The next two weeks are our yearly featured period.  We thought it was a good idea to update some of our basic posts since we haven’t done that in a while and they are great for a beginner to start.  If you know someone who is just starting the miles and points game or might want to, please refer them to our blog for the next couple of weeks.

The first updated post is the legality of collecting miles and points on the Government’s dime.  Almost all belongs to you, just use your Gov’t Travel Card and remember that VOLUNTARY taking compensation belongs to you while INVOLUNTARY compensation belong to Uncle Sam.

We all know the military runs on RUMINT (Rumor Intelligence) which is often not true.  This happens
quite frequently when discussing frequent flyer miles as most people can’t believe you would be able to do all that I do for free.  To be fair, there was a time in the 80’s and 90’s that the Government claimed that the miles were theirs, but as they had no way to enforce or monitor their use, they finally gave up that line around the year 2000.

As a young officer, I found a good technique when someone would say something was not allowed, was to say “show me the reg”.  The regulation in this case is the Joint Travel Regulation (JTR) which is the bible for all travel for both military and
civilian personnel in DoD.

Here is the language straight from the JTR:

U1200 NON-REIMBURSABLE EXPENSES

B.
Promotional Materials/Benefits

1. A traveler on official business traveling at GOV’T expense on agency (APP A1)
funds may keep promotional material (including frequent traveler benefits such as points or miles,
upgrades, or access to carrier clubs or facilities) for personal use.

2.
The promotional material must be obtained under the same terms as those offered
to the general public and must be at no additional GOV’T cost. Examples include
vendor-provided complimentary upgrades to rooms or transportation
accommodations and upgrades ‘purchased’ using frequent traveler benefits and/or
personal unreimbursed funds.

APP O: TDY Travel Allowances (JFTR/JTR) T4000-T4070

(3) Promotional benefits or materials received from a travel service provider ICW planning and/or

scheduling an official conference or other group travel (as opposed to performing official travel) are

considered GOV’T property, and may only be accepted on the GOV’T’s behalf.

(4) Promotional items received for travel using funds other than those of an agency are not covered by

this rule. The traveler should seek guidance from the funding authorities.

  1. Seat Relinquishing

(1) Voluntary. A traveler may keep payments from a carrier for voluntarily vacating a transportation

seat. However, no additional expenses (per diem or reimbursable) may be paid as a result of the

traveler’s delay. Additional travel expenses incurred as a result of voluntarily giving up a seat are

the traveler’s financial responsibility.

(2) Involuntarily. If a traveler is involuntarily denied boarding on a flight, compensation for the

denied seat belongs to the GOV’T (59 Comp. Gen. 203 (1980)). The traveler must request that the

carrier shows the “Treasurer of the United States” as payee on the compensation check and forward the

payment according to Service/Agency directives.

One more thing to note when doing a VDB is that you can bargain.  If it’s going to cause an overnight stay, demand a hotel room as part of accepting the deal.  You can ask for other things too such as a free upgrade on the next flight.  All they must give you is the dollar value (usually determined by the amount of time you will be delayed) of the voucher, everything else is up to you.  Some advocate waiting until after the plane has left to do your bargaining, but I think you are in a weaker position then.  I say get the deal you want up front by asking first, all they can say is no.  Sometimes they will get no volunteers and keep upping the offer until someone accepts.  Another war story:  I was on a US Airways flight heading from PHX (Phoenix) to ANC (Anchorage) on the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend and they asked for volunteers.  They started at $200, no takers, then $400 still none as there was only one flight a day meaning a 24 hour wait.  Finally, almost everyone was boarded when the Gate Agent (GA) came on and said they would offer a free international ticket to anywhere US Airways flies.  That was enough to get a couple of volunteers who jumped quickly at that offer.  Why didn’t I take advantage of that?  I was heading home to Alaska after demob at Ft. Bragg.  Nothing was worth keeping me from my family for another day!

 

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About a year ago, DoD started a program to integrate both on-post/base housing and off-post commercial hotels.  They started this as a pilot program with a few of the smaller locations.  They have expanded it as they worked out the bugs and just expanded again to include some of our largest posts such as Ft. Bragg.  I into this program for the first time last month when I visited some of my deploying troops at Ft. Hood and the only choice I was given for housing was to stay at the new Candlewood Suites, run by IHG, on post.  As many of you know, the privatized housing program has now expanded to temporary lodging (known as PAL) and so far I am impressed by IHG’s new hotels and management of them.

Here is the announcement from the latest expansion:

On July 1, 2016, the Department of Defense will continue its expansion of the Integrated Lodging Program Pilot by adding DoD Preferred commercial lodging at five pilot sites including:

  • Fort Bragg ��� Fayetteville, NC
  • Fort Meade ��� Fort Meade, MD
  • Hill Air Force Base ��� Ogden, UT
  • Shaw Air Force Base ��� Sumter, SC
  • Redstone Arsenal ��� Huntsville, AL

Two of these pilot sites, Fort Meade and Redstone Arsenal, are already Integrated Lodging Program pilot sites with privatized lodging. Hill Air Force Base, Shaw Air Force Base and Fort Bragg are considered new program pilot sites.

Now just because you are going TDY to one of these locations does not mean you will stay on-post/base.  I just booked another trip to Ft. Hood in DTS and it said the PAL Hotel (Candlewood Suites) was not available and then asked me to push a button to revel all the commercial hotels around the fort.

I am not sure how the program saves DoD money since the hotel cost the same as every other hotel, i.e. per diem rate.  However, the location is certainly closer to wherever you need to go on-post.  Not to mention, it is nice to get points for staying on-post which is a departure from many years history.  We’d be interested to hear your experiences and thoughts on the ILPP Program.  For the full story on this program, check out this page on DTS.

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Yesterday’s post was all bout the jump, but there is a lot to cover about the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise itself.  I will start out by saying it is basically “party central” for the D-Day celebrations.  The town is well preserved with a great museum, really a group of museums, right at the edge of town.  This is also where many of the re-enactors cluster and celebrate.  The town is very nice with a large central square surrounded by shops and the famous church.  One thing that is really cute is that they still hang a paratrooper dummy from the church roof to celebrate PVT John Steele whose chute snagged on the church roof and left him hanging helplessly.  He played dead for two hours before the Germans took him captive.

 

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The bars all spill out onto the streets so they actually have performers in period costume and singing 1940’s songs which is great to listen to.

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As I said, this seems to be the gathering place for most of the re-enactors.  Here’s the weird thing – almost none of them are American.  We ran into French, Belgium, Dutch, British  and even Germans dressing up and playing American Paratroopers!  And the vehicles were outstanding.  All looked brand new and who knows where they got some of them.  They must have very understanding wives!

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That said, a number of groups were husband and wives or even whole families.  Here is a picture of us with a whole paratrooper family.

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The highlight of the trip was being able to jump into Sainte-Mere-Eglise along with troops from the 82nd Airborne Division, 173rd Infantry Regiment and many of our allied airborne partners.  It was an early morning rise at 0430 and on to manifest.  We then took buses to Cherbourg, the site of the airfield from which the planes would launch.  We had four C-130Js, a German C-160, and a French Casa.  In addition, this was where the re-enactors had their aircraft, two C-47s and a P-47.

Cherbbourg Aircraft

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Our flight was half German Fallschirmjaeger and half U.S.  Packed in like sardines, we flew around a 100 feet for an hour before they let us out.

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This was the exact same field the 82nd jumped into on to capture the Pont de la Fiere bridge.  Thankfully, the fields were not flooded by the Germans as happened during the actual event and I had the softest landing I ever had.

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After the ceremony at the statue of Iron Mike, I had the pleasure of promoting on of my officers and re-enlisting one of my best NCOs.  The day doesn’t get much better than that!

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Continuing on from yesterday, we took 4 June to visit Point Du Hoc, the famous assault up the cliffs by the Rangers and the ceremony at Utah Beach.

The French Government has spent millions to shore up the cliffs at Point Du Hoc so this key piece of history is not lost to time.  We came too early to see the museum there, but it was pretty spectacular nonetheless.  Hard to imaging being given the mission to climb these cliffs by hand and assault the bunkers there.  Not surprising that out of 225 Rangers, only 90 were standing by 8 June.  Here is there incredible story.  As my boss said when we were looking at the cliffs, “when they drop you off in the boat and tell you the enemy is up there – what choice do you have but to go up?”

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Yeah, that’s what they had to climb while being shot at and grenades drop on them.

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The bunkers are mostly intact and you can go down in them to get a sense of the fields of fire.

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At the Utah Beach ceremony, GEN Milley, the Army Chief of Staff gave a nice speech followed by one from one of the veterans.  They have a new museum there which was very nice and a must see.

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It was a nice sunny day in the afternoon and you could really see the enormity of the beach.  Tides fluctuate a lot in Normandy.  The attackers had to land at low tide so the boats could avoid all the obstacles that might have sunk them.  However this meant that the Soldiers had to cross about 400 yards of open beach before they could get to the bluffs where I took these photos.  They were luck that the beach was not well defended and did not take the high casualties of Omaha Beach.  Pretty impressive to put yourself in their shoes and imagine what they had to go through.  Read more about it here.

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I expect most American military veterans dream of going to the annual celebration of one of the most epic battles in history, the Allied invasion of Normandy to liberate France and defeat the Nazi regime.  For me, this trip was proof that I am the luckiest man alive since it involved me jumping into Normandy to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of this event.  Better to be lucky than good is my motto!

The trip to Paris from IAD on United was nothing special, so I will skip that.  From CDG, we drove to Normandy and there is no easy way to get there.  The recent flooding in Paris meant it took us an hour just to get out of the city.  Plus, there are no big highways going to Normandy, so in all it took us about 4 hours.

Hotel Directions

We stayed at the Hotel Le Sainte Mere, which was the French equivalent of a two star roadside hotel.  Nothing special except the location – five blocks from downtown Sainte-Mere-Eglise.  More on that in tomorrow’s post.

Hotel Sainte Mere

Our first day involved a commemoration ceremony at Carentan.  We started at the site of the “Cabbage Patch”.  This was an epic battle between the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division and the 2nd Fallschimjager (German airborne).  This battle of Carentan was finally settled by a hand grenade and bayonet charge by the American paratroopers at great cost.  Read about the battle here.

At the ceremony, the French Government awarded several of the American veterans and one French Resistance veteran the Legion of Merit.  It was amazing to see the veterans, most of whom are in their 90s.  You really get perspective when you realize that there won’t be many of these veterans left soon.  I should note that we had representatives from all the Allied nations plus German Soldiers.  Some might think it strange to have Germans at a ceremony like this, but what better way to demonstrate that we will never fight each other again than to be unified in commemoration.  After laying wreaths and a flyover by four C-130s, we then marched through the center of town with bands playing.  It was pretty cool and almost every structure in the town remains just as they were in World War Two.

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All the Soldiers were hosted at a big dinner put on by the town and it was a great time.  Notably my troops were mixed in with the other nationalities so they could have a great cultural exchange and make some unique friendships.  I have to say that we were all amazed at the enthusiasm of the French locals.  They have truly not forgotten what happened 72 years ago.  All were very friendly and turned out for the parades and ceremonies.  I wish our American kids knew this much about D-Day.

 

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(by Andy) I had to go to Chicago in April for Emergency Medicine boards, and decided to try out some different hotels. One of the ones I’d read about was the Waldorf Astoria Chicago. I knew my per diem wouldn’t cover it, so I booked it on a points & money rate, which fortunately was available, for only one night though.

Pulling up to the beautiful facade:

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Obviously a stock photo, as the driveway was full of cars.

I entered the rotating door into a gorgeous lobby. Also a stock photo as mine looked terrible:

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They recognized my Diamond status, and upgraded me to a suite! Unfortunately Hilton status doesn’t get free breakfast at Waldorf Astorias, but oh well.

Walking in to my suite, the entrance foyer, which had a large closet and safe, as well as a well-stocked minibar:

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The living room, with remotely controlled fireplace. the desk space was beautiful, looking West over the city:

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An incredibly comfy bed, and facing it, a B&O bluetooth sound system under the TV.

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Unintentional selfie while checking out the bathroom hallway.

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the marble-countered bathroom, huge & beautiful, with dual sinks, deep bath and overhead rain shower. It included Salvatore Ferragamo amenities:

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I didn’t dine there at all, as I was meeting friends out for dinner, and breakfast the next day. The gym and spa were lovely, with sauna, steam bath, and hot tub. There was also a lap pool, free weights, Nautilus equipment, and several other rooms for group lessons. Overall it was incredibly luxurious and comfortable. The concierges and front desk staff were awesome, giving me great tips and info. I would definitely stay here again if given the chance!

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(This is Andy) After our awesome but rain-soaked trip to Vietnam, we decided to go to our favorite city in the world, Hong Kong. Mostly we went because we love the ambiance, food and people, and have some friends there, but also because I had two free nights from the Citi Hilton Reserve that were expiring in two weeks, and I always wanted to try out the Conrad Hong Kong. I was also excited because right before this trip I status matched to Hilton Diamond using my Hyatt Diamond status, which was super easy, and I wanted to see if we’d get upgraded.

There was tons of availability, so no worries booking it. I booked us tickets from Saigon – Hong Kong on Vietnam Airways, using Air France miles, transferred in from Citi Thank You points. Booking on Air France is a breeze, and in my opinion Air France is the best program within Skyteam to collect miles.

After a short train ride from the airport, and then a complimentary shuttle from Admiralty station to the Conrad’s lobby, we were happy to hear them thank us for the Hilton Diamond status, and promptly upgraded us to a King Executive Harbor Suite…Sweet!

We were hungry, and asked about the Executive Club, and it was actually during the time which they offered free snacks, wine, and beer, so we proceeded to the top-floor club to check in while they took our bags to our room.

Here was the amazing view:

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The food at evening time was decent, as was the wine and beer. After some snacks and harbor-watching, we made it to our room:

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a gorgeous seating area with hot tea and sweets laid out for us, as well as a perfect view out over the Admiralty area, directly over the British embassy, and with views of Victoria Peak. Awesome! The main bedroom:

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The bed was nice and comfortable, and the pillows were luscious. They helpfully had brought in a rollaway bed for my son, and put it at the foot of the bed after I was done taking pictures. The bathroom:

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It had Aromatherapy brand toiletries, which were nice. Not quite my favorite, which would be Aesop, but still pretty nice smelling. There was a huge bath, with a yellow rubber ducky, and a shower next to it.

There was also a half-bath next to the living area, which was unnecessary, but still majorly appreciated.

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Another view, this one from our bedroom:

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I didn’t take a pic of the gym or the steam room, both of which were ok, but nothing super impressive.

The location is money, right in the middle of admiralty, a 10 minute walk from the metro, and a 10 minute walk to the running paths up on the hills. The staff, as was everyone on this trip, was top-notch and super helpful.

Overall, my second favorite hotel in Hong Kong, behind the Intercontinental Hong Kong, although when you include the free breakfast buffet and executive lounge that Hilton Golds and Diamonds get access to, I’d say it’s a dead heat.

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(By Andy) After our lovely stay in Danang, we were initially only go to Saigon for a layover en route to Hong Kong. But with our Halong Bay trip cancelled, we had 3 more days to explore Saigon, which is awesome. Also, the weather was much warmer than in Hanoi or Danang; it was mercifully in the 80s!

I went on to awardmapper and checked out what hotels were available with points. I also remembered that I still had a Hyatt Diamond Suite upgrade left. Fortunately, it looked like there was wide availability at the Park Hyatt Saigon on a cash + points rate. It’s a category 4, so only 7500 points + $100 per night. I transferred in the points from Ultimate Rewards then booked it. I then called the Diamond phone line using Skype, and sure enough, they had a suite upgrade available, into a Park Suite King.

If you’ve ever been to Saigon, you know that the traffic is an abomination! It took at least an hour to go the 5 miles from the airport to the hotel. Once we got there though, we were pleasantly surprised:

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Stock photo obviously in this one. Beautiful building in a very bustling corner of Saigon, with a lot of really good restaurants nearby. Walking in to the lobby:

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The entire hotel is grandiose but in a modern way (sorry, I’m not too keen on architecture). There were about 20 attendants in the lobby to help us with our every need, and every single one of them was incredibly courteous, lovely, and gracious. Fortunately there was no line and after being given local bananas and way too many bottles of water to handle, we were led to our suite in no time. Walking in:

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It was clean and beautiful, with a huge living room, then leading in to an equally huge bedroom with a king size bed:

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A little old-school for my tastes, but still very easy to chillax. Off of the living room is a kitchenette with complimentary bottles of water and, my personal favorite, Nespresso capsules!

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The bathroom was en-suite (I just recently learned what that term means), and also huge. There was a huge enclosed shower with overhead fixture, a deep pool that even 6’1″ me could chill out in, and a separate room for the toilet and bidet. I got used to bidets when I lived in Bahrain for two years, but after using Japanese washlets, I have to say the latter are much preferable.

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Outside, they have an enormous garden, pool, and meeting spaces:

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The water temperature was slightly cooler, I guess since it was January, but with the temp 80 degrees outside, it was just right for me.

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We of course received complimentary breakfast every morning at their Opera restaurant, which has a terrace overlooking the Saigon opera house. In addition to normal breakfast fares that you’d expect, there was pho and coconuts:

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Their gym was big, and they also had a steam room and hot tub. I love steam rooms and hot tubs, even when it’s 80 degrees! No pictures for obvious reasons. Not quite as impressive as the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s, but still really nice. The central location let us walk to some amazing restaurants and museums. The Park Hyatt offers tours to places such as the Cu Chi Tunnels or the Vietnam War Museum, but they’re really overpriced compared to booking those tours independently, so I can’t recommend that. The only bad thing about this stay was that they wouldn’t accept my 2 $200 Hyatt gift cards as payment. When I read the T&Cs, they’re only redeemable in the US or Mexico. Oh well, other than that, this was an absolutely perfect stay.

Overall, this was how we felt about our 3 night stay there:

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(by Andy) In the previous post I talked about the hotel and resort itself, and in this post I’ll review La Maison 1888, their Michelin-starred restaurant, and their exclusive lounge at Danang (DAD) airport. First, on to La Maison 1888!

I had read great things about this restaurant on Tripadvisor as well as some foodie blogs, so we were really looking to dining there. I called hotel’s front desk concierge about reservations, and based on it’s reputation, was worried that we wouldn’t be able to get one; we were only there three days. Fortunately, not only was it low season for the resort, but as I mentioned before, the weather at the time was pretty terrible, so it was no problem getting one. Two issues – children under 12 are not allowed (our son is 5), and secondly, the first reservation starts at 6, whereas the kid’s club closes at 8. We booked a reservation at 6 and hoped that we’d be finished by 8.

It had mercifully stopped raining, so we were able to walk to the restaurant. The outside is beautiful – it is two stories, and perched somewhat on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Since it was January, it was dark by 6pm, but I imagine in the nicer months you’d get an amazing view.

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Right past the entrance is Buffalo Bar, where they serve a delicious Old Fashioned. They also have an impressive selection of cigars; however I declined.

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Here was our dining room, which I would say was probably the most romantic of all the different dining rooms. Because our reservation started right when the restaurant opened, I think we were the first ones there.

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There are several themed dining rooms throughout the restaurant, all very beautiful and with exquisite attention to detail. (you’ll have to forgive the quality of my pictures, usually my wife takes the pics with her high-tech camera, but I just used my phone for these)

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The service was superb, with the servers being attentive but not too intrusive; it was just the right mix. Their English was very good as well. I chose the tasting menu, and my wife decided to go A La Carte. I’ve put an example of the menu below, although I’m told it changes quite frequently. Prices were in Vietnamese Dong, x1000.

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The meal was perfect. There were traces of Vietnamese and French cuisine throughout, and the taste was sublime. I can review travel experiences all day, but I’m not a food critic. You know when you taste something, and it brings a smile to your face? Yeah, that happened a lot here. That’s the most intelligent way I can put it.

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The main meal lasted until 8, so I talked to the manager, and explained that my son is very well-behaved and mature. They graciously agreed to let us eat dessert with him upstairs in one of the more family-themed rooms, and indeed there was another family there, albeit with older children. We ordered the “Pierre Gagnaire Grand Dessert”, and it was plenty for all three of us, just the perfect ending to a perfect dining experience, one of my favorite ever!

After our stay at the resort was over, we took the complimentary shuttle into downtown Danang, got some banh mi sandwiches, then hailed a taxi to the airport to fly on to Saigon, where the weather was fortunately more sunny and warm. When we got through security we still had about an hour and a half, so I checked loungebuddy to see if there were anywhere to chillax. I found out through the app that the Intercontinental Danang actually has a departure lounge, and it was rated very highly. I went up and asked if we could go in, and found out that anyone that had stayed there can use it. Sweet!

It was somewhat of a tiny space, but the ambiance in there was so cool!

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I want a room like this in my dream house!

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The waitresses were all lovely and gracious, and gave us our own hangout room in which to relax. There were simple finger foods, which we mostly declined as we’d just eaten street food, and complimentary beverages and beer.

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This lounge had some of the coolest designs I’ve seen in an airport lounge. As I mentioned before, this overall resort stay was during cold rainy weather, and it was still probably the best we’ve ever been too. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

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Agadir was a lovely city, I just wish that I had more time to explore it.  I worked every day but one and had no car.  The good news is that the main reason tourists come to Agadir is to go to the beach and that was only a couple of blocks from the hotel where we were staying.  One note for those who visit, there are a lot of mis-conceptions about Arabic countries where most people think they are like Saudi Arabia.  Morocco, like most of the North African countries is very liberal.  While the majority of women cover their heads, it is usually with a fashionable French scarf.  You will hardly see a full abaya.  Men are almost always in western dress with only a couple of percent in traditional Arabic outfits.  A bikini on the beach or wearing shorts around town is no big deal.

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As with most beach towns, there is a main drag that parallels the beach.  Agadir’s is full of good hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs.  It is very clean and safe everywhere that I went.  There are paths to the beach every couple of blocks so you shouldn’t have a problem getting to the boardwalk.

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The boardwalk is wide and beautiful.  The beach was clean and most of the hotels had umbrellas, lounges, and other activities as long as you were willing to pay.  Did I mention that everything in Agadir is pretty cheap.  The exchange rate is an easy-to-calculate $1=10 Dirhams.  For $20 you can have a nice dinner for two.

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There are the usual hawkers along the boardwalk, but I find them very entertaining and actually bought a geode and a stone carving from them.  This guy allowed me to take his picture.

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They have many hotels right on the beach (unfortunately no chain hotels to use your points on) and a Club Med here if you are into that program.

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Continuing down the boardwalk, you can see a hill off  in the distance.  On this sits the Casbah (fort) which collapsed in a massive earthquake in 1961.  At the end of my trip, we went to have dinner at our Moroccan officer’s house.  His father told us of his house collapsing around him and him having to claw his way out of the rubble.  Pretty unusual to run into someone with that type of experience.

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Anyway, back to the beach.  There are nice places to eat as you would expect and the unanimous vote for best restaurant was this Indian place.

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I spent the day walking around the town.  Morocco was a great place to pick up saffron for my wife at a fairly good price.  I also got her some olive oil, which you would think would be great coming from a place where they grow them.  Haven’t tested that theory yet.  I could not find any central mall, but a few blocks off the beach there are many traditional markets where you can poke around and shop for local trinkets.  You can also visit the GFC if you want some fried chicken.

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I enjoyed this Cuban restaurant at the end of the boardwalk with their 50s sedan out front.

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I stayed until the evening (and got a little too much sun) and I will leave you with these beautiful shots.  I particularly enjoyed the young Moroccan couple sitting on the wall and watching the sun set on a great day.

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