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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan / local breweries, Homewood Suites, and JW Marriott

December 2016

You can find more details about the Homewood Suites, JW Marriott, and local tid bits downtown Grand Rapids in previous blog posts. Click the links above, or click on any label at the bottom of this post. I am sharing newly discovered information and hotel guestroom photos in this post.

Old door made into a table at Atwater Grand Rapids

Downtown Grand Rapids breweries and Happy Hour specials

We visited Atwater Grand Rapids Brewery, which opened in the fall of 2016, for the first time. The brewery is located on the northwest corner of Monroe Ave. and Michigan St.—very close to DeVos Place. It is worth a visit to this brewery just to see the decor. Tables, and the front of the bar were constructed from old pieces of wood, such as house doors and cabinet doors. Some of the light shades were made from barrel halves. The table picture I posted above does not clearly convey how cool the inside of this brewery looks.

Atwater Grand Rapids Sampler

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Online Passport Renewal Process and Delivery in Michigan

December 2016

We got our first passports 10 years ago via our local post office. The only thing I remember from that experience is that the cost was $90 each. I almost let our expiring passports slip by, as this is the only type of identification or travel document I have that does NOT give holders a warning about the upcoming expiration date. I receive notices before my Driver's License and GOES membership (Global Online Enrollment System for US Customs and Border Protection) are going to expire. My initial GOES membership expiration notice arrives 6 months ahead of time. I realized our passports were about to expire right after we had booked a last minute International trip.

I am sharing current costs and our passport renewal experience below. Our renewal experience was more difficult than our first-time application experience. The process for renewals is expected to be completed entirely on your own; however, the process was not without hiccups. I suggest adding a reminder to your calendar at least two months before your current passport is set to expire.

Passport processing times from the government website

Routine service: Approximately 4-6 weeks from the time of application, including mailing time.
Expedited service: Approximately 2-3 weeks from the time of application, including mailing time.
Expedited at Agency: 8 Business Days or Less than 2-3 weeks, depending which page you read the information on. You need to be traveling within 2 weeks, or have need for a foreign visa within 4 weeks, to use this service.

Passport fees in December 2016

Routine service for passport book: $110
Routine service for passport card: $30
Expedited service: additional $60
Priority Mail Express Delivery of passport book: $20.66
Expedited at Agency: the fees page says this is an additional $25; however, if you use the online calculator, the fee given is $60. We did not use this service, so I cannot provide details about the actual cost or time frame.  

More fee information, including name changes and passports for children, can be found on the passport website. The link to the fee calculator is at the top of that page.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Charleston, West Virginia / Holiday Inn & Suites Charleston West

December 2016, Weekend, 1-night, Queen bed kitchenette 612

Comedy Zone showroom - we attended the show that evening

Platinum perks and check-in

We arrived in the evening after the 3:00 p.m. check-in time. I inquired about the guestroom type during check-in, and whether we had been able to receive an upgrade. The agent recognized my status, and said he could upgrade us to a queen suite. A key packet had not been prepared before our arrival, and it did not appear as though a guestroom had been assigned before this. I had redeemed points for our stay at this Holiday Inn & Suites, and I also received the Platinum welcome amenity points.

Guestroom 612

This guestroom was barely large enough for basic guestroom furnishings, let alone a kitchen. It was the tiniest guestroom I have ever been in with a kitchen area. The kitchen was literally at the foot of the bed. I do not understand why we did not receive an upgrade with a king bed, as this hotel was not very full the night of our stay. The only king bed guestroom we had this entire trip was on our first night at the Holiday Inn Express in Wytheville (one of the most comfortable and spacious guestrooms this trip, as well).

Diagram from back of guestroom door

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Visiting Savannah, Georgia & Tybee Island / Historic Squares, Forsyth Park, Downtown, Savannah Bells Ferry, City Market, Fort Pulaski, Tybee Beach, and more!

November - December 2016, Weekdays

We spent four nights in Savannah, Georgia at the Homewood Suites. I am sharing information from our experiences to assist future travelers to the area. One the first bits of information I want to share is about parking. All of the hotels downtown charge rates of $20 or more per night for parking. You can purchase a 24-hour parking pass from the city for $8, and you can purchase a 2-day pass for $14. More information is available in my Homewood Suites blog post (link above), and at the City of Savannah website. We purchased two 2-days passes, so our total parking cost was $28.  Much better than the $104 we would have paid at our hotel (not counting valet tips). We did not have any difficulty finding a parking spot in Bryan Street parking garage located directly behind Holiday Inn Express, or in Whitaker Street garage.

View of City Hall from Johnson Square

Savannah Historic Squares, Colonial Park Cemetery, Forsyth Park 

There are many narrated tours available to learn about Savannah history--trolley tours, walking tours, group and private tours. There is also considerable information available online and elsewhere, if you want to visit Savannah Historic Squares at your own pace, which is what we did. Here are a few online resources to assist with planning: Visit Savannah's Historic Squares, free Visitor's Guide, Historic Squares with descriptions, and my favorites: Squares and Parks and Self-Guided Walking Tour. I had prepared a rough draft of our walking tour plans before our trip, and then I left the folder of maps and info at home! We easily got new maps and information from the Visitor's Center  on E. Bay Street, our hotel concierge, and from various booklets around town.

Wright Square

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Savannah, Georgia / Homewood Suites Savannah Historic District/Riverfront

November-December 2016, Weekdays, 4 nights, 2-Queen 1-bedroom suite 502

Sunrise from suite 502

Diamond perks and arrival/check-in

We initially reserved a king balcony riverfront studio with points for one night (this was the best points room type available), and we were paying for a king studio riverfront without a balcony the other three nights of our stay. Shortly before our stay, we learned the pool and rooftop area had been closed for renovations, so we wanted to make sure we could stay in a guestroom with a balcony, and it would be even better, if we did not have to change rooms during our stay. I checked the Hilton website for the "upgrade with points" option, and I called the hotel a couple of times before our arrival to ask about this. I was told they w/could not upgrade us to a balcony guestroom for the paid nights, so I paid the difference for a 2-queen, 1-bedroom suite (there were no king balcony rooms available). The employe implied that she could not give me an upgrade for both reservations.

We arrived in Savannah before check-in time. After we parked in town (more info about this later), we stopped at the front desk to find out when our room would be available. The agent said our guestroom was already available; however, she gave us keys for a king studio balcony, and she did not mention the second portion of our stay. I had referenced both confirmation numbers in my reservation comments, and I had asked the hotel to tie the reservations together when I called. Additionally, I had been told we could have the queen bedroom balcony guestroom the entire stay, and that this could possibly become a king guestroom and/or higher floor room, if one became available before our arrival. I mentioned all of this to the front desk agent after I asked about the guestroom details (she had not provided any information), when she handed me the keys. She studied the computer a few moments, and then she coded new keys for suite 502. I am not sure if she checked for a higher floor or king balcony room, as she did not say anything more about the guestroom. She provided information about the hotel food & beverages, and she asked if we had used valet parking. She did not recognize my status.

View of Marriott from bedroom window

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina / Coligny Plaza, Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, beach, trails, shopping restaurants...

November 2016, Weekend-weekday, 3-nights

Following is information about some of the places we visited during our stay at Marriott Resort & Spa on Hilton Head Island. 

Restaurants, dining options

We had a late lunch at Joe Loves Lobster Rolls in Ridgeland, SC on our way to Hilton Head. If you are arriving from the north, this is right on the way on N. Okatie Hwy. My husband had the Smoked Wild Boar sandwich special, and I had the Lobster Mac 'n Cheese side special. The sandwich came with a side and drink, which are not visible in the photo below. The food flavor was excellent, although afterward, we wished we had ordered the largest lobster roll and shared it instead. Yes, we wanted more lobster!

Joe Loves Lobster Rolls
We dined at two locations in Palmetto Dunes, which were less than a half mile walk from the Marriott: Palmetto Dunes General Store and Big Jim's BBQ, Burgers, and Pizza. Our breakfast from the General Store was not what we had initially planned that morning; however, it was very good. We had a freshly made bagel egg sandwich and sausage egg burrito. The portion sizes were good, and the cost was around $5 each. There is a sitting area outside the store. Other breakfast foods were available, as well as deli/lunch-type sandwiches. All of the foods looked fresh and appetizing.

Palmetto Dunes General Store

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina / Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa

November 2016, Weekend-weekday, 3-nights, 2-Queen beds oceanfront guestroom

Sunrise from guestroom 710

Gold perks and arrival/check-in

Our GPS was pretty accurate with the Marriott location; however, we were mildly confused about the resort location when we arrived, as I know there are several Marriott properties on Hilton Head, and the entrance sign did not exactly match the property name on the website. The website says, "Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa," and the entrance sign says, "Hilton Head Marriott Beach & Golf Resort."

Beautiful sand sculpture in lobby
I had checked in online the day before our arrival because I received an email that said, "check in now to access your Elite benefits! one of our most loyal guests, you'll jump to the top of the list for: Priority Room Assignment, Priority Upgrades - Get notified of a room upgrade before your visit, Priority Late Checkout - Find out how late you can sleep in … right when you arrive." I entered 2:30 p.m. for our arrival time, and 1:00 p.m. for a late checkout time. Check-in time is 4:00 p.m., and checkout time is 11:00 a.m. I did not receive any notification before we arrived around 2:45 p.m. The agent told me our room has just become available. He said we had been upgraded to an oceanfront room with 2 queen beds. He said there were no king oceanfront rooms available. This hotel has 10 floors, and we were assigned a room on the 7th floor. My profile is set for a king bed on a high floor, and I always request the top floor. I am not complaining about being three floors down; I am merely sharing this information for other elite members who may want to know what to expect. The agent did not mention my late checkout request, and I did not ask about this.

Guestroom 710

This was a typical Marriott guestroom. The property showed a bit of wear in some areas; however, the room was comfortable and clean. 

Just inside the entrance
Two closets were located outside the bathroom near the entrance. The closets contained two robes, hangers, and a folding luggage rack. The bathroom was spacious with a decent size vanity. The bottom of the mirror behind the vanity was slightly deteriorated from age. Thann bath amenities were provided, along with good quality towels, a hairdryer, and glass glasses. I do not recall for sure if there was a makeup mirror in the guestroom. Extra amenities, like mouthwash and cotton swabs, which are provided at most Marriott hotels, were not provided at this hotel. The tub/shower combination was located across from the vanity, with the toilet between the two.