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!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Disneyland Trip

We wanted to take M to visit Disneyland, and so we marked one weekend in early November. I thought that would be a good time to visit, before the Thanksgiving/Christmas rush.  But this turned out to not be true as the resort was fully packed!

Sheraton Garden Grove

We used SPG points to stay at the Sheraton Garden Grove, which was pretty close by. The hotel was a little older, and having last stayed at the Four Seasons Punta Mita, I could definitely tell the difference. :)  But hey, it was free so can't complain much.

Dan got "upgraded" to the SPG club floor which included lounge access for breakfast/snacks and early evening hors d'oeuvres, which was nice.

The room itself was a bit small, but the King size bed was definitely big enough.


Bathroom was basic but clean.



M kept asking for Kids Club (again because of our last trip to Punta Mita), but this didn't have one. :p

Disneyland

We had lots of fun at Disneyland! We tried to find "Discounted" tickets, but it was really hard for single day tickets.  We ended up purchasing at full price online. We only did Disneyland and not California Adventure since we only did one day and knew a lot of the rides at California Adventure were probably for older kids.



Our friend told us to come early in the morning and do all the rides, since it gets crowded after lunch time. The park opened at 8 AM, and we came around 7:30 AM to park and shuttle to the entrance. They actually let us to Main Street, but not beyond. From 7-8 AM, only Disneyland hotel guests could enter early for the extra magic hour. Exactly at 8 AM we were allowed in and did a lot of rides:
  • Mr. Toad - a little too scary for M
  • Alice in Wonderland - also too scary for her :)
  • Teacup - she loved the teacups!
  • Dumbo - she loved this, too
  • Jr. Circus train - she liked this one
Then we head over to Toontown and to check out:
  • Minnie's house:  There was a small line to enter Minnie's house because Minnie was actually inside. M actually cried when it came time to take a picture with Minnie. :p
  • Toontown playground:  She had lots of fun at the playground
  • Roger Rabbit ride - this was ok.  She liked the steering wheel.
Afterwards we did:
  • It's a Small World: This was probably her most favorite ride. They had all the holiday decorations up and the songs were a medley between Jingle Bells & It's a Small World.
  • Princess meet & greet: We waited probably 10 minutes and got to meet and take pictures with three princesses: Snow White, Cinderella, and Belle.
Just before lunch time, we noticed the crowds started to get bigger and bigger! M took a nap and after lunch & nap, we could only fit a few more rides since it was already really crowded.


We did the following activities after lunch:
  • Carrousel
  • Disneyland Train
  • Autopia
  • Winnie the Pooh
  • Watched Mickey's Soundsational Parade
After the parade we were pretty tired so decided it was time to go to dinner. M didn't want to leave, but we told her we could come back another time.


Food in Orange County

Halal Guys

I had always wanted to try this, so when I heard that they recently opened in Orange County, we made sure to stop by right after we arrived at the airport.

We went around noon and waited for 25 minutes. I got the small chicken rice and Dan got the regular combo over rice. The small size was actually very filling and definitely enough for me.

This was my first time trying it and I thought it was definitely yummy. The combination of the seasoned rice with chicken, crispy lettuce, tomatoes, and the creamy white sauce was very comforting. The red spicy sauce was actually VERY spicy, so I would recommend just getting it on the side.


Halal Guys Chicken Rice

Brodard

For dinner we went to Brodard, since I've always wanted to try their Nem Nuong. We went pretty early for dinner to avoid the crowds and were seated immediately.

We ordered the Nem Nuong and a rice dish to share. I was so excited to try the Nem Nuong, but was quite disappointed. It was pretty good, but it didn't compare to the one in Sacramento that we love so much.



Kanghodong Baekjong - Buena Park

Everytime we go to LA, we make sure to save room for Korean BBQ, as they have the best spots!
The newest one that is really good is Kanghodong Baekjong. Last year I went with my sister to the one in K-town LA, and it was really good. They just opened a branch in Buena Park, and Dan wanted to try.

We got the small beef combo to share which included Chadol, Ribeye steak, and Galbi, and they were all soo good! We could tell the meat quality was superb.


Bruxie 

For Brunch the next day, we went to Bruxie in Orange for their waffle sandwich. We shared the fried chicken, prosciutto & gruyere, and the seasonal creme brulee sandwiches. Everything was very tasty!


Popbar at Anaheim Packing District

After Bruxie, we headed over to the Anaheim Packing District. I had always wanted to check it out. It's a really cute warehouse that they converted into a high end food court. It reminded me a little bit of the ferry building in San Francisco, but smaller scale.

I went to Popbar and got a customized ice cream!



Summary:

We had a fun time at Disneyland and would love to come again maybe next year.

Our recommendation is to come early and do as much rides as you can in the morning, as the crowds gets pretty big at around lunch time! If you can stay at the Disneyland hotel and get that extra magic hour, you can even fit in more rides. :)


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Trip Summary Punta Mita: St. Regis vs. Four Seasons

This is a continuation of our Punta Mita trip. You can find the full trip itinerary here.

I had this question on my mind before going to Punta Mita on where to stay: the Four Seasons or St. Regis.  Since we got to stay at both, I'm going to do a somewhat detailed comparison of the two resorts:

Room

The St. Regis' room was definitely better than the Four Seasons. The room size was larger, and I loved the decor. Everything felt newer at the St. Regis, and it had the beautiful tub with indoor & outdoor shower.

Pool

Even though the St. Regis had beautiful pools, we loved the lazy river pool at the Four Seasons -- so if we had to choose, the Four Seasons wins this category. :)



Service

Both resorts provided really good service. The Four Seasons service was a tad better/more personalized, so they win this category.

Food

Food at the Four Seasons was actually slightly better than the St. Regis. Breakfast was comparable (although FS had the smoothie bar!), but in general, we both felt that the food was better at FS.

Transportation

Both hotels had contracted taxi service. We felt that the taxi vehicles at the St. Regis were nicer (more SUVs), versus FS which was more like minivans.

The only thing was car service at the St. Regis was charged separately, whereas FS billed it to our room, which was much more convenient.

Kids Activities

Both hotels had Kids Club rooms with toys, books, arts and crafts and other play things for kids. The St. Regis Kids Club room felt a little worn down and even the toys too.  FS was much nicer, cleaner, and right by the lazy river.  St. Regis set up an arts and crafts area by the kids' water fountain play area in the morning, which was really nice.



Summary

If we were given a choice to pick only one, we probably would go with the St. Regis. But I would say it is pretty close, and we would be happy to go back to either resort!

Price wise, it was somewhat comparable to Hawaii -- probably because both the Four Seasons and St. Regis were on the higher end.

We felt pretty safe in general, and this being our second trip to Mexico, we knew what to expect.

Overall we had a great time in Punta Mita. It's definitely a great destination, not to far from the US West Coast! We loved how the flight was not too long (3.5 hours), and both resorts were family friendly.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Four Seasons Punta Mita

This is a continuation of our Punta Mita trip. You can find the full trip itinerary here.

After two wonderful nights at the St. Regis, it was time to move to the next property, the Four Seasons Punta Mita. We were both very excited, as we had never stayed at a Four Seasons before and had heard a lot of wonderful things about their personalized service.

We took a taxi to the Four Seasons, which was located inside the same gated community.  It was maybe a 5-7 minute drive from the St. Regis.

My first impression was that the property was noticeably older than the St. Regis. The lobby area felt more like a typical hotel lobby.

Four Seasons Punta Mita lobby

We were welcomed by name with a cold towel and then escorted to sit down in the seating area. We were given a juice welcome drink, and M also got one in a plastic cup. They also welcomed M by her name (they had asked for names when we made our reservations).  It was a really nice personalized touch.

Toasting to part 2 of our Punta Mita vacation


Similar to the St. Regis, they transported us to our room in a golf cart. Our driver/host was very nice, and throughout our stay he always addressed us by our name every time he saw us. He mentioned that we could call for a ride 24/7, and so we actually did quite often. The hot and humid weather was a little too much sometimes, and the property was actually quite big. Our room was in the Iguana building, which was a bit further away from the lobby and restaurants, so getting rides on the golf cart was pretty helpful.

Golf cart to take you around the property

The Iguana building was located next to the Kids Club and the entrance to the lazy river, which was super convenient. However, as I mentioned, it was a bit further away from the main lobby. But we did like the fact that it was very close to activities for kids.

Iguana building

One thing to note was that each building had its own laundry room--washer & dryer machines with detergent.  We took advantage of that to do two small loads of laundry.

Room

The room was a good size, but coming from the St. Regis, it did feel smaller. It's basically a regular hotel room size, whereas the St. Regis was definitely larger.

We also noticed that the bed was smaller than at the St. Regis. The decor was a little bit older, but everything was in good condition and clean.

The hotel provided a very nice welcome gift for M, which included both regular and swim diapers, wipes, baby bath set, turtle stuffed animal, and foam letters that spelled M's name. She also got a welcome snack basket--chocolate milk, cookies, and jellies which she loved.



The grounds around the property were very lush, as you can see in the view from our balcony. Our room was the garden view, the entry room category. We did have a small peekaboo ocean view. We didn't use the balcony much though as it was so hot out.

Seating area & balcony

The bathroom area also looked a bit dated, but also in good condition and clean. There's a shower area, a tub, and dual sinks. The bathroom amenities were L'occitane brand which was nice, and they even provided after sun healing balm.

Bathroom

Food at the Four Seasons Punta Mita

Ketsi

Breakfast was included in our Travelzoo package (which would otherwise cost around $100 for 2 people). Breakfast was at Ketsi restaurant, the open air restaurant near the lobby. The view from the restaurant was nice, although we typically did not sit near the edges because there were a few birds who were pretty aggressive. Even for breakfast, I saw on a couple occasions the birds eat off the buffet table!

The breakfast spread was pretty good. There's the typical egg station, pancake/waffle/french toast, bacon/sausage, cereal, fruits, pastries, etc. The one unique thing that the Four Seasons had was a fresh juice and smoothie bar. I always got the smoothie of the day which was always delicious. My favorite was the banana/peanut butter/soy milk smoothie!

Ketsi

Service at Ketsi was typically pretty good. They were very accommodating of M. In addition to bringing a high chair, they always provided her with a set of Hello Kitty utensils, a bib (which she never wanted to wear), and a sippy cup with milk.

They had a pretty good selection for kids meals that we usually took advantage for M. One thing to note at the Four Seasons, kids under 5 eat for free. We didn't know at first but soon were explained this wonderful benefit by one of the servers.

View from Ketsi Restaurant

Bahia

For our first night's dinner, we went to Bahia, located by the beach at the Four Seasons. The food was mostly grilled. We ordered the skirt steak and grilled octopus, and both were wonderful! The skirt steak was very tender, as was the octopus!

Again, M's food was completely comped, which was nice!

I believe that dinner for us cost roughly $70 USD.

Bahia

Another onsite restaurant was Aramara, but it was closed during the nights we stayed there.

Kids Club

The Kids Club at the Four Seasons was definitely much better than the one at St. Regis. It was more adequately staffed, and the toys seemed to be in much better condition. They also had planned activities for older kids. Since M was still young, one of us stayed with her whenever we went.

They also had an option to hire a baby sitter if you wanted to. I believe they cost $17/hour with a 2-hour minimum. During my stay there I saw a couple kids with the baby sitters, so the parents could enjoy some adult time.

Kids Club

We could also order food for the children that would then be charged as room service. I ordered lunch for M one time, and again it was comped!

Pools

One of our most favorite part of the Four Seasons Punta Mita was definitely the lazy river! They had inner tubes and noodles available to float on which was nice. This pool was sooo relaxing and unique. Dan and I would take turns watching M while the other floating around for a lap and then switch off :)

Service at the pool was generally pretty good. They always brought a small cooler with iced water bottles (free), and we could always order food in addition.

Lazy River

The main family pool was located near Ketsi, and was just breathtaking. See the picture below that I took on my iPhone!

Main Pool

There's also a separate adult only pool which was very private and quiet, but I didn't think it was as nice because there weren't any ocean views, and it's not by the beach.


One standard item at each pool was the "sunblock" station where they had multiple types of sunblock to choose from! I also noticed that the restrooms were air conditioned, which was really nice as the temperature was just too hot otherwise.


Every few hours, the staff would bring free little "treats" around. I think we got small smoothies, fruit, and other cold drinks.

Beach Area

We planned on spending a day at the on-site beach, but ended up only staying maybe 20 minutes. It was just too hot!! We ended up going back to the pool to cool off. :)

M had a great time though. They had free sand toys for kids to use so she had a blast.


Summary

We were glad to finally try a Four Seasons resort after hearing so much about it. Service in general was a little better/more personalized than the St. Regis.
  • We loved the lazy river pool; it's so unique!
  • Similar to the St. Regis, water was very available and free everywhere! So no need to make a stop to buy water outside before staying at the resort.
  • Overall the resort was a little bit older and could have probably used some updates (note: during the time of our stay, they were doing some construction work near the lazy river, so maybe the resort was getting some much needed renovation!)
  • The resort provided "free" activities around the resort, such as nature walk, Spanish class, history lesson, etc. We didn't take advantage of it, but there seems to be quite a few options every day.