Continuing on from yesterday’s post.

Sapphire Hill Winery in Healdsburg was a great value.  It was $30 for a wine tasting for two, but there was a food pairing for each of the five wines and we got an extra three samples of wine and an extra sample of food so this really turned into a good lunch for the two of us.  Nice location in town alongside several other tasting rooms.

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Fogline was a rural winery right outside one of the vineyards they harvest from in Fulton.  This is a 9 year old start up that is just really getting going.  The facility is very industrial, but the wine, not the surroundings, is the important part.  This was the Groupon that was only $12 for a wine tasting for two AND a $10 credit for a bottle of wine.  Can’t beat that kind of deal!

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Deerfield Ranch Winery was a little hard to find in the Kenwood area since it is a little ways off the Sonoma Highway, but totally worth visiting.  It is a winery in a cave!

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Talking to the staff, the owner decided to build an extensive cave network in the hills in order to save on refrigeration costs which normally are part of any wine storage in California.  It also was a pretty cool atmosphere to relax and taste wine in.

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Next was the Ty Caton Winery, also in Kenwood although in a much easier to find location along with several other wine tasting rooms.  Lot’s of good reds!

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Lastly, we visited the Karah Winery which was in the Petaluma Gap (hills between Petaluma and Santa Rosa).  The location was a little hard to get to, but had a great view once you located it.  The entire tasting room was literally surrounded by the vineyard and a tasting room with beautiful views of the whole county.  Got a free bottle of wine as part of the wine tasting.

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Regardless of the weather this year, this was a fun time for us and I suggest you give it a try too.  You can go next door to the more famous Napa Valley, but I found that pretty much all the deals were in the Sonoma Valley.  Give it a shot and let us know what you think.

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The wife and I had a great time a couple of years ago wine tasting by flying into Sonoma, CA (STS) via Alaska Airlines.  It was great getting out of the D.C. cold and into 72 degrees and sunny California weather.  So we decided to try it again this year.  Unfortunately, as most of you know, Mother Nature has decided to end the drought in California and then some!  Oh, well, we could still enjoy wine even if it was cloudy.  This flight was actually on Alaska Air’s subsidiary Horizon Air.  One great deal for this airline is a beer or wine in economy – so you can start the tasting early!

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STS is a really small airport, but served by Alaska from both LAX and SEA.  Bonus is that you get to count a case of wine as free luggage flying out!

Last time we did this, I used the VISA Signature benefit of free wine tastings at a bunch of wineries to save money.  Previously, the deal varied at each winery, so some were real bargains, others not so much.  Now they have standardized the benefit as a Buy-One-Get-One offer so basically 50% off.  Note that this now extends to VISA Infinite which did not exist two years ago.

So I knew we could take that option, but I tried something new by looking at what I could find on Groupon.  I found way better deals such as a wine tasting for $12 for two with a  $10 credit towards purchasing a bottle.  Another difference was that the VISA benefit was generally the larger wineries, while the Groupon was for smaller or out of the way locations.  This turned out to be much better and almost every place we visited, we would not have found on our own.  Not to mention we got great value from most of the places.  Most of the tastings were supposed to be for a sample of five wines, but almost all the locations gave us more than that – one place we actually got eight!

Here are quick reviews on the ones we visited.  Didn’t have a bad experience at any of them, so give them a shot if you are out in Northern California.

Mutt Lynch – In Windsor, a modern town only ten minutes north of the airport.  The interesting thing about this place was that it was a wine and chocolate pairing.  Five wines and five chocolate samples added an interesting dimension to the normal tasting routine.  They don’t make the chocolate, but it is from Healdsburg about 30 minutes north of there.  As you may guess from the name, dogs are very welcome here.

Family Wineries – In the Dry Creek area of Healdsburg.  This location is one of those where they have consolidated about five different tasting rooms together if you just want to do a lot of tasting and not a lot of driving.  $7 for a tasting was pretty cheap.

Simi Winery – This location will fool you as it is right in the city, but it is not just a tasting room but the whole winery right in town.  You can get a tour here, but only at 11 and 2 each day.  Tastings were good and they uniquely have a Late Harvest Chardonnay which I have never seen anywhere else.  Beautiful location.

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That’s the winery behind all these redwoods.

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I’ll finish the other reviews tomorrow, so stay tuned.

 

 

 

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So are you one of those people that always read about great offers, but the caveat is that they are targeted and you didn’t get the Golden Ticket email?  Me too.  Until today.

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I just got an offer from AA for a no sweat-off-my-brow upgrade to Platinum status AND 20 500 mile upgrade certificates.  No fly x number of miles by a certain date or spend x dollars, just “here you go”.  There are a lot of other offers out there that are the more typical earn status for a reduced number of miles/ dollars.  See Miles-to-Memories or The Unaccompanied Flyer.  Note that in these offers, I would need to spend $2000 and fly 12,500 EQM to earn Platinum.

Although I do fly AA, I always try to credit my flights to Alaska since the status there is so much better.  I did earn about 7,000 EQM last year only because I got stuck on an Iberian Air flight coming back from Morocco and AA or BA was all I could credit it to.  Got plenty of hard to use BA miles, but can always use AA miles for flying my daughter around.

So I immediately signed up just in case they made an error on this gift from heaven.  Sure enough, Platinum already and those upgrade certificates are supposed to post within 20 days.  Kind of bizarre how they decided it was good for 3 1/2 months.  I guess the incentive is supposed to be to switch your flying to AA and get hooked on it so you want to keep flying the rest of the year and keep your status?

AA Status 3They’ll have to offer me more than this to make me switch from Alaska.  But I’ll fly and enjoy those upgrades and status while I can.

Better to be lucky than good I always say!

Anyone else out there get this fantastic offer?

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The International Market was an institution of Waikiki for many, many years.  Originally developed by Donn Beach who created the Don the Beachcomber chain of restaurants, in the 1940s.  With its iconic Banyan Tree around which the second story restaurant was built, it contained cheap hula shows and trinkets for the visitors to Waikiki and became a “must stop” to thousands of visitors.  By the 2000’s, the restaurant had closed and it was mostly the place to acquire cheap Asian-made trinkets, fast food, and clothing.  It was still interesting to poke around and we really liked going to Hula Dog whenever we were down there, but it REALLY needed a makeover.  That happened with the purchase of the property which saw all the tenants kicked out in 2013 and the whole property gutted and rebuilt.  It took a while but the wait looks to be worthwhile.

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They smartly included an “anchor store” in the form of Sax Fifth Avenue which is all the way in the back along Kuhio which means you need to go through the whole mall to reach it and see everything along the way – smart!

The first thing that you will notice when entering is the iconic banyan tree.  You will immediately notice the homage they have made to Don the Beachcomber by constructing a little room amongst the tree branches.  Inside your will find the history of the International Market and Donn Beach.  Really interesting.

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The area around the circle surrounding the tree contains interesting photos and narratives about the history of the International Market.  They have a photo booth thing set up to record oral histories of anyone who wants to contribute their stories of the International Market over the last 70 years.

The International Market is essential a three story outdoor mall.  The first two floors are upscale shops and the entire third floor is all restaurants.

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They’ve done a great job of integrating the trees and nature into the structures.  The rocking chairs look over a large open green in the back part of the mall.  This is where you used to be able to catch a cheap hula or magic show.  They have incorporated the stage, although there was nothing going on when we were there.  Lot’s of kids playing in the fountain and open green space.  A good place to park the husband and kids while you get some shopping done ladies.

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The shops are all very nice and places to keep your wife out of, especially Sax Fifth in the back.

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The third floor is full of very nice, but fairly affordable restaurants.

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So this really is the latest and greatest attraction in Waikiki.  Check it out next time you are there and report back if you see something great.

 

 

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My wife and I lived in Honolulu from 2010-13 and like to go back about once a year.  It has been fun to see the developments that have taken place over time.  On this recent trip, I noted a number of improvements around Waikiki that you might want to check out for yourself on an upcoming trip.

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The biggest news in my view is completion of the International Market which had been undergoing a complete renovation for the last three years.  I’ll write a whole post on this tomorrow, but you should definitely make a visit to shop or dine here on your next visit.

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The Ritz-Carlson’s Residences finally opened the first tower with more to come.  Looks pretty classy from the outside, but still  lot of work to do to finish the whole project.

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You can see in the last photo that they are working on the second tower.  Expect some construction noise if you stay here.  I thought of staying here to check it out since I have those three free nights from the Ritz-Carlton credit card.  Looking at the Marriot website, you can see it is a pretty expensive property and would be a great value for those free nights.

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But get this caveat:

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So no-go on certs, points or any way other than cash to get a room here.  Plus you won’t earn anything!

Another new hotel option may be this one that is under construction on the backside of the International Market.  The little sign at the corner lends me to believe that this will be an expansion of the Holiday Inn Resort that is currently on the main drag, Kalakaua.  Could be a good option when it is done in about three months or so.

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Another new item is the opening of an upscale market called Coco Café on Kalakaua near the Holiday Inn.  This is definitely a step above the ubiquitous ABC stores.  My tip to lower your cost of staying in Waikiki is to get some of your meals at this store since they have quality sushi, sandwiches, and other fresh food items.  There are other stores like this in Honolulu, but none as convenient a location of this store.

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Of course, we still endorse going to Food Pantry on Kuhio for a great steak meal for only $12.99.

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So here are a few new things for you to look for and hopefully make your stay a little better next time you are in Waikiki.

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In 2015 we stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Waikiki using the two free nights from the Hyatt Credit Card.  Keeping the credit card is a no brainer since the annual fee is offset by a free night, but only up to Tier 4.  That meant that the Hyatt Regency was just out of reach, but the Hyatt Place was only Tier 3 and eligible so we thought we would try it for our three nights there.

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For those of you familiar with Waikiki, Hyatt Place is located at the far end of the strip.  It is on the east side of the back half of the Marriott.  Access is easier along Kuhio than Kalakaua.  The desk clerk was nice and greeted me as a Hyatt Platinum and informed me of the free breakfast that was on the third floor every morning.

The room was pretty small even by Waikiki standards, but is had almost everything in it.  I say almost because it was missing one critical thing as far as I was concerned – a desk.  I had to balance my laptop on the bureau and sit on the bed to do any computer work.  Here are some photos.

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The view was alright.  A good shot between the Marriott towers at the Catholic church and a spot of the water that happened to be exactly where most of the surfers were.  It let me reminisce about surfing as a teenager in L.A. – those were the days!

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Breakfast was on the pool deck on the third floor.  It was continental, but did have Asian fare such as steamed rice and kimchi which my wife really liked.  The bagels, granola, yogurt, etc. was the typical hotel fare, but the pineapple was outstanding.  Well, what else would you expect in Hawaii?

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I’ll be the first to admit that I much prefer to fly in First Class, but when that upgrade doesn’t come through I want my ride in economy to be the best it can be.  Usually, we get seats in the Exit Row and then hope for the upgrade.  However, Alaska has a new scheme to make the first 3-5 rows in economy a new class of service known as Premium Economy.  Alaska’s version (several airlines have started a similar class of service) comes with four more inches of legroom, a snack box and a free drink.  How did Alaska get all that extra legroom?  By eliminating the fourth row of First Class.  They also used this space to add four more inches to each First Class seat which I am not convinced they needed.

On our recent mileage run, my wife was upgraded on all seven legs and I almost did as well (six legs), but just missed the cut on our first leg, DCA-LAX, and got to try this new class of service.  I was very curious how it would turn out so wasn’t that disappointed on not getting upgraded – at least for one flight.  Here are photos showing the difference in leg room.  Keep in mind that I am six feet tall so extra legroom is always a good thing.

From these shots, I think how you can see the first  few rows are further apart.  The other shot shows the Premium Economy row across from me.  I think you can really see the extra legroom there.

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Here is a comparison of legroom showing regular economy first, then Premium Economy and finally First Class.

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And if you think the legroom in First Class is huge you are absolutely right.  Frankly, more space than anyone needs.

Here is a shot of my wife in the first row.  She used to be able to reach the bulkhead with her feet, but not any more.

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What about that snack box and drink?  Well, as an MVPGold I have always had a benefit of a free drink, but I was looking forward to the snack box.  I was pretty surprised to receive what I am sure is the world’ smallest snack box.  I opened it up to show it had almonds, Craisins, and a square of dark chocolate.  OK, better than a poke in the eye, but really disappointing that this is all the snack box amounts to.

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I was next on the list for an upgrade, so if Alaska still had four rows of First, I would have been sitting in a comfy seat with a decent meal instead of what you see above.  However, it looks like a good deal if you are the lowest tier elite and rarely make the cut off list for an upgrade.  This was you get some extra legroom and other benefits.  Let me know if you get a chance to experience this and what you think of airlines inventing this new class of service.

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First stop on our winter mileage run was San Diego.  I worried about all the rain I had heard about in California, but it turned out cloudy and dry.  San Diego is a great town and we looked forward to spending a couple of days there.  I looked forward to checking out the new Hilton Bayfront which was under construction the last time we were there in 2014.  It is located at the end of the San Diego Convention Center opposite from the Marriott.  This is a great location from which you can walk to the Gaslamp District, stroll along the waterfront and visit the Midway, or catch the hop-on, hop-off tour bus to see the rest of San Diego.

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I was a little surprised how small the room was, but I probably was too used to getting an upgrade as a Hilton Diamond.  There was a large convention at the hotel that weekend so I wasn’t upset that we had no upgrade (unlike my wife).  The room was fine and did have a nice view of the convention center and waterfront.

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The hotel is at the far end of the hotel row along the waterfront, but it is still a reasonable walk to everything.  Had a view of Petco Park and this visit was just a couple days after the Chargers announced they were moving to L.A.  A lot of angst in San Diego about that!

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The hotel owner had paid for a neat little footbridge to cross from the hotel into east downtown which was a nice shortcut to the Gaslamp District.

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One disappointment was that there was no lounge in this new hotel.  At check-in, we were given free continental breakfast coupons at the Vela restaurant downstairs with an option to use them at Starbucks instead.  We tried using them at Vela and found the placed so packed that we had to wait ten minutes just to get seated.  The hostess was trying to upsell everyone to take the full breakfast for an extra $10 and it seemed to me that those people got preferential seating which I thought was inappropriate.  At least the food was worth the wait, better than what I typically get at a lounge.

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Last mention is for the workout center which is collocated with their spa.  Had a great workout and there were plenty of machines available.

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On the whole, I found the hotel to be average, but in a great location.  I still feel it is better than the old Hilton which is across the street from the Hyatt/ Marriott at the other end of the convention center.

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Part of the addiction dedication to frequent flying is seeing those mileage counters roll over to zero on New Year’s Day and knowing you have to figure out a way to fly a bunch more flights so you can keep your status for the following year.  OF course, ideally you would get your employer to pay for all the flights needed or have those miles already paart of a family vacation.  However, that’s not always enough so you need to grab a bunch more to put you over the hump.

While some writers claim that the mileage run is dead, I am going to show you how to make one and get a great payout from it on Alaska.  More and more flyers should be looking at this program now with AS buying Virgin America which greatly expands their long haul routes.  AS’ Mileage Plan has really worked well for my wife and I ever since we moved to Anchorage in 2002 and discovered how great this program really is.  It is so great that we have continued with it despite living in D.C. for the last four years.  What makes it great?  Well, great service from the people, like the pilot who came out on our pre-flight today to brief the First Class passengers on the flight plan and answer any questions.  Always, always the great Flight Attendants.  Valuable miles that are a great currency to use domestically, but especially internationally on Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Iceland Air and several others.  Mileage earning is still based on distance flown, not price.  Lastly, the huge number of times we are upgraded to First Class.  My wife is a MVPGold75K and was upgraded 33 out of 36 flights in 2016.  I am merely an MVPGold and was upgraded 19 out of 20 flights last year.  Can’t match that experience on any other airline.  I am a Million Miler on UA and don’t get any where near that much love.

One of the best times to rack up cheap mileage run flights is from right after New Year’s to right before Spring Break – so basically mid-Jan. to mid-Mar.  By definition, you want as long a journey as possible.  So I look for as far away a spot from D.C. as possible and then try to find interesting side trips to get there.  ANC, any of the Hawaiian location, and Costa Rica are all great choices.  Of course, if you are West Coast based, you have a ton of East Coast destinations even without adding in those Virgin routes.  AS just keeps quietly expanding their offerings.  It would appear way too small on this screen, so here is a link to AS’ latest route map.

We usually pick one of the Hawaiian islands to visit every year and my wife chose Oahu for 2017.  With the end point settled, I started planning various stops or detours.  Also, I examined flights to those points that had wacky routings that added up the miles flown.  I’ll let you in on the main secret that makes mileage running viable with AS and that is the Companion Fare that come with their B of A credit card.  For only $99 (+$22 in taxes) more than a regular coach flight, I can fly my wife with me while she collects EQM and RDM also.  Other airlines with companion fares do not offer this so it makes mileage running very lucrative as I will illustrate below.

We broke up a week’s trip by making it two days in SAN, three days in HNL, and two days in SJC.  Purists will argue that this is not a true mileage run since we actually leave the airport and enjoy the town we visit.  OK, you win, but to me it is still a mileage run that we also turn into a vacation.  Here is what we finally ended up with:

DCA-LAX-PDX-SAN (two days) – HNL (three days) – SJC (two days) – SEA-DCA

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All for a fare of $859 including the companion fare cost.  So that essentially mean that we paid half that or $430 each to fly 12,132 miles.  That earns us that many EQMs each, but also much more RDM due to the bonuses for Gold and Gold 75K.  While I get a 100% bonus for being a Gold (used to get that as a Gold on UA, but now only 50% from them) and the wife gets an incredible 125% bonus for being a 75K.  She will also get a bonus 50,000 RDM once she re-qualifies for Gold75K, but let’s leave that part for later.  Lets do a quick calculation of the RDM earned and the value of those miles.  I will earn 24,264 RDM, so essentially a free ticket, and the wife will get 27,297 RDM meaning we get 51,561 RDM.  Most bloggers value AS miles at 2 cents each.  Doing the math, means that those miles are worth $1,031.22.  Pretty good return on investment there!  Get miles worth more than the flight cost and a good chunk of EQM to get to do it another year.  Not to mention flying most of that in First Class.  As I write this from Waikiki, my wife was upgraded on all four flights and myself on three so far.  First Class is a great way to earn this investment…

 

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A couple of winners from the previous contest came back and couldn’t use their upgrades from Michael and now reader Joe has volunteered a couple of more.  They expire and must be flown (not just booked) by 31 Jan.  More importantly, they can only be used on a W fare or higher.

MP_Upgrade2_120x120Photo courtesy United.com

There are also some other ways to use them, like on Lufthansa, so refer to United’s webpage on upgrades if you have specific questions. So any takers out there?  Reply with a comment to this post.

 

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I am not a big fan of booking at a hotel brand that I have never heard of.  While sometimes a surprise can be pleasant, just as often it turns into a disappointment.  I would much rather count on the consistency of a name brand such as Hilton when booking.  At a recent conference in Europe I chose to stay at the Frankfurt Airport Hilton and was very pleased with what the hotel has to offer and didn’t mind the trade-off of not being right next to the conference location.

As you would expect, you can reach the hotel by walking from the terminal, although we chose to pick up our rental car and drive.  Driving to the hotel is not the easiest to figure out and involves a lot of looping around between the airport and the adjacent autobahn, but a good GPS can figure it out.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have one of those and it took us the better part of an hour to get to the hotel parking.  The building is massive and situated right along the autobahn, but the noise levels never bothered me and the building looks pretty cool.

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That turned out to be the most trouble we had (other than figuring out the right direction to go on the autobahn) and the rest of the stay was great.  There are actually two hotels on the property, a full Hilton and a Hilton Garden Inn (to the left in the picture).  While I was able to stay at the Hilton at the Per Diem rate, if you are on vacation, you might be able to stay cheaper at the Garden Inn.

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The hotel is very modern with nice architecture.  You come up from the parking garage right into the check-in lobby which has a very nice bar across from the front desk.  I took the front desk photo from the skybridge leading to my room.  This place has a massive atrium!

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The glass elevator take you up to your floor and the place is full of automatically opening glass doors, I kind of got the Star Trek vibe.  The room itself was not large, but they did a great job with the space available.  Wasn’t a fan of the bed, a little too hard for my tastes, but the bathroom and the working desk were excellent.

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As a Hilton Diamond, I had access to the lounge and the cocktail hour and free breakfast there.  Missed the cocktail hour as there were better things to do at night, but the breakfast was nice even if it was just continental.

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Outside the hotel is a small mall filled with the usual traveler’s shops, restaurants, etc.  In the middle of it was the walkway to get to the terminals.  Pretty nice way to get there in inclement weather.  This would definitely be a good alternative if you got weathered in at the airport.

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Altogether, I give this hotel very high marks.  Something else to note is that it is about 15 minutes to downtown Frankfurt or 15 minutes in the other direction to get to Wiesbaden.  Overall, a good experience in a god location.

 

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