Sunday, January 29, 2012

Christmas in Salt Lake City by Gwen

Dad, Mason and Gwen at Temple Square
Last Christmas, our family went on a small trip to Salt Lake City. We spent a night downtown just a few weeks before Christmas.  We just went there for one day, but it was still fun!

First we went to the Marriott to check in.  The lobby was really nice and I really liked how they had stores and shops.  We went by to take a look at the pool and it looked like fun.  Our room was a perfect size and we could see the new City Creek Shopping Center from our room.  The room was big enough that it didn’t feel crowded.  Not the nicest Marriott we've stayed in, but it had a really good location.

Next we went to dinner at the Olive Garden.  It is only a block away from our hotel.  It was really good.  I always like the Olive Garden.  But it was really hot and there were a lot of people there. 

Then we walked to a Trax station.  Trax is a train system in Salt Lake.  We took Trax to Temple Square.  There were millions of Christmas lights and it was really cool.  We stayed there for a half hour.  We started getting cold and went back to our hotel.  On the way back, we bought hot chocolate.

The next morning we went downstairs to the lobby and we went to Starbucks and I got the breakfast cinnamon bun and it wasn’t as good as it looked.  Then we got our swimsuits on and went down to the pool.  While mom went running in the gym, dad, Mason and I went swimming.  The pool is indoors.  It was really fun, but after a while, it got a little crowded for the small pool.  Finally, we packed-up and left.

We had lots of fun.  It would be a fun tradition to do every year.  I think it would be great trip for all ages. 
Lights at Temple Square

Lights at Temple Square

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hotel Review: Los Suenos Marriott Golf & Resort

The Los Suenos Resort was one of our best stays of anywhere we’ve been.  The resort was very nice, but as anyone who has been to Costa Rica will tell you, there is just so much to do and so much beauty, it’s difficult not to have a good time in Costa Rica.

The drive from San Jose to Los Suenos alone is quite memorable.  It takes about 3 hours.  The road goes through a couple small scenic towns.  It then climbs up over some thickly forested mountains terraced with coffee plants.  When you live in a desert climate like we do, it is amazing to see how green and thick the vegetation of Costa Rica is.  Once at the coast, there are a couple bridges that span croc infested rivers about 100 feet below.  These bridges are quite new and in fact if you wanted to visit the area where Los Suenos is, just about 15 years ago you would have had to ferry across those rivers.  With those bridges and the ease of travel, development has taken off.

Los Suenos resort was built in the mid-late 90’s.  It sits a nice little cove about 15 minutes from the famous surf town of Jaco.  The story goes that a wealthy American anchored his yacht in this cove many years ago and the land was used for cattle grazing.  He bought the land and spent millions to restore it by planting thousands of trees, adding a water treatment plant, put in a marina, the Marriott hotel, some condos and a golf course.  The whole development is beautiful.

The Marriott hotel is cozy.  The lobby is open air with gorgeous hard wood flooring and a few comfortable couches to relax.  The rooms were nice, but not spectacular.  The restaurants were all quite good with very helpful and friendly service.  Some of the features that stood out at this resort were the swimming pool, the casino, a great golf course that was carved out of the rain forest but probably most memorable were all the iguanas.  Iguanas on the roof, iguanas on the grounds of the resort, iguanas everywhere.

We were glad we had a rental car on this vacation.  There are a ton of things to do close by.  We drove the 1 ½ hours further down the coast to spend time at the national park Manuel Antonio.  There is a small fee to get in the park, but that fee is worth it because the beach is amazing, plus there are monkeys everywhere and we even saw a sloth.  We also did a canopy tour that took us high above the rainforest and were able to see tons of wildlife.  There are a lot of other things to do near by that we would have done if Gwen had been a little older on this trip.  My sister and her family did a 4-wheeler ride through the rainforest, took a boat out to a secluded island, did some deep water fishing and also went next door to Jaco to take surf lessons.

The Los Suenos Resort was great, but so much of our fond memories have to do with Costa Rica itself.  Beautiful scenery, great people and delicious food.  All things we’re looking for when we travel.
Gwen and Katie

Gwen at the beach at Los Suenos


View from canopy tour

Gwen pointing out wildlife from canopy tour

Gwen on the ground of Los Suenos

Look at the size of that iguana!

Scary bridge on way to Manuel Antonio

Monkey at Manuel Antonio

Manuel Antonio Beach

Manuel Antonio Beach

Gwen and Katie at Manuel Antonio Beach

Teeing off at Los Suenos Golf Course

Pool at Marriott Los Suenos Resort

Scott and Gwen at Marriott Los Suenos Resot

View of Los Suenos Resort

Gwen on the beach at Manuel Antonio

Better keep it in the fairway

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hotel Review: Costa Rica Marriott Hotel San Jose

We kicked off a 9-day Costa Rican vacation by spending a night in the Costa Rica Marriott Hotel San Jose.  Our flight arrived quite late and we spent just 2 nights before heading on to the Marriott Los Suenos Resort.  This hotel is quite a unique “airport” hotel.  It is a peaceful hacienda style hotel a short distance from the airport.  We drove and were able to find the hotel easily.  My understanding though is it costs about $10 to take a taxi. 

I’m not sure how old this hotel is, but you almost get the feeling it was some old wealthy hacienda that has been converted to a hotel.  It sits on a hill overlooking the beautiful Costa Rican mountains.  There are some large grounds, which include a pool, hot tub, and even a driving range.  The building itself is decked out in Spanish tile flooring, Spanish tile roofing, and beautiful old wooden doors for each room.

The lobby wasn’t huge, but it had a very cozy, intimate feel.  Much of it was open to the outdoors with patios overlooking the mountains.  There are a couple restaurants on the resort.  We had the dinner buffet, which included grilled meat and delicious ceviche of multiple flavors.  Personally I think it was one of the top-10 hotel dinners we’ve ever had.  Service was pleasant, but don’t expect it to be fast.   The coffee shop was cozy, had free wi-fi and the smell of local Costa Rican coffee was amazing. 

The rooms were quite standard.  As always with any Marriott, the beds were extremely comfortable and provided a good night’s sleep.  The rooms were pretty standard in size.

Since we were only in this hotel for a couple days, and more of a stop off than anything else, we didn’t do a ton in the area.  Like many of our best travel memories, we sort of stumbled on a great activity.  We ordered a taxi and just asked the driver to take us to a market place in downtown.  He asked how long we were in San Jose and when we told him only for the day, he said “you don’t want to that, let me take you somewhere you’ll really like.”  We began driving up into the hills, passing many small villages and local farms.  Eventually we were driving through the rainforest and our driver ended up taking us to the La Paz Waterfalls.  They include a butterfly observatory, an aviary of exotic birds, and a hike through the jungle in which you walk next to a river and stop at a couple scenic overlooks of the famous La Paz waterfalls.  Granted our driver probably received a commission for taking us there, but he was right, it was a great day activity and gave us a sense of the beauty we were about to experience during our trip in Costa Rica.

This hotel is not in the heart of San Jose.  If that’s what you’re looking for, this would be the wrong place to stay.  But if like us, you arrive late at the San Jose airport and need to relax for a night or two before heading off to your next destination, the Costa Rica Marriott San Jose is ideal.  
View of the mountains from our room at Costa Rica Marriott

Katie by the Marriott's driving range

Arriving at the La Paz Waterfalls

Amazing Costa Rican Rainforest

Katie and Gwen at the La Paz Waterfalls

Can you see the Macau?
Gwen holding a butterfly

Scott and Gwen at La Paz Waterfalls

Beautiful La Paz Wateralls

Our family at La Paz Waterfalls

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Hotel Review: Anantara Bangkok Riverside Resort and Spa

The Anantara Riverside Resort and Spa is a uniquely tranquil resort in the middle of a massive urban city.  At the time we stayed here, the property was managed by Marriott, but Anantara hotels are renowned for the quality and level of service, so I'm confident it is still an amazing property.  The property sits right on Chao Phraya River, which is a massive river that runs right through the middle of Bangkok and is sometimes responsible for the flooding that sometimes takes place in Bangkok.  In fact “Old Bangkok” is separated from “New Bangkok.”  Much of the newer development is on the other side of the river, but there is a river taxi that departs from the hotel every 20 minutes to drop guests off on the other side of the river at the monorail station.

The lobby in this hotel is spectacular.  It is huge with tons of black marble.  There is a greeter to get you a drink and find a seat for you to wait if there isn’t someone available to help you check in.  The concierge level is in the lobby and it’s an interesting dynamic to casually sit and enjoy the excellent food while watching the guests scurry about. 

The rooms were beautiful with high ceilings and wood floors.  The bathrooms were nice and on par with luxury hotels.  As far as I could tell, all the rooms had a view of the river.  Looking down from the balcony, the grounds of the resort were lush with a ton of foliage and a gorgeous pool. 

The resort was huge.  There were a ton of great restaurants and pools and lush grounds.  Despite the size, it still had a strangely intimate feel.  I’m sure a lot of that had to do with how attentive the staff was and some of the special details like a great Zen garden.

Bangkok is definitely one of the world’s great cities.  We enjoyed a river dinner cruise, shopping in some excellent clothing stores, had a crazy adventure at the Chatuchak Weekend Market, did a temple tour and also got to see many of the world’s diamond cutters work.

There are countless excellent hotels to choose from in Bangkok and any seasoned traveler has to see this hotel.  The Anantara Riverside Resort and Spa was an interesting way to experience Bangkok because you could feel the energy of the city around you and still feel the quiet, peaceful hospitality that Thailand is famous for.  It really felt like an escape.
Vesakha or Buddha's Birthday

View from Bangkok Riverside Resort and Spa

Wat Pho or the Reclining Bhudda

Katie at some Bangkok Temples

Bangkok Temples

Bangkok Dinner Cruise

Bangkok Dinner Cruise

Delicious Thai Soup

Friday, January 20, 2012

Hotel Review: San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino Puerto Rico

Our stay in the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris hotel was a short one.  We spent two nights in this hotel on layovers to and from St Kitts.  I wish we had stayed at this resort longer and honestly would have preferred to stay in Puerto Rico rather than go to St Kitts at all.  The hotel itself was a little bit of an old school high-rise city resort (think Waikiki). 

The lobby itself was quite busy.  The casino isn’t outside, like the Marriott in Costa Rica, and it’s not far off to the side, like the casino at the St Kitts Marriott, it’s literally right next to the check-in desk.  I point this out because it makes the lobby noisy and active.  It doesn’t have a serene, peaceful resort feel if you’re looking to “get away,” rather it has a busy, high energy, exciting feel (again, think Waikiki).  There was also a large bar area in the lobby.  The check-in was smooth and the staff was very helpful.   

I can’t say the rooms were very nice.  However, it was clear that they were being renovated, and we had a room that hadn’t yet been updated.  Regardless, even if they were renovated, the rooms weren’t large and very standard to what you’d expect of a hotel room built in the 70s. 

The pool was very busy but also large.  It had a small waterslide and really seemed to appeal to families.  The beach was wide and very popular.  It was a very nice beach with beautiful water.  That said, it was an urban beach.  A lot of people would have loved it, for us we prefer a little more low-key location.

All this said, Puerto Rico is a must see.  It was amazing to go somewhere that felt so “foreign” and not have to get out a passport.  The city certainly has a Latin feel to it beautiful people everywhere.  Old San Juan is really amazing.  It’s the oldest city in North America and has so much charm.  We spent an afternoon walking around and literally felt like we were in Europe.  We didn’t go out at night but did stop in the evening at a great little 8 table restaurant and had one of the best meals we’ve ever had.  And there were literally dozens, if not hundreds, of little boutique restaurants of all varieties.  We wanted to stop at them all. 

I would like to go back to Puerto Rico and explore more of the island.  I understand that the interior of the island and some of the other resort areas outside of San Juan are lovely.  That said, I’m not dying to go back to The San Juan Marriott Resort.
Old Town San Juan Rainbow

Old Town San Juan Fortress

Quick moving storm in Old Town San Juan

Old Town San Juan Buildings

Scott in Old Town San Juan

Monday, January 16, 2012

Hotel Review: St Kitts Royal Marriott Resort

The St Kitts Royal Marriott Resort is a massive resort.  It is very nice property for families because of the size of the resort and all there is to do there.  There is one very large pool and a couple smaller more private pools, there is a golf course, and there are a ton of beach cabanas and several nice restaurants on property.  That said, our stay there was all right, but not one of my favorite resorts.

St Kitts is not one of the easiest Caribbean Islands to travel to.  For us, we flew from Salt Lake to Atlanta, Atlanta to Puerto Rico, spent the night in Puerto Rico and then took a small 10-seater flight to St Kitts.  My understanding is there are only direct flights from the US cities of Miami and Charlotte, seasonally.  It is a very small island and along with Nevis, is one of the smallest countries in the world.  Good news for those of us that like getting our passports stamped from different countries.  Much of St Kitts economy was based on sugar production, but about 10 years ago, when sugar production was no longer subsidized, the local economy began to shift toward tourism.  It is for this reason that the island isn’t covered with many resorts, but The Marriott resort is large enough to employ about 20% of the population.

The resort certainly lacks charm and is just huge without a ton of vegetation to mask the property’s size.  That said, it is very clean and laid out quite nicely.  The check-in process was easy and the resort has one of the larger casinos in the Caribbean.  The restaurants we ate at were good, but nothing that blew us away. 

We spent time in 2 different rooms.  Our first few nights were in one of the villas.  They were very nice and had lovely balconies.  We did have a little trouble hearing our neighbors and there were no elevators so the hike up the stairs with our luggage was a little difficult.  We then moved to a room that was part of the main building.  The room was certainly smaller, but was very nice and I would say we preferred our stay there.

Service was average.  It took a long time to get a drink and it felt like the staff was ignoring us.  I don’t know if that is a common theme in Caribbean resorts as we haven’t stayed much in the Caribbean, but we certainly didn’t receive the hospitality that we do when in Hawaii or Asia.

The Royal St Kitts Golf Course was a highlight of the trip.  It was fairly straight forward, but some of the holes were on the Caribbean side of the ocean and some lined the Atlantic side of the island.  Water came into play on several holes and the course was surprisingly more difficult than it appeared.

St Kitts is fairly laid back.  We found a great little restaurant that was built on a balcony overlooking the ocean with fresh lobster.  We also spent on a beautiful beach across the golf course from The Marriott and were there with only 6 other people, so it was quite private.  I would rate this vacation overall as average and we don’t have a burning desire to return, too many other places we’d rather see.
Our tiny airplane from Puerto Rico to St Kitts

View from the beach 

Our "private" beach in St Kitts

Are we all alone here?

Katie and I getting ready for dinner

Royal St Kitts Golf Course

View from the roof of the St Kitts Marriott

View toward the ocean from St Kitts Marriott

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