Thursday, June 21, 2018

Disney Aulani Review

Aulani Resort & Spa

I had heard SO MUCH about the Aulani, and have always wanted to check it out. Everyone said to wait until M was 3 years old and potty trained, so she could take advantage of Aunty's Beach House (essentially an included daycare option where you can drop off kids).

The price is a little expensive (smallest room cost around $500+), which is why we only stayed for two nights. I think that was actually a good amount of time, since we really maximized our first day by coming early.

Aulani is located in Kapolei, which is about a 45-minute drive from Waikiki. Since we didn't have a rental car, we booked a one-way taxi with Charley's which cost $89 before gratuities.  The Aulani is located in a manicured development area and reminded me a lot of Wailea, Maui and Punta Mita, Mexico. There were a few other resorts/condos around the area, too, such as the Four Seasons and the Marriott.



There's a small market, restaurants, and coffee shop within walking distance from the Aulani, which was nice as we got really tired of the overpriced hotel food.

Check In

We purposely came early (around 10 AM) to maximize our time at the Aulani. Even though official check in time is not until 4 PM, we knew we could get started with enjoying the pool facilities, play areas, etc.

They provided us with lei greeting for the adults and a kid's necklace for M. Right next to the check-in area, there's a kids play area with videos playing. We were given the map of the resort, as well as an access key to the check-in/out lounge to change and shower. We grabbed our swimsuits, dropped off our bags with the concierge, and then headed down to the lounge.

Room

We booked the Studio garden view room (their cheapest option!), and our view was of the parking lot. :p  I probably would recommend booking at least the next category up, which would at least give a view of the lawn area for not that much more.


The room felt a little small (around 380 sq feet). I think this was probably because we just came from the Hyatt Centric Waikiki which had much bigger rooms. The room is a little bit older, but not super worn out.  They do have a microwave, fridge, plates/glasses, dish soap, etc. which is nice. I also noticed a pack and play with sheets in the closet if needed for little ones.


The sofa pulls out to a queen size bed, which we actually used because the regular bed was too small for the 3 of us.

In the bathroom, there was also a step stool for kids, which was really nice, so M could go up to wash her hands at the sink by herself!


Aunty's Beach House

We registered M up for Aunty's Beach House. There's a $12.95 fee/deposit for the bracelet (which is used to track where she is at all times), and this is refundable. There is an "open house" each morning from 8 - 9:30AM where families can stay with their children to explore and enjoy the facility. From 9:30AM onward, only kids are allowed to stay.

A lot of families took advantage of this and dropped their kids off for the whole day. M didn't want to be left alone, so we only did the open house one morning before heading to the pool.

For the most part, this is covered as part of the stay. There are some other "premium" activities that you would have to pay extra for, which were noted in the schedule. They offer to serve kids meals (lunch/dinner) for an additional fee also.

Pool Area

By the time we got changed after we arrived, it was probably around 10:30AM. We went to the towel check-in area, where we showed our keys to get wristbands, towels, and a kid floaty. Every day we have to get a new wristband (different color), which is how the resort knows how to differentiate guests vs non-guests at the pool.

The pool area was so CROWDED. I walked around a few times and could not find a single seat. I finally found a pair of seats by luck, and we put our stuff there and were finally able to swim.

I read some reviews on Yelp that said that people camp out slightly before 8 AM to get the "premium" pool chairs. I found this to be true. The next day we came down before 8AM to get the seats we wanted. This takes away a little bit from the experience, as I felt that we shouldn't have to fight to get pool seating when on vacation. The resort seemed to be full, and from what I understand, the hotel has a 4,000 person capacity and only 1,000 lounge chairs, which is not a good ratio. As the time went by, I started seeing more and more guests looking for chairs, and I felt bad for all these guests paying so much and couldn't even find a pool chair! By the second day, we learned that you have to be down by 8:30-9 AM at the latest to find seating.

Honestly, we were already up early anyway because of the jet lag, so it's not a huge issue to come down by 8AM. It just made the whole experience less relaxing, as we had to make sure we get down at a certain time and make sure we keep checking on our seat (as they remove your stuff after 1 hour if you leave your seats).

There are multiple pool areas: regular swimming pool, lazy river, kiddie pool, adult pool, etc. so the pool itself doesn't feel that crowded, just the seating areas did.

Beach Area

The beach area is actually somewhat less crowded. We went around 10AM another day and still found plenty of seats available.

The resort provides free sand toys on a first come, first served basis, I heard they run out quickly, so we went early also, around 8:30AM to borrow one.

There's a small shack that sells snacks (pretzel, soft serve, etc.) right by the beach.

The beach area is in a small cove, and the water is very calm, perfect for little kids.

Laniwai Spa

I booked a massage at the Laniwai Spa. Dan offered to watch M, which was really nice of him. :) They automatically include gratuities, and the total was around $199. Not cheap, but I guess it is the standard for a "nicer" spa.

The experience was actually really nice. The whole spa area felt very secluded, not crowded like everywhere else at the Aulani! After checking in, I was greeted by someone who asked me to choose a stone that is engraved with Hawaiian terms - mine meant "Dream". She then asked me to drop it in a small pool area with my wish. She then walked me through the different areas (changing room, relaxation room, outdoor tubs, etc). They have 2 hot tubs, an area with 5-6 different rain showers, and a warm whirlpool and a cold plunge pool. There's also a seating lounge for people to relax. 

They called me in the co-ed lounge and took me to the treatment room. They provided options for the lotion, as well as music. The massage was great, and overall experience was very relaxing.

Ka wa'a Luau

Aulani introduced a luau not too long ago. We bought the general admission tickets, which was $119 for adult and $79 for kids. The other option is premium admission, which was $159 for adult and $109 for kids. The premium admission allows early entrance (15 minutes before), closer seating, and unlimited drinks.

We waited in line one hour before because I thought that they would be opening the entrance one hour before, but the opening time was actually the stated time on the ticket (6:15 PM). Again, this is a similar aspect of this resort that I am not a fan of. People line up early to get "better" seats, etc., after already paying for the ticket. I just wished they have pre-assigned seating for everyone, so we don't have to line up.

There are several pre-show activities that are all kid friendly. M got a "tattoo", learned how to pound poi, made a flower bracelet, etc. There is a little bit of a line for each of the activities, but not too bad.


The actual food is not served until another hour later (7:15 PM), and by this time, a lot of the guests & kids were very hungry. I wished that they would just start allowing people to eat at 6:15 or maybe 6:30, but not an hour after. The people in our table actually complained to the server about the lines after lines for everything, which I kind of agree with.

Food is provided buffet style, and they dismiss each table beginning from the first rows, etc. There is a separate buffet food for the kids which had pasta, mac and cheese, fruit cup, etc. The adult buffet style was actually pretty good. There's salad, poke, fish, chicken, pork, and sliced prime rib.

The actual show is nice, Disney style, and again very kid friendly. They try to incorporate kids when possible (for example: inviting kids to dance on stage with the hula dancers).

We didn't end up staying the whole show, as M got really sleepy around 8:40 PM.

Overall it was a nice show, but the lines were too much (lines for entrance, lines for activities, lines for food, etc.). Hopefully they have a better system with pre-assigned seats upon booking, and then serving food not too long after the luau opens. I probably would recommend purchasing the "premium" ticket so you can avoid some of the lines.

Overall Thoughts on Aulani

We are glad that we were finally able to experience what Aulani is all about. However, we probably will not be back.

The price of the resort is a little expensive ($500+/night) for the entry level category, and we felt that the experience didn't fully justify the price, as there were lines for everything. When we go on vacation, we want to feel relaxed. However, at Aulani, it's hard to feel relax when you have to wake up really early to get a spot for the pool chairs.

Everywhere we go in the resort (except the Spa), is super crowded, and it just felt like they really try to maximize the most number of rooms/people for profit, which then negatively affects the actual experience.

We do appreciate the kid friendliness of the resort (step stool in bathroom, pack and play in every room, etc.) -- and service in general is very good.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Oahu Trip

Introduction

We were looking to split our stay between Waikiki and the Aulani resort. So when I heard about the opening of the Hyatt Centric Waikiki, I thought it would be a good option. I always like new hotels, and this one was available via Hyatt points and would have been opened for a few months by the time our trip rolled around.

For the Aulani (since it's so expensive!), we only booked for two nights.

We also didn't rent a car for the entirety our trip. We only rented for one day which worked out fine. There's lots of places around Waikiki that we could walk to or take taxi. It is still more convenient to have a car if you don't mind paying for parking fees.

This was our second trip to Waikiki; we had done most of the touristy stuff the first time. So we didn't really have anything planned other than relaxing and enjoying some good food.

Hyatt Centric Waikiki

The facility is actually an old office building that was completely renovated to be the new Hyatt Centric. The location of the hotel is not beachside but is walking distance to the beach (3-4 blocks). The hotel provides free beach chairs, beach towels, and even sand toys that we took advantage of. I actually really like the location of the hotel--it is close to a lot of eateries and basically next door to the new International Marketplace.

The main entrance on the first floor is really just the entry way.  We had to take the elevator to the 8th floor for the actual lobby and reception area. The lobby is beautiful, with a view of the small swimming pool and is also connected to the main hotel restaurant. At check in, we were welcomed with shell leis and a refreshing pineapple juice drink.


The room is actually quite spacious, and I love how new everything is. There is a small seating area right by the entrance, a full shower/bathroom, another seating area/office, a seating nook, and a King size bed.


The design is modern Hawaiian, and there's a floor to ceiling window. The only thing "missing" is that there is no lanai, per se. But we didn't mind it too much.


The pool is probably one of the few downsides. It is really small, and extremely shallow.  M, our 3-year old, was able to stand in the deepest water area. So it's not really a true swimming pool, more like a water play area for toddlers & kids.

Another downside is that we could hear the nightclub music and traffic from our room. There did not appear to be much soundproofing. You could probably try asking for higher floors, but not sure if that would help with the noise.

Also like I mentioned earlier, this hotel is not beach side. It's about a 3-4 block walk to the beach. The hotel does provide free beach chair, beach towels, and sand toys.

Service was really good; everyone was very friendly and helpful.

There is a daily resort fee as well as additional parking fee. I think parking is $34 daily. Also, since we booked with points, our resort fee was waived, which was nice!

Overall we had a pleasant stay. We feel this is a great option if you are looking for a newer hotel in Waikiki area.


Kid-Friendly Activities

Hawaii Children's Discovery Center

We visited the Children's Discovery Center and M had a blast. The center is like a pretend/play city. There are various stations that mimic real life: supermarket, post office, bank, car repair shop, etc. The entrance fee was $12/person, and the center has 3 floors to explore.

The first floor has the main attractions/pretend city; the second floor has this really awesome Hawaiian Airlines exhibit with actual airplane seats & area for kids to play pilot and flight attendant); and the third floor has exhibits representing various countries.


Overall we had a wonderful time and highly recomend it if you are looking for a place to take young kids in Oahu.

Beach Day

Since the Hyatt is not beachside, we walked a few blocks to access the public beach. The hotel provided free beach chairs, towels, and toys, which was very nice. We still had to carry the stuff ourselves to the beach. The hotel recommended the area in front of Duke's restaurant. We found a partially shaded area by a palm tree, but we ended up renting a beach umbrella from one of the rental shops. In hindsight, I probably would have just rented the umbrella and chairs at the beach instead of carrying from the hotel.



Ala Moana Mall

We went to the Ala Moana mall to look around. We checked out the new Shirokiya food court and the  arcade games for M.

International Market Place - Music/Dancing Show at 6:30 PM

The new International Market Place had just recently reopened. We love the main courtyard area where there's artificial grass, a water area, and stone seatings. They have a cultural music and dance show free to the public every night at 6:30 PM.



Food in Oahu

Island Vintage Coffee

We went here for breakfast almost every day! The location is very close to our hotel, and they open very early at 6 AM. Since we were all jet lagged and up very early, this was a nice and easy choice for us.

We tried the Acai bowl, Vintage Kona Mocha, taro bagel, peanut butter & mango sandwich, and the Island style breakfast plate.
  • Acai bowl: One of the best Acai bowls I've had. The consistency is very good, and they give LOTS of granola (at the bottom of the bowl, in the middle, and at the top). I usually order extra granola at other Acai places, but Island Vintage knows my heart and provides enough granola! :) They also put lots of honey which I love. 
  • Vintage Kona Mocha: This is one of their signature drinks, it's like a Starbucks Frappucino, but with hints of coconut, macadamia, and coffee pieces!
  • Taro bagel: It looks so interesting (purple color!). The taste is very mild but still good.
  • Peanut butter & mango sandwich: An interesting twist to the PB & banana sandwich. It's a tasty, sweet sandwich for breakfast/lunch.
  • Island style breakfast plate: This was pretty good, but we were not a fan of the purple sticky rice.



Overall this is just a great place overall. Almost everything we had was very good. The Waikiki location is very busy. We were glad to find another location in Kapolei, across from the Aulani, so we could have more Acai bowls!

Island Vintage Shave Ice

This was probably the best shave ice in Oahu. I have only tried Matsumoto's and Waiola, and I think Island Vintage beats them all! It is a bit more pricey (I paid around $9), but it's worth it. It's a small stand on the street level, below where the coffee shop is.

I got the coconut and mango flavors with macadamia nut gelato and mochi. The shaved ice was super soft, and the syrup all tasted home made. I could also tell that the mochi was home made. Overall, very, very good shave ice!



Yokocho Gourmet Alley

We ate twice at this food court:  The first time at Tsujita Ramen (same ramen place as the famous one in LA), and the second time at Hannosuke Hawaii.

Tsuijta Ramen was good. The tsukemen is probably my favorite--very chewy noodles and unique, unlike regular ramen. The noodles come separately from the broth, so you eat by dipping it in the heavy pork broth each time.


Hannosuke specializes in tempura meal sets. I got the premium tempura bowl, and Dan got the regular tempura set. The bowl includes all the tempura over rice, with a sauce already pre drizzled. The tempura set has a slight salty sauce, and the rice and sauce comes separately. I actually like the bowl as the sauce is mixed in, but Dan preferred the set. There was actually a bit of a line when we came here for dinner. The tempura was very good quality, super fresh and great consistency.



Nana's Green Tea

We were so full after the tempera meal, but I had to try this dessert place. I ended up getting the Matcha Nama Chocolate Parfait, which consisted of a layer of jelly, vanilla ice cream, corn flakes, green tea chocolate, red bean, green tea ice cream, and whipped cream. It was so, so yummy and made me feel that I was actually in Japan! It was a bit pricey ($12.85), but still very worth it.


Marukame Udon

This restaurant is probably the most popular restaurant in Oahu. There are 5000+ reviews on Yelp with a 4.5 star rating. This restaurant is across the street from our hotel, so we passed by it a few times, and there is always a long line of at least 20-30 people around dinner time.

We went during an off hour (3 PM) and didn't have to wait in line. The restaurant was actually cafetaria/self-serve style, where you select the type of udon, and then self-serve the tempura items.

The noodle consistency was good. The tempura was pretty good, however, since we didn't come during peak hours, our tempura was slightly cold.

Overall I was a bit underwhelmed by the food here, and felt that the restaurant was overhyped, but we were still glad that we tried.

Rainbow Drive Inn

This is the place to go for cheap, no frills, Hawaiian food. We got the mixed grill plate which consisted of beef, fried chicken, fried fish, macaroni salad, and rice. We especially liked the fried chicken and fried fish; both were very tender and the breading was tasty. We also got a side order of chili over rice which was pretty good. We tried the loco moco on our last trip, and it was excellent. The food here is very unhealthy though. :) Almost everything was fried and there's no veggie option at all.  :p

Leonard's Malasadas

This bakery is very, very popular; there always seems to be a line. I probably waited in line for 10-15 minutes. I ordered 2 regular malasadas and 4 with fillings (custard, chocolate, macadamia nut, and banana). I think the regular malasadas are better than the filled ones. Everything is made fresh to order, and biting into these fresh malasadas is just really wonderful.


Musubi Iyasume

We tried a few musubi places, and Iyasume was the best. They have various toppings like spam/avocado/egg/bacon, and I also like the other ongiris (tuna salad, chicken salad, etc). Their rice is also very good, very sticky and has nice flavor. I do think that they put a little too much rice, but it's still yummy overall.

Waiola Shave Ice

I heard that this is the best shave ice in Oahu, but I would have to say that Island Vintage Shave ice is actually better. The ice at Waiola is pretty smooth, but the flavoring was just so-so. I wouldn't make a special trip here, but would stop by if I'm around the area.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Australia & New Zealand Cruise on the Ovation of the Seas

Introduction

This trip came together somewhat last minute when my mom suggested that we all meet up for Christmas and do a cruise around Australia and New Zealand. I did quick research and noted that the newest ship from Royal Caribbean, the Ovation of the Seas will be sailing this itinerary. At that point, there weren't a lot of available cabins left, so I quickly asked my sisters if they would all be coming. After I got everyone's confirmation, I booked our cabins for the cruise.

The cruise was a 15-night cruise, departing Sydney, with the following stops:
  • Sydney
  • Hobart, Tasmania
  • Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Dusky Sound
  • Dunedin, NZ
  • Wellington, NZ
  • Picton, NZ
  • Tauranga, NZ
  • Auckland, NZ
  • Sydney
Our family decided to disembark in Auckland instead going back to Sydney, so we would only be on the ship for 12 nights instead. I had to get special permission from Royal Caribbean, and we ended up having to still pay for the full 15 nights.

Ovation of the Seas

The ship is big; supposedly it's the biggest ship ever docked in New Zealand. There were around 4,500 passengers + 2,000 crew on board. There were 15 decks on the ship. We booked the cheapest balcony cabins, which had obstructed views. We were in the Forward section of the boat on deck 6, close to the elevators. The balcony was basically blocked by the tender boats, which was not bad, but the view was partially blocked by the boats.

The room size was not bad, and I liked that there was lots of storage, and we were able to store our suitcases underneath the bed. The rooms were serviced twice a day, which was nice. And every night, there were always animal towels left on our bed, along with the newsletter/activities list for the next day.



The bathroom included a small shower, toilet, and sink. It was designed pretty well for such a small space.




Food on the Ovation of the Seas

American Icon & Silk are located on deck 4, and was the location for the My Time Dining reservation. I highly recommend doing reservations, even if you are doing My Time, as there are limited tables for big parties such as us (we had 12 people total). The food was okay, and towards the end we got really bored of the food variety. Service in general was pretty good and the waiters were pretty helpful. We met a lot of Indonesian waiters working on the boat and had some interesting chats with them.

We bought the discounted food package while we were on board. It ended up being $115 for 5 specialty restaurants, which is actually better than paying for the upcharge individually. This package allowed us to try Jamie's Italian, Wonderland, Chops Grille, and Izumi. Since we had the package of 5, we ended up eating at Jamie's twice.

Jamie's Italian

This was probably our best meal on the ship. The up-charge for this restaurant option is $35 per person, but we got it as part of our dining package.



We ordered the meat plank, calamari, and garlic bread for appetizers. For the mains, there were plenty of pasta options; our favorite was the truffle tagliatele! It was seriously one of the best pasta dishes I have ever had in my life.


Wonderland

Wonderland is another specialty dining with a $50 up-charge per person. The menu was very interesting, we had to discover the secret menu by using "magic" water to paint over the menu. The restaurant design is very whimsical, even the waiters were wearing Alice in Wonderland type clothing.

Food was pretty good, but it's not really true molecular gastronomy like Alinea. Nevertheless, it was still a fun experience.

 

Port of Calls

Hobart, Tasmania

For each port, we booked a private tour with a local guide. This was actually, believe it or not, more economical than booking tours via the cruise ship. This was because we had 12 people in our group, so if you divide per person, doing private tour was actually not bad. The private tour ranges between 600-1200 AUD/NZD, depending on each location.

For Hobart, I booked with Island Time Tours. Rosie was the owner/guide, and she waited for us at the port. She had a slightly older, but comfortable bus with wool seating.

She took us to Bonorong Wildlife sanctuary and then to Richmond (convict town).

The Bonorong wildlife sancturary is like a zoo, but not. This is where they rehabilitate wild animals who are hurt. And if they can, they eventually release them back into the wild. We were able to get very close to kangaroos as there was a huge field with lots of them. They let us feed the kangaroos and pet them.

 

Afterwards we went to Richmond, which was a lovely little town where they still had a full structure jail. We went inside the women's jail and it was an interesting experience.

Afterwards, we went to the playground where the little ones played for a while!

Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Dusky Sound

Originally, we were supposed to visit 3 sounds:  Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Dusky Sound. However, due to the rough weather predictions, our stops to Doubtful Sound and Dusky Sound were cancelled. We did spend a longer time in Milford Sound, but we were not allowed to get off the boat. So it was a bit disappointing, but we understood that it was for safety reasons.



Wellington, NZ

Our stop for Dunedin was also cancelled, which was a bummer, so we had an extra day at sea before our next stop at Wellington. By this time, we had been on board the cruise ship for 3 full days and were more than ready to get off the ship.

The weather in Wellington that day was not that nice (raining, cold, and windy!), but we were just glad to be able to dock on land. Our guide said that they had wonderful weather all throughout until we got there!

We booked with Silver Cloud Tours, and Helen and Mark were absolutely amazing! They had a Mercedez minibus for us as well as a smaller van. The vehicles were new and clean, and there were bottled waters and mints, which was a nice touch.

We did a little city tour, and then we stopped at the cable car museum and took the cable car down the hill and back up.



We had a lovely high tea at Roxy Cinema (included in the tour package), and it was yummy!

Helen also took us to a beautiful viewpoint where we took a family picture!


Picton, NZ

Picton is one of the premier wine countries in New Zealand. We booked our tour with Sounds Connection, and because we were docked in the commercial port, we had to take a shuttle bus to downtown to meet our tour guide.

Our tour started with a drive around downtown Picton (very, very small), followed by a drive through the Charlotte Sounds, which was beautiful!


We then went to Saint Clair Winery, which was so beautiful!  They had a table waiting for our wine tasting. Dan said the wines were good.



Our next stop was the Silverwood Sheep Farm. We were greeted by the owners who were very friendly. We got to feed the sheep and pet them for a little bit, and then relaxed at the art gallery. The entry fee was $20 NZD per person, but everyone had a great time!



We had lunch at the beautiful Brancott Estate. The views were just truly breathtaking! Food was really good as well.



Overall we loved our stop in Picton, and this was everyone's favorite destination.

Tauranga, NZ

Tauranga is famous for the Hobbiton movie set tour (from Lord of the Rings). We were debating whether to do it or not, and in the end decided not to. Looking back, I wished that we would have just done it, as it is the #1 tourist attraction in New Zealand!

We ended up doing a very local city tour where we went to a Kiwi Farm, an Avocado Farm, and then a Manouka Honey shop.

The Kiwi Farm experience was interesting, as the Kiwi looked like grapevines from afar. We tasted some kiwi fruit, kiwi juice, and candies.


The avocado farm was interesting, as we actually went to our driver's own avocado farm!

Overall this was probably my least favorite tour, but at least we still got to do something. :)

Auckland, NZ

Our last stop was Auckland, which is the biggest city in New Zealand.  The funny thing is that even as the biggest city, it still felt small and quiet. It could also be because we came during the Christmas holiday, so a lot of places were closed and the downtown area was very, very quiet.



We disembarked in Auckland instead of Sydney, and had quite an interesting experience since we had to disembark with a tender boat. Our whole family had lots of luggage (with 3 kids under 3), so we were a little worried how we were going to be able to carry them to the tender boat and then carry them to the port. Thankfully it all worked out in the end!

We got pick up by our private tour and we dropped off our luggage at the Sofitel which is where we would be staying for one night. The Sofitel is a beautiful hotel, and location is pretty good (close to the Viaduct harbor and downtown).



We did the city tour, which was driving around the city and went to a couple view points. We were dropped back off around 3PM at our hotel.

Summary:
  • This was our second time cruising as a big family group, and this time it was a bit harder because we had little kids. However, I still think that cruising is the way to go when you are planning a trip for a big family. It is so easy for the organizer since you don't have to worry about where to eat as the restaurants are all on board.
  • Private tours is definitely the way to go if you have a big group. It ended up being cheaper than if we had booked a big bus tour via the cruise ship!
  • If you are going to disembark earlier, make sure you get approval from the ship, but also check if you will need to use a tender ship, as that adds complexity. Also, the ship doesn't really assist you with the luggage if you are disembarking earlier, so if you have a lot of luggage but do not have enough help, maybe think twice about disembarking earlier. :)
  • Make sure to still bring a jacket (even though it's summer). The weather in New Zealand actually felt like winter most of the time, and my parents didn't bring jackets! So it's always good to at least bring one jacket.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Paris & Malta Trip

Introduction

Dan had a two-week work trip to Malta, and I decided to tag along for the second half of his trip. Dan's parents were kind enough to watch M for the week. The plan was for me to fly into Paris, where Dan would meet me to spend the weekend, and then fly together to Malta.

The majority of the lodging was covered by Dan's work. We only had to find hotels for 2 nights in Paris and 3 nights in Malta.

I had always wanted to stay at the W in Paris, and they had cash & points availability for 10,000 points + 180 USD per night. For Malta, we were deciding between the Westin or the Le Meridien, but went with the Westin, which costs 12,000 points per night.

I was able to find last minute airline availability using miles, which was great, because otherwise plane tickets would have been too expensive.


W Paris Opera

We stayed for 2 nights at the W Paris Opera. I really wanted to try this hotel and loved the location. It literally is across the street from Galleries Lafayette. The Metro station is not too far away, and it is actually in the same general area as our hotel last time, the Park Hyatt Vendome.



We booked transport from the airport using intershuttle, for 55 euro one way. The pick up was prompt, and the vehicle was clean and big. I'm glad we did this option as opposed to finding taxi at the airport.  It was so much more convenient and less hassle.

The hotel allowed us to check in early around noon, which was nice. They also allowed us to do late checkout at 4 pm for our last night, which was great since we had a late night flight.

The check in area is really small and tight, and there isn't a lobby per se, but there is a seating area/cafe.

The room was a little tight and the shower setup was a little awkward. It made me feel like I was in a cruise ship shower. All the toiletries were the typical W toiletries, similar to the one in Bali. I wished the packaging was a little better, since at this price point, it looked a little cheap.

We didn't have breakfast included in the package, but it was close enough to Eric Kayser bakery where we grabbed some pastries.

Paris Food & Activities

Angelina

I did a little bit of shopping in the morning, and then we went to Angelina for their famous hot chocolate. It's still as good as I remembered. :)


Dan got a praline eclair but he wasn't that impressed with it.

We then went to the storefront to get some gifts for M's preschool teacher.

Les Marais - La Droguerie Creperie

We walked around this area and found the La Droguerie creperie which is supposed to be famous. There was a small line when we started, but it grew to be quite long! We got the jambon frommage and the Nutella banana almond crepes.

We both preferred the jambon frommage, which had a crispy cheese crust.



We wanted to check out L'as du falafel for their famous falafel, which happens to be on the same street, but they were closed for Passover.

Le relais de l'entrecote

Le relais de l'entrecote is a very famous restaurant in Paris that only has one thing on the menu: steak frites (steak & fries).  During our last trip to Paris, we didn't get a chance to try this restaurant. So this time we wanted to make sure we did.

We went for dinner around 8 PM, and there was already a small line outside. We waited for around 30 minutes to get seated. The restaurant was full and lively, with the servers being all women dressed in French maid outfits.

Since there is only one thing on the menu, they only ask how you would like your steak cooked. I chose medium, and Dan chose medium well.

The meal included a small salad with walnuts, which was pretty good. It was tossed in a creamy horseradish sauce.

The steak and fries came with a generous green sauce. Dan really enjoyed his steak. They also provided a second serving. After that, we were both really full.


Afterwards we looked at the dessert menu, which surprisingly had a big selection! I thought it was funny that they had a full dessert menu but only 1 dinner menu!

Total for dinner (including a glass of wine) was 68. Each steak dish was around 21 euro, which we thought was pretty reasonable.

L'avant comptoir

This is probably our most favorite restaurant in Paris. We actually went twice during this trip (and once last time).

This restaurant is more like a bar, standing room only, with awesome wine selection and great small dishes to share. There are pictures of each dish (the menu) hung from the ceiling, and almost everything we tried was delicious!

Our favorite dish here is the foie gras burger. It's cooked just perfect (almost raw actually), and with the foie gras the burger tasted so indulgent.



We also liked their ham croquette and fish croquette. The croquettes were so creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside!

We tried the artichoke, beef sandwich, croque Monsieur croissant, pork sandwich, and they were all fantastic.

The other star dish is the bread and the bordier butter on the side. They serve a huge blob of butter to be shared. It is massive!! And probably the best butter ever!


Outside of the restaurant, they also sell crepes to go which was also excellent!

Musee D'Orsay

Since we were not able to go to Musee D'Orsay last time, this time we really wanted to make sure to check it out. There was a huge line when we came, and we probably waited around 30 minutes to purchase tickets and enter.

The Museum is not as big as the Louvre and much less overwhelming.


Malta

After 2 short nights in Paris, we flew to Malta. Dan had been there the full week prior for his first conference. We took Air Malta from Paris and went straight to our hotel.

Intercontinental Malta

For a few days while Dan was at his conference meetings, we stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel. The location was pretty good, close to the hustle and bustle, as well as the beach. There were some shady areas close to the hotel, but I just try to walk passed it. :)

The hotel was a little bit older and outdated, but I think the location was very convenient.

Westin Malta

Once Dan finished his conference, we extended our stay for a few days at the Westin Malta. The Westin was actually not that far from the Intercontinental. The overall feel of the hotel was more like a "resort", and felt more upscale. The lobby was beautiful. We felt so "relaxed" as soon as we checked in. As a comparison, the Intercontinental felt more like a business hotel.

The room was also a little outdated, but we had a gorgeous view of the pool & ocean, and they upgraded us to a junior suite with Dan's SPG Gold status, which was nice.



Malta Food & Activities

Hammam Spa

While staying at the Intercontinental Malta, I decided to try the Hammam Spa at the Intercontinental.
for the traditional Hammam. My package included the following:
  • Traditional Turkish Hammam Body Exfoliating
  • Traditional turkish Hammam Full Body Foam Massage
  • Hair Shampooing
I wasn't really sure what to expect, but was excited to try something new. I was introduced to my therapist, who walked me into this big marble room that felt like a steam room (but very mild steam). She then took me to a separate area where there was a marble bed where asked me to lay down. 

The first step was exfoliation using this rough cloth. She then put soapy foam all over my body, and then did a little massage & shampoo, and then rinsed with warm water. It was a very interesting experience, as it felt like I was getting bathed by someone, which is not something I'm used to.

Hop on hop off bus

Dan already did the Hop on and off bus tour during his first week in Malta, so I went by myself one afternoon.

I got picked up at the Paranga beach club, which was around a 5 minutes walk from the Intercontinental. The bus comes every 30 minutes, so I didn't have to wait too long for it. The whole end-to-end trip took around 4 hours! This was probably the longest hop on/off bus tour I'd ever been on. And that's not including getting off; this was 4 hours of just sitting.

Paranga beach club

There was a beach club a short walk away from the Intercontinental. The ambiance reminded me of Mykonos, as you are sitting by the beach and the restaurant was decked in all white.  I had dinner by myself since Dan was working, so that wasn't fun. :p

Shopping Mall in Front of the Intercontinental

While Dan was busy working, I went to the "mall" a few times to get some items. The mall was very, very small, and they didn't have a great selection.  But it was nice to walk around to kill some time.

Downtown Valletta

We went to downtown Valetta, which is the biggest city in Malta. It is very beautiful, lots of narrow streets and old buildings. There is a nice view right by the garden & cannons overlooking Malta.

We saw a lot of tourist crowds from cruise ships during the day, and at night the whole city was almost empty once the cruise ships left!


Mdina

Mdina is the "old town" , and the previous capital before Valetta. The taxi ride cost around 25 euros each way from our hotel. Mdina is much smaller and quieter compared to Valetta. We had lunch at a restaurant with great views overlooking the island.

Marssaxklox market

This is the main fish market in Malta. On Sundays, they also have other items besides fish where the locals would come and shop (for household items).


Blue grotto

Blue Grotto is one of the main tourist attractions in Malta. We took this small boat that fit 4-6 people, and the guide took us into a couple grottos, where the water was crystal clear and super blue! It was a little scary as there was a little bit of wind, but overall a great experience.

 

Summary

Overall it was a great, quick, trip to Paris & Malta. We didn't take M with us this time, and it was a lot harder than we thought. We found ourselves talking about her all the time, and perhaps this was a little too long for us to be without her. :)

Malta is a nice destination, although I think one week for me (and 2 weeks for Dan) was perhaps a bit too long. You can probably see a lot of the things we did in a few days, so I wouldn't recommend staying for more than a few days.

I would have to stay that the people in Malta are very nice, and I felt safe. Almost everyone we met spoke English which was helpful.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Indonesia & Australia Trip

We recently visited family over two weeks--one week in Jakarta and one week in Sydney & Melbourne.

SFO - HKG - CGK on Cathay Pacific

We flew Cathay Pacific Airlines, this time in Economy, since we booked it somewhat last minute and were not able to find 3 seats in Business class. We knew it would be a long flight, but we also thought it would work out better in Economy as M could sleep and lie down in between us. And it would be easier to pass her back and forth.

At check-in, the agent acknowledged Dan's One World Emerald status and gave us access to the business class lounge. Unfortunately, it didn't come with an automatic upgrade as well. :p

The flight was loooong.... It took 14 hours, and M only slept partly. So we had to entertain her most of the way. Since she's older now, she's able to watch TV or iPad, which kept her occupied for a little while.

We had a short layover in Hong Kong (about 1 hour), which I thought would be enough time to relax at the lounge and shower. However, after I showered, we had to run directly to the gate as they had already started boarding! This was possibly the shortest and tightest connection ever. Thankfully we made our flight to Jakarta.

After we landed, Dan went through immigration, and he no longer needed to pay for a visa on-arrival because the purpose of the trip was personal, visiting family and not for business.

Jakarta

The main purpose of our trip was to visit family; my parents and my sister & her family live in Jakarta.

We mainly stayed in South Jakarta where they live. Our days were filled with trips to the mall, visiting my sister's condo, and meeting up with friends.

My sister's son is around M's age, cousin L. They had so much fun playing together -- cousins really do have a special bond, and it was really neat to see them play and grow together.

M had her second ever haircut! She almost cried, but thankfully her cousin sat next to her and they showed Barney on the TV. :) Aside from the haircut, M enjoyed the many choo choo train rides at the mall.

Here are some of restaurants we ate in Jakarta:
  • Bebek Tepi Sawah: This is a branch of the famous Bebek restaurant from Bali. It tasted very similar to the original location (minus the sawah -- rice field -- location). If you go here, you MUST order the crispy duck! I love eating it by hand, with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and the sambal bawang (spicy onion "sauce").
Bebek Tepi Sawah - Fried Duck

  • Fook Yew: This is probably one of my favorite Chinese restaurants. My family knows that Chinese is not my favorite cuisine, but I love Fook Yew, which is more Chinese fusion. My favorite dish here is the salted egg crispy corn.
  • Shirokuma: Apparently this is a famous dessert place from Japan. We ordered the matcha cake parfait and loved it! The ice cream was not too sweet, and everything else was yummy! 
Shirokuma Parfait

  • Esina Japanese BBQ: We went here to celebrate my sister's birthday. The quality of the meat was superb, and I would highly recommend it.

Sydney

After one week in Jakarta, it was time to go to Sydney. We flew Qantas direct from Jakarta to Sydney (red-eye flight), and arrived early morning Sydney time. My sister and her husband picked us up after we landed, and took us to a famous breakfast place called The Grounds.

The Grounds

The Grounds is a pretty unique restaurant. There were stands for different foods, and there was a mini-zoo with live animals. M enjoyed having a look at the animals.

We stayed at my sister's house in the Darlinghurst area, which was pretty close to the city center. There's lots of cafes & restaurants around her neighborhood, which we ended up eating at frequently. I noticed there were lots of smaller, local restaurants, but the food quality was superb.

Chiswick at the Gallery, Royal Botanic Gardens

For lunch, we went to the Chiswick at the Gallery. The restaurant had a nice view of the water & city, and we noticed that everyone was very nicely dressed (which later turned out to be the norm in Sydney!). The restaurant is a farm-to-table concept, with bigger main dishes to share. The steak and the fish were amazing, and almost everything we ordered was very good. Food tasted fresh and perfectly cooked. We highly recommend this place.



Sydney Fish Market

We went to the Sydney Fish Market on a Sunday. The Fish Market was actually pretty "clean." I imagined fish lying around everywhere, but they actually had a pretty nice building with lots of restaurants & markets inside. They also sold other food besides seafood (like fruits and juices!).

My favorite thing at the Sydney Fish Market was this "Japanese stall" that sold scallop aburi, which essentially was scallop on the shell with melted cheese over rice, grilled to order. There was a little bit of a line but it moved pretty quickly. I noticed that the people selling the scallops were actually Indonesian, as they were talking to each other in Indonesian! I almost said hi but I didn't. :)

Tables were all first come, first served, outside seating. We saw a lot of people ordering the chili crab, so my father asked my sister to order it for us. It turned out to be around $350 AUD! I was shocked, haha. We saw SO many people ordering, so we thought it must be somewhat affordable. I was thinking maybe $50-$60, but not $350! It's funny because almost every table ordered this dish! It was pretty good, but I think very overpriced. I still prefer the scallops. :)



We also got some coconut water on the shell, which was so refreshing and delicious.

Bronte Beach

One afternoon, my sister rented a minivan and we drove to Bronte Beach. Originally we planned to go to the famous Bondi beach, but it was just too crowded.

The beach was beautiful, but also very crowded. The interesting part was that there's a public salt water swimming pool right next to the ocean.  Apparently this was pretty common in Sydney, which I thought was cool.

Pool at Bronte Beach


Taronga Zoo via ferry to/from Circular Quay

To get to Taronga Zoo, we rode a ferry boat from Circular Quay. It was a short ride (12 minutes), and the ride was beautiful--great views of the city, Opera House, and bridges. Once we got to the zoo area, we took the public bus up to the zoo entrance at the top of the hill. The zoo tickets were a bit pricey (I think around AUD$46 per person). The weather was a little warm at the time, but it wasn't too hot or humid like in Jakarta.

The zoo itself was actually quite hilly. There were some parts where it was uphill. We went straight to look for the kangaroos and koalas.

We first went to the kangaroo area. I was surprised that there wasn't actually a fence in between us and the kangaroos! I was worried that they might jump at us,  hehe...

M was so excited to see the koalas, so we took her to that section. (She said koala was sleeping).

The best part of the zoo (for me), was the giraffe area. From there, we had an amazing, beautiful view of the water & city skyline behind the giraffes, so unreal!



Overall we had a nice trip to the zoo, and would definitely recommend it (especially if you have kids)!

Dinner at Bennelong, inside Sydney Opera House

We had dinner at Bennelong, a fine dining restaurant inside the Sydney Opera House. We could tell the architecture was unique from inside the restaurant.

We were actually slightly underdressed, but we called in advance and they said we did not need to dine with formal attire.

Food was a bit on the expensive side, served fine dining style. Taste-wise, it was just okay, but we were really paying for the experience.


Bennelong

Westfield Sydney

Another day, we spent around the downtown area, specifically at Westfield Sydney. There's a lot of shopping malls around, and some areas were no car zones, which was nice.

We met up with friends of ours who moved from the US and now lives in Sydney. It was good to catch up with them over lunch at Chat Thai (which served excellent Thai food!).

I was fairly impressed at the food selection on the 5th floor of the Westfield Sydney. They had Tim Ho Wan, Din Tai Fung, and Ippudo on the same floor! These are all highly coveted restaurants that usually have super long waits at other locations in the world. I was able to buy the famous pork bun at Tim Ho Wan Sydney for no wait! :)



The Powerhouse Museum

I read about the Wiggles museum in Sydney, and thought it would be nice to take M there since she enjoys Wiggles' songs. It turned out the place was called the Powerhouse Museum, and they had a Wiggles exhibit.

We took a taxi from the Westfield to the museum, which was not too far from downtown. The Wiggles area was not overly huge, but it was nice enough. There was the big red car that M thoroughly enjoyed and asked to ride over and over again. They also had a "fruit salad" section where kids could cut toy fruit and mix them in a bowl.

Babyccinos

The one unique thing in Australia that we have not found in the US is Babyccino!
One day, my sister bought M a babyccino, and we had no idea what it is. We soon discovered almost all cafes in Australia serve frothed milk, served in a mini cup for kids. How genius! They were usually free or cost very little.

M LOVED sipping on her babyccino, and asked for it every time. :)

Melbourne

After Sydney, we went to visit Melbourne for 2 nights. Both my sisters previously lived and went to school in Melbourne. I had visited once before as well and remembered it as a beautiful city. We really didn't have much time in Melbourne, so we spent the majority of the time around the main city area.

Olsen Hotel, South Yarra

My sister booked a 2 bedroom suite at the Olsen Hotel in South Yarra. The South Yarra area appeared upscale and very nice, but was quite a bit away from the city. The hotel itself was pretty nice with modern decor, although we had a small incident where housekeeping didn't clean our room very well. They ended up comping us free breakfast, which was appreciated.



David Jones Food Hall

We went to the David Jones store, downstairs to the food hall area. It reminded me very much of Harrod's food hall in London. There's plenty of ready made food options. I tried some chicken katsu roll, which was actually pretty good. Their fruit selections were very good as well.


Mekong Vietnamese Restaurant

After the food hall, we went to Mekong Vietnamese restaurant, which is very famous in the city. I saw pictures of many famous people, including Bill Clinton who apparently had 2 bowls of soup here. :)

Pho at Mekong

Travel back to SFO

We flew Qantas from Melbourne to Sydney to SFO. At our layover in Sydney, we were able to go to the first class Qantas lounge, which was really nice! We originally thought that maybe we could get in to the business class lounge. Dan's One World Emerald status allowed us access to the first class lounge, which we of course happily obliged. :)

This lounge was probably the nicest one we have ever been to. The area was very clean, bright, and spacious, with views of the runway & airplanes. There was a full service, sit down restaurant. Dan ordered a sandwich and chicken fingers for M. We also ordered ice cream for M's dessert.

I was also able to book a quick 20 minute spa appointment. They actually had a full spa with individual treatment rooms, which was pretty crazy! The treatment was really wonderful. I wish we could travel like this more often!

The flight itself was around 13-14 hours long, but the timing of it was perfect. The flight departed at 3 PM. M actually took a little nap early on, then woke up for a few hours, then slept the whole rest of the way back to SFO! So Dan and I actually got some rest and watched movies. I ended up watching 2 full seasons of the Silicon Valley TV show during this flight.

Summary & Tips:

  • If you are not planning on renting a car, you may not need to bring a car seat! We actually brought a car seat for M from Indonesia to Australia, which turned out to not be needed. A car seat is required in a regular car (or regular Uber). But we were exempt from using a car seat if we took a regular taxi. We ended up taking taxi everywhere, so the car seat was not needed.
  • Before ordering food at restaurants, check to confirm before ordering. :) There were a couple times where I thought I knew what I ordered and the actual food that came was something different. For example, I ordered a fish burger (which I thought would be a fish burger!). What came was a fish fillet, cooked steamed, served with vegetables.  Another time I ordered a sausage roll, and what came was ground beef with sliced potatoes.  Very interesting right?

We really enjoyed our time in Indonesia and Australia. It was nice to be able to visit both places to break our trip up. We actually liked Australia more than we thought we would. It had the familiarity of the US (and the cleanliness), though it still felt like a different country with its own uniqueness. Australia was also very kid friendly!

Until next time!