Friday, May 31, 2013

Photo of the Week: Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland

Back in 2010 I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to find myself in Iceland while Eyjafjallajökull volcano was erupting.  This ash cloud from this volcano caused huge disruptions in air traffic all across Europe and became famous for its unpronounceable name.  While my travel plans weren't disrupted to the same extent as countless others, my flight was changed to get around the ash cloud.  What was supposed to be a direct Boston - Reykjavik flight ended up being a Boston to Glasgow, Scotland and then on to Akureyri, a small town in northern Iceland.  Once in Akureyi I had to take a bus halfway across the country to Reykjavik.  Not the most direct route, but i did get to see some beautiful scenery from the bus window.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Hotel Review: Clarion Hotel Sign, Stockholm

With my recent post on the stay twice get 8,000 choice privileges promotion, Ive gotten a few questions about which hotels would be good reward redemptions.  In my opinion most of the Choice hotels in the US are mediocre at best and require a relatively high number of points for a free night when considering the standard cash rate.  Choice hotels in Europe on the other hand occupies a more upscale niche.  I will have a series of 3 posts detailing my experiences with Clarion Hotel Sign in Stockholm, Clarion Hotel Temperance in Malmo, and Clarion Royal Christiana in Oslo.

Clarion Hotel Sign, Stockholm Sweden
Choice Privileges Points: 10,000 for superior room
Average Peak season price: $209-238

Location: Very close to the train station which makes it extremely convenient when coming from the airport.  It is also within walking distance to the old town and main attractions.  It is located next to a park so as long as you are on the park side as i was, there was no noise from the train station.

Room: decor was modern Swedish.  While Ikea might not be to everyones liking, I think they did a very good job at being refined yet simplistic.  My room was a superior Park view room.  The most striking feature of the room was floor to ceiling windows which extended the entire length of the room and provided wonderful views out to the park.  The room was irregularly shaped making it a pseudo suite with the bed in one corner, a sitting room area and the bathroom to the rear.  The room was very open and airy. 

Hotel: The overall design of the hotel is very modern and futuristic.  They have a rooftop lounge area and a free breakfast buffet is provided daily.  Breakfast choices include cereal, bread, pastries, lunch meat, yogurt, fruit and Scandinavian dishes such as salmon and herring.

Roof Top Bar


What a View!!

Comfy Bed, Modern Decor

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Hotel Review: Donovan House, Washington D.C.

I received a complementary night at this hotel as part of the Kimpton inner circle program.  As I mentioned in my post here, Kimpton has a very generous status match policy and they have a program which allows inner circle members a chance at a free night at any or all of their new hotels.  In the past, you could book these free stays immediately after a status match but the policy has now changed to require a minimum of 3 paid stays prior to being eligible for the free nights.

The location of the hotel is well suited for a weekend get away or for business travelers.  It is located right on Thomas circle.  There are lots of restaurants in the nearby area.  The hotel is a little far away from the Mall and main tourist sites, but some people might see that as a good thing.  Upon check in we were greeted at the front desk with a warm smile.  They thanked me for being an inner circle member and told me that I had been upgraded to the "donovan suite"  Check in was very quick and efficient. 

We stayed in room 1110, on the 11th floor. This was the Donovan Suite and is the largest room in the hotel, and at 1,230 square feet, is the largest room Ive ever stayed in.  The suite included a full sized refrigerator and kitchenesque space (although no other appliances other than sink), a dining table for 8, large living area with full sized leather sofa, 2 lounge chairs, flat screen TV with Bose surround sound system.  The living room has floor to ceiling windows overlooking Thomas circle.  There is also a spare bathroom adjacent to the living area.  The bedroom is at the far end of the suite with the master bathroom attached.  The bathroom included a very deep and comfy soaking tub and a very unique spiral shaped shower.

As for the service, there was no inner circle welcome amenity in the room when I arrived, but about 2 hours later a cheese platter and sparkling water was brought to the room.  I had listed Belgian beer and aged Gouda as my amenities of choice online, so i guess they got this half right.  Anyways, the cheese was very good.  I had also seen online that kimpton provides goldfish to guests who request them.  We called down and within minutes we had our very own pet for the evening.  The hotel also has a "wine hour" from 5-6pm in the lobby.  They offered light snacks (wasabi peas, grilled tofu) as well as red and white wine, sangria, and sake.  They were very generous with refills.

As part of the inner circle promotion that I booked, we also got 50$ dining credit in the hotel restaurant, Zentan.  The restaurant is "Asian tapas" so rather than ordering several small plates we ended up going with the sushi platter for $49.  I thought the sushi was good, and it was nice to be able to try such a good variety (30 pieces in total).  The prices in the restaurant were a little on the high side and that being said I would probably venture elsewhere if I were to stay here again.  One other feature of the hotel worth noting is the rooftop bar and pool "DNV Rooftop".  This was closed due to weather on Friday but open on Saturday.  It was a very enjoyable spot to have a drink while lounging by the pool.

All in all, this was an excellent stay.  I was very very very impressed by the upgrade that we were given as inner circle members.  If that is the norm, I could see myself seeking out Kimpton Hotels in the future.

Dining room table with seating for 8

Couch in living room

Great view of Thomas Circle

King sized bed

Bedroom with entrance to bathroom

Amazing soaking tub

Interesting bath robes

Cheese platter welcome ammenity


DNV Rooftop Pool and Bar

Our pet goldfish, see sushi picture below


Sushi Platter from Zentan

$50 rebate on 2 night stays at Priority Club Hotels

Use your mastercard to book a 2 night weekend hotel stay with Priority Club and you are eligible for a $50 mail in rebate.  You need to register between now and 9/1/13 and stay between May 31st and September 1st.  You need to register before booking.  Valid at InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express,  Holiday Inn Club Vacations, Holiday Inn Resorts, Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites.  You must be a resident of the US or Canada

Details here:

There is some fine print with this so please read the details carefully.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Things to do on St John, USVI

My girlfirend and I spent 3 nights on St. John back in late March.  While our trip here was short, we were able to cram a lot into those days while still having time to relax on the beach.  We stayed at Cinnamon Bay Campground, see review here.  Most of St. John is part of the Virgin Islands National Park, so its not surprising that most of our trip consisted of exploring the park. 

Day 1:

Hiking - there are several very nice hiking trails that are within walking distance of the campground.  The trails that we hiked were well maintained.  As a word of warning, some of the trails can be steep so make sure that you bring a good pair of hiking boots if you plan on doing much hiking.  If the trail says "moderately steep" they actually mean very steep.  We hiked the Cinnamon Bay trail, Cinnamon bay loop and the America Hill Spur trail.  Trail map can be found here.

Day 2:

Snorkeling - Cinnamon bay has some pretty good snorkeling just off shore from the equipment rental building.  The beach is long and we had a little trouble finding the actual reef.  The water clarity was good and there was a nice variety of reef fish and coral.  Our second day we hiked over to Trunk Bay.  There is a 4$ entrance fee for the beach, but if you want to do some serious snorkeling this is the place to be.  Just off shore to the left of the small island is an "Underwater Trail"  This trail is part of the national Park and is a series of underwater signs describing the coral and fish.  The water clarity here is much better than Cinnamon bay and the variety of marine life was also superior.  We even saw a sea turtle.  This beach did really fill up later in the day (around 1pm) but before that it was not very crowded. 

Day 3:

Cruz Bay, Ferry back to St Thomas - Cruz bay on St. John offers a good selection of shops and restaurants.  It is much more atmospheric than Charlotte Amalie.  On our way back to our ferry we came across a stand selling fresh coconuts with rum.  The name of the stand was "".  Not surprisingly they also have a website.  Thomas the "drink specialist" will cut open a coconut with a machete and will let you fill it up with rum, free refills allowed and encouraged. 

On St. Thomas we walked around Charlotte Amalie for a little while before and after our ferry.  The town seemed to be geared more towards cruse boat visitors.  There were tons of duty free shops selling jewelry, watches and alcohol.  Most of the shops were very touristy.  If you do chose to spend a lot of time in town a cheap way to get around is via "safari" taxi.  These are open aired taxis which are 1$ per per ride.  We did stumble across a very good restaurant in Charlotte Amalie called Glady's Cafe.  They served several west Indian dishes.  We ate here two times and were very happy on both occasions. 

View from the top of the America Hill Trail

Ruins at the top of America Hill

Trunk Bay.  Excellent Snorkeling just to the left of the island in the picture

Fresh coconut with rum

Curry chicken in Glady's Cafe on St. Thomas

One of the locals

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Rewards Network Dining - Easy way to earn some bonus points

One of my primary sources of credit card spending is on restaurants, so I'm always looking for ways to maximize the amount of points I can earn eating out.  I try to use my chase Sapphire card for restaurants as I get 2 points per dollar.  In addition to the rewards earned through chase, you can register your card through any one of the several rewards network dining programs to earn additional points.  For example, by registering through American airlines dining, I can earn 3 AAdvantage Miles and 2 Chase Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at participating restaurants.  There are also periodic bonuses offered through the program.

To enrol in the program, you go to, select the program that you wish to join and sign up.  Depending on which program you sign up for there may be a sign up bonus.  American Airlines offers 1,000 points after spending 40$ at a restaurant within 30 days.  A list of participating restaurants is also available online.  This is also a good way to maintain account activity to prevent points from expiring.

You can points/miles with Alaskan airlines, American Airlines AAdvantage, Delta Skymiles, , Hilton HHonors, Priority Club, Southwest, United Mileage Plus, and US Air Dividend Miles.

Gastronomic Adventures in Paris and Brussels Part 1

Armed with not much more than the tripadvisor iPhone app and sadly limited by our budget, my wonderful girlfriend and I explored the edible side of these two great culinary cities.  Both Paris and Brussels offer far to many food options to take in in one trip.  Part 1 of this post is Brussels, part 2 will be on Paris.

Part 1 Brussels:

While Paris is famous world wide for its food options, Brussels is no stranger in culinary circles.  I have personally noticed a rise in the number of Belgian inspired gastropubs and restaurants which have been popping up in the U.S.  I think part of this trend is driven by an increasing popularity of Belgian beer.  Belgian food, much like Belgium its self is the result of a blending of cultures and tradition.  Located at a crossroads between the hearty meat and potatoes food of northern Europe and the refined cooking style of the French, Belgium gets the best of both worlds.  In addition, as the capital of the EU, Brussels has a very international feel and this is imparted on its food.  We were only in Brussels for 2 days,far too short of a stay in my opinion.

Fin de Siecle (Maybe?)

Rue des Chartreux 9, Brussels 1000, Belgium
We had attempted to find a restaurant called Fin de Siecle, a trendy well reviewed restaurant which we were told has no sign out front and a menu written on a chalk board inside.  We punched in the address and ended up at this place.  It was crowded and the food looked great so we figured this must be the place.  They don't take reservations and you must stay in the restaurant to hold your place in line.  While we were waiting i walked out side and saw another similar looking restaurant across the street which I believe was our original target.  I later found out that the one we ate at was a sister restaurant of Fin de Siecle.  I really have no idea what the name of this place was but it was good.  Meals were around 15-20 euro, cash only no reservations. Tripadvisor review

Veal Cutlets

Ham shank with mustard sauce

The menu

Cantillion Brewery

Rue Gheude 56 Brussels Belgium
If you like beer this place is well worth a visit.  This is the last remaining traditional lambic brewery in Brussels.  For those not familiar with the style, Lambic beer is brewed using wild yeast.  The unfermented beer is left exposed to the air and wild yeast take hold and work their magic.  This is the way beer was initially fermented thousands of years ago before people realized that it was yeast which caused fermentation to take place.  Fermentation by wild yeast is a much slower process and most of the beers offered here have to mature for 3 years before they are ready to be consumed.  The resulting beer is sour and acidic, unlike any other beer style. 

The tour is self guided but very well organized.  They provide you with a brochure with numbers and you follow along with the numbered as you walk through the brewery.  The visit ends with 3 tastings.  Additional tastings and bottles are available for sale.  I was very happy to see that they had Zwanze available.  This is a limited release lambic that this year featured rhubarb.  I first heard about this beer because of an event called Zwanze Day, where a few select bars around the world were each provided a keg and they were all tapped at the same time.  I was at ChurchKey in D.C. during this event but sadly it sold out before i could try it.  This was well worth the effort to find.  I do have 2 warnings however; 1. it is a bit off the beaten path and 2. lambic beer might not be to everyones taste.


Bottles aging

Aging barrels

Noordzee Mer du Nord

45, Rue Sainte Catherine, Brussels 1000, Belgium

If you like seafood this place is not to be missed.  It is an open air fish market where you basically pick out what you want while it is still fresh on ice and they take it inside and cook it.  Each dish is made to order.  Be warned that this place can get very busy.  There are only a few tables set up outside and you have to stand while you are eating.  When we went it was close to freezing outside and there was still a crowd standing around eating.  We ordered razor clams, sea snails in broth, shrimp scampi, shrimp croquettes, and two beers.  Price was around 5 euros per dish and the 2 of us were filled with a 20 euro bill.  There is a reason this place is #2 on tripadvisor.  Review Here

Razor clams


Rue du Chene 5, Brussels, Belgium
We ate here for our first dinner of the trip.  The restaurant itself is very tiny, maybe 10 to 15 tables total.  When we arrived there were about 1/3 of them open however we were informed that they were all reserved and that we would have to sit at the bar if we wanted to stay.  The bar was kind of cramped and there was hardly enough room for 2 people to sit there but we decided to give it a try.  About 15 minutes later the restaurant was at capacity.  The food was very good and hearty.  I ordered a beef stew and my girlfriend ordered veal meat balls served with stoemp (mashed potatoes with vegetables).  Entrees were around 10-15 euro.  Trip advisor review
Stoemp and Veal balls.

Street Food

No trip to Belgium is complete without waffles and frites.  There are several stands all around the city.  Our waffle and frites were so-so, I had better the last time i was in Belgium. 

Frites with mayo

Photo of the Week: Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

This weeks photo is of the Cliffs of Moher in County Claire on the west coast of Ireland.  The cliffs can be easily reached from any home base in County Claire or Galway.  It is a very impressive sight, and the Cliffs are huge.  For scale, you can just make out some people standing around the castle in this picture. 

London Side Trips

As will be obvious in my upcoming post on Dublin, I'm not much of a city person.  I think that in this age of globalization all big cities around the world feel the same.  To really experience a country I like to get out beyond the reaches of the concrete and explore.  Here are some options for side trips from London.  Each of the locations here can easily be visited as a day trip from London.


I'm a little impartial here as this was my home for a summer, but i think Cambridge should be on everyones list of side trips from London.  I think the city has much more atmosphere than did oxford (although i was only in oxford for a day).  From London you can take a bus or train to reach Cambridge.  National Express offers buses and National Rail for trains

To understand Cambridge you must understand how the university system works.  Within the University of Cambridge, there are several colleges.  These colleges are essentially self running and students live, eat and socialize with others from the same college.  There are also some serious rivalries between the various colleges.  Depending on the time of year it may or may not be possible to tour the colleges.  During exam time they are closed off to visitors.  During the rest of the year you probably will be able to get in.  As an unofficial word of advice, if you act like you belong there when walking through the gate you should have no trouble getting in. 

If the weather is nice I recommend renting a "punt", a flat bottomed boat steered with a pole.  and doing some punting along the river Cam.  Later in the evening you can have a pint at The Eagle pub where Watson and Crick first announced they had discovered the structure of DNA.  Across the street from the eagle is St Benet's church, which dates from the anglo-saxon period (1000AD).  Another pub of historical significance is the Anchor Pub, located along the river.  This is where Syd Barrett, founding member of Pink Floyd, played before he hit it big.


While I did enjoy Cambridge better, oxford is the "original" university town in the UK and the oldest university in the English speaking world.  Just like Cambridge, oxford is set along a river.  It is also made up of a collection of semi-autonomous colleges making up the university.  I found oxford to be much less scenic than Cambridge but then again I was only there for a short time whereas I spent an entire summer in Cambridge.  For Harry Potter fans, some scenes from the movie were filmed here.  It can easily be reached from London by train or bus. has cheap fares from london.

Stone Henge:

This one is pretty self explanatory. Everyone has heard of stone henge. Being in the middle of a field, it is somewhat difficult to get here via public transportation. I ended up taking a day trip via an organized tour which also included a trip to the town of Bath which is relatively close to stone henge.


Named after roman hot spring baths, bath has been an important resort town throughout most of British history. Aside from the ancient roman baths and other roman ruins, bath is also home to a very nice cathedral and one of the finest collections of Georgian architecture in Britain. See if you can find an organized tour that includes a trip here with a visit to Stonehenge.  Mega Bus also travels here from London.


The capital of County Kent, in south east England, Canterbury is both historic and picturesque.  This is a bit further out, so if your schedule is tight it might be pushing it to make it here.  Canterbury is home to a magnificent cathedral which is also the home of the archbishop of Canterbury, the head figure of the English Church.  Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury tales were also set here.  (Pictures coming soon, once i find them on my other computer)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Hotel review: Radisson Martinique...My free weekend in NYC

Background:  Back in November Club Carlson was running a promotion where you could stay one night and get 1 night free.  I found a nice rate at the Radisson Lord Baltimore for $79 so i decided to take a weekend trip to Baltimore to take advantage of this offer.  Me and my travel partner each booked 1 night in Baltimore giving us 2 free nights to use later (this offer was limited to 1 night per account).  As soon as the free nights posted to our accounts, I decided to redeem my nights for a weekend in New York City at the Radisson Martinique on Broadway.  I was able to find pretty good award availability in May because i was booking for 5 months in advance, but when i looked later most of the weekends had no availability.

Upon check in I was informed that I was upgraded to a junior suite.  This was quite the surprise as I only have silver status with club Carlson and the hotel seemed pretty full.  The room was located on the 17th floor which is the executive floor.  The room had a desk, fold out couch, sitting area, TV and mini bar in the first room.  The bedroom was separated by the other room by folding double doors.  The bed was a queen size sleep number mattress.  There was another TV in the bedroom.  The bathroom was attached to the other side of the bedroom.  The room was very large especially by NYC standards and could have easily accommodated extra people on the fold out sofa.  The decor was a little outdated (especially the sofa fabric and bathroom) but then again I cant really complain considering the price (free). 

The second night we had to move rooms as the junior suite was not available.  Again to my surprise we were upgraded to an executive room on the 18th floor.  This room was a bit smaller and was a single room.  There was still a sofa bed, sitting area and desk, but they were all in the same room as the bed, and not separated.  The bed in this room was a king.  The bathroom was a touch smaller.

The location of the hotel was very good; at the corner of Broadway and 32nd st.  There is easy access to the subway and there are plenty of restaurants near by.  32nd street has a ton of Korean restaurants and we ended up eating at one called Kun Jip.

The only issues I had with the hotel were the slow, small and crowded elevators; i guess that's the price you pay for being on the top floor.  Additionally, as mentioned before, i thought the decor was a little worn.   All in all this was a great stay, although I certainly would not have paid the $430/night price tag for the executive room or the $470/night for the suite. 

Junior Suite

Junior Suite

Junior Suite Bathroom

View from 17th Floor down Broadway

A long way down

Executive room, 2nd night

Executive room

Executive Room