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Hotel Review: Sofitel Kunming

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I used some points to stay at the Sofitel in Kunming. Although they were extremely busy with a meeting between Yunnan and Taiwan, the staff went out of their way when I checked in and whenever I was in the lobby to see to it that I received good service and my questions were answered.

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My room was sleek, modern and comfortable. I even had a TV in the bathroom, which seems to be a Sofitel standard on the club floors. (N.B. If you belong to the Accor loyalty program and travel regularly, you’ll soon earn Gold status which offers upgrades.)

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I was on the club floor and had access to the lounge, where guests can indulge in afternoon tea and then in cocktail hour. The sweet and savory options were delectable and while there was a lot of seafood, which I don’t eat, there was no excuse for going hungry.

Since there was a big meeting between Taiwanese government officials and Yunnan provincial big wigs the club was off-limits for regular guests. The Chinese required that the Taiwanese delegation be sequestered and watched at all times. So breakfast was only offered in the main restaurant which is large and offers the biggest variety of quality cuisine that I’ve ever seen for a breakfast. In fact the breakfast deserves its own post.

As spectacular as the food was, I think the personal attention that Sofitel offers is what I liked most about my stay. At every meal or any time I asked for directions, the staff were warm and informative. They know how to show that they care.

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Hotel Review

The Grand Mercure Dongchen offers beautiful rooms and good service. I actually reserved a room here by accident. I wanted to book a room at the Mercure by Beijing’s South Cathedral, but inadvertently booked this location.

I found the staff welcoming and the room, a junior suite modern and comfortable. (I’ve stayed at enough Accor hotels this year to get upgrades for each reservation.)

One nice touch was that they printed their hotel guide on scrolls to harken to Beijing’s past.

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The hotel is within walking distance of the Yonghegong Tibetan Temple and the Drum and Bell Towers, but these sites are really, in my opinion, of interest for travellers who’ve already seen Beijing’s most famous sites like the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, and Summer Palace. They’re nice but not essential to see. It’s nowhere near the cathedral I wanted to get to and got lost finding. While I think it’s a lot newer

It’s not very crowded and the cocktail buffet had meagre offerings compared with busier hotels.

All in all, I’d suggest staying here if business brings you to north central Beijing but don’t bother with the Executive Lounge as you’ll probably need to eat more anyway. Room service would be the way to go.

Review: Westin Miyako

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Zen Garden at Westin

One of the best choices for this trip was to stay for a couple days at the Westin Miyako Hotel in Kyoto in one of their traditional Japanese rooms. Now not everyone wold want to take this step, but I’ve slept on Japanese futons before and know what to expect from a Japanese bathroom.

Staying at the Westin was so convenient. They have a shuttle two blocks from where the airport shuttle stops. I did have to ask the Kyoto Station information desk exactly where the Westin shuttle came, but they spoke very good English and knew that it was close to their office. Since I like to walk, I found the hotel location great as I could walk to several temples, shrines and museums from the hotel.

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Here was a room with the closet and mini bar, a main room which had a low table and chairs and an alcove (tokonoma) with an ink painting and simple floral arrangement which was changed daily. The floor had tatami mats which smell wonderful and are the reason for “no shoes.” There was a little desk, modern TV, and wifi.

The bathroom was typical for Japan. In one part is the toilet which was heated and had bidet functions. It was chilly in the room in the morning and night as Most Japanese buildings don’t have insulation. The heater was in the main room so it didn’t do much for the bathroom. Then there was the area with the sink, which seemed like it was two feet high. That I could see changing. On the right was the bathroom, which had a wooden tub so small I couldn’t sit “Indian style” let alone stretch out my feet. The main part of the bathroom is for showering. You’ve got a little stool you can sit on, a faucet and shower head. The main rule is NO SOAP in the tub! In Japan you clean yourself outside the tub and by clean yourself, I mean, so that every particle of dirt is off you. A good rule of thumb is that a non-Japanese person should scrub twice as long as they normally would. Then you get in the tub just to soak, to get some serenity.

At night the maids come and set up your futons and pillows. I found the futon comparable to a mattress, not the new fangled Western beads that have toppers and are extra comfy, a mattress that’s a bit old school. It was just fine.

The wing with the traditional room, is by the bird-watching trail and fox shrine so in the morning I woke up to the sounds of birds singing each morning. Also, it’s got a zen garden out front and the trail is a nice short hike.

On Sunday I had their high tea. Great food, great tea. Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, but are at a temple in the afternoon, stop by for great pastries, a scone or quiche, and little sandwiches.

The concierges and staff were so efficient.  I got good help with figuring out why my emails to a Japanese friend I had dinner plans with kept bouncing and with figuring out what to do on a rainy day. I’d never have discovered the Chishakuin Temple, which has remarkable paintings in one of its halls.

When I return to Kyoto, I’d definitely stay at the Westin again and I’d book a traditional room for two nights and a regular room for a third night to take a Western style bath.

Pullman Journeys

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There’s a new Pullman Car service between Chicago and New Orleans. A few old style Pullman Cars restored to their 1950s version with a dining car, club car and porter service offer a kind of time travel. Click here to see the CBS Morning feature on these Pullman journeys.

In the fall there will be Pullman Cars going weekly between New York and Chicago.

If they had the 19th century style cars, I’d take one anywhere. The 1950s isn’t a decade I think was so special. Still if someone else were paying, I’d try one.

Peninsula Hotel, Beijing

I know I have more photos . . .

I know I have more photos . . .

For years, since it opened actually, I’ve wanted to stay at the Peninsula Hotel in Beijing. This five star hotel group is outside my price range in the US, Europe or Hong Kong. I’ve considered booking a room in the past, but the rate was usually around $300 and that was just too rich for my blood.

Through Hotels.com I noticed a discount rate of $147 and that I could manage. I stayed there a couple weeks ago. I stayed in the “Deluxe” room for $158 thinking for a little more I could get even more luxury.

Fitness Center

Fitness Center

The room was fine, on par with a Sheraton or Intercontinental hotel. I was satisfied, but also glad I hadn’t paid $300. The decor is sleek and you get cable and a DVD player. There’s free wifi and a good fitness room. The Peninsula offers turn down service though I’m old fashioned and longed for a mint or some sweet on the pillow. The staff was courteous and I had no problems at check in or checking out.

I walked around the hotel and hoped to find a bakery so I could get some scones since the Peninsula Hong Kong’s scones are the best I’ve ever had. They didn’t have such a shop.

I ordered room service, duck confit and key lime pie. The duck disappointed as it was rather salty and dry. The pie was good and all the food was well presented. I guess other duck in China has been much better.

Ibis Hotel, Harbin China

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With a great location that’s walking distance to St. Sophia’s Russian Orthodox Church, Zhaop Park and Zhangyang Street with all its European style architecture, Ibis Hotel is a good choice in Harbin. For about $30 a night I got a spic and span room with wifi and a TV (not many Western channels though). I could easily get from the airport bus stop to the hotel following the well marked streets and my Lonely Planet map.

The room’s are basic, but that’s all I wanted. They offer breakfast, but no other meals. I opted for a nearby Starbucks as I wanted the music and a place to work in the morning on my homework before I did my afternoon sightseeing.

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If you insist on kind, polite staff, this isn’t the hotel for you. In fact, the Harbin-ites I encountered just didn’t smile. At the hotel and elsewhere staff was gruff and unhappy about doing more than the minimum. Maybe they wanted people to feel they really were in Russia ;-). They do their job and they fixed my problem and put me in a non-smoking room when the first room was for smokers, but they’re not able to be cheerful.

Since the hostel just had a 57% satisfaction rate, I’m glad I opted for Ibis.

Hotel Review: Crowne Plaza, Beijing Airport


If you need to stay near Beijing’s Airport, the Crowne Plaza is a good choice. It’s not as expensive as the Hyatt and offers a free shuttle outside gate 5, which leaves ever 30 minutes. I checked out the Ibis Hotel, but the photos shown online posted by guests indicated that the rooms had a lot of wear and tear.

I knew I’d be exhausted and wanted a clean, quiet, comfortable room. I got that at a good price, since I used my affinity club points ($40). All the non-smoking rooms were booked. I naively thought nowadays a smoking room wouldn’t smell. Wrong. The first room I was taken to had a cigarette stench. Yuck. I told the bell boy this was more than I could handle and I wouldn’t be able to sleep. A few minutes after talking to the front desk, I was in a bigger, more fresh smelling suite. I was delighted by their prompt service and ability to make sure I was happy and able to sleep well.

As a Priority Club member, I was entitled to a free welcome drink. Here’s a tip. Remember that China’s wine isn’t the greatest. Don’t order it as it just won’t match what a Westerner is used to. Get a beer or soft drink. It’s not the hotel’s fault, they aren’t in the wine business. Since I was leaving the next day for Jinan, the airport hotel made sense.

If you’re staying to sightsee, go into the city, the closer to Tianamen Square the better.

Henan Trip: Hiccup #1

After so much tumult trying to get train tickets, we finally got some. We thought we were on an overnight train since that’s the only trains I asked for. Nope. We were given fast train tickets, which we didn’t realize till we were on the train.

The problem was we didn’t have hotel reservations for Tuesday night. Mind you, it’s a busy travel time. We arrived in dusty Kaifeng at 11 pm. I hate arriving in a city late at night, especially one I don’t know. In Jinan there are some okay looking hotels right by the station, but not in Kaifeng.

Henan is the second poorest province in China and it lags behind my province Shandong in terms of amenities, modern architecture and infrastructure. So there’s one decrepit looking hotel nearby looking like the Chinese version of the Bates Motel. We decide to get to our hotel and hope they have a room. We aren’t thrilled at the prospect of spending who knows how much.

We get to the Tokyo Arts Hotel, which K’s friend recommended. My, it’s upscale and grandiose. Once inside we explain our plight hoping for the best. It turns out that they don’t have any rooms left. Moreover, they doubt anyone has one since it’s a holiday.

All is not lost as the English speaking receptionist spoke with the manager of the adjoining Japanese style spa. We could stay there! For only 49 rmb each (compare to 488 rmb/night for the room we booked).

I’d stayed overnight in such public baths in Japan. They weren’t bad. You donned the cotton cabana sets they provide and sleep on a comfy Lazy Boy chair with 70 other people. It’s a very Asian thing.

After we surrendered our shoes for plastic slippers, he manager led us to the locker room. We changed clothes and were then led through a corridor, into an elevator, down some stairs, through another corridor, up some stairs and around until we were in the VIP section. Eventually, we got to our room. Not one of the big rooms with dozens of people, but a small hotel-like room with a TV and two Lazy Boys. Now the restroom was down the hall and the showers back by the locker rooms, but this was quite nice.

We both slept easily, in fact this was the best night’s sleep I had the whole time I was gone.

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