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.  



  • 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. 



  • 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


View of central Singapore along the river

My Digital Nomad Debut

A very select few of you will be aware of this particular development, so I am writing for the rest of you.


On May 28, I will load up a rental car and drive to Miami, where I’ll catch a flight the next day for Tokyo via Zurich. Cheers to Swiss for selling a plane ticket for $662 when most other players wanted $900-$1300.


From the 31st onward, I will be a full time digital-nomad courtesy of freelance writing. I’ve been fortunate to pick up some substantial work that will keep me going for the foreseeable few months.  I’ll be treading relatively familiar ground in Tokyo, Phuket, and Ubud (Bali).


It will be fascinating to get a taste of living and working in these destination for weeks rather than visiting for days.  Blending into the daily rhythm, tasting all of the delicious food, and getting a handle on the local gay scene are immediate location goals.  In the background, I look forward to developing my professional skills and working on some side projects (SEO/digital marketing). The market values me these days as a travel writer (broadly), so I might as well continue to earn my chops there.


In August, I’ll begin on a holy grail of personal bucket list goals – learning Chinese in China.  After my time in Bali, I will jet off to Kunming, Yunnan to begin Chinese classes.  My brain is thrilled by the prospect, albeit part of me is cautiously girding itself for the challenge. I chose a non-tier 1 city so that I’d be forced to use Chinese or starve.  Learning the key dumpling words is currently high on my priority list.  Fortunately, I already know the word “cha” (tea), so I won’t go thirsty or (heaven forfend!) without caffeine! 


These past two years in the US have been interesting, but I’ve had enough for now and would like to reconnect with my expat self.  The stimulation of new experiences, places, and sensations – and it would be awesome to see my overseas friends again!


Here’s the adventure as it is booked until mid-December!

Tokyo 31/5 – 22/6

Hong Kong 22/6 – 24/6

Phuket 24/6 – 23/7

Bali 23/7 – 21/8

Bangkok 21/8 – 26-8

Kunming   26/8-14/12


Map of flights taken for my digital nomad adventure including Miami Zurich Tokyo Hong Kong Phuket Kuala Lumper Bali and Kunming


Interestingly, all airlines booked thus far will be new experiences to me.  I’m booked on Swiss, Vanilla Air (ANA’s low-cost subsidiary), Cathay Dragon (Cathay Pacific’s regional subsidiary), Air Asia, China Eastern, and Malindo Air. I’ll be sure to post reviews!


–   James out!


Maps generated by the
Great Circle Mapper –
copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

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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Miami & Key West – Trip Report – Part II

Congrats on making it to the Key West portion!


Note: For brevity, details about the Casa Marina have been written as a separate hotel review post here.  


As I left Homestead behind, civilization abruptly faded from the rearview mirror, and eventually I came to the beginning of the Overseas Highway that connects the Keys with the Florida mainland.  Fortunately, traffic was light on this Saturday, particularly after I passed a popular boat show on Key Largo.


Overseas Highway Florida Keys

My excitement only grew as the picture-perfect islands and seas unfolded before me.  I wanted to jump in and never get out. [Presumably, the mer-folk would adopt me? I didn’t think that through much.] The anticipation and average speed of 45 mph meant that the mileage didn’t quite tick down as fast as I would have liked, but I eventually settled on just enjoying the view.  The Keys were in surprisingly good condition post-Irma, and the most poignant reminder of nature’s destructive power wasn’t recent damage.  Rather, it was the remnants of Henry Flagler’s railroad.


When I eventually crossed onto Key West, I easily navigated to the Casa Marina – originally built as a resort for Flagler’s railroad passengers. As it’s on the southern coast, I just turned left onto A1A and followed that for a couple of miles.  I pulled around by the porte cochere and checked in. I was instructed to not go to the room quite yet.  No problem! I wanted to check out the beach.


After washing up from the beach, I put on my boots and began the 45 minute walk to Shrimp Daddy’s to meet B.  I wanted to see a bit of Key West, I didn’t fancy figuring out parking, and I am too cheap to pay for a taxi when I have a perfectly suitable car AND pair of legs. Lucky me, as I saw a Thai-Japanese restaurant where I could get some sushi en route.


Even with the dinner stop, I arrived in time.  Shrimp Daddy’s is a local dive bar, complete with all-you-can-breathe secondhand smoke and a dim lighting that hides all flaws. B’s stories were fascinating. While he did data analytics now (is the universe trying to tell me something?), his past included a stint in Hawaii and English teaching in Korea. My liver quailed in fear as he described the apparently ritualized sadism of drinking with one’s boss. “This will be a self-study day everyone,” because Teacher is hung-over to the point of death was (still is?) apparently a thing.


B’s transition to being a digital nomad was interesting to me. His company decided that his team was non-essential and could work from anywhere. He chose Key West.  He was looking to move on soon though, as Key West could be difficult socially.  I understood, as Hawaii was like that. The transient nature of the transplants (aggravated by very high living costs) and the constant flow of here-today-gone-tomorrow tourists can grind one down.


After two of the cheapest beers in Key West ($3.25 each) and by now smelling like an ash tray, it was time to call it a day. I caught an uber back to the Casa Marina to make a – personal appointment (oh, Grindr!).  But, you won’t hear a word more about that.


The next morning, I used my $15 Honors diamond voucher at the Casa Marina’s breakfast buffet.  I was happy. I indulged in a few extra carbs given that I’d be in the water snorkeling today!


I had booked myself on a Blu Q all-male, clothing-optional snorkeling/kayaking catamaran trip!  I’ve never been snorkeling, so I looked forward to swimming with the sashimi…I mean fish.


I put together a bag including a towel, various sunscreens (because I’m a ginger), and hunted for something bandana-ish. I guessed that a hat would blow away.  Eventually, I found what is used by the Key West boat crews for sun protection. It’s a synthetic fabric “tube” – a Buff – that can be manipulated into various uses.  $10 – why not? I came to like it. In classic James McCormack form, I bought it 4 minutes before boarding time @ 10:45 AM.


At the boat, I chatted a bit before boarding with my fellow guests before we all kicked off our shoes for boarding. Yay!  The first mate Thomas offered us water or soda. Ice water in hand, a brief safety demonstration was given, and we were underway.

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Tom was a great first mate!

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It wasn’t long before patrons stripped down to swimwear or nothing at all.  As is usual in such gay environments, age and quantity of clothing worn are inversely correlated. I bucked the trend for being the youngest on board and in my commando print Budgy Smugglers. The early 30s couple had boardshorts – booo!  The oldsters gave us a lesson in body confidence with nary a stitch on. (My gingerness doesn’t let me expose ‘those’ areas)


When we were within a few minutes of the snorkeling spot, I put on yet more sunscreen and got my snorkeling mask ready. A nearby boat advised us that the spot they just left had fish, was clear, and had no current. Yay for us.


The strangest navy ship I have ever seen

After a few seconds getting used to the flippers, I found them wonderful. My diving speed versus non-augmented feet was impressive. The sights down below were marvelous – bright (but not optimally health – far from it) coral and many-colored fish were in abundance.


When Thomas, our leader into the open water, led us back to the boat, we found that the captain had carved up a pineapple, put out some grapes, and was serving adult beverages. I opted for a white wine and water.  I noted the exceptional flavor of the pineapple, to find out that it was fresh from his front yard!  That’ll do it.


After some chatting and noshing, the Captain furnished lunch.  Pulled pork, rolls or gluten free tortillas, cole slaw, and pasta salad were on offer. I opted for pork and cole slaw. Delicious!


Due to the not-much-fun that is costochondritis, I opted out of kayaking in favor of another dip swimming in the 81 degree (Fahrenheit) water.


By now, our time was coming to an end.  The Captain passed around cookies (I declined), and we were soon heading back to Key West.


After a brief stroll around the neighborhood by the docks, I made my way to the Island House. Non-hotel guests can visit the bar and enjoy the facilities for $30. I decided to give it a go. The locker room, sauna, and steam room were decidedly bath house-like in vibe.  I decided to let the steam room patrons in particular have some privacy and decamped to the pool to relax. Overall, it wasn’t bad, but I think my $30 could be spent elsewhere.  Then again, I am not part of “generation bathhouse.”


After a run and yet another sushi dinner, it was time to call it a day, make a decaf espresso, vomit at the news, and go to bed.  As I drifted to sleep, I contemplated if all of this sushi had made me of interest for commercial mercury extraction. What’s your side hustle, fellow serf?


The adult-only pool at the Casa Marina

I arranged for a late check-out on Monday 3/18. Mostly, I spent it on a long breakfast and lounging by the pool in my yukata, a Japanese summer robe.


At last, I had some time to wander around and explore Key West a bit. I donned my boots, wandered around, and mailed some post cards to friends in Honolulu and New Zealand, before meeting B again for another drink.

Digital Nomad Bar humor
You can’t beat the juxtaposition



For my final night, I checked into the Seashell Motel.  As this night was paid with cash, I found the cheapest private room I could – $174 + taxes.  It was clean and basic, though the aircon was arctic strength. Score!


The next morning was my last in Key West. I decided to enjoy it at Fort Zachary Taylor, a historic fort and home to what I think is the best beach in Key West.  There’s some pebbled bits, but the water is more suited to swimming and frolicking in the low waves.  Yay!

After changing, it was time to head north with a stop to see my grandparents. More to come.


 – James out!


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Miami & Key West – Trip Report – Part I

Behold, my inaugural post!


On a sunny March morning, I began my trip to south Florida – I was booked for a long weekend in Miami and Key West.  This particular trip mixed a bit of the old and the new.  I cashed in a stash of Hilton Honors points for a night at the Conrad Miami downtown and the Casa Marina resort in Key West. Further, I looked forward to meeting B – a digital nomad temporarily resident in Key West. How would St Patrick’s in Key West be?


My drive down to Miami was quite uneventful. The Florida Turnpike, while visually uninteresting, is never boring. The uninhabited stretch between Kissimmee and Fort Pierce usually sees traffic moving at 80-90 mph, versus the speed limit of 70. Mein Chariot (named Duncan) eagerly obliged.


Whenever I pass through Palm Beach County, I make an effort to stop at an Indian restaurant for lunch, Aroma. They specialize in southern Indian cuisine, and their lunch buffet is always excellent.  Chicken 65, baigan bharta, veggie biriyani, and kheer is the lunch of the gods. After 4 hours of driving, the lunch is a great little reminder that the end of the journey is near.  Miami is another 2 hours away.


I hop back on the turnpike and then merge into I-95, taking advantage of the express lanes (yay Sunpass!). As always, I had written down the directions on paper. While I can refer to my shorthand-directions, I find that the act of physically writing them commits them to memory.  Why do I bother? I religiously avoid using a mobile phone while driving (seemingly unique, especially in Florida), and I lost the navigation disks for the car. C’est la guerre.


I managed to not utterly cock up the process of getting into the Brickell neighborhood. In short order, I had off my car to the valet.  For an extra $9, I’ll let them deal with the parking garage at rush hour (it was now 5:30).


The Conrad Miami sports an interesting configuration. 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.


After unwinding 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 next day, I went for a pleasant walk with Andrew, a fellow I met on Grindr.  I grabbed an Earl Grey tea for myself and a coffee for him from the self-serve complimentary coffee bar at the Conrad. We seemed to click. It’s rare I can talk cogently with anyone on about Venezuelan economic-collapse-politics, data analytics/methodologies, and hilarious sights around us.  Such is the joy of meeting other gay internet strangers.  The farewell smooching on US-1 was nice.


Thoroughly perked up by such PG-hijinks, I summoned my car, tipped the valet, and was soon off towards Key West.  I took the Turnpike towards Homestead, FL where it connects with US-1.


 – James out!


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