Category Archives: Sleep

Experience: Shockoe in 24 Hours

Urban Farmhouse Market & Café - Richmond, Va.

Urban Farmhouse Market & Café – Richmond, Va.

I was visiting family near Richmond, Va. area over the past few days for the holidays.  My decision to stay downtown was a strategic one because I desperately needed content for TravelReider, and, in 41 years, I have never stepped foot in the city.

Growing up, Richmond was a passthrough from Washington, D.C. to other points south, mainly the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Florida.  From the backseat window traveling north to south on I-95, all I can remember was moving my eyes from the low-rise Robitussin manufacturing facility on the right, to dilapidated row houses on the left, to VCU’s concrete buildings on the right, then to the stately Main Street Station–its rich, brick beauty brutally robbed by an eerie, futuristic interstate–on the left, and finally, the big cigarette welcoming travelers to Philip Morris on the right.

Blink a few times, smoke up if you’re one to indulge, and continue on.  That was Richmond to me.

It wasn’t until I started reading about the Shockoe neighborhood downtown that I became interested in actually visiting the city.

Shockoe, seated on the James River and bordering the financial district to the southeast, has roots dating back to the 1600s when it was used for trading and commerce. Over the decades, it’s been restored, revitalized, and repurposed.

For someone who doesn’t own a car, it’s also a walker’s dream.

Here are some highlights on where to go and what to do while on foot in Shockoe:

  • Arrive:  Oddly, Richmond’s Staple Mill Road Station, located on the outskirts of town, has more arrivals and departures during the day than its Main Street Station.  To reach downtown by train, you will need to book your ticket to arrive at the Main Street Station. In my experience, however, trains from Washington, D.C. arrive in the morning and depart in the evening the next day.  Perfect.
  • Sleep:  Stay at the Berkeley Hotel on East Cary Street.  It’s about a seven-minute walk from the Main Street Station.  The hotel, built in 1988, looks much older style-wise and complements Shockoe’s architecture.  It’s spotless, elegant, and reasonably priced, even during the holidays.  The daytime front desk manager and concierge, Starlett, is a breath of fresh air and offers visitors efficient and much-appreciated personalized attention.
  • Eat:  You’re going to need some food and caffeine for your urban hike around Shockoe. Check out the Urban Farmhouse Market & Café a block down from the Berkeley Hotel at E. Cary and S. 13th Streets.  The café offers coffee, snacks, and lunch options in a cozy, coffeehouse environment.
  • Visit:  Conjure up your days as a student of literature and indulge your gothic sensibility by visiting the Edgar Allan Poe Museum on E. Main Street past the Main Street Station. The building where it’s housed is the oldest standing building in Richmond.
  • Hike:  Follow E. Main Street to Libby Hill Park and hike the steps to the monument. There, you will have amazing views of the James River and downtown Richmond.

I’m sure there are countless places I’ve omitted, particularly as one ventures out to other neighborhoods.  As a result, I have several reasons to return in the future.

Photos will follow soon in the photo galleries.  In the meantime, check out these links:

The Berkeley Hotel
The Urban Farmhouse & Café
The Edgar Allan Poe Museum

 

 

Sleep: Bow Apartment in London’s East End

Bow Road - Underground

Bow Road – Underground

In my last post, I discussed some of the advantages of renting an apartment or house over staying in a hotel while on vacation.

A rental can be advantageous if you:  want creature comforts such as a kitchen or in-unit laundry; need more space if traveling with others; or are arranging a trip where you want to stay in a fixed location with opportunities to take day trips to nearby destinations.

Sometimes, you just want to stay in an unfamiliar part of a city to get away from the bustle and experience something new that the average tourist wouldn’t see.

All of the above defined our experience in Bow, in London’s East End.

The Bow district, where the Bow Apartment is located, is in the culturally rich Tower Hamlets borough of East London.  Suffering extensive damage from bombings in World War II and having a history of crime and poverty, the borough has been reinventing itself over the years and has become an attractive area to visit or call home.  In fact, nearby Stratford was selected to house Olympic Park, where the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games were held.

Bow shares the borough with nearby Canary Wharf, the redeveloped financial district of shimmering glass buildings; Whitechapel, home of the infamous “Whitechapel Murders” that took place in the late 19th century; and Mile End, to name a few.  The lush and expansive Victoria Park is also located in Tower Hamlets and offers plenty of green space for sports and relaxation.

The Bow Apartment is located less than a block from the Bow Road Underground Station on the District and Hammersmith & City lines.  It’s also a 10-minute walk from the Mile End Underground Station offering the fastest transportation to Covent Garden, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Oxford Circus.  The Bow Church DLR station, located minutes east of the Bow Apartment  offers transportation to Canary Wharf and Greenwich.  Interested in enjoying late night London while riding a double-decker bus?  The 25 bus stops in front of the Bow Apartment, runs 24 hours a day, and will drop you off in Central London.

The secure apartment is on the first floor of a historic residence with only a few steps to climb, making it perfect for those who have difficulty climbing stairs.  The main entrance and unit are secured and are accessed with separate keys.

Inside, the apartment contains two chic and well-appointed bedrooms with ample dresser and wardrobe space, a small but functional bathroom, modern kitchen, and a comfortable sofa to stretch out on after a long day of exploring.  Interested in cooking?  The apartment has a range, oven, microwave, and dishwasher.  Plates, cups, and utensils are also provided.

Nowadays, customers are demanding Wi-Fi in every rental.  Wi-Fi is included in the Bow Apartment rental and I found the signal to be strong.

One important selling point not found in many of the apartments we researched was the in-unit washer/dryer located in the kitchen.  Use of the washer/dryer is included in the rental and helps to lighten your load, so to speak, creating more room in your suitcase for souvenirs.

Finally, what made our stay particularly enjoyable was the welcome we received from the owner Babs.  Our flight arrived early on a Saturday and we were weary from our journey, not to mention exhausted from dragging our baggage halfway across the city from the airport on the Underground.

Babs accommodated our earlier check-in and gave us a detailed tour of the apartment with instructions on how to use all of the gadgets and appliances.  He also gave us his cell phone number in case of an emergency.

We only had two complaints.  While the neighborhood is plentiful with restaurants and pubs, it lacks a decent market.  We had our choice between a neglected Tesco and a mini-mart connected to a gas station.  However, we took advantage of the Tesco and Sainsbury’s in and around places we were sightseeing and brought back fruit and snacks.  We also visited the Borough Market near the Southwark Cathedral where we bought paella with chorizo and homemade meat pies to take back to the apartment.  (They also traveled well on the Underground.)

The other complaint (which is more of a suggestion) is that the owner requires the tenants to wash and dry all of the towels and linens, clean the kitchen and bathroom, and sweep the floors prior to departure.  Given the stress involved in repacking for an early flight the following day while wanting to enjoy the last night at the Bow Apartment, I’d suggest hiring a cleaning crew and either include it in the rental or give the tenant the option to choose if he or she wants to add the service or clean the apartment.

All things considered, our stay at Bow Apartment in the quirky and out-of-the way borough of Tower Hamlets provided us with an opportunity to live like a local, knock around a side of London not usually experienced by tourists, and bounce west within the city by tube and bus and even farther west by train to Wales.

Booking details can be found here.

Interested in snaps from London?  Visit the photo gallery.

Sleep: Your Home Away in London Town

Bow Apartment - London

Bow Apartment – London

A few years back, pop star Gwen Stefani’s song “Rich Girl” featured a line that talked about booking a first-class ticket to a fancy house in London town.  (I’m paraphrasing.)

Chances are, Gwen Stefani is neither reading this post, nor does she have to worry about money.  However, if you’re like me, are on a budget, and traveling with parents, you may be wondering how to maximize your experience without worrying about spending a lot.

Let’s put it out there.  The British pound’s exchange rate has been worse for Americans than the Euro’s. London is also an expensive city to visit.

Should that dissuade you from visiting and taking advantage of the history, culture, sights, and diverse gastronomy?  I’m biased because I love to travel, so I’ll say no; don’t let higher expenses stop you.

Aside from getting to London, your biggest expense will probably be sleeping in London.  You have several choices:  friends, hostels, hotels, guesthouses, or apartments.  Since I was traveling with parents, and none of us had ever been to the U.K., I wanted to set up house, so to speak, somewhere that offered space, good transportation, safety, and local flair.

Web sites like VRBO, Airbnb, and HomeAway, and Booking.com, to name a few, have exploded in popularity, offering several, often cheaper alternatives to hotels and hostels.  The sites offer anything from full-service aparthotels and studio apartments for one person, to larger apartments and homes for several.  To date, I’ve had positive experiences going the non-hotel route when staying in Brussels, Rome, Montréal, and London.

If you don’t mind doing a little research and asking questions, you can find your perfect vacation rental in London town or anywhere else you decide to visit.

Here are some tips:

  • Read reviews and cross-reference them.  If you are on one site such as Home Away, visit another like Trip Advisor to see what people are saying about the property that interests you.  Chances are, if it’s an apartment or house, reviewers tend to be honest and detailed about the location, check in/out process, and amenities.  Large hotels, on the other hand, can receive a smattering of positive and negative reviews simply because people have different experiences based on the room they’re in.
  • Use a reputable rental site such as VRBO or Home Away.  Both provide rental protection in case you need to cancel or if you arrive and the property is not as advertised.  I steer clear of Craigslist for rentals since many have been known to be scams.  You don’t want to arrive in another city halfway around the world with no place to stay.
  • Contact the owner with your questions first before booking.  Sites such as VRBO and Holiday Lettings, among others, have a contact form where you can ask a few simple questions and get a response by e-mail.
  • Be mindful of the check-in/check-out guidelines for each rental.  If your flight, for example, arrives at 7 a.m. and check-in is at 3 p.m., ask for an earlier check-in or if there’s a place to store baggage while the apartment or house is being prepared.
  • Most rentals I’ve used require a deposit for booking.  Never send cash or wire money that can’t be traced or re-claimed (e.g., money order, MoneyGram, Western Union etc.). Many proprietors in Europe, for example, ask for money to be wired to them through a bank transfer.  This process is safer because your money can be traced and you can take action to try to get a refund if you suspect fraud.  Always check with your bank first on their guidelines and ask questions about “what ifs” if you are using a wire transfer for the first time.  My experience is that transfers can cost up to $35.  It’s worth looking into to send money safely.  Other options are Paypal and Google Wallet.
  • Finally, be aware of your online “social presence”.  Airbnb, for example, asks you to create a simple profile when you register.  Property owners can get a glimpse of who you are and your interests.  Like any social media-related site you may use, impressions can be indelible.  Make sure you have an appropriate photo and description that shows you’re responsible and would be a good caretaker of a property rental.

There are certainly more and if you have any suggestions, leave them in the comments.

London town, or wherever you land doesn’t have to break the bank.  Your accommodations can even provide you with creature comforts of home if you want to just kick back and relax.  Isn’t that what vacation is for?

Up next, I’ll review our apartment rental in East London.

Eat & Sleep: Francs and Beans

bdennisreid

bdennisreid

Switzerland can be yours for fewer francs than you may realize.

The landlocked country offers limitless opportunities for sightseeing and experiences for those who love to get out and explore the natural world.  From hiking through the snow in Leysin, to climbing a church tower in Bern or Fribourg, boredom has a scant chance of creeping in during a visit.

Ask a person what they think of when you mention Switzerland, and they’ll probably respond with:  The Alps, chocolate, knives, and watches.

However, how do you respond when the person clutches his or her proverbial purse strings and responds with “a post-vacation diet of beans”, like a friend of mine did when I mentioned I was traveling to Lake Geneva with my parents last May?

My friend’s response was somewhat fair.  According to Mercer, a human resources consulting firm, Geneva, Zurich, and Bern have found themselves in a Top 10 list of the most expensive cities for expatriates in 2013.  A quick cost-of-living comparison on Numbeo, a site that itemizes expenditures such as meals at restaurants, transportation, apartment rentals, and groceries, among others, confirmed that our destination in Lake Geneva was going to be higher than Washington, DC and much higher than coastal North Carolina where my parents live.

Even though other countries in the euro zone surround Switzerland, its form of currency is the Swiss franc, abbreviated as CHF.  Back when I was planning the trip, research confirmed that compared to the U.S. dollar, there was about a one-dollar-to-one-Swiss-franc exchange rate with a few extra pennies thrown across the Atlantic in the direction of Switzerland.  The comparison gave me some relief that the trip wouldn’t result in being “travel poor” even though goods and services are more expensive than what I was accustomed to in Washington.

I argue that frugal travelers can live rich while on vacation when they subtract expensive hotels, extravagant meals, and pricey tourist traps, and add free outdoor sightseeing excursions, low-cost cultural activities, and flavorful regional meals at cafés, sandwich shops, and walk-up food kiosks.

Minus a few meal splurges, we used our trips to the Coop and Migros supermarkets to our advantage.   First, we bought fresh fruit and non-perishables for breakfast and on-the-go snacks.  Second, several supermarkets have restaurants where we ate salads, quiches, sandwiches, and hearty meals (served on ceramic dishes and not on paper plates or in wrappers) while overlooking Lake Geneva into France.  Compared to full-service restaurant dining, we dined on fresh food for about 15-20 CHF per person.

Lodging wise, Geneva was out of the question not due to price, but availability.  Affordable hotels and apartments just weren’t available for the dates we selected.  Widening the search, I discovered Lausanne, the second-largest city on Lake Geneva.  Staying in Lausanne proved to be the best choice because it offered easy access by bus, light rail, train, and boat to the sites surrounding the Lake since it’s location is a little more than halfway between Geneva and Montreux.

Out of our choices, the Ibis Lausanne Centre won. Like any chain, I had heard good and bad things and had experienced excellent service and cleanliness in one city, and near paltry conditions in another.

The Ibis Lausanne Centre is a newer property with modern room decor, fresh bedding, wood floors cleaned daily, a large shower, and best of all, a price tag that allowed for separate rooms for my parents and me.  Much like its environs on Lake Geneva, the hotel is immaculate.  It also offers an efficient check-in/out process and coffee service in the morning that complemented our light breakfast.

As a bonus, the property throws in a public transportation pass (Lausanne only) for the duration of the stay, which came in handy for those days when we were too sore to hike from the train station uphill to the hotel via Avenue de Beaulieu.  The 3 and the 21 buses service the Lausanne Gare station and stop next to the hotel.  Also, the Riponne light rail station on the m2 line is a short walk from the hotel in a bustling shopping district and in a six stops will take you Lake Geneva.

The only complaint was that the rooms didn’t cool off during the first few days of the visit.  We were told by a front desk attendant that there was a hotel-wide outage with the air conditioning system.  However, the issue was fixed within a day and lucky for us, the remainder of the trip was cool and rainy making sleeping at night comfortable in an otherwise stuffy room.

One word about the flight cost to Geneva…I am not United Airlines’ biggest fan.  I’ve been delayed several times when traveling overseas and have found the response from employees to be lackluster as if delays are the norm and not the exception.  However, my non-stop flight from Washington, Dulles was only $950, and my parents’ flight that originated in Norfolk and connected through Dulles was around $925 per ticket, making it a cheaper destination for the time of year over other destinations such as Paris.

Therefore, consider Switzerland and rest easy knowing that you can fly, buy, eat, and sleep without becoming “vacation poor”, thus allowing you to experience all that this stunning  country offers.

In my next posts, I’ll discuss “leaving” the EU and high-altitude anxiety.

Interested in snaps from Switzerland and the Lake Geneva area?  Visit the photo gallery.

Sleep: Hotel Petit in The Hague

Hotel Petit - Den Haag Courtesy of Hotel Petit's Web site at: hotelpetit.nl

Hotel Petit – Den Haag
Courtesy of Hotel Petit’s Web site at: hotelpetit.nl

My trip last month to The Hague was a result of a mishmash of several different possibilities location-wise.  Europe is like that.  You can get anywhere by train from your landing and/or stationing points, which makes it difficult to choose where to go and what to see.  I’m not one for grand excursions lasting weeks, so time and careful planning were of the essence.

I started in Paris as my landing and departure point.  At the last minute, I decided to go northeast to The Hague in the Netherlands.

I had only visited the Netherlands once.  I was in Amsterdam, we called the country Holland, and the currency used was the gilder.  A day trip to Amsterdam was my minor segue into Dutch culture.  I was 17.

For my second visit, I settled on The Hague, a city located in the southwest part of the Netherlands.  It offered salty air from the North Sea; reasonable pricing on hotels, restaurants, and shopping; and pristine streets.

Pinning a dart on an Orbitz hotel location and only having days to rearrange my itinerary, I decided on the Hotel Petit in The Hague.  It looked good from the reviews and I like it when hotel managers respond to Tripadvisor rants and raves.  The hotel could also accommodate my last-minute change of plans.

I couldn’t have made a better choice.

According to their Web site, the hotel is comprised of two mansions built in 1895.  I like old things and collect old photos, postcards, and vinyl records.  At home, I live in a pre-war building.  I’m used to character, quirks, and a lot of historical charm.

Emma, the manager, as well as all of the employees at the Hotel Petit couldn’t have been more welcoming.  I received personalized B&B service at a Best Western chain hotel.

My room was on the third floor and had a single bed; a few creature comforts such as a TV, refrigerator, and snacks; a large bathroom; and strong Wi-Fi service that was included in the stay.  I was checked in quickly and promptly given an orientation to The Hague.

The service and hospitality at the Hotel Petit goes far beyond a hello, nod, or a Hopje (coffee-flavored hard candy) laid on the pillow.  Becoming oriented to a new town is difficult, especially if you don’t know the language.  Yes, everyone in The Hague seems to speak English as it’s the center of politics (local and international) for the Netherlands, but learning a few phrases in Dutch can prove to be helpful when attempting to blend in and meet people.

I immediately asked about local transportation to the beach and city center.  The Hotel Petit is not located in the city center, but is close to everything whether traveling by foot, tram, bus, or cab.

I was issued an OV Chip Card for bus and tram service for five Euros along with instructions on how to reload it and where.  Many grocery stores allow you to “top up” your OV Chip Card and you can also add money at the kiosk at Centraal Station.  I was also sold a map for an additional five Euros and given explicit directions to where I wanted to go, eliminating the need for my iPhone other than for Instagramming my way around town.

My stay of four nights was peaceful and comfortable.  The Hotel Petit is located in the heart of the embassies, which made me feel at home like I was in Washington.  From a customer service standpoint, I had my tourist-related questions answered.  I was pointed to the 24 bus to get to city center; given directions to get to Scheveningen, the well-known beach resort for The Hague; and taught how to navigate the tram system, located four blocks away.  (The Line 3 to Loosduinen will get you close to the Hotel Petit according to Google maps, but the 24 bus will get you closer.  I learned this quickly.)

I only ate breakfast once at the hotel.  It was simple, fresh, and ample.  A few posters on Tripadvisor called it expensive, but at 10 Euros (including a rich-tasting coffee) I found it to be more than reasonable.

For the value, I found the Hotel Petit to be safe, clean, and quirky in its old-world-yet-fashionable way.

One morning, I left the hotel late and got a glimpse of a room that faced the rear of the hotel.  Not only did it have a larger bed, it also had a sofa and small terrace with double doors.  I was told by hotel staff that the rooms in the back were more peaceful than the rooms in the front where I was staying because they overlooked a small garden and not the street.

Happy with my stay, I told Emma that I’d be booking a room in the rear of the hotel on my return visit.

Note:  Concerned about the hike to the third floor while staying in a historic building?  There is elevator service at the Hotel Petit if you need assistance.  While I took the stairs every day to my third-floor room, it was nice to know that elevator service was available for hauling luggage.

Interested in snaps from The Hague and Amsterdam?  Visit the photo gallery.