Grand Old Hotels: Some are grander than others

There’s something so romantic about the idea of those grand, old hotels of yesteryear. The long, low buildings with those wrap-around porches overlooking a tranquil lake, palm plants in the lobby where a string quartet plays. And the guests are elegantly attired and enjoying a serene holiday away from the heat of the city. Epitomized in that 1980 film Somewhere in Time, these hotels have always held an allure for us. Remember that movie? Just look at the hotel!

Well, that hotel, The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan is still on our bucket list, but we’ve visited a few others and have just returned from one that we thought might be the luxury experience they advertise. We have just returned from The Sagamore Resort in upstate New York.

The Sagamore Resort with its porch facing Lake George, New York.
The entrance to the Sagamore. This is the historic hotel where we stayed, but there are many modern “lodges” on the resort property.

When we first visited their web site to book, we were enthralled by the drone footage of this incredible resort on a private island on Lake George. And there was the iconic hotel design. It was love at first sight. They refer to themselves as “Lake George’s premier luxury resort” and with a price tag of nearly $800.00 a night for a water view room in the main historic hotel, how could we go wrong? Let us count the ways.

Being on a summer road trip, we had just come from the Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, another of the grand old hotels that we have visited many times.

Their grounds are not nearly so grand as the Sagamore’s, but their main historic hotel rooms are wonderful and the price? We paid less than $300 (Canadian) for what turned out to be a far superior room and a more luxurious experience. But, what about the Sagamore? Our story covers the good, the bad and the very ugly.

Let’s start with the good bits. When approached, the staff are, to a person, attentive, friendly and personable. From the valets parking our car to the housekeeping staff, we had not complaints in that department. Then there was the food. It was exceptional for hotel dining. We enjoyed La Dolce Vita, their main dining room as well as al fresco dining at The Pavilion.

Margaritas on the deck at The Pavilion.

But the pièce de résistance had to be the wonderful Grill at the golf course. Off-site, it was serene, peaceful and served wonderful steaks. And the service was impeccable. And the grounds are lovely (we enjoyed them as long as we stayed away from the pool, beach and anywhere that was populated – more about why in a minute).

A cruise on the Sagamore’s “The Morgan” is included in your resort fee. We highly recommend taking advantage of this.

So, those were the good bits. Now for the bad bits.

The room. Furnished in an historic style, the room was just a very ordinary, tired-looking hotel room. For the price, we have had so much better. Can we talk about dust encrustation on parts of the bathroom and dust in the crevices of the old dressers – and there were lots of crevices. The carpets were not fresh either. But the bathroom had been renovated and was acceptable (except for that dirt).

Patty enjoying a glass of champagne (which we brought with us) in our $$$ room. Yes, that’s how small it was.

The hotel is old so the noise tends to permeate, but that wouldn’t have been a problem if it were not for…the ugly bits.

The place was crawling with children. Loud children. Whining children. Children running amok through dining rooms, hallways, outdoor walkways, the “beach”, the pool. You name it, they made the experience like being in Dante’s ninth circle of hell. We chatted with a young couple from Boston who had just arrived and were surprised to see so many children. You see, they had read the promotional material and had left their children at home with the grand-parents for a brief, romantic getaway. At that point, it wasn’t looking so romantic to them.

Overall, we tend to be able to have a good time wherever we go, but this was such a disappointment that we will not make that mistake again. It is not a luxury experience in any way, shape or form. It is just expensive. We will head to The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in the off-season and hope for that serene experience.

Cruising to Chile: Live Blog #1 (Key West)

Ernest Hemingway loved the place… the conch republic as they call it. Of course today we’re in Key West. And it’s only month post hurricane Irma. The local residents have done a heroic job of clean-up. There’s some evidence of damage, but the hurricane has clearly not dampened the laid-back ambiance that is so characteristic of Key West.

We took ourselves on a walking tour to the southernmost point in the US then down Duval Street for a bit of hat shopping.

Buying a new sun hat at “Hot Hats” on Duval Street with proprietor, Terry Lipsky.

The rain started in earnest, pounding down to the point of mini flooding. It’s not hard to imagine what it must have been like in a hurricane.

We’re truly enjoying the Silver Muse…she’s a beautiful ship and our suite is lovely. Tomorrow we’ll be at sea and on our way to Costa Rica.

From the biggest to the smallest: San Diego’s best attractions for discerning travelers

IMG_4476Sometimes a travel experience involves a tried and true tourist attraction; other times you find those off-the-beaten path places that no one else seems to find. Either way, they can have their charms.

Last month we visited San Diego for the first time in over a quarter of a century. When people think of tourist attractions in San Diego, the first thing that usually comes to mind is their zoo, and so we made our way from our hotel on the edge of the Gaslight District to the San Diego Zoo only to find ourselves in a morass of people. Having visited the Taronga Zoo in Sydney Australia within the last couple of years, we found the San Diego experience to be lacking in appeal, so we had to find other attractions. Enter the USS Midway.

For many Americans, visiting this floating museum, an actual post-World War II aircraft carrier, likely evokes feelings of patriotism and awe of the US military machine. For us non-Americans, it was an experience of quite a different kind.

There is no doubt about it: there is something awe-inspiring about the sheer size of a vessel of this kind. The hangar deck, the flight deck, not to mention the miles and miles of corridors. We marveled at how a young sailor or air man could possibly have found his way around the carrier on first deployment.

The carrier itself was commissioned a week after the end of World War II and had the distinction of being the largest ship in the world until 1955. During her 47-year career in the US naval fleet, she participated in many important actions including the Vietnam war and Operation Desert Storm. Walking around the ship and exploring its labyrinth of corridors, you get a real sense of history. The curators of this “museum” have done a spectacular job of evoking the life and times of this massive ship.

We arrived early – about 15 minutes before it opened at 10 am – and found ourselves in an already forming line. Once the gates opened, however, we moved quickly and spent the next two hours exploring. It is not a place for anyone with mobility issues – and for the love of God leave the strollers at home! There are many steep stairways and the corridors move from one water-tight space to the next requiring you to step up and over the barriers where the doors shut. Leave the very little ones at home if you want to really experience this museum.

So, we found that massive tourist attraction – then marveled at the opposite end of the size spectrum at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Fascinated by all things miniature (we’ll tell you about the Arizona Art Museum’s offering next week), Patty had discovered that this museum occupied a floor of one of the buildings at Balboa Park.

It is the largest indoor model railroad exhibit in North America and its 27,000 square feet are pure pleasure. Just as we marveled at the sheer massiveness of the Midway, we were equally awestruck by the workmanship of the miniature worlds created by the model railroad artisans.

This is a place that you can take younger children who will be mesmerized by the miniature worlds and the trains making their way through various landscapes.

It was lovely and quiet there that day and we were delighted to have experienced it.

The Midway has to be seen to be believed, so if you have a moment, click through our video and then make plans to get there on your next trip to San Diego.

 

When a reservation is not a reservation: On the ‘keeping’ of reservations

This is a story about reservations. It’s about what they are, why discerning travelers make them and why it’s a problem when a hotel, car rental agency or – in the case of this particular story – restaurant doesn’t seem to have the same understanding.

Before we begin, though, let’s have a bit of a primer on what a reservation means, and no one says it better than Jerry Seinfeld in the old scene “The Car Rental.”

Unless you’re fond of those spur-of-the-moment trips where you’re happy to just get in the car and go, every travel experience starts with a reservation of one sort or another. There are different kinds of reservations.

When we “reserve” an airplane ticket, we have about ten minutes to complete the transaction and pay. In these cases, we expect the reservation to be “held” because we have a fully paid ticket which we expect to form a contract for the airline to carry us where we plan to go. Well, it does – but not always in the way that we might have liked. Have you ever been “bumped” on an over-sold flight? The airline still has the obligation to get you to your destination, just not necessarily on that flight.

We make hotel reservations without paying up front. However, in most cases, they require a credit card to “guarantee” the reservation. This is their guarantee of payment, not your actual guarantee of a room. If you fail to show up, they will charge you the first night’s fee. If you arrive and they have no room for you, you have little recourse. We all hope this won’t ever happen, but it can.

Years ago we were flying to London for a European tour with our then ten-year-old son. It was an overnight flight arriving in London around 6:30 am. We had been through this before, arriving at a hotel and having to stow luggage for hours while we dragged our jet-lagged selves around until we could check in. This time we thought we were smart. We booked the hotel room for the night before so that we could have the room the minute we arrived – albeit late, but we had a reservation and knew we’d be paying for the room. It turned out that the hotel took our reservation, charged us for the night and promptly sold the room to someone else. When we arrived they had no room for us – not even the room we had paid for. Naturally we were not happy. So this brings us to our most recent “reservation” issue.

marriott san diego waterfront
The Marriott Marquis on the San Diego waterfront. Roy’s is right along here.

Three weeks ago we found ourselves in downtown San Diego for a few nights. We’re great believers in Open Table for finding interesting dining spots, and love the ease of use and how happy we’ve been with the results. So we went on Open Table and booked a dinner reservation at Roy’s.

 

One of the few fine dining spots on the San Diego waterfront, Roy’s is also “conveniently located at the Marriott Hotel”[1]. Since Art is a lifetime Gold Marriott and we carry a Marriott credit card when we travel in the US (no extra exchange fee and extra Marriott points are among the features), we were delighted to make this reservation and looked forward to it. We were set for 6:45 pm.

We arrived at Roy’s at 6 pm so that we could enjoy a pre-dinner drink at their lovely bar. We checked in with the hostess who said she’d be along to get us in due course. We enjoyed a gin and tonic in the bar watching people come and go to the dining room. By 6:50 pm we had not been summoned so we paid our bar bill and went back to the hostess stand where we received some surprising information.

“Oh,” she said, “there is no table available.”

“Excuse us? We have a 6:45 reservation,” about which we informed the hostess on our arrival 50 minutes earlier at 6 pm, at which point a manager presented himself. No table at present; no table in the foreseeable future (foreseeable in our view being the next five minutes).

We indicated to him that we make reservations so that there can, indeed, be a table available at the appointed time. He had the audacity to stand directly in front of us, beaming from ear to ear in the smarmiest of ways and said, “We have lingerers tonight.”

Well, need we say it again? But we did inform him again of the purpose of a reservation. We might have even mentioned the Seinfeld scene. He stood there smiling. No table.

It is true that restaurants cannot always be assured that the tables will empty at the time they expect them to, but they also have an obligation to the patrons who make reservations. This is a management issue.

The thing that was most infuriating about this whole scenario was not the unfulfilled reservation, rather it was the attitude and arrogant nature of the manager who stood in front of us grinning like a Cheshire cat. Good customer service practice would suggest first apologizing, indicating when a table might be available and offering us a free drink, or the like, while we wait. None of these things happened.

Roy’s advertises itself as being “at the Marriott Hotel” and the Marriott Marquis Hotel web site lists Roy’s under their “dining at this hotel” which, regardless of whether the Roy’s employees are Marriott employees or not, clearly associates the brand with Marriott. Based on our many years of Marriott stays, the customer service mentality displayed that evening did not do Marriott proud. They should be ashamed of their association.

So, what did we do?

We said good evening and turned on our heel to seek another place to eat. We were rewarded by finding Sally’s just a short way down the boardwalk. Sally’s had a table and treated us wonderfully.

To add insult to injury, the staff at Roy’s indicated to Open Table that we were no-shows for our reservation, a situation that we never would allow to happen. Thankfully, Art was able to straighten things out with Open Table, but it seemed like a bit of a slap from Roy’s. We had indeed, shown up for our reservation. Roy’s, as Jerry would have said, knows how to take a reservation, they just don’t know how to keep a reservation – which, as we know, is the whole point of a reservation. Shame on them.

[1] Exact wording from their web site: https://www.roysrestaurant.com/locations/ca/waterfront