Hotel Crashing: W Hotel in Seminyak, Bali

It’s cold here in D.C., y’all. Like, eye-tearing, nose-running, teeth-achingly cold. Yes, the cold makes even your teeth hurt. It’s crazy.

And I won’t even get into my whole frozen fingers and toes situation.

So, with that in mind. I thought we might go back in time (to around August or so). Time to revisit someplace more forgiving and less frigid. Someplace where the gentle breezes warmly caressed our pale, pale, Northeastern skin. Ah, Bali.

Bali sunset
Bali sunset.

Our first couple of nights in Bali were spent at the W Hotel in Seminyak, a very fun and touristy little town down on the coast. Think lots of hotels, restaurants, bars, boutique stores.

We love W Hotels and have stayed in lots of them (including the one in Istanbul right after it opened. Oh, and the one in the French Quarter where I split my head open.), so we knew a bit what we were in for. And the W Hotel in Bali definitely lived up to the brand.

bag of beach goodies
Bag of beach goodies

Check in was smooth and easy. We cooled off with a cucumber/minty/lemony type drink and a wet cloth while they processed our upgrade to a private villa.

Reception at the W Hotel Bali
Reception at the W Hotel Bali

Then we went to our villa, opened the gate and saw all this.

private pool

private pool again

Private pool again again

Then we basically disappeared and barely emerged from our villa. And lived happily ever after.

The Villa at Bali W

I’m just kidding. Sort of. We did spend a lot of time in our room.

Room view at the W Hotel Bali

Bathroom at the W Hotel Bali

Oh, actually, our villa had two rooms to choose from. A master and then another, slightly less opulent room with two beds.

Second room at our villa

For just the two of us. Crazy.

Bar area between the rooms
Bar area between the rooms

But when we did leave our little bit of paradise, we found the W Hotel to be just gorgeous. And the staff were amazing. So friendly and helpful. We even had the GM come out and say goodbye to us as we were sadly leaving.

W Hotel Bali

W Hotel outdoor bar

W Hotel Bali deck bar

The perfect oasis. I would probably chop off one of my frostbitten ears to be in one of those loungers right now.

W Hotel Bali Private Villa loungers

Totally Random Search Terms for November

Guess what time it is? Well, perhaps it is indeed Hammer Time, somewhere, say in like, an alternative universe where Aresenio Hall is still cool, Bill Cosby’s only major crime is wearing ugly sweaters, and baggy-crotched satiny pants are the thing. Oh wait. Those pants are actually back. Allegedly.

No, it’s time for Totally Random Search Terms that Brought Someone to thePoeLog this month! For those who don’t remember, here’s a couple of posts that explain it.

This month was particularly interesting for two reasons. 1) I got a ridiculous number of people who found the blog while trying to solve the mystery of My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. Well, not the mystery of how that show exists, but rather, a murder mystery that was totally mentioned and glossed over on one of the episodes. Someone was beyond passionately curious about what had happened to gypsy Baby Pat’s baby sister. As far as I can tell, that episode isn’t in heavy rotation or anything, so I have no idea why so many people were looking for that information in November.

The other weird outlier falls into the category I call perverts. I, along with a lot of the Internet, I’m sure, get a lot of folks who – well, let’s just say, they’re not here to read about my excellent eggplant parmigiana. But this past month, there was someone/something looking diligently for any information/pictures of Indian women going to the bathroom. All kinds of “going to the bathroom” activities. But very specifically, Indian women. Or Indian aunties. Or Indian girls.

I just can’t. I don’t even. I can’t.

I can't even.

Anyway. That seems like an incredibly awkward transition to the work at hand here: a Q&A using a small sampling of Totally Random Search Terms that Brought Someone to thePoeLog in November.

What to pack for 18 day vacation? – First of all, that is awesome. I’m totally jealous. No idea where you’re going but an 18-day vacation sounds amazing. Unless you’re going to like, Stolipinova in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Apparently, that place is not very nice. And it is the home to a whole bunch of Romani, as in GYPSIES, which would make me kinda excited, but the whole rubbish-lined stinky streets thing does put me off. And the violence.

But back to your question. I have spent many a sleepless night fretting over what to pack for a trip, as you can see here, here and here. Hopefully, this post helped you out a bit as well.

My most recent strategy (and one I’ll use for my upcoming trip to Italy) has been to take everything I wore today, yesterday, and the day before, toss them in a suitcase, add toiletries, clean undies, and a blazer, and go. At least then I know I’m taking stuff I actually wear, instead of inspirational, Pinterest-inspired nonsense.

Are the American Pickers worried about hantavirus? – Ah yes, the hantavirus. I remember this threat from the Summer of Disease Outbreaks. The Wikipedia informs us:

Human infections of hantaviruses have almost entirely been linked to human contact with rodent excrement, but recent human-to-human transmission has been reported with the Andes virus in South America.

We still regularly watch American Pickers around these parts, and I have to agree: with all the disgusting foraging those guys do in really questionably conditions, they should indeed be worried about getting a disease carried by rodent excrement. They should also worry about collapsing piles of trash. That show, while enjoyable, gives me the heeby-jeebies. I can’t handle hoarders, even in the name of “collecting.” Makes me itchy.

Wikipedia also suggests some ways to prevent contact with the hantavirus. I find the last one particularly reassuring:

General prevention can be accomplished by disposing of rodent nests, sealing any cracks and holes in homes where mice or rats could get in, setting up traps, laying down poisons or using natural predators such as cats in the home.

Maybe the American Picker guys should bring a cat along on their trips. Kitty cats + foraging through junk = ratings gold.

Is Judge Loren Lake a little person? – First of all, it’s Lauren Lake. Not Loren. Second, hmmm, that’s kinda rude, dontcha think? I agree completely with calling into question her experience and qualifications as a judge, but I don’t know why her stature is under question.

Although, she does look a bit shrunken behind that ginormous “Paternity Court” bench.

Judge Lauren Lake on Paternity Court

Best Vegas hotel bathrooms. – I have spent a lot of time in many Vegas hotel bathrooms. Wait. That sounds weird.

I’ve stayed in a fair number of Vegas hotels, and many of them had very nice bathrooms. I have not, however, stayed at every hotel, so I don’t know if I can be considered an authority on them.

Of the one’s I have enjoyed, I’d probably pick the Cosmopolitan, which I think definitely had the best hotel bathrobe I’ve ever experienced. I also really liked the lady silhouette wallpaper in the separate toilet area. Very chic. Oh, and the Venetian. That bathroom was amazing. And I haven’t written about it, but the Wynn had gorgeous bathrooms as well, if memory serves.

Luckily, there are other folks who have waded through the Strip powder rooms and come up with lists. I especially like this one from RefinedGuy.com. My favorite in his list is the Ivory Tower Suite bathroom at the Palms. I. Die.

Palms bathroom Las

Things to put on Facebook. – Well, if my feed is any indication, what people choose to put on Facebook are their idiotic rants about politics, race in America, immigration and guns, along with pictures of the same sunsets we all saw on our way home that day, and children in apple orchards/pumpkin patches/Christmas tree farms and the family pets. The truly surprising part is that it’s the exact same group of people posting in both of those categories. Sunsets and race in America. Same person. Weird.

You know, the first rule in writing is to know your audience. There’s no easier place to know your audience than on Facebook. They’re your family and friends. You should have a pretty good idea of their tolerance level for political rants and/or cutesy stuff. But at the end of the day, Facebook is social, so be social. Whatever that means to you. For most people, it means, don’t be annoying or provoke people into fighting with you. That’s not “social.”

And, we’re all adults. If we’re fed up with your “prescription for what’s wrong with America,” we’ll unfriend or block your posts. No biggie. I do it all the time.

So post whatever you want. Maybe even some nonsense on Indian women pooping in Vegas bathrooms while on an 18-day vacation.

Fantasy v. Reality: Work Trips

cat on a unicorn with lasers

My enamorado XFE has deserted me once again.

OK, fine, that’s a bit dramatic, I suppose. He’s travelling for work this week.

sad unicorn
(picture courtesy of Donny Miller/MisterUnicorn.com)

It’s actually been several months since XFE has been a work-road-warrior. I’d gotten pretty comfortable with him around all the time.

Which is why it feels like total desertion.

Of course, it doesn’t help that he’s leaving the frigid Arctic of D.C. for the sunny shores of California this week.

I’m more than a bit jealous. But I do have to admit, sometimes having perspective on these things is a bit difficult.

For example, there’s what I imagine his flight and arrival are like:

After five hours of guzzling champagne and imbibing in warm macadamia nuts, XFE lands in California, picks up his convertible, and armed with a miraculously traffic-avoiding GPS, arrives minutes later at his luxury hotel, where check in is immediate and completely painless and includes an upgrade to a top floor suite complete with a 1,000-foot deck overlooking ocean waves.

XFE riding his ocean-wave loving unicorn. In his suit. 

Here’s the likely reality:

XFE arrives at Dulles at the crack of dawn, his wallet $100 lighter after his 45-minute cab ride. After a pre-dawn rubdown by TSA, he makes his way to the gate area, where he finds that his flight has been delayed. His breakfast options at this hour are Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. So he can have a scone with his coffee or a doughnut with his coffee. Did I mention that XFE doesn’t drink coffee?

Finally, his flight begins to board. Thanks to his ever-vigilant miles hoarding, he is upgraded and allowed to board in the first group. After wedging his suitcase in the overhead compartment, he settles in to his aisle seat, while the stewardess leans perilously over him and plays overhead Tetris with two other pieces of oversized luggage that ultimately will be gate-checked. Boarding continues, with XFE being whacked repeatedly by backpacks of disgruntled coach passengers passing him on their way to the back of the plane.

Upon landing, XFE will navigate the unknown airport to find the car rental garage and retrieve his lime green Chevy Spark which is a hybrid vehicle and as such, will shut off at every stop light. It also contains a GPS that is determined to drive XFE and his luggage into every available body of water along the route. There will, of course, be tons of traffic, lots of detours, and streets that are one-way between the hours of 9 a.m. and 7 a.m. on all days ending with “y.”

XFE will arrive at the hotel where he will be told that yes, he has been upgraded to a suite, thanks to all his Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty, but his suite won’t be ready for another two hours. He’s welcome to wait at the bar. Or, check in to a smaller room and move all his stuff tomorrow morning before he starts his work day.

Continue reading Fantasy v. Reality: Work Trips

Balinese Eats that Will (Probably) Not Result in a Spider Body Possession

Babi guling

When I came across this article about Bali, I had to click on it, even though I knew I didn’t really have the “stomach” to do so. (PUN INTENDED) Also: (Heads up: the article I’m referring to involves an Australian tourist and stomach-burrowing tropical spiders. Soooo….yeah. Nothing fun there.)

You see, we went to Bali a few months ago. Actually, we went to Bali exactly two weeks after this event and stayed in the exact same hotel. (Heads up: the article I’m now referring to involves a daughter and her boyfriend murdering her socialite mother and stuffing her in a suitcase. You’ve been warned.)

Anyway, the coincidence of that event and our trip timing was incredibly creepy and weird. Creepy because, well, there had just recently been a murder in what I would positively call the least murder-y type place ever. I mean, seriously, the St. Regis in Bali is amazing. Wonderful. Tranquil. Everything and everyone is peaceful and cheerful and willing to help you with absolutely anything. If you even mentioned, for example, that you liked a particular fruit, that fruit would then appear every damn day nestled in a beautiful wooden bowl, just especially for you.

St. Regis beach
See? Totally peaceful and gorgeous. Not at all murder-y.

Weird because we spent a good part of everyday wondering if any of the staff we were encountering had known or waited on the victim and her murderers. When we saw a sign in the lobby about the area being monitored by cameras, we wondered if those signs were new or if they had been there the whole time. We suspiciously eyed every single heavy decorative object in our bungalow as a potential bludgeoning device. It was all very at odds with a vacation mentality.

Anyway, I’ll talk about the St. Regis in Bali a bit more in another post. Well, probably a lot more, since staying there was one of the best vacation experiences we’ve ever had (We flew a kite! We released a sea turtle! These are not euphemisms! These are legitimate activities we participated in!).

But for today, let’s just explore some of Bali’s best eats in pictures and be glad that no one got invaded by tropical spiders. Also, no giardia, so nothing but unicorns and rainbows as far as I’m concerned.

drinks and sambal

Sambal – This is the first thing we ate in Bali. It was served in a small dish next to these amazing peanut crackers. Sambal is sauce typically made from a variety of chili peppers and secondary ingredients such as shrimp paste, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, shallot, scallion, sugar, lime juice, and rice vinegar or other vinegars.

Nasi Goreng at St. Regis
(Photo not mine. I was too busy eating to take pictures http://www.foodnut.com/i/St-Regis-Boneka-Sunday-Brunch-Bali/St-Regis-Boneka-Sunday-Brunch-Buffet-Bali-nasi-goreng.jpg)

Nasi Goreng – I had this for brunch one morning at the St. Regis in Nusa Dua. It’s a fried rice dish, with shrimp crackers and sliced up omelet, and a side condiment of spicy red paste.

bubur ayem
Photo not mine. I was…well, you know. Click on photo for link/credit.

Bubur ayam – This was another St. Regis brunch special. It was like congee – a non-sweet porridge, with shredded chicken, green onions, sambal and eggs, I think. It was ok, not my favorite.

Satay – The Balinese love their satay. It’s exactly what you think it is: skewers of grilled meat slathered in a peanut sauce. We even ate these on the dive boat lunch (along with a variation of nasi goring).

Babi guling

Babi guling – The Balinese national dish: roasted whole pig. I really wanted to try this, but never got to. We hired a driver to take us around the island one day and he had his own agenda. When I asked about getting babi guling, he said the place he goes to was too far out of the way. Meanwhile, we must have passed about 50 roadside places specializing in babi guling over the course of the next eight hours. I really should have been more insistent. Especially in light of our own Porktober event.

pomelo salad

Rujak jeruk bali – Pomelo salad. Actually, I’m not sure this is a Balinese dish per se. I think it’s Thai. But we fell for it hard. We had it at breakfast and it came in these little glass jars at the W Hotel in Seminyak. A pomelo is like a grapefruit on steroids, and it’s cut up and combined with cilantro, peanuts, green beans, carrots. So refreshing and not unlike green papaya salad, only more citrus-y.

snakeskin fruit

Salak – Snakeskin fruit. It is indigenous to Bali and is related to the palm tree, somehow. It had an easy to peel, flaky outerskin. The inside fruit was segmented, and had a firm flesh similar to an apple, and a small dark pit in each segment. In fact, it tasted a lot like a cross between an apple and a pear, but much neater (less juicy). We loved them and ate a ton of them. Our butler at the St. Regis made sure we were well stocked.

Rambutan - the hairy, scary Balinese fruit
Again, not my photo. Click on image for link.

Rambutan – This hairy, scary-looking fruit was in our fruit bowl, but we didn’t even attempt to eat it.

Bitang - Balinese beer
This one, totally is my picture. Amazingly.

Bitang – Balinese beer. Nuff said.

There was one other dish that I ate twice and loudly declared them to be the best I’d ever had: nachos at the St. Regis. Usually at lunch, by our pool, after drinking many Bitangs and/or glasses of wine. At first, we ordered them out of morbid curiosity, certain that there was no way they’d be any good. But they were. They were delicious. Then I had to order them a second time, just to make sure. They had shredded chicken and a cheese sauce made out of béchamel and they were actually really, really good. I guess sometimes a girl just wants a taste of home.

St. Regis nachos. The. Best.
Amazingly, I stopped shoving these into my mouth long enough to take a picture. Note glass of rose in the background.

Hotel Crashing: Le Meridien Lav Split

I’m pretty fond of French fries. So you’d think I’d be excited about finding a French fry in our very fancy room at Le Meridien Lav Split.

A singular French fry on the floor in the sitting room of our allegedly recently clean, certainly recently entered room.

Le Meridien Split

It became our mascot. Whenever we would leave the room and reenter, I would immediately check to see if it was still there.

To be fair, the French fry was eventually removed. I was kinda sad about that.

I don’t mind saying….I did not like Le Meridien. It was outdated and desperately in need of an upgrade. It had a very 80s vibe.

 Le Meridien Lav Split.

 

Le Meridien Lav Split.
That would be a towel on the floor of a common area. It was there to soak up a leaky door.

The layout was disjointed, weird and completely counterintuitive. For example, we couldn’t really find a hotel bar in which to enjoy a sunset drink. There was a large open bar right off the lobby with no separation whatsoever. We almost stopped there one night for a drink, but quickly abandoned that idea when we got an earful of the evening’s talent: an old man playing a saxophone along to a CD accompaniment.

I will say: the female staff at Le Meridien were all incredibly hot. Not at all helpful, but very attractive. So….there’s that.

Le Meridien Lav Split.

 

OUr room at Le Meridien Lav Split.

Just to give an example: They had these glass cases displaying a special Le Meridien beach bag. It was pretty cute, featured some art work by a Croatian artist and some of the proceeds went to a local charity. We asked at the reception desk if we could see one, and how we could go about purchasing one, if they still had the design I wanted. Confusion descended. Many consultations and phone calls later, just as I was losing my interest, I was told to go down to the spa and purchase the bag there.

By the way, the spa desk area, was about a million miles away and had turnstiles. Not sure why, but it had entry gates similar to the metro entry system. So, so odd.

I guess the Meridien name has some major currency because the place was packed with vacationing families. This became especially apparent in the chaos that was the pool area. It was very packed and not so relaxing.

Pool and beach at Le Meridien Lav Split.
It was a very beautiful pool and beach, with gorgeous views.

Honestly, it was a bunch of little things with Le Meridien Split – the room with an ocean view did have a slight ocean view, visible just past the lovely industrial rooftops of the commercial strip where a lot of the restaurants, yacht and dive shops, and ice cream shops were.  Or the fact that the advertised shuttle service was inconveniently out of service during the entirety of our stay. Or the free wifi that would not accept our login and password, requiring a couple of calls to the front desk and more confusion.

But, I must say, Le Meridien is the first hotel I can remember staying in that gives you a free French fry as an amenity.

View from balcony at Le Meridien Lav Split.
Our balcony view
View from balcony at Le Meridien Lav Split.
The other side of our balcony view

Hotel Crashing: Villa Dubrovnik

I was riding the metro to work the other morning, a pretty mundane task, since I’ve done it pretty much every working day for the last 10 or so years I’ve been in D.C. It was 7:45 in the morning and already a muggy 78 degrees. I had just walked the 10 minutes from my house to the station and missed my train by mere seconds. It was pulling out of the platform while I bounded like a madwoman up the escalator stairs, whacking my fellow commuters with my lunch bag, purse, and umbrella (late afternoon showers predicted).

The next train would be 5 minutes.

As I stood on the platform with sweat rolling down my professionally-attired back (and even my knees – how do knees sweat??), dabbing away with a soppy Kleenex at rivulets of sweat that were careening through my carefully applied makeup, and willing another train to come in the opposite direction, merely for the novelty of creating some type of breeze, my mind whirled back to Villa Dubrovnik and the gentle non-humid, breeze-carrying air of the Adriatic.

Villa Dubrovnik, Croatia
The entry to the Villa Dubrovnik

Sometimes, memories can be unintentionally painful.

Especially memories involving sunshine playing so brightly on the cool blue water that it made your eyes hurt.  You had to squint to protect yourself from the twinkling starburst-like effect.

Yes, Villa Dubrovnik was lovely. It was beautiful. It was sublime. And like most good things, it’s both pretty pricey and a bit difficult to get to.

Villa Dubrovnik Croatia view
The view from our room balcony.

The 56-room boutique hotel is situated on a cove just a short walk south of the charming Old Town. It’s a lovely (and shaded) 20-minute walk from Old Town, along a very narrow switchback lane that’s almost impossible to find if one’s driving there from the airport. Oh, you may well be adequately armed with maps and Google directions, but you’ll soon find they are utterly useless. Primarily because maps and directions use things called “street names,” and there are no street signs in Dubrovnik.

In addition, because the roads surrounding Dubrovnik are carved into the hillside and involve a number of switchbacks, you will catch tantalizing glimpses of your far-off hotel, but there will be no discernible way of actually getting to it.

When we finally arrived at the Villa, the valet asked us how many times we’d had to drive the entire loop around the Old Town before we found the switchback.

We only did the loop once before stopping and asking someone. The local guy assured us that the blue sign with the red circle with the line through it did not, in fact, mean that you could not drive down the street that eventually got us to Villa Dubrovnik. Silly us.

which sign
I’m sorry, which sign is it?

But from the moment you arrive, everything at Villa Dubrovnik becomes effortless. The service is beyond excellent; there’s not a single thing that hasn’t already been thought of, and the staff accommodates every request in a totally relaxed and unobtrusive manner. You won’t get scolded here for carrying a glass of your own wine into the top floor Proscuitto and Wine Bar. The bartender merely asks if you need anything else.

Don’t like the exact position of the sun on the rock and concrete sunbathing area just below the hotel’s cliffs? You just find one of the patiently-waiting nearby staff to lug the sun-lounger, ginormous umbrella, and all your gear to a different, more remote spot, preferably making them scramble over rocks like a billy goat. Oh, and feel free to ask him to bring you another mojito on his way out.

Villa Dubrovnik, Croatia

Oceanside at the Villa Dubrovnik, Croatia

On one particularly breezy morning, the staff did not set up the tables on the outside deck of the restaurant for breakfast. A stubborn family of guests were determined to sit out there with their newspapers flapping in the breeze. Instead of informing the family that they weren’t serving outside that morning, the staff just quietly brought out the table cloth and service sets. Predictably, the family soon moved inside. Nobody seemed in the slightest bit bothered.

The hotel architecture was just gorgeous – modern and sleek, it blends seamlessly into the cliffs and every room has a view of the sea, the Old Town or the island of Lokum (or all three).

Room at Villa Dubrovnik, Croatia

Room view at Villa Dubrovnik, Croatia

We were in a corner (executive) room on the fourth floor, which oddly enough, is the first floor/reception area, with three more floors being built beneath it and two floors above it. Even more confusing, the entrance is just an elevator shaft at street level, which takes you down to the reception/fourth/first floor. Confused yet?

Stairs at Villa Dubrovnik, Croatia

Don’t worry. The hotel is small enough, you won’t get too lost. On the first floor are the spa, an indoor pool, and outdoor deck with covered cabana beds, in case you don’t want to sunbathe on the rocks.  Adjacent to the pool is a garden area where you can have lunch al fresco and the stairs leading down to the rocks, a changing area, and to a dock for their vaporetto to take you to the Old Town.

Actually, this brings me to my only complaint about Villa Dubrovnik, which is the erratic vaporetto schedule. It’s sporadic at best, and dependent upon totally calm seas. There is a shuttle service when the boat is out of commission, but that may be little use if you are stuck in the Old Town and don’t know that the boat has been decommissioned.

Boat at Villa Dubrovnik

But more annoying is the fact that there’s no service at all for about 5 hours in the middle of the afternoon. We had a late lunch in the Old Town one afternoon, finishing up around 1:30 and had to take a cab back because the last run was at 1:15. Plus, the last trip back from the Old Town was around 11, which was a bit early for late diners.

The third floor has a library lounge and the restaurant which has unbeatable views of the Old Town walls. We had breakfast there every morning (my favorite was the smoked salmon with capers and arugula.) We also had a fantastic dinner there one night – I almost licked my bowl after eating the seafood risotto.  The scallops were also great. It was one of my favorite meals of the trip.

Delicious risotto at Villa Dubrovnik, Croatia

We went up to the Proscuitto & Wine Bar every night at sunset to have a glass of Posip, which was a nice way to kick off our evenings. We were at the hotel right before the high season began (on July 1, when rates totally skyrocket), so I don’t know if it was the time of year or what, but the bar was hardly ever busy.

The rooftop bar at sunset
The rooftop bar at sunset.

The busiest it got was late one evening after a free concert in the Old Town by Croatia’s top pop star, Severina (I’ve included a video of her performance below). The concert was a gift to Dubrovnik to celebrate Croatia’s accession to the EU and there was a rumor that there would be fireworks after the show, so a bunch of guests gathered at the bar to watch the fireworks. Alas, the fireworks never came, which became a running joke for us the entire trip.

Severina's stage the day of the show in Croatia
Severina’s stage the day of the show.
Dubrovnik walls at night
The sky, sans fireworks

Anyway, we loved Villa Dubrovnik – excellent location, fantastic staff, gorgeous rooms and shared spaces. And our room had a hot tub on the deck, so that pretty much seals the deal in my book.

Patio hot tub at Villa Dubrovnik

The rocky cliffs are a far cry from the sweaty metro platform that makes up my typical day. But, vacations must be paid for somehow, and when I close my eyes as the next train blasts warm air into the station, I can almost imagine I’m standing on our private deck at the Villa Dubrovnik again.

Villa Dubrovnik, Croatia

Hotel Crashing: The Parker Palm Springs

The staff over at ThePoeLog have been overworked and undercompensated (not sure how) but I, the infamous XFE, have decided to pitch in and lend a hand with this guest post.  Not sure why, but since I had something to share, I am.

I must state up front that I did pay for my stay at The Parker but it was a reduced rate arranged by the manager as the result of a prior service deficiency when I stayed at the property last year.

Overall, this stay at The Parker Palm Springs was better than my first stay, but still questions about quality linger.  Additionally, this will most likely be my last stay as I expect the hotel will no longer be n Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) member in the near future due to a series of ongoing lawsuits regarding my beloved SPG Points.  You can read about the lawsuits here

Ever since that genius Andy Cohen over at Bravo delivered us one season of “Welcome to the Parker” back in 2007, I have always wanted to visit and enjoy “the estate.” I don’t remember much about the show today, but there was always some “overbooking drama,” and a visit from design guru Jonathan Adler, who has left a fairly heavy imprint on the design and style of the property.

(Speaking of Mr. Cohen, I would like to interrupt Hotel Crashing to pitch a reality series based on the life of DJ Speckle Cat; she is fluffy, overweight, spits mad dance tracks and is loved by all the ladies. And believe me when I tell you being loved by the ladies in the club can only lead to unnecessary plastic surgery, drink throwing, and all the dress, handbag and cuff lines necessary to earn the kibble to impress DJ Speckled Cat. Oh. and by the way, DJ Speckled Cat likes to both bully and be bullied if it leads to a little RHOC cross promotion….we’re looking at you, Alexis.)

I first stayed at The Parker Palm springs in August 2012, and while my stay was fine, several service errors combined for a less than pleasant experience.  I wrote a letter highlighting the issues and the manager responded offering to personally handle my next reservation should I choose to return to the Parker.

While I thought the chances of returning were limited I found myself in Palm Springs last week for a business trip and reached out to the manager. The manager found us (traveling with two colleagues) a great rate (better than anything on the website) and waived the $30 resort charge before having his assistant make our reservations.

I am a SPG Platinum member, which entitles you to room upgrades (space available), free Internet and points or a continental breakfast for your welcome amenity. We arrived at 6pm on Wednesday evening, the valet quickly greeted us and we proceeded to the front desk to check in. Check in was a little slow but we had just been in the car for 2 hours and we were admittedly anxious to lose the suits in the 90 degree heat outside.

Parker Front Doors, fairly iconic in Southern California
Parker Front Doors, fairly iconic in Southern California

I was upgraded and given a Junior Suite in the South building which is just upstairs from the lobby, bar and two restaurants, Norma’s and Mister Parkers.  The room had a small balcony with a limited view of the grounds.

View from room
View from room

The website describes the suite as being 600 square feet and “separate shower room with mosaic tiles” which is also described on the website as a “Party Shower.”

I dropped the bags and took a look around the room.

IMG_0521

IMG_0534

Jonathan Adler table lamp
Jonathan Adler table lamp
A little light reading.  Funny enough this book was featured in “Behind the Candelabra”
A little light reading. Funny enough this book was featured in “Behind the Candelabra”
Bathroom number 1
Bathroom number 1

 

Bathroom 1
Bathroom 1
The Party Shower
The Party Shower

The Party Shower, really this is the only distinguishing feature in this room.  The Shower itself is probably about 50 square feet, 7×7.

I am still not sure how I felt about the “Party Shower.” It would have been great in my college dorm room, but for me flying solo, it really was just a big shower.  Even if ThePoeLog had been with me, there was one small shower head and not much in the way of creature comforts, like a teak bench to sit on. Admittedly,I did use the Party Shower but I think that was driven by novelty and the fact that the other option in the room was a fairly non-Party cramped shower/tub combo.

Real highlights of the room included:

Where do I get one? And….
Where do I get one? And….

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Talk about your upgraded toiletries!  I have to say this is a new addition since my stay last August and was a welcome surprise.  Since I had the Party Shower, I had duplicates on the shower amenities.  This little tray included.

  • Hermes soap
  • L’Occitane soap
  • Bulgari hand lotion 3oz.
  • Molton & Brown shower gel 3oz.
  • Quercus shampoo and sonditioner 3oz each
  • Lip Medic and Q-Tips.

Since I had just come from the US Grant in San Diego where I had already acquired a few bars of soap, I busted out one of those to use while hoping to take the good stuff home.

Now before the hate mail starts, let me say that I have been a very frugal user of hotel products, typically only taking stuff when I need some at home. As a consequence, I have not bought soap in seven years, a streak I continue to keep intact.  Additionally, while on the plane to California I was keeping up with my Travel & Leisure reading and they had a short article that said hotels actually budget and expect each patron to consume a complete set of toiletries per evening of each stay. With that new information in hand, I repacked my backs and loaded up the loot.

Why? Because a.) Who wants to make Travel & Leisure a liar, b.) Who wants to disappoint the hotels by not taking their stuff, c.) Who wants to let the hotels (THE MAN) win by keeping the revenue from not having to replace the soap in my room? And finally, d.) I am really good at rationalizing my actions.

One of the exceptional aspects that I enjoy at the Parker are the grounds—brown gravel trails cover the estate winding between dense foliage revealing alcoves of chairs and fountains, croquet fields, tennis courts, two pools, giant chess sets, etc, etc. etc. There are also 12 villas and the “Gene Autry Suite scattered on the property. As we arrived and walked around, the temperate (for that time of year) 90 degree temps meant lots of people were out enjoying the property.

One of the highlights for me is that each evening before bed I can take a short walk down to one of the pools for a quick dip. Stars in the sky, the moon shining through 30ft tall palm trees and a swim alone in silence is high on my list of preferred activities. I actually think it ties back to growing up with a pool in Southern California; it is just a sense of being alone and free.

Since it was work travel and we were all fairly run down by a long week, we ate at both Norma’s and Mister Parkers on the hotel property and had a few cocktails at the hotel bar.  The service and food were both fine if a bit overpriced. I could spend another three pages on meals but I figure most have abandoned reading at this point.

In total the grounds, setting and facilities are 1960s chic and right in line with the “playground” image Palm Springs has always had. The hipster crowd is looking to kick back by the pool, sip beverages all day before relaxing into the wee hours. However, the service is inconsistent in the restaurants and other areas, including cigarette butts on my balcony for two days, dirty towels by the pool, waiters who disappeared once the food was dropped off. With service inconsistencies and overpriced food, it is more of an “experience” and not a value play for travelers.

I have been twice, but maybe I am still hoping to have an experience worthy of being on Bravo.

Hotel Crashing: Two Starwood/Libertador Hotels in Peru

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it on the blog before, but I sometimes have trouble sleeping. (I know I’ve told it in person to every person who’s crossed my path. And everyone on Facebook and Twitter. And in the comments section of a couple of other blogs).

Anyway, it’s actually a fairly frustrating form of insomnia – I am quite able to fall asleep on my couch at 9:08 in the evening but find myself awake at 3 or 4 am, unable to quiet my mind enough to fall back asleep until somewhere around 6 am, or 15 minutes before the alarm goes off.

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The funniest part about all of this is that I used to be an amazing sleeper. Seriously, I could have done it as a job. If there had been a Sleep Olympics back in the day, I would have taken gold, silver and bronze. I’m practically a founding member of the National Sawing Logs Association of America (acronym: ZZZofA).

In my 20s and early 30s, I used to be able to sleep for 8, 9, 10 hours at a time. On weekends in my wasted 20s, I would sleep even more if left to my own devices. My mind was never racing at 4 in the morning, although considering the very sad state of my finances and job security prospects at the time, I should have been bugged-eyed and wide awake with worry.

Now, with a good job and a comfortable bank account, I am very, very wakeful.

(Although, knock on wood, for the last week or so, I’ve been in one of my good sleeping stretches. Probably due to getting up in the pre-dawn hours to go to the gym with XFE. Who knows how long it will last, but I’m definitely enjoying it.)

But, I slept like a champion in Peru.

I’m not sure if it was because there were exceptionally early morning flights (5:30 flight to Cusco) or because of the WuaynaKihlPhoe parasite, but most nights (parasite-symptom-wakefulness excluded), I was knocked right out and did not wake up until it was time for another delicious breakfast.

I’m working on a self-funded (OK, fine, an XFE-subsidized) study on the correlation between sleep satisfaction and expensive luxury resort hotels. The key to a sound sleep might be related to the weave in a set of Egyptian cotton linens + peace of mind from having a concierge/butler at one’s beck and call.

Room at Tambo del Inka in Peru

This was confirmed at Libertador hotels in Peru. I was not familiar with the Libertador hotel collections (funny fact: when you get to a certain price point, I’ve noticed that the language changes from “hotel chain” to “resort collection.”) but apparently, they’re a really nice line of hotels in Peru.

Thanks to their alliance with Starwood Properties, we stayed at two of Libertador’s seven hotels – Hotel Paracas in the southern coast of Peru and Tambo del Inka, near Machu Picchu.

Hotel Paracas was a typical beach-type resort—white stucco buildings, lush green manicured grounds, a beach view with white sands, an outdoor beach lounge/bar area near the beach with those big round wicker chairs and an outdoor fire pit and tiki torches.

 Hotel Paracas in the southern coast of Peru

 Hotel Paracas in the southern coast of Peru

The pool, which looked huge on the website, was actually a narrow strip of pool that got crowded with vacationing families pretty fast. We also ran into some difficulty renting a cabana, which limited our pool time a bit.

Pool at Hotel Paracas in the southern coast of Peru

The other problem we had was with the onsite tour agency, T’ikariy. They were unresponsive to our (admittedly, numerous) emails ahead of our visit, and gave conflicting information when we went in person. We were trying to book a sunset sand buggy excursion with them and after a few starts and stops (“We can’t do same day bookings.” “We can’t book you for tomorrow because it’s less than 24 hours.” “We can’t book you at all because our jeep is broken.”), we gave up and went to our concierge who gave us the number to another excursion place (he couldn’t book it since he’s supposed to use the onsite agency. Who didn’t have a working jeep. So, that makes sense.)

At Hotel Paracas, we stayed in a balcony suite, which, oddly enough is on the first floor. It had a lovely porch overlooking the grounds, which we made good use of, buying our own beer and cokes from the nearby town. We’d sit out there in the evenings with XFE’s iPod, eating snacks we’d brought from Trader Joe’s and drinking beers. It was probably my favorite part of the day.

Our villa at Hotel Paracas Peru

The room was very spacious. It had clearly been two rooms converted into one with a living room (with sofa bed), wet bar, and full bathroom with shower on one side; and a bedroom with king size bed and large bath on the other side. It’s the perfect set up for a family.

Living room at Hotel Paracas Peru

Bedroom at Hotel Paracas Peru

The service from the hotel staff was overall impeccable – everyone on the property was very friendly and quick to help with anything. Not that we put them through their paces or anything…other than a few calls for ice, we stayed pretty low during our two night stay.

Tambo del Inka would be where I really put Libertador hotel staff to the test.

Tambo del Inka is Incan for “Rest Stop of the Incans” and it was the perfect rest stop for us on our way to Machu Picchu. It’s located in the Sacred Valley in a town called Urubamba, about 50 minutes from Cusco. It opened only about a year ago and it is obvious that no expense was spared.

Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

The resort is small—only 128 rooms—and the entire place blends beautifully into the countryside. It’s got a whole, ski-lodge kind of vibe, with giant wooden doors opening onto the lobby with its floor-to-ceiling double-sided stone fireplace and a soaring ceiling with exposed wooden beams. However, the colorful Peruvian folk art hanging from the walls and decorating the surfaces reminds you that you’re not in Colorado.

Lobby beams at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

Lobby at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

We checked out the indoor/outdoor multilevel swimming pool, but unfortunately it was too cold to swim. It’s supposed to be heated, but I would have to say, no way. We also peeked into the spa area and water circuit, which looked amazing. Our biggest regret was that we didn’t book a spa treatment at Tambo.

Indoor pool at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

Pool at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

But the most stunning place was the bar right off the lobby. It had this jaw-dropping wall of translucent, backlit golden marble. The bar also has a lovely outdoor deck that made it even more difficult to choose where to sit.

Bar at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

Deck at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

The check in was slightly unusual, but in a very nice way. They lead you over to one of the comfortable couches in the lobby area, and bring over some mate de coca tea (it’s supposed to help with altitude sickness) or a choice of other beverage. Since I wasn’t feeling too well and we’d been up since 3 am, we tried to rush our check in a bit to get to our room. The staff was understanding.

We were immediately upgraded to a very spacious senior suite room overlooking the Urubamba River, which came with its own butler, Alan. The room was just as gorgeous as the lobby, with a large walk in closet and one of the best beds I’ve ever slept in. Which I promptly did, right after a long bath in the sunken tub.

Room at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

Bath at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

Living Rooom at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

I was full on sick by this point (thanks, coconut popsicle in Lima!) and XFE was left to his own devices. He went to the afore-mentioned bar for a late lunch and then wandered into Urubamba for a look around. While taking pictures of the square, he made this little friend, who kept popping up just as the camera clicked.

Urubamba
Urubamba photo bomber

I still wasn’t feeling well that evening, so I ordered chicken soup from room service. I think it was great soup, but honestly, I was just incredibly hungry by that time. It could have been dirty bathwater and I think I would have slurped it down. They also brought me a birthday cake, which, while it didn’t help my stomach, it did make me very happy.

Birthday cake at Tambo del Inka in Peru

We chose Tambo del Inka because it has a train station taking hotel residents to Machu Picchu, which is a huge perk. The train leaves at the crack of dawn (Of course. Why must everything on vacation occur when the sun is not even up yet?) and a staff person walks you over to the station. Not because it’s a long and confusing walk. More likely, because you’re so sleepy and bleary eyed, they’re afraid you’ll end up snuggled up next to an alpaca in some farmer’s field somewhere. That’s just a lawsuit waiting to happen.

alpaca cuddles in Peru
But we’re so soft and cute, come sleep with us….

Most of the Tambo residents went up to Machu Picchu for just the day, but we stayed overnight at the Sanctuary. We packed a small overnight bag and the staff at Tambo held our bags for us, bringing them back to our room upon our return (we were put in the same room, which was nice.)

We had breakfast at the hotel restaurant our final morning (full buffet plus cooked-to-order eggs) and it was delicious. Well, as delicious as two scrambled-to-oblivion eggs could be, since I was still pretty sick and not feeling adventurous enough to try the quinoa pancakes (although I really wanted to).

Lobby at Tambo del Inka, Peru
Another lobby view.

We also looked at the dinner menu while we were checking out and really regret that we didn’t get a chance to eat there. It looked incredible and the prices were very reasonable.

Just like Hotel Paracas, the service was spot on, perhaps even a bit better. When walking through the lobby of Tambo del Inka, you literally ran a gauntlet of “buenos dias” and “hellos.” Our butler Alan was very helpful and concerned about my health, and offered to call a doctor to the hotel. I stoically, and stupidly, refused. Regret #3: if you’re sick, let them call a damn doctor in.

Tambo del Inka, Peru
More grounds at Tambo.

We loved our Tambo del Inka experience and just wished we’d booked a couple of extra days to enjoy the resort some more. Or, as was my case, roll around in that giant soft bed some more.

It’s a gorgeous place and definitely on my list of top 5 places we’ve ever stayed, intestinal parasite notwithstanding.

Hotel Crashing: Westin, Marriott in Lima

I love, love, love hotels.

I love the sometimes modern, sometimes classical, sometimes retro, but always sweeping and grand front desk areas.

I love the smiling friendly people who work at the front desk area and the way they focus so intently on their little screen while trying to find you the absolute best room upgrade.  I love the concept of a concierge to help you with every single little request, no matter how weird of small.

I love the music they play in the lobby and all the lovely flower arrangements. I love the free coffee in the lobby in the morning or the free wine in the evening and the chance to make small talk with fellow guests.

Lilies in Lima
Lilies (my favorite) in one of our rooms.

I love the huge, luxurious beds with the fresh clean sheets and towels every single day (and sometimes in the evening, if you’d like) and the pillow menus that let you pick the firmness and composition of your pillow. I love room service and I definitely love the toiletries.  Oh, and the turndown chocolates.

Basically, I wish I was Eloise (especially since she lived at the Plaza. Can you just imagine what the robes must be like?? I. Die.)

One of the best compliments my co-decorator XFE and I ever got was, “You’re house looks like a W Hotel.”

To me, walking into a hotel is kinda like opening a present. And then opening the door to the room is like opening a present inside a present. There have been many a time when we’ve opened the door to our room and I’ve looked back and thought, “Is this all for us? All of it? We don’t have to share it with anybody?”

Which is all to say: We stayed in some pretty freaking great places in Peru.

Lobby at the Westin Lima Peru
Like this one.

We stayed at two hotels in Lima. Because, really, why wouldn’t you hotel hop when you get the chance? Actually, our Lima hotels bookcased our trip down to Paracas, so we chose the second hotel based on its proximity to the car rental drop off. I mean, that wasn’t the only reason we picked it, but it did make it an attractive option.

First we spent two nights at the Westin Lima Hotel and Convention Center in the San Isidro neighborhood. It’s the newest major hotel in Lima and was the tallest building in the country when it opened in May 2011. The lobby was gorgeous with lots of dark wood, and low couches and open-sided fire pits in the lobby bar area.

Westin Lima Hotel and Convention Center in the San Isidro neighborhood.
Fire pits!

We were immediately upgraded to an amazing executive suite on the 19th floor. This suite had a living room, eat-in dining area, powder room and master bath; and a humongous bedroom with panoramic views of the financial district. In total, it was 700 square feet. Basically, a little more than half our house. Yeah. It was basically, slightly bigger than the lower half of our house.

Bedroom, Westin Lima Hotel and Convention Center in the San Isidro neighborhood.

 

Westin Lima Hotel and Convention Center bathroom

They had the most amazing lilies in vases throughout. Our “room” smelled like a really upscale florists’ shop.

Living room at the Westin Lima Hotel and Convention Center
Our living room. For two nights.

We also got access to the Westin Executive Club Lounge a couple of floors up (home of the legendary best pisco sour we had the entire trip). Poor people: listen up. There’s this big secret amongst the rich people out there, which is: They get to eat for free! Like, every meal. And sometimes even drink for free! And it’s pretty good stuff! I mean, it’s not like a full menu or anything, but there are usually meats and cheeses and salads and sandwiches. In the morning, there are even free mimosas to go with your pastries, sausages and eggs (although, if I do have one complaint, it’s that the scrambled eggs are always a bit runny for my taste at these executive lounge places. But the same could be said at any breakfast buffet, really. Blech.)

westin lima welcome
Free food! In our room! Thanking us for staying with them. KRAY-KRAY.

I swear, if I’d known all of this free food stuff was going on when I was a poor college student, I would have spent all my time lurking outside hotel executive clubs. It’s insane.

Between the amazing room and the free food and wine, I really didn’t even want to leave the hotel. Ever. And we didn’t even have time to check out the other amenities, (although I hear they had a fantastic heated indoor pool.)

Closet at the Westin Lima Hotel and Convention Center
Oh, did I mention the walk in closet?

Eventually, we did have to leave, and it was a very sad day indeed when XFE had to pry my claws off the door frame so we could check out.

The JW Marriott in Miraflores was our next hotel in Lima, and while not quite as amazing as the Westin, it was still pretty damn nice.  Or, actually, I should say that the room itself wasn’t as luxurious, but I actually preferred the executive club at the Marriott better. It’s true I liked the Marriott club food slightly better, but primarily it was because our fellow club attendees were vastly more entertaining (there was a fighting couple sitting nearby who it turns out weren’t a couple, but were actually work colleagues who were quite fed up with each other. Also: an exceedingly large man explaining a diet that he was on, and a bunch of other personal things, all very loudly).

It’s been a long time since I stayed at a Marriott. I guess I thought they were a bit dated and appealed more towards and older clientele. Our room basically enhanced my pre-conceived impressions. There was nothing wrong with the room per se (in fact, the ocean view was very nice), but after the grandeur of the Westin, it seemed kinda basic.

JW Marriott in Miraflores, Lima, Peru

However, it did the trick and provided a good home base for our last, short evening in Lima. Also, the front desk staff was great and we were particularly grateful they remembered our 2 am wakeup call so we could catch our 5:30 flight to Cusco.

View from the JW Marriott in Miraflores, Lima, Peru

Couple of other notes about the Marriott: the location is great. You’re right across the street from the Larcomar mall, and there’s a casino next to the hotel. In case you’re feeling lucky. In fact, we saw quite a few people straggling in as we were leaving for the airport at 3 am, including a proud Longhorn dad explaining craps to his two young UT-togs-wearing sons as they waited for the elevator. If I hadn’t been so bleary-eyed, I might have grabbed a cup of free lobby coffee and made small talk with them. But I had other hotel rooms awaiting me in other parts of Peru.

 

Take a Bow, Bilbao

Bilbao. The name itself fills the mouth. I’ll admit, at first, I kept messing it up. Pronouncing it like the last name of a certain famous movie boxer. I could not quite get my tongue around it. For the record, it’s Bihl. Bow. As in, take a bow.

And indeed, the resilient Spanish city by the bay should take a bow.

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Bilbao has rebuilt itself several times, usually after being wiped out by a war. Surrounded by iron ore and located on the Biscay Bay, the city focused on its industrial growth, particularly exporting iron to Great Britain, and shipbuilding.

Several factors in the 1980s, including labor disputes and terrorism from Basque separatist group ETA, caused the city to switch to a more services-focused path of economic growth. It’s now home to major companies, particularly in the banking sector. And the whole city has been undergoing an urban renewal, kicked off by the opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Bilbao Guggenheim Museum in 1997.

(Interesting side note: earlier this week, ETA announced that they are ready to disband after more than 45 years of fighting for Basque independence. I’m pretty sure our visit had something to do with that).

Bilbao was the first stop on our Spanish vacation and was a good introduction to the Basque region. We were attracted to the city by the fact that 1) there was an international airport nearby, so it was easy for both of us travelling from different directions to get to; 2) the Guggenheim Museum; 3) it was off the beaten path. But what really clinched the deal was the fact that there was a soccer game at the same time we were planning to be there.

The airport: XFE was already in the south of Spain for work, and I was flying over to meet him. The Bilbao airport itself is pretty lackluster and a bit depressing. It was small, particularly for an international airport serving 3.9 million customers, and it didn’t have any shops or restaurants. It was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who also designed one of the wineries we went to later in the week. Overall, it was very modern, but in a cold, concrete-gray kind of way.

But, it was easy to get in and out of, so that’s a bonus.

The Guggenheim: We figured going to northern Spain in November was a risk, weather-wise. We expected cold, rainy and gloomy, so we thought it would make a perfect excuse to spend a day in a museum. It was indeed chilly and drizzly the day we went to the Guggenheim, but the inside was comfortable, and because it was November, blessedly free of masses of tourists (the Guggenheim had 4 million visitors in its first three years). If anything, the gray skies made a fantastic contrasting backdrop to the gold, undulating exterior made of sandstone, titanium and glass.

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The museum is pretty massive with a total of 256,000 square feet, but it doesn’t feel that big. It was well laid out and focused on modern art. A couple of our favorites were the Jenny Holzer installation piece of large LED columns with phrases in English and Basque, and a current exhibit of works by Austrian painter Egon Schiele.

But the real star of the show is the building. It is breathtaking. We stayed at the Hotel Miro, which is spitting distance from the museum and had a waterfront room with views of the museum so we could see it day and night. It never got old.

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I’ve heard it described many ways — like a giant ship in a nod to Bilbao’s maritime past, like a giant fish with scales made up of titanium, like a flowing river reflecting back into the River Nervion it hovers over. It was all of that and more. It was one of those buildings that somehow stirs an emotion in you.

The Hotel Miro was great, both in location (city center) and amenities. It’s very modern and small, and had a great breakfast including pour-your-own mimosas. It was close to the museum, shopping and the soccer stadium.

The beaten path: Bilbao was quite a surprise to us, but a very pleasant one. Neither one of us knew anyone who had ever been there, so we had no idea what to expect. But the city is a beautiful mix of old and new buildings with wide European avenues lined with trees and lots of pedestrian-only streets and bridges. There’s a fairly new metro system, but we never needed it during our two-day stay.

Thanks to the great location of our hotel, we walked everywhere. Our first night in town, we fought off jetlag by strolling over to the Gran Via and the Plaza Eliptica for a couple of hours of shopping. All the major Spanish chains were well represented, including Zara, Mango and Maje.

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And meat. There were lots of meat shops.

On Sunday afternoon, we made like Spainards and strolled through the lovely Dona Casida Itturizar Park on our way to the soccer game. It was a gorgeous fall day, and everyone was out, pushing strollers, chasing kids and walking dogs. Usually, in that amazing way that European women have, all three at the same time and looking stylish while doing it.

We didn’t really make any dinner plans, but more often than not found ourselves eating pinxtos at the casual English-themed bar next to the hotel. There was a post-soccer/all-day-drinking feast at a donner kabob place near the hotel. At the time, I was sure it was the best restaurant in all of Spain.

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I cannot remember the name of the bar next to the hotel, but it was very friendly and had some fairly good pinxtos.

Which brings us to our final deciding factor: the soccer game.

When we first started planning our trip, we looked up the schedules for three soccer teams in Northern Spain: Sevilla, San Sebastian and Bilbao. Only one was playing on the weekend we would be there: Athletico Bilbao.

Spain, like all of Europe, is crazy about soccer. It’s like a holiday when the home team is in town, and Bilbao was no exception. They regularly reach full capacity in their 40,000 seat San Mames, known affectionately as the Cathedral. (Don’t worry, they’re building an even larger new 53,000 seat stadium right next to the old one to open sometime in 2013 – the 100th anniversary of the original stadium).

It’s an understatement to say we were very concerned about our ability to get tickets to the game.

We contacted our concierge to get tickets but were told they weren’t released until the week of the game. His recommendation was that we stand in line at the stadium to buy them the day before the game. Not a very appealing option.

Instead, we took our chances with an online ticket broker, Viagogo, and had them delivered to our hotel. It was a nerve-wracking four weeks while we waited to see if the tickets would indeed show up, but they were waiting for us when we checked in at the Hotel Miro and the seats were fantastic. Front row. They were very expensive, but worth it.

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Not surprisingly, the people of Bilbao make a whole day of the soccer game. We saw people heading towards the 4 pm game at around 10 am. We left our hotel at around 11:30 and headed to Calle Licenciado Poza for pinxtos and drinks.

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We saw this guy from our hotel window heading to the game.

The entire neighborhood was draped in red and white Athletico bunting and every bar was flying the Athletico flag. We stopped at bar after bar—everything ranging from super chic steel and chrome numbers, to older establishments with plexiglass protecting their pintxos—and the whole vibe was very festive. Since they don’t serve beer or alcohol at the stadium (a widespread European rule that I’m not particularly fond of), things get pretty tipsy on the streets beforehand.

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That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of families out and about. We particularly enjoyed one kid who sat next to us and just inhaled two bowls of the tiniest little garlicky snails we’d ever seen. They were miniscule, but this kid was pulling them out of their tiny shells like he was a machine.

We bought our traditional (and overpriced) team garb from a small shop right outside the stadium. We try to go to a soccer game every time we go to Europe and now have a pretty impressive collection of scarves (for me) and baseball hats (for XFE). I also might have accosted a group of young American students I happened to overhear on our way in as if they were our long-lost relatives. What can I say? I was carried away by the many glasses of 1 Euro tintos and the excitement of game day.

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Finally, we made our way into the Cathedral. The atmosphere inside the stadium was electric. European men, I’ve observed, are very, very demonstrative at soccer games. They cheer wildly and cry and throw their hands up in disgust and hug each other. It’s a pretty impressive display. On that particular day, the home team beat the Sevilla visitors 2-0, so it was mostly cheers.

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No cheers for the broken stadium chair, though. Those wimpy EU chairs are not made for American butts. (To be fair, this is not the first stadium chair we’ve ever broken. We leave a trail of butt destruction)

As we marched out of the stadium, carried along by the exuberant crowd into the neighborhood streets, I decided I liked Bilbao very, very much indeed. And then I went into a bar and had another glass of tinto. Somewhere there was a very non-Spanish kebab calling my name.

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