Sorry for the long break gang, having a bust life gets in the way of blogging all the time.

Finishing up on our trip to Budapest today.  If you missed the previous posts, they are here, here, and here.

St. Stephen’s Basilica is the largest Catholic church in a Catholic nation and thus “spectacular” does not even begin to describe it.  Now, it is not to be compared to St. Peter’s in Rome, but unlike that great place, you can get up close and personal with St. Stephen’s.

It lies a mere two blocks from the Ritz-Carlton and Deak Square.  Although the back end is right on one of the main streets in Budapest, the right way to approach it is from the St. Stephen’s Square at its entrance.

From the entrance you can either go into the basilica itself or be more adventurous and climb the stairs to the observation deck that surrounds the dome.  There is also an elevator for those who can’t take the stairs. Both require a small admission price of 2-3 Euros.

Starting with the basilica part first, it is really stupendous.  Please keep in mind that this is a functioning church so be quiet and don’t expect to wander around wherever you want to go.  There was a wedding going on when we arrived.  My wife, who is Catholic, really was impressed by the venue.

Now to climb the stairs!  It is a pretty fair workout to climb about six floors of winding staircase up the top level of the basilica.  At this level they have some of the ancient artwork displayed.

Much to my wife’s chagrin, we were still not at the observation deck.  We climbed another 3-4 floors of stairs, but there is an elevator.  Note that even with the elevator, you still have to climb one last floor to reach the deck.  Climbing through here, you are actually between the inner dome which was in the picture from inside the church and the outer dome which is seen from outside.  Pretty cool to see this as an engineer.  My wife was not impressed and got pretty scared looking down.  Be warned!

Finally, we reach the observation deck surrounding the dome and the views up here cannot be beat!  The first photo shows the Ritz-Carlton hotel and the second the square in from of St. Stephen’s.  I should note the there are plenty of nice restaurants to eat in down there after this arduous climb.

St. Stephen’s Basilica is definitely one of the best things we experienced in Budapest and I recommend you put it on your must do list.

 

 

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Continuing on from yesterday’s post.  The Buda Castle grounds are very extensive and offer some spectacular vantage points for great photos.  The original castle was built around 1000 AD and barely withstood the Mongol invasion a couple of hundred years later.  Along came the Renaissance and the enlightened King of the time, Matthias Corvinus, built a Renaissance style palace along with substantial art on the site of the castle.  Unfortunately, during the Turkish occupation of Hungary (1541-1686), the palace was not occupied and used as an ammunition dump.  This blew up and destroyed the original castle.  The castle was rebuilt by Maria Teresa in the 18th Century and again after WW2.  You can see the various layers of the original structures if you look closely.

See the buttress in the center of the photo?  You can go out on that and take spectacular photos up and down the Danube.

There is also a tower at the far end and if you go down, the entrance to the museum.

After you finish with Buda Castle, you can explore the rest of the Castle Hill which contains some Government buildings being renovated to be the Prime Minister’s offices and a quaint little town where we had the best gelato of our trip, sorry didn’t get the name.

Here is a map that give you an idea of the layout of Castle Hill.

Then you reach the Matthias Cathedral (remember him?) which is really spectacular and was renovated in the early 20th Century.

We were lucky and arrived when they had a booksellers event along with live music playing.

In back of the cathedral is the Fishermen’s Bastion.  Constructed over 100 years ago, it is so named because that part of the wall was defended by fishermen during the Mongol invasion.  It is really beautiful both from the cathedral side and from the bottom of the hill.  This is a good place to walk down if you decide you want to go back to town.

There was even a little renaissance festival going on.  They certainly fit in with the surroundings!

That wraps up Castle Hill which should be considered a “must see” to anyone visiting Budapest.  I’ll leave you with an old picture of what Castle Hill looked like a few hundreds years ago.

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

On our first full day in Budapest it was time to get out and see both Buda and Pest.  Yeah, just like Minneapolis-St.Paul, Budapest is actually two cities on either side of the Danube that they eventually combined with one name.

Whenever we travel to a big city for the first time, we like to take one of those double decker bus tours.  They give you a chance to see parts of the place that you would otherwise never even know about, plus they are filled with interesting facts about the history of the city.  Fortunate for us we got a prime spot on the top, but under the partial roof so I didn’t need to worry about sunburn – my wife doesn’t have that problem!  The tour was a reasonable $32/person for a 48 hour hop-on, hop-off pass.

After the tour, we had a good idea where to go afterward – to see the Buda Castle of course!  The best news is that it is a pleasant walk of about a mile from our hotel.  The Ritz is only about 4 blocks from the Danube.  Most other major chain hotels are located right along the Danube so this guide will work if you are staying at the Marriott, Sofitel, etc. on the Pest side of the Danube.  From the building shown, to the left is the Four Seasons and across the street to the right is the Sofitel.  From any of the hotels, you will reach this square by the river.  Take a right and you can walk across the Danube on the Chain Bridge.

The bridge was a nice walk, but fairly crowded for the narrow walkway.  Kind of hard to stop and take photos except at several vantage points built into the bridge.  The Chain Bridge was built in the 1800’s but destroyed during World War Two and then re-built in the 1950s.

Coming to the other side of the bridge, you can see Buda Castle on the ridge overlooking the Danube.  You can take the long road around to get to the top, but have more fun taking the Funicular!

The Funicular is only about $3 and cheaper if you buy the round trip.  Although it was also reconstructed after the war, but it really feels like it was built in the 1800’s and you can picture people riding this as a “modern wonder”.

Now we reached the plaza at the top of the hill with Buda Castle to our left and Government offices to the right.  We didn’t tour the castle, but just touring the grounds overlooking the Danube was really spectacular.

I know this post is getting a little long so I will cut it here and continue adventures on Castle Hill tomorrow…

Posted by glenn | One Comment

The wife and I finally got away for a real vacation and spent four great days in Budapest.  I already wrote about staying at the Ritz-Carlton which was really nice.  Quite by accident, we found the Ritz to be a prime location in the center of the old downtown which made for an ideal base to operate out of for seeing Buda and Pest.

The Ritz is right off of one of the main plazas called Deak Ferenc, named after a famous Hungarian hero.  The major shopping area is along Deak Ferenc Street.  You can also access the tour buses here and subway.

Look for the Double “M” around town to find the Metro (subway).  Didn’t try it, but it certainly was popular.

You can even rent a bike if you want some exercise.  My wife claims that she forgot how to ride a bike – so much for that old saying.

Here is Deak Ferenc Street.  Notice the outdoor extension of the restaurant.

You see that all over Budapest and it is really wonderful considering the weather was about 78 (~25C) every day.  I feel like this city would be totally different in the winter without all the outdoor activities.

Speaking of which, a short trip down the street and it opens up to a whole plaza surrounded by restaurants, stores, and tourist traps like Hard Rock Café.

Dinner at one of the restaurants around the square was pretty good.  I can’t say that prices were cheap, but they weren’t expensive either.  And more importantly, it tasted really good!

More adventures tomorrow…

 

Posted by glenn | 2 Comments

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.

IMG_3435 IMG_3433 IMG_3430 IMG_3429

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!

IMG_3436

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!

Sonoma 2017 011

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.

Sonoma 2017 013 Sonoma 2017 014 Sonoma 2017 015 Sonoma 2017 016

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!

Sonoma 2017 019

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.

Sonoma 2017 022 Sonoma 2017 023

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.

Posted by glenn | No Comments

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!

IMG_3421

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.

IMG_3426 IMG_3427

That’s the winery behind all these redwoods.

IMG_3428

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

 

 

 

Posted by glenn | 2 Comments

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.

Hawaii 2017 112

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.

Hawaii 2017 068 Hawaii 2017 076

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.

Hawaii 2017 077 Hawaii 2017 074 Hawaii 2017 075Hawaii 2017 072

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.

Hawaii 2017 071 Hawaii 2017 070

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

Hawaii 2017 069

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

Hawaii 2017 079 Hawaii 2017 078

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.

 

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

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.

Hawaii 2017 096

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.

Hawaii 2017 111

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.

Hawaii 2017 082 Hawaii 2017 083 Hawaii 2017 084 Hawaii 2017 086

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.

Ritz Reservation

But get this caveat:

Ritz Caveats

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.

Hawaii 2017 087 Hawaii 2017 088

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.

Hawaii 2017 103 Hawaii 2017 104 Hawaii 2017 105 Hawaii 2017 107

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

Hawaii 2017 093 Hawaii 2017 094

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.

Posted by glenn | No Comments

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.

Hawaii 2017 051

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.

Hawaii 2017 013Hawaii 2017 014

Hawaii 2017 015

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!

Hawaii 2017 019 Hawaii 2017 020

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.

Hawaii 2017 044 Hawaii 2017 048

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.

Hawaii 2017 039 Hawaii 2017 043

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

Hawaii 2017 042

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.

Posted by glenn | No Comments

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

Mileage Run 17

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…

 

Posted by glenn | One Comment

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.

img_3235

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.

img_3230

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!

img_3206img_3229

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.

img_3207img_3208

img_3209 img_3211

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.

img_3203 img_3202

img_3201 img_3204

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.

img_3232 img_3234

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.

 

Posted by glenn | 3 Comments

« previous home top