The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


May 16

We awoke around 6:30am to start our drive across the Emerald Isle since we had an 11:30am flight from Connemara Airport, about 45 minutes west of Galway.  The prior day we rented a car, so that was sitting for us in the parking garage.  And oh, what a funny little car it was!  The thing just screamed “European car” and I looked absolutely ridiculous driving it with my 6’4″ frame.  We left The Morrison and proceeded through the outskirts of Dublin right around the beginning part of Friday morning rush hour.  We were headed out of the city, so traffic was light.  We then got on the M4 and then the M6 motorway (very similar to US Interstate Highways), and drove clear across the country in about two and a half hours!  The next thing we knew, we were on the outskirts of Galway.  After proceeding through about a half dozen traffic circles, we were on an ocean-side highway hugging the Galway Bay between Galway and Connemara.  We stopped for a scone and a coffee of a picturesque beach overlooking Galway Bay.

Several months earlier, I arranged for a scheduled flight to take us to the Aran Islands and back.  After tons of research, we decided that we wanted to see the Aran Islands.  We decided on Inishmore since it was the largest of the three islands, and seemed to have lots to see.  Since they’re relatively remote (about ten miles off the West coast of Ireland), the only two options to get to the islands were by ferry or by plane.  The ferry was said to take 90-12o minutes and cost €25-30, while the plane was said to be an eight minute flight for €49 round trip.  Given our time constraint (we needed to do it in one day), the decision to book the flight was an easy one.  We booked the flight directly on Aer Arann Islands’ website, and the process really couldn’t have been any easier.

We arrived at the airport about 45 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time of 11:30am.  We checked in and were situated in the small lobby of the Connemara Airport.  After a safety briefing on TV, the two of us and a third passenger were gathered for boarding for this eight-minute flight that would cover 12 miles — currently the fifth shortest scheduled flight in the world!

We flew a Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander — an eight-seat aircraft (including the two pilots) from Connemara (NNR) to Inishmore (IOR) in the Aran Islands with one pilot and three passengers, including the two of us.  After a scenic approach to the island, we touched down and were immediately met by Aer Arann Island officials who had a mini bus waiting to take us to town.  Upon arriving into the main town in Inishmore, called Kilronan, we grabbed a pint of Guinness and lunch at the bar, appropriately named, “The Bar.”  We then walked across the street and rented bikes for €10 each.  The bike shop owner pointed us out the sights we should see on the map, and off we went!

It was about a 6km bike ride along a very hilly and scenic road to the entrance of the must-see prehistoric fort of Dun Aonghasa.  From the entrance, there was another 1km walk up the hill to the ridge of the cliff where the fort lies.

The views from here were magnificent, as the cliffs dropped off some 300 feet to the Atlantic Ocean below.

We walked around Dun Aonghasa for about 45 minutes, snapping pictures left and right.  Interestingly, there was no railing along the edge of the cliff, and one could hang their legs off the ledge if they dared — definitely a harrowing feat.  I myself didn’t play that game… I’m way too scared of heights, and I even had weak knees when I walked within five feet of the ledge!

After touring the fort, we descended the hill, got back on our bikes, and made the scenic drive back to town where our minibus picked us up for our return flight back to Connemara.  Inishmore was a MUST see.  If you have time in Ireland, or if you’re in Galway, it’s definitely worth spending at least a day out in the Aran Islands.  I much prefer the flight over there since it saves a ton of time, and you don’t need to worry about the frequently rough seas that you may encounter on a ferry ride.

Upon arriving back in Connemara, we hopped into our mini-car and proceeded to the town of Galway.  We were booked for one night at the Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa in Galway.  We chose this hotel because it was comparably priced to other places, it was within walking distance to the main part of town, and it received some pretty good reviews online.  Parking cost €5 and check-in was a breeze.  Much to our surprise, breakfast seemed to be included in our room rate — win!  The room was basic — comfortable and somewhat modern, but nothing overly special or memorable.  The lobby of the hotel was quite pretty, but we really didn’t spend any time there.

After freshening up, we set out to explore Galway for the evening.  And what an awesome little town it is!  Most of our time was spent along Quay Street in the Spanish Arch area.  This street was lined with pubs and shops, and just had a genuine Irish feel to it.  Galway is right on the water, so that made the town seem especially scenic.  We went into a couple of pubs for pints:  The Quays and The Dail Bar.  We enjoyed both of them, and honestly could have just pub-hopped all night in this cute little town.  Alas, we were starving at this point, so we headed to Finnegans Corner Restaurant & Bar where my girlfriend enjoyed some Shepherd’s Pie, and I had fish and chips, yet again.  The food was really quite fantastic, and we left the place pretty full.  At that point, it was approaching 10pm, and we were exhausted, so we made our way back to the hotel for a decent night’s rest.

 

Two Days in Dublin

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


May 14

We arrived into Terminal 1 at Dublin International Airport’s and proceeded through immigration easily in about five minutes. While my girlfriend sipped on a coffee, I purchased a €25 SIM card for my phone since we would be in Ireland for four days. For €25, I received unlimited data, and  €50 worth of international calls and txts. For the data alone, I feel this is a steal.  Since we would be renting a car, I really wanted unlimited data since I’d be living in Google Maps to direct me as to where to go. If I were to have purchased the International Plan through Verizon, it would have cost me $29 for only 100MB of data. Given my normal consumption, Id be through that after a day or two. We then took a cab into Central Dublin where our hotel awaited.

We stayed at The Morrison Hotel. A newly refurbished Double-tree Property, The Morrison is decorated with a rather modern look, and it’s certainly a very sharp property. My favorite thing about the property is it’s fantastic location on the River Liffey across the pedestrian bridge from the heart of Temple Bar.   Upon check-in, I was granted an upgrade to a Junior Suite that I requested several weeks before for €25. The upgrade to the Junior Suite gave us a ton of extra room. The bed was super comfortable, and the whole room was decorated in a contemporary look with clean edges and pink neon back-lighting.

After settling in and getting refreshed, we headed to check out the The Guinness Storehouse at St. James’ Gate Brewery. I visited the Guinness Storehouse two years ago, but we really sped through the tour since we were extra thirsty that day. This time, the two of us really took our time to enjoy the entire self-guided tour through the Guinness Storehouse, and we really enjoyed ourselves. Highlights of the tour included taste testing and the Guinness Academy, where we learned how to properly pour a pint of Guinness. We were also impressed by the rich history and the pride that the Irish people have in the beer. At the end of the tour, we brought the pint we poured at the academy up to the panoramic “GRAVITY Bar” atop the storehouse and enjoyed it with a panoramic view of Dublin.  This is one of the better brewery tours out there – certainly in line with the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam – and we felt it was well worth the €16 entrance fee.

After a pint at the Guinness Storehouse, we wanted to make our way back to the Temple Bar area for dinner, but on the way we stopped into the The Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub. Dating back to 1198, the The Brazen Head is a must see when you’re in Dublin, and I enjoyed another delicious pint of Guinness there.

By this point, we were famished, so we proceeded to Temple Bar where we had a wonderful dinner at Gallagher’s Boxty House in the heart of Temple Bar. We each ordered the boxty specialties for our entrees along with the bacon ribs as the appetizer, and it was all wonderful. I dined here two years ago and loved it, and it surely didn’t disappoint the second time around.

After dinner, we decided to take a little self-guided pub crawl. We started across the street from the Boxty House at the famous Temple Bar. As usual, the Temple Bar was pretty packed and jamming with live Irish music that we enjoyed for a bit. We then headed a bit away from the Temple Bar area and took a stroll up Grafton Street and stopped in a pub called The Hairy Lemon. We really enjoyed this place, and a friend of mine even recommended the Irish specialties here, but we were stuffed from dinner. After a few drinks at The Hairy Lemon, we wandered around taking in the night scene in Dublin before stopping at The Long Hall for one last drink before heading back to The Morrisson for bed.  All in all, we enjoyed the pubs much more that were several blocks south of Temple Bar, near Grafton Street.  We found them to be less touristy and filled more with locals.

May 15

We slept in the following morning a little more than expected and just did get to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, which was included in the room rate. The Morrison featured a great buffet spread that was heavy on pastries and hot dishes consistent with the traditional Irish breakfast.   One can also order from the menu in addition to the buffet, and we each did that. I had the eggs benedict, and my girlfriend ordered the French toast – each of which were cooked perfectly and deliciously. All in all, it was a very solid breakfast offering.

We walked into town a bit to visit the Post Office and the Dublin Spire.  At that point, it was well past noon, and I needed to pick up the rental car for our drive the following day, so we took a cab to the “City Centre” location of Budget Rental Car.  Sadly, this location is not exactly located in the city center, and instead is in Drumcondra, but I guess it was close enough. Picking up the rental car was painless. Once I started driving back to the hotel, driving on the left side (“wrong side”) of the rode definitely took some getting used to, but I managed just fine. After parking the car back in the garage, we set out for some more sight seeing in Dublin.

We headed directly for St. Patrick’s Cathedral where we enjoyed the park, and took some pictures, but opted not to go inside because we were ready for lunch. We were craving fish and chips. We went by Leo Burdock (probably the best fish and chips in Dublin), but felt more like a sit-down style place, so we went to a place where I’ve enjoyed before called O’Neil’s Bar and Restaurant, right near Trinity College. We both enjoyed some delicious fish and chips along with a pint. After lunch, we walked through Trinity College and then took a stroll through St. Stephen’s Green, the city center park in Dublin. We then hit up Grafton Street (Dublin’s main shopping district) for some shopping with a stops at Harry’s on the Green along the way.

At that point, the only type of touring we really felt like doing was pub touring, so that’s exactly what we did! We had a drink or two at several places in the Temple Bar district, including Oliver St. John Gogarty’s, The Auld Dubliner, The Ha’Penny Bridge Pub, and The Palace Bar.  All of a sudden, it was past 9pm (and still very bright out), so we headed back to the hotel for a dinner snack of sliders and fries at the hotel bar, which was delicious. We then retired for the evening, as we had an early wakeup the next morning for our drive clear across Ireland to Galway and Connemara, where we were to catch a plane for the Aran Islands!

Next stop:  The Aran Islands… 

Review: Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


IMG_7541

Boscolo Venezia Lobby

I normally don’t make it a habit to devote an entire post to a stay at one hotel unless it is truly an exceptional property and/or stay.  Our recent stay for two nights at the Boscolo Venezia fits both criteria.

Situated in the quiet Carranegio neighborhood of Venice, about a 15 minute walk from the hustle and bustle of the Rialto area, the Boscolo Venezia is a wonderful escape from the crowds of tourists.  The Boscolo is an Autograph Collection Hotel, and is part of the Marriott family of brands.

The front of this property is on one of the outermost canals, and the rear is located on the Laguna.  Though it was a bit of a walk to all the major tourist spots, I feel this neighborhood is a better representation of the “real” Venice. A number of restaurants and small grocery spots dot exist every block or so instead of the wall-to-wall boutiques and restaurants that one may find in other parts of Venice.

The property itself was formally the French consulate, and it is simply a stunningly beautiful building.  The lobby features a couple huge Murano glass chandeliers, which is fitting since one can see Murano from the pier in the rear of the property.  Connected to the lobby is the restaurant, bar, and patio where breakfast is served daily — more on that later.

The highlight of the property is a massive garden that stretches a good 100 yards from the rear of the lobby to a smaller wing of the hotel overlooking the Laguna.  Off to the side of the garden are a pair of garden rooms that each feature their own private patios in the middle of a separated rose garden.  We were fortunate enough to be assigned both of these rooms when we checked in to the Boscolo after our flights from the States.  Though the rooms were not available until about 3pm, they were well worth the wait.

Garden rooms with patios

Garden rooms with patios

The rooms themselves weren’t overly huge, but they were very nice inside with marble flooring, wood ceilings, and a marble bath with double sinks.  Without question, the highlight of these two rooms were the massive patios.  Each patio is roughly the same size as the interior space of the room.  It is a stone tiled space with a table and four chairs.  Directly adjacent to the patios is a grassy area featuring plush lounge chairs that can be used during the day for relaxation and sunning.  About twenty yards away is the pier overlooking the Laguna where there was another table and set of chairs for a wonderful little happy hour spot.  These rooms simply made our stay, as they provided a wonderful little semi-private oasis where we could relax and adjust ourselves to European time.

Service all around the hotel was prompt and friendly. Ice was brought to the room upon request in a silver champagne bucket without a problem. As Marriott Gold and Platinum guests, we received complimentary breakfast every morning. Breakfast consisted of quite an elaborate spread filled with breads, meats, cheeses, jams, fruits, yogurt, and an incredible selection of pastries. There were at least five different types of fruit juices available along with champagne for those mandatory vacation mimosas. A full menu with eight or so made-to-order warm dishes was also available. I enjoyed the poached eggs one morning, and another egg dish the second morning. My only complaint would be that this restaurant seemed to get quite busy and crowded on the second morning, and the staff seemed to be a bit overwhelmed. It wasn’t really a problem, as we were not in a rush, but some of the service did fall between the cracks that morning.

Water Taxi

Water Taxi

A great service offered by the Boscolo is a water taxi to St. Mark’s Square. Running four times daily in each direction, you can take a scenic, fifteen minute boat ride directly to St. Mark’s Square in a wooden Venetian water taxi. Space is limited, so you must sign up with the concierge, but we didn’t have a problem getting the boat we wanted. The hotel also offers a free daily shuttle over to Murano, but we did not partake.

All in all, I really enjoyed staying at the Boscolo Venezia. The massive garden provides a wonderful space in Venice to relax away from the crowds. I really enjoyed the quiet Carranegio neighborhood in which it was located.   Though a bit on the pricey side, it is readily available with Marriott points, and because of that, I would certainly consider staying here again on a future visit to Venice.

How we booked it…

We originally planned on staying at the Boscolo for only one night, but about a week prior, we changed out flights necessitating an extra night. My uncle used Marriott Points to pay for our second night. The Boscolo is a category 8 hotel, and can be reserved for 40,000 Marriott points.   Since this is the only Marriott family hotel in Venice proper (on the actual island), I consider this a very good use of Marriott points if the price is as high as normal (> €300). It would be quite the hassle to stay in the Mestre area on the mainland and have to train or bus to Venice every day, in my opinion.

We booked the first night with cash, as there was a last-minute special available for the property at about 180 per night. This is a pretty good price for a property of that caliber in the very expensive hotel city of Venice.

 

Two Magical Days in Venice

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


IMG_6726We met my Aunt and Uncle just past customs at Venice’s Marco Polo International Airport about twenty minutes after we arrived.   Due to the location of our hotel in the Cannaregio neighborhood, the Orto Stop on the Alilaguna was by far the easiest location to access.  This happens to be the first stop on the Venice’s Alilaguna Orange Line, and cost €15 per person for the 30 minute boat ride.

From the Orto stop, it was a short, three-minute walk to the Boscolo Venezia Hotel.  Upon check-in, we were informed that our rooms would not be ready untl 2pm, so we stored our bags at the front desk and headed out to explore Venice.

The Boscolo Venezia is located in the quiet Cannaregio neighborhood – about a 20 minute walk from the crowds of the Realto and San Marco Square areas.  We walked around the streets and canals of Venice before stopping for lunch near San Marco Square.  We settled on a restaurant with a nice courtyard where we enjoyed pizza and beer – both of which were excellent.

After lunch, the rain started to come down, so we walked back to our hotel.  Upon returning to the hotel, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that we were upgraded to a set of two garden villa rooms.  The rooms were standard sized, but they each featured massive courtyards situated in a secluded rose garden away from the main building of the hotel.  Jet-lagged from the night before, we took a three hour nap before having a nice happy hour out on our patio of the Boscolo Venezia.  We had a tasty dinner of pasta and seafood at a local place in Cannaregio– Ristorante Diana and then retired for the evening for some much needed sleep.

IMG_6703After a good ten hours of sleep, we woke up to a fantastic breakfast spread at the Boscolo, which was free due to my Marriott Gold status.   The Boscolo runs water taxis four times per day to and from San Marco Square, so we took the 10am taxi through the canals of Venice right to the front steps of St Marks.  After taking in the sights and sounds of the San Marco, we proceeded to one of Venice’s most exclusive hotels, The Gritti Palace for a drink on its back patio overlooking the Grand Canal.  What a spectacular way to spend the afternoon!

We followed this up with another (expensive / overpriced) drink at a Bar Gelateria Al Todoro, which was on the water near St. Marco Square.  At that point, we were ready for a late lunch, so we lost ourselves in the winding alleyways of Venice and found ourselves at Ristorante Alla Conchiglia, a cute little restaurant overlooking a canal for a quintessential Venetian lunch of calamari, pizza, wine and beer.  Later in the day, I stopped for about 45 minutes to watch the world go by in a nice plaza near the Rialto Bridge while my girlfriend shopped in some of the great boutiques.  We took a nice, afternoon stroll back to the hotel to have a continued happy hour on our wonderful patio at the Boscolo.  Later on that evening, we took a short walk to a local seafood restaurant for an excellent dinner at Ostaria da Rioba.

After another glorious night of sleep, we awoke to a rainy Venice morning – and it was cruise day!  We packed all our things after a short breakfast and met a water taxi at the Boscolo pier on the Lagoa just a few feet away from our room.  In less than twenty minutes, we were at the Cruise Ship Terminal ready to board our cruise on Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam.

Thoughts on Venice…

I absolutely loved Venice.  It’s such a magical city.  It’s the only city that I can think that is purely a pedestrian city (with the exception of the boats and gondolas in the canals).  We thoroughly enjoyed just losing ourselves in the winding streets and alley-ways of the city, sampling the incredible Italian cuisine, and taking in some of the sights in one of the most picturesque cities you’ll find anywhere.

 

SPG offering up to 3X Starpoints on Oktoberfest stays in Munich!

Starwood has just announced a promotion in which you can earn up to 3X Starpoints for stays at one of their Munich properties during Oktoberfest.  This includes probably the closest hotel to the Theresienwiese (where Oktoberfest is held), the Four Points by Sheraton Munich Central, where I have stayed the last four years for my jaunts to Oktoberfest.  It’s crazy convenient!

Sadly, it looks like my booked stay at the Le Meridien will not be valid for this promotion since I booked it so far out.

Your three best SPG options in Munich for Oktoberfest are:

Details are as follows:

  • Book at least three months in advance for triple Starpoints and two months in advance for double Starpoints
  • Minimum 3 night stay at one of the participating Munich properties (including the three mentioned above)
  • Offer valid for any rate that is eligible to earn Starpoints
  • Offer valid for stays booked between May 07, 2014 and August 19,2014 and completed between September 20, 2014 and October 05, 2014.

For full terms and conditions, go here:  http://www.starwoodhotels.com/preferredguest/offers/termsandconditions.html?offerCode=32168807RK

If you haven’t been to Oktoberfest, go!  It’s a blast, and is my favorite trip of the year!  This will be my fifth year in a row to attend, and it’s quite the experience.  It’s a beer lovers dream!

Hacker tent

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland – Introduction

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


A few months ago, I had a tentative trip to Europe planned over St. Patrick’s Day when my Aunt and Uncle invited my girlfriend and I to take a cruise with them in May.  Since vacation has become a somewhat limited commodity for me lately (I’ve burnt almost all my vacation time), I decided to nix the trip in March in favor of this cruise.

In my previous life, I worked for a major cruise line, and was borderline obsessed with cruises.  When I was young, my family typically took cruise vacations since it was just easy, everyone enjoyed it, and the family could have dinner together every night.  All these cruises added up, and now looking back, it’s pretty clear that I’ve taken an obscene amount of cruises — this will be my thirty-fourth cruise.  With that said, it’s been about two and a half years since my last one, so I guess I’m due for another one.

12-Day Mediterranean Empires cruise from Holland America Line

This particular cruise is on Holland America Line’s newest ship, the Nieuw Amsterdam.    Having sailed with Holland America on three previous occasions, I know to expect impeccable service, good food, a beautiful ship, and generally an older crowd.  The thing that popped out to me about this cruise was the great 12-night itinerary — out of the eight ports of call, I’ve only previously been to one — Istanbul.

I’ve always wanted to sample some of the Greek Islands, so this cruise will really allow me to do so!  Another cool thing about this particular itinerary is that it spends the night in both Istanbul and Venice at the tail end of the trip.  This is somewhat unusual for a cruise, and it’s an aspect that I really do like since it  allows us to sample some of the great nightlife in Istanbul,and to spend a relaxed final evening in Venice.  An added bonus is that I have a very generous Aunt and Uncle who invited us to stay in the Pinnacle Suite — the largest room on the ship.  I’ve never stayed in a suite on a cruise before, so this will be extra-special.

 

Pinnacle Suite Photo Credit:  Holland America Line

Pinnacle Suite
Photo Credit: Holland America Line

Tomorrow, we will depart Washington-National Airport for Venice via Philadelphia on US Airways in their Envoy Suites business class.  We will spend two days before the cruise in Venice, and will stay at the Boscolo Venezia, thanks to a low rate, and the use of some Marriott points.  Following the cruise, we decided to spend some time in Ireland before flying back to the States.  During our four days in Ireland, we plan to hit up Dublin, Galway, the Arann Islands, Cliffs of Mohr, and Shannon.  Since I am using British Airways Avios for our Trans-Atlantic segment on, I am exploiting one of the sweet-spots on their award chart by flying home from Ireland on Aer Lingus — in this case, Shannon to Boston.

Over the next couple weeks, I will be making a number of posts covering various aspects of this trip.  Of course, I’ll hit on US Airways Envoy Suites, the Boscolo Venezia, the cruise itself along with the ports of call, our experience on Ryanair from Treviso to Dublin, our Ireland Adventure, and the flight back to the States on Aer Lingus.   As Internet is limited on board (I’m not going to pay the absurd Internet charges on the ship), my blog posts will be somewhat intermittent over the next couple of weeks.  Here’s a pretty picture of our flights:

DCA-PHL-VCE, TSF-DUB, SNN-BOS-DCA    Red: US Airways; Yellow: Ryanair; Green: Aer Lingus

Stay tuned for a post on what it took to plan this trip, as well as several posts that will log our journey!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oktoberfest 2013 Trip – Frankfurt, Munich, London, and Edinburgh

Well, it’s that time of the year again — it’s time to head over to the happiest place on Earth — Oktoberfest!  This will be my fourth year in a row that I’ve attended the world’s largest festival, and every year it’s the highlight of my year!This year, I will be meeting eight friends in Munich for Oktoberfest, and then will be proceeding on to hit some other parts of Europe.  Tonight, I will be flying from Washington-Dulles to Frankfurt in United BusinessFirst.  I’ll be staying the day and night in Frankfurt, and will train down to Munich on Friday morning commence the Oktoberfest activities!   Once again, we will be staying at the Four Points Sheraton Munich Central — easily the best location in Munich for Oktoberfest, as it is only two blocks away from the front gate!

OktoberfestAfter three days of beer, brats, and dirndls, I will separate from the group and fly to London with a friend from grad school where we will stay for four days at the Waldorf Hilton.  Finally, we will train up to Edinburgh, Scotland for the last three days of the trip at the Glasshouse Autograph Collection.

Will anyone else be in Munich for Oktoberfest this coming weekend (Closing Weekend – October 4-7)?

I’d also love recommendations for things to do, places to see, and for restaurants, and bars in both London and Edinburgh!

I can’t wait to throw on the lederhosen and boots and get this thing started!

Labor Day Weekend in Rio: Ten Things I Did in Rio

Introduction
Ten Things I Did in Rio
Getting There, Getting Around, and General Impressions
Review:  JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro


As detailed in an earlier post, I decided to head on down to Rio for Labor Day for a weekend of sun, fun, and caipirinhas!  Over four days and three nights, I managed to see and do a good bit.  There are several things that I’d like to do if I had more time, but all-in-all, four days is plenty of time to see most cities around the world.  Without further adieu, here’s ten crazy awesome things that I did in Rio…

Being a tourist

Being a tourist

Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer)

One of the eight wonders of the modern world, Cristo Redentor is a sight to behold.  Perched almost 3,000 feet over the city on the Corcavado, Cristo Redentor is a must while you’re in Rio.  Our group hired a private guide who took us in a bus up to the top of Corcovado.  The statue was impressive, and the views of Rio are purely spectacular.  This is one of the few places I’ve ever been where I got the chills taking in the views and just realizing where I was standing at that moment in time.  It’s truly the iconic symbol of Brazil, and it was surely an amazing experience.

The sights and sounds of Ipanema Beach

Ipanema is without a doubt the most active beach in Rio.  Centered around lifeguard post 9, Ipanema is the epicenter of scantily clad Brazilians of all shapes and sizes.  Spending a few hours here soaking in the sun and some cheap Brazilian beer is a must.  I ended up spending the better part of six hours on Ipanema with my group of about 12 friends.  Many beers were had.  Brazilian gifts were procured.  Dental floss bikinis were seen.  The weather was a perfect 80 degrees and sunny.  It was pretty much paradise.

 

Have a caipirinha along Copacabana

Copacabana Beach from the JW Marriott

Copacabana Beach from the JW Marriott

The caipirinha is the iconic adult beverage in Brazil, and there’s nowhere better to have it than on one of the country’s most famous beaches.  Our group had multiple caipirinhas during this trip, but none perhaps as memorable as late night along the sidewalk at Copacabana.  It was an awesome time just people watching and enjoying this Brazilian treat.

Visit the Feira de São Cristóvão marketplace for an authentic lunch

After the trip to Sugarloaf, the group was led by our guide, Carlos to a large market in downtown Rio called Feira de São Cristóvão.  Here, we at lunch at a fantastic spot called Estação Baião De Dois.  We got what amounted to a mound of meat – and that was fine by everyone.  Absolutely delicious.  We appeared to be the only Westerners in the place, and that was a good thing – the food was amazing.

Attend a futbol game at Maracanã StadiumIMG_4574

This was at the very top of my list!  I love going to sporting events when in other countries.  I always try to attend a futbol game when I’m in Europe or South America.  Maracanã is the epitome of international soccer.  In addition to being the de facto home of the Braziilian National Team, it was also home to the first FIFA World Cup Final.  It will be the home of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final.  And of course, it will also be the site for the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.  Needless to say, I was pretty pumped about getting to see a soccer game in this venue – arguably the most famous soccer venue in the world (no disrespect to Wembley and Camp Nou).  We had amazing seats – about fifteen rows up from midfield for the game between Sao Paulo and hometown Botafogo (one of four teams that call Rio home).  This marked my second soccer game in South America in six months (River Plate in Buenos Aires last March), so naturally, I was thrilled.

Gorge yourself at a Brazilian Churrascarria

One of the first things people think of when they think of Brazillian food is the Brazilian steakhouse, or churrascaria.   Popularized by chains in the states such as Fogo de Chão and Texas de Brazil, these places are literally all you can eat steak… just delicious.  We ate at one of the more popular places in Rio called Porçao in Ipanema.  It was indeed delicious, albeit relatively expensive.  In the future, I’d probably head to a more low key place where I would likely get the same quantity and quality of food for maybe half the price.

Rio and Sugar Loaf

Rio and Sugar Loaf

Sugarloaf Mountain

We took the tram up to Sugarloaf mountain – another popular landmark in Rio.  From here, you can see another angle of the beaches, and downtown, as well as a very unique view of planes approaching the Santos-Dumont Airport – from above!  The tram ride up to the mountain is fantastic featuring awesome views of the beaches and harbor.

Sample some cachaça at Academia de Cachaça

As the main liquor ingredient in the caipirinha, cachaça is a liquor that is foreign to most Americans.  So naturally, like good tourists, we set out to sample all sorts of cachaça at Academia de Cachaça in Leblon.  This place had dozens upon dozens of different flavors, types, and kinds of cachaça – it was pretty impressive.  I admittedly did not partake in too much of it since I was glued to my phone awaiting updates on the season opener for my beloved Auburn Tigers.  Needless to say, the rest of the group sampled multiple types of cachaça.

Sample the nightlife on a pub crawl

When I show up in a foreign city with no clue what to do as far as nightlife is concerned, I’ve found that a pub crawl is a great way to get introduced to some of the livelier neighborhoods in the city.  Three of use decided to partake in the Pub Crawl Carioca.  This was a good time with a  mix of locals and tourists.  We went to four places in Leblon, Ipanema, and Lagoa.  While some pub crawls are a bust, this one was most certainly not!

Take in sunset on Copacabana on the JW Marriott rooftop with a drink in hand

My hotel for the weekend was the JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro.  Its location in the middle of Copacabana is hard to beat.  The hotel itself is great — I really had no complaints, as the location really just makes the place probably the premier place to stay in Rio.  The room was more than adequate, and the club lounge was great.  One of the coolest features of the hotel is its 18th floor rooftop pool, bar, and terrace.  The views of Copacabana in the front, and Corcavado in the back are ridiculous.  With a few beers and caipirinha’s in hand, our group enjoyed the first evening on Friday night as the sun went below the mountains in the West.

Though three nights and four days is plenty of time to see Rio, there are still several things that I would have loved to do if I had even more time in Rio.  And that may happen in the near future, as I’m currently booked to return to Rio de Janeiro next June for the 2014 FIFA World Cup!

 

Labor Day Weekend in Rio: Introduction

Introduction
Ten Things I Did in Rio
Getting There, Getting Around, and General Impressions
Review:  JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro


As I landed in Istanbul last Valentine’s Day, I received an e-mail alerting me to an inordinately low fare to Rio de Janeiro on United for pretty much all year.  I just happened to be on this trip to Istanbul with a bunch of travel friends, so the only logical thing for us to do was to immediately book a trip together to Rio!

So there we were, drinking free alcohol from the Club Level of the Grand Hyatt Istanbul – just blocks from Taksim Square.  And what were we doing?  Planning out what to do in Istanbul that weekend?  Nope.

We were trying to book the most insane routings you could think of to get to Rio de Janeiro over Labor Day weekend and rack up as many miles as possible.  At the time, this was a great idea since I was gunning for United Premier 1K status.  Now, having achieved that status a few weeks ago, this routing looks pretty silly — even to me.Screen shot 2013-08-28 at 4.09.22 PM

Thursday morning, I will be flying to Orlando — and then Houston to catch my Thursday night redeye flight to Rio de Janeiro.  On Monday evening, I’ll be on the overnight flight back to Houston and then will be connecting to Denver, back to Orlando, and finally home to DC.  It’s a total of 14,812 miles in an airplane — a perfect way to spend the weekend, right?

This may not suck Courtesy:  JW Marriott Hotel Rio de Janeiro

This may not suck
Courtesy: JW Marriott Hotel Rio de Janeiro

There are at least a dozen travel / miles enthusiasts who are making this trip, and we have a bunch of events planned.   I’m slated to stay at the JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro — smack-dab in the middle of the famed Copacabana Beach.  I will be staying a total of four days and three nights in Rio – a perfect getaway for Labor Day weekend.  During my time here, I will be spending some time on the beach, touring various sights including Sugarloaf Mountain, Christ the Redeemer, and the beach neighborhoods of Leblon, Ipanema, and Copacabana.  I also plan on sampling a ton of Brazilian food including dinner at Porcao – one of the more famous churrascarias (Brazilian-style steakhouses).

Sunday, I’ll be attending a futbol (soccer) game at the famous Marancana Stadium — the future site of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final and the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Summer Games.  I especially can’t wait for that, as I love going to sporting events in other countries.

I’ve been to Rio before, but was only there for a few hours on Ipanema Beach during a layover to start out my crazy 15-day adventure this past June.  I’m definitely looking forward to spending some more time in Rio.  Who knows?  If I love it, I may just go back for the 2014 FIFA World Cup — I’ve already got award tickets booked just in case!

Does anyone have any suggestions for some other things to do or places to eat while in Rio?  If so, I’d love to hear them!

DC to Dubai and Tokyo via… Santiago? Review: Park Hyatt Tokyo

Introduction
Planning
TAM Economy Class New York JFK – Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Santiago
LAN Economy Class Santiago – Sao Paulo
TAM Economy Class Sao Paulo – New York JFK
United BusinessFirst Denver to Tokyo Seattle (Emergency Landing)
United BusinessFirst on the 787 Seattle to Tokyo
Cathay Pacific Regional Business Class Tokyo Narita – Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific “The Wing” Business Class Lounge Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Dubai
Dubai, Day 1 (Traiteur Brunch, Park Hyatt Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Atlantis Palm Islands)
Dubai, Day 2 (Shark Dive at Dubai Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, 360)
Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai – Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda
Tokyo, Day 1 (Park Hyatt arrival, Roppongi)
Tokyo, Day 2 (Imperial Palace, Shibuya Crossing, Ebisu, Kendo, Dinner and drinks in Shinjuku)
Tokyo, Day 3 (Ramen lunch, Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, Baseball at the Tokyo Dome, Dinner at New York Grill)
Tokyo, Day 4 (Tsukiji Market, Tokyo Subway, Airport Transfers)
Park Hyatt Tokyo


I’m not going to make it a habit to regularly review hotels unless the stay is extraordinary — and this stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo was exactly that.

As previously mentioned, I arrived from Tokyo’s Haneda airport and was whisked away to the 41st floor lobby, where I was escorted to my room by two people where they performed the check-in procedure in my room.  This alone was impressive to me.  As stated before, I had an Park Deluxe Twin room on the 44th floor.  It was very good-sized with all the amenities one could want.

Executive Twin Room

Executive Twin Room

My room

My room

Bathroom

Bathroom

There were so many details that were not missed in the room, and little surprises awaited me in every drawer, nook, and cranny of the room.  The room included a pretty spectacular walk-in closet, along with a large bathroom with twin sinks, a full-sized tub, walk-in shower, and toilet.  I had a wonderful view South from my room towards the Shibuya area.

View from my room

View from my room

The service at the Park Hyatt Tokyo was phenomenal wherever I went.  From the check-in procedure, to the breakfast service at Girandole, to the bar and dinner service at the New York Grill — everything was top-notch.

The 41st floor features The Peak Bar and Lounge, which features high, glass ceilings and spectacular views of Tokyo.

The Peak Bar and Lounge

The Peak Bar and Lounge

IMG_3957 IMG_3955 IMG_3953 IMG_3952As you walk towards the lobby, you pass Girandole, the restaurant where breakfast is served.  I enjoyed two spectacular breakfasts here, both times ordering the eggs Benedict.

Girandole

Girandole

Eggs Benedict at Girandole

Eggs Benedict at Girandole

There is also a Japanese restaurant, Kozue that I did not try, which gets high marks.   Up top is the iconic New York Grill, from Lost in Translation fame.  The 2003 film featuring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray used the Park Hyatt and specifically the New York Bar and Grill as the setting. It did not fail to disappoint, as both the food and service were excellent both times I went there.

Happy Hour at the New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo

Happy Hour at the New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo

The Park Hyatt Tokyo's famous New York Grill and Bar

The Park Hyatt Tokyo’s famous New York Grill and Bar

I’ve stayed at some very nice hotels in my life, but this one took the cake — this was without a doubt the most over-the-top and nice hotel in which I’ve ever stayed.

How I managed to stay here…

I was able to stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo for three nights.  For two of the nights, I used two free nights which I received after applying for the Chase Hyatt Visa Card.  The third night, I used 22,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points that I have accumulated over time.  For reference, a normal night at the Park Hyatt Tokyo is typically over $550 per night, so this would qualify as a pretty good use of points if you ask me!Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 7.20.48 PM