New York, Baby! Pt.2: Accommodations at the Double Tree by Hilton Metropolitan Hotel

After rolling our luggage nine blocks up Lexington Avenue, my wife and I were happy to finally arrive at the entrance of the Double Tree by Hilton Metropolitan Hotel or Doubletree Met for short. We could actually see the hotel from a few blocks away as it displayed a vertical Double Tree sign spanning several stories fashioned in a mid-century style. The marquee above the entrance showed a more contemporary look. Crossing the entrance threshold, a modern looking registration area presented itself front and center with a simple, yet elegant lobby and lounge located directly to the right. Since we checked in around 6:30 p.m. there wasn’t much of a line. A front desk attendant assisted us almost instantly. She verified our reservation for three nights in the Presidential Suite. “What, the Presidential Suite?” I said in disbelief, thinking there must be some kind of mistake. We had booked our reservation as a hot travel deal through Travelzoo, assuring an excellent rate of $169 a night for Friday and Saturday and $119 for Sunday night. Obviously nothing in the fine print guaranteed the potential consumer a night in the second best room of the house! After having the attendant re-verify the rates, my wife and I bubbled up with excitement, still shocked that we secured such rocking accommodations. Although a bit perplexing at first as to how this good fortune had found us, an epiphany about what may have happened surfaced in my mind.
I followed Double Tree on twitter and about a week before our trip to New York there was a tweet saying that the president of Double Tree wanted to here from you (the public that is). Taking the bait, I tweeted back that I had been a long time fan of the Hilton brand and that I was about to embark on my first stay at a Double Tree at their Manhattan Midtown East location. Not expecting a response, you can imagine my surprise when he tweeted back to me a few days before the trip wishing me a great stay at the Double Tree Met and to enjoy New York. He had also sent the reply to Double Tree in general and the Double Tree Met specifically. Not thinking anything else would come of it, I happily replied, giving him my thanks and assuring that we would have a great time. Not knowing exactly what went down, there must have been some additional communication regarding my accommodations between the president and the Double Tree Met, or rather the Double Tree Met took matters into their own hands having received the communiqué from the president. My guess is that having not sold the Presidential Suite during our stay, they upgraded us due to our twitter interactions. They had even pre-registered our stay. Regardless of how it all went down, what an awesome treat that I can only ascribe to the power of social media and twitter specifically.

The Presidential Suite comprised the best of a New York stay. I had heard that New York hotel rooms were are on the small side, but this suite defied such odds. Upon entering the room a small vestibule separated the living area and breakfast nook to the right and the bedroom to the left. Also immediately on each side of the vestibule bathrooms conveniently were placed with the one on the bedroom side containing a contemporary shower minus the bathtub. The living area maintained simple yet functional furniture, the same going for the  breakfast nook. On top of the breakfast table we noticed a tray with all types of goodies such as cheeses, crackers, cupcakes, Voss water, and a welcome note in envelope addressed to me. The note and welcoming tray  was such a nice touch to make us feel at home! The best aspect of the room involved windows that stretched across the whole expanse, which when the curtains were drawn revealed  a beautiful view of Lexington Ave. facing uptown.

The bedroom featured a king-sized bed that my wife and I absolutely loved. We are a bit picky regarding our hotel beds, but the comfort we felt from this one coupled by the awesome nights of sleep could not be beat. A simple headboard with photo artwork depicting the city  hung above the bed. That motif of photo artwork portraying the city popped up through out the suite, in the living areas and bathrooms to boot. Overall impressions of the room left me feeling a great sense of comfort from the size, layout, and a style both contemporary and functional. No doubt the bar has been set high for subsequent visits to New York.

The best amenities of the hotel included the fitness center and lounge. The fitness center, located on the second floor, maintained a nice array of strength conditioning and cardiovascular equipment. I looked forward to my morning run on the treadmill everyday overlooking the action on the corner of 51st and Lexington. The lounge as previously mentioned positioned itself next to Registration and the lobby. Small and open, yet chic and dim enough to conjure a romantic ambiance, it provided a great opportunity for a night cap or late night snack. It also so happened to be a great place to people watch due to its open floor plan and proximity to the lobby and registration.

It may be hard to top the experience I had staying at the Doubletree Met for my first visit to New York. The hotel has a fantastic location, with a subway station right there and short walks to Grand Central Terminal, Rockefeller Center, 5th Avenue shopping, and Central Park. The unexpected upgrade to the Presidential Suite set the tone for our visit and guaranteed comfort and rest for the duration of our stay. Finally, the value thanks to the Travelzoo deal meant more money to spend in the city. I want to pose a question to those who read this blog post. What has been your favorite hotel experience while visiting New York? Stay tuned for the final installment of New York, Baby where I talk about my favorite touristic highlights of the Big Apple!

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New York, Baby! Pt.1

New York City

                On August 3rd I made my first trip to New York City at the age of 34. I can’t believe it took me that long to get there considering how much I like to travel. As a matter of fact that was my first expedition ever into the Northeast Region of the United States. For this my wife affectionately labels me a “redneck.” It’s not that I have been impartial to New York. Quite the contrary as I have been an avid aficionado of cinema that takes place there ever since my childhood. Some of my favorite flicks with New York being center stage include Godfather, Goodfellas, and Home Alone 3 Lost in New York (just kidding on the last one). A few of my favorite novels also take place there being J.D. Sullinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and F. Scott Fitsgerald’s The Great Gatsby. So you can see that I have enjoyed cultural components of New York without being exposed to it full force.   

coach USA

coach USA (Photo credit: Buddahbless)

                   It was quite a sensation to emerge from the Lincoln Tunnel in our Coach USA Shuttle bus from Newark Liberty Airport to Midtown Manhattan. I mean you are right in the thick of things! Driving first by Broadway and Times Square and then ending up next to the Grand Central Terminal, it becomes a whole new expansive yet condensed world. The diversity of people, businesses, and the never-ending columns of high-rise buildings provided me a feeling of awe only experienced once before in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I felt truly energized but a little bit intimidated by the buzz of activity on the streets.

English: Grand Central terminal in New York, N...

English: Grand Central terminal in New York, NY Français : Vue extérieure nocturne de la gare Grand Central Terminal sur l’ile de Manhattan, à New-York (États Unis d’Amérique). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

                        After our coach bus made two prior stops in Midtown Manhattan at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and then Bryant Park (next to the world famous New York Public Library), we arrived at our final destination next to the Grand Central Terminal.  After disembarking the bus, retrieving our luggage, and tipping the driver, we walked up Lexington Avenue nine blocks to 51st and the site of our hotel, The Double Tree Metropolitan. Surprisingly it was not so difficult to walk that distance with suitcases in hand. Well, it was Friday after 6 p.m. so I figure most of the work commuters had left the island by then. I admit I felt relieved to finally get to our hotel after such a long day of traveling from Denver. However I knew that the day had just begun because as we would shortly set out on our conquest of the big apple! Next post I am going to describe our stay at the Double Tree Metropolitan, which amazingly included a free upgrade to the Presidential Suite! I would like to leave you with a question to respond to if you have the time. What do you remember about your initial impressions of New York City the first time you visited?

Hotel Rewards Program: Take 1

Hilton Dublin - Coming very soon! Enjoy the ma...

 

 

English: Streeterville portion of Lake Shore D...

English: Streeterville portion of Lake Shore Drive during Bike The Drive (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

I signed up for my first hotel rewards program this summer. I used to think it was kind of a scam for the leisure traveler and it may still very well be. I remember times before asking for late check-outs at various establishments only for it to be conditionally granted with the acceptance of their rewards program. I refused to give into the hotels’ demand for a few more moments of restful shut-eye. Until one day something finally snapped and I gave into the temptation. It was the realization that a rewards program membership can come in handy more so than extra sleep. I learned this during my last stay at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago. It would have granted me complimentary access to the fitness center as opposed to the $11.00 fee to non-members, which I declined. In the end it worked out better that I did not use the fitness center, as it just so happened that the hotel found itself a mere few blocks from the wonderful trails of Lake Shore Drive, hugging the beautiful blue waters of Lake Michigan to the East and a mesmerizing view of Chicago’s vast and modern skyline to the West. However I got to thinking what would happen if the next time I wasn’t so blessed with a primo location.

Shortly upon my return to Denver I looked up Hilton’s website and enrolled. The program is called Hilton Honors or HH Rewards for short. I have noticed recently that I really like the Hilton Brand. I can’t recall having a bad experience at one of their places. I’ve stayed at regular Hilton, Hilton Garden Inn, and Hampton Inns. This weekend my wife and I will venture to Manhattan for a long weekend. The hotel we will be staying is called the Double Tree Metropolitan, another member of the Hilton family. Hilton may not necessarily conjure up images of extravagance or unbridled excitement, but it does tend to guarantee a level of comfort that I appreciate more and more. In addition with the rewards program, I noticed that I signed up at a time when Hilton is offering triple points for recent upcoming stays. It remains to be seen if free stays can be accumulated relatively easy or not, particularly now that triple points are in play. Also will I be granted complimentary access to fitness centers and late check outs? Time will tell if the Hilton Rewards Program pays off, leading to additional rewards programs or not.

 

Travelzoo, You’re my boy but what gives with the twitter contest prizes?

Image representing Travelzoo as depicted in Cr...

Image via CrunchBase

One Friday this June I participated in a contest hosted by Travelzoo on Twitter. Our job as contestants was to come-up with a catchy caption to describe a photo. The winner was promised a prize. The photo happened to be a series of 4 or 5 drinks on a serving table. I studied the photo meticulously, hoping that a theme would emerge thus leading me to a rich response and assured victory. Noticing that all the drinks possessed fruit in some capacity or another, an idea emerged. With a soft-chuckle and swift manipulation of the keyboard, I entered the caption “Got that Friday Fruity Feelin!” Immediately an aura of confidence in winning overcame me, re-affirmed more strongly as my fellow competitors’ responses took shape. Soon thereafter the Travelzoo moderator stated that a winner would be chosen on Monday. “Wow, a whole weekend to wait before the winner is announced”, I thought. Quickly I forgot about the endeavor as gratification was being delayed for at least a few days.

Having forgotten totally about the contest over the weekend, you can imagine my shock when I saw my twitter handle posted as the winner of the Friday picture-caption contest. I couldn’t believe it. I never win contests, let alone social media ones. The message requested that I send an email to the moderator at Travelzoo. I did so almost immediately, checking and rechecking the email address to make sure my acceptance of victory ended up in the right hands. After clicking send I must have refreshed my yahoo inbox 50 times or so the rest of the afternoon but nothing came. As a matter of fact nothing came that day nor the next, which prompted concern on my part that some how the email never made it, like it had been kidnapped by a band of internet pirates. On Wednesday I began debating on when to follow-up with the moderator about the status of my prize. Then shortly before noon I was contacted. The moderator asked for my address to send the prize. I responded rapidly with my mailing address and began waiting in great anticipation for my prize.

A week or so went by when my doorbell rang and a FedEx package placed at my doorstop. The size of the box surprised me, knowing that I was to receive Travelzoo Local Deals gift cards per my email conversation with the contest moderator. During the time between the conversation with the moderator and the delivery of the package, I filled my head with thoughts about the gift certificates. I imagined two $25 gift certificates being sent, in which I could amply apply them to a couple of fun meals at trendy Denver restaurants with my wife. So you can imagine my surprise when I opened the box and found an umbrella, pen, and five $5 gift cards inside. After getting over my initial disappointment, I tried to see if I could combine the cards for one Travelzoo Local Deal. No such luck, as each deal would only accept one gift card code.

I feel a little weird complaining about the prize from a twitter contest. After all it cost me nothing but a few moments of my time. I even enjoyed coming up with the silly caption. I guess I just believe that if a company is going to offer a prize for a contest it should actually be worth winning. Travelzoo can take a page out of the book of other online travel companies the likes of Expedia an Orbitz who offer free round trip tickets and travel vouchers of value in the hundreds of dollars. I continue to support Travelzoo for the quality of travel products they promote. It’s just that I will take a long look before investing time and energy into one of their online contests again.

Black Hawk, CO: Rocky Mountain Mini-Vegas

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     Living in Denver and being a teacher on summer break, I was looking for somewhere to hang out for a few days to break-up the monotony of the weekdays. That’s when I noticed that Ameristar Hotel and Casino of Black Hawk  was offering a $99 special Monday through Wednesdays. Upon further investigation at the hotel’s website, they indicated an additional 20% saving for staying two nights. I had always been interested in what it would be like to stay at an Ameristar being that I grew-up close to the Council Bluffs location just across the river in Omaha, NE. Multiple travel search engines gave it four stars so I thought “what the heck?” and made a reservation.

Upon arriving at the hotel I took notice of the fact that I was really up there so to speak in terms of elevation. Later on this feeling would be re-affirmed by the hefty buzz I felt after drinking just two New Belgium Summersaults. I found the check-in a bit tedious, the time being past 4:30 p.m. and my room was not ready. However the Front Desk Agent provided courteous and prompt service, resolving the issue in less than 15 minutes. I waited in the adjoining lobby Imageuntil she flagged me back over with a friendly wave.

The room was spacious and comfortable. I had a lovely view of the mountains  from the room window, and just outside the room, a nice view of Central City and Black Hawk Image from the hallway window. The room Image had a very modern feel utilizing neutral colors with the occasional vibrant accent to spice things up. The bathroom Image showcased porcelain tile and marble along with a separate shower and tub, including a partitioned area for the toilet complete with a door to maximize privacy. It reminded me so much of the bathroom at The Hotel at Mandalay Bay, perhaps a typical sign of deluxe casino hotel accommodations.

I consider the pool Image to be the best amenity at Ameristar. It has a rooftop location with glass ceiling and adjoining sundeck. The sundeck also features a cozy hot-tub that I imagine could be enjoyed all-year round. My only gripe about it is that one cannot truly enjoy the beauty of the mountains from it, because a wall blocks any type of view. The pool was cool, refreshing and of good size. I understand that food and beverage service is offered there similar to Vegas, but unfortunately not during the early part of the week during which my stay occurred. The rest of the amenities were so-so, nothing to get too excited about. As far as gaming goes I had no luck on video poker, slots, or blackjack. I was content to find a $5 dollar blackjack table but that was in the middle of the afternoon so I can only assume it vanished at some point in the evening.

Black Hawk, CO is like a mini-Vegas Rocky Mountain style with a few differences of course. The casinos stop serving drinks at 2:00 A.M. unlike their Nevada counterparts who go all night. All the casinos are non-smoking including the ones with hotels. There isn’t the occasional splattering of local bands playing in little corner casino lounges like in Vegas, well at least not any that I could tell anyways. Being early week, Black Hawk’s “Strip” did not have any type of “buzz” similar to Vegas. It maintained a rather low key vibe and portrayed mostly an older clientele. I played both shoe and single deck blackjack, having a little success this first night but giving it all back and then some the second one. The strip casinos I enjoyed the most for gambling and service included Fitzgerald’s and Golden Gates.

If I go back to stay overnight in Black Hawk I will keep it to one night. Hanging around casinos outside of Vegas for more than that gets to be monotonous and a little depressing. At almost 9,000 feet elevation it is a great way to beat the summer heat, but word of caution; alcohol there will hit you like a ton of bricks. Ameristar’s rooms and pool are nice, but definitely don’t overpay for the experience. The rest of the amenities are lackluster. If you don’t care about a nice pool, there are other lodging options in Black Hawk that may be of greater value.

That’s Chicago! Palmer House Hilton 06-22 to 6-25-12

ImageI had read that our upcoming stay in the Palmer House Hilton was a hotel of historical significance and my mom confirmed its authenticity. The Palmer, originally constructed by Potter Palmer in September of 1871 was a wedding gift for his bride-to-be Bertha Honore. Some wedding gift huh! Well, if luck would have it, or should I say bad luck, the hotel was burned to the ground 13 days days later in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Potter Palmer, refusing to give in, reconstructed the hotel to make it one of the fanciest hotels in Chicago, and what he proudly boasted as “The World’s Only Fire Proof Hotel.” The hotel went on to receive two more grandiose renovations. The first being in 1920 when the hotel achieved a height of 25 stories being touted as the largest hotel in the world at that time. The second major renovation occurred recently from 2007-09 with the aid of $170 million. Today the Palmer has almost 1700 guest rooms, making it the second largest hotel in Chicago behind the Hyatt Regency Chicago. As the name implies the Palmer House was purchased by Conrad Hilton in 1945 but was sold to Thor Equities in 2005. It has retained the Hilton brand name none-the-less.

ImageThe Palmer House is a wonderful blend of classic meets contemporary. On the classical side one immediately becomes mesmerized by the lobby ceiling mural painted in the 1920’s by Louis Pierre Rigal. It is a tribute to Greek Mythology and love, done in a style similiar to Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in Rome. Additionally, the hotel boasts marble walls and staircases, tastefully accessorized with ornate sconces for light and an assortment of potted plants and flowers.

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Our room was small but elegantly done. We had the option between a non-smoking double and a smoking king. Worried that our room would smell like stale cigarette smoke I opted for the smaller one to which the front desk attendant claimed she really liked it for what that was worth. Upon entering the room I was immediately concerned with its size. Having not stayed in the heart of many great metropolises, I was unprepared for such accommodations. So initially I was a bit disappointed by its scale of size, but as time progressed and I became more acclimated to my surroundings, I really began to appreciate the room for what it was; a tasteful decor of classical elements. Image

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I really enjoyed the  amount of marble used in both the bedroom and bathroom. There were also a lovely curtain and shades that when opened revealed a make-shift courtyard engulfed by colossal buildings spanning 180 degrees. Not an ideal view but intriguing none-the-less by its sheer magnanimity. The bathroom was bright and very white other than the sink counter, accented beautifully with white wall paper and black print. The bed was simple yet elegant, however the both the pillows and mattress were weaker than what I typically like.

Probably the greatest feature of the Palmer House Hilton is its accessibility to the sites of downtown Chicago. We literally only had to walk a few blocks east before we were face to face with such landmarks as the Chicago Instititute of Art, Millenium Park, Lake Michigan, and the Magnificent Mile. We walked or took the subway everywhere, having all “L” lines no more than a couple of blocks from our hotel. Less money for taxi’s meant more money for “funzies” such as eating, drinking, shopping, and attractions, to which downtown Chicago has many. So to conclude I thoroughly recommend staying at the Palmer House for your next visit to Chicago be it business or pleasure. It is the perfect blend of classic style with modern amenities and a location that simply cannot be beat!

Oh what a day, at Mandalay Bay, and then some.

The Hotel @ Mandalay Bay

living room of the suite

It so happened that Mandalay Bay’s computer system was down for the entire duration of my stay, a victim of some unforeseen glitch that occurred during a software upgrade. This ended up being a blessing at times and a curse at others. I met my brother on Tuesday, June 5th in a suite at the Modern Asian Deco component of the Mandalay Bay complex called The Hotel. After embracing my brother I quickly glanced around the room to survey the digs. It was a suite with a dark motif, complete with simple, yet elegant furniture, curtains, and bedding.  The bathroom presented the same style, with the shower and tub done in a black marble setting. This was a room that guaranteed comfort but also some good shut eye, allowing the guest to darken the room at the drop of a hat the likes of a deep forest at night.
The dark motif continued into the lobby and long corridor connecting itself to the Mandalay Bay Casino. Although elegantly done, I found the darkness a bit depressing, which did not aid my mood by the last night, partied-out and exhausted. Note to self,  now in my 30’s 2 nights of Vegas is more than an ample stay. I did really like the position of The Hotel with respect to the casino as it opened up to the large and comfortable Sports Book, where I had more than my fair share of luck betting on the NBA Conference Finals. Across the way from the Sports Book is the famous House of Blues, which I must say offered a nice little daily 2-6 p.m. happy hour, in which I happily partook the second day there in between dips at the pool.

The beach and wave pool @ Mandalay Bay

Mentioning the pool it is as impressive as they say. A wide beach area with a plethora of beach chair recliners face the humongous wave pool. During prime sun hours the place is packed like a can of sardines, which being a Midwest guy is not always so easy to enjoy. The wave pool seemed to crank out a tall, powerful wave once every two minutes, a little too infrequent      to make it worth it being out there bobbing up and down with the other couple hundred guests. There was also a long winding lazy river that was a few degrees too warm to be considered refreshing and two large irregular shaped pools back by the cabanas which provided a more tranquil, restful feel. Needless to say that is the area my brother and I spent the majority of our pool time. The water was refreshing with plenty of space to actually swim from side to side.
Now back to the blessings and curses of a downed computer system. The curse being that we were unable to charge items to our room which caused some difficulty down at the pool one time when a cool drink was requested and cash was not brought to the pool. We also had trouble with out room keys when we switched possession of the room that I will explain later. A blessing was that I got to continue my stay in the comfortable suite my brother got for us. The deal was that my brother got us the suite comped for two nights due to his earlier transactions with MGM properties. I had booked the following night in a normal room at regular Mandalay Bay through Expedia. Upon returning from partying on the strip the second night of our stay, I decided to go to Mandalay registration to see if we could just keep our suite for the last night. The front desk attendant was courteous and more than willing to let us keep the same room. All I had to do was fill out some manual paperwork and present a credit card for incidentals. To this day I don’t even think I have been charged for the Notorious resort fee for which Vegas is so infamous. I can’t know for sure, but my guess is that we would not have been able to keep the same room if the computer system was functioning properly.
Overall the stay at Mandalay Bay and specifically The Hotel was enjoyable. The complex is spacious and although on kind of on an island compared to the rest of the strip, there are many transportation options to get where ya need to go (i.e. taxis, tram, bus, and by foot). The staff was extremely courteous which scores big points in my book. They handled the computer outage with poise and professionalism. One thing I forgot to mention is to visit the lounge called The Mix after dark. It has a tremendous view of the strip all lit up at night. Just make sure to pack some nice clothes as proper attire is required.