Sunday, February 12, 2017

Hotel Review: Vdara (Las Vegas)

I fianally booked a night at the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas.  I've stayed at The Cosmopolitan and liked staying in City Center.  I'd been curious what the Vdara hotel would be like knowing that it had originally been built to be sold as condo units.  Luckily, rooms were relatively inexpensive for being on The Strip, so I booked a corner suite.  I was given a high room, so I enjoyed great wrap around views.  I liked the Vdara because it was a part of City Center and close to the action, but it doesn't have a casino and is slightly more peaceful than other parts of The Strip.

What I Liked:
  • Very modern decor
  • The rooms were spacious
  • No Casino
What I Didn't Like
  • There is basic room service, but not much in the way of dining choices
  • Limited work out equipment in the gym

Things We Did: Tokyo

We only spent 3 nights in Tokyo, but it was enough to know we really want to come back again.  There are plenty of big cities in the world we haven't been to, but I have been to NYC, Paris, San Francisco, Seoul, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and several others, but Tokyo was my favorite.  It's difficult to put my finger on exactly why, but some of the things that stood out to me were the energy of the crowds, the politeness of the people, the food, the little side streets, the public transportation and the cultural feel.

Here are some things we did in Tokyo:

Senso-ji Temple: This has become quite the tourist spot to get a look at a Buddhist.  It is Tokyo's oldest temple.  Because it's one of the top tourist spots in Tokyo, there are a ton of stalls selling souvenirs and food.  It's also just a short walk from the Asakusa Subway Station and a section of the Arakawa River that has some great walking trails. 

Shibuya Crossing and Cat Street: We felt like Shibuya Crossing was just something you had to see in Tokyo.  It was ok, but a short walk from there was Cat Street, which had a great vibe and all the shopping Gwen was looking for.

Cat Street Tokyo

Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens: We really just went to Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens to kill time while we waiting for our tickets to go the Ninja Trick House.  What was just an afterthought, ended up being one of our favorite things we did in Tokyo.  The Gardens represented the organized, thoughtful and planned nature of the Japanese people and their culture.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens
Ninja Trick House: Mason looked forward to going to the Ninja Trick House above everything else we were going to do on our trip.  It didn't disappoint.  He was able to wear a ninja sword and throw ninja stars.  The guide made the show very interactive and fun.  Even Gwen who complained about going ended up having a fun time.

Ninja Trick House

Hotel Review: Tokyo Hilton (Japan)


When we booked our trip to Tokyo, we did some research on which part of Tokyo to stay in and decided on Shinjuku.  Once we decided on that, we then had to pick a hotel.  We generally stay in western brand hotels when we travel, mostly because we know what to expect.  We picked the Tokyo Hilton because it was a good combination as of price and guest ratings when we looked at Tripadvisor.  Plus, Hilton Honors was running this deal on suites with club access.

It's a bit tricky to find the hotel when we got off the the airport train.  It sits between subway stations and the Shinjuku Station is huge with a confusing underground connecting shopping areas, restaurants and many streets.  There is a free shuttle from Shinjuku Station to the Hilton, but it's a little tricky to find.  Once you get familiar with the area, it's about a 10 minute brisk walk from the station to the hotel.

The hotel itself is beautiful.  The staff are extremely friendly and helpful, although they weren't too happy to allow Gwen to use the treadmill because she wasn't 16.  We loved our suite which included a very nice sitting area, lovely bathroom, toilet with a heated seat and comfortable beds.

Tokyo Hilton Hotel Room
Location: The hotel is in a business district without a lot of restaurants and activity right outside the door.  To get to a large selection of restaurants and activities, you pretty much have to get back to the Shinjuku since everything is east of that station.  We were able to comfortably walk to the Ninja Trick house and then walked to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.

What We Liked:
  • The conveniences of a Western Hotel
  • The size of the suites 
  • The club access
  • The gym had plenty of treadmills
  • The Shinjuku part of town was really cool
 What We Didn't Like:
  • There aren't a lot of restaurants right outside the hotel 
  • All the restaurants in the hotel were very expensive
  • The hotel pool was not that big

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Things We Did: Thailand

Our family decided that putting a bunch of presents under a tree that are quickly forgotten isn't how we want to continue to celebrate Christmas.  Instead, we decided to go on a vacation and chose Thailand.  It had been 7 years since the last time we went, and it's still our favorite place we've ever been because of the beaches, food, value but mostly because of the Thai people.

Here are some of the things we did:

James Bond Island and Phang Nga Bay: Katie and I had visited this area on our first trip to Thailand.  It's a national park comprising 42 limestone islands, caves and immense beauty.  We enjoyed seeing James Bond Island, kayaking into limestone caves and swimming.

Surin Islands: We expected a two hour boat ride, but because of the rolling seas, it took closer to 3 1/2 hours and almost everyone on the boat got sick.  Luckily, we took sea sickness medication and were fine.  Arriving at the islands was a huge relief.  However, it didn't take long to forget the horrible boat ride and become struck by the beauty of the islands.  We saw a village where gypsy fishermen lived, enjoyed the amazing scenery and snorkeled.

Shopping in Khao Lak and Patong Beach: Khao Lak has just about the things you're likely to find at other markets in Thailand with some charm.  Patong Beach has become too crazy and certainly not a place you want to walk around with an 8 year old and 2 teenagers.

Beaches We Visited: Khao Lak, Mai Khao and Layan Beach

Mai Khao Beach

Trevor and Christen at Layan Beach

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Mai Khao Beach

Mai Khao Beach is one of our favorite spots in the world.  I'm sure it's because of the many great memories and that it represents our family getting away.  It's not a beach with a gradual entry, but rather quite a drop off making it not the easiest swimming beach.  But it's quiet and we've spent some lovely evenings there enjoying some amazing sunsets.

Mai Khoa Beach
Mai Khao Beach

Hotel Review: Anantara Vacation Club Phuket (Thailand)

After spending a couple days in Khao Lak, our family moved back down to the familiar Mai Khao.  This is the first time we didn't stay at the JW Marriott.  Instead, we stayed at the Anantara Vacation Club and really enjoyed it.  We would happily stay at this property again.

Anantara basically has three options in Mai Khao:
  • Option 1-the Anantara Resort.  It sits on the Mai Khao beach next door to the JW Marriott.  All the rooms are villas and it's a very high end resort ranked as one of the top resorts in Phuket.
  • Option 2-the Anantara Vacation Club Villas.  These units sit across the street from the Anantara Resort, and are about a 5 minute walk to the beach.  They're gorgeous homes with plunge pools.  The vacation club has an restaurant, pool, gym, climbing wall, loaner bikes and other fun amenities.
  • Option 3-the Anantara Vacation Club Condos.  On the vacation club property, there is a multi-story building with several 2 bedroom condo units that feel like a timeshare unit.  
Walkway from Anantara Vacation Club to Mai Khao Beach
We ended up staying at the Anantara on a timeshare package and got a deal on the room to take a tour.  It was actually very tempting to purchase because the rooms were so nice and the other Anantara properties so beautiful.  We stayed in the condo unit (option 3).  The service at this property was great.  Example: we let the hotel know that we'd have 3 adults and 3 kids.  They were kind enough to make up the large couches into extra beds.  The pool was great (maybe a bit small) with a swim-up bar.  The restaurant was excellent with very good pricing considering it was a resort restaurant.  They had lots of kids activities like a fusball table, pool table, climbing wall, etc.  Mason challenged all takers at fusball, he may have even won once.

What We Liked:
  • The restaurant and food were excellent
  • The rooms were extremely nice
  • The washer/dryer
What We Didn't Like
  • The pool and gym were undersized
  • We missed staying right on the beach

Hotel Review: The Sands Khao Lak (Thailand)

When we went to Thailand over New Years, we had a little sticker shock at the prices of hotels in Phuket, particularly since we had a group of 6.  We then started looking at prices of hotels in Khao Lak and found that they were much more affordable and thought it might be fun to go somewhere we haven't been yet.  We mostly looked at reviews and decided to book The Sands Khao Lak resort.

Khao Lak is about an 1 1/2 hour drive from the Phuket airport.  It is certainly developed with hotels along the entire stretch of beach, still, it didn't have the mega resorts that you'd find in Phuket, Cancun, Hawaii and other major tourist beach areas.  It had a lot of charm surrounded by a heavily forested national park.  I've often said that the JW Marriott Phuket Resort is my favorite resort I've ever been to, but if we go back to Thailand, I would sacrifice a few days in Phuket to go back to Khao Lak.

The Sands Khao Lak Resort is certainly more basic than the JW Marriott in Phuket or Anantara Resort in Phuket (resorts we've stayed at in the past), but it had it's own kind of charm.  The rooms were slightly contemporary with an open plan and smartly furnished and very clean.  The grounds of the resort weren't overly extensive, but there was a nice pool, some open grass area, and a couple tennis courts.  It sits right on the beach with soft sand that gently slopes into the water so you can walk out quite far while still touching the bottom.

We ate at the resort for breakfasts, but in the evenings we walked out to the main road and had excellent meals every night.  We loved the restaurant Smile where the total bill for 6 with appetizers and two extra entrees came to about $50.  However, the best thing we ate was some amazing green papaya salad made by an old lady at a food cart.

We did spend New Years at the resort where they held a huge party.  We didn't go, but we did find a man selling Chinese lanterns on the beach and set a couple off.  It was a fun way to celebrate New Years watching the lanterns float off into the distance.

We had a great time at the The Sands Khao Lak, largely because of Khao Lak itself but also because of the charm of this slightly budget but very nice hotel.  I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a mid level resort in Thailand.

The beach outside The Sands Khao Lak Resort

Things We Liked:
  • The Town of Khao Lak
  • The Beach
  • The Cleanliness of the Resort
Things We Didn't Like:
  • The restaurant food was food ok

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Things We Did: Singapore

Singapore is a beautiful city/country.  Katie, Gwen and I were last there in 2007.  We had remembered the city as extremely green and extremely hot.  We had fond memories of the country, and it was fun the way smells and sounds brought us right back to how we felt 10 years ago.  We did many of the same things this go around, but stayed in a different hotel, spent more time walking around the city and time in the amazing Singapore subway.  I also think the first time we went to Singapore introduced us to dim sum and laksa soup.  We've become more adventurous eaters since the first time we were in Singapore, so this time, we spent most of focus on eating.

Here are some things we did:

Singapore Zoo: Katie and I thought the Singapore Zoo was pretty amazing the last time we visited Singapore.  That first time, only Gwen was with us and she was quite young.  We decided to go back so she could see it again and we could show it to Mason.  I wondered if it would live up to how I remembered it.  We weren't 10 steps into the zoo before we saw a monkey swinging across a rope and we were all hooked.  Such a cool and unique zoo where so many of the animals look right at home in the Singaporean jungles.  We did also go to the River Safari-waste of time.

Gardens by the Bay: We went to Gardens by the Bay.  I get the feeling that every tourist that visits Singapore finds themselves there.  We had hoped to get pictures with the giant trees at night but found out that they are only lit at certain times and because Mason was feeling sick, we had to rush back to the hotel and missed one of those times.  We did spend some time at the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest.  We would have been fine missing the Flower Dome, but the Cloud Forest was really cool.

Chinatown: Our hotel, PARKROYAL on Pickering, was a block away from Chinatown.  Like any Chinatown in a major city, it had a bit of an "underbelly" feel to it, at least by Singapore standards.  Gwen enjoyed shopping for nick knacks.  Mason and Gwen both walked away with a sweet waving cat.  Also, Mason was finally able to convince us to do a bungee jump.

Places We Ate:
  • Marriott Breakfast-the kids loved the breakfast at Marriott.  We went there because Katie loved their dim sum bar last time we were there.  Unfortunately, they didn't have the same amount of dim sum, but Gwen learned to love dumplings
  • Satay by the Bay-it was a good vibe next to the Gardens by the Bay.  It was a hawker stand, but we stuck to satay
  • Airport Hawker Stand-we didn't find anything that stuck out as a must eat dish, but it was kind of cool to get off the plane and immediately have so many exotic dishes available
  • Tomo Izakaya-was a cool Izakaya restaurant in the Riverside district of Clarke Quay.  The staff was friendly and the cuts of fish were quite good

Hotel Review: Crowne Plaza Changi Airport (Singapore)

Our flight arrived in Singapore about midnight and it made more sense to book an airport hotel than to go into town.  We booked the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport without the highest expectations.  It turned out to be an excellent hotel.

The hotel is connected to Terminal 3.  Terminal 3 can be reached from Terminal 1 via skytrain and reached from Terminal 2 via a massive moving walkway.  No matter which terminal you arrive in, you can reach the hotel inside of 15 minutes of clearing customs.  Terminal 3 is a great place to be because the basement houses an excellent hawker station with any kind of Asian food.

As we've traveled, Singapore always stands out for three things, cleanliness, heat and vibrant greenery.  The pool does an amazing job of incorporating all three with very clean modern decking, planter boxes with lots of plants and trees, an outdoor shower.  Mason said the pool was kind of "mazy" with a few little nooks and hiding places.  He also liked the spiral staircase connecting all the floors.

The rooms were normal, with smoked glass between the bedroom and bathroom.  The bathroom had a rain shower head.  We did pay $58 for them to bring in a roll-away bed, which felt a little extreme.  The hotel itself was quite pricey for an airport hotel, particularly since it wasn't a large name brand (part of Intercontinental Hotel Group), but once we stayed there, we understood why.  On a separate overnight stay in Singapore, we tried staying in a different Changi City hotel to save a few dollars, but wished we had booked the Crowne Plaza again because it was such a great hotel and so convenient.

What We Liked:
  • Convenience
  • Pool
What We Didn't Like:
  • The price

Hotel Review: PARKROYAL on Pickering (Singapore)

When we stayed in Singapore, we chose the PARKROYAL on Pickering because the pictures on looked so nice.  This was definitely a case where the pictures didn't lie.  This would rank as one of the most visually stunning hotels we've ever been to.

The hotel has only been open a few years.  The architecture of the hotel did an amazing job of incorporating sky gardens into the design of the property.  Because trees and greenery are a part of each floor, there is actually more greenery vertically than if the hotel were never built and the land were allowed to grow wild.  The hotel features a ton of water, the exterior is lined with water, the lobby has water everywhere and the infinity edge pool overlooks the city skyline.


The rooms were very modern and clean.  The suite had a separate sitting room with a couch that worked well for our kids.  The bathrooms were gorgeous with large rain showers. 

The PARKROYAL on Pickering is in a great location.  It's not in the busy, high rent section of Orchard Road, but sits between China Town and Clarke Quay.  Both are top spots in Singapore if you're there to eat.

My only complaint is that the pool, although amazing with infinity edge and great view, was a bit small and actually quite cold.

What We Liked:
  • Rooms were awesome and the bathrooms were sick
  • The sky gardens and plants everywhere
  • Proximity to China Town and Clark Quay
What We Didn't Like:
  • The size of the pool
  • The temperature of the pool
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