Making Discerning Travel choices: A tale of two inns

adirondack-chairsThere is nothing quite like an extended road trip to teach you a few things about making discerning travel choices. We have just returned from a three-stage trip that took us from Toronto through the Niagara peninsula to upstate New York then on to New Hampshire, New Brunswick and ending up in (stage two) Halifax, Nova Scotia for a five-day stop to visit friends and family. The third stage took us home from Halifax via Nova Scotia’s south shore, St. Andrews, New Brunswick then on to Wentworth-by-the Sea in New Hampshire and Lake Placid NY before arriving back in Toronto. Planning this kind of trip can tax the discernment of even the most seasoned of us! And plan we do.

There are road-trippers who can just pack a bag, throw it in the trunk and set off in a direction with little idea of where they might be stopping, eating, sleeping or even ending up. We are not like that. We like new experiences and discovering the delights of new places, but we don’t like to be surprised by our accommodation. This may hearken back to Patty’s childhood when family holidays to visit the grandmother consisted of three or four days in the car punctuated by nights in roadside motels – the kind with those plastic chairs outside of every door and your car parked nose up to your window. And of course the choice was based on which ones had “vacancy” signs out front when her father was tired of driving. Leaves too much to chance for discerning travelers of a certain age. So we conduct our due diligence, plot a course, book the hotels and set out. This time we stayed at a few tried-and-true properties, but opted for some new experiences. We were mostly happy, but at least one of our choices taught us yet new lessons about discernment.

As we’ve said before, the discerning traveler is a discriminating traveler.

“This is the traveler who is astute, judicious, perceptive, sensitive, insightful. It’s not necessarily for the ‘luxury’ traveler…travelers who want to see the world and want to do it in a way that is comfortable and makes them feel that travel itself is a luxury…”

In addition to this, discerning travelers want to be assured that they are getting value for the amount of money that they are willing to pay. Almost always, this pays off in experiences that we truly savour. This time we had one experience that didn’t meet its mark. It’s all a matter of expectations. The story involves two inns in the north-eastern US – one in upstate New York, the other in northern New Hampshire in the White Mountains.

The first stop on our road trip was Geneva, New York. A lovely little town located on the northern end of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York, Geneva is home to the beautiful Hobart and William Smith Colleges that meant nothing to us until we realized they are the successor of what used to be Geneva College, including Geneva Medical College. We recognized that as the alma mater of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US in 1849. The campus is beautiful and the ambience very cultured.

img_3874We selected Geneva-on-the Lake, a beautiful inn which is, as its name suggests, on the lake. Its history dates to 1910 when it was built as a private residence for a prominent Geneva resident. After the original owner died, his wife and son expanded the original house relying heavily on an aesthetic they had picked up on visits to Italy: it is reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance. In 1949 they sold it to the Capuchin Fathers, a branch of the Franciscan order after which it served as a seminary and monastery until 1974. Remnants of that life are still evident. For four years in the 1970’s it housed Vietnam veterans as well as students, but had periods of abandonment. It was restored to its current state in the early 1980’s and has been a year-round resort ever since.

We had booked a small suite and when we arrived we found we had been upgraded to a very large one. Knowing we were booking into an old property, we were nevertheless impressed with the upkeep of the building and especially its environment. The dining room was absolutely perfect, serving truly gourmet fare surrounded by a romantic ambience that included a live harpist. And the grounds were a delight. The expensive price tag was worth it. Then we were on to Saratoga Springs followed by Franconia, New Hampshire where we stayed at inn number two.

img_3937The Franconia Inn also has a history. Also situated on a large piece of property (in this case evidently 107 acres), this inn dates to 1863 and its focus is on downhill skiing in the nearby Franconia notch area as well as cross-country-skiing and hiking. It also has a stable for horseback riding.

We arrived at this inn to be greeted by a slightly sloppy-looking, harried front-desk clerk who was on the phone telling a client that indeed they did have rooms available for that night. When we finally checked in, we had to drag our bags up the front steps (yes, there is a ramp, but it does not lead to anywhere near the driveway and lands in an unpaved parking lot shared by the riding stables), then up a full flight of stairs to the second floor.

We had booked what they referred to as a “spacious” room – level three out of four levels they offer (good lord, what must the “cozy” rooms look like?). Anyway, it had no phone to even call the front desk to ask for towels nor did it have a television. This is not a big issue, but it’s the twenty-first century and this is not an ashram hosting a meditation retreat. The bathroom was small and pokey, but worst of all in it was the trickle of water that passed for a shower the next morning. The wallpaper was hideous, but that’s just a taste thing. Then there was the outdoor activity.

First, this inn is not located in the kind of place that Geneva-on-the-Lake is. It is a few miles from town on a small highway with its unpaved parking lot across the street. That meant that we’d focus on the walking trails that the front desk clerk told us were out behind the inn. She handed us a map and we were off.

We found the place where the grass was cut deeper and noted the first marker leading us to the trail, so we were off. It wasn’t long before we began to notice that the trail was not, in fact, maintained. It was only as wide as the horses needed: it was a horse trail. We walked further and found not a single other marker to indicate the direction we should go and the trail got narrower and muddier as we went. Finally, we came upon a small river. Frozen in winter, it would be a simple cross for a cross-country skier or even a horse in summer, but we had neither horses nor skis. The only way out was back the way we came. By the time we emerged from the “trail” our feet were soaked and filthy. When we told the desk clerk about the lack of maintenance, she rather unhelpfully said, “Oh.”

Finally, there ws the dining experience. The dining room is billed online as having “intimate candle lit tables” that take in the “spectacular view of the White Mountain landscape.” We’ll grant them that it was a dull and drizzly type of day, but there was absolutely no view whatsoever, and we seem to have missed the intimacy of this room that simply looked like a dining room in an old restaurant. The food was very good, though. Our main issue was with the service. At dinner that evening, there was a line up for seating in the sparsely populated space – there were servers about, but there did not seem to be anyone seating people. The next morning, we encountered the opposite problem: all the servers (three of them) were seating people, but there was no one to take orders. So we sat at our little table and froze for a while, then fled as quickly as possible to get into the car and onto the next stop.

The bottom line is that both of these experiences cost almost identical amounts of money (fairly pricey), and yet the experience was totally different. Our money was far better spent in the experience at Geneva than Franconia. The lesson for us: you can plan down to the final detail, then you have to let go and enjoy whatever experience pops up. We just laughed off the whole thing.

We look forward to returning to Geneva-on-the-Lake. Franconia Inn we’ll chalk up to experience.

Dressing for travel: A superficial consideration, or meaningful message?

How we dress when we travel is either a pointless consideration of the vain and frivolous among us, or it’s an important visual message that often conveys much more than we had planned. Discerning travelers know the answer: it is a significant factor in how travelers are perceived abroad.  It is also, however – and perhaps even more important in some venues – a powerful influence on how travelers behave.

The web is full of articles on how to dress for a long flight, things you should never wear when traveling abroad (usually these are directed toward Americans), do’s and don’t’s of travel dressing, and what seems to be the most searched for type of travel dress piece: how to dress for a cruise. We would suggest that when people search for articles on how to dress for travel in general and cruises in particular, they want to know how to feel comfortable – both physically and psychologically.  People who search for these answers care – as do we.

Throughout our years of travel via plane, train, car, ship, and on foot, we have observed that dressing is important in the following travel situations:

During airline travel: First, you need to be comfortable, but that doesn’t mean that you need to look like you just crawled out of bed with a hangover. Looking like you care often has the same effect on other people: they might just care about you should you run into difficulty. You can proclaim the superficiality of taking care when you travel, but there is ample evidence to support the contention that looking your best often helps to be treated well – like it or lump it. There is another important dressing guideline for air travel: dressing for the inevitable security check. We were once rushing through security to make a connection between Canada and the US onward and found ourselves in the security line behind a parent and teen-aged son. Said teen-aged son had clearly not received the memo about what a security screen would entail. He had layers upon layers of clothes that all had to be removed one at a time after going through the metal detector and back out of the metal detector. He had several chains around his neck, a chain holding his wallet to his trousers, and on and on. Not a pretty sight in any event, and we were purple with fury.

Touring cities: When we tour cities, we walk. That means footwear is our prime consideration, but it is not the only one. We prefer that our attire not scream “tourist”; this means that our footwear does not under any circumstances consist of white sneakers. Given the plethora of really lovely choices of walking shoes these days, it is puzzling to us how many people continue to wear these monstrosities. If you can afford to travel, you can afford a good-looking pair of walking shoes. As for clothing, it ought to be dictated by the weather and local customs. If you’re visiting Istanbul, for example, regardless of how hot it is, if you want to visit a mosque, you’re going to have to be respectful and dress the part. Check with the local tourist authorities for specifics so that you aren’t surprised by the posted signage. Women visiting conservative cities should always have a scarf in a handbag or around a neck for use as a head and shoulder cover.

On a cruise: When cruising, clothing needs to be dictated by itinerary

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Touring Olympia

(for example, people on South Pacific cruises dress differently than on Mediterranean cruises), weather and your choice of cruise line (Carnival cruises has a decidedly different expectation of how one will dress than does Seabourn, for example) – they all have differing levels of casual and formal requirements. For example, we’ve cruised on a number of lines that still have formal nights as well as a few that have gone upscale casual or what they call country-club. Oceania comes immediately to mind and we’ll be going country-club casual for the upcoming Caribbean venture, but we need to mindful that this means cocktail dresses on most evenings! (We can’t comment on the cruises that let people into the dining room in T-shirts and ball caps – we don’t even want to be near those dining rooms. Not our style.)

Dining out: Oh how we wish that dining out was still considered to be a treat to be cherished and prepared for by dressing a bit better than one might at one’s own kitchen table. Of course, it matters what kind of restaurant you’re going to be choosing – fast-food outlets are not restaurants. Wear what you want there! No one will bat an eye. But even if you don’t really care what you wear, it might be fun to see dining out as an actual occasion when you’re traveling. Stepping it up a bit can be entertaining, and at the risk of repeating ourselves, you’ll be treated better. You can protest this as much as you want, but it’s a fact of life. For many people – including maître d’s – dressing up a bit is a sign of respect for self and others.

At the theatre: We’ve observed that the theatre is not what it used to

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Going to the ballet during the summer season in Monte Carlo

be. Just last week we attended a big musical in downtown Toronto at the Ed Mirvish Theatre and we felt as if we had wandered into the economy section of a cut-rate airline. The truth is that in some parts of the world you’ll actually feel out of place if you don’t dress up a bit – and note that ballets and operas tend to have a more dressed-up audience. We noticed this in London and Sydney at the Opera House in particular. Don’t leave them off your travel lists, though; attending theatre performances in foreign cities is a real pleasure.

Obviously, you can wear whatever you want. We have noticed, however, that some people do care how they dress in general and while traveling in particular. If all of this sounds as if you will have to lug multiple suitcases, you won’t. We travel with one suitcase each regardless of the length of the trip –a weekend, one week, five weeks – it matters not. One suitcase. (It will probably be very small for a weekend!).

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Touring Rome

A discerning guide to hotel ratings

So, we’re in the process of planning a three-part winter trip to flee the Canadian winter for a while in early 2013.  We are already booked on our first Seabourn cruise aboard the Seabourn Spirit, and since it leaves from Barbados and ends in St. Martin, it only seemed natural that we’d book-end the cruise with vacations in Barbados and then St. Martin.  Can’t wait!  But, trying to find the right hotel or resort in which to spend a week or so in each place has proven to have eaten up more time than any of our numerous hotel/resort choices in the past.  It occurs to us that it’s at least partly because (a) the resources we have now are almost too-much-information; and (b) the ratings systems are so inconsistent and even, dare we say, capricious.

The view from the Ocean Grill in Grenada: Air Canada Vacations was our choice for booking this holiday — and it was a good one!

Let’s start where we usually start: namely our favorite hotel aggregator.  That would be Air Canada Vacations.  We have tended to use ACV in the past because we’re AC frequent fliers and can accumulate points by booking hotel packages through them, even if we’re not actually booking an air-hotel and/or cruise package, all of which can be done.  We have also often found that the package rate is better than booking hotels on their own (and we have absolutely no interest in those aggregators like Hotwire where you pay in advance and don’t know exactly where you’ll be staying – you may be able to save money that way, and we’re sure that many people enjoy this. We don’t.).  We had a great find in Paris a few years ago.  In fact, we have booked our Barbados hotel through ACV.

We wanted to experience The House on Barbados and it happened to be among the ACV offerings , and advertises with that enticing descriptor that we love so much: “adults-only.”  The rate was competitive and booking this way allows us to put down a deposit and then pay the whole thing in advance (with cancellation insurance, of course).  That way our entire holiday is paid for before we go, a feeling that we truly enjoy.  But trying to find a hotel in St. Martin was a different thing altogether.

To date, we are still not booked for that week of vacation, since somehow our first choice hotel on St. Martin, La Samanna, does not seem to be available any longer (according to our travel agent, and this despite the fact that today when we surfed over to the ACV site, it’s still listed).  So, we’re left trying to decipher the hotel rating systems to figure out where we’d like to stay.

Air Canada Vacations has their own rating system, and it does not necessarily reflect the systems by any other organizations, or countries for that matter (some countries, predominantly in Europe, have their own rating systems).

Air Canada Vacations’ Hotel Ratings explained.

Source: http://www.aircanadavacations.com/en/travel_information/ratings_explained

This explanation is helpful, but the way they rate is not the same as how others rate and we’re left scratching our heads.

One of the important considerations in deciphering rating systems is the rating organizations’ reason for doing the rating.  Are they trying to sell hotel rooms?  Are they a travel advice service only?  Or, as is the case so often now in this excess of information age, are they simply allowing people to post their own reviews from which an overall rating is then created?

Air Canada Vacations, and others like them, have a vested interest in having these ratings clearly establish certain parameters in the minds of consumers.  If they are wrong, or misleading in any way, not only will the customer not book that hotel again, the customer is unlikely to book any of their hotels again.  But, of course, sometimes customers disagree with the rater, or have a particularly bad experience that might not be the experience of the majority of others.

Then there are the ratings that are assigned by third-party organizations like Forbes.  They are not in the business of selling multiple hotel rooms, so their ratings are often viewed as more objective.  They have things like anonymous inspectors and consistent criteria that provide you with what is likely to be an overall more accurate rating than, say, customer-generated ratings.  For a very good explanation of rating systems, read the CN story The Dirty Truth About Hotel Ratings.

We have been reviewing hotels and restaurants on TripAdvisor for a while now, and we do use customer ratings, but recognizing their limitations, we do take them with a grain of salt.  We’ve discussed this before, and the overall ratings that come out of customer reviews are often baffling to us.  It seems that we are not looking for the same things as many of the reviewers (who are predominantly from the USA, by the way – and this makes a difference).

Other customer-generated ratings are published in magazines and on web sites as “readers’ choice” ratings or awards and are even more peculiar since anyone can vote and that anyone need not have ever traveled to more than that single hotel or been on any other cruise line to make a judgment about ‘favorite.’  But that’s a different story.

The bottom line is that to the discerning traveler, hotel rating systems are useful, but need to be taken into consideration only with an array of other information you have available to you.  So, where does that lead us in our search for the perfect spot to enjoy St. Martin?  Exactly nowhere at this stage.  We’re still looking!

Early travel planning: Phase 2!

We have now moved into phase two of our advance planning for winter travels to come.  As this past long, hot, summer weekend drew to a close, we checked our email and found that our travel agent, Angela, has been hard at work (as usual) trying to find us the perfect hotel accommodation to book-end our February 2013 cruise.  But, it needs to be said that discerning travelers will want to be flexible in their planning.

Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro. It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.

When last we visited this topic, we had pre-booked a cruise from Rio to Buenos Aires.  Well…that’s now a memory.  When we began to drill down into the cost, and whether or not it was really going to fulfill our desires for a South American holiday, sadly, we had to conclude that it didn’t.  We had wanted to cruise on Crystal since we have yet to try it on our trip through the luxury cruise lines, but we weren’t able to come up with a single suite on the cruises we want even this far in advance.  Angela went right to the source, but to no avail.  That’s proof positive for us that advance planning is essential.  So we booked on the same itinerary on another line.  This time we were able to book the suite we wanted on Regent Seven Seas cruises.  Which we’ve already been on.  Twice.  And it was on the Mariner.  Which we’ve been on.  And it was OK, but not an experience we need to repeat yet.  So many cruise ships, so little time! So we moved on to plan B.

Plan A for cruise planning always starts with an itinerary we want, at a time when we can get away.  Plan B starts not with the itinerary, but with a cruise line.  Our second choice was Seabourn.  The February time frame when we need to take a dip south is a bit challenging if you’re trying to avoid the Caribbean as we originally were.  However, what we were really trying to avoid was repeating a series of islands that we’d already visited – either for a day on a cruise ship, or for a longer stay.  What we found was the Yachtsmen’s cruise in the Caribbean that takes in small ports that the larger ships can’t reach.  After all, the ship we’re now booked on, the Seabourn Spirit, has a grand total of 204 passengers.  A yacht, indeed! So, that and the airline booking was phase 1 – phase 2 is a bit more challenging at this time of year since it involves finding the perfect hotels in Barbados

We were considereing staying at The Crane in Barbados again – but at this time of year, the prices they’re offering for February are out of this world and not worth a return.

and St. Martin where the cruise begins and ends.  That might sound easy, but when you’re trying to be discerning and the hotels haven’t really formalized their winter season yet, you can easily fall into the trap of paying too much for those 5 and 6-star properties.  So, we’re going to wait.

From time to time people will ask us why we don’t just wait until the cruise lines start pushing the winter cruises that they start to discount later in the year.  “You’ll get more bang for your buck,” they tell us.  But they’re wrong – unless you think that something is of value just because it’s cheap.  We don’t happen to take that view.

There’s an analogy to shopping for clothes.  If you always wait until everything is on sale, you’ll never really get what you want – and you’ll always be ‘settling’ for what’s left.  If you don’t like something enough to have bought it at full price, most times, you shouldn’t buy it on sale either.  Buy something just because it’s on sale hardly demonstrates discernment – but if it’s n sale and you love it, then that’s great!  Sadly, that happens only once in a while.  So, for the big-ticket vacation planning, get out there early and start turning your dreams into reality!

Tips for early planning:

  • Start by figuring out where you want to go.
  • Then decide how you want to get there.
  • Determine your budget – and shop within it rather than lower.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Don’t book something just becasue it’s on sale!
  • Set a deadline for when you want all of the final bookings complete.
  • Be prepared to put Plan B into motion if necessary!