Staying on Points at The Westin Bund, Shanghai

Posted by Krista on March 30, 2014


Two weeks ago, I was hanging out at The Westin Bund, Shanghai. You know, like in China. Thanks to my Starwood American Express, I had enough points for three free nights. Not bad, particularly in an expensive city like Shanghai.

I’m a little torn about my stay here. On the one hand, I loved the staff and the facilities. The staff were cheerful, knowledgeable and helpful at all times, day and night. The facilities offered everything the modern business traveler could want: there were multiple restaurants, a dark and smoky bar, a nice food/wine shop, and a great gym and pool. Also, the hotel VPN got me around the Great Firewall of China, and I was able to access Facebook from my hotel room.  And room service was relatively inexpensive. My breakfasts were about $10 USD, where the equivalent in the U.S. would be more like $34 USD. I should also note that the hotel’s location was great. Just a few blocks to The Bund (the riverfront) and a few blocks to East Nanjing Road, where all the shopping is.

But the room…the room left me wanting. The closet area was super dark and the shower boasted a light dusting of mold. Also, it cost $6.50 to launder each pair of my underwear. Many people would really be happy here, but it all felt a little…worn. Nice, but worn. Definitely in need of an upgrade.

Would I stay here again? If I had the points to do it, sure. But otherwise…maybe not. I’d look for something a little newer and nicer. So should you!

Sojourn in Palm Springs

Posted by Krista on March 26, 2014

My friend Julie just celebrated the 19th anniversary of her birthday. What better way to celebrate than rent us all a house in Palm Springs, California where it is HOT and DRY and NOT SNOWING?  We booked Villa Moda (pictured) through LuxuryRetreats.com and couldn’t have been happier with the price, process and the service. The first morning, we had a little trouble with the hot water and our concierge was out at the house in 20 minutes. I would definitely use them again. They have properties all over the world.

While we were in Palm Springs, we got up to some mischief and mayhem. Here are some of the places we visited that you should consider too:

The Spring Resort & Spa, 12699 Reposo Way, Desert Hot Springs, CA 92240: We loved the natural hot springs at this compact but peaceful little spa. I met an older couple in the 104 degree pool who had visited earlier in the week and liked it so much that they were back for another visit. The nine of us enjoyed massages, scrubs and other treatments with dips in the pools in between. Highly recommended.

In & Out, many locations: Double-double Animal Style. My first time. (Hey, I’m from the East Coast and live in the Midwest! I don’t get out west much.) Delicious. Highly recommended.

Copley’s, 621 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262. Dude, Cary Grant used to LIVE HERE. So that’s awesome. We sat around the fire and enjoyed our very inexpensive California sparkling wine. Definitely worth a visit. Although I did definitely feel young…

Trio Restaurant, 707 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262. Very welcoming to our large party. The food was good and the sparkling wine was VERY affordable. (God, I love California.) Popular with bachelorette parties, just so you know. Would I go back here? Maybe. But they did very well by us.

Birba, 622 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262. We had some competent cocktails here while I forced everyone to play a gazillion rounds of Heads Up on my iPhone. We had fun here. I’d go back.

Norma’s at The Parker, 4200 E Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92264. What Norma’s lacks in taste, it makes up for in style. This place has a good vibe, but the food is just okay, in my opinion. I’d still go back just so I can feel cool. Robert Downey Jr. was arrested here, fyi.

Dessert Hills Premium Outlets, 48400 Seminole Dr, Cabazon, CA 92230: Prada! Gucci! Everything. Totally under construction so not very peaceful, but I think it will be awesome when it’s done. We enjoyed the ride through the dessert to the outlets and all the big windwills along the way.

I really enjoyed my time in Palm Springs. I would totally go back. You should too. And use LuxuryRetreats.com! (Seriously not getting paid or otherwise in saying that, just to be clear.)

 

Hotel Review: Intercontinental Asiana Saigon

Posted by Krista on March 24, 2014

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Let me cut right to the chase. I loved this hotel. I loved my room I loved the staff. I loved the Club Lounge. I loved the location. My only complaint was that sometimes, the wifi was iffy. But really, this was a great hotel. With my Club Room package, I was gifted eight pieces of laundry for my stay. That alone made the Club Room worth it because if you’ve done laundry in a hotel lately, you know that eight pieces of laundry is basically like five hundred fifty million dollars. I am trying to think of anything else I didn’t like and I honestly can’t come up with anything. The safe was at EYE LEVEL. (I’m going to start a new movement…the “hotel safe at eye level” movement.) There was nightly turn-down service. Bottled water was plentiful, and the food in the lounge was absolutely fantastic. (And Vietnamese! Unlike my stay at the Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi, where they kept trying to give me eggs for breakfast and baguettes (not bahn mi) for lunch.) Is The Intercontinental Saigon super trendy? No. Is it super luxurious? No. But it’s pretty generally great. So if you’re looking for a business class hotel in Saigon, this is it! And book a club room!

Funny part…I asked one of my tour guides to take me for a fresh beer at a place where locals drink. “People who stay at the Intercontinental never ask to go for fresh beer,” he said. (Vietnam makes this beer every day without preservatives. It’s pretty cool.)

Moment of Zen, Shanghai

Posted by Krista on March 23, 2014


I spent my last night in Shanghai in my hotel room at the Mandarin Oriental Pudong. Shanghai’s smog had really gotten to me — my lungs were burning — and a 90 minute massage followed by a 90 minute facial had knocked me out. But that was okay. I sat there at the window and watched the boats go by and thought about the quote I’ve seen on a building in Chicago…a building somewhere around Lake & Wells. There’s a gold plaque at street level and it says “With gold, commerce was carried across the sea.”

 

What I Learned in Shanghai

Posted by Krista on March 19, 2014

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I love visiting places (domestic or international) and observing similarities and differences. Here’s what I noticed and heard on the street while I was in Shanghai:
1. A good way to make money is to wait for the government to ask to buy your apartment. They are knocking down huge swaths of the city. If you’re lucky, they’ll knock down your building and offer you three apartments to replace your one.
2. Girls are wearing shorts (usually black) with black tights. With my love of black tights, I would fit in here!!
3. Boys and girls are wearing thick soled sneakers. I kinda like this look. While I got many compliments on my purple New Balance, they don’t have the sole (pun not intended) that thick-soled trainers do.
4. The pollution is awful. But it’s all relative. The levels I experienced during my visit were considered moderate…but they were the same as Paris these last few days!! (Hope you’ve been reading the news about the smog in Paris.)
5. Soup dumplings for everyone!! All day long! All night long!
6. It’s common to leave your hometown and open a restaurant in Shanghai, but leave your small children back at home with your parents.
7. Shanghainese are not poor. I saw more Celine bags (real ones) in Shanghai than I’ve ever seen in my entire life. If you know the bag I’m talking about…the one I lust over…it’s not cheap.
8. Shanghai is YOUNG. I rode the metro each day and the average age had to be 25.
9. Apps have made it nearly impossible to hail cabs on the street, especially during rush hour. Apparently the drivers receive a premium for picking up bookings via app so none of this cancelling your ride at the last minute or anything. (Like what typically happens to me in Chicago.)
10. There are multiple Apple stores — I saw at least three — and they are HUGE.
11. Crazy manicures are popular.
12. Tons of foreigners around, especially in Xintiandi.
13. Uber is in Shanghai! The black car service that is.
14. The metro is awesome. Modern, clean, well-labeled, cheap. I loved it. The People’s Square station is intense! Huge!
15. Taxi drivers all learned a little English because of the Shanghai Expo. They can do numbers, which is awesome.
16. Starbucks is everywhere.
17. Street food still exists and it’s awesome. (Sorry, the American in me can’t stop saying awesome.)
18. Napkins are hard to come by.
19. Smaller restaurants don’t seem to sell beverages or offer tea??! Still trying to get my head around this one.
20. Did I mention the pollution?

Goodbye, Shanghai! Plus, What I Learned on My Vacation

Posted by Krista on March 18, 2014

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I’ve spent the last five days in Shanghai and loved it, although I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface. In a later post, I’ll tell you what I did and what I saw, but in the interim, let me take a moment to self-reflect on both holidays in general and being an American tourist in Asia.
1. Even if you tell yourself you’ll go to the gym everyday during your holiday, you won’t.
2. Even if you think you’ll walk a lot every day of your holiday — more than you do at home — you won’t.
3. The more massages you get, the less relaxed you will become. (“This massage isn’t as relaxing as I thought it would be!”) There’s some sort of inverse relationship between number of massages and one’s ability to relax.
4. Anywhere in Asia, when you tell them you are American, they will say “And you’re a tourist?? You’re not here on business? We don’t get many American tourists!”
5. Every child in Vietnam and China can say “I am fine, thank you.”
6. iPhones are everywhere.
7. KFC is everywhere.
8. 4G is not everywhere.
9. They serve food on planes in Asia! Even when the flight is shorter than two hours!!
10. If you think global warming does not exist, tell me where the smog goes. And if you think pollution is not going to affect our bodies, spend a day walking around Shanghai and tell me what your lungs feel like at the end of the day.
11. Being on holiday makes me funny, like hah hah funny.
12. I’m so glad I went to business school 12 years ago and made friends with so many international people. It’s been great to meet up with old friends in Singapore and Shanghai and get the local scoop and talk about the good old days.
13. I miss international travel. London spoiled me for that. Sigh.
14. Foot massages are awesome. Inverse relationship between massage and ability to relax does not apply here.
15. The internet is everywhere! Even when you are behind the Great Firewall of China.

Hotel Review of the Sofitel Legend Metropole, Hanoi

Posted by Krista on March 15, 2014

I just finished a three-night stay at the Sofitel Legend Metropole. The video will give you an overview of what my room looked like. (But note I am uploading this from behind the Great Firewall of China so I am not sure if the video will come through. It should, but I can’t see it myself from Shanghai.) Here are my pros and cons of this luxury Hanoi hotel otherwise:

Pros

  • Lovely and plentiful staff for the most part. When I checked in, there were about 10 people waiting on me. It was kinda crazy. Also, I had my own BUTLER. So that was totally awesome.
  • Great food. The afternoon tea in the lounge! The chocolates! The petit fours! And I don’t even like chocolate!! Amazing, really. Tears, actually. There was this one chocolate thing with cream inside and it was….it was…it was dreamy.
  • Spa on site. I had a very nice 90 minute massage for about 90 bucks USD. I’m okay with a dollar a minute, although of course, I would prefer it to be cheaper.
  • For a hotel of this caliber, the laundry service was CHEAP. $2.50 USD for underwear. That’s a good value, even though it still kills me to say so. Along with my Pringles Index (TM), I am also announcing the creation of the Drawers Index (TM). (This is where you report the price of your minibar Pringles and your hotel laundry underwear cleaning from various locations around the globe.)

Cons

  • My personal butler organized a wake-up call for me for Friday at 6:30 am. Only problem? It came on THURSDAY at 6:30 am. “So sorry, so sorry.” Not a problem really because I was pretty much awake then anyhow — Asian jetlag is a killer —  although then I got all worried that the hotel thought I was leaving on Thursday and not Friday so then I had to sort that out. Multiple phone calls, etc etc.
  • When I was reviewing my departure with one of the lounge concierges, I was checking on how long it would take to the get to the airport and what time I should leave. She kept saying “You should leave 2.5 hours before your flight” and I kept saying “So I should leave at 7:50 am?” To which she would reply “No, 8:30″ and I was getting really confused. (My flight was at 10:20 am.) I must have said 7:50 am one too many times because she got more than a bit of an attitude with me to the point where I had to say, “Don’t get mad at me. I’m just trying to understand what you mean and it’s not adding up.” I finally got out a piece of paper and wrote it down to clarify, at which point she realized her mistake and was very “So sorry, so sorry.” But at a hotel of this caliber, she should not have an attitude. Also, once she agreed that I should leave at 7:50, she said “7:30, it’s safer.” BIZARRE.
  • The lounge, for me, had too much European food and not enough Vietnamese food. I missed the mix at the Intercontinental in Saigon. (Review forthcoming.)
  • Location: Although it’s a nice area to walk around, I think I would have preferred to be in the old quarter. I took a lot of taxis in Hanoi.
  • Cons: Hermes bath products. I hate this stuff. Makes me smell too much like a dude. It’s all musky and shit.

So…would I stay at the Sofitel Metropole again? Honestly, probably not. I would want to try other places first. But if I found that those other places weren’t to my liking, I might come back here. The Club Lounge and the Spa were pretty great.

 

Instagram Fun in Hanoi

Posted by Krista on March 14, 2014

Here are my Instagram snaps of Hanoi…it’s a lovely city with small, easy to navigate touristy bits. There’s also a photograph on every corner. Wait til I upload some of my other snaps. So what I’m saying is…you should go to Hanoi! And bring your camera.

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Traveling: Day of “Logistics & Operations”

Posted by Krista on March 14, 2014

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When I travel, I believe in logistics and operations days. These are days where I really don’t do much but travel and check e-mail. Some people might say — like they said to me so often  in Vietnam — “Oh, you so lazy.” But seriously, I am not lazy. I AM BEAT. Traveling is hard. You need downtime. You need to get organized. You need to do laundry. I try to explain this to some people and they just roll their eyes and tell me that surely, I can do better than whatever it is that I am doing. But these people maybe haven’t lived out of a carry-on for two weeks and they probably weren’t up at 5:45 am this morning, either!

When I’m busy, I’m very very busy. When I’m not, I’m NOT.

So let me tell you about my today so far and then you tell me…

5:45 am: Alarm clock rings at Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi. Hop in shower.

6 am: Get dressed, dry hair, etc etc.

6:20 am: Order room service service breakfast, which was included in my room rate. Technically, I should have done this when I hopped into the shower, but my brain wasn’t really functioning at 5:45 am. Sue me.

6:40 am: Room service arrives. Stir-fried noodles with seafood. Have I mentioned how much I LOVE VIETNAM. Seriously…this place is awesome.

6:50 am: Finish breakfast and leave room to check out of hotel, get money from bank machine next to hotel, and pick up a bottle of water from the Club Lounge. (I like to splurge on club floors. A vice of mine. But it saves on breakfast and snacks and etc. so for me, it’s worth it. Especially when traveling alone.) By the time I get back to my room, it’s 7:15 am.

7:20 am: Grab taxi to airport. I have a feeling I will get ripped off. Note to everyone: don’t ever rely on people who never travel to tell you how long it will take to get to the airport. It takes exactly an hour, but they made it seem like it would take 30 minutes. This stresses me out. Also, taxi driver communicates via giggles. Keep reading.

8:20 am: Arrive at airport. Get ripped off by taxi driver, who claims he can’t make change and has seemingly no understanding of my suggestion he get change, and my attempt to get him change. (I swear, all the drivers are in on this “we have no change” thing together.) I make him promise me that he will use the extra money to educate his daughter. More giggles. I get into HUGE CHECK-IN QUEUE. The hugest of hugest check-in queues. Check in around 9:15 am. By the time I’ve gone through immigration and security, it’s 9:35 am.

10:20 am: Flight boards. I’ve been doing laps around the airport for ages. On the plane, I watch an old No Reservations episode about Shanghai and then I start “The Heat” with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. It’s funny…sometimes.

2:15 pm: Plane lands in Shanghai.

2:15 pm to 2:55 pm: Wander around Shanghai airport, trying to change Vietnamese Dong into Chinese Yuan. NO LUCK. No one wants my Vietnamese money!!! Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I am worried this is going to be like all the Tunisian Dinars I’ve had at the bottom of my drawer since like 2008. If you’re ever going to Tunisia, let me know. And do go, their white wine is lovely.

2:55 pm: Get into taxi at Pudong Airport and head into downtown. I feel confident that I will not be ripped off.  Taxi driver speaks English! BONUS.

4 pm: Arrive at hotel. Taxi driver does not rip me off. Check in and go upstairs. Room key doesn’t work. Go back downstairs. Rather than getting new room keys, they give me a new room. (???) Go to new room. Unpack the important stuff, put the other important stuff in the safe, and get laundry bag ready. (Seriously, $6.50 USD to wash my drawers. I should have done more laundry in Vietnam, where they were only $2.50 a pair.) Set up all my devices for charging.

4:45 pm: Check out hotel public areas. There’s a nice food and wine shop, which is a surprise. I also pick up the spa menu and talk to the concierge. He walks me through the map and I pick up tons of brochures. He also tells me where to get a FOOT MASSAGE. I want to live in China just so I can get foot massages forever.

5:15 pm: Install myself at hotel bar with laptop for official “logistics and operations” time. I confirm my tour for tomorrow morning, (Thank you again, Viator!) I book another tour for Tuesday, and I write down all the details of where I need to be when for tomorrow and Sunday. I also make dinner plans with a friend from business school who lives here and then I try to gchat with a London friend but the connection in the bar is wonky, which is drastically cutting into logisitcs and operations time.

6:15 pm: Give up on wifi in bar. Attempt to take a walk around the block to get some air. Walk outside in my summer dress, bare legs and sandals. HOLY SHIT IT’S COLD. Go back to my room. There’s a message waiting for me from my tour guide about tomorrow. Also, I need a corkscrew to drink the 2008 Chinese Chardonnay I’ve picked up from the gift shop on my way back to the room.

6:25 pm: I’ve ended up purchasing an in-room broadband connection because the wifi is so wonky. I finally get back online, Also, corkscrew arrives. The Chinese Chardonnay is OPEN.

So see…it’s 6:30 pm until I’m really settled in a place and I’ve been up for 12+ hours already. I know there’s a lot to see and do in Shanghai, but I’m beat. Room service and Internet it is. Sorry darlings.

7:15 pm: Publish blog post. ;)

 

Hanoi from the Back of an Electric Car

Posted by Krista on March 12, 2014

I have so much to share about Saigon but I am low on time and I want to keep up with my commitment to myself. See, when I began this journey, I promised myself that I would try to get back into the rhythm of blogging and blog every day about what I had done and what I had seen. I’m already falling behind. I need some more “logistics and operations” days to get me sorted. (“Logistics and operations” days are the days where I travel and don’t press myself to do anything more than fly on a plane, get money from an ATM, check myself into a hotel, get connected to the Internet, confirm my travel plans, book a spa appointment, and hang out at the hotel bar. See, when I write that all out…that’s a lot, isn’t it?

With thanks today to Viator, I booked a private tour of Hanoi this morning It included stops at all the major tourist attractions (Ho Chi Minh entombed!), a ride in an electric golf cart through the old town, and a pho noodle lunch. A decent value at $90, including hotel pick-up and drop off. So thank you Viator, for making travel easy. I appreciate it.

Here’s some of what I saw from the back of that electric golf cart in Hanoi. Enjoy.

Cruising the Mekong Delta

Posted by Krista on March 10, 2014

I took a speedboat ride down the Mekong Delta in Vietnam the other day. It was crazy to watch the city give way to lush green forests and to see tugboats and barges give way to old ladies on skips full of pineapples. I traveled down the Mekong with the tour company Les Rives, a company I had heard great things about. And while it was a nice day out, I think we got the short end of the stick with our guide who told us practically nothing about Vietnam or the Mekong during the trip and actually FELL ASLEEP for most of the ride back. Thanks for that. (Take away quote from the tour “They are not poor,” which the guide would say whenever she pointed at a house or a boat.)

There was a another boat from Les Rives that left at the same time we did. We would bump into them at different stops and I would sneak over to listen to the other guide talk about this beautiful part of Vietnam. (He had had a roommate from Louisiana at one point so his accent was hysterical…in a good way.) There are other ways to get to the Mekong, including by bus, but who wants to be stuck on a bus for hours? So I’d recommend the boat. Just make sure you get an informative guide.

Instagram fun in Singapore

Posted by Krista on March 10, 2014

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Some of my snaps from Singapore. Find me on Instagram at @kristainchicago.