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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Original Wisconsin Duck Tour and Upper Dells Scenic Tour

August 2012 

Duck boats
I originally thought we would book the Wisconsin Duck Tour with a 20% coupon I had, and then decide if we wanted to take another tour later. We ended up booking the package Duck Tour and Upper Dells Scenic Tour. Booking the package was a better deal than purchasing the tickets separately, because the cost was then 50% off for the second set of tickets. If you are not interested in more than one tour, I received the 20% off coupon by subscribing to Wisconsin Dells Deals via email. I was not able to use the 20% discount with the package discount.
View from our seat-Duck boat

The Original Wisconsin Duck Tour departs from the location on Wisconsin Dells Parkway, which is about 2 miles north of the Hilton Garden Inn where we were staying. It is on the same side of the road, and there is a sidewalk, so we decided to walk there. When we bought our tickets, we were told that the Duck Tour departs every 10 - 15 minutes. We observed a tour departing when we arrived around 9:20 - 9:25 a.m. 

Because we were the first passengers for the next tour out, we were able to sit right up front where we had a better view; however, we did not depart 10 - 15 minutes later. It was 1/2 hour later before the boat was filled, and the tour did not leave until all of the seats were filled, which was just before 10 a.m.

View from Duck tour

The ride was informative and fun. We had a great view, although I thought we would have been better off if we had taken a seat in the back. The diesel fumes every time the boat went in the water were quite strong. My husband seemed to think that this would be around us no matter where we had been seated. We went in and out of the water a few times, sightseeing by land and water. We observed deer during one of our trips through the woods on land, and that is the only wildlife we saw.
Duck boat route--
Up the river, back out on land,
and down the hill back into the water

Other than the fact that we waited so long before departing, this was an enjoyable excursion. If you are only interested in the Duck Tour, and purchase tickets with a 20% discount, this is a great value. The tour was a little over an hour long.

Lower Dells-Duck tour

Upper Dells boat
The Upper Dells Scenic Tour departs from downtown, and there is a shuttle between the two locations. We did not go on the scenic tour first because that trip did not start until 10 a.m. If we had known that the Duck Tour was not going to leave until 10:00, we would have taken the shuttle downtown and gone on the scenic tour first. I imagine the Duck Tour fills up quicker later in the day, and therefore, rides probably do head out every 10 to 15 minutes in the afternoon. 

Upper Dells

We were told that the Scenic Tour leaves every 20 to 30 minutes, and again we waited until the boat was nearly full before departing. A boat had just departed, and it was 45 minutes later before the next boat was almost full. I think if we had reversed the order of our trips, we still would have waited up to 45 minutes for the Scenic Tour to depart, and then only 10 to 15 minutes for the Duck Tour.

If it is a hot day when you are going on the Scenic Tour, I definitely suggest a trip in the morning or late in the day, rather than in the middle of the afternoon like we did. The Scenic Tour boat travels in the sun with no cover (unless you sit inside the boat on the lower level where the view is not as good). It was very hot with almost no breeze on the top of the boat. Since the Duck Tour travels through the woods, and there is a cover/roof on the boat, you can be in at least partial shade on that tour.
Upper Dells 2nd stop

The seats on top of the boat for the Upper Dells Tour were webbed lawn chairs, which were connected to each other, and not to the floor. There were three chairs on each side, with a skinny aisle in the middle. Since most people travel in pairs, there were a few empty seats in the center. There was not much room between the chairs, and I was surprised that there was not a weight limit posted for roof seating because the web chairs were not high quality, nor were they very sturdy.

Since the chairs were not attached to the floor, and it was such close quarters, the rows of connected chairs were bumped by almost every passenger going to the front of the boat. The chair sections slid back and forth every time this happened. And, since the chairs were such low quality, I observed one oversized passenger pop a bolt out of a chair when he sat down, and then he sat sideways in the broken chair for the remainder of the trip. The size of the seats on top of the boat reminded me of folding chairs. The cushioned bench seats inside the boat looked comfortable, although we did not try them. 
Second stop--Upper Dells

This tour had a couple stops, which we enjoyed. There was a restroom and a concession stand at both stops. They told us that the second stop was a difficult and steep walk, but we did not think it was that bad. A few of the passengers on our boat had difficulty walking, and everyone was able to walk the route without any problems.
Upper Dells

This was supposed to be a 2-hour excursion, and our trip was about 15 minutes longer than that. The extra time was not too much of a problem, except that it was way too hot to be on top of the boat. It was 90+ degrees and mostly sunny the day of our tour. I was surprised that we did not travel faster on the return trip since we were a bit over on our time, and it was so hot out. We certainly would have appreciated a stronger breeze and less time in the heat!

We did not have any real complaints or compliments about either trip. Both excursions were "okay" and mildly enjoyable. With the discount, our cost was around $70 for two people for both trips. That was not counting tips or purchases, which were pushed on both tours.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Wisconsin Dells / Hilton Garden Inn

August 2012, Weekday, 2-nights, King whirlpool room #347

Status perks and check-in
I had been pre-assigned guestroom 348, which I later learned is a top floor corner room. The agent at check-in did not state what type of room I had been assigned, so I asked if there was an upgrade available. She said she could upgrade us to a whirlpool room with a balcony on the top floor, so I accepted it. I think the room I had originally been assigned was a deluxe king room, so I am sure that room would have been great, too. It appeared that the only additional item in the new guestroom was the whirlpool tub. I also received two bottles of water.

Guestroom #347
The guestroom contained the usual Hilton Garden Inn comforts--garden sleep system, dry bar area with small fridge, microwave, coffee maker, and a desk and chair. This guestroom also had a balcony with two chairs and a small table, a fireplace at the foot of the bed, and a whirlpool tub in the living area. There was not a chair or sofa in the guestroom.

The hotel diagram showed that this guestroom is the same size as the room we had originally been assigned. If the diagram is accurate, then room 348 must be a good sized room. Guestroom 347 was spacious enough for a chair, even though there was not one in the guestroom (other than the desk chair). Since we had two chairs on the balcony, we decided to keep the whirlpool room. I prefer it when the employee completely explains my options, and I wish I had asked for more detail about the original guestroom before asking about an upgrade.

We had a decent view from the balcony, and the outside chairs were comfortable and clean. The glass side walls on the balcony were clean, although the floor needed a good sweeping (there were many pinecones and needles on it). The balcony in this guestroom is right next to the one next door and it is not private. The balconies on the corner rooms (where we had originally been assigned room 348) are private.

The whirlpool tub and the bedding were clean; however, there were a few issues with the guestroom. There was mold along the edge of the tub/shower in the bathroom, and the bathroom drains were slow--in the sink and the shower. I stopped at the front desk on our way out the first morning to tell the employee about the slow drains. The employee I spoke with said he would have an engineer take care of it when he came in at 9 a.m. When we returned later that day, there was no evidence that anyone had been in the guestroom except housekeeping. The drains were still slow, so I told the agent about the problem again at check out. He reduced our nightly rate $20 because of this.

Housekeeping did not completely clean our room on stayover. The counters and desk had not been cleaned, and the coffee pot had not been emptied or cleaned.

There was a good amount of storage space and ample electrical outlets in this guestroom. Wireless Internet was available, although the connection speed was extremely slow.

Food & Beverage
We did not have any food or beverages at the hotel during our stay. I did not receive breakfast coupons (like I had at the last HGI I stayed in), and there were not any Happy Hour food or beverage specials either night of our stay. Since this hotel is in a resort area, and many of the restaurants nearby offered Happy Hour type promotions--on food and beverages--I was surprised that the Hilton Garden Inn did not offer anything. Some Hilton Garden Inns I have stayed in offer Happy Hour food and beverage prices, and/or free snacks.

This hotel has an inside pool and three hot tubs. Two of the hot tubs are located outside where there is also a patio area with a couple of tables and chairs. There is an outside smoking area at the other end of hotel.

Area & misc.
We dined at both of the restaurants in front of the hotel--Del-Bar and Sprecher's Pub. We preferred Sprecher's, and probably would have eaten there both nights, if we had discovered it the first evening.

Del-Bar offered good quality food with Happy Hour pricing; however, we needed to buy two beverages to get the discounted food items, and we thought the beverage prices were high. Del-Bar Happy Hour menu. The service at Del-Bar was disappointing. I ordered the Sashimi Tuna, which was served several minutes before my husband received his Cheeseburger and Fries. We had not ordered the items as an appetizer and then an entree. We had each ordered the items at the same time for our respective meals. Complimentary cheese dips and crackers was served in the bar area, and neither bartender let us know about this. We inquired after we observed guests walking to a table on the other side of the bar from where we were seated.

The service and food quality at Sprecher's Pub was excellent, they have an extensive beer menu--which my husband liked, and the Happy Hour food and beverage prices were good. We had the Shrimp Ceviche Salsa, which was delicious and an excellent value. Guests dining near us had the Chicken Nachos, which they said were excellent. The nacho portion size was generous.

The Pizza Pub about 1/4 mile down the road (north), offered a 10% discount to hotel guests for showing their room key. A Subway restaurant is located about 1/4 mile south of the hotel. We walked there for breakfast one morning, and then waited for the restaurant to open because we had arrived before 8:00 a.m.

A few attractions are within walking distance, if you are a walker. We walked to the Wisconsin Duck Tours (I will be posting a review about that next), which is about 2 miles one-way. Tommy Bartlett's Ski Show is just down the road, on the other side of Sprecher's Pub. We did not go to that show, although guests we chatted with in the hot tub area at the hotel one evening said they had gone to it, and that it was great.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Paulding, Michigan--Upper Peninsula / Running Bear Resort

August 2012, Weekend - Weekday (Saturday and Sunday), 2-nights, Grey Wolf Cabin

Grey Wolf Cabin
This cabin is located behind the owner's house, and there is a partial privacy fence between the two areas. The outside of the cabin had not been refinished prior to our stay (they were working on painting the other cabins during our visit), although the inside had been redone.

Outside provided amenities: charcoal grill, grill brush, plastic table and two chairs. A hummingbird feeder was hung just outside the kitchen window, and we saw many birds during our stay.

Inside the cabin, there were many well thought out provided amenities. The kitchen area contained: full size fridge (with ice cubes in the freezer when we arrived!), gas stove, full size sink, table with three chairs, coffee maker with filters for our two nights stay, dishes, silverware, pots and pans, pot holders, dishcloths, towels, and dish soap. Included with the silverware were skewers, toothpicks (only a couple), vegetable peeler, corkscrew, and any other utensil that might be needed. 

The kitchen and living room area were one room, so there was also a soft chair, couch, floor lamp, and end table in this area. I thought the soft chair was extremely comfortable, although the couch was not quite as comfortable. A TV on top of the refrigerator was visible from all seating areas. A TV channel line-up guide and Internet sign on instructions were provided on the end table. Magazines and information about the area were also provided.

There was a key hook by the door, and good lighting throughout the cabin. A fly swatter and broom were in a closet by the door. A wastebasket was provided in each room--by the kitchen sink, in the bathroom, and in the bedroom--with a liner and extra bags. The entire cabin was tastefully decorated with wolf photos and drawings. The Internet connection was excellent.

The Bedroom contained: One king bed, an alarm clock, three windows which all opened with screens, a fan, hangers, a nice shelf for luggage, and large half mirror. The king bed in this cabin is made up of two twin beds (like a cruise ship), so this cabin can be rented for two people together or two singles. The only thing I did not like about the cabin is that I thought the bed was hard and not vey comfortable. The bedroom did not have a door, which was okay with us, since we did not have any guests in the living room area. The living room sofa was not a sleeper sofa anyway.

Bathroom: There was plenty of shelf space in the bathroom, and the water temperature and pressure was excellent. Towels and washcloths were provided. One thing I had not packed for this trip that we needed (all of our other stays were in hotel rooms) was a bar of soap. There is a General Store about a mile up the road--they accept cash only though. I was surprised by the number of businesses in the UP that only accept cash. The only other item I slightly missed was a hair dryer.

The shower space was not generous. We did not have a problem with the space available; however, if you like plenty of room, you might find the space kind of tight. I think the space that is available in this cabin was excellently allocated.

Property features: There is a community fire pit in front of the other cabins, and firewood was provided. There is a pavilion across from the fire pit with several picnic tables under the roof, and a fish cleaning station is located behind Grey Wolf cabin. There are six cabins total, and probably less than 10 RV/camping sites. The ORV/snowmobile trail is accessible from the property.

Porcupine Mountains are about a 45-minute drive away, and beautiful Bond Falls are only a five-minute drive away.

Overall: We were very happy with our stay, and thought this was a good location for what we wanted to see in the area. The amenities and cleanliness were excellent! Even though other guests used the fish cleaning station, we did not smell any fish odor. We did not experience any bothersome noise, and we had the cabin windows open most of the time. I would recommend this resort.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mackinaw City, Michigan / Holiday Inn Express

August 2012, Weekday - Weekend (Thursday & Friday), 2-nights, King guestroom #412

Status perks
I received two bottles of water at check-in. I did not receive a room upgrade; in fact I had been assigned one of the worst guestrooms before I asked if an upgrade was available. The guestrooms on the top three floors of this hotel have balconies, and the bottom floor rooms do not even have a patio or outside door. Even though my IHG Platinum profile has my preferences for an executive room and a high floor listed--and, I had requested this in the comment box when making my reservation, I had been pre-assigned guestroom 112 on the bottom floor. After I asked if there was an upgrade available, the employee assisting me said probably not, and that I would need to wait for Peter to check because she was new. I waited over 5 minutes for Peter to finish on the telephone. While we waited, the agent who had started the check-in process, said that "she" usually assigns the top floor rooms to Gold and Platinum guests, so she was surprised that we had been assigned a room on the bottom floor. After Peter finished on the telephone, he told her to give us guestroom 412.


Guestroom 412 is a basic king room on the north side of the building near the center of the hallway. There is a partial bridge view from the balcony. The guestroom contained a wet bar area--mini-fridge, sink, microwave, and a few cupboards. There was a desk and chair, a soft chair and foot stool, older style TV in a stand with drawers, and night stands. The guestroom was not very big, and having all these items in the room made it quite crowded. Two plastic chairs and a small table were on the carpeted balcony.

The view from the balcony was decent. Even though it was not a clear view of the bridge or lake, it did offer an enjoyable sunset view.

Fortunately, the bedding in the guestroom was clean because the rest of the room and balcony was not very clean. In fact, I thought this entire hotel was grimy and run down. The chairs on the balcony needed to be power washed, as did the entire balcony. I thought it was odd to have carpet on the balcony since it seems like it would have been easier to wash down concrete and the plastic furnishings. We got pool towels from the front desk to put down on the chairs so we could use them. I was impressed when I opened the refrigerator and saw a small crisper drawer in the bottom--until I opened the drawer and saw how dirty it was. I was not about to put any of our food in that drawer! Other cleanliness issues with the guestroom were grimy windowsills, dust on the outdated soft chair, and small bits of debris on the carpet.

The guestroom was not very soundproof, and the fact that it has a connecting door to room 410 made the noise even more noticeable at times.

Food & Beverage
I thought the breakfast food offerings were low quality and I did not try much. Here are facts of the food items that were available (exactly the same both mornings): cinnamon rolls, cold cereals, white breads and bagels, sausage gravy and biscuits, scrambled eggs, bacon, whole bananas (fresh--yay!), yogurt, juices, and milk. The milk was in individual containers, which I like because it usually stays fresher that way. The fat-free milk expiration date had gone by when I checked the first morning. Fresh milk had been added the second morning, although there were still several containers with expired dates set out too.

I chose this hotel because I like to earn points for my stays, and it's a fairly new hotel. I thought the AAA rate of $114 the first night was fair, and the rate of $161 the second night was high. Since PCR points are valuable to me, I chose this hotel anyway. After our stay, I wished I had looked at some of the other points earning hotels in more detail, such as the Ramada Inn and the Comfort Inn. I don't collect points with those hotel chains; however, I do have a membership, and am able to convert any points earned to air miles.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Milwaukee airport (MKE) / Hilton Garden Inn

July 2012, Weekday, 1-night, 2-Queen beds guestroom #350

Status perks
I received two bottles of water and a breakfast coupon. I have bonus points, rather than free breakfast, set on my Hilton profile, so breakfast was an extra perk. I had reserved a room with 2 queen beds. I do not recall if I did this because there were no king rooms available, or if it was because the rate was less. I had hoped for a king upgrade; however, there were none available. In fact, this hotel was sold out the night of my stay.

Guestroom 350 is located on the top floor, near the end of the hall, on the north side of the building facing the airport. The room was quite soundproof. I could hear an occasional plane, although not very often. I did not hear any noise from the hall or other guestrooms. The guestroom door was extremely heavy, and apparently constructed to keep noise out. 

The bedroom area contained 2 adjustable queen beds, a night stand with lamp, soft chair and footstool, floor lamp, flatscreen TV on a dresser, and desk with adjustable chair. The bed was comfortable, and the bedding was high quality. I sat in the soft chair briefly, and did not think that chair was comfortable. It was quite hard.

The dry bar area contained a microwave, mini-fridge, coffee maker, and good quality coffee and liquid creamer. I was happy to see 3 regular coffee packets! The closet located across from the bathroom had glass doors, and there was an oversized folding suitcase rack in the closet. 

The guestroom was comfortable and clean. There was an ethernet cord on the desk, and wireless Internet was also available with good connectivity speed. There were plenty of electrical outlets in the guestroom.

The low quality hairdryer in the bathroom was somewhat disappointing, but other than that, I was very happy with this guestroom.

Food & Beverage
Complimentary coffee was available in the lobby, and complimentary Rice Krispie treats were available at the front desk in the afternoon. 

I went to the dining room for breakfast around 7:30 AM, and there were no seats available. Employees were accommodating guests as best they could. I sat down in the bar area, as did several guests who arrived after me. Hilton Garden Inn breakfast consists of self-serve continental items, and guests can also place an egg/hot food order with the cook. A server brings coffee, water, and the hot item when it's ready. This hotel had a fairly good system--guests filled out a paper at the counter with desired hot food items, picked up a number tent, wrote this number on the order, and then left the slip, and took the number to their table. 

When the restaurant is as busy as it was the day of my visit, I don't know how the cooks would know who set which paper on the counter first. I observed a couple different piles of slips, and could have easily placed mine on top of one of the piles. I was not sure where I was supposed to place it, so I just set it on the counter by itself, next to the other piles. I waited 20 minutes for my egg order, and then the dish was not very good. The eggs were slightly overcooked. I was not in a hurry that morning, so the wait was not a problem for me. 

While I waited at my table for my order, I observed servers looking for numbers many times. They even approached guests several times to state the name of the food item when they could not find the number tent. I suppose there are many reasons this could happen--the guest could have gotten tired of waiting and left, or maybe the guest wrote down the wrong tent number, or the guest was seated in another area because there had not been a table available. I could not determine what the problem was. I did observe the manager, and employees who did not appear to be servers, also helping out. I do not think my 20-minute wait was due to poor service; rather it happened because the restaurant was not able to accommodate the number of guests dining. 

Business center
The business center at this hotel is one of the best I have used in a hotel. There were several computers, and the computer closest to the printer allowed me the option of printing my document two-sided! Remote printing was also available. The business center contained everything I needed except a highlighter. In addition to the computers, there was a copy/fax/printer, stapler, paper clips, envelopes, whiteout, Post-it notes, and more. I took a picture of the business center because I was so impressed with it.

Fitness center
The fitness center was a good sized room with several cardio machines with cardio theater. There were also hand weights, a workout bench, and exercise balls available. The room contained towels, sani-wipes, and a flatscreen TV.

Misc. and overall
This hotel has shuttle service, although I did not use it. I arrived before check-in time, and my room was ready, and employees were happy to accommodate my early arrival. Overall, I was very satisfied with this stay, and will choose this hotel again when I am in the area. A colleague who met me at the hotel in the evening was so impressed with what she saw, that she booked a room for the next night and moved over from the nearby Marriott Courtyard.

Brown Deer (North Milwaukee), Wisconsin / Holiday Inn Express

July 2012, Weekday, 2-nights, King guestroom #313

Status perks
I was acknowledged as a Platinum member at check-in, and the agent (who I think was the manager) checked to see if he had an upgraded room to give me. He said he did not have anything for both nights, so I did not receive any extra perks this stay.

Guestroom 313 is on the top floor, located just past the center building entrance. It was a basic hotel room with a decent sized bathroom and guestroom area. It contained a suitcase bench, couch, desk and chair, coffee table, night stands, and flatscreen TV in an armoire. The window contained a screen, and it opened about six inches.

Other than the flatscreen TV, the furnishings were a bit outdated, but the guestroom was clean, and the bed was satisfactory. The wireless Internet connection was lousy my entire stay. I never lost my Internet connection, although the speed was extremely slow, and  FaceTime would not stay connected. I often experience FaceTime disconnecting when the Internet speed is slow at hotels. There was a data outlet at the desk; however, I had not packed an ethernet cord, and I did not see one in the guestroom. The guestroom was not very soundproof. I could hear guests in the hall and in the rooms next door. Fortunately, most guests quieted down about the time I went to bed for the evening.

The guestrooms at the other end of the hall on this floor are smoking rooms, and the smoke smell in the hallway the second evening was quite strong. At check-in, the employee had told me that some of the rooms on this floor used to be smoking rooms, so he assigned me a room at the other end of the hall, since I wanted a non-smoking room. The room signage indicates that the rooms at the other end of this floor are still smoking rooms. Fortunately, I could not smell smoke in the guestroom.

Food & Beverage
There was an evening social hour both evenings with appetizers, beer, wine, and basic/bar brand mixed beverages. My key packet said that guests were allowed two beverages. The "appetizers" consisted of a few cut vegetables, cheddar cheese cubes, and chips with dip. The choices were exactly the same both evenings, and not what I would consider appetizers. I would consider the food that was served "snacks." The wine was low quality--Crane Lake, and the beer I observed on the counter was Coors and Miller. I guess for free I can't complain. The cost of the hotel room was reasonable.

I expected a better than usual HIX breakfast because the information in my key packet said "Expanded Continental Breakfast." The breakfast was the same, or less, than I have seen at other Holiday Inn Express hotels: sausage gravy and biscuits, scrambled eggs (that did not look appetizing to me), sausage, pancake maker, toaster waffles, bagels, bread, yogurt, cinnamon rolls, cold cereal, and whole bananas. I was glad that the bananas were fresh. The food items were the same both mornings.

Business center
The business center consisted of one computer and a printer/fax/copy machine. I don't usually need much more than that, although this trip I could have used a stapler, tape, and a highlighter--none of which were available in the business center. I was able to print a document both days.

Fitness center
The fitness center contained three cardio machines, a working flatscreen TV with remote, drinking fountain, scale, towels, and sani-wipes. The treadmill I used was in good working condition. I did not try the other machine or the bicycle.