Monday, August 25, 2014

Germany Austria Vacation

MapIn a great turn of events my parents have agreed to take over our kids for a week in late November allowing Alёna and I to take another what we hope to be a great vacation for our eighth wedding anniversary.

We had an approximate plan in our head for a while now, but this week we actually did a good amount of preliminary research and have finalized our core itinerary. After having done that we have booked the plane tickets and our hotels.

We have a pretty good idea of what we want to see at each destination and how we are going to get around. Trains will be the main form of transportation. However we are planning to rent a car for one day and have a side trip as we did in Italy.

It seems that train pass doesn’t make sense for us yet again, as we’ll only be taking the train two times. I looked at approximate pricing of train tickets on the routes that we have to take to make our plan more solid. Same with the car rental.

Now in the coming month we’ll just do a lot of reading to make sure we don’t miss something interesting as well as what food we should try beside the obvious bratwursts and beer. Basically we’re going to start building on our initial plan. One thing that we know we want to try avoid is anything related to World War II. But I think that will be in our minds anyhow throughout this trip.

The short summary of the plan is as follows. We leave on late night of Friday, November 21st. We fly1 to Berlin with a change over in Frankfurt on our way and land on November 22nd. We couldn’t find a decent direct flight. However I finally do get to fly Lufthansa and Boeing 747! We’ll be coming back on Monday, December 1st on a direct flight from Vienna with Austrian Airlines.

We were thinking of which cities to visit and ended up decided not to spread ourselves to thin and limit it to only 3 cities — Berlin, Munich and Vienna. As before we’re going to stay in Hilton hotels. At this point we booked hotels for a combination of points and euros, but by the time November rolls around we plan to have all of them upgraded to points exclusively.

By taking advantage of our Hilton Diamond VIP benefits we expect to get rooms upgraded, access to executive lounges, free breakfast and Internet access.

Our trip will start in Berlin. We’ll spend 3 nights2 in the city. Judging by our Italian vacation the first day we’ll feel very much like zombies, so we’ll just grab some dinner and go to sleep.

Our hotel is located right in the center of the city. Guides suggest that people visit Gendarmenmarkt square and it’s right across the street from us. Brandenburg Gate is also within a walking distance. We also want to visit Fernsehturm — a TV tower built during soviet times. Also we will possibly visit Tiergarten — Berlin’s Central Park. And we will try to climb to the top of Reichstag.

On Tuesday of November 25th we take a train to Munich. We’ll spend 3 nights3 there. In Munich we plan start start with Marienplatz (the main square), climb to the top of the tower at Rathaus (city hall), visit Frauenkirche (Munich’s largest church). We will also try to visit the English Garden and have some beer at the world’s most famous beer hall — Hofbräuhaus am Platzl.

One of our Munich days we’ll dedicate to renting a car and driving south to visit Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles.

On Friday, November 28th, we will depart to the final stop of our trip — Vienna, Austria. We’ll also spend 3 nights4 here as in the other cities. Our hotel is located right in the city center, so we’ll be mostly walking around without having to use any transportation. We’ll try to visit Hofburg Imperial Palace, 12th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral and we’ll try to climb to the top of one of its towers.

We still need to do a lot of reading about other places that we want to visit in these 3 cities and build out a more detailed plan of getting around the cities and from city to city. We made the reservations in the beginning of April, but still have not made a lot of progress as far as t he exact plan goes. Hopefully it will be another great trip filled with memories.

  1. Round trip tickets came out to $2,155 for the both of us. Very expensive this time around. But we do get to fly Lufthansa and Austrian. []
  2. Hilton Berlin — 60,000 points per night. Expensive! []
  3. Hilton Munich City — 60,000 points and €195 for all 3 nights. []
  4. Hilton Vienna — 48,000 points and €149 for all 3 nights. []

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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Grand Italian Vacation

One of magical canals in Venice.It’s already been seven days since we returned from our “Grand Italian Vacation” and I’m faced with my usual post-vacation conundrum — how do I do a good job conveying and preserving all the great feelings and experiences that we had, through words and pictures.

I think I will start by saying a couple of general things and will go into more details as I go on. Our Italian vacation — as most of our vacations tend to be — was great. We really liked Italy and all the cultural and historical experiences that it has to offer along with an abundance of famous places to visit.

Having said that I probably should mention that while we enjoyed our trip greatly we weren’t completely swept off our feet the same way we were in Japan. I’m not exactly sure why, but it probably has something to do with the fact that we really wanted to visit Japan for many years and year after year some obstacle would prevent us from going. So when we finally managed to do it — the achievement itself made if feel more special. And then there is the fact that it still is much more exotic of an experience. After all — United States itself, even though quite a bit different — did originate from Europe, while Japan existed and developed on a very different trajectory for thousands of years.

Florence. Climbing the tower.But not to get way too off course — back to Italy. The trip was great and everyone who has a chance should visit Italy. The country has so much history to offer in various forms that 10 days is barely enough to touch upon it — ancient structures, famous locations, familiar to everyone paintings and sculptures, unique cities and a great selection of local cuisines. We spent 10 amazing days in Italy that we will probably remember for the rest of our lives.

So a short summary of our trip would be that we got lucky with the weather, loved our Hilton hotels, used trains with great success to get around and even rented a car for one day. We tried a good number of Italian specialties and had a rather good luck with randomly picking places to dine at. All the cities look and feel quite differently from familiar to us U.S. cities and we loved exploring each and every one of them. But my favorite stop of all would have to be Venice — there is just nothing like it in the world and you feel how special it is when you’re there.

Milan. Main square.One of the things that we were worried a bit about was the time of the year that we were going at and all the floods that happened in Italy a week before our departure. However it turned out that weather was warmer and more pleasant than it was in New York at the time even though the most southern city (Rome) in our itinerary was still closer to the north pole than New York is. There were no signs of recent flooding when we were there, but even more surreal was the fact that the flooding has started again right after we left.

However a bigger advantage of the time of the year that we picked was the fact there were no enormous crowds. There were still tons of tourists everywhere, but we didn’t encounter a single line — no line to Saint Peter Basilica, no line to Vatican Museums, no line to Uffizi Gallery and tons of empty restaurants which were very happy to serve us.

Venice. View from Accademia Bridge over Grand Canal. Basilica of Saint Mary in the background.Speaking of which — the service everywhere was great. I couldn’t tell a difference between the typical great service that you would get at restaurant in U.S. from what we were getting in Italy — fast, courteous and very polite hosts and waiters everywhere. A lot of places put a sitting charge on your bill — ranging from 1 to 4 euros per person, but from what we learned from other Italians that we talked to — this pretty much frees you up from having to leave a tip. Even though we still left tips at certain places we felt very much OK with leaving a small tip or not leaving a tip at all.

But of course the best part of the timing of our trip was the fact that we ended up celebrating our 6th wedding anniversary in possibly the most romantic place on earth — Venice.

And now having all of the above laid out I can jump right into our trip and start from the beginning and get deeper into details.

P.S. Selecting photographs for the introductory post was really hard. I didn’t want to use up photos from the stories about each city, yet this post came out looking really photo-scarce. We’ll probably readjust this when we are done with all the posts.
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Monday, September 10, 2012

Italy Vacation

ItalyIn light of the fact that our Grand Canyon and Las Vegas vacation fell apart due to the fact that we were unable to obtain a visa for Alёna’s sister we decided to stay positive and still plan a vacation even though it was not what we originally hoped for.

We asked my mom if she would still stay with Arosha for the duration of our trip and she very graciously agreed. She has to take time off work herself for us to be able to make this vacation happen so we appreciate this very very much.

We did some initial research and based on this outline we booked the whole trip already. We know the route that we want to take, but now we need to fill in the gaps and build out an exact plan for each destination and means of getting from one place to another — trains and car rental. The list of things that we made certain decisions about and things we know already follows.

On late night of Thursday, November 15th we fly out on a direct flight1 to Rome and will be coming back on Sunday, November 25th on a direct flight from Venice. Thus we’ll be able to have our 6th anniversary dinner in Venice — one of the most romantic places in the world.

We, again, are taking advantage of our Hilton points and our Hilton Diamond VIP status to get the best bang for the buck. Hilton points are better used if they are being spent in one place at once. Since it was not really possible with a trip like this we took an advantage of a new program that Hilton recently introduced — an ability to pay for the room using points and money.

The hotel portion of the trip ended up costing us 215,000 points (free portion) and €428. We’re getting a room upgrade, access to executive lounge, free breakfast and internet as benefits for our Diamond status. If we were to book the same hotels without points it would amount to €1,627 and everything I mentioned above would cost additional money. Needless to say we’re quite happy with how this program has been working out for us.

We will spend 2 nights2 in Rome. We’re assuming that even though we’ll get to Rome somewhere around noon on Friday we will be very tired, so we’re not making any complicated plans for the evening. We’ll do something simple based on how we are feeling. On early Saturday morning we are going to explore the Colosseum and its surrounding, eat lunch and spend the second half of the day exploring Vatican.

On Sunday morning we’re planning to catch a train to Florence where we will spend 3 nights3 and rent a car. We’ll spend one day exploring Florence itself and another day we’ll drive out to Pisa and take a look at its leaning tower and drive through Tuscany back-roads.

On Wednesday, November 21st we leave for Milan. We will spend 2 nights4 there. We will try to make a short stop at Bologna on our way. In Milan we plan to explore a huge Milan Cathedral and go up to its roof. We also would like to explore Lake Como if weather permits it and if we’re in the mood.

And on Friday, November 23rd we’ll drive to our final destination — Venice. We’ll spend 2 more nights5 there, making stops along the way at Verona and Vicenza. We haven’t yet decided where exactly we will have our anniversary dinner, but any place in Venice should be quite romantic. Our final Saturday we’ll dedicate to exploring Venice with Piazza San Marco being one of the main objectives.

As always it sounds like it will be a great vacation, but how and where exactly we’ll end up going we’ll only find out after it’s over. Now we need to start the work on researching our destinations.

Update: We ended up reshuffling the days a bit. Rome and Florence portions stayed exactly the same as listed above. However we spent 1 night in Milan and 3 nights in Venice. We also ended up having enough points to full pay for those 4 nights — 40,000 for Milan and 150,000 for 3 nights in Venice. The final total cost for the hotels came out to €232 and 275,000 points. Points worked out great again. The suite that we stayed in in Venice, for example, would’ve cost $1,100 per night if we didn’t have our points.

  1. Alitalia to Rome and Delta from Venice non stop flights for $886 per person. []
  2. Hilton Garden Inn Rome Claridge — 20,000 points, €56 and taxes per night. []
  3. Hilton Garden Inn Florence Novoli — 15,000 points, €40 and taxes per night. []
  4. Hilton Milan — 40,000 points per night. []
  5. Hilton Molino Stucky Venice — 25,000 points, €98 and taxes per night. []
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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Japan: Hotels

Why is it so hard to completely enjoy the moment when you’re in it and why do you only fully realize how great it was when it is behind you? I would love to turn up at one of JR stations right now, going to some new unexplored place.

I was planning to make this post ahead of my food post, but since Alёna did hers we wanted them to be out at about the same time. So now — a couple of words about the places we stayed in.

Hilton HHonors & Planning


As we have said before our hotels were covered by Hilton HHonor points, which made this vacations much cheaper for us than it otherwise would’ve been. We also didn’t have to shop around for bargain hotels and had a peace of mind going there knowing that Hilton is Hilton.

Tokyo Bay view from Conrad Tokyo.Hilton points are more efficiently spent if you can stay at a single place for 6 or more days. Therefore we originally booked our hotel in Osaka (no Hiltons in Kyoto) and figured that it will be our main hub of visiting everything around it and I think it worked out quite well for many reasons.

From Osaka we made trips to Nara, Kyoto and Hiroshima. On the last day we were so tired that we didn’t want to make any more trips, so we spent it checking out Osaka itself. If we were staying in Kyoto all this time we probably wouldn’t even come to Osaka at all.

Conrad Tokyo. One of Hilton properties.After making our Osaka reservation we had more than a 100,000 points left. So when looking for hotels in Tokyo we went with the most expensive one they had — Conrad Tokyo for 2 nights.

Since we didn’t really know which location would be good, the hotel choice was pretty much random. Otherwise we just have one rule — no airport locations. Those seem to often be in shady areas and far from anything interesting.

Subway line. View from our room in Conrad Tokyo.In addition to the fact that our hotels were free we happen to have Hilton Diamond VIP status. What that practically means is that we can book the cheapest room and get upgraded to an executive floor and an executive room, get free access to executive lounge (food and alcohol for free), get complimentary breakfast and free internet. In one word — NICE!

As we kept doing our research it became apparent that we would like to spend at least one night in a traditional hotel — ryokan. Since we definitely wanted to dedicate more than one day to Kyoto — Kyoto was our choice. We decided to book one night at Nishiyama Ryokan. We figured we’ll just leave our things in Osaka in our Hilton and just go explore Kyoto without having to worry about carrying bags with us.

Conrad Tokyo


Our room in Conrad Tokyo.This was our first stop in Japan. We got here from the airport on a rainy night and were helped up to the hotel registration on 28th floor. At first this appeared strange to us, but only later on we realized that most of the building is actually an office tower and the hotel itself is located on the top floors. The check-in was quick. We were upgraded to the 37th floor which was an executive floor and a top floor of the building. I always ask for the highest floor possible for a better picture taking opportunities out of the windows.

A couple of the words about the room itself — it probably was the most impressive one we have stayed at yet. If we were to book this very room for money it would’ve cost us $1,000 per night — we did the math while we were booking.

Tokyo from our window. Twin government building towers are visible on the left.The ceilings were very high — at least 2 of my heights if not more. There was a large glass separating the bathroom and the bedroom. That wall had a motorized blinds as did the main window — the outer wall was all glass. Everything in the room could be operated by a multitude of control panels filled with buttons. The toilet itself had at least 5 buttons (which by the way is the case with pretty much every toilet in Japan) — sit warmer, auto-flusher, bidet and who knows what else.

Another thing that we enjoyed quite a bit was the shower system, strangely enough. It had a regular shower on the wall, but it also had a huge shower head sticking out from the ceiling itself. And what made it so great was that when you stand under it you feel like you are standing in a very strong rain, not shower. Big water drops are just going all over you. When we get our own house we are definitely going to look into getting one of these installed.

Other direction. JR tracks are visible on the ground.The views from the windows were quite spectacular as well. In one direction we could see all the way to government towers located in Shinjuku. From the windows in the lobby (on 28th floor) we could see Tokyo Bay and a big green park in front of the hotel which we didn’t get to.

But what turned out to be even better than the hotel itself was its location. Hotel was located in Shiodome neighborhood of Tokyo. Shiodome subway station on one of Tokyo subway lines was right downstairs. JR Shimbashi station on Yamanote Line (that loop line that goes around the city that I wrote about before) was a 5-10 minute walk away. And the famous Tsukiji Fish Market was a 10-15 minute walk away. I couldn’t have planned it better if I wanted to.

Alёna. Conrad Tokyo.Anyhow, we really enjoyed staying at this hotel. Superb service that can be expected from any Hilton in the world.

Hilton Osaka


Hilton Osaka was a bit simpler than Conrad, but it was still a high-end luxury hotel that we expected. We got upgraded to the 30th executive floor and had a nice view of Osaka out of our window. We also had access to the executive lounge which we would visit every night. However we were so tired that we didn’t get to use the pools a single time.

Osaka from our window in Hilton Osaka.Every morning we would start by going downstairs for a complimentary breakfast which had a large selection of hot food. It was not a typical continental breakfast, but a full buffet filled with western and Japanese food. One morning we met that same couple that we stayed in line with to Sushi Dai in Tokyo — that was a strange coincidence.

Hilton hotel building is on the right. View from Osaka JR Station.And by a pure accident we again ended up in a great location. Osaka seems to have two “downtown” areas. One is Namba and another is Umeda. Our hotel was located in Umeda right across the street from a huge Osaka JR Station which was just rebuilt and reopened this year. It includes in itself a huge shopping mall with all kinds of restaurants and department stores. It also has a rapid service to Kyoto which takes 24 or so minutes and it was 1 stop way from Shin-Osaka station — where all the bullet trains go through.

Same scene as above, different time.The hotel also ended up being right near Airport Bus stop which was extremely convenient on our last day.

Nishiyama Ryokan


This was definitely the most unusual one of our stops. It ended up costing us $385 for one night, but it included traditional breakfast and a dinner which we talked about in our food posts. We stayed in a traditional Japanese room with 8 tatami mats.

Nishiyama Ryokan. Entrance.It turned out that November 23rd (our anniversary) is a national holiday in Japan. But luckily increased rates for hotels apply for the night of 22nd to 23rd. We wanted to spend our anniversary night in this location, so we paid the usual rate. The stay sure ended up being special.

Our room and Alёna in her kimono.When we got to the ryokan we were greeted by a very friendly staff who checked us in and led us to our room. A woman dressed in traditional Japanese clothing explained to us a number of details about our room and Japanese traditions, showed us how to wear kimonos, made green tea for us and showed us how to sit properly at a Japanese table. She also insisted that we should try wearing the kimonos to dinner, even though we obviously could wear whatever we pleased. But we’re glad that we listened to her and it made the whole experience even more special.

Our host at Nishiyama Ryokan.We had a great dinner. We slept on the floor on special futons, which was also very comfortable. The personnel at the hotel was very helpful and friendly. The breakfast was not any less interesting and when we were about to leave they gave us a traditional tea ceremony.

One thing that seemed interesting to me was the fact that paper can provide very good heat insulation. Our room had a central bedroom and a separate smaller room which had windows. There was a traditional door between the two which mainly consisted out of paper. While it was very warm inside our sleeping room the outside room was very very cold. That was unexpected.

Nishiyama Ryokan. Lobby.We didn’t really know what to expect from this place, but we were so glad that we decided to spend one night here.

Conclusion


Overall the whole trip was great. We lucked out with our hotel selections, which aided us in our explorations of Japan. They were also a good part of our adventures, especially our ryokan stay. Oh so many many great memories already. What a week it was.

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