Category: Hotel Review

Yangon @ the Chatrium

Rate: US$82++

07/12-11/12

Mr Y had recommended, based on his hotel stays prior to taking up permanent lodgings in Yangon, the Strand and the Chatrium, in that order. The Strand was pricing out at over US$300++ per night, whereas the Chatrium was offering a “solo traveler” package for merely $82++.  Without much hesitation, I booked 4 nights at the Chatrium.

I’ll take a moment to offer praise to the Chatrium for recognizing the needs (and throwing a discount) to the lone wanderer. This rate for lone wolves included breakfast, an early check-in, a late check-out, and minibar privileges for a few bucks per night less than the going room-only rate. 

Arrival at RGN airport was a breeze, and Mr Y ran me to the hotel after a quick lunch stop. [We met his co-workers for a bite at a small Japanese restaurant attached to the Super Hotel in Yangon. Both were oases of Japanese life in SE Asia.  Everything was set up perfectly by Japanese expatriate businessmen for their fellow Japanese. The food was the best Japanese I’ve had since leaving Tokyo, and the prices were exceptionally reasonable – US$7 for a salmon & ikura don.]

 While I had reserved the room on my AMEX via the Chatrium corporate website, I required a Visa or Mastercard to check-in. Not a problem, but a bit odd – I would have expected some fine print or a pop-up ahead of check-in saying that AMEX isn’t accepted at the Yangon property. 

My room was in good order, though the design was quite dated, which isn’t uncommon in Yangon, it seems.  The most obvious sign? The dearth/placement of power outlets.  The set-up of the room was very 2005 in that regard.

I decided to treat my host Y to dinner at my hotel, as they were doing a Japanese buffet.  We’re both Japanese food addicts, by the way. I was content enough, though like any Chinese foodie, he had a litany of critiques.  We enjoyed a bottle of divinely smooth sake, though it came at a price…

The next day, I woke up early to hit the gym, have breakfast, and swim. Running close to sea level after being at 2000m in Kunming felt a bit like being doped (I think) based on speed and stamina versus my “normal” in Kunming. The Chatrium’s gym is set up in an L shaped building separate from the main hotel. One side of the L is the hotel spa, the right angle is the pool bar, and the other side in the gym. Therefore, the room is long albeit rather narrow. I found the machinery to be somewhat dated Precor models, albeit in good condition. 

After a run and subsequent washing-up, I dressed and went down to breakfast.  The hotel offered a buffet of Indian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Western, and Burmese options ranging from grilled saba, to dim sum, to chicken curry, pad thai, omelets, and pastries, to name a few. Notably, barista coffee was included in the buffet. Overall, I was pleased. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try the more substantial options like Pad Thai or (Indian and Burmese) curries, as I wanted to do some lap swimming later in the morning.

Before my swim, I took care of some client work for a few hours – just the remaining bits before everyone breaks for Christmas/New Year holidays.  The Chatrium’s internet connect was quite fast and stable. I never had any problems during my stay, even though Myanmar has an abysmal reputation in the WiFi speed department.

The Chatrium’s pool proved to be my favorite thing about the hotel.  It was also in an L shape and offered a solid 25m swim if one wanted to do laps. Olympic? No.  Better than the usual hole in the ground that passes for a hotel pool? Yes. I found it very relaxing to swim under the coconut palms and found myself doing 1.5-2.5 km swims, just for the hell of it.

Mr Y collected me around noon, just after I finished at the pool. We went out for dim sum (we’re also dim sum addicts).  He found a Cantonese restaurant that seemed promising. His verdict: excellent duck, passable char siu, mediocre har gow, excellent siu mai. I was rather turned off by a starchiness in the har gow (always a hallmark of mediocrity in dumplings).  I did enjoy the mango-sago-pomelo pudding!

We then went on what my old neighbor in Auckland would call a “tiki tour” around Yangon.  He apologized for the paucity of attractions, but I found it quite interesting.  I find the process of economic development fascinating, so a newly-opened country starting from (close to) zero is a dream come true.  An oddball’s dream, but still a dream.

He showed me the new development north of the lake close to my hotel. A large and shiny Wyndham hotel had just opened. Perhaps I should book there next time?  Downtown Yangon was run down.  Were it restored, it would be a jewel of Asia.  A great many buildings date back to the colonial period and would be stunning were they not blackened and crumbling. The Strand hotel is an example of what the city would look like with some TLC and scrubbing. 

Afterwards we ended up at his favorite bar in downtown. I couldn’t believe the prices – a liter of Glenfiddich 12 cost US$37 at the bar. A spirit-lover would descend into a dissolute alcoholic within weeks. I tried some Burmese food this afternoon and a few days later, and I wasn’t too impressed by it. This was a surprise, as I love Thai and Indian food (two significant culinary influences in Burmese cuisine).

Having rambled on a bit, I want to compress some tl;dr findings:

Do go to the Schwedagon Pagoda complex. It’s great, and tourists are rare. Compared with “templing” in the rest of SE Asia, it’s very unusual to have the opportunity to visit an “active” religious site where worshippers and clergy are the overwhelming majority of those onsite. Compare this with a Thai temple where I am at pains to recall seeing a Thai Buddhist adhere.

Do eat great food. Many cuisines (particularly Thai, Japanese, and Indian) are well-represented in Yangon. The izakayas and sushi spots are amazing value for money.  I’d highly recommend the mini-chain “Ren” (three locations) or the Japanese restaurant at the Super Hotel.

Consider staying outside of downtown. If you aren’t used to very low levels of development (central Bangkok or KL, this is not), the roughness could be very off-putting at first.  A cab ride is US$2-4 on Grab.  On the other hand, Yangon is extremely safe. Violent crime against tourists is virtually unheard of.

Review: Millennium Hilton Bangkok

Rate: 108,000 points for 5 nights [pay 4, get the 5th night free]

Standard King – Room Booked; Executive King – Room Received

 

Introduction & Room

 

I am fond of the Millennium Hilton (MH). Rates are quite affordable, the views from the lounge are excellent, and it’s in an ideal location for most Bangkok tourists. Diamond treatment has historically been generous re: suite upgrades.  Sadly, I didn’t luck out, as the hotel sold out several days prior to arrival.  For reasons unexplained, a great deal of upper-end hotel inventory throughout Bangkok sold out for the week that I was in town.  I was limited to the statutory exec floor upgrade (I booked a standard king room, as usual). Unusually, the staff were pro-actively apologetic.

 

I was given a recently renovated room on an Executive-level floor.  The espresso machine and rainfall shower were appreciated. 

 

Location

 

The location evokes a love-it-or-hate-it from those who have stayed or are considering it.  It’s on the west side of the Chao Phraya and would require a taxi or BTS ride into the luxury shopping/restaurant/business/embassy district around Sukhumvit Rd. Having paid a visit to that district 3 years ago, I found it boring.  If I want expensive Western food, Starbucks, and luxury shopping, I’d rather freewheel around Singapore or Hong Kong.

 

On the other hand , the river gives access to the Palace, various temples, Khao San Rd & Thammasat University, Silom, Chinatown, and various riverside shopping and dining developments. Most of Bangkok’s must-sees are along the river. The premium and luxury leisure-oriented[i] properties tend to be here as well, including the MH, the Peninsula, the Anantara and the Mandarin Oriental.  The hotels are quite comfortable in terms of having excellent gyms, spas, and pools, so the properties can feel like an urban “resort.” I had been burning the candle at both ends in Bali getting some stuff done for clients, and I knew that my upcoming Chinese course would be taxing, so this was perfect for me.

Looking up river at the MH

The hotel’s own boat shuttles guests to the nearest BTS (metro railway) stop as well as Riverfire.  A public boat shuttles guests from the MH to the River City shopping mall.  One can walk/taxi to Silom, Chinatown (as well as points beyond), or they can catch the tourist and public boats going up and down the river.

Pool & Gym

 

The pool area tries to mimic a beach experience with large sheltered beds/couches (great for a couple) and setting sun loungers in a few inches of shallow water. The pool itself is significantly sheltered from overhead. This is often polarizing on Tripadvisor reviews, as some think the water would be a bit warmer if exposed to sun.  As a very pale ginger, I appreciated being able to swim in the shade and not increase my skin cancer risk. For those keen to light money on fire, two staff are on hand to fix you up with a US$10 fruit plate, $5 coffee, or a $6 beer served poolside. 

The Millennium Hilton Bangkok's Pool Area

One could say that the pool is dated in comparison with more contemporary infinity pool designs in this market segment, but I was happy with the comfortable furniture options (table & chairs, sun loungers, bean bag seating, and cabanas)

                                                                                                                                                                              

View from the pool

The adjacent gym is expansive with free weights, resistance machines, and numerous cardio machines.  A separate area downstairs is an open studio room if you need space for another routine (e.g. yoga, stretching, etc). Spa quality locker-rooms offer large a jacuzzi tub as well as dry-sauna and steam rooms in the men’s and women’s locker rooms. The facilities were in an immaculate state of repair, spotlessly clean, and spacious.  I developed  a great morning routine of setting the treadmill to show me courses of New Zealand before hitting the dry sauna

Dining

The Exec Lounge

 

The crown jewel of the property, the exec lounge view over Bangkok tends to wow visitors. The other guests found the view addicting, and guests often took full advantage of breakfast, afternoon tea, and evening cocktail services.

 

As a diamond, I could take breakfast in the lounge or main restaurant, or both – if you wished to indulge your inner hobbit. The exec lounge spread included veggie and tamago/egg sushi, smoked meats and seafood (mackerel & salmon), eggs cooked to order + egg of the day, miso soup, Chinese-style fried rice, steamed dim sum (custard bao and red bean bao), sausage & bacon, breads, and various patisserie treats. (Note: the Asian breakfast items slant heavily Chinese, likely to accommodate the exploding number of Chinese tourists heading to Thailand)

Ready for breakfast at the Millennium Hilton Exec Lounge

 Outstanding mention goes to:  The egg benedict served on a waffle with smoked salmon was divine, and the MH’s in-house bakery does one of the best rye breads I have eaten west of San Francisco and east of Frankfurt (Germany).   As you’d expect, the ample fruit was of excellent quality.  This is Thailand, after all.

The Millennium Hilton Executive Lounge's waffle benedict

Afternoon tea: The lounge sourced its treats from the hotel’s main restaurant and Chinese restaurant. I found the scones to be quite good. I appreciated the decent quality (probably imported) jam and cream. Savory items include various rotating sandwiches (chicken salad, egg salad, cheese, salmon & cream cheese, etc) curry puffs, and quiches appeared.  Asian fusion cakes such as mango mousse and yuzu were present, in addition to Cantonese mango pudding (kudos to the onsite Chinese restaurant).

Millennium afternoon tea with scone and chopped dragonfruit

I often skip afternoon tea, as many hotel lounges phone it in with meagre, low quality, and sometimes outright stale carbs. This was practically Carbfest 2018, but I do let myself enjoy the really high-quality stuff. I have no shame in admitting how happy I was to get a decent chicken salad sandwich. [The last decent one I had was in December 2017 in Lexington, KY @ Tackhouse Coffee & Pub.]

 

Cocktail Hour: I noticed that since my last visit, the hotel switched a major beverage contract to Singha. In the past, I had Chang here. I prefer Singha. Also, the spirits in the cocktails have been upgraded from well to mid-shelf (e.g. Absolut for vodka cocktails). The wine won’t wow you, but the Chilean red was a very pleasant drink.

 

The food offerings included baguettes, a cheese plate (fine, but not exceptional according to a German couple I chatted with), fruit, crudites, and various Asian and western hot/cold canapes. Examples include: spicy fruit salad, Thai pork croquettes, duck salad shooters, and on a night with lots of kids, platters of chicken nuggets. Some carb was also present, such as pasta or fried rice.

Singha Beer in the millennium hilton executive lounge
Obligatory

Verdict: The food and beverage are of solid quality[ii] and blow a US Hilton out of the water. To do better, you’d need to hit up a luxury brand, e.g. St Regis, Conrad, Ritz-Carlton, Peninsula, W, et cetera.

 

Above all, the view wins. Enjoying a nice cocktail or cold beer watching the sun set and the lights turn on is profoundly relaxing.

View from the Millennium Hilton Bangkok Executive Lounge during sunset

Riverside Restaurant

 

The Riverside Café is the MH’s main restaurant offering buffet or a la carte options. I opted to do the buffet dinner for two nights, though I had an ace up my sleeve. Eatigo is a restaurant booking app in SE Asia and Hong Kong that allows diners to snag up to 50% off depending on the time they book.  The app requires all participating restaurants to offer at least one time slot per day at the 50% off rate. Thanks to this, I enjoyed two excellent dinners with sushi, oysters, and an amazing dessert bar for US$24 and earned Honors points, as I billed the dinner to my room. [Note: depending on who you ask, the value of points earned – considering elite bonuses and bonuses for paying with a Hilton Amex – can be worth as much as 25% of the overall dollars spent]

MANGO STICKY RICE!!!
Go ahead, judge me.

I ended up doing this on Tuesday when I arrived (incidentally would have been my late mother’s 60th birthday) and on Saturday night.

 

Some dinner highlights: delicious salmon, butterfish, and tamago/egg nigiri sushi, butterfish & Hamachi sashimi, decadent mango prawn curry & other thai delights, and all-you-can-gorge mango sticky rice.  Cheese lovers will likely enjoy being unleashed in the adjoining cheese room, featuring cheesy temptations from around the world.  Overall, I noted a raw bar (prawn/oysters), Thai, Japanese (sushi, sashimi, tempura), Indian, Western/European, dessert (western & Thai + ice cream & mango sticky rice), and the cheese room.

Dessert Buffet, Thai Section
The Cheese Room

 

I took breakfast downstairs for research purposes one morning. It was also overwhelming like dinner. Japanese maki rolls, Chinese dim sum, massive egg station, a panoply of local and imported fruit, breads and pastries left and right, breakfast meats, and other treats were all available for your delectation.The staff brought me a special mini cupcake with an edible (white chocolate?) placard recognizing my diamond membership. If the amazing spread didn’t give you “we’re not in Kansas anymore,” this little bit of recognition would have done it.

MINE

Yuan Chinese restaurant

 

Not wanting to leave you, dear reader, in the lurch, I opted one day to try out the Chinese restaurant’s dim sum a la carte buffet. Once again, I eatigo’ed myself a 50% discount.  The format: they give you a menu. You order whatever you want to your heart’s content. Beyond the standard fare of har gau (shrimp dumplings) and char siu bao (Cantonese BBQ pork buns), I decided to indulge in mango crab spring rolls, foie gras xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), and lobster dumplings with gold leaf.  To wash it down, I had a couple of pots of chrysanthemum tea (teas/soda are included). This meal went down as one of my best $18 (circa THB600) ever spent. Don’t worry, I got my Honors points, as well. 

360 Lounge

 

On my last night in town, I was meeting someone I knew from the co-working spot in Ubud who was passing through. At the end, I suggested a visit to the panoramic view bar at the hotel, the 360 Lounge. The drinks here were 500 baht (US$15) or so, but the cocktails were delicious. It won’t surprise you, but I went for a mango-based beverage. Of the various cities I’ve been too, Bangkok has an attractive skyline to look out over.

 

Summary

 

It’s safe to say that I enjoyed my time here and would return. Overall, it’s a great property regardless of whether you just need a bed to crash on in-between exploring or are looking for a more relaxing experience.

 

[i] While most are familiar with the hierarchy of 1-5 star hotels, there are separate hierarchies within the 4.5 – 5 star range. One can discern a difference between a business and leisure property. The Conrad Hong Kong is very different from the Conrad Koh Samui property, while a boutique private island resort in French Polynesia is another beast altogether, despite all three properties being 5 star. The MH is really an odd hybrid: the hardware is “premium business,” but the location is more suited to tourists than biz travelers.

[ii] Some quibble that the food is geared towards appetizer/amuse bouche portions. 

Hotel Review: Island Pacific Hong Kong

Rate: US$109.90/nt (hotwire)

 

22 June – 24 June

 

Hello from the other side (of Hong Kong)!

 

My time at this hotel was originally all that I had allotted myself for seeing HK and my friends here. I booked this room to be relatively close to a friend in Sheung Wan and the others in Central. The only minor nuisance was that this super-secret “we tell you the exact hotel after booking” Hotwire rate was available via ctrip. -_-

 

Nevertheless, great plan: near friends, on a weekend. In a hilarious twist of fate, one friend ended up being out of HK at this time, another didn’t have weekends free, and another’s career here makes the week a much better time to visit.  On the other hand, the visa processing had to wait until I arrive in Phuket on the 24th. A certain document usually only requested for long-term study visas seems to be an unstated required document for my short-term one (or perhaps for US passport holders) as per the limited, terse feedback from a colleague’s recommended agent.

 

C’est la guerre.

 

I arrived at the hotel on Friday at half-past noon. By the standards of a hotel guest checking in on a third party, bottom-dollar rate, this is incorrigible. US hotels, in my experience, are relatively non-accommodating barring elite status. Even with diamond status with Hilton, the verbiage is enough to make me wonder if the room assigned early was worth the sacrifice of the world’s last unicorn.

 

This room is classically Hong Kong Island-sized: small. When put down, my bags turned the narrow path from the door to the bed into a maze.

While the furnishings and fittings are in good condition, the décor is quite dated. It reminds me, pre-renovation, of an apartment property my grandparents bought (for upmarket old people): dimly lit, carpet, vague gold and wood tones, green marble in the bathroom. I can’t remember when I last saw an analog thermostat in a business hotel.

 

The bar is quite popular here, as the enormous television is perfect for the World Cup viewing.

 

The gym is roughly closet sized, with four cardio machines and a multi-use-weight-thing. The presence of the pool somewhat makes up for the sad workout facilities.

pool at the island pacific hotel,hong kong

I did wander down to the Thai Seafood Dinner buffet, which was HK$450, less 30% hotel guest discount, +10% service charge (roughly $350). I quite enjoyed the food, and I got to tick off a “did a hotel buffet” off the list, for considerably less than I am accustomed to seeing. In TST, Causeway Bay, and Central, the rate would be $550-800’ish for dinner.

Shot of dinner at the island pacific thai food buffet

What I am most grateful to the hotel for is a chance to rejuvenate. I had been at my computer quite a bit, out walking/running for 10mi/15km per day in a humid 31C/87F, and partied like a rockstar banker with a friend in Lan Kwai Fong over the week. I needed a long sleep. The comfortable bed did the trick.

 

The Sai Ying Pun MTR stop is quite close by, only a couple minutes’ walk from the hotel front door. The local area contains many small eateries, convenience stores, and a grocer.

 

Summary: This room is small, but comfortable. There are better values in HK – definitely if you’re willing/able to go to Kowloon side.

Hotel Review: The Bauhinia (TST)

Rate: HK$550/nt

17 June – 22 June

 

As usual, my journey from HK Airport into town was effortless. HK$100 and I was zipping in on a nearly-empty train to Kowloon station. From there, I elected to hire a cab to the Bauhinia hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui (TST).

 

I managed to score a great rate of HK$550/night ($70) for the property, including all-day access to a lounge serving tea, coffee, water, juice, and snacks (fruit, bread, crackers, sweets). This is half the rate I’d expect for a business-class hotel in TST, but there was some significant exterior construction going on, hence the rate reduction. If you need to sleep between 10 – 1700, you’d need some serious earplugs.

 

I found the room (HK) spacious and apparently quite recently renovated, if I had to gauge from the condition of the flooring, furniture, and bathroom. That the room had more than a 30cm/1’ gap between the bed and wall to walk is amazing at that price range. It’s not hard to spend well over one HK “kilo-dollar” on a modern room with space to move. For the sake of comparison, wait and see my report of the room I am currently in, the Island Pacific in Sheung Wan.

The wifi was more than adequate all over the hotel. Once again, I forgot to speedtest.net the wifi. SORRY!

 

After depositing my bags, I went down to the lounge, open from 7:30 – 22:30. One could reasonably note that this is a relatively late start if you need to be on a morning flight.  At breakfast, they put out apples, cupcakes, and bread rolls. Tea, coffee, juice, and water are available all day, as are small Japanese chewy sweets. Copies of the NY Times, South China Morning Post, and a couple of Chinese-language papers/magazines are on the bar seating by the window.

 

The coffee machine produced a surprisingly drinkable brew. I have become accustomed to instant-flavor coffee, but I believe that this one was actually grinding espresso beans.  Of course, it wasn’t up to what I had at Coco Espresso with my expat friend J, but my expectations for a “free” drink differ from a HK$30-40 (US$3.75 – $5) cup.

View of the lounge at the Bauhinia hotel in TST

The air conditioning was extremely effective, which I welcomed in Hong Kong’s swamp-like heat and humidity.

 

I found the beds to be on the hard side. Then again, I am an American accustomed to sleeping on marshmallow-esque mattresses, so take that with a grain of salt.

 

Being that this is TST, I was surrounded by eateries and services. I availed myself of the laundry shop across the street, which overcharged me (charging dry-clean rates to launder some items). Restaurants abounded ranging from Western, to Korean, Indian, Cantonese, etc. I particularly enjoyed a “佳記茶餐廳” (Kai Kee) on Kimberley Rd as well as nearby Yuan Kee for BBQ. 

 

In short: I’d have no problem staying again if I needed/wanted a room in TST.

Review: Hilton Miami Airport Blue Lagoon

Rate: $111.12 (incl taxes) + $19 parking

Room: 2 Queen Standard (booked); King Junior Suite (received)

 

Arrival

After a protracted and horrific drive from Gainesville through heavy storms, heavy traffic, and numerous accidents, I at last won through the hazards and arrived at the Miami Airport Hilton a bit over 2 hours behind schedule. [Such an auspicious start to my digital nomad adventure!] To my pleasant surprise, the check-in and lobby were deserted. My prior visit here in September 2017 saw crowds more in line with what you’d expect for a large hotel adjacent to a major US airport.

I found the hotel easy to navigate to. It’s immediately located off of the NW 57th Ave exit of the  Dolphin Expressway – the toll road that connects the airport with I-95/Miami Beach. 

Check-in was a breeze as usual, and I found myself upgraded to a king junior suite, room 1060. This was quite unexpected. My research on this property via Flyertalk & the interwebs has led me to the conclusion that the property does not upgrade frequently, even for Hilton Gold and Diamond guests.

My best guest for this luck? A happy confluence of my diamond status, a desk agent that wasn’t overwhelmed, and a dead-day arrival. I arrived on the evening of Memorial Day, when business travel would be low and leisure guests would have checked out en masse that morning. The result? Lots of abnormally open inventory.  This property tends to charge a relatively modest premium for its suite rooms, so my guess is that they frequently are selling the really good rooms for cash.

The Room

 

For a third time, I was pleasantly surprised. The room exceeded my expectations for a junior suite in the US. Customarily (with Hilton-family hotels), a junior suite is usually an oversized King bedroom with a great deal of empty space. This room is on a corner and features a distinct living room/study area and a separate bedroom.

The furnishings seem to be in relatively good condition, and finding scuffs/wear required considerable scrutiny. The bed and various seating options all passed muster in the comfort department.

Plane-spotters will love the panoramic views of the active runways. Non-enthusiasts will appreciate that you don’t hear any aircraft noise. Everyone is happy!

Breakfast

 

Gold and Diamond elites receive vouchers for a complimentary continental breakfast. Hot food, including an egg station, is surcharged at $5 + tax. I typically opt to pay in for a bit of protein. Fruit and pastries are of decent albeit not mind-blowing quality. For that, you are looking at the Conrad Miami. The hot stuff is basically protein-by-Sysco. Skip them, and get an omelet.

 

Facilities

 

Tl;dr: surprisingly good. Hiltons can be wildly inconsistent in the quality of their fitness/pool offerings. I’ve seen everything from broom closets with a treadmill from HW Bush’s presidency to expansive rooms with the latest and greatest. Pool quality is similarly variable.

 

This property delivers. The fitness room is quite large, well lit, and amply supplied with water and towels. The machines tend heavily towards cardio, though they have some resistance machines and free weights. Those looking to go for a run will enjoy the .5 mile walking/jogging track.  The distances are signed, so repeat as needed to reach your distance goal. Also, keep an eye out for the local lizards.

The pool is one of the largest I have seen at a non-resort property. Towels are amply provisioned. Guests shouldn’t have difficulty finding seats at the numerous tables, lounge chairs, bar area, and patio seating. A ping-pong table is suspiciously close to the bar (cough beer pong cough).

 

Best part? A couple of small cats like to hang out by the pool. They are adorable.

 

Summary

 

Would recommend and return again. Breakfast could stand a bit more effort, though the staff are great. If rates in downtown Miami/Miami Beach are extortionate, this isn’t a bad option if you have a car or are willing to grab an Uber.

Review: Conrad Miami

1 night, points & money rate of $137 + 46,000 Honors points. Peak season pricing. 

The Conrad Miami was an unusual choice for a 1 night stop on a road trip. Typically, I eschew hotels in the urban core in favor of peripheral properties for a variety of reasons, like extortionate downtown parking.  That said, I wanted to compare a Conrad property with the Casa Marina Waldorf Astoria in Key West. This seemed like  agreat way to compare Hilton’s luxury brands head-to-head.

 

The process of navigating from I-95 to the Conrad was…surprisingly painless for what I expected for Miami. Perhaps going into downtown at 5 P.M. helped. Eager to get out of my car, I left it with a valet, gave him a couple of bucks (the guys on the check-in shifts can get a bit short-changed).

 

The street level houses the concierge and valet desk.  You go up the elevators to the check-in desk on the 25th floor (also where you’ll find the bar and restaurant).  I was given an upgraded Bay (of Biscayne) view room on the 18th floor.  Down I go in a separate bank of elevators.

 

My room was quite small for a US hotel room.  Size-wise, it’s what you’d find at a 4.5 or 5 star (business) property in Hong Kong. That said, the room’s appointments were of high quality. I loved the espresso machine, Shanghai Tang amenities, and the deep bath tub separate from the rainfall shower.

 

The view can speak for itself. The view from the Conrad Miami hotel over the Bay of Biscayne.

Next errand: go to the pool. This is something of an adventure at the Conrad.  From my room on the 18th floor, I took an elevator to the lobby on the 25th floor, crossed the check-in lobby, went down on a separate elevator to the ground floor, crossed the driveway where cars arrive, and took a third elevator to the top (8th or 9th) floor of an annex building.  After a walk outside and up to the pool deck, my odyssey came to an end. 

 

After lap swimming in the invigoratingly cold pool, I decided to take a stroll around Brickell. The neighborhood is very pleasant, and in an alternate life, I would not object to living there.  After a little repast of sushi at Doraku in the nearby and bustling The Shops at Mary Brickell Village, it was time to unwind and sleep.

 

The bed was excellent, as I seemed to fall asleep immediately and woke up in good form. 

 

The next morning, I decided to see how the breakfast spread was. It pleases me to report that it is quite a cut above the usual Hilton-family fare.  The fruit spread included dragon fruit (OH HELL YES) and kiwi fruit in addition to melon, pinapple, berries, et al. We’re off the a roaring good start, as you might have intuited.  Japanese-style gyoza dumplings (steamed) and American breakfast proteins rounded out my plate.  I might have tried a croissant, which may have been superb. For as often as I eat calorie dense carbs (rarely), I want them to be of the best quality.  Finally, the wait staff deserve praise.  I enjoyed their efficient, friendly service that didn’t fall into the trap of obsequiousness (I find that dynamic of esteemed patron/obsequious server cringeworthy when I encounter it). 

 

Check-out that morning was effortless. I texted the valet to have my car readied, took care of the formalities at the front desk, and arrived downstairs to find my car waiting for me.  

 

Pros:

  • Walking distance to most everything in Brickell downtown including restaurants, banks, and a CVS pharmacy. 
  • Short drive/taxi/uber to South Beach, if you don’t want to stay in South Beach proper. 
  • Easy freeway access for road trippers; straight shot for those flying into/out of MIA
  • Highest quality, albeit not most expansive, hotel spread I have seen in the USA. 
  • The morgue-cold pool incentivizes you to swim laps intensively to fight off hypothermia – yay exercise!
  • Unimpeachable service. 
  • Great standard room reward availability for Honors members. 

 

Cons:

  • Without a B&B rate or Honors status, breakfast will be $40 per person including tip
  • Weird layout would get tiresome for going to the gym/pool. 
  • That pool is *very* cold. 
  • Many will find the room to be small.

 

All in all, this was an excellent stay. If this is a middling Conrad per what I parse on Flyertalk, I can’t wait to try the outstanding ones (helloooooo Asia…). 

 

– James out

 

Casa Marina A Waldorf-Astoria Resort Key West

Review: Casa Marina Key West

March 17-19; 80,000 Hilton Honors points per night.

I arrived at the Casa Marina quite early, around 1:30.  Check-and and parking proved unnecessarily tedious.  Initially, I pulled up to the parking gate to find that it was room key-operated only, rather than the usual operation of offering a ticket for entry. I carefully maneuver out, make a u-turn, and pull round to the porte cochere – all while watching for the clueless cyclists.  

 

The check-in desks handled me promptly. I was offered an upgrade for $100 per night, which I declined. This was before any mention of my Honors diamond status was made. /Sigh  This was after a 10 minute wait for the IT system to reboot after an apparent digital siesta. I was offered two room keys, but asked not to use them until housekeeping could double-check the room (for monsters?). I was told that this would happen by text within about half an hour. No problem, I would be enjoying the beach and pool.   I was thanked for being a diamond, told that no diamond upgrades were available, and offered my breakfast vouchers, and a letter. 

 

Taking my gear, I went back to the car.  The street-parked cars blocked any safe view of oncoming traffic. Again, I worried about cyclists.  I said a prayer and went around to the parking lot.  I pull round to the self-parking lot and try the card. It. Won’t. Work. A car is behind me trying to get in.  Awesome. Fortunately, he lets me out without cursing me.  

 

By now, about 25 minutes have been wasted on what should have taken 3 minutes at…virtually any of hotels which saw 115 nights of my stays in 2017.  I return to the desk to request that the key be re-coded. I inform this front desk agent that her colleague handled my check-in, but the key would not let me into the self park lot.  After being reminded preschool-style that my room wasn’t able to be accessed (WTF?), I was given a parking-only key, since apparently I couldn’t be trusted to not break into my own room.  By now, I was furious at the slap-in-face of being sold an upgrade that elites are given complimentary on a space available basis, the waste of time on parking, the waste of time on their IT, and spoken to as if I were just lobotomized. 

 

The adult’s pool

Thank God for that beach and pool. I needed it.

 

The Casa Marina has a stretch of private beach adjacent to a public beach.  While it’s quite pretty, you can’t walk out from the Casa Marina’s property, due to rocks. The piers one could use to walk out beyond said rocks were heavily damaged during Irma and are still off limits. In order to wade out, I walked around the fence to the public beach. I passed a homeless chap resting on the public side of the fence. My social scientist side couldn’t help but notice the implicit commentary on his plight versus the position of those in a resort where the cheapest room was going, all in, at $690 per night.

 

After an hour at the beach followed by some time at the Casa Marina’s adult-only pool (kind of a godsend for various reasons), I went to my room.  The Casa Marina and its sister property, The Reach, aren’t well-regarded among my fellow Hilton-family elites/regulars on frequent traveler communities such as Flyertalk. Largely, it is due to the properties’ Waldorf-Astoria branding (at W-A pricing) delivering Doubletree (code for: business class, albeit inconsistent) service/style.

 

While I was braced for disappointment, I was happy enough with the room. The Ferragamo amenities in the bathroom were pleasant, as was the espresso machine. Waldorf Casa Marina Bathroom Key WestThe bathroom itself was generic US airport Hilton/Doubletree (ie no rainfall shower w/ separate tub, middling fixture quality).

The view was a mix of the parking lot and area/town. I imagine that paying $0 on the room rate strongly influenced my general contentedness.  At $690 + parking…well…

 

Before sunset, I headed out for a run along the coast.  In what felt like no time at all, I ended up at the airport and realized that I should turn back if I wanted to wash up and make it in time to make an appointment that first night. Key West is awesome for runners due to the sidewalks, scenery, sea air, and low speed limits, by the way.

 

The next morning, I used my $15 Honors diamond voucher at the Casa Marina’s breakfast buffet.  I was happy. 

 

Hilton Honors Gold and Diamond elites are entitled to a complimentary continental breakfast at full service properties around the world. Most properties chuck in the full buffet, but some institute an upcharge for hot items. US Waldorfs offer a $15 voucher. 

 

This is a rather parsimonious interpretation of the rules.  A coffee and muffin from a hotel’s coffee shop count, but given that Conrad’s (Hilton’s “contemporary” luxury brand) tend to throw in an excellent complete buffet or menu breakfast, the Waldorfs’ offerings come off as stingy.

 

Still, the buffet was quite good. Omelets to order, eggs benedict, great fruit, pastries etc.

 

Not so minor problem: My room was down the hall from the bathroom used by outside pool/bar/beachgoers as well as any guests in the adjacent ballroom. This presented a problem as I’d hear guests of on-property wedding receptions using the hand dryer and opening the creaky door.  That was rather annoying between 10 pm – midnight, especially. 

 

On the whole, this was a solid Hilton on a beach.  The use of a luxury brand on this property is…ambitious.  While the pool and breakfast were quite good, it wasn’t markedly “better” than the Hilton Hawaiian Village, for example.  The poorly-soundproofed rooms…are not acceptable at this price point. 

 

 James out!

 

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