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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Carnival Freedom -- 6-night Western Caribbean Cruise

Ship view from shore excursion
Check-in
This was one of the smoothest check-in processes we have experienced. We took a cab from a cruise port hotel around noon. Our driver was able to pull right up to the luggage drop off spot, and we walked inside after leaving our bags with the porters. We wove through a couple of line mazes, went through security, and were on board in about an hour. I noticed that the line had become quite long shortly after we boarded, although it still moved along quickly.

Interior cabin 1021, category 4H
We usually book a balcony room; however, this was an extra cruise for us, so we went for the lowest category inside cabin--at a rock bottom rate. We booked the Early Saver rate, and saw two price drops before our cruise. One price drop was showing all inside cabins for the same price, so we were able to move up to the 10th/Panorama deck. This was still an inside cabin, but better than the bottom of the ship! There is a front balcony on this floor, which can only be accessed through the cabin hallway, so many guests do not know about it. It's not a place to hang out, since there were not any chairs or anything, although it was a great place to view the port as the ship was arriving and leaving.

The room was quite small. In fact, our son's room, #2212, was much larger than our room. Our cabin had the basic storage space and bathroom; there just wasn't any sitting room. The foot of the bed almost hit the vanity, and there was barely room to sit on a chair in front of the vanity. We could not walk by the foot of the bed, if someone was sitting in the chair.

Food & Beverage
The food and beverages were very good, as always. I think the free champagne Carnival serves at events is lower quality than what we received on prior cruises. They used to serve Korbel, which I like. I did not like the complimentary champagne served on this cruise. For dinner, the three of us were seated at a table by ourselves in the dining room, which we found disappointing. This happened to us last time we cruised together after Thanksgiving too. The Maitre'd says this is because there are so many families cruising this time of year. We like each other; however, we also like to meet new people. We think the dining experience is part of the fun. We ate breakfast in the dining room almost every morning, so we did get to meet and socialize with some guests this way. I prefer the dining room menu for breakfast, although my husband likes being able to get special order omelets at the buffet. The dining room breakfast menu only offers a ham and cheese omelet. The dining room is open for lunch on sea days with open seating. We ate lunch in the dining room one day, and it was very good. Lobster was served in the dining room for dinner on the first formal night.

One of the days that we were in port, we arrived back at the ship around noon, and ate at the Mongolian Wok, which is similar to BD's Mongolian Barbeque. The flavors were great, and the line wasn't too long. We ate at the Deli when we returned to the ship ahead of most of the guests on another port day. We are early risers, and are often done on shore before the crowds. There is a menu to order from at the Deli, and you can also make special requests to add or remove an item--such as cheese, or ask for a cold sandwich to be grilled. I requested Swiss cheese for the turkey wrap I ordered. The wrap was jalapeno flavored and wasn't very spicy, which was fine with me. I thought the sandwich was very good.

Many guests are not aware of Fish & Chips on the 10th deck at the back of the ship, so we dined there for lunch on a sea day because there was never a line. Other seafood is available, along with the fish and chips.

Another often unknown dining spot, is Meji Sushi on the Promenade deck by Viennese Cafe (additional cost at the cafe). The sushi bar is only open a few days, and opens at 5:00 p.m. On the days that it's open, the hours are posted in the Fun Times (formerly Carnival Capers). The sushi bar serves appetizer type food, and we had a small sample plate on two days--excellent! You can also purchase additional items.

Other dining options are: buffets on the pool deck for all meal times, two Grilles (at the main and back pools), Pizzeria, Room Service, and Sun King Steakhouse (additional cost). We had room service for breakfast one morning, and it was very prompt.

Serenity deck during sea day
Pool & outside areas
We loved the serenity deck area! We never had a problem finding a lounge chair, although the cabana seats were hard to come by. We were able to get a cabana seat for a couple hours one of the days that the ship was in port. There were four hammocks, and the two hot tubs were actually hot tubs and not lukewarm water. The bar service was great, and there is a nice seating area by the bar. Most of the area is non-smoking, which we liked.

The water slide was fun! None of the pool areas were every crowded. There is a pool and bar at the back of the ship, and two pools and bars at the front of the ship. One of the front pools is the main pool where all the activity was, and the other one is a small pool next to where the water slide comes down. We never had a problem finding a seat when we wanted to change locations.

The jogging track only goes around the back half of the ship on the top floor, so it's not real big, but it served its purpose. It goes around the mini golf and sports deck areas, which were never busy in the morning.

Entertainment
We always like the entertainment on cruises, and this cruise was no exception. The Carnival dancers put on great shows, as did the two comedians. Both comedians also put on adult shows. The "Fun Patrol" was a great group. We ran into them a few times in different areas of the ship. We even played games with them one evening--we did not win, although we received points for our team.

seaside theater
We were disappointed that the band we liked the best (mostly oldies rock music) played mostly in the Cigar Bar. You could not walk by the entrance of this lounge without feeling and smelling like you'd been smoking yourself. It's too bad there was not better ventilation, or that the bands did not alternate where they were located. There are a couple non-smoking lounges; however, we did not like any of the music in those areas. The band we liked played at one of the outside parties one evening, so we were able to enjoy their music that evening.

Other activities were: bingo, game shows in the lounge, pool games, seaside theater (evening movies and/or live concerts on the screen most nights), art shows and auction, liquor taste testing at the gift shop, murder mystery activity, and more.

Ports of Call & Shore Excursions
Our first port of call was Key West. We have been to Key West a few times--by ship and by land--so we hung out on board most of the day. We got off to walk around the shops and such for a short time.

The next port was Grand Cayman, where we have also been several times, so we did the same thing at this port. The famous seven-mile beach is beautiful, if you have not been to Grand Cayman before. You can get there by taxi or bus, if you do not want to book a shore excursion. The public beach is free, and there is a small charge if you want to rent a chair and use the facilities at one of the resorts. At Grand Cayman, you need to ride a tender boat in, which was a smooth process when we went ashore around 10:00 a.m. after most of the guests had already departed. 
Cool Runnings Sail

We booked a shore excursion at our next port of call in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

We have also been to this port; however, it was our son's first visit, so we booked the Cool Runnings Sail and Dunn's River Falls excursion through Carnival for under $60. We thought this was a great trip. It was a short boat ride/sail to the falls (about 20 minutes). Guests could then climb the actual falls or go up by land next to the falls, or hang out on the beach. Since my husband and I have climbed the falls before, I decided to relax on the beach and take pictures while my husband and our son climbed the falls. After the climb, rum drinks and rum punch were included, while we leisurely sailed back to the ship.
Dunn's River Falls










Overall
We loved our cruise, and already have two more planned! We definitely prefer a balcony room; however, for only $300 per person, we have no complaints. Carnival sells a future cruise certificate on board for $100, which is worth $200 toward a seven-day cruise. We bought a certificate and applied it to our next cruise. We got $100 off the purchase price, and a $100 on board credit.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Merrillville, Indiana / Hilton Garden Inn

Status perks
I was initially downgraded at this hotel. I had reserved a suite because the rate was good, and I was staying three nights. I had written in my comments that if I could be upgraded to a Jacuzzi suite, that would be great. (My husband was coming to visit over the weekend, and he likes having a Jacuzzi). When I checked in, the agent told me I had been upgraded to a Jacuzzi room, and I said great. I asked him if this was also a one bedroom suite, like I had reserved, and he said yes. I received two bottles of water as well.

Room
When I got to my room, it looked like a regular size hotel room with a tub in the sleeping area--there was no living room. I looked at the room diagram on the back of the door, and saw that the room I was in was indeed a regular sized room, and that the suites were larger rooms. I returned to the front desk, and the agent told me that there are no Jacuzzi tubs in the suites; only in the hotel rooms. He said they are the same size rooms anyway. I told him I had reserved and paid for a suite, so I wanted a suite instead. After looking on the computer, he was able to give me a handicap suite, which was much larger than the first hotel room I had been in! When I looked at the hotel rooms more closely online after getting settled in my room, I saw that the hotel rents a standard room, Jacuzzi room, and suite--with pricing from low to high, in that order. So, the hotel was actually "upgrading" me to a lower priced room, which I had been told was the same size as a suite. I'm glad I was paying attention that day!

There was not an actual door separating the bedroom from the living area, although there was a short hall with the bathroom between the two rooms. I wish there had been a bedroom door because the guestroom doors in the hallway slammed loudly, if the guest did not slow the door down when entering or exiting a room. I thought the hallway noise was very distracting and annoying. There was a couch and soft chair in the living room as well as a desk and chair. I did not think the couch was comfortable, although the Sleep Number bed was great.

Food & Beverage
We had dinner in the restaurant one evening and did not end up paying for one of the meals because they were not cooked right. My medium steak was served tough and well done. I had already eaten my salad and did not feel confident that a second steak would be any better, so I just sent the steak back. My husband's burger was also overcooked; however, we decided to share it since we were hungry and didn't feel like going out that evening. The menu prices and options  on the menu in the guestroom did not match the menu in the dining room. Our server told us the room menus were supposed to have been replaced. The service was acceptable and nothing more.

Business center
The business center was a typical HGI center with "on demand" printing available and miscellaneous office supplies.

Fitness center
The fitness center contained several working cardio machines. There was a TV, although the remote was missing both times that I used the center.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Lafayette, Indiana -- Holiday Inn

Status perks
At check-in I was told that I was the "guest of the day." When I asked what that meant, I was told that I had been upgraded to a suite. I have been upgraded to a suite at other properties without the "guest of the day" title. I have also been guest of the day at properties where I did not receive an upgrade, but received extra perks, like breakfast and bonus points. 

Room
I received a room on the top floor at the end of the hall. The room I received was the only room in the wing. This was one of the largest hotel rooms I have ever stayed in. It was comfortable; however,  it was not the nicest room I have stayed in. There was a large closet by the double door entrance, and then a large living/dining room combination. The room contained a couch, soft chairs, coffee and end tables, a TV, a small table with four chairs, a microwave, small fridge, and sink. The bathroom was behind the closet by the entrance door, rather than off the bedroom. I liked the large walk in shower; however, I did not like that I needed to walk through the kitchen area to get to the bathroom during the night.

The bedroom was just as large as the living area room that I just described. In addition to the bed and end tables, it contained a soft chair, desk and chair, armoire, and TV. One reason I stated that this hotel room was not as nice as others I have been in is because it showed signs that it had been rented to large groups for parties or social events. There were many stains on the carpet and other minor damage in the room. I was happy with the room for the most part, although I did not like the fact that the double entrance door was not equipped with a door latch or chain. I rigged my own hillbilly/redneck door alarm before I went to bed that evening.

Food & Beverage
I ate lunch/early dinner in the dining room when I arrived, and I had a snack in the lounge that evening. I would not recommend dining at this hotel. Although I would not classify the food and service as awful, it left a lot to be desired. I waited for service in both areas, and none of the food was worth waiting for.

Overall
I was happy with the room upgrade, and the bed was comfortable. I'm not sure if I would stay at this hotel next time I'm in the area. I think I would look at the Staybridge Suites and the Hilton Garden Inn a little closer before making that decision. 

I had noticed blue, gold, and platinum colored bags behind the front desk when I went to the lounge in the evening, so when I dropped off my key the next morning, I asked if the bags were PCR member bags. They were! The agent asked if I had received one, and I said no. She gave me a bag, which contained a bottle of water and two snacks. I guess my "guest of the day" status did not remind the employee to give me a bag at check-in.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fishers, Indiana/Uptown Indy -- Hotel Indigo

I stayed at this hotel for two nights in December 2010.

Status perks
I received a coupon for one free Starbucks beverage or a beverage in the bar, and one bottle of water. I did not receive a room upgrade, although I did receive a top floor corner room as requested.

Room
The room was a good size with wood floors, and it was comfortable. The large walk-in shower was similar to what I have experienced at other Hotel Indigos with a glass enclosure. I was glad I had received a room at the end of the hall because the door was not real soundproof--I could hear occasional hallway noise, although not so bad that it disrupted my work or sleep.

Food & Beverage
Free appetizers were served in the lounge both nights of my stay (I stayed on a Monday & Tuesday). I ordered salmon salad one evening, which was excellent. Breakfast in the morning was just as good. I was impressed with the food quality and service at this hotel. I was immediately greeted both times that I entered the lounge in the evening as well as in the morning. Every employee I encountered was attentive and made me feel like a valued guest. I had called to order breakfast to-go from my room, and then walked to the front desk with my free bottled water coupon in my hand, before going to the cafe to get my order. The front desk agent was busy with another guest, and the cafe employee saw the coupon in my hand. She immediately walked to the back room and got me a bottle of water. This was the type of service I received my entire stay.

Business center
The business center consisted of a couple of computers, printer, and miscellaneous office supplies in an area by the front desk. I was able to print a couple documents without any trouble.

Fitness center
The fitness center was a large room with a few cardio machines and weights. Cardio theater worked on one of the tread mills, and there was also a working TV in the room.

Overall
I was very happy at this hotel. I thought the attentiveness of all staff members was excellent. I arrived without my luggage (Delta's fault), and staff members helped make this inconvenience more tolerable. They offered me the use of a cell phone charger and other items that I needed. When my luggage did arrive the next morning, the front desk agent offered to bring it to my room before I even had a chance to say I would be right down. I felt that the service I received was genuine and attentive. I would definitely stay at this hotel again!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Delta air travel -- TPA to DTW to GRR

November 2010

Status perks
As a Gold Medallion flier, I had been upgraded to first class on the flight from TPA to DTW a few days prior to check-in.

Check-in
I observed one agent working with one group of guests at the First Class check-in counter when I entered the line to check my bag. They were checking 3 or 4 bags, so my wait time was a few minutes. I had plenty of time, so I was not concerned. Four passengers arrived after me before it was my turn, and the man who had arrived first after me must have been in a hurry, because he left before I got to the counter. The process to check my bag went smoothly, and the agent was able to accommodate my request for a different connecting flight from DTW to GRR.

Security
There is a Priority boarding line at TPA, so the process went very quickly. They have full body scanners, which I did not see anyone complaining about when I went through security.

In-flight
I was surprised we were served breakfast in First Class since the flight to DTW was only a little over 2 hours. On the 2 - 3 hour flights I took out west recently, we did not receive a meal. The flights out west were during lunch and dinner times, whereas the flight from TPA was during breakfast time. I don't know what Delta's criteria is--whether it is meal type, flight length, or a combination of the two. Or, if they have recently changed what is served. On this flight we received: cereal and milk, croissant, fresh fruit, and yogurt.

DTW Sky Club
I visited the Detroit Sky Club in B/C terminal this trip. Since the Delta/NWA merger, I had not had any success receiving assistance with tickets and such at the Sky Club, so I was impressed this trip. Before the merger, I had been able to receive seat assignments and/or upgraded seats in the [WorldClub] Sky Club. I had a confirmed seat from the TPA agent for my connection, although she had not been able to give me a seat assignment. When I entered the club, I asked the agent if I had a seat assignment yet, and she said no. She printed a receipt for herself and said she would keep an eye on it for me. Shortly before boarding time, I decided I better head to the gate since I needed a seat assignment. I paused at the Sky Club entrance, where the employee who had checked me in, was admitting another guest. She saw me, and handed me my boarding pass so I did not need to go to the gate until it was time to board.

Overall
I have encountered many frustrations during the airline merger, and was glad to see things running smoothly. Both my flights arrived on time (many of my recent flights before this one have not arrived on time), the employees I encountered were polite and helpful, and my bag was one of the first off when we arrived in GRR. I wish all my travel days went this smoothly!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tampa, Florida / TPA airport hotel -- Crowne Plaza

Status perks and check-in
I received an upgrade to a Cabana Suite, a beverage coupon, and two bottles of water. The bottled water was delivered to my room at 5:00 p.m. I appreciated the water, although I wished it had been given to me when I arrived.

I arrived about ½ hour early of check-in time; however, I was 45 minuter later than when the hotel should have been expecting me, because the agent requested my name when I called for the shuttle from the airport. When the agent said my room was not ready, I asked if I was waiting for an executive room. She said that she had a Cabana suite set aside for me, so I sat down in the lobby with my laptop to wait. When it was after check-in time and my room was still not available, I asked if an executive room was available. A suite sounded great; however, I said that I would take an executive guestroom, if there was one available. My IHG profile has executive room listed in my preferences, and I wish the agent had confirmed my preferences or discussed the guestroom options. Instead, she had me wait for the Cabana suite, and I did not end up being happy with the guestroom because of the noise.

Shuttle service
I waited 35 - 40 minutes for the shuttle when I arrived at the airport. I called back once after my initial call during this time. When the driver arrived, he said that he had been dropping off guests at another location. There must have been a breakdown in communication, because the telephone operator (who I assume had been the front desk agent) had told me both times when I called, that it would be 10 minutes.


Cabana suite living room/kitchen area

Guestroom
The suite was like a mini apartment--with paper thin walls. It was huge! There as a corner sofa, chair, and desk and chair in the living room, as well as a mini fridge, microwave, and sink area.

The bathroom was nice with a tile floor and a huge walk in shower. The bedroom was in the back.

The noise from the pool area was extremely loud--even in the bedroom with the door shut. During my stay, I heard water running, doors shutting, people walking down the walkway, and more. I was not able to work or sleep because of all the activity in the courtyard and nearby rooms. The cabana rooms have exterior entrance doors from the pool area.

There were no outlets in the bedroom (except difficult to reach ones behind the bed). I wanted to plug my phone in to charge it and set the alarm overnight, which was not an easy task. The lack of outlets in the bedroom also made it difficult to work on my computer.  Since it was somewhat quieter in the bedroom, I ended up moving the bed mattress in order to reach the outlet to plug my computer in, and then work while sitting in bed.

The Internet connection speed was very fast--probably because there were not many people working at this hotel. There were not any outlets for use in the living room either except two on the desk lamp, which were somewhat damaged. I was able to get them to work by jiggling the cords; however, the outlets were loose and the plug kept falling out of the lamp.

Food & Beverage
After I asked, the bartender let me use my beverage coupon for a discount off a higher priced drink.  Another guest after me brought her coupon to the bar to ask if she could get a Corona with it. The bartender told her domestic beer only. The guest did not ask if she could pay the difference for an upgrade (like I had), and the bartender did not offer this option. The drink prices were so inflated, that the coupon amounted to about a $2 savings. I also ordered pot stickers, which had good flavor. They were crisper than what I am used to, but still very good. The bar service was terrible. The bartender did not smile, and she behaved like I was an inconvenience. My beverage was gone for several minutes and I had finished dining before I was able to get another. The bartender was at the end of the bar attending to no one, when I slid my empty glass to the edge of the bar, and I still waited a few more minutes before she acknowledged me. I do not know why I still tip when the service is this poor. It was still somewhat her loss because I would have tipped more, if I had received good service.

Business center
There was one computer and printer in the business center on the 2nd floor. A guest was using the computer both times I entered to print a document. Fortunately, she let me use the computer a few moments to print what I needed the second time that I stopped. The Internet connection speed and laser print speed were both fast.

Overall
I would probably not stay at this hotel again when traveling for business. The pool area was nice looking--cabanas, comfy lounge and cushioned chairs, and a water fountain. Other than the impressive Internet connection speed, there were too many negative factors--the long wait for the airport shuttle, the hour wait for the room, the rude bartender, and the noise from the courtyard. Even if I was here for leisure, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night in one of the pool side rooms. This is the first Crowne Plaza I have stayed in that did not have an executive floor with an executive lounge. The top floor is classified as the executive floor, so the rooms on that floor may be larger than the basic rooms. However, there is no executive lounge. There was an empty room, which I was told could be unlocked by management, if guests requested a place to meet with colleagues. Other than the meeting room, I did not think this was a good business hotel. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Brandon, Florida / Homewood Suites by Hilton Tampa-Brandon

November 2010, Weekday, King studio

Status perks
I did not receive anything extra for being a Gold member, although I was glad to receive a guestroom that fit my profile preferences. The employee had read my comments and set aside a room for me on the top floor at the end of the hall.
Suite kitchen area

Guestroom
I was initially assigned guestroom 710--which was a room on the top floor at the end of the hall--however, the 7th floor is a mixture of smoking and non-smoking rooms. I walked through a thick cloud of smoke on the way to my room, and my room smelled strongly of smoke when I entered. I returned to the front desk and took a room on the 6th floor--which is entirely non-smoking--instead. 
Suite desk & bed

The guestroom was a basic Homewood Suites room with a living, kitchen, and bedroom area. The bathroom had a walk in shower. The desk chair was uncomfortable and did not raise to a good working height.

Suite living area
Even though the room did not smell of smoke, it did not smell fresh. The kitchen floor had debris on it, and the comforter on the bed was snagged and raggedy looking. 




Food & Beverage
Dinner was the basic evening fare: salad, stuffed peppers, and dinner rolls. Lemonade, beer, and red and white wine were available. I don't know what kind of wine was served because it was in unmarked decanters. It tasted awful! Coors beer cans were set in ice in the beverage area. Breakfast included scrambled and hard boiled eggs, bagels & bread, sausage, hash browns, fruit, waffles, oatmeal, and cereal.

Pool
I did not use the pool, although the area looked very nice--nice lounge chairs, grill, large pool, and hot tub.

Business center
The business center was equipped with two working computers and printers.

Fitness center
There were four or five cardio machines and weights in the room with one working TV, which was not located straight ahead for easy viewing.

Overall
I was disappointed with the unfresh smell in my room and the raggedy look of the bedding. The only food item that I thought was fresh and good quality was the dinner salad. I did not think this Homewood Suites was as nice as others I have stayed in and I would probably not stay here again. This is a newer property, so I expected it to be above average rather than below average.

Tampa, Florida / TPA airport hotel -- Hilton

November 2010, Weekday-weekend, 3-nights, King executive guestroom

Status perks
I was able to check-in online to an upgraded executive floor room the day before my arrival, so I did. Two complimentary bottles of water were included in the room each day.

Guestroom
Our room was on the top floor. The only rooms with a balcony at this hotel are the rooms on the 11th and 12th floor. The room was spacious and comfortable, although the toilet seat in the bathroom was cracked. It was cracked to the point that I got pinched every time I sat down. I was surprised this had not been replaced sooner. I informed the front desk of the problem at check out.

Our stay was from Friday afternoon - Monday morning. Our flight arrived before check-in time, and our room was ready for us when we arrived. The executive lounge was open for breakfast; however, it was not open in the evening. We were able to get a mini fridge delivered to our room for no extra charge. Internet is free for Gold and Diamond members and the speed was satisfactory.


Food & Beverage
We had calamari, the grilled chicken pepper jack sandwich, and a couple of mixed drinks and wine in the lounge during our stay. Jose Cuervo margaritas were on special for $4 all day Saturday. This was not advertised, and I found out about the special when I overheard another guest ask about this. The food and beverages were satisfactory, and other than the margarita special, they were standard (slightly inflated) hotel airport prices.


Pool
Even though this hotel is located in a business area near the airport, we thought the pool area was quite nice. The chairs were comfortable, it was tastefully landscaped, and there was plenty of room. The hot tub was set at the appropriate temperature for the cool evenings. The Internet connection speed in the pool area was lousy. I was not able to get much work done in this area.




Fitness center
The fitness center was open 24 hours. There were several cardio machines with cardio theater, weights, a weight bench, and floor mat. Everything was in great working order.

Misc./Overall
We were happy with this stay and would stay here again. I was able to get a great AAA rate online for $62 a night! The price made the stay even more satisfactory. This hotel is very close to the airport, and we did not hear any airplane noise during our stay. The hotel is located across from the International Plaza, which is a large upscale shopping mall with several restaurants. The hotel shuttle provides transportation; however, we had no problem walking back and forth. We waited 20 minutes for the airport shuttle when we arrived, which is how long the front desk employee had said it would be when we called.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Michigan Fall Color Tour -- NW lower peninsula

We enjoyed a wonderful drive around northern lower Michigan  the first weekend in October. We visited a couple wineries and saw some beautiful scenery and colors, although I think the second weekend would yield better colors.

The drive around the Leelanau peninsula through Suttons Bay, Northport, and Leland is a nice trip. The roads are hilly, which provides many great views of Lake Michigan, Lake Leelanau, and many different trees. Each town offers quaint shopping, wineries, great fish, and local dining options. 

Black Star Farms winery has three tasting rooms in the Grand Traverse Bay area. They sell a souvenir glass for $5, which you use to sample six wines. You can then reuse the glass for five more samples at a different time or location. We visited the tasting room in Grand Traverse Commons, and the winery on Old Mission peninsula. We were disappointed with the service and knowledge shared at the Commons location; however, we thought the Old Mission visit was great! The young man serving at Old Mission provided excellent and brief information about each product he poured, he provided bland crackers for in-between tastes (which we did not receive at the Commons location), and he provided chocolate truffles with the excellent raspberry dessert wine we sampled. We, of course, made a purchase at this location! If this was my business, I would implement a way for employees to receive credit for each purchasing customer (he could have provided a business card, or the cashier could have asked who assisted us). The service we received at Old Mission made an impact on our decision to purchase.

One reason I wanted to visit Black Star Farms is because I am an avid champagne lover, and had found this review of their 2008 sparkling wine: "Recently released and oh so bubbly our 2008 Sparkling Wine was reviewed by Tony Brueski on thetastespot.com.  As Tony notes this is not a sweet style sparkling wine but a rather dry one made in the classic brut style.  This wine pairs well with an assortment of dishes as well as being wonderful on its own." 

Brut is my preference, so I was excited to try this wine, especially since the price was under $15. I am sad to say that I did not like this product. It was more flat than bubbly, and lacked flavor. Two positive words that describe it are clean and crisp--much like many inexpensive white wines.  

We enjoyed beautiful fall colors alongside the 131 expressway through the Cadillac area on our way home. I was surprised that the colors in this area were more peaked than the ones in the Grand Traverse Bay area. I assume the bodies of water in the Bay area have an impact on this.

Traverse City, Michigan -- Holiday Inn

Status perks
At check-in, I received two small bottles of water, two small chocolates, and two small snacks, as the guest before me had also received. I also received a PCR letter with a coupon for one complimentary "Best-4-Breakfast" in my prepared key packet.

Check-in
There were two agents assisting three guests before me when I arrived on Saturday afternoon shortly before 4:00 pm. When the female agent finished assisting the guest at the counter in front of her, she left the area. Another guest arrived behind me as I continued to wait. One of the guests in front of me, turned around and mouthed the word "slow" to me. She had been in the gift shop and then wandering around the lobby while her partner was checking in. It took me over 15 minutes to check-in.

Room
I received a king bed room with a connecting room door on the top/4th floor. It was a basic room with a very tiny bathroom. The bathroom door almost touched the toilet seat when opening. There was only room for one person in the bathroom, and if I had wanted to shut the door, I would have had to step in beside the toilet to shut the door. And then, you'd want to lock it so you wouldn't get your knees and toes smashed, if someone opened the door without knocking! I was apprehensive about the connecting room door; however, I knew the hotel was quite full, so we did not voice any concerns about this. As it turned out, we did not need to worry about noise from the room next door; only the hall. We were awakened four times during the night. The second time, I heard someone talking on a two-radio, as if hotel personnel were also in the hall. Twice, we were awakened by a dog barking, and the next day, we passed three different guests with dogs. One of the guests with a dog entered the room with the connecting door next to us.

I have stayed at this hotel before and always thought the rooms were kind of dingy. Since the property had recently completed upgrades for the Holiday Inn relaunch program, I decided to give it another try. I was seriously disappointed. The bedding was somewhat more comfortable; however, that is the only change I observed. Our room still had the dusty, musty, old smell that it used to have. I guess it is in the walls because the carpeting looked fairly new. The furniture did not look new (there were stains and damage), but the smell did not seem to come from the furniture. The one nice thing about our room, is that we received a king bed. The only room type available when I made the reservation was two queen beds. I had sent an email to the hotel before my arrival, which said I'd like to have a king bed high floor room, if one was available. Although no one sent me a reply, it would appear they had received my note.

Food & Beverage
The service and beverages in Shimmers lounge were unacceptable, in my opinion. I walked to the bar after we had been seated for over 10 minutes and ordered two margaritas. I requested good ones, although I did not state a brand preference, and the bartender did not ask. I mistakenly assumed he would use something better than nasty bar tequila. After giving him a $2 tip and returning to the table, I realized how awful the beverages were. I took mine back to the bar and said I wanted a different margarita because the bar tequila he used was not good. The bartender basically told me "too bad." He said I would have to pay for my drinks all over again, if I wanted new ones. We left the lounge shortly after this, and had the tab removed from our bill at check-out. Manager Heather the next morning was the most impressive employee I had contact with this visit.

We decided to order a snack from CW's Blue Water Bistro next to the front desk, and get a bottle of wine from the gift shop to take back to our room. The cashier in the restaurant was nice enough, although there was not anyone in the area when I arrived to place the order, nor when I returned to pick it up after I had purchased the wine. I ended up waiting several minutes both times. I'm not sure how long the smoked whitefish dip had been done before I was able to take it back to my room.

I was impressed when we received excellent service in the Bistro for breakfast the next morning! And, I was happy to see sugar-free jam available. The food was acceptable, although not great. I ordered Pesto Eggs Benedict, which had excellent flavor; however, my eggs were cooked hard--pretty much like hard boiled eggs.

The service in the gift shop was not good. There were not any guests at the front desk where two employees stood when I entered the gift shop, which is connected to the front desk. I browsed a few minutes and did not see an employee in the gift shop. Before I had a chance to request assistance from an agent at the front desk, two guests arrived to check-in. An employee who I had seen walking around the halls entered the gift shop a few seconds later, and I asked him if he could help me. He said no, and that he would tell someone at the front desk. When the guests finished at the front desk, no one entered the gift shop to assist me. Another guest arrived at the front desk, so this time, when the guest finished, I stepped out of the gift shop where I was certain the employees at the front desk could see me. The female associate standing behind the counter, looked at me and rudely said she knew I was waiting. Wow! I had not even said anything to anyone, and since no one had acknowledged me before this, I had wondered if I was invisible. She rang up my wine a few minutes later, and I returned to the bistro, where I then waited for our snack. When I got back to the room, my husband commented that he was about ready to send out a search party for me.

Overall
I do not have much of anything good to say about this hotel, and I have decided I will never stay here again. The only good points for me, were that I received PCR points for my stay, and it's in a good location. I'm afraid those benefits do not outweigh the negative things. There are MANY more hotel choices in the area, and almost all the ones that are located a bit farther from town, offer free shuttle service to town.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Atlanta, GA / ATL airport hotel -- Hilton Garden Inn Atlanta Airport North

Status perks
I received two bottles of water and a breakfast coupon. I checked my profile before this stay to make sure it was set to receive bonus points instead of breakfast, and I also received my bonus points.

Guestroom
I received a basic king room on the 3rd floor. Since my profile is set for high floor, and this hotel has seven floors, I was slightly disappointed, although I did not say anything since I was only staying one night. The bedding quality and comfort were excellent--much superior to what I usually experience at a HGI. There was a fridge and microwave, as is standard for HGI properties. The coffee was very good, and liquid creamer was provided with the condiments. There were soap and shampoo dispensers on the shower wall, which I think is a great idea to cut down on wasted product and plastic bottle trash. I do not understand why some people seem to think this is unsanitary. It does not seem like this could be less clean than using the coffee pot or glasses in a hotel room. I would hope that housekeeping cleans the dispenser spiciest (which don't need to be touched anyway), just as we hope they wash the guestroom glasses. 

The Internet connection speed was slow--even with the ethernet cord. My room was overlooking the courtyard, which was a nice view; however, that is also where bar patrons sat to smoke and such, so it was kind of noisy in the evening. Other than the courtyard noise, the room was pretty soundproof. I did not hear much activity from the neighbors on the floor or above me.

Food & Beverage
I did not care for any of the food or beverages I had at this property. The menu was extremely overpriced. The calamari was heavily breaded, and my eggs were overcooked in the morning. The menu said that champagne splits were available; however, they did not have any when I requested one at the bar. Tiffany, the bartender, checked in the back room to make sure. Tiffany was personable and accommodating. She is definitely an asset to the lounge. The restaurant open time and service was kind of late/slow in the morning. It was a little after 6:00 a.m. before it actually opened, and I do not think the cook was working yet, because I waited over 15 minutes for my eggs. I was glad I was on the 7:00 a.m. shuttle and not the 6:30 one, because I would have missed that one.

Business center
The business center was the basic HGI center with on demand printing that worked fine. There is apparently Internet connection issues though, because it took me some time to access the Internet to print my boarding pass. There was a "reboot" icon on the computer, and the password was handwritten and taped to the screen, which made me think this was not an isolated incident.

Pool
I did not use the pool, although I did see that there was a nice indoor and outdoor pool.

Shuttle service
When I called the hotel a few days before my arrival, I was told that the shuttle runs automatically ever half hour. I called after I had been waiting a few minutes the day of my arrival to make sure, and found out I needed to call for the shuttle when arriving. Apparently the shuttle runs to the airport every half hour; however, it does not always stop at the pick up spot unless a guest calls. My driver when I arrived was very personable, although he missed the hotel exit, so it took us a little longer to get to the hotel. In the morning, the shuttle stops at the Hampton Inn after leaving the HGI, which I was not aware of. Fortunately, I had allowed myself plenty of time to get to the airport.

Overall
This hotel was less than two years old when I stayed here, so I was surprised to see so many carpet stains and areas that looked like they needed to be remodeled already. I think this hotel is a good choice, if the only thing needed is a comfortable bed. I do not think I would stay here again, because when I stay at an airport hotel, I usually don't have a car, and I also want something to eat or drink in the evening. Since I did not care for the food or beverage choices, I would choose a different hotel next time. 

Athens, Georgia -- Hotel Indigo

Status perks
I wanted to stay at this property rather than the other choices in town; however, the rates were higher and there was also a parking charge. After I had cancelled my reservation, I decided to call the hotel to see if they could waive the parking fee for Platinum members. The person I spoke with said that he would waive the parking fee, so I had him reinstate my reservation. I received an updated confirmation after speaking with him, and saw that my room had also been upgraded to an executive room! When I arrived, I was told that I had been upgraded to a suite! I also received a coupon good for two beverages in the lounge.

Guestroom
I thought the guestroom was fabulous! There was a kitchen area with a small fridge, and a table with four chairs. The coffee was disappointing; it was not as good as I expected, and the condiments included basic powder creamer.

The adjoining living area contained a couch, two soft chairs, a chair at a desk, and a flatscreen TV. 

The bedroom was large with a desk & chair, suitcase bench, dresser, flat screen TV, and balcony. I did not understand why the full length mirror had been hung on the wall beside the dresser, so it was pretty much useless with the dresser in the way. I would have hung it on the wall by the desk chair in the bedroom because the desk chair could be moved. Two bathrobes were provided. 
bathroom in suite w/ shower in mirror

The windows in the bedroom and living area extended almost to the floor with a window seat in front of both windows. 
I especially loved the bathroom. There were two sinks, great lighting and a makeup mirror, and walk-in tile shower.
The suite was comfortable, and I did not hear any noise from neighbors. The bedding and pillows were high quality. The Internet connection speed was great in the guestroom, and throughout the hotel.





Food & Beverage
When I went to the lounge that evening, I learned that this location has a manager's reception every Sunday - Wednesday from 5:00 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. with complimentary house wine and beer. I do not understand why this information is not provided on the website, because I consider these little extras when choosing a hotel. I also had not been told about this at check-in. There were many beverage choices, and I liked the food both evenings. I had the shrimp and grits one night, which was excellent. I had the cheese plate the second night, which was also very good. 

The breakfast offerings were cafe style food items similar to Panera Bread. I had a whole wheat florentine egg sandwich one morning, and a frittata the second morning. Both items were very good.

Fitness center
The fitness center was open 24 hours. There were four cardio machines, a weight machine, and weights. There was one working flatscreen TV, although with the high ceilings, the room had an echo, and it was difficult to hear it.

Business center
Two computers with a printer were located next to the front desk. I printed one document without any trouble.

Public areas
The seating in the lobby and the bar was comfortable. Some chairs had a small table attached to the arm  for working or eating. There were many outlets in the sitting areas and at the bar. There was a nice outside courtyard with seating and a fire pit.

Overall
I loved this hotel and would stay here again. Staff members were great, the room was comfortable, and I liked the dining choices. My husband would have liked the free beer, although I think he would have been disappointed about the fact that this hotel does not have a pool. It is near the University, and there were many pubs within walking distance.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Lavonia, Georgia -- Holiday Inn Express

September 2010, Weekday, King suite guestroom 424

Status perks
I had reserved a regular king bed room for a rate less than $100, which I thought was an excellent rate. When I viewed my reservation online before my arrival, I saw that I had been upgraded to a suite. I also received two chocolates and a bottle of water at check-in.
Guestroom
The room was spacious and somewhat comfortable. I thought the bed and desk chair were comfortable, although I did not like the comfort of any of the furniture in the sitting area.

The room was at the end of the hall on the top floor, which I liked. I had originally been assigned the same room on the first floor, and I asked if a higher floor room was available instead. I had requested a high floor when I made my reservation, and it did not appear as though anyone had noticed this before assigning my room.

looking toward sitting area
The living area included a couch, three chairs, coffee table and sitting table, microwave and fridge. The bedroom contained a desk and chair, flat screen TV (which could be viewed from the sitting area or bedroom), and a suitcase bench. The large bathroom had a nice long counter with pretty good lighting and a nice hair dryer. At most hotels, the vending area is usually near the elevator; however, at this hotel, it was directly across from my room. Fortunately, I did not hear any noise from the area while I was trying to sleep. The Internet connection speed in my room was extremely slow at all times during my stay--even late at night or early in the morning when I sometimes have better luck because there are less people using the service. I was given a sign in code at check-in; however, I did not need it to access the Internet.
bathroom in room 424

Food & Beverage
The posted breakfast open time was 6:30 a.m. When I walked by around 6:20, the room was already open. Food items were set up and several guests were dining. Selections included the standard HIX fare: cinnamon rolls, cheesy omelets one morning and scrambled eggs the next,  biscuits & sausage gravy both mornings, cold cereals, milk & yogurt, oatmeal, and French toast. I did not see cold water or bananas either morning.

Fitness center
The fitness center was only open from 6 a.m. -10 p.m. Employees were happy to open the room before 6:00 for me the first day, and for a guest before me the second morning. The A/C in the room was automatic, so it did not start until 5:55 the first morning. The room was not uncomfortable before this, and then it got hot within 30 minutes. After the initial A/C start, it did not feel like the air was running again. In fact, when I went to the business center after I finished, it was much cooler in the business center. The second morning, the A/C did not start until almost 6:15. The fitness center contained three cardio machines, one TV, and cold water. Hand sanitizer or wipes were not provided.

Business center
The business center is a small room across from the front desk with two computers and a printer. The Internet speed was very fast, and I was able to print a document without any trouble.

Overall
This hotel is located next to the Interstate with several fast food restaurants nearby. The only sit down restaurants I observed in the area were Shoney's and a local Mexican restaurant. I chose the Mexican restaurant, although I did not think it was much better than Taco Bell. The location was good for the work I needed to do, and I did not see a better hotel choice in the area. In fact, from the hotel and food choices I observed, I was glad this HIX was here! I thought all of the employees were great.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Denver, Colorado / DIA airport hotel -- Holiday Inn & Suites - the invisible room!

August 2010, Weekday, 2-nights, King suite 601

Status perks and check-in
I received an upgrade to a suite, and the process before I received this room was quite an experience.

I had reserved a king executive room, and when I arrived at 2:30 p.m., the agent told me I had been upgraded to a king suite; however, my room was not ready yet. I did not have a problem with that since I knew I was 1/2 hour early of check-in time. I was happy to wait in the lobby for the suite. I sat down in the lobby to work on my laptop. After I had been waiting 2 hours, there were 6 or more guests in the lobby also waiting for rooms, and several other guests had received rooms. I decided to check back with the front desk agent. He said that he had a suite available, and he gave me a key for room 530. 

When I arrived at guestroom 530, I saw that it contained 2 double beds. I went back to the front desk because I wanted the king suite, and I said I would wait, if it was still not available. A different agent this time said that she had a king executive room available, which was the same size as a suite except it did not have a sofa sleeper. It was on the [top] 6th floor, so I took it. When I entered guestroom 608, I saw that it was much smaller than the doubled bed suite! Since I was going to be staying at this property for 2 nights, I went back to the front desk and said that I preferred to wait for the king suite. 
Sign on the 5th & 6th floor

When I agreeably tell someone I want to wait for the better room, I do not understand why he or she does not believe me. This is not the first time someone has tried to just assign me any room, instead of letting me wait--or, even better, having someone get my room ready. After waiting almost 4 hours--it was after 6 p.m., I was finally assigned a king suite, only it was on the 3rd floor. Floors 5 and 6 are quiet floors designated for PCR members, which is something I appreciate and want. I told the agent I was not happy. I was nice about it, although I did make it clear that the only reason I had waited 4 hours without complaining is because I thought I was waiting for a king suite on the 5th or 6th floor. She did some typing at her computer, and then said she had to go check on something. When she returned, she gave me a key for room 601. She did not say anything about the room type or how to find it. I knew that 601 was probably at the end of the hall on the top floor, so I did not ask. I just thanked her and took the key.
Room 601 living room


Guestroom 601
When I got to the end of the hall on the 6th floor, I did not see my room number or a sign. There was a locked door ahead, which looked like a staff utility closet, or something. I tried my key, which opened the door, and there were rooms 601 and 602 behind the locked door. When I entered my room, I realized I'd received one of the best rooms!
Bedroom w/ whirlpool tub

The guestroom had a full kitchen, bar, living room, bedroom with whirlpool tub, desk and chair, and large bathroom with walk in shower. There was a note on the tub, which said it leaked; however that did not matter to me. I was happy to have the comfort, room to work, and silence. 

As much as I loved the room, I would have been happy with a king suite on one of the PCR floors, if it had been assigned to me within an hour of my arrival. This hotel was very busy, and seemingly unable to handle a full house. Many guests were checking in while I waited, and I do not think anyone was paying attention to what I was waiting for (or another guest who finally got so mad, he demanded the corporate telephone number). 

Work desk and TV in bedroom
I had checked with the front desk after waiting 2 hours, and again to let them know when I went to the lounge to eat, so employees had my name and should have remembered what I was waiting for. When I returned to the front desk again after 6 p.m., I still did not have a room assignment until after the agent found me a room on the computer--even though other guests had been checking in the entire time. Before I went to the lounge, I had stopped at the front desk, and the agent I spoke with said that she would assign my room and come let me know the number. It appeared that rooms were just being assigned as guests were checking in, which is apparently how the room I was initially waiting for was given away.

Room 601 was extremely comfortable. The bed was great, it was perfectly quiet, the bar stools and living room furniture were comfortable. 
Room 601 bar/kitchen area


The wireless Internet connection speed was great in the lobby and in my room. I thought this was impressive since the hotel was full. There was a safe in the closet; however, it was locked open, so I was unable to use it. I was surprised that there was not a bathrobe in the guestroom. I was glad I did not need to apply any makeup because the lighting in the bathroom was poor. There was an excellent mountain view from my room, which I missed the first night because I was working, and almost missed the second night as well.

Food & Beverage
I thought the food and beverages at this property were acceptable and nothing more. The service was very good, and the prices were average; however, the quality and taste was lacking, in my opinion. The eggs I ordered in the morning were overcooked, and the toast was cold and not even browned. I don't know if my eggs were prepared this way because of the recent egg recall, or if this was their normal preparation. I was glad I went to the restaurant shortly after it opened at 6 a.m., because when I left, there were four or five tables of guests, there were guests waiting for seats, and I observed only 1 server. When I got off the elevator on my floor, I observed two employees departing with a room service table, and one of them was the person who had seated me. I guess that's why guests were waiting for a table. In the evening, I ordered the Ahi tuna salad one night, and the Ahi tuna appetizer the other night. I do not usually order similar menu items two days in a row; however, there were not many options on the menu. I thought the appetizer was bland. The salad had Thai dressing, which contributed much to the flavor. I was not impressed with the freshness or quality of the fresh ingredients in my eggs (I had the California omelet) or on the salad.


Hotel comfort
I have added a new category for this property because the comfort warrants it's own category. Even though I sat in the lobby working on my laptop for 3 hours (I went to the bar to eat for part of the time I was waiting), it was very comfortable. There were outlets for my laptop, and the chair and couch were both comfortable. The chairs at the bar in the lounge were comfortable, and there were many comfortable looking chairs along the hallway outside the meeting rooms. All the furniture in my room was great, as well as the bed and bedding.

Business center
There were a couple computers and a printer in the business center, as well as miscellaneous office supplies. I was able to print a couple documents without any trouble.


Fitness center
The fitness center was open 24 hours. There were two working TVs, although the set up of the 4 cardio machines did not directly face either TV. I wondered why they had not set the machines at an angle for more comfortable TV viewing. The room was large, and it looked like there was plenty of room to arrange the machines the other way. There were no weights or other equipment besides the 4 cardio machines and 1 exercise mat. 

Overall
I think this is a nice property with a lot of good points. The only criticism from me would be the organization and ability to handle a full house. Even though I was upgraded to a nice room, and employees were quite attentive after that, I was still disappointed that the situation had even happened. My experience at most hotels when I arrive before my room is ready, has been that the agent makes note of my name and comes to the lobby, or bar, or calls me when my room is ready. Often I have been given drink coupons or lunch while waiting (not expected, but appreciated), and my room has NEVER been given away while I was waiting. This hotel did not offer me the upgrade until after I let them know how unhappy I was.

The second day I was here, I saw that PCR guests checking in were receiving 2 bottles of water. I did not receive any bottled water, and I did not see anyone receive water on the busy day when I had checked in. I would stay here again--the furniture was comfortable, staff conveyed a positive attitude, the airport shuttle was great, and the Internet connection speed was great. I think that if you are staying here when the hotel is not full, you will probably love it! If, however, the hotel is full, it'll probably be like drawing straws as far as what kind of room you'll receive.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Englewood, Colorado / Homewood Suites by Hilton Denver Tech Center


August 2010, Weekday, 2-nights, King 1-bedroom suite


Status perks and check-in
I usually request a high floor corner guestroom because there is usually less noise in this location.  I was happy that when I checked in, the agent had read my requests. She told me that the only room available on the top floor was in the center of the hall, or I could have a corner room on the second floor. I opted for the corner room, since she said it was probably a little bigger. I also received two bottles of water and two packages of Milano cookies.

Guestroom 
This guestroom had a connecting room door, which I try to stay away from, too. Fortunately, there was a door on the bedroom, and the bedroom was at the corner end of the suite. I could hear my neighbor's TV and other activity through the connecting door when I was working in the evening, although I could not hear it from the bedroom. 

The couch in the living room was comfortable, as was the bed and bedding. The chairs at the kitchen table were extremely uncomfortable and hard, making it difficult to work on the computer. There was a cable for wired Internet access at the table, so I would have been happier with a desk chair, so I could take advantage of the connection speed. I used it for a few hours the first night, but that's about all I could take. The wireless connection speed was acceptable; just not as strong. There was a flatscreen TV in the living room, and a second one in the bedroom.


Fitness center
The fitness center was open 24 hours, and the temperature was comfortable. There were three cardio machines with cardio theater, and fitness balls and mats; however, there were no weights or a weight machine. Other than the absence of weights, I was happy with the center.

Business center
The business center contained two computers, a printer and miscellaneous office supplies. Everything was in good working order. 

Food & Beverage
The food and beverage selection, quality, and service in the evening was excellent. HS always serves fresh salad on Monday - Thursday evenings along a variety of other items. I have seen this range from only cheese and crackers to 4-course meals which include items like fresh shrimp and steak. Beer & wine is also served where local ordinances allow. 

I was impressed with what this property served. The menu the first night included fresh salad with fixins, Cod, rice, vegetables, fresh bread sticks, and dessert. Several non-alcoholic beverages, as well as beer and four different wines were available--two reds and two whites. The menu for the second evening included potato soup, chicken tenders (good sized), fresh vegetables, fresh salad with a slightly different variety of fresh toppings, and two desserts--eclairs, and lemon cake. 

Breakfast the first morning included Mexican eggs, hash brown patties, corned beef hash, oatmeal, waffles, and several cold items. Similar cold items were served the second morning as well as turkey sausage, hash browns, and egg and muffin sandwiches. I liked the turkey sausages however, I thought the egg sandwiches were awful.

Overall
I was happy with my room comfort for sleeping, the hotel amenities, and the staff. When I returned to the hotel after my first night, the front desk agent greeted me by name when I entered! There is not anything within walking distance of this property; however, it was in a great location for my stay. It is located on a side street with easy access to the Interstate.