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Private Resort in Mui Ne, Vietnam

My friend invited me to join her and her colleagues on a trip to Mũi Né, a beach resort town north of Saigon. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to get me a room at the discounted rate at the same resort–they got to stay at The Cliff Resort, which is possibly the best hotel in the area. I ended up a five-minute walk up the road at Melon Resort, which had decent reviews and a price I was willing to pay.

melon resort mui ne

Melon Resort in Mui Ne

Somehow, I managed to have Melon Resort all to myself. In three days I saw no other guests at the hotel–no one at breakfast or other meals and not a single room light on when I returned in the evening. There weren’t even lights turned on in the stairways or outside doors.

On two of the three evenings I stayed at the hotel, they had a band playing at the restaurant/bar with no customers. I felt bad about going out to dinner at that time and leaving the band to play to an empty house, but I wanted to eat non-hotel food.

melon resort breakfast

At least breakfast came with some fresh fruit.

Fortunately, my friend invited me to join her and her colleagues for breakfast, lunch, and dinner almost every day–her resort included breakfast and lunch, so I didn’t have to pay, and the food was much better than at my hotel. It also meant I didn’t have to eat alone (though I did have one breakfast at my hotel and one dinner without the group because I didn’t want to eat at the same place again).

melon resort breakfast

Simple breakfast at Melon Resort

I didn’t take any photos of the breakfast at The Cliff because I was in awe of all the food at the buffet. I stuffed myself full of fresh tropical fruit and coffee (there was plenty more, but that’s what I was most interested in consuming).

It was a little eerie that I was the only person at the hotel other than the staff. However, it was incredibly quiet. The view from my balcony out to the East Sea was so relaxing, I wished I could have had my breakfast served there. The outdoor dining area did not have as pleasant a view. I did not have nearly enough time to enjoy the balcony as I would have liked.

melon resort view

If I had coffee and beer in my room, I could’ve sat here all day

On the first day, I decided to take a walk around the area and search for the beach–my friend’s resort was across the street with direct access to the beach. On my walk along the quiet streets, I found a narrow road leading to the beach, and to my surprise it had a sign for Melon Resort.

melon resort beach

This is the beach I paid to have access to

At the end of the street was a mess of parked motorbikes. The beach was covered in weeds that were being eaten by some local cattle, and there was plenty of trash strewn about. There were also small fishing boats (more like tubs with rudders) lined up across the area. I wandered off to the side and found a section of beach attached to another resort–this section was pristine and the people at my hotel’s beach didn’t venture out this far (probably because hotel staff would have chased them off).

mui ne beach

Anyone want to go swimming with the cows?

It was an interesting experience watching locals at the beach as they weren’t allowed to use the other nearby stretches that were reserved for hotel guests. It was even better that no one cared that I was the only foreigner in the area.

mui ne fishing boats

Fishing boats parked on the beach

Upon returning to my room on the first night, I found a surprise hidden in my suitcase. As I opened it to grab my toothbrush, out popped a large frog. Frogs are not scary, but when jumps from your suitcase in a dimly lit room, it’s a shock to the system. I was thankful that the frog was the only visitor to my room.

mui ne beach

The better maintained beach

The following day I was treated to a relaxing afternoon at the pool. I say it was relaxing because I had the pool all to myself. Seriously, this is the best way to enjoy a pool–swim a few laps with no one around and then sit in the shade a read a book for a bit before taking another dip.

melon resort pool

The deserted pool at Melon Resort

Other than the time spend relaxing at the pool or on the balcony, there was nothing of interest at Melon Resort. I attempted to use the free bicycles, but found them to be much too short for me. And as the hotel was up a hill from the center of Mũi Né, I decided against taking a long ride.melon resort night

The only downside to my hotel and even The Cliff is that it’s located a long way from the center of Mũi Né. Of course, anyone who stays at The Cliff can certainly afford taxis around–it’s about $10 to get to the more popular part of the town. The advantage of both resorts is that it’s much quieter than in Mũi Né.

Drinking a Singapore Sling at Its Birthplace

“Nobody in Singapore drinks Singapore Slings. It’s one of the first things you find out there.”
-Anthony Bourdain

I have never tasted a cocktail in a place in which it was invented. I don’t know if I ever will again. At least not at the price I paid in Singapore.

raffles hotel singapore

Raffles Hotel Singapore

It’s not that I haven’t had what most would consider original or unique cocktails–there was the cocktail the bartender gave me that wasn’t on the menu at Kolo Klub at the Pilsner Haus in Hoboken that had Aquavit and who-knows-what (it was tasty) and the ridiculous number of cocktails I sampled at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic–but I hadn’t had a cocktail in the place of its birth, in a place of legend.

When I arrived in Singapore for my short trip, I made a list of places I had to see. One of the top priorities was the Raffles Hotel–more specifically, it was the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel.

The opulent Raffles Hotel was built in the colonial style in 1887 by Martin and Tigran Sarkies; it was designated a national monument in 1987. During renovations from 1989 to 1991, the Long Bar was relocated to the shopping arcade area–the bar was supposedly relocated at other times throughout the hotel’s history. The Long Bar was patronized by literary greats like Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad (I was tempted to reread Heart of Darkness while sitting at the bar).long bar singapore

The Long Bar is exquisite; it exudes history and class (a societal class I apparently can’t quite afford). The style is reminiscent of the late British colonial era–the details of the bar and tables are there for the patrons to imagine a time before Singapore was a glossy international economic hub. The two-storey bar (second floor was closed when I was there) is supposed to be inspired by Malaysian plantations of the early 20th century. There are even bags of peanuts around the bar–and customers are reminded to just toss the shells on the floor; it’s the only place in Singapore where you’re allowed to litter.

Homer: Aw, $20, but I wanted a peanut.

Homer: Aw, $20, but I wanted a peanut.

This was where I had to order my first Singapore Sling. All I knew about the cocktail was that it’s sweet, and I don’t particularly enjoy cocktails that are too sweet. In honor of the cocktail’s invention 100 years ago by Ngiam Tong Boon, a bartender from China’s Hainan Province, the Long Bar had a menu full of variations of the Singapore Sling–there is no set recipe, so it’s easy to change the flavor. Of course, I ordered the original. It was good–refreshing and not too sweet for the heat and humidity of Singapore.

singapore sling

I better enjoy this now that I have no money in my wallet

I would’ve ordered a second one, but I couldn’t afford it; this was by far the most expensive cocktail I have ever ordered. The original Singapore Sling at the Long Bar costs S$32.95, including tax and service fees (at current exchange rates that’s $24.13). I took my sweet time sipping that cocktail and filling up on peanuts. To put this in perspective, I had a Grey Goose martini with my uncle at the Intercontinental Hotel overlooking Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong for about $18 (I didn’t pay for it)–they left the shaker, which was almost another half a glass, and a nice bowl of olives and nuts. long-bar-singapore2

For some reason, probably to save money on another metro ticket, I walked back to my hostel. I picked up a relatively inexpensive beer at the 7-Eleven next door before heading off to sleep in preparation for the next day’s adventures in Singapore.

I’ve had some impressive spirits and cocktails over the years, but is any cocktail really worth that much money? Would you go out of your way to overspend on one drink?

Government Shut Down My Trip

What do you do when you’re ready to leave on a relaxing holiday and find out that you can’t stay where you planned?

Due to the government shutdown, my travel plans were thrown into chaos yesterday. I intended to stay in Golden Gate National Recreation Area with Hostelling International. Unfortunately, I received this email Tuesday afternoon:

Due to the Federal Government shutdown, all National Parks are closed. Unless this is resolved by Thursday October 3rd (the start of your reservation), we will be unable to accommodate you at HI-Marin Headlands. We are happy to try and help rebook you in one of our other hostels in the Bay Area, however may not be able to guarantee this.

Considering I have to leave for the airport at about 5:00 am, I didn’t want to take the chance that my government would come to its senses and make a simple deal that would benefit the population. I know my government too well and have absolutely no confidence in a single member of the House, Senate, or White House.

road sign

This sign from Scotland pretty much sums up the situation

Instead of staying in an historic house converted into a hostel in the middle of a national park for $30/night, I was forced to find other accommodations. I first searched other nearby hostels; not a single one had a bed. I checked around the towns nearby and even in San Francisco. The prices of hotels are ridiculous. I could stay in a 1-star hotel in a questionable neighborhood for $120/night.

Finally, I gave in.

I booked a motel outside of the parks–close to state parks that are adjacent to the national parks–for significantly more money ($109/night plus tax). I’ll still get to go hiking and relax in the wilderness, but it’ll cost quite a bit more and will require much more driving.

I wish I could withhold the price difference from my taxes or even bill my Congressional representatives, but I know I’d just receive an empty apology and possibly a note about blaming the other party. I’d like to say that I’ll emigrate to another country, but all other governments are petty, ignorant, corrupt, and downright idiotic. I won’t turn this into anything political toward one side or the other–I firmly believe that our entire political system is broken, and has been for as long as I’ve been alive. I can only hope that someday the population will replace the wastes of carbon that rule over us with something more useful…like a circus bear on a unicycle.

Peaceful Accommodation in Panama

sierra_lloronaAside from the first night, I stayed in some nice places in Panama–even the hostel in Gamboa was great for the price and location. My favorite accommodation was Sierra Llorona Lodge outside Colon–it was the most relaxing part of my vacation (and probably the most relaxation I’ve had in a few years). Ida made the stay even more relaxing by being a great host and serving some of the best food I ate in Panama.

The only problem I had with this rainforest paradise was that my driver from Panama City had no idea where it was. He called a few times and asked for directions along the road more than a few times. I also paid twice as much as I would have if I had found a driver who knew where the lodge was.

If I had wanted, I could've cooled off with a swim during my hike

If I had wanted, I could’ve cooled off with a swim during my hike

On the first day, I was the only guest (unless you count the tailless whip scorpion that scared the hell out of me in the bathroom). In the subsequent day and a half, there was only one other guest–an Italian photographer who taught me to appreciate the spiders and insects of the rainforest.

I have to thank Jorge for preventing me from stepping on snakes

I have to thank Jorge for preventing me from stepping on snakes

Sierra Llorona is situated on more than 200 acres of private rainforest. There are trails all around the property, but it’s best to ask for a guide because it’s better than accidentally stepping on a snake (it took me five minutes to even see it in the middle of the trail when Jorge pointed it out).

Probably the nicest room I've ever had for $60

Probably the nicest room I’ve ever had for $60

I was a bit worried that it’d be difficult staying in Sierra Llorona without air conditioning, but the ceiling fan was enough at night. It didn’t feel nearly as hot as it did in Panama City. The lizards and other wildlife were a bit noisy at night, but it just gave me an opportunity to nap in the numerous hammocks around the property.

I really need a hammock at home

I really need a hammock at home

For anyone who just wants to take a hike around the rainforest of Sierra Llorona, they charge $5 per day. But it’s so much better to spend a few days there to relax in hammock.

Yankees Fan Goes to Boston

park_street_churchI’ve lived in New Jersey for most of my life and had never been to Boston until this July 4th weekend. Even my parents were surprised that they never took me there (we took plenty of trips in the other direction to D.C.).

The original plan was to take Amtrak, but ticket prices increased a bit too much when I booked a month ago–it should’ve been $49 each way, but it rose to $101. I ended up taking Megabus for $54 round trip–it was fine on the way up, but got stuck in traffic on the way back. The train definitely would’ve been more comfortable (and it wouldn’t have required me to stand outside for half an hour in the sweltering heat and humidity). Also, I wasn’t impressed with the onboard wifi–I had a better connection through 3G and 4G, depending where we were.

For the first time since I was in college, I stayed in a dorm. I decided it would be worthwhile to meet people, plus Hostelling International was in a convenient location and about $100 cheaper than anywhere else. The hostel even provided breakfast! Although I enjoyed my private room at Reykjavik City Hostel, this one was better (though not private)–the kitchen and common areas were great for meeting other travelers (and there were a lot of people staying there).pooltable

While focusing on my photos of wandering around Boston, I neglected to take more pictures of the hostel–I only took the one of the pool table outside the kitchen. The cafe downstairs was nice too, but why pay $2 for coffee when there’s free coffee in the kitchen?

That's a big burrito in Boston

That’s a big burrito in Boston

On the first night, the hostel organized a trip to see the fireworks. First we stopped at Sweetwater for drinks (and food for me) before wandering for far too long to catch the fireworks over the Charles River. Sweetwater was a nice dive bar with a limited beer selection, but good food. The burrito bomber with sweet potato fries was really good, but ridiculously large–usually burritos as big as my head taste awful unless I’m drunk.

The fireworks were good even though I couldn't see them all

The fireworks were good even though I couldn’t see them all

This was the biggest organized fireworks display I’ve seen. I sort of saw some nice fireworks in Montreal two years ago, and a smaller show for Canada Day in Halifax last year, but Boston was more impressive. Unfortunately, the best view I had was slightly obstructed.

Airbnb Experiment

halifaxAfter searching for reasonably-priced accommodations in Halifax and coming up empty, I decided to give Airbnb a try. For my readers who don’t know, Airbnb is a service that connects travelers with locals who rent out rooms or enter apartments and houses around the world. There are some interesting listings on the website, including three Frank Lloyd Wright houses.

I was a little apprehensive about booking a room through Airbnb for the first time. I’ve never really liked hostels or guest houses–I’m just not a fan of sharing bathrooms. But, for $45 per night, I decided it couldn’t be that bad–it was the same price as some poorly-reviewed guesthouses and only $15 more than a bed in a hostel.

I found what appeared to be a nice listing in the southern end of the city with Topher and Rae. I emailed the couple that was renting the room and received prompt and reassuring replies. I was still nervous until I arrived. It didn’t help that I arrived late on a Friday night–even some hotels make it difficult when arriving late, which is why I now call ahead if I plan on arriving late.

One of the historic houses in the neighborhood

One of the historic houses in the neighborhood

I was relieved when I met Topher at the door. He introduced me to their beautiful apartment in an historic home–I wish I had a kitchen like that. After a brief introduction, Topher and Rae gave me directions to some local bars, though I only made it to Henry House.

The next morning, my hosts invited me to join them on a trip to the farmer’s market, which was about a 10-minute walk. After showing me around a bit, we parted ways and embarked on an extremely long walk through Halifax. Fortunately, the city isn’t too big, so it was easy to walk everywhere from their apartment.

Some people in Halifax live in miniature castles

Some people in Halifax live in miniature castles

My room through Airbnb was comfortable and quiet–so quiet, in fact, that the birds woke me up every morning. And the room itself was about three times larger than anything I needed for a short stay. They even had a friendly cat that I wasn’t allergic to. The cat had a strange fascination with my shoes–he liked to rest his head on them.

Topher and Rae took their hosting duties seriously–they were better prepared than the staff at some hotels. They had a pile of guides and maps set in the room, and they were more than willing to talk about attractions and destinations.

It was a great introduction to Halifax and Airbnb. I doubt I’d rent my apartment out on the site (mainly because I don’t have an extra room), but I’ll definitely use it to look for accommodations again.

Finding Great Hosts at Casa Sucre Panama

I’m heading to Halifax for a short trip soon and I had to find a place to stay that wasn’t too expensive. A friend recommended the dorms at Dahlhousie University for $47/night. I was also tempted to stay at a hostel for about $30, but I’m not a fan of bunk beds. I decided to give Airbnb.com a try–I’ve heard good things about it. I found what looks like a nice place in south Halifax for $45/night, and the hosts responded to my questions quickly. I’ll post a full review after I return.

casco viejo panama

On the left, squatter, on the right, new hotel construction

The prospect of sharing an apartment with my hosts reminded me slightly of the bed & breakfast in Panama City. On the first full day in the city, my Canadian companions and I decided that we needed to stay in Casco Viejo to enjoy the life that the city possesses. We intended on staying at Luna’s Castle–the major hostel in Panama City. Unfortunately, it was booked; not even a dorm bed.

We wandered through the small area of Casco Viejo under the intense sun in search of a bed for the night. Everywhere we looked, the rooms were booked or far out of our price range.Casa Sucre

We were about to give up when I decided to take a look down one last street. I found Casa Sucre just around the corner from Luna’s Castle. We decided to take a look and see how much it would cost. It was out of our price range, but we figured it would be alright if we all split one room. It was a little crowded, but cleaner and more comfortable than any other place we could have afforded. It was an elegant and warm boutique hotel run by Rich and Alyce from the U.S.

The balcony at Casa Sucre was interesting–it wrapped around the building and looked directly across the street into a building full of squatters. Our hosts even knew them. Had we had more time to relax, that balcony would have been great. As it was, we sat there between sightseeing and dinner to cool off with a couple beers.

casco viejo

Most of Casco Viejo was a construction site

It was great to sit around living room/dining room talking with Rich and Alyce about their endeavor to renovate the once-dilapidated property in Panama City. Rich even showed me a slideshow of the construction–there really wasn’t much that could be saved from the original building.

It may have been more than we wanted to spend on a room, but it was well worth it. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture of the amazing breakfast.

Surviving an All-Day Cocktail Event

MCC2012Saturday was my first day at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. The event began Friday night with the gala at the New York Public Library, but I didn’t get to go–I heard about from all the people I met. Everything I experienced was at the Andaz Hotel on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street.

This was not my first all-day cocktail event–I’ve attended the Indie Spirits Expo the previous two years, but that’s more of just a tasting of everything. I more of less knew what to expect from the Industry Invitational, but I was still pleasantly surprised.

There was some terrific food–all made with Angostora Bitters. And I certainly should’ve eaten more early on because it wasn’t easy to fill up later in the day with everyone trying to fill their stomachs.

The Exploration Cocktail by bartender Ryan Maybee

The Exploration Cocktail by bartender Ryan Maybee

Don’t get too drunk

When attending a 12-hour drinking event, it’s important to remember to pace yourself–it’s a marathon that requires a high tolerance and some planning. I broke up the spirits tastings to ensure I wouldn’t consume too much liquor at one time. And each cocktail served was consumed slowly and rarely finished–I wanted to get the taste, not the drunkenness.

ambassador rum

14-year-old Venezuelan rum

If you’re drinking alcohol, also drink water

It’s also wise to take advantage of the free bottles of water to cleanse the palate and stay hydrated. This is also helpful in preventing a horrible hangover the next day. The coffee station is also helpful for staying awake while sampling all those cocktails.

Proper footwear is needed

The most important piece of advice for such a day is to wear comfortable shoes because there aren’t a lot of places to sit and you’re walking or standing around all day. I didn’t follow this advice for the first day and my feet hurt. For round two today, I will wear my extra-comfortable hiking shoes.

River View, Malaysia

It’s a spring-like day here in the New York City area, and the streets are rather quiet. The quiet is particularly surprising as Snooki and J-Woww from “Jersey Shore” moved in a few blocks away here in Jersey City (I haven’t seen them yet, and I probably wouldn’t recognize them without a camera crew following). I still hope they don’t disturb my local haunts.malacca

The beautiful weather made me think of the warm places I’ve visited. The quiet made me think of the two days in Malacca (also spelled Melaka).

This photo is from our window at the Renaissance Melaka overlooking the town. It wasn’t long before we wandered the streets in search of culture and history.