In part one, I wrote about my friend John Jones, whose travel planning is so effective that I can only shake my head in wonder at his skill and his ability to keep up with special promotions, and other deals. And once John has made hotel reservations, for example, his wife, Shirley, calls the hotel directly to see if she can improve on the deal – which she often does. I, on the other hand, typically procrastinate in arranging a trip until the best deals are gone and choices are limited, sometimes causing us major inconvenience.
A few years ago, for example, when six of us were going to do a cruise from Rome through the Greek Isles to Venice, I was arguing with United Airlines about another first-class ticket to Europe I thought the airline owed me via one of its special promotions.
I was confident that I would win, but my confidence proved to be misplaced, and by the time I finally purchased tickets, we had to fly through London and remain there overnight going both ways, while
the other two couples flew straight to and from Rome. (What a concept!) Because the pound was at a long-term high against the dollar, I got to spend more than $300 each way for roughly six
hours, twice, at the Heathrow Marriott. For some reason, everyone gave me a very hard time. In this article, I’m going to write about some of our experiences with transportation and accommodations.
Because there are only so many modes of travel, particularly when it comes to getting overseas, I’m going to start with my opinion of the airlines. I’ve flown on a substantial number of them, including Air France, Air New Zealand, Alaska, Aloha, America West, American, Continental, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, United, and U.S. Airways. The one time I flew Air New Zealand, it was in coach but on a brand-new Airbus with an amazing set of amenities. As for the airlines on which I’ve flown in first class, Continental’s BusinessFirst has been better than flying first class on any other airline.
This was before the “Flat Bed” seats but the seats were very comfortable, with lots of room to stretch out, even for a tall person. The individual entertainment centers offered so much variety that I kept forgetting to go to sleep, and the food, drink and service were consistently excellent. BusinessFirst
made flying to Europe and Hawaii so pleasant that we considered it be a great beginning and ending to a vacation.
The worst First Class experience we’ve had was on U.S. Airways, on a round-trip flight from Denver to Philadelphia. The aircraft was older and the seats were uncomfortable.
There were no movies or TV shows to entertain us, there were too few hot breakfast choices to accommodate passenger desires, and they didn’t carry milk, period. No Kahlua, no Amaretto, and no Bailey’s, even though their in-flight magazine claimed that the latter was available on all domestic flights. The comfort level and service put us in mind of the “The Mrs. Grace L. Ferguson Airline (and Storm Door Company),” one of Bob Newhart’s comedy routines, only this experience wasn’t funny. I’d fly U.S. Airways again, but only if a crop-duster weren’t available.
I referred in the earlier article to having thrown myself on United’s mercy since I had lost my Premier Executive status and was asking for a one-year extension. It proved to be a very small target, and I missed. The written response on behalf of the CEO was short, concise, and unsympathetic. Thus ended my loyalty to both United and Continental, since the two frequent flyer programs were merged into one on January 1, 2012.
You can also get overseas via cruise ship; in fact, we have found it to be a great mode of transportation. We’ve been on seven different cruise lines: Holland America, Renaissance, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Princess, Celebrity, and Oceania – so I can make some first-hand comparisons.
Renaissance Cruises, which is no longer in existence, was probably our favorite. One reason was
that Renaissance plied the stunningly beautiful turquoise waters of French Polynesia. And their brand-new fleet of 684-passenger “R” class ships was gorgeous inside and out. They looked like elegant half-size Holland America ships.
John Jones made our reservations for the ship, and reserved penthouse suites for all four
couples. Because the price was unbelievably low, including round-trip air from Los Angeles to Papeete, the rest of us were concerned that John may have put price ahead of comfort – until
we stepped on-board. The penthouse suites covered 322 square feet and featured a teak veranda. The amenities included a queen bed, a marble and granite bathroom with a jetted tub, a refrigerated mini-bar and a desk, a sofa and a dining table with chairs. We stopped calling John cheap for practically a year. And an air traffic controller strike in France “forced” us to say on-board for an extra day – at Renaissance’s expense. Perfect!
Being on the R-One was like sailing around these spectacular islands in a floating Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons. The experience was so great that we took the same cruise again the next year. Unfortunately,
Renaissance went out of business shortly after the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, presumably since so many of its clients had been from the U.S. and lots of Americans were afraid to travel, particularly those distances.
Oceania, a number of whose executives came from Renaissance, picked up two of the defunct company’s ships, and when we took a cruise from Rio de Janeiro to Barcelona on the renamed “Insignia,” we found that it had been beautifully maintained. We were once again in the penthouse suites, and they were still great – and now included a laptop in the suite at no cost. Their specialty restaurant, the Polo Grill, was memorable for both food and service. It ranked with the best restaurants we have eaten at on land.
We have had very good experiences on Holland America, Princess and Celebrity as well. I particularly like Holland America, since it generally builds mid-sized ships. Celebrity and Princess also have excellent ships, with good food & service and a bit more size, which results in high-grade entertainment, such as Broadway-style shows on stages large enough to accommodate such props as cannons and barricades (for “Les Miz”) and, on Celebrity, Cirque de Soleil performers.
Norwegian Cruise Lines is easily our least favorite line. The fact that we have done three
cruises on Norwegian reinforces the fact that I am a slow learner. The ship designs seem more garish than classy, and the furniture and carpeting looked cheap compared to the other cruise lines. The desserts, one of my favorite parts of any cruise, were jellatinous, and were so filled with preservatives that they could have appeared in K-rations.
Next to the bottom would be Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. RCCL goes for big – and for “tricked out,” with miniature golf, climbing rocks, etc. Royal Caribbean seems to launch ever-larger ships, which provide unique forms of entertainment, and the number and variety of things to do appeal to many families, but we prefer smaller ships with more traditional amenities.
Hotels & Resorts
It would be hard to beat the Park Hyatt in Sydney, Australia, for its unique combination of location, service and amenities. We arrived in Sydney early in the morning, which I think is typical of flights from the West Coast of the U.S. While such an early arrival left the whole day open for touring, the long (14-15 hours) flight exhausted us – we crossed more time zones than ever before – and we were more anxious to sleep than to explore the spectacular city of Sydney, where we encountered the world’s friendliest people.
The three couples were staying in three different hotels for the two nights we were in Sydney before boarding the Diamond Princess for a cruise which would end in Auckland, New Zealand. Our friends who were staying in the Four Seasons and the Marriott had to wait hours before checking in. We got to the Park Hyatt, at the water’s edge in Circular Quay, before 8 a.m. and were allowed to check in immediately. The front desk staff apologized for the fact that we could “only” see the iconic Sydney Opera House from our lanai; it was just 3/10ths of a mile away. The rooms were modern, comfortable and beautifully furnished and the staff was both friendly and extremely responsive. On the other side of the hotel was the internationally famous Sydney Harbour Bridge, and we could watch (crazy) people climbing to the top of the structure.
We had a fantastic week-long stay in 2006 at the Ritz-Carlton on Grand Cayman, a stunningly beautiful oceanfront resort which was built in 2005 and is situated on 144 acres. We used 250,000 Marriott Reward points per couple for a week in garden view rooms. However, a hurricane had
struck the island recently and had knocked down virtually all of the huge, newly-transplanted, palm trees, so there wasn’t much garden to view. John had taken his lap-top with him and found a “deal” in which we could upgrade to the Club Level for $180 per night. I was hesitant ($180 per night instead of “free”?), but I was outvoted three to one. Our upgraded rooms spanned 480 square feet each and were on the penthouse floor, oceanfront, directly overlooking the pool, the pristine Seven Mile Beach, and the blue Caribbean. And we had access to the Club Level for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, including wine, liqueurs, and other forms of alcohol. I apologized to the others for every bit of my whining and just enjoyed the almost unbelievable luxury, spectacular views, beautiful beach and warm ocean.
Another of our favorites is the Grand Wailea Resort & Spa in southwest Maui. We were staying
at the Intercontinental next door, which was a very nice hotel, but when we walked next door to the Grand Wailea, we were overwhelmed – by the grounds, which were and are spectacular, by the hotel, its multiple pools, its artwork and its terrific rooms. It was initially built as a Grand Hyatt, and while the nightly rate was breath-taking, John had Hyatt coupons which gave us a nice price break. Even though we could only afford garden view rooms, the staff was kind enough to upgrade both couples to the Chapel Wing, looking out on the ocean. We’ve been back on multiple occasions.
The Grand Hyatt Seattle is in a great location, on Pine Street between 7th & 8th Avenues, overlooking Elliott Bay. The hotel, which features superb rooms and even better service, is within easy walking distance of Nordstrom’s and Macy’s, fine and casual dining (there is a Ruth’s Chris Restaurant in the
hotel), lots of nightlife choices and the famous Pike Place Market. General Manager Mark Stiebeling has always taken wonderful care of us, upgrading us to suites whenever possible.
The JW Marriott San Francisco at Union Square features striking architecture, outside and inside, with a very contemporary feel and a dramatic 16-story atrium. The bronze sculpture, “Joie de Danse,” is the focal point of the local gallery art showcased throughout the hotel. The rooms were very comfortable, the service was excellent, and they served the best food we’ve ever had in a concierge lounge.
The JW Marriott Rio is located right across the street from Ipanema Beach. “Tall and tan and young and lovely…” Yes, they were, and we could see them from our hotel. .
The first time we stayed at the JW Marriott Ko’Olina, Marriott had just purchased the Ihilani Resort from its Japanese owners. It was the only hotel in the area, so we got to experience splendid isolation just 20 minutes from the Honolulu airport. The resort overlooked four white-sand lagoons, with giant sea turtles and colorful reef fish for snorkelers to enjoy.
The Marriott Ko’Olina Beach Club overlooks the same lagoons. We had outstanding
two-bedroom condos with lots of amenities and a number of restaurant choices, including Roy’s Steakhouse. Now there are so many hotel/resort properties on the site, including a new Disney Resort, the Aulani, that there is noise and traffic in paradise, which makes us sad, although for lots of people, especially families, it is still a great place to vacation.
Marriott’s Ocean Club Resort, Maui – Our spacious condo looked right over Ka’anapali Beach and the turquoise ocean. As a special bonus, we watched from our lanai as humpback whales swam back and forth in front of us all day long, since we were there from the end of February through the first week of March.
Makena Surf Condominiums, Maui – We spent one completely unsatisfactory night at a hotel on Ka’anapali Beach, then stumbled across the Makena Surf, in Wailea. Our two-bedroom condo was spectacular, with outstanding furnishings, fine paintings, and all the amenities we could have wanted. Our lanai was just a few steps from the ocean, making it a great place to play hearts at night, with the constant, soothing sound of waves rolling onto the shore.
In Rome, we stayed at the Hilton Cavalieri. As advertised, it is “set in a private Mediterranean park” atop Rome’s highest hill. The hotel is outside the city center but provides complimentary shuttle service which will get you there in 15 minutes. The Hilton Cavalieri features gorgeous architecture, and many beautiful paintings, sculptures and other artifacts. Our “deluxe rooms” were just that, covering 538 square feet with marble bathrooms, sound-proof doors, a roomy sitting area, and balconies which overlooked the Eternal City.
During our most recent stay in the ever-bustling city of Barcelona, we were ensconced at the Hilton Diagonal Mar Barcelona. This new and very modern-looking hotel is just 15 minutes from central Barcelona and looks out on the beach and the Mediterranean Sea. The rooms were large
(323 square feet) and very comfortable. The staff was excellent, and the concierge gave us accurate directions and warned us about pick-pockets, information which proved to be prophetic, as I was almost victimized twice on trains as we found our way to Las Ramblas. Something about me – perhaps my normal unconscious state – must have signaled “easy pickings.”
When visiting the Monterey Peninsula, we almost always stay at the Embassy Suites Monterey. The
great front-office staff has often been kind enough to put us on the 12th (top) floor, with outstanding views of Monterey Bay looking toward the towns of Monterey and Pacific Grove. The hotel features an atrium, with glass elevators at both ends. Complimentary amenities include a cooked-to-order breakfast every morning and a “happy hour” every evening.
The Internet is frequently used to make travel reservations of all kinds. I tend
to utilize Orbitz.com to compare airline prices, and the web sites of the hotel chains for rates and availability. In making cruise reservations, I have had very good success using CruiseCompete.com. I found that BudgetTravel.com recommended five sites, including Kayak.com for finding the cheapest plane tickets in the U.S.; Priceline.com for hotels, car rentals and airlines; and Trip Advisor.com for hotel reviews, deals and reservations.
This article reflects my personal experience and perspective on the trips we have taken and the places we have stayed. I would be very much interested in hearing from FedSmith.com readers as to their experiences with airlines, cruise lines and hotels and resorts.