Last month, I had the opportunity to head down to Costa Rica to check out the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort, near Libera, Costa Rica. With many of my clients interested in the Central American country, I thought I’d try to familiarize myself with it more, as it had been sixteen years since I last was there.
It’s 2 in the morning back home in Phoenix, and jet lag has taken its toll. The great news, though, is we returned home safe from another amazing trip, all taken on points. This multi-post trip report will review in detail a number of airlines’ products flying to, from, and within the Middle East, as well as a number of hotels in Dubai and Washington, DC.
We had a pretty amazing trip, and looking back, it doesn’t seem real. All in all, we burned 424,000 miles and points across programs to receive roundtrip first and business class flights, 8 nights in five star hotels, and countless meals. And, because of the airlines we chose, taxes were less than $200 per person for all the flying! As your travel advisor, I’m happy to impart on the best strategies for your points and miles during your travels. Let’s get started!
Part 1: Phoenix Sky Harbor Lounge Crawl
As many of you know, I have a fair number of credit cards that offer me a number of benefits. One recent addition is the Citi Prestige card, which so far has already paid off its steep $495 annual fee in under a month. One of my favorite benefits is using the card to gain access to American Airlines Admirals Club lounges when flying American (plus free entry for up to two guests), as well as Priority Pass Select membership, which grants free entry for up to two guests as well (the only credit card to have the guest benefit).
Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX) has three major terminals, Terminal 2, Terminal 3, and Terminal 4. Terminal 2 is where Boutique Air, Spirit, and United fly out of currently, and does feature a United Club. Terminal 3 is mostly closed, but does have Delta flying out of it now- this will change when the modernization project is completed sometime in the next year. Terminal 4 is a sprawling terminal, home to Southwest and American Airlines, as well as a number of international departures.
Armed with a Priority Pass membership and a Citi Prestige card, you can really do some damage in Terminal 4 in terms of lounges on a long layover- 4 total lounges. Since we were anxious to start our trip, my trusty travel companion/girlfriend and I decided to head to the airport a bit early and do a “lounge crawl.”
First up was The Club at PHX. There’s a number of ways to access the club, including Priority Pass membership, Lounge Club membership, paying $35, or flying British Airways Club World on their once-a-day flight to London Heathrow. It’s worth noting that the lounge is closed to only British Airways passengers in the afternoon, and have upgraded food options for those passengers.
If you’re a drinker, the Club at PHX is your lounge in T4. Every liquor is included, unlike the Admirals Clubs a short walk away. We started off with a beer and a glass of Cava, which incidentally would be the cheapest bubbly we’d have this trip.
If you’re trying to drink local, try some of the Four Peaks beers they have in bottles, including Kiltlifter, a favorite of mine. Liquor is also plentiful:
The lounge is definitely dated, especially compared to other lounges in T4, but gets the job done. Food could be better- they have a few flavors of popcorn, potato chips, some granola bars, and few fruit selections.
After a few drinks, we decided to head out and try some of American’s lounges. PHX is unique in that they have two very recently renovated lounges, and one older lounge.
First, the newly-remodeled A7-A9 Admirals Club, which opened up last month. This is my new favorite lounge in Phoenix, mostly because it solves a large pet peeve of mine- self-serve sodas. I love tipping the bartender as much as the next guy, but to me I’d rather interact with him/her for just alcoholic beverages. As you can see, this lounge has a Coca Cola Freestyle machine, which greatly expands the number of options you have for non-alcoholic drinks as well. For businessmen, there’s a conference room.
The color-scheme seems to fit the new branding of American Airlines, too. As of now, this is the only lounge of its type in the USA (there’s another in Sao Paulo, Brazil). After a few more drinks, we decided to journey to our final destination.
The B5-B7 American lounge is definitely more “blue” than the last, mostly due to the fact that it was refurbished right at the end of its ownership by US Airways. The merger happened shortly during/after its refurbishment, and it opened in early 2014. It’s definitely on the small side, but features similar food, beverages (minus the Freestyle machine), and a “modern” design. Seemed to miss taking photos this time around, but we didn’t stay long. Soon, it was time for boarding our flight to DCA.
Part II: First Class PHX-DCA on an American A320
Miles Used: Part of 67,500 mile one-way award to Doha (per person)
Cash Cost: ~$500 for this leg
Miles Earned Through: American Airlines Credit Card bonus and American Airlines flying
We arrived at gate B28 right as we were suppose to begin boarding, but unfortunately the flight was delayed. The plane had returned from an international destination, and customs had yet to clear the plane. About 15 minutes after our scheduled boarding time, we officially began our trip. First class boards first, and we took advantage.
We were seated in 1A and 1C on this retrofitted US Airways aircraft. You can tell just by the color-scheme on board, and the hastily-pasted American logos over the old US Airways ones on the bulkhead wall in front of you.
Pre-departure beverages were served, and we waited patiently for departure. The seats themselves are some of my favorites- old, but nice and wide for a restful nap.
Once airborne, service began.
I do like the plating of American first class meals- elegant enough to feel as if they care. I opted for the Chicken with Mushroom Risotto, which was excellent. It came with a side of hummus and a salad, as well as warm pretzel bread.
Laura tried out the Green Chile Tamale, which was also very good. Dishes were followed up with Strawberry Ice Cream.
After that, we settled into Kung Fu Panda 3 and waited for the flight to be over. Soon enough, we had landed in Washington, DC’s Reagan International Airport, a bit late as you can see from the map.
DCA is surprisingly close to the center of the city- you fly right by the Washington Monument on final approach. A quick car ride into the city and we were ready to check out the Intercontinental The Willard, Washington DC.
Part III: Intercontinental The Willard, Washington, D.C.
Points Used: 50,000 IHG Points
Earned through: Credit card bonus
Per-Night Rate: ~$400
The Willard is one of the closest hotels to the White House, and is actually where the term “lobbyist” came from. President Grant would smoke his cigars in the lobby because his wife didn’t like him smoking in the White House, and many special interest groups would come to bother him for favors there, knowing where he was- in the “lobby” of the Willard. Every president since Abraham Lincoln has stayed at the Willard, and they have a cool museum off the Peacock Alley corridor showing off some artifacts, including Lincoln’s room bill before his second inauguration (it’s expensive, even in today’s dollars!).
We checked in around 11:30 PM after our flight from Phoenix, so there was obviously no wait at check-in. Two front desk clerks were working the night shift that night, and couldn’t have been nicer, explaining the history of the hotel. We received our room keys for a Deluxe King room and headed upstairs.
While I am Spire Elite with IHG (received through earning 75,000 points through their large credit card offer), I wasn’t expecting much in terms of benefits. For one, the status doesn’t really get you much to begin with- it’s probably the worst top-tier status out there. However, IHG has a very, very stupid rule not to honor benefits on award stays. Personally, I think it’s a very good way to dissuade someone from giving a hotel brand loyalty. Even if I’m staying for free, presumably I’ve worked hard to earn those points, and want to be treated just the same as I have when I’m paying for a stay.
In addition, Intercontinental has a separate loyalty program called the Ambassador’s program, which grants you exclusive benefits when you stay at Intercontinental hotels. This program has very, very good top-tier benefits, but again, they usually don’t offer status benefits on award stays.
For this stay, we received the room we booked, plus free internet and a daily newspaper.
The room was surprisingly spacious for a historic, downtown Washington, DC hotel. Maybe I was expecting a New York City-sized room. There were lots of touches in the room that made it feel as if you were staying in a historic hotel, without making the furniture seem old. Think flourished frames on the mirrors, and nice tiling in the bathroom. A very large 47-inch flat screen sat right in front of the King bed, and the room had a nice bedside plug bay that could charge all of my electronics. Nice!
Our view overlooked K Street (where all the lobbying firms are situated), and the entrance of the JW Marriott. Overall, the location of the hotel can’t be beat. You are steps from the White House, Washington Monument, and the rest of the sites that Washington offers.
As mentioned, it’s a very historic hotel. As such, it’s very strangely laid out, fitting itself around existing buildings to connect through on both Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street. As such, Peacock Alley exists, where high tea is served each afternoon. Essentially a very, very fancy hallway, it’s a unique feature of the hotel. Meeting rooms line the hall leading to the lobby.
The lobby itself has an amazing ceiling, with 48 states and a number of US territories’ state seals frescoed on the plaster. The front desk can give you a nice map of the ceiling to help find your home state, but if you’re from Alaska or Hawaii, give up- it’s not on there.
For restaurants, there are a number of options. Breakfast is served at the Café du Parc, which is a nice sidewalk French restaurant also serving lunch and dinner. There’s a grill and seafood restaurant, Occidental Grill & Seafood, that offers lunch and dinner as well. One of the most historic establishments in the city is the Round Robin Bar, which has been open since 1850 and is the second oldest bar in the city. Mark Twain and Walt Whitman used to drink here, so it’s legit. We popped in for a second just to check out the digs, and it’s very, very cool, with the bar in the center of the room and stools surrounding it.
There’s also the Red Door Spa, and a 24-hour fitness center, but we didn’t have time to check them out.
Check out was easy, but keep in mind that if you have a lot of bags, as we did, you’ll probably want the bellman’s help. The hotel is positioned up a few steps from the street, with rotating doors that could make it awkward if you’re trying to wrangle all your belongings through them.
Part IV: Etihad Business Class Lounge IAD
We arrived a bit early for check-in, so we hung out in the amazingly-designed terminal at Dulles. Seriously, it’s one of the longest and most beautiful rooms I’ve ever been inside. This is to be expected from an architect like Eero Saarinen, who designed the St. Louis Arch and one of the greatest architects of our time.
Finally, check-in began. We were each checking two bags, so we were happy to have the free baggage this trip. I wanted to bring my clubs to play some golf in Dubai, or I would’ve attempted to avoid checking anything.
Then, we made our way through security, and onto the airport train for several stops. The whole area was very modern.
After we disembarked, we took a hard left into the terminal, and saw our future: the Etihad Airways First/Business Lounge.
The Etihad Lounge Experience
This is the main reason why we flew out of IAD vs. another airport. At the time of booking, this was the only dedicated Etihad lounge in the US (a newer lounge has since opened up out of JFK). Etihad flies a 787 out of Dulles, instead of the A380 out of JFK. Nevertheless, the next few hours in this lounge were an amazing experience.
We checked in with no problems, and were some of the first to enter for that evening. There’s only one flight a day for Etihad, and I believe Saudia’s passengers get to use the lounge for their departure earlier in the day. We found our seats after nabbing some Arabic coffee and dates. We ended up staying in the dedicated dining area the entire time we were in the lounge.
First, we were asked what we would like to drink. Of course, we requested glasses of champagne, plus some sparkling water.
The champagne served in the lounge is different than the one on board. Here, they had both Louis Roederer and Taittinger. We tried both, and preferred the Taittinger. After drinks, we were handed menus. Yes, we were handed menus in an airport lounge. The menu featured three courses.
I chose the arabic mezze as my starter, which was self-serve at the buffet (yes, there’s a buffet as well). Laura chose the butternut squash soup. We also had some spicy pea and lentil samosas. Everything was excellent and beautifully presented.
Butternut Squash Soup
Next, we had our main course. I chose the chicken, while Laura chose the scallops. Laura said they were some of the best scallops she’s ever had. My chicken was moist, tender, and again amazingly plated.Chicken
Finally, for dessert, we had a cannoli and a slice of flourless chocolate cake.
Yes, this lounge had its own boarding gate. This was an amazing perk, and made for a stress-free pre-boarding process. It set up nicely what we were about to experience for the next 12 1/2 hours on board Etihad’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner!
Part V: Etihad 787 Business Studio IAD-AUH
Etihad Airways IAD-AUH
Cost: 67,500 American Miles + $25 in taxes
Estimated Cash Cost: $9,000 per ticket
After exiting the lounge through our private boarding gate, we turned left and walked down the jet bridge to our plane. Boarding happens through one door on Etihad’s 787 Dreamliner, unlike the A380 and other wide-bodies that you may have traveled on. 787s have the ability to be entered through a grand bar entrance, but Etihad elected to have you enter through the galley. We hung a right to business class (left is more business class seats, then the First Class Apartments), and found our seats. And, boy what seats they were.
The new Etihad Business Studio seats are essentially first class seats on any other airline. Fully-lie flat (6 feet, 8 inches long), with lots of personal storage and direct aisle access, this seat is amazing. An 18.5 inch flatscreen allows you to watch hundreds of movies and TV shows on board (all free, of course), as well as various mini-games.
Since we were traveling together, we selected the middle two seats, so we could sit next to one another. Other seats against the windows are singles. Overall, it felt as if we had our own private cabin at times, especially since we were at the very back of business class, with no one behind us. Our seats faced forward, but the ones directly in front of us faced backward. Keep that in mind when you’re booking if you’re prone to motion sickness.
We took our seats, and our amazing flight attendants came by to welcome us with more Arabic coffee and dates. Then, blankets and menus were passed out. I found my amenity kit, designed with LUXE City Guides, in my storage bin on the right of my seat. Each amenity kit is different, with a different city in mind. I received Abu Dhabi, while Laura received Hong Kong. Inside were city guides for our respective cities, Scaramouche + Fandango skincare products, a toothbrush, eyeshade, and socks to make us comfortable for our flight.
It’s very easy to control your seat, from yet another touchscreen within reach. It has lumbar adjustments, massage features, as well as dozens of other settings. You can also adjust the lights from here, of which there are several depending on your activity (dining, eating, sleeping).
Finally, newspapers and champagne were distributed. A short takeoff roll, and we were underway. As they say, it was “showtime.” Etihad has a “Dine Anytime” concept, where you can eat your pre-selected meal at any point on the flight. I think it’s a great idea, especially given how stuffed you might be after eating in the lounge. We elected to eat right away, though, to help us sleep.
I didn’t get a good picture of the liquors on board, but they’re all name-brand (though not “top, top shelf,” like they would have in First Class).
For dinner, I went with the Arabic Mezze and the Grilled Poussin, while Laura went with the Pea Soup and the Roast Cod Fillet. But first, we were offered an apertif and some warm nuts, so Chivas it was! After that, I paired my meal with a Merlot blend from France.
My Arabic mezze was delicious, but unfortunately, my poussin (which is a tiny chicken) was too dry. The polenta that came with it, however, more than made up for the shortcoming. It was amazing. Laura enjoyed all of her dishes.
Oh, did I mention I was watching the new Star Wars during this entire meal? Because I was.
Finally, dessert. I went with the crispy chocolate roulade, and Laura with the Rhubarb pie. Both incredible, and mine happened to photograph very well.
I didn’t quite care for the French dessert wine. No matter, the flight attendant was happy to switch it out for a port wine.
After all this decadence, it was time to sleep. I was able to sleep for about 6 hours, which is an eternity on a plane. There was some heavy turbulence that didn’t make it the most restful sleep ever, but that’s not Etihad’s fault.
When I woke up, I was somewhere over Spain, still about 6 hours out from Abu Dhabi. I decided to try out the “All Day” menu with some Greek Yoghurt and a Kale and Kiwi Smoothie. I wish I had the recipe for the kale smoothie, so refreshing.
After another few hours, Laura woke up and we decided to have lunch. We both had the steak sandwich, which is sort-of famous on the internet among frequent flyers. It didn’t disappoint.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and we arrived in Abu Dhabi safe and sound.
Part VI: Etihad Business Lounge T3 Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) is the home airport to Etihad. Currently building the new midfield terminal (which looks absolutely gigantic), Etihad is making due with slightly older (but not really that old) facilities in the meantime.
Tranfers at Abu Dhabi are easy. If you have your boarding pass, just proceed directly to the gate. If you’re missing your onward boarding pass, there’s a transfer desk. No need to clear customs or security, so short layovers are a possibility here.
We made our way to T3, where the current First and Business Lounge is for Etihad customers. A dedicated first class lounge is being constructed, but isn’t quite ready yet. Presumably, that one will have a private space just for travelers in Etihad’s 3-room Residence.
Check-in was easy into the lounge, and first impressions upon entering were “this place is massive.” There were at least three buffet areas, two full bar areas, an impressive spa complex, and a barber shop.
If you’re traveling in first class, one shave is free in the barber shop (it’s also free for both business and first in Etihad’s Arrivals Lounge). If you’re traveling in Business, a 15-minute spa treatment is complimentary at the Six Senses Spa.
There’s a menu detailing what treatments are complementary. If you want a longer experience, you can pay. We both elected for a facial, something I’ve never done. It was nice after a long flight, for sure.
Also in the Six Senses Spa area were showers that one could use for free. However, given our limited time, we skipped them.
Instead, we decided to keep snacking. I wasn’t feeling particularly great after our flight, due to what became a pretty nasty head cold. But, we still managed to fit in a glass of champagne, and a few bites of sushi.
Our time in the lounge was too short- I wish we had another hour to check more of the facilities out. But instead, we made our way to the boarding gate for our flight to Doha.
Part VII: Etihad Business Class AUH-DOH
After our lounge visit, we took off on an Etihad Airbus A320 from Abu Dhabi to Doha, a quick 45 minute flight in business class.
We waited at the chaotic bus gate (a casualty of the new terminal being built- there’s not enough room in the current airport for all of Etihad’s planes!) for boarding to begin. First, we needed to get a stamp on our ticket confirming our passports are good to go for the short international flight. We also witnessed a man nearly knocked out by Etihad’s heavy boarding sign. It wasn’t his fault, but the Etihad employee was quick to ask, “What did you do?” Someone would’ve been sued if this were the USA.
We were told to wait as business class passengers for the last bus, as it would be a bit less crowded. Even the buses are nice on Etihad.
Boarding is via stairway, which I enjoy. It’s fun seeing how large these birds actually are from the ground. We found our seats in 2A and 2C (the first row for Etihad) and settled in.
I found the seats to be similar to Virgin America’s first class product, with a great “cradle” for napping. It’s not lie-flat, but it’s perfectly comfortable, especially for a 45-minute trip.
We started out with some champagne and some of the UAE’s delicious mint lemonade. It’s everywhere, and quite refreshing.
Once airborne, I was surprised to learn that we’d be getting any meal at all. And, we even received one item that was warm. On a 45-minute flight! American Airlines doesn’t even give you a meal under 2:30 minutes, or after 8 p.m.
We had a delicious meat pastry (not pictured), a beef sandwich (top left), a delicious Arabic mezze pastry (top right), and two desserts (bottom two).
We were happy, especially after trying out their red wine blend.
And, as soon as it had begun, we made our decent into Doha, a new country for both of us.
Part VIII: Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village
Upon arrival in Doha, we made our way to the Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village for our two-night stay. From check-in to check-out, it was an amazing experience.
Prices start around $250 a night, but we used 40,000 Marriott Rewards points per night for this stay, received through a sign up offer with the Chase Marriott credit card.
Airport Pick Up
I did something rare this trip, and arranged for the hotel to pick us up from Doha’s airport. While normally this is a luxurious expense, the Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village is a quick ride from the airport- prices each way were only $30. An Uber would have been cheaper, but in the end I was happy with my choice. An Audi A6 and two hotel employees escorted us from the terminal to the car, and somehow managed to fit all of our bags into the car.
There are two Ritz-Carltons in Doha, one in the “West Bay” and another here at the Sharq Village. We chose Sharq Village for several reasons- it’s closer to the airport, seemed to be in a better location in the city, and looked more “authentic.”
We were greeted warmly by the bell service attendants and escorted to the check-in desk, past a fountain of rose petals.
The lobby is very Middle Easternly appointed. Lots of rugs, marble, and chandeliers. Unlike other properties we saw this trip, it’s very tastefully done. Opulent, but not unwelcoming.
Check-in was a breeze, but we did not receive any room upgrades, due to the hotel being fully committed during our stay. All rooms have balconies, but ours didn’t really have a view to speak of. It overlooked one of the many courtyards of the property. What I love about the Sharq Village is each room is located in a separate building of about 8 rooms. Each building has two stories, and an inner courtyard with trees, rock gardens, and sitting areas making for an amazing environment. Each room is 517 square feet, so quite sizable.
Inside our room was a canopy king bed, and lots of appointments that made you feel as if you really were in the Middle East. I find that many of the hotels in this region of the world are very modern, but ultimately something you could find in any major city. The Sharq Village made you feel as if you were staying over at Aladdin’s palace.
Later in our stay, we had a chance to try out the pool complex. There are two main pools on the property, and a shaded wading pool next to one of them. The first pool, closest to the main building, is beautiful, with palm trees symmetrically piercing the middle of it.
The second pool was our favorite. It had a waterfall, a swim-up bar, and views of the emerging Doha skyline. It also was right on the beach. The dome featured the pool’s hot tub.
The beach was nice and calm, and made for a nice morning walk.
I had a chance to try out the gym facilities as well, which were modeled after old fisherman quarters. The gym had all of the required elements, and is co-ed. There’s also a separate female gym. The spa, free to guests, featured a steam room and sauna, as well as a private hot tub.
Overall, our stay was incredible. Not surprising, considering what the Ritz-Carlton brand is known for. While my first stay at a Ritz-Carlton was four years ago, and wasn’t overly impressive (the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong, for those wondering), this one has me hankering for another stay.
Part IX: Doha
We had two days to explore Doha, and thankfully, my good friend from graduate school AZ is a local, and was able to show us around.
Fighting jet-lag, our first night was spent on the town. We stopped by the Doha Hilton to have a drink at Trader Sam’s, the original located in the Beverly Hilton. Mai Tai’s were delicious.
Next, we went around “The Pearl,” which is still partially under construction. Much in the style of Dubai’s “The Palm,” the Pearl is all reclaimed land, and from the air looks like a pearl inside an oyster. Yachts naturally park here, because people have yachts in Doha. The city’s major high-end stores are also located in The Pearl. We returned during the day on Saturday to check it out and take some photos.
Back on our night tour, AZ showed us some “local” spots, including late-night food. Very cheap, and very delicious. If you’re a fan of fresh-baked bread, this is your part of the world. The most delicious tea, made from cloves and cardamon, followed.
At about 3:30 AM, we returned to our hotel. The next day, we woke up and headed to the Pearl for lunch. And what a lunch it was- the shawarma plate was gigantic, and Laura’s lamb leg was equally impressive.
Next, we headed to the Museum of Islamic Art, a building designed by I.M. Pei and is a stunner, located pretty close to the Sharq Village and across the water from downtown Doha.
The museum is completely free. This is nice, because it’s by far the best museum for Islamic Art in the world, covering art from Spain to China.
After a few hours there, we walked over to the Souq, which had been redesigned to look older. We loved it! Lots of local wares to peruse, and lots of restaurants, though we did not partake.
The next stop was dinner, so we decided to head over to the W Hotel downtown and see if we could find some food. Not a lot of options in our price range, so we walked over to the mall and had some local food court options. Not bad, for a mall. We ended our night walking through the very gaudy Sheraton, which was built in 1979 and was the tallest building in Doha for a long time. Seriously, photos of this place from when it was built showed nothing around it, and now there’s a beaming city of skyscrapers.
The final day of our trip was marked with another delicious meal with AZ, at one of his favorite Lebanese places near the Pearl.
Then, we grabbed our bags and headed to the airport, for our first class experience aboard Qatar Airways.
Part X: Qatar Airways First Class DOH-DXB
First class on Qatar Airways from Doha is an experience. From their first class check-in, to their first class lounge, to the flight itself, check out my review of the good (and, surprisingly, the bad) below!
Check in for Qatar Airways First is handled through Row 1. As you drive up to the terminal, you’ll be greeted by several bellmen that will help you with your things to the check-in area.
Everything feels brand new. That’s because the airport is less than 3 years old.
The entire area has a “larger than life” feeling. It’s impossible to be unimpressed with the level of service and the grandeur of your surroundings when traveling through the airport. It feels like how one should be treated when defying God’s will, traveling through a metal tube in the sky. It’s an impressive act, and your experience should reflect that.
There are more first class check-in desks than could possibly be flying through Doha at this time. That said, I think Doha overbuilt the airport, with an eye on future traffic. We were escorted to the check-in desk and offered dates and coffee as we sat down. Yes, checking in, you’ll have a chance to rest after that long walk from the curb to here.
With boarding passes in hand, we made our way to customs. First class passengers have a private area to clear such formalities, so as the only first class passengers in sight, it took less than a minute. A direct escalator took you to the reason for our first class splurging- the Al Safwa Lounge.
The Al Safwa Lounge
The Al Safwa Lounge is only open to first class passengers on Qatar Airways and oneworld Sapphire members traveling in first class on another oneworld airline. That’s it. So, given the opportunity, we thought it was a worthy splurge of 18,000 Avios miles each to fly a one-hour flight. We made sure to get to the airport plenty early to make it all worth it.
The ceilings are impressively high throughout the lounge. Some reviews of the lounge say that it feels a bit cold, and I understand that feeling. The lounge feels empty, because it is. Soon, though, more Qatar flights will be landing here and it will feel a bit more filled out. My impression? Impressed. The design of this place is incredible. While not technically a first class terminal, it has the size of one.
There are play areas for kids, museum exhibits from the Islamic Art museum, and more as you enter.
The area we spent the majority of our time in was, of course, the bar. And why wouldn’t you? It’s beautiful.
They have all the top shelf favorites here. Patron Margaritas, glasses Johnny Walker Blue, all free. They won’t display it, but you can even ask for Krug as your champagne choice. We did.
We had never had a bottle before, and while delicious, can’t help but laugh at the price. By the end, we actually ended up switching to my favorite champagne, Billecart-Salmon. Though, I do admit, I made sure to have more than a few glasses of Krug.
We were stuffed from lunch, but ordered some cheese plates and a dessert to try. The menu did have steak and other items, all complimentary of course.
We didn’t want to leave, but we decided to take our scheduled flight out. We said goodbye to Edwin our excellent bartender and head to the gate.
Qatar First Class Doha-Dubai
We stepped on board, and I had forgotten why we chose this specific flight- it was an A330! AKA, a wide-body aircraft for an hour flight, complete with lie-flat beds.
I was ecstatic.
Waters were available at our seat, and our cabin crew came around to distribute menus and ask for our drink orders.
Also, our cabin crew gave us Fast Track passes, but annoyingly, we weren’t able to use them upon arrival.
Our meal was absolutely delicious. I’m so impressed they were able to serve a full business class cabin a decent selection, with hot food items, on an hour flight.
Overall, we were very impressed with Qatar’s check-in and in-flight service. It was when we landed in Dubai that things went amiss.
Arrival in Dubai
First, and this is really beyond Qatar’s control, customs was a mess. Fast Track was closed, so we were stuck in a 1.5 hour line to enter the United Arab Emirates. Our flight landed at 9 PM, and we weren’t through customs until 10:30 PM. We had to search through the terminal for our bags, and found three of them, but one of mine was missing.
Normally, one would go to the airline’s dedicated baggage office to report a missing bag. They record all the necessary details, and you’re on your way. Not in Dubai. There’s one office for everyone. This makes for a long wait, and even for business and first class passengers, who get first dibs on the baggage agents.
Our agent was wholly incompetent. After taking down all the information that would be required to file a report, she said that I actually needed to go to Qatar’s airport offices. Her directions were awful, and we ended up wandering the airport (with my golf clubs in tow) for over 30 minutes. Finally, sweating, we found the offices, but of course, they couldn’t help us much, because we weren’t suppose to be there. We were sent down to another office, where after another 15 minute wait, a porter walked me back through the baggage area, looking for something that obviously wasn’t there. After confirmation that my bag was indeed lost, I was led back to the first office I was in. Flabbergasted, I found my first agent and demanded she file a report. By this time, it was one in the morning- I wasn’t too happy. Thinking my bag was gone forever, I finally got a report filed, and we left the airport in a huff.
Keep this in mind- despite being a first class passenger, neither the airline I flew (Qatar) or my mileage program (British Airways) took any responsibility for this mishap or offered any sort of compensation to make things right. It’s unfortunate that such an amazing experience had to be marred by a very ugly one. It happens when you travel, but reiterates my usual advice: don’t check a bag!
Part XI: Conrad Dubai
Let me just start out by saying that the Conrad Dubai was one of the best hotel experiences I’ve ever had. Read why below!
After a disastrous experience at Dubai International, I was ready to find my room. I already knew I was upgraded to an executive floor, thanks to Hilton’s amazing app. It allowed me 24 hours beforehand to see what upgrade I would be offered, and to even choose the exact room I want. This can come in handy, especially if you’ve done your research on what the hotel has on offer.
I received a letter thanking me as a Diamond member, with a detailed list of benefits. As I had a meeting at 9AM the next morning, the hotel was able to press two shirts for free in about 5 hours, which is incredible service.
This stay was booked all on Hilton points, and with their 5th night free benefit. While I would miss my hard-earned Hilton points, this stay ended up being completely worth the expense.
The room, a corner deluxe room on the 44th floor (an executive floor), was gigantic. Two queen beds, with a marble bathroom and a “peek-a-boo” window, which I thought was a nice touch.
The view was also great. The corner room allowed for a great vista over the ubiquitous Sheikh Zayed Road, when the haze cleared. We could even see the Burj Al Arab.
There is tons of storage in this room, with a walk-through closet on the way to the bathroom. I got some work done thanks to their desk, which had very nice pens I might add.
The Conrad Dubai is very conveniently located. Two stops north of Dubai Mall on the Metro, the station for the DIFC is right out front of the lobby. So, if you need to get anywhere in the city close to the Metro, you can utilize this feature. I used it frequently, saving me a lot over taxi fares.
Next door is the Fairmont Dubai, which I didn’t have a chance to walk into. Down the road is a Sheraton, a Four Points by Sheraton, and a Crowne Plaza.
First, the service was 5-star. The concierge and bell team made finding my bag a breeze. I honestly thought it was gone forever, and the concierge desk managed to track it down in less than 24 hours. I can’t praise them enough. They also assisted me in getting last-minute tea reservations at the Burj Al Arab (more on that in a later post).
As a Diamond member, I received breakfast daily in the Executive Lounge on the 28th floor. 4 out of 5 days I took breakfast there, because the spread was so large and service impeccable. Many international options for food- Asian noodles and dumplings, English Breakfast, American options, and lots of fresh-baked breads. The last day I tried out Ballaro, their main dining restaurant. The spread for breakfast here was larger, but I preferred the options in the Executive Lounge (plus, service was better).
In the executive Lounge, you could also have afternoon tea, complete with a chocolate fountain. And, later on in the evening, a cocktail hour (more like 4 hours) was held. If you happen to stay here, you can make a meal of the options. Bite-sized morsels of filet, pizza, and more await, plus free liquor, Coronas, and Heinekens. All told, the executive lounge probably saved me upwards of $250 over my 5-night stay, given the drink prices in Dubai.
I had a chance to check out the spa (sorry, no pictures), and it was incredibly designed. Lots of low-light over blue tiles, and a massive hot tub with recliners in the actual tub. My favorites, the steam room and sauna, were there as well. The gym went unused during my stay, but looked quite nice. I was so busy over this trip, I didn’t get a chance to use the pool, but it was sprawling and very tastefully done.
Overall, the Conrad Dubai is an excellent use of 220,000 Hilton HHonors points. Under no circumstances would I hesitate to stay here again, which is incredible given the options in Dubai.
Part XII: Exploring Dubai
I spent over a week in Dubai this trip, which allowed me to really explore the city!
Dubai is a fascinating city. It has its critics, but my opinion is what Sheikh Mohammed has done in a span of 20-ish years is incredible. We may never see something like this again in our lifetime. I wanted to explore as much ridiculousness as possible while I was in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, so my friend Evan (who arrived shortly after we did in Dubai) and I rented a car for a few days. It made getting around a lot easier, and definitely added to our trip. A note- all the hotels we stayed at did not charge us for parking, which was a surprise and a nice perk.
Our first stop in Dubai was the Camelicious Camel Milk production facility, one stop on Laura’s MBA program. Overall, pretty interesting tour of how they produce camel milk- and it’s surprisingly delicious.
The Els Club, Dubai
Once Evan arrived, we made our way to the Els Club. Normally, this golf club would cost over $250 to play, but because we both had our Citi Prestige cards, we were able to book on Golf Switch for free. Another amazing perk from credit cards, but unfortunately, one that was cut in 2017. The Els Club was in impeccable shape- and in case you’re wondering, they do serve beer on the course.
High Tea at the Burj Al Arab
A definite splurge, at $150 a person, tea at the Burj Al Arab is a must. We booked for 5 PM, which seemed a bit late for tea, but it ended up being a 4-hour experience, replacing dinner that night. Reservations weren’t available for the top-floor tea service, so we opted for the lobby instead. I actually preferred it over the top floor, because I believe the lobby to be the star attraction at this hotel. With over 8 courses, including champagne, I was dizzy from all the caffeine I ingested.
Armani Hotel and Spa
Since I am a travel agent, I wanted to check out a few properties that I wasn’t staying at, out of curiosity. The Armani Hotel graciously hosted me for an hour tour of their property. At over $700 a night most nights, it’s certainly a splurge. The design won’t be for everyone, but I thought there’s enough personalization here that it may be a fun expense to stay in the world’s tallest building on a two night layover.
Evan and I had a lot of fun at the mosque in Abu Dhabi, as well as Ferrari World. He even splurged for the opportunity to drive a Ferrari on the highways of Abu Dhabi (I rode along). With the world’s fastest roller coaster, killer electric go-carts, and a theme park that is practically empty, it’s worth the price of admission. We also had lunch at the Roller Coaster Restaurant in Yas Mall, where your food arrives on swirling, twirling, and flipping rails.
We happened to be in Dubai over St. Patrick’s Day, and payed a visit to the Irish Village. Very close to the Park Hyatt Dubai, it was a convenient night out. Plus, with all the Irish ex-pats, it felt like we were celebrating in Ireland.
Probably the most fun thing we did all trip, and that’s saying something. Ski Dubai is an engineering marvel, and quite a lot of fun for two hours. The skiing is actually great, and the quick Poma lifts make getting back up the short run very convenient.
Just Sub-Zero next to the Persian Gulf. Don’t Ask Us About our Carbon Footprint
We took a “dune bashing tour” across the sand dunes of Sharjah to reach a Bedouin camp for a dinner. While very touristy, it allows you to check off a number of things on your “Middle Eastern” list, like…
The Dubai Mall is quite a sight. We visited the Burj Khalifa first, the world’s tallest building, which ultimately is pretty expensive for yet another view. Keep in mind, the price to visit the highest observation deck is over $150- not worth it, in my opinion.
Next, we visited the Dubai Aquarium, which is very well done. Lots of exhibits for an Aquarium inside a mall, and we were able to meet Carlos, an otter, for only $30 extra.
Inside the mall is also a Sega theme park, with a very compact and intense spinning Wild Mouse roller coaster. For $8, it’s worth it for roller coaster fans like me.
Like it’s brother property in the Bahamas, the Atlantis is a busy water park attached to an ultra-luxurious beach resort. The difference in Dubai is that Atlantis is located on The Palm, a man-made stretch of sand, connected to the rest of the city by monorail. Having been to Atlantis in the Bahamas before, I enjoyed the Dubai version a lot more. For one, the crowds are better, both in volume and in clientele. The slides are also better- you have the classic “Shark Tank” slide, but also the world’s largest slide, the Aquaconda. It’s actually so large, that two racing tube slides can fit within it, and still have room for riders itself. We had an amazing day there.
Overall, Dubai was quite a trip. Expenses can add up, but if you have points and miles, it can be an affordable destination. Having the right credit card, like the Citi Prestige card, can give you a lot of benefits, too. I loved Dubai!
Part XIII: Park Hyatt Dubai
After my five-night stay at the Conrad Dubai, I went hotel hopping with my friend Evan for a few nights! First up, the Park Hyatt Dubai.
The Park Hyatt Dubai was on my list from the beginning of trip planning. At only 20,000 Hyatt points a night, or 10,000 points plus $125 for Cash and Points awards, it’s a pretty good value for the rates they typically charge per night.
Located close to the airport on Dubai Creek, the resort is gigantic- only 5 rooms tall, but sprawling. The lobby is technically on the third floor, so you may need to take an elevator down at check-in. Ours happened to be on the 4th floor.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot of time to check out the property, but did take a walk around to check out the gorgeous pool- it reminded me of the pool at the Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village, actually.
The room was beautifully appointed, and did a good job of feeling modern but comfortable. The bathroom was huge, and I really liked the tub and shower area.
We received two double beds at check-in, from a front desk agent “on loan” from the Park Hyatt Hamburg. That’s the thing with Dubai hotels- you’ll never know where your check-in agent is from!
Overall, the resort had plenty to do- it’s across the street from the golf course, which has a putt-putt golf course modeled after the “real” course. It’s also nearby a marina, so there are opportunities for water excursions as well. As I’m just a Platinum member with Hyatt, no free breakfast to review, unfortunately. We spent most of our time at the Irish Village’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration, so didn’t try out dinner or any of the restaurants at the hotel.
Part XIV: Intercontinental Dubai- Marina
Now here’s a hotel I’d return to- the Intercontinental Dubai- Marina! Ultra-modern, in a great location.
Evan used his points for this hotel- each of us had a ton due to our 80,000 point IHG credit card bonus, as well as our Spire Elite status. He went ahead while I took care of some sightseeing, and had some trouble at check-in. They comped him breakfast and upgraded him as an apology. Check out the view-
We had one of the coolest view I’ve ever had at a hotel. The pool at the hotel is amazing- an infinity pool right on the Dubai Marina. Yachts can pull up directly to the mall across the way, adding to the view.
The room is ultra-modern, with lots of open glass walling the bathroom that can be completely shut off for privacy. Reading my other reviews, you can see that’s a very huge theme in Dubai.
Our room was a mess by the time I thought about taking pictures, so just believe me when I say that there were two beds, and you could control everything from a panel on the wall next to your pillow- including the thermostat, which I thought was a nice touch.
As I found the Dubai Marina to be “happening” at night, if that’s your prerogative on vacation, this is the place to be. If you wanted a quiet hotel room, I would rethink staying here.
Part XV: Royal Jordanian Business Class Dubai-Amman-Chicago
We began the flight in the Dubai International Business Class Lounge. No photos this early in the morning, but I was very happy with the surroundings and the breakfast spread as we snacked before our flight.
We arrived at the gate around the time boarding was to begin, but unfortunately the boarding was a bit delayed. With our quick one-hour connection in Amman, I was a bit worried, but we made it out on time. We boarded our A320 to Amman, a quick 3 1/2 hour flight. Overall, I loved the product on this flight, which was similar to Etihad’s (and Virgin America’s). Catering was also good on this flight- though I’m not too big of a fan of the “buffet-style” serving that Royal Jordanian employs. It does allow you to see what you’ll be eating (and make a different choice if need be), but the tin foil it comes out of isn’t good presentation.
A very nice breakfast of yogurt and some breads, along with some juice rounded out our meals. I passed out for a bit, and by the end of my nap, we were in Jordanian airspace.
Next, we had our longhaul business class flight from Amman, Jordan to Chicago, Illinois, on Royal Jordanian’s 787 Dreamliner.
After clearing Jordanian security, we made our way to our gate. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to check out the Royal Crown lounge, which looked nice from the pictures. Jordan’s airport is pretty new, so lots of high ceilings, if a bit industrial looking from the exposed concrete.
We loaded up into the Dreamliner, and took our seats at the back of the very small business class cabin (there’s no first class on this one).
Featuring lie-flat beds, I was a fan of the hard product on this flight. Not as luxurious as Etihad’s Business Studio, but still great for a longhaul.
The flight got underway, and while the service was fine, it wasn’t incredible. Etihad made sure that you were comfortable at all phases of the flight, while RJ seemed to have two set meals, with some snacks mid-flight at the buffet in the front of the cabin, and then fend for yourself in the in-between times.
I went with the chicken for my main dish, wish I regrettably didn’t get a picture of.
We were at the end of a very long few days of travel, so we passed out for most of this flight. I will say that the entertainment options were lacking on RJ- I watched all the episodes of Fresh Prince that they had, and then was bored most of the rest of the flight (when I was awake). I would say less than 20 movies, and not premium options at that.
Part XVI: American Airlines First Class Chicago-Phoenix
After some time in the Admiral’s Club lounge in Chicago, we made our way to the plane. This flight, departing 5 minutes after 8, doesn’t have a full meal service because American doesn’t serve meals past 8 PM. There’s just a “snack.” I’m sure that’s why they schedule it 5 minutes past 8…
Anyway, we slept for 3/4ths of the flight, and woke up to have some nuts, sparkling water, and some salami. We weren’t very hungry, so no complaints.
This one is short, because we were so exhausted from the traveling. But, not a bad flight, and it got us home on time, safe and sound.
Mallorca is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. Each Mediterranean island offers something different for the traveler, whether it be food, culture, or sightseeing. As luck would have it, our trip dates coincided with the opening of the Park Hyatt Mallorca, and we were fortunate enough to check in a day after opening. While the resort was still ramping up to “full” operations, our stay proved to be nothing short of what the Park Hyatt brand has come to be known for- personal service, high-end luxury, and fantastic memories. Keep in mind, this resort is normally 20,000 World of Hyatt points a night.
Finding the Resort
The resort is located near the beach town of Canyamel, about a 15 minute walk from the beach, on the northeastern side of Mallorca. This is about an hour’s drive from Palma, and with all the other sites the island offers, a car is a must. I’m sure that directions will improve with time, but the resort is not easy to locate, as there is no signage pointing to the resort (not even a sign from the small road outside its gates). Expect a few wrong turns, but that’s part of the adventure!
We had three people staying in a room, which took a bit to process for the check-in agents. However, they couldn’t have been more courteous and really made sure we were comfortable while the room was arranged. The check-in area was sparse, which will undoubtedly change in a few days/weeks as more decorations make their way to the resort. Across from check-in was a library with snacks and coffee.
We stayed in a standard room on the property, which are properly gigantic. At 538 square feet, ours included a king bed (as well as our rollaway), a balcony overlooking the courtyard, giant flatscreen in the bedroom as well as in-mirror in the bathroom, (surprisingly) reasonably priced mini bar, and a palatial bathroom. The room has whites abounding, with marble floors and hearth framing the cream drapes and walls. Windows let the ever-present sun pour in.
While all the buildings look similar, each is named after the trees that are planted around each main building. We stayed in “Limonero,” but others included “Olivero,” “Serenita,” and more. When the trees grow more, it’ll be easier to differentiate I’m sure.
The bathroom’s shower and tub were gorgeous, but I felt that the window made me feel a bit exposed to the outside. Also, the doors are fogged glass, so don’t expect privacy if you’re sharing the bathroom getting ready in the morning.
The resort left us a bottle of Cava, as well as a large bowl of fruit when we arrived. Additionally, the hotel sent up another bottle of local Mallorcan Red later that evening to celebrate the opening of the hotel.
As previously stated, the resort is not directly on the beach, but very close. The resort does have a van to shuttle you to the closest beach to the hotel, but if you have a car, over 200 beaches are on offer on Mallorca.
We had the chance to try out two of their three main restaurants, as “Asia” was still closed at our time of visit. The tapas restaurant, helmed by a one-star Michelin chef, was delicious. After a few days in Spain, we were happy to try out a new spin on the traditional tapas plates like croquettas. The restaurant has so many types of cured ham that you’ll have trouble deciding. I expect this place to be the most popular on property.
The Balearic restaurant features dishes more endemic to Mallorca. We had some seafood paella, as well as the tenderloin (both delicious). However, the most impressive part of the meal were the deserts, which were designed by a high-end Barcelona chef. The “Summer Ferrer” is not to be missed. This is also where daily breakfast is served, which was included in our room rate (we were only Hyatt Platinum). Items are similar to those across the way, but with a much larger buffet spread. I sampled the Belgian Waffle which was amazing.
Additionally, the resort has a coffee shop, which has delicious fresh-baked breakfast croissants and rolls, baked on property. Don’t miss this- the flakiness of the croissant was a true highlight.
Built like a traditional Mallorcan Village, this resort is stunning. However, if you hate stairs, you may not enjoy your stay here. Lots of hill-climbing involved to get from our room to the main resort, but it was definitely part of the adventure. Several streams of water flow from the top of the resort, paralleling stairs, through fountains, and finally to the resort’s stream, which ends near its pool complex, featuring four pools. These pools frame the restaurants, and add to the relaxed feel of the Park Hyatt Mallorca.
The resort is next to a golf course, which we didn’t get to try out, but also features a nice, but small gym that features brand-new equipment. The beach club is open, as well as the country club.
Wifi was strong in places, but in parts of our guest room, we had zero signal. I’m sure that much of this will be worked out as the resort fully opens.
Overall, another win for the Park Hyatt brand. The designers really took into account the resort’s setting, and used it to the resort’s advantage. We cannot wait to return, especially to utilize the resort’s upcoming features like the beach and tennis club.
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A Review of the Boulders Resort and Spa – Curio- A Collection by Hilton
It’s hot here in Phoenix, with temperatures rising steadily above 110 degrees. While this is reason enough for most of the part-timers and vacationers to leave the city, there’s actually several great reasons to stay in Phoenix. The traffic is cut in half, the golf is cheap, and there are many hotels that one can staycation at for a fraction of the normal price. When we saw the Boulders going for $87 a night with a Hilton MVP rate, we jumped on it!
An Overview of the Boulders
The Boulders was built in the 1980s, with 221 guestrooms spread out over a large amount of acreage. It was once a Waldorf=Astoria resort, but is now a “Curio Collection” hotel, still under Hilton management. Rooms are “casitas” here, starting at 550 square feet, which is what we stayed in, though they can grow in size all the way to full-blown 3-bedroom standalone villas.
The resort features the main lodge, with its main restaurant Palo Verde and lobby bar, as well as one of the resorts’ four pools. This pool straddles one of the amazing boulder rockpiles on the resort property, and is open 24 hours, which I find amazing. Countless times, I arrive too late to use pool facilities, so I thought this was a great feature, especially given the heat during the day.
Other hot spots in the resort is its massive spa complex, complete with its own pool and gym. The resort includes fitness classes in its resort fee. There’s also a restaurant in this area as well. Further on, there is the golf and tennis facilities, which has the Grill and Bogey’s restaurant facilities, 7 tennis courts, and two 18-hole golf courses. Slightly off property, but still associated with the resort, is the Salted Donkey, featuring casual Mexican food.
The Boulders is a bit north of Scottsdale, about 15 miles in the upscale community of Carefree, Arizona. We drove north up Scottsdale Road, and arrived at the gate of the property. We were met by a guard, who handed us a printed parking pass with our name on it, and told us to drive about a mile up the entry road until we hit the Lodge. There, a man met us with our check-in information, Diamond amenities envelope, and certificates and directed us to the self-parking lot, where a golf cart met us to take us to our room.
This part of the experience was flawless- we didn’t even have to step out of our car to check into the hotel. A quick golf cart ride winding through the resort led us to Casita #265, on the second story in a secluded corner on the north side of the resort.
Keep in mind when visiting- there is a $30 per night resort fee, but this includes fitness classes, internet, and tips for the golf cart drivers. You’ll be using them often during your stay, so I was actually happy that they included that in the fee.
The room itself is brand-new, having been renovated in 2015. An entry way led to a living room-area with flatscreen and fireplace.
Of course, it being summer in Arizona, you don’t need it, but it’s available for when you’re there in the winter months.
A very comfortable king bed awaited us, with end tables on either side.
A nice touch were the electrical plugs on either side of the bed, with USB inputs in the wall. The bathroom was spacious, with a separate tub and shower, as well as two sinks with plenty of counter space.
We had a private balcony as well, outfitted with a table and two chairs, and views of the surrounding valley.
Check out the video of the room below:
Note- this resort is in the middle of the desert, and we actually had to kill a scorpion in our room in the middle of our last night. The resort is crawling with wildlife, so if that at all alarms you, maybe try to stay somewhere more in town. You’ll need a flashlight at night, which they thoughtfully provide:
Hilton HHonors Amenities
As a Diamond Member, I received a welcome letter detailing my special amenities:
Complimentary Water Replenished Daily
Complimentary Welcome Beverage in the Discovery Lounge
Complimentary Room Upgrade based on Availability
Notice anything missing? Apparently, Curio is transitioning into a similar category as the Waldorf-Astoria properties, and won’t be required to offer free breakfast in the future. Nothing on the website denotes this, however, and a quick call to the front desk had breakfast vouchers delivered to our door in minutes.
Drinks are expensive in the Discovery Lounge, at $14 each for a cocktail. So, we managed to get about $32 in value after tax and tip from that amenity. Plus, our daily breakfast tab came out to over $50, so $132 plus an upgraded room is good value for my status. Our water, however, was not replenished on the second day.
We had a dinner on property at the Salted Donkey Cantina. They barrel-age their own tequila, which I thought was unique, though be prepared to pay $16 for a margarita to try (though I’ll say it was one of the best I’ve ever had). I went with the carne asada, while Laura went for the fish and shrimp tacos. I thought my carne asada was perfect, but Laura thought the fish was too much batter, not enough fish. Overall, very good quality food, if a bit expensive.
Breakfast at Palo Verde was delicious, though overpriced if you were paying out of pocket. I went with the blue corn waffles, and Laura with the pulled pork and egg. Both were scrumptious, but we both thought service was a little slow.
Our drinks at the Discovery Lounge were delicious, but too expensive, even for a resort. We had the Lemon Berry Crush and the Grapefruit Paloma, which paired well with a dip in the pool.
The first morning, we got up and did a cycling/core class. We found the instructor to be a little rude (possibly hungover?) when setting up our bikes, and the whole class felt a little low energy for the normally-exhausting spin classes we’re used to. The second half of the class was suppose to work our core, but it was more of an instruction on how to use a Bosu Balance Ball. We were left disappointed.
Golf was exceptional, however. With two of the prettiest golf courses around, winding in and around the boulders of the resort, it’s truly one-of-a-kind. Pace of play was a little slow on the back 9, but that’s to be expected.
While we didn’t have a chance to try out the tennis courts, they are free after 11 AM in the summer (normally $25 per hour). Also on offer during the winter months is on-resort rock climbing, at $165 per person.
While it is advertised as a 5-star resort, I feel as if the resort is a solid 4.5 star. My new benchmark for 5-star service is the Conrad Dubai, so the Boulders didn’t quite meet that. The setting is stellar, the resort is great, but I can’t help but feel that it would feel overpriced in the winter months. While many on the resort were incredibly nice, including all of the golf cart drivers, others like the marshalls at the golf course and the fitness instructor were less than courteous.
To continue on with our summer of staycations, we checked in for a Thursday night stay at the Four Seasons, Scottsdale at Troon North. Rates were $179 plus the required resort fee and taxes, but coupled with Four Seasons Preferred Partner benefits by booking through a travel agent, we saved big with a free room upgrade, $100 food and dining credit, and free breakfast. We paired this with a Travelzoo voucher ($45 for $100 in food and beverage) for their lobby bar Onyx to have a truly free 5-star dinner.
The resort is located in the foothills of North Scottsdale, just far away enough from the city to feel secluded, but close enough to still take advantage of shopping and dining in the area if you so wished. It advertises itself as being “at” Troon North, but in reality it’s just down the street.
The resort property is definitely sizable, but not sprawling like the Boulders was. It’s nestled between two craggy peaks in the mountains, and actually, a popular day hike leaves directly from the resort to Pinnacle Peak. A few dozen rooms and villas spread out around two pools, a spa complex, the main lobby, and two tennis courts.
Arrival and the Room
We drove up to valet and walked inside to check-in, but first were offered iced tea by the bellman. Our front desk clerk offered us a $200 upgrade to a suite with private plunge pool, but we declined. After an overview of the resort on their map, we were shown where to complimentary self-park (valet is over $30).
We stayed in an upgraded regular casita in building 1, the closest to the main building. It felt very private; you do share the building with about 7-8 other rooms, but never do you feel like others are present. The casita had a great view of one of the desert mountains from its patio.
Inside the room were lots of Southwestern motifs. Native American art hung from the wall, and lots of desert tones made you really feel as if you were in Arizona. A welcome amenity was waiting for us when we arrived- three peach-flavored gifts (peaches, cake, and peach tea) to note the in-season fruit. I thought this was a great idea and wish more hotels would localize amenities a bit more.
The king bed was very comfortable, and the sheets were obviously of top quality. The bathroom was large, with a separate shower and tub, two sinks, and a separate toilet with door.
Overall, I felt that while the rooms weren’t the “newest” I’ve ever seen, it didn’t detract from their utility.
Armed with our dining credit and Travelzoo voucher, we headed to Onyx to take advantage of their happy hour specials. Laura had a peach sangria, and I had a classic margarita. Both felt freshly made and were worth the $10 happy hour price.
For food, we were lucky enough to find out that their fine-dining restaurant, Talavera, has an abbreviated menu for Onyx, featuring their steaks and seafood options.
First, we had queso fundido from the Onyx menu.
We elected to try the salmon and the filet mignon for our main dishes, and were glad we did. It was, no doubt, the best steak I’ve ever had in my life, and I grew up in Texas and spent 8 weeks in Argentina. It was perfect, with a horseradish crust and mushroom marsala topping it all off. Oh, and the bread served was A+.
We splurged on desert as well, with their home-made chocolate “bar” that was also tasty.
For breakfast, we were able to try Proof. I loved the interior design of the place, which felt very laid-back and comfortable. Overall, this is how the resort felt- luxurious without being pretentious.
Proof doubles as the late night “bar” on site as well, so there’s a shuffleboard table in the middle of the restaurant. Our breakfast credit covered $64 worth of items, which went surprisingly fast. Laura had the Huevos Rancheros, while I had bacon, sausage, hash browns, and toast. We each had a mimosa as well.
The pool was open 24 hours, so we tried it out after dinner. The water was a comfortable temperature, and the complex was lit up great for night-time. They’re careful not to ruin the view of the stars above.
On the note of stars, the Four Seasons brought in an astronomer with a powerful telescope to view the moon, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter on the night we were there. This was an excellent free activity for the resort to plan. While not heavily advertised, lots of resort guests were wowed by the planets above them. Other free amenities available at the resort include fruit skewers by the pool during the day, margarita and beer tastings on the weekends, and lots of kid activities.
This was my first stay at a Four Seasons property, and I must go to more now! The service was on point, the food delicious, and the stay relaxing overall. Unfortunately for the wallet, most Four Seasons are out of my price range, but we’ll see in the future if there are more deals to be had.
A Staycation at the Phoenician, A Luxury Collection Resort
Visiting the resort nearly once a week for tennis purposes, we’ve always wanted to try out the rooms and pool complex at the Phoenician. After an awesome sale was posted this summer, we had our chance! Check out the review below.
As stated, we were able to book the Phoenician for $149 a night before taxes thanks to a Travelzoo promotion this summer. The kicker was the fact that the resort fee was waived, which at $29 is a sizable discount. Being a Starwood property, it falls in Category 6, which is 20,000-25,000 points a night. The “resort within a resort,” the Canyon Suites at the Phoenician, and the Residences, are Category 7 properties and 30,000-35,000 points per night. If you choose to book Starwood hotels, or any brand of hotels through me, rest assured you’ll receive all points as normal in your account.
We entered the resort around 2:30 PM, pulling up to the valet to handle check in and see what room we were assigned. There was a long line of people checking in at this time, and there didn’t appear to be any elite desk open- a minor annoyance, but still an expected perk as a Starwood Gold member at the time of my stay.
Once we did get to the check-in desk, the staff couldn’t have been nicer. We were assigned an upgraded room, apparently a Mountain View (more on that later). We received our keys, as well as our two free welcome drinks (in lieu of 500 SPG points).
The room is so, so far away from the main lobby. The building butts up against Camelback Mountain, which provides great views on one side facing the mountain, but views of the city and the arrival road on the other. This is the side that we found ourselves on.
As you can see, the room was gigantic (over 650 square feet), but the view lacked the “mountains” we were advised on. We decided to go to lunch first, and then request a change of room.
Lunch was great- at their casual burger joint Relish, which is in the golf clubhouse. With views over the 1st tee box and putting green, it makes for a relaxing, leisurely lunch.
While Relish is severely overpriced, at $18-$20 a burger, a summer promotion brought the costs down a bit- $20 for a burger and a dessert. My chorizo burger was absolutely perfect.
As was my butterscotch pudding.
The front desk quickly exchanged our room for one facing Camelback, which was a much better view than before, even if our room was a bit smaller (but still spacious- at over 500 square feet).
The resort features 27 holes of golf, 10 tennis courts, and 7 pools. We were able to use the pool (open 24 hours) at night, where they were showing Minions on the blowup movie screen. We had an $11 capirinha which was very lime-y and refreshing. Unfortunately, the slide closes at 5 PM, so I didn’t have a chance to try it out. I love waterslides.
We used our drink coupons at the lobby bar. Drinks average about $15 here, so the drink coupons certainly hold their value. I elected to try the Manhattan, and Laura tried their capirinha. Both drinks were masterfully crafted.
If you’re in the hiking mood, the main trail up Camelback Mountain is right outside the resort’s gates. It’s about a two-hour hike to the top, and the views are worth it!
Overall, for an off-season stay, I thought the Phoenician provided good value. With rates rising to over $600 a night in the winter, though, I can’t see how there’s much value for money there.
Interested in booking the Phoenician? Fill out the booking form below!
We had the pleasure of staying in the very historic Arizona Inn in Tucson in 2016. While this was a quick visit, given we were arriving late at night, and leaving in the morning, we nonetheless had an amazing stay.
The reason why we chose the Arizona Inn over points-earning properties nearby is the fact that we had Expedia points and coupons to use, giving us a nearly free stay. You receive Expedia points by booking through Expedia, and I had about $50 worth of points to use. The neat part about Expedia points is that when you use them at VIP hotels, determined by Expedia, that value doubles. That still left about $72 worth of the booking to cover, but a further $50 was covered by an Expedia coupon that was given to me because of a Best Rate Guarantee request, which I won. As your travel advisor, I can do the same for you.
We arrived around 11 PM, to the resort that’s situated in an old neighborhood of Tucson. That didn’t deter the 3 coyotes from crossing the road- we’re still in the desert, people! The resort is retro from the beginning, having been built in 1930.
The lobby is simple, from an era gone by. With no one at the desk, I rang the antique bell (haven’t seen one of those in a while), and the agent got us processed quickly. Since it was a VIP hotel, we received an upgrade to a deluxe room. This room is a bit larger than the standard rooms, includes a patio with furniture, and a wet bar.
I especially liked the older decor- it has aged well and felt like it had “character.” Advanced technology, like an in-room iPad, with tons of information about the resort, was appreciated.
The fun part about the hotel is everything is branded- pens, soaps, shampoos, and stationary. This family-owned hotel certainly doesn’t cut corners!
One great thing about the resort is that there’s no resort fee, but lots of included amenities. I had my free morning coffee in the resort’s library-
…and unfortunately didn’t have time to play tennis on one of their two clay courts.
Other free amenities include croquet, badminton, ping pong, a fitness center with brand-new equipment, bottled water in-room and in the gym, and the pool facility, which has a free ice cream Sunday bar from 5pm-9pm every day during the summer months. There’s also free bike rentals and a dvd library to rent from. One unique feature? The DVDs are all from before 1960, and only feature actors and actresses that stayed at the resort during its heyday.
Be sure during your stay to read the history book included in every room, written by the president of the resort and the founder’s great grandson. It’s fascinating to hear what was built in then-rural Tucson!
Overall, I wish I had more time to spend here. I have stayed at many hotels in Tucson (and the world for that matter), and it’s refreshing to stay somewhere that’s focused so intently on the guest, and not the bottom line. I imagine this resort has its very loyal customers as a result.
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Fun fact: I have never been to New England before this trip. After several trips to New York, we decided to shove off north and visit Connecticut, Rhode Island, Cape Cod, and Boston. Read on to see how we maximized our travel expenditures!
We scored a pretty decent rate from Budget on the rental car, having a convenient pick up in Manhattan rather than traveling all the way over to an airport nearby. Grabbing our Ford Focus, we made the drive north to Hyde Park, NY, to visit a few national park sites. While I do earn a commission on car rentals, I usually advise my clients to book through an OTA like Hotwire or Priceline, unless they have status with the rental company.
Our first stop above was Vanderbilt NHS, one of the “smaller” mansions built by the Vanderbilts. This is also where we bought our $80 National Park pass, which gets us 12 months of amazing access to our parklands. Check it out!
We then rushed over to the Home of Franklin D Roosevelt NHS, which also hosts his Presidential Library. Since the library was closing in an hour, we were let in for free, which was incredible generous. I wish we had more time to visit!
Finally, about two miles away, is his wife Eleanor’s cottage, which is its own park unit. It was closed by the time we arrived, but we had a great time looking around the beautiful grounds.
We drove and drove and drove across Connecticut and arrived in Providence, Rhode Island to the Sheraton Providence Airport. I apologize for the lack of photos in this trip report, as my phone somehow lost all the photos. It was a very basic “typically Sheraton” room, but we did receive an upgrade to the Club level with our Gold status and being Starwood Business card holders. We appreciated the free breakfast in the lounge, which was just “normal,” the hot dish being scrambled eggs and having the usual spread of yogurt, fruit, and breads. I did appreciate the 24 hour access to waters, sodas, and some light snacks, though. Also, parking was free, which is a requirement for me in non-city center hotels.
This Sheraton is a Category 2 property, which is 3,000-4,000 points a night. My valuation of SPG points is 2.3 cents per point, so your rate would have to be higher than $69-$92 to make this a “good” use of points.
Day 2, we headed into Providence to visit Roger Williams National Memorial. It was a quick stop, but the nice 7-minute visitor center video was a great intro to what Rhode Island was founded upon- religious liberty.
Hopping back in the car, we drove straight to Newport, Rhode Island, where we used a lot of our Expedia+ points at the Hotel Viking, one of their “VIP+” properties. The hotel charges a resort fee, which I think is a bit unreasonable, but it did include delicious lemonade in the lobby the afternoon we were there. There’s also an indoor pool and rooftop bar and restaurant on property. Our room was the smallest on property, but its corner location gave it good views of Newport and was well appointed. The restroom was definitely tiny, smaller than many closets I’ve had in hotels, but it was so nicely designed for the space that we really didn’t mind. Remember, if you’re interested in booking this hotel (including VIP benefits), fill out the form at the end of this post.
Access into the city was great during our stay, we could walk to all the attractions. We even got in another national park site, Touro Synagogue, which does charge admission for passholders, but you do get a slight discount. The main attractions, though, are the mansions along the Cliff Walk:
They were spectacular to look at, and even prettier inside. We chose just one to look in, the famous Breakers, but a short walk on the Cliff Walk, a public easement between the coast and these mansions’ backyards, proved to be enjoyable enough for the others.
We also visited the Tennis Hall of Fame, which was well done and had plenty to look at for the tennis aficionado (which Laura definitely can be described as).
We drove on into Massachusetts, briefly stopping in New Bedford to check out the New Bedford Whaling NHP. Amazing how New Bedford could be the center of energy for the US for a time, and now be just a relic.
Cape Cod was our next stop, staying at the Four Points by Sheraton Eastham, which is conveniently located near Cape Cod National Seashore. This was one of the nicer Four Points that I’ve stayed in, featuring an outdoor pool, two tennis courts, direct access to a bike path, an indoor pool complex with sauna, an arcade, and free cookies in the lobby.
The beach, however, is the highlight.
We finally started driving towards Boston, making stops in Adams NHP to check out John and John Q. Adams’ home. We also saw JFK’s birthplace, Frederick Law Olmstead’s house, and Longfellow’s house. Lots of homes, lots of history.
Our two nights in Boston, we used my two free nights from our stay two nights, get one free promotion from our Alaska adventure and one night “mattress run.” At over $250 a night for the hotels this weekend, it was a good use! We were also two stays away from Platinum status, as we were lucky enough to get a double nights and stays credit towards status earning right before our trip. Since free night awards wouldn’t count toward this promo, rather only one night for one night stayed, we elected to check in first to the Element Hotel Boston Seaport, and then switch hotels, literally across the driveway, to the Aloft Boston Seaport the next night.
The Element was the first one of the brand that I’ve stayed in, and I was impressed. We were upgraded to a one-bedroom corner suite, which features a full kitchen. Free breakfast in the morning was delicious, with lots of options across the board. We used our free welcome beverages across the way at the Aloft hotel.
The Aloft hotel was also brand-new, and was the typical Aloft layout for our particular room, though on a high floor. I did get a chance to try out the new voice-activated rooms that premiered at the hotel this month, which if they work out some of the bugs will be very impressive and could change the way we work with hotels.
Overall, I was impressed with Boston and its historic sites. I believe that it’s now one of my favorite cities to visit, though I still hate the Patriots.
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Price Paid: $250; Average Prices range from $336-$730, depending on the dates
Excellent location across the street from the New York Public Library and a few blocks from Grand Central
Excellent service, including room service breakfast for Globalist members
Free mini bar and wine happy hour
Can be expensive on points or paid rates (luckily, this was a business trip)
No pool (though that’s pretty typical for Manhattan)
In town for a few days for the US Open, we were lucky enough to use our newly minted Hyatt Diamond status (now Globalist) for the first time at the Andaz 5th Avenue.
I had stayed here previously in 2013 as a Platinum member, and was upgraded to the same room- an Andaz Extra Large room overlooking the New York Public Library and Times Square beyond. With Bryant Park keeping the high buildings away, this view is excellent, and not nearly as claustrophobic as other Manhattan views.
We arrived late at night after yet another delayed American Airlines flight this summer. We were offered our first ever choice of a diamond amenity- either a tote bag (lame), or 1,000 Hyatt points. After initially taking the tote bag, we had a change of heart and took the points. Unfortunately, under the new World of Hyatt program, no amenity is granted at check-in any longer.
Standard across Andaz’s brand is free non-alcoholic beverages and snacks in the mini bar, as well as a nightly wine happy hour. While we were too busy to take advantage of the wine happy hour, we were pleased to make use of the mini bar. Also, their beer selection in the mini bar was delicious- a local Brooklyn Ale.
The reason why we chose this property, rather than the Grand Hyatt nearby, is the diamond (now Globalist) breakfast benefit. Andaz 5th Avenue is rare in allowing top-tier members to take advantage of their breakfast benefit via room service, $75 worth, which we did 4 of the 5 mornings we were there. I sampled most of the menu, and can definitely recommend the avocado toast and the potatoes. The famous lemon seed pancakes were delicious, but not something I’d order every day. I also had breakfast in the restaurant, alone, and can confirm that I can spend $75 on myself. It also included a mimosa or two…
The gym on property is in the basement, but is surprisingly large for a property of this size. Keep in mind, there is no pool on property.
Overall, we had an excellent stay at the Andaz, and wouldn’t hestitate booking clients here looking to explore Midtown Manhattan and surroundings.
Interested in booking the Andaz 5th Avenue? Fill out a Booking Inquiry below!
Having arrived in Vegas with JetSuiteX, I needed a place to crash for the night. With Starwood’s targeted promotion for double stays and double nights, as well as double points at all Tribute properties, I thought it was an excellent time to check in with the SLS after becoming an SPG property. And, paired with a $65 rate, I couldn’t refuse!
While the SLS can be criticized for its very north Strip location, the property is on the Las Vegas Monorail, which can save you a lot of money during your stay in Vegas. A one-way ticket is $5, and a 24 hour pass is $12, which is much cheaper than one single cab ride anywhere on the Strip.
Since JetSuiteX’s terminal was a 7 minute walk from the MGM Grand’s monorail station, this was my method of arrival. Construction on the new W Hotel, being added to the LUX tower at the resort, has guests entering the property through the Monkey Bar, right near the front desks.
There’s a dedicated check-in desk for Starwood Elite members, which had no line when arrived around 3 PM. Check-in was quick, and I was assigned a high floor with technically a Strip View in the World Tower.
As I made my way down this very dark hallway…
I arrived at my room.
Inside, I found two double beds (the only non-smoking rooms available were double rooms). The rooms are definitely tiny by Vegas standards, and my last stay had me staying at the LUX tower, which has slightly larger rooms.
The view from the very small window was not as bad as it could be, but still not great:
I will say that the interior design is impressive. Two giant mirrors on either side of the room definitely make the space feel a bit more airy.
A large desk with lots of promo materials on what the hotel has to offer sat opposite the beds.
The bathroom was small but featured a great shower, with Ciel bath amenities in oversized bottles, just small enough to check through security. Another corner of the room had the SLS mini bar, which featured some gourmet snacks (though out of my price range).
With some time to kill before sundown, I checked out the Foxtail pool, which was quiet for Vegas standards but had some stylings like chrome oversized rubber ducks, lampshades, and fit the overall “theme” of the hotel.
It was dinner time, and I had done my research online for some food specials. The SLS hasn’t been a home run since it opened two years ago, but I will say the food on property is the best in Las Vegas. They have 6 restaurants, and 5 of them are on the “Taste of SLS” $49 menu. Essentially a food and bar crawl, you’ll try 5 different drinks and 5 different food items at each of the 5 restaurants on the list (José Andres’ Bazaar Meat is unfortunately not featured).
I first took advantage of my Gold member free drink, which was any drink at the Monkey Bar or Perk $15 or under. Naturally, I maxed it out with this:
It’s the signature drink of the property, the “Monkey Suit,” made with Maker’s Mark Bourbon, Banana Liqueur, Sweet Vermouth, Walnut Bitters, and Torched Banana. Delicious!
I started out at the resort’s casual Northside Cafe and Chinese Kitchen, where I had the Strawberry Margarita and Fried Spring Rolls. Total value: $16.
Next, I journeyed over to Cleo’s next door, a favorite of mine from Los Angeles. Their featured item is the lamb shawarma and lotus flower cocktail. Value: $23.
Then, I went to Katsuya, their sushi joint. While the service was a bit slow at the bar, I LOVED their crispy rice and spicy tuna dish. Value: $28.
I stopped by Umami Burger next and had a beer and some of their secret menu Cheezy Tots. No picture, sorry, but value: $12.
Finally, I ended my culinary tour at 800 Degrees, their pizza place. I had the margherita pizza and a beer. Value: $14.
Also, I won a grand at the craps table in between drinks and food, which was awesome.
Overall, I gotta hand it to the SLS- they put on quite a show. Maybe with the W opening it’ll breathe some new life into the property- but the pieces are there!
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