Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Eurodrive – Great Deals On Long Term Car Rental

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Eurodrive provided Renault Megane

I did a lot of research to find a good deal on a rental car for our Europe trip.  The challenge is there are a lot of options.  I looked at combinations of train and rental cars.  Only taking the train.  Renting a car in one country and dropping if off in another.  After days and days of research the best deal I found was Renault Eurodive.

The setup is simple.  You pick up a car in one city in France and drop it off anywhere else in France.  You can pick up or drop off in another country but that can cost around 300 euros more depending on the country.  Here are some of the key benefits of using Renault Eurodrive vs a regular rental car company.

  • A brand new vehicle.  Our vehicle had 12 km on it when we picked it up.  We got a Megane which I really, really liked and it served us well through over 7000km of driving.  It’s a sporty little car that is still very comfortable for long distance road trips.
  • Unlimited miles
  • Comprehensive insurance coverage.  They cover everything and there is no deductible.  Most credit cards claim they will cover what the car rental company doesn’t but do you really want to go through the headache of dealing with that.
  • You can visit ALL countries in Europe.  Most rental car companies won’t allow you to drive in Bosnia, Romania, Serbia, and most other eastern european countries.  With Eurodrive it’s no problem.
  • No extra fees for anything.  Bring back the car with an empty tank of gas – no extra charge.  Want to add an extra driver – no extra charge.
  • Cost.  If you rent for over 21 days it is almost always cheaper than renting a car from a normal rental agency.  The longer you rent past 21 days the cheaper the per day cost gets.  Eurorail train passes are quite expensive.  If you have two people and want to travel to more than 3 countries it’s cheaper to rent a car (plus you get the freedom to drive wherever you want).

If you are planning a long european holiday look into the Renault Eurodrive program.

Tangier, Morocco – The Worst And Most Expensive Day Tour Ever

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

At least the camel's smile in Tangier

Rick Steve’s was wrong!!  In one of his guidebooks he recommends taking a day tour to Tangier with one of his best guides, Aziz.  He goes on to say how much Tangier has changed over the years and how its no longer the “Tijuana of Africa”.  Tangier may no longer be the “Tijuana of Africa” but you wouldn’t know it by using the horrible guides provided by Aziz Tours.  Here is the story on how a good idea turned into a the worst and most expensive day tour ever.

I contacted Aziz by e-mail and he was very responsive and gave a quote of 101 euros person (202 for the two of us).  This included the ferry tickets (66 euros round trip), a minibus tour of the outskirts of Tangier, visit to Cape Spartel, Cave of Hercules, a stop for a camel ride then finishes up with a walking tour of the old city.  During the tour he said he would give “lots of information about Tangier´s history, Moroccan culture and Berber traditions, etc”.  This sounded good and since Rick Steve’s recommended this guy I said ok.  Then things started to fall apart.

At the last minute, Aziz notified us he wasn’t available and said one of his trusted colleagues would take us around.  I should have cancelled immediately as this is a big red flag.

So what went wrong??

  • The “30 minute” ferry ride actually takes about 90 minutes.  They slow the ship down so they can process everyone’s visa onboard before the ferry gets to Morocco.
  • Aziz nor his colleague was there to pick us up at the ferry terminal.  We had to wait around for another 30 minutes even though the ferry was over an hour late.
  • The “trusted colleague” who picked us up wasn’t actually a tour guide.  He was Aziz’s driver.  He spoke extremely broken english which was virtually impossible to understand.  So much for getting “lots of information about Tangier´s history, Moroccan culture and Berber traditions, etc”.
  • When we got to the Cave of Hercules our guide/driver couldn’t take us in.  Instead we had to pay 5 Euros to some other guy to show us around.  He spent 2 minutes explaining the sight and 10 minutes showing us all the crappy souvenirs to buy.  The worst part is you could tell he hated his job.  No enthusiasm, no passion for his job, no smiling, just no personality.

Cave of Hercules

Souvenirs in Cave of Hercules

  • When we got to the camel ride I wasn’t expecting much and I was right.  It was a 5 minute ride around a dirt parking lot that cost another 10 euros.

Camel ride around a dirt parking lot

  • We wanted to eat lunch at one of the local restaurants that served what looked like a very good local fish dish.  Our guide/driver said you can’t eat that because you will get sick.  I said I want to get some good, cheap, local food for lunch and he said no problem.  He took us to what looked like a local restaurant except when we entered it was full of tourists.  I told him I wanted local and cheap and he said.  Yes.  Local food.  Cheap.  We found out at the end of the meal that it cost 50 euros.  The lunch wasn’t bad but 50 euros was ridiculous.
What we wanted to eat that cost only a couple Euros…

Local Moroccan dish

Instead.  We got a mediocre meal at this overpriced restaurant.

Overpriced tourist restaurant in Tangier

  • Now for the walking tour.  What a disappointment.  We actually got handed off to another guy who had even less personality (I didn’t think that was possible but it was).  He rushed us through the old town just pointing out the old buildings by saying their name.  No history.  No stories.  No explanation. He just said their names.

Our no history. No explanation. Super fast walking tour of Tangier

  • When Miki found this craftsman making leather handbags in a small corner shop she stopped.  Our guide said no and tried to keep us moving.  Miki wanted to buy a bag directly from the craftsman.  Our guide said that wasn’t possible.  We must buy it at a shop.  The lightbulb went off.  He was rushing us through the tour to get him to his friend’s shop so he could get commission off what we would buy.  At this point I called him out on it and told him we are not going to buy anything at the shop and your not going to get any commission so please take us somewhere else.  He got pissed.  He said there is nothing else to see in Tangier so he took us back to the ferry terminal.

Local craftsman making leather handbags

So what’s the best thing to do in Tangier, Morocco?

Sleeping in Tangier

We spent almost 300 euros on what was the the worst and most expensive day tour ever.  (Ok.  it wasn’t the most expensive day tour we’ve ever taken but it definitely was the biggest waste of money.) It’s too bad that a very pour tour guide ruined Tangier for us.  I wouldn’t recommend anyone to visit Tangier but if you do definitely don’t use Aziz Tours.  I’ll also think twice about trusting Rick Steve’s again :)
We did see one cool thing during our tour.  The cafe from the Bourne Ultimatum.  When we asked to stop to take a picture the guide said no place to park (surprised?).  So we had to make due with a drive by pic.

Cafe from the Bourne Ultimatum

Russia hotel reviews – W St. Petersburg & Hotel National Moscow

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

The new W St. Petersburg and the old Hotel National Moscow were our hotel picks for our long weekend in Russia.  They are both part of the Starwood group but are very different hotels.

First up, the very new W St. Petersburg.

W St Petersburg room interior

The W was only open for 3 days before our stay and it was suffering from the minor issues that most new hotels suffer from.  Nothing major was wrong but a few picky things like the curtains wouldn’t close all the way, no water or towels in the gym, nobody to greet us upon arrival and help with our luggage, long check in process, and a few other minor things.

The biggest complaint was trying to get a transfer to the airport.  I had reserved a car the night before but I found out in the morning they didn’t order it.  They called the taxi company immediately and said it would be there in 10 minutes.  It was an hour later and the taxi still wasn’t there.  The staff just kept saying it would be here soon.  It wasn’t until I made a scene in front of a very full lobby that the manager got involved and ran out to a busy street and flagged one down for us.  We made it to the airport on time but only barely.

Breakfast was also ridiculously expensive.  $75 USD for french toast and an eggs benedict.  They were very, very good but 75 USD… really??

Other than the few minor complains the hotel was very nice.  Great location. Spacious and well appointed rooms.  All very typical of W hotels.

Our next stay was at the Hotel National in Moscow.

Hotel National Moscow

This hotel has an amazing location overlooking the Kremlin and the Red Square.  It’s also been around since 1903 so they have had time to work out the the new hotel issues the W St. Petersburg suffered from.  The hotel has a lot of history and is decorated to an almost museum like quality.  Lenin and many other communist leaders even lived here for a while.

We stayed in the new wing so we didn’t get to stay in Lenin’s room but it was still very nice.  Take a look at the gallery to see some more pictures of the room.

Just beware of the breakfast.  We found out after the fact that the breakfast buffet wasn’t included in the room charge.  It turned out to be a shocking $50 per person for what was basically a mediocre continental breakfast.  Ouch.  There are a lot of cafes nearby that sell much more reasonable breakfasts.  There is also a Mc Donalds near by just in case.

Spot Nate?

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Spot recently came out with this new GPS tracking device called the Spot Connect.    It’s a small hockey puck looking GPS receiver/transmitter that can sync with the iphone. Being the gadget freak that I am I picked one up to test out. One of the functions is an option to track your progress and send near real time updates via satellite to a webpage.  No wifi or 3G signal needed.  I’m heading out to the black hills in South Dakota so I’m going to give it try. If it works as expected you will be able to track my progress via the map above link here.

You can also use it to send short e-mails, update your facebook and twitter accounts and activate an SOS signal to have somewhere come rescue you if need.

Here is static page that will have my latest location… if this thing actually works.  Spot Nate!

At some point I’ll figure out how to integrate my latest location to the google map at the top of page showing all our travels.  Haven’t been able to figure that out yet so if anyone knows how drop me a line.

Tuli Tiger Resort in Kanha

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

Tuli Tiger Resort - pool and main lodge

The Tuli Tiger Resort was much different than the Tiger Trails Resort we stayed at in Bandhavgarh.  It’s part of a larger chain of hotels which makes it much more commercial.  Not necessarily a bad thing if that is what you are looking for.  The resort is laid out around a small pond and all the paths and gardens are landscaped well.

Tuli Tiger Resort Landscape

The service was good and professional here but it wasn’t as personal as the Tiger Trails Resort.  The rooms were big, bright and spacious.  The outside temperature would fluctuate wildly from being near freezing in the morning to 35+ in the afternoon but somehow the design/build of the rooms kept it comfortable all day long.  We didn’t use the fan or air conditioning even once.  Not sure how they did it but it was a nice plus.

The resort has another resort thats actually within the resort.  It was confusing at first because I thought we were booked at the Tuli Corrider resort which is a luxury tented resort that just opened.  Turns out we were booked at the main resort and not the resort within the resort.  In order to get to the Tuli Corrider resort you have to walk through the Tuli Tiger Resort property.  Kinda a bad design if you ask me especially after I found out what the charge per night for the luxury tented camps.

Tuli Corridor Resort (inside the Tuli Tiger Resort)

However, once you get inside the Corridor resort it’s pretty nice.  I wasn’t able to get inside one of the tented camps but they looked spacious from the outside.  If you stay here you also get your own private pool in addition to the pool thats available to the other guests at the Tuli Tiger Resort.

Tuli Corridor Resort Swimming Pool

The Tuli Corridor Resort is very nice but I don’t think it’s worth it since the cost of one of these rooms is several times more than the standard room we stayed in.  You just spend too much time in the park on game drives to enjoy any of the amenities you pay for.  Even if you do have some down time all you really want to do is catch up on sleep.

All in all, I liked the resort but I liked the more personal feel of the Tiger Trails Resort we stayed at in Bandhavgarh better.  Luckily, they have a sister resort in Kanha.  The Wild Chalet Resort.  If I go back to Kanha I’ll try that resort instead.

Tiger Trails Resort in Bandhavgarh

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Tiger Trails Resort - Main lodge

The Tiger Trails Resort in Bandhavgarh is a simple yet very nice resort.  The loding is very basic (a huge contrast to the Oberoi we stayed at in Agra) but was still comfortable.  Since you spend the vast majority of your time in the park it really doesn’t matter what type of lodging you stay at.  Those that stay at places like the new Taj resort in Bandhavgarh are really just wasting their money.

We also had a nice little visitor that kept appearing in our bathroom.  One day after a long and dusty game drive, I turned on the facuet in the bathroom sink, cupped my hands under the facuet gather water to wash my face, and as I started to lean down to splash my face I literly came face-to-face with this little guy.

froggy visitor chill'n on the faucet

After taking a jump back, splashing water all over myself and letting out a very girly scream, I realized it was just a harmless little frog.

Miki's new froggy friend

He also made an appearance one morning on what would appear, from a froggy point of view, to be the softest bed in the bathroom.  Problem was I had some business to take care so had to relocate him back to the sink.

froggy bed

Since there weren’t many guests when we stayed there all the food was served at the table rather than buffet style.  The food was all local and was delicious.  Miki even got to spend some time with the cooks so they could teach her some of the recipes.  The service was very personal.  Something that you definitely don’t get at the larger, more commercial resorts.

They also got some locals to put on a show for us one night which, as always, Miki participated in.

Local Dance Performance at Tiger Trails Resort in Bandhavgarh

We usually stay in more upmarket lodging but when I go back to Bandhavgarh I will return here without hesitation.  I’m sure it will also serve you nicely as a comfortable base for your tiger safari if you ever chose to travel here.


The Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra

Monday, March 21st, 2011

The Oberoi Amarvilas Agra

I didn’t have to do much research on hotels to stay at in Agra.  The Oberoi Amarvilas frequently wins awards as one of the best hotels in the world and is famous for its view of the Taj Mahal.  It’s a little on the expensive side (especially for India) but we were only in Agra one night and we really wanted the view of the Taj from our balcony.

View of the Taj Mahal from the Oberoi Amarvilas balcony

After a long day of traveling and visiting the sights around Agra, it was very nice to sit on our balcony with a cup of tea and watch the sunset over the Taj.  Not a bad life.

The only minor complaints is the rooms are very plain and small. Their also wasn’t much of a selection at breakfast and what was there wasn’t all that good. Not really acceptable for a 5 star hotel but none of that really maters because you can’t get the view of the Taj like this at any other hotel.

Here are some more pics of the hotel…

St Regis Lhasa – not ready for guests… yet.

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

View from the St Regis Presidential Suite

The St Regis Lhasa just opened in Lhasa, Tibet so I thought we’d use some starwood points to go check it out when we had some time off over chinese new year.  The hotel opened back in November but in my opinion, its still not ready to receive guests.  Construction was still going on, the internet had connection problems, the lights would randomly turn on in the room (usually in the middle of the night), the electrical sockets needed to be fixed to plug my computer in, the elevator bank nearest our room wasn’t working, there was no directory in the room, they only had a trial room service menu, and the pool and spa weren’t open yet.  However, the staff is trying very hard and they will eventually get the hotel up to the St Regis standard… its just not even close to ready yet.  The staff mentioned the hotel was only in the soft opening and the grand opening wasn’t until May.  (Would have been nice for Starwood to mention that on the website before I booked the hotel).

Room tip: there are only 3 rooms in the hotel that have a Potala Palace view.  This is the most disappointing thing about the hotel.  They have designed it for only THREE rooms to have the view that everyone wants.  The presidential suite and the 2 Lhasa suites on either side have the view in the picture above.

We had a deluxe suite which was fantastic but we only had a view of someones laundry drying next door.  Here are pics of our suite.

with a number 5 sticker (that was peeling off).  The number 4 in chinese means death so most hotels label their 4th floors and as the 5th and count up from there.  The St Regis Lhasa uses a sticker to replace the 4th floor and then creates two 5th floors.  You would think they would be able to afford another sticker to cover the second 5th floor with the number 6 :)

A perfect example of the St Regis Lhasa not being ready for guests.  The “4th” floor button was covered over

and some pictures from around the hotel.

I asked the chief butler if I could check out the presidential suite to take some shots of the potala palace at sunset and he was more than happy to help out.  The presidential suite is huge…. I mean really huge.  He wasn’t sure of the exact price but said it would be over 5,000 USD per night.  It only has two bedrooms so technically it could only sleep 4 but you could have 50 friends over for a party and have room to spare.

pics of the presidential suite.

Lindblad Expedition’s National Geographic Explorer

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

National Geographic Explorer (it''s a pretty big ship but the scenery in Antarctica makes it look insignificant)

The ship we took down to Antarctica was the National Geographic Explorer.  It’s a purpose built ship to handle travelling in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.  It only carries about 130 guests which is very important in Antartica because the Antarctic treaty only allows 100 people per ship on the continent at one time.

National Geographic Explorer crashing into waves in the the Drake passage

It has ice reinforced hulls (that the Captain loves to use to break through ice) and stabilizers (which we were very grateful for in the Drake passage).

Kayaks and Zodiacs on the National Geographic Explorer

It has kayaks and zodiacs to use for landings and an ROV they use to take under water video.  They have great common areas which we really only used during the Drake passage… except for the Lounge which was used daily for briefings.  When we were on the antarctic peninsula there was really only time to eat, sleep, go on excursions and listen to the talks by the guest speakers.  The two key speakers were the adventurer and mountaineer Peter Hillary and National Geographic Photographer Ira Block but there were also many naturalists on board there were experts in their own right.  I’ll do a post more about them later.

Here are a few more pictures from around the ship.

View of the Beagle Channel from our balcony as we left Ushuaia.

View of the Beagle Channel from the NatGeo Explorer as we left Ushuaia

Grand Hyatt Santiago

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Grand Hyatt Santiago. Lobby.

After one of the longest door to door flights we’ve ever taken (14 hours Hong Kong to Toronto + 4 hour layover + 11 hours Toronto to Santiago) we finally arrived at the Grand Hyatt Santiago to meet up with the rest of the group. I don’t normally stay in Grand Hyatt hotels because I’m pretty loyal to Starwood group.  However, I didn’t have much choice this time because this hotel was part of the tour and was the meeting point for everyone to gather before took a charter flight to Ushuaia, Argentina to board the National Geographic Explorer for our expedition to Antarctica.

The pool was one of the best parts of the hotel… too bad it was freezing cold. The polar plunge we took in Antarctica was warmer :)

Overall, it was a good hotel for a one night stopover. Here are some of the pics of the hotel.

Grand Hyatt Santiago. Exterior.

Grand Hyatt, Santiago Chile. Interior shot.

Grand Hyatt, Santiago Chile. Interior shot.

Grand Hyatt, Santiago Chile. Interior shot.