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Hotels and Hostels Archives

Our travel strategies have differed radically among countries. In Ecuador, Peru, England and most of southeast Asia, we hopped from hotel to hotel, never staying more than a week in any given place. In Argentina, Thailand and Morocco, on the other hand, we've rented apartments. (In New Zealand, we lived in the back of a van for a week.) There are advantages and drawbacks to both modes of travel, and a few things we've learned along the way that help with both.

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Another unanticipated advantage of apartments: sometimes you get unexpected co-tenants in the windowsills

With certain exceptions, our travel style involves cheap and cheerful hostels, cozy apartments and hotels at the inexpensive end of the scale. (Our Tripadvisor reviews tend to be biased toward our more expensive experiences, as I haven't reviewed many of the cheaper places.) Yet we've wandered through a few fairly nice hotels, either because they were attractions in themselves or out of pure curiousity. In the unlikely event that I one day try to re-experience this trip with a budget two orders of magnitude greater, these are the places that I'd love to book.

I should note that these are not necessarily the nicest hotels that we know of in any given city, but the best that we've seen on this trip. For example, if I could stay for free at any hotel in London, I'd rather see what the Savoy is like than the Metropolitan. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever been amazed by any hotel so much as I was by the Taj Falaknuma in Hyderabad, where you can quite literally sleep like a prince. For reference, I've included some prices of the nicer, lottery-winner level rooms.

La Mamounia, Marrakech, Morocco (Churchill Suite, ~$2,200/night): Located near the medina (and only a few blocks away from our current apartment), La Mamounia looks less Moroccan and more European than its website suggests. Wandering through its halls, the colonial influence is easy to discern, but this is classic colonial, not a cookie-cutter continenal hotel. In the evening, when the hurrying throngs have whipped up enough dust in the market to inspire previously unknown allergies, La Mamounia is a clear, quiet and clean oasis. We dropped by to try a drink at the Churchill Bar, which was both overpriced and somewhat disappointing: despite displaying several nicer brands of alcohol, a Manhattan with a price tag over $20 was mixed with Four Roses. Setting aside the mediocre drinks, the Churchill and Italian bars are both elegant and comfortable, and I was impressed by the attentiveness and professionalism of the staff. If you're looking for a "low-cost" way to enjoy this location, the Sunday brunch is only about $150. If you try it, tell me how it goes. (That said, we encountered a first for a high-class hotel on this trip: free wifi in public areas.)

The Metropolitan, London, England (Park Suite, ~$1,000): We stopped for a drink at the sister of the Bangkok Metropolitan after picking up our Tanzanian visas from the nearby embassy. Far from the most extravagant hotel in Mayfair, let alone London, it nonetheless has a top-class bar which continues the Metropolitan tradition of knowledgeable and skilled bartenders. Worth it just for a tipple.

The Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, India (Grand Presidential Suite, price on request, upwards of $4,350): Pity Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, who had this palace built in the shape of a scorpion (for astrological reasons), only to realize that he had gone over budget. He ended up giving the palace to Nizam VI, the then-ruler of Hyderabad. The Nizam thoughtfully gave Vikar-ul-Umra the entire amount spent on its construction, saving him from financial catastrophe.

Taj Hotels have leased the palace and converted it into an extravagant fantasy. When we dined here one evening at a family gathering, we were able to watch as one of the guests arrived. A horse-drawn carriage drove him from the gates to the front courtyard. At this point an employee--although courtier seems more accurate--hoisted a gold mace and escorted the new tenant as if he were royalty up the marble steps to reception, as another attendant dropped rose petals before him from an upper balcony. Kitschy, yes, and perhaps they only do this for certain guests, but it fits with the setting. The Grand Presidential Suite, "once the sanctum sanctorum of the Nizam himself," is the most opulent option in a hotel filled with extravagant choices, and features a private pool.

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Photo by friends J & J

The Oberoi, Agra, India (Kohinoor Suite, ~$5500): The bar at the Oberoi possesses a unique alchemical secret: it can transform the most staid and ordinary cocktail into one of the best of your life. The Manhattan recipe? Take a standard combination of rye, vermouth and bitters, and serve suffused with scarlet light filtered through tall, ornate windows that frame the sunset-pinked marble of the Taj Mahal. The Oberoi's view of Agra's unquestioned wonder of the world must be seen to be believed, and only hotel guests are allowed to have their drinks served on the balcony.

Unlike La Mamounia, the Oberoi's style speaks more to Agra's mughal heritage than colonial refinement, lightly reminding the visitor that he is elsewhere rather than giving hints of the comforts of home. We didn't get much further than the bar and the opulent lobby, itself an orgy of marble and stone, but supposedly each room has its own view of the Taj Mahal.

TripAdvisor Reviews

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When we started this blog, I thought it would be a good place for restaurant, hotel and other travel reviews. Over time, I've come to realize that this blog is a good place to describe our experiences, but our reviews best serve other travelers if they're aggregated with others. So I've added a link in the left navigation to our TripAdvisor profile. That's not to say that we won't post the occasional review here when the occasion warrants, but the bulk of our reviews will probably go up on TripAdvisor.

Besides, I like the travel map. As we add more reviews, it will become a more accurate reflection of the trip.

While this hostel has turned out to be unworkable for us due to minor problems like the total failure of the radiator on the second and third floors of the building, I was inclined to like it our first night here just because we could peep out the little dormer window and see Lake Windermere.

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Alas, unlike the Lake Poets, I'm more fond of bodily comfort than of beautiful scenery. Therefore we've abandoned this view for a bed & breakfast that doesn't look out on the lake, but does have working radiators and ceilings high enough that Tony doesn't have to remain in a permanent stoop.

In New Zealand, we learned a new word for our kind of traveller: flashpacker . I'm not sure that it's an entirely complimentary term: "flash" can be somewhat derogatory in British slang. But the general idea seems to be that flashpackers are long-term travellers with a slightly higher budget (and often a few more grey hairs) than backpackers.

That describes us pretty well. We stay in budget hotels and hostels, but we try to find private rooms. If we can, we get a private bath. We could probably get by paying considerably less for accomodation, but our budget allows for some comfort. We have a few gadgets with us, and in a pinch I could muster together a decent interview outfit. (Here's an entertainingly written blog on flashpacking, though I don't endorse everything in it.)

Then again, occasionally we'll splurge and go for something more than comfort, especially when a new experience is on offer. For our first two days in Indonesia, which I suspect will otherwise be filled with budget hotels and hostels, we luxuriated (surprisingly affordably) at the Dharmawangsa.

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A bit more than a budget bed.

Scattershot of Thoughts on Leaving Sydney

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I'm writing this from the Dharmawangsa Hotel in Jakarta, where we arrived last night after a 6-hour Qantas flight from Sydney. Tony will be posting more on this hotel, with pictures, but let me just say that this is by far the nicest place we have stayed on this trip -- without being the most expensive. If you want to party like a rockstar while on a symphony-violinist budget, Indonesia seems to be the place to do it, so long as you're not a rockstar who requires bacon in his Old Fashioned.

  • The Magnum Temptation chocolate ice cream bar heavily promoted in Australia and New Zealand, including a commercial featuring Benecio del Toro, nearly lives up to the hype. They even figured out how to keep the brownie chunks from being too hard despite being in a frozen dessert. Go Unilever!

  • Speaking of Unilever ice cream, the one "foodie" experience we had in Sydney was at the Food & Wine festival, where you buy tickets that entitle you to try some of the offerings from various restaurants and producers. The only free items I spotted were Ben & Jerry's and Yellowtail wine. In the entire time we spent in this region, I never saw a single drinks menu that featured either Yellowtail wine or Forster's beer. I suspect that whole "Australian for beer" slogan is a hoax perpetrated on the rest of the planet.

Apartments in Jakarta?

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We're arriving in Jakarta on December 1, 2010, and we're thinking of renting an apartment for three weeks. If anyone has advice on good (or bad) apartment options, or any other advice on Indonesia, we're all ears!

Adventures in Plumbing

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Travel broadens the mind, but not necessarily in the ways that you expect. You can walk through centuries-old ruins and come away with nothing more than a respect for stone masonry and gratitude that Thomas Friedman has fallen in love with modern China and not ancient Peru. [1] On the other hand, the ordinary course of daily life will grant plenty of sudden insights through smaller lessons. For instance, never stay in a hostel with a cat that looks like Garfield, for fat cats do not mouse.

Traveling has made me fascinated by humanity's seemingly limitless ingenuity when it comes to the provisions of running water, particularly hot water. Although several of our hotels or hostels have had standard centralized hot water heaters, others have been quite creative. For instance, our first night at Los Ninos in Cuzco (the night after the the rat incident), we contacted the front desk and told them there was no hot water in our room. Quickly thereafter, a short handyman in paint-flecked overalls showed up at our door, followed by the receptionist. The receptionist and I boosted the handyman into a tiny crawlspace above the bathroom, and there followed a few minutes of his shifting about culminating in the loud, unmistakable click of a circuit-breaker being thrown. Apparently each room had its own hot water heater, hidden out of sight. Once I realized this, I started looking in other hostels, and realized that in Cuzco this sort of set up is not uncommon.

We've encountered a variety of different plumbing systems so far. Hospedaje Kinsa Cocha features wood-heated showers. When we have stayed with local families (at Huchuy Cusco or Puno), there has either been no hot water or no running water at all. [2] While making our way around Lake Titicaca, I noticed that some of the most prosperous of the small houses had large, bright metal drums perched on their roofs, presumably to warm water through sunlight.

Our Buenos Aires apartment has introduced me to the concept of the tankless hot water heater. Instead of pre-heating water, a gas burner provides hot water on demand, with a "maximum" temperature set on the heater. I can't believe that these systems are efficient: although they allow the luxury of tremendously long showers, they seem to use a lot of gas. The downside is that the heaters are triggered by pressure, which means that a certain volume of hot water must be demanded before they kick in. This makes shaving--which requires a low volume of warm water--quite tricky, as the temperature will tend to switch between boiling and freezing.

While I did my share of tinkering and DIY when I lived in New York, my projects were always utilitarian. I never thought that I'd be so interested in the pros and cons of hot water systems.

[1] Given Friedman's habit of praising a totalitarian society for making the trains run on time, I figure it could be worse. If he'd seen what the Inca were able to do using only a penchant for conquering neighboring tribes and a talent for employing corvée labor, I'd fear for the day that the New York Times op-ed page proposed the repeal of the 13th amendment and the annexation of Canada.

[2] Nothing makes one more thankful for working sewers than a day or so in locations served only by outhouses.

Before we went to Ecuador, I had never heard of Otavalo. But once there, it and Banos were the two day-trips that everyone suggested. Otavalo, aside from having its own share of tourists, is about as different from Banos as two Ecuadorian towns can be. Banos's tourist appeal is based on outdoor activities and nightlife; it's essentially divorced from the particularities of the people and their culture.

In contrast, the big draw in Otavalo is a weekly market populated largely by people from outlying towns and villages, many of them wearing traditional garb. This consists of bowler-esque hats, embroidered blouses and long black skirts with white or colored underskirts on the women; lengthy braids (allegedly signifying virility) and pajama-like pants on the men. It's no once-a-week costume for the tourists, either, as we saw several people dressed this way going about their business in town on days before the market took place. Many of the products at the market are produced nearby. Tony acquired a jaunty Panama hat that came with its own box in which to be rolled up, and I got a dark red llama wool poncho that occasionally needs to be petted back down when the long strands of wool get ruffled.

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An unfortunate first

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I woke up this morning to spy the first rat that I've seen in any of our accommodation. Suffice it to say, the Pirwa Bed and Breakfast Suecia is not getting a good review.

On the other hand, now I'm unquestionably awake, so a good time to blog.

Update: Two new thoughts upon waking: (a) that explains the cat, and (b) judging from the sounds coming from the courtyard and my experience with old house cats and field mice, the rat may now be less of a problem. We're still checking out today.

Places to stay in Quito

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This is probably not of interest unless you are coming to Ecuador, but I thought it might be useful to give brief review of places we have stayed. Who knows, it might be of use to future travelers. I will update this post whenever we go to a new hotel or hostel, and probably write a similar post for each country we visit. (These are only my opinions: Pallavi may disagree.)

Hotels
Hotel Boutique Plaza Sucre (~$100): A charming boutique hotel we chose for our first night here, the beautiful aesthetics are slightly let down by the staff. While they are not unfriendly, the are certainly the least helpful group of anyplace that we've stayed. The rooms on the first two floors all surround a quiet, bright courtyard, and the top-floor cafeteria (serving omlettes for breakfast) has a fantastic view of the surrounding hills. Good for a night, but not a great value for a long-term stay.

Things We've Seen


Things We Like