is a great place to end your visit to the Gold Coast. Getting there is quite an adventure … you would need to drive (or book a bus transfer) through a mountainous scenic drive and a subtropical rainforest. Give yourself about an hour to get there from Gold Coast, and I suggest you try to arrive at O’Reilly’s before sunset because the drive gets tougher after dark.

The location is heavenly if you’re into the great outdoors, because it is inside the Lamington National Park, with more than 20 different rainforest walks to choose from, depending on your physical fitness. You can choose to do a short 10-minute bushwalk that is wheelchair-accessible to a full day walk through mountains, valleys, creeks, waterfalls and rainforests. A walking track map is available in every room of the hotel.

If you’re spooked about the idea of going into a rainforest unguided, you can book a guide to go with you. O’Reilly’s charges less than any bushwalk tour operators for a guided tour of the rainforest, and their guides can be much more experienced because they live and breathe there.

The Room ****

We stayed one night in a mountain view room that has 1 king bed and 1 single bed, plus a sofa bed that can fit another two persons. The room is huge, with a balcony frequented by lorikeet and bowerbirds. If you put tiny pieces of chips or breads on your balcony, I can guarantee that a few birds will flock on your balcony in the morning to eat. The view of the mountain is also breathtaking.

The room doesn’t have TV and internet. Rightfully so, because the whole point about staying there is enjoying the nature walk, the wildlife, and the scenery. It doesn’t even have air-conditioning. It doesn’t need one anyway …. the place is cool throughout the day, and occasionally you will need to turn on the heater at night.

However, they also do not have an in-room phone, which means you can’t even call the restaurant to make a dinner reservation .. you have to walk to the restaurant to do that. That’s probably quite intentional too, to ensure that you stay physically active 😀

The Service *****

A family-run resort, the staff are very friendly, knowledgeable and personable. Ask any one of them which nature walk to take, and they will tell you which one based on your conditions. When you walk around the hotel, they will strike up a conversation with you, share with you when they spot an animal in the dark, and tell you the history and funny stories about the hotel.

They are very casual … they let you make your own drinks at the restaurant all day (hot chocolate, different types of Twinnings tea, coffee, etc.) and bring the cups to your room. If you eat in any of their restaurants and can’t finish them, you’re free to bring the plate back to your room.

The only glitch we had was when the receptionist told us that our reservation is not in their system, when we actually had received a confirmation slip from them. Good thing their resort was not full that day … otherwise I won’t be writing any nice things here. So, as a precaution if you make an online reservation, call the hotel a few days before you check in to ensure that your booking is already recorded in your system.

The Food *****

This place has the best western breakfast of all the hotels we’ve visited in the world. Seriously. They don’t offer that much in terms of variety, but what they do have are none but the best. Fresh honey combs. Runny sunny side ups or scrambled eggs. Fresh and juicy sauted mushrooms. Crispy bacons … no greasy, rubbery, bacons like the ones we usually have at any given hotels. Home-made breads and pastries. A wide variety of premium teas and coffees. It’s a simple western breakfast, done right. Heavenly!

For lunch and dinner they have a bar and a sit-down dining room. Always make a reservation for the sit-down dining room, but stick to eating at the bar if you’re not into three-course dinners. There’s no other eating places in this area, so if you stay in this hotel you might want to pre-purchase a meal package to save a few bucks.

The Facilities *****

They compensate no TV and internet with a wide array of outdoor activities … various guided walks of the rainforest, a game room, many sofas to sit and read a book while enjoying the fireplace, bird-feeding sessions, movie / documentary screening, and board games that you can rent and bring to your room. If you don’t think your children are up for a long walk, you can leave them with the hotel staff to do some eco-friendly junior activities while you enjoy a longer walk in the rainforest.

This is the ultimate place to stay physically active in an environment that makes you feel relaxed. Forget your Blackberry, e-mail, even phone … chances are you won’t get any strong signal from up here.

We regret only staying for one night here. We recommend staying here for 2-3 nights, after which you will feel totally refreshed and ready to conquer the world 🙂