Review of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel

A recent four day stint in San Francisco had me staying at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Located on Union Square, this boutique hotel is a part of the Kimpton line, and offers a unique experience among the many possible accommodations in the Bay Area.

The Hotel can be seen behind Saks Fifth Avenue

Here are the pros and cons of my stay:

The Hotel

The building was constructed in 1928 and stands at 21 stories tall. It features a Renaissance style with Corinthian columns, a grand staircase, and an impressive lobby. Which makes this hotel highly personable and memorable for visitors. Combined with its location only a half block away from Union Square and on the Trolley line, provides guests the opportunity to reach nearby attractions, great restaurants and shopping, and access mass transit.

The Lobby

La Scala’s Bistro/ Starlight Room

There are a couple of dining options available for guests at the Sir Francis Drake. The two most notable features are La Scala Restaurant on the ground floor and the Starlight Room on the 21st floor with views of the surrounding city. Included in the cost of accommodations were three options.

While the atmosphere in this Italian/French themed restaurant was upscale and comfortable, the portion sizes were unsatisfying, the food somewhat bland, and the prices were obscene even by San Francisco standards. With so many incredible dining experiences to be had on Union Square, not to mention cheaper prices, the La Scala Restaurant’s only appeal was that its convenience and budget considerations.

The View from the Starlight Room

The Starlight Room is billed as a festive bar with live music and great drinks. There were great views and it was festively decorated, but the cocktail prices were steep and the drink unsatisfying.

The Room

In line with the highly boutique nature of the Sir Francis Drake, the room was beautiful, the beds were comfortable, and the view exceptional. But the hotel is historic, and the rooms small and the bathroom especially so. Which bordered on the uncomfortable. Though it should be noted that the room was functional, comfortable, and offered a great view of the city.

Besides obvious pitfalls such as the waits during breakfast and the small bathroom, the Sir Francis Drake Hotel provided an overall satisfactory experience. Though it isn’t necessarily right for everyone. Last year, during our San Francisco & Wine Country tour we stayed at the Grand Hyatt located a block away from the Sir Francisco Drake Hotel. The hotel rooms were spacious, the breakfast included in our tour was expansive and satisfying, and the location offered the same advantages as the Sir Francis Drake. But on the flipside, the Grand Hyatt lacked the kind of charm that accompanies the boutique hotel experience afforded by the Sir Francis Drake.

Our Review of Allure of the Seas: Part 2

While the multitude of things to do aboard the Allure could fill any vacation, the ship does visit several ports of call along its Caribbean route where various shore excursions are offered. Here’s what my experience was:

Renaissance Ft. Lauderdale Cruise Port Restaurant

Jamaica

Best of Jamaica tour —We were picked up at the harbor for our drive to Dunn’s River Falls, the first stop on our tour. Jamaica is a beautiful, lush and green island. Climbing the falls is a great experience, but visitors should be prepared to get wet as they literally climb up the rocks in the falls. Though it’s not as dangerous as it sounds. Local guides help each group with the climb. After, we drove past Ocho Rios to Shaw Park Hotel designed and built in a historic plantation style. Our meal consisted of traditional Jamaican fare. Our next event was a boat ride along coast of Jamaica back to Ocho Rios for a ride back to Falmouth where the ship was docked. And, as with any cruise ship terminal, there are plenty of stores here that more or less offer the same touristy souvenirs passengers can expect at every stop along the way.

Cozumel
Swimming with the Rays – We were picked up from the pier and took a short, 5 minute ride to a resort on the beach where the stingrays are. The first ½ hour of the excursion was spent in the shallow portion of the ocean where we were able to feed, pet and learn about stingrays. The next ½ hour was the actual snorkeling in deeper water with stingrays and other fish.

Before concluding my reviews of the Alllure of the Seas and its offerings, I wanted to provide some fun facts and some useful information for anyone thinking about or planning on traveling aboard this ship.

Senor Frogs, Cozumel

Fun and useful facts:
•Princess Fiona (from Shrek) is the godmother of the ship.
•The main theater on Allure of the Seas is equipped to handle 3D movies, many of which are first-run DreamWorks films.
•All cabins feature iPod docking stations
•The Allure also has over 9800 pieces of art throughout the ship, with over 1,200 works of art in the public areas. As you explore the ship, you will find new hidden treasures everywhere. One of the best things I really liked was finding new surprises on every deck.
•TV’s in the staterooms allow you to access your personal shipboard account, see your daily calendar and make reservations if you wish.
•Though our own personal experience is perhaps not typical for all passengers, we were not forced to wait in any lines or delays in getting on and off the ship which I thought was amazing.

The Allure of the Seas is a wonderful ship with plenty of options for cruisers of all ages and families of all sizes. And while the size and the number of passengers may put off some travelers to the idea of sailing aboard it, the ship’s variety of venues afforded several opportunities to find my own little place onboard that wasn’t crowded. While the experience was enjoyable, one of the things I did note was that many times I did not feel like I was at sea but at a land based resort, and I could not feel any movement of the ship at all nor could I feel the wind. The entire crew the Allure was friendly, going out of their way to make sure every guest enjoyed their cruise; the number of dining options, both included and not, were exceptional and never once did I find myself unsatisfied with the selection or my meal; and all in all, I would do it again, just to get to everything I did not have time to experience the first time around.

Jamaica

Other useful information:

The only time the ship felt crowded was at meal times for breakfast and lunch in the Windjammer buffet and then waiting in line for the dining at 5:30pm and 8:30pm. The elevators took a while during meal times as many people were using them, and on the sea days, the pool areas were jammed packed.

Taxi from the FLL airport to the pier is about $20 and takes about 10 minutes. You can actually see the cruise port from the airport. For a really great hotel close to the pier, we stayed at the Renaissance Ft. Lauderdale Cruise Port which includes breakfast. There is a Walgreens Drug store across the street from the hotel and a lovely restaurant a very short walk from the hotel, right on the water. The hotel offers a shuttle to the pier for $6.00 per person which is about a 3 minute drive. It actually took longer to wait in line to get out of the taxi than driving from hotel. Check in was very easy and efficient, making for a quick ship boarding.

Activities Aboard the Allure of the Seas

As I mentioned in my previous posts about the Allure of the Seas, this ship has everything. Among the many amenities available aboard it includes a jogging track on Deck 5. 1 lap around is approximately 1 1/2 miles. There is also a state-of-art fitness center, 2 Flow Rider surf simulators, 2 rock-climbing walls, a zip line, a full-size basket ball court, ice-skating rink, mini golf course, 4 pools including 1 adults only pool in the Solarium, 10 whirlpools with 2 of them cantilevered overlooking the ocean, an H20 Zone kids water park. There is also a full-service spa and salon, the fitness center offers yoga and tai-chi classes. One will also find Dreamworks characters onboard ship, character dining, parades, ice shows, aqua shows and of course, the only carousel at sea.

The Solarium is a great place to relax in on the days at sea if you are looking for a quiet place on the ship. It is located at the front of the ship on Deck 15 with wonderful views of the ocean.

The other pool areas get very crowded in the late morning and early afternoons on the days at sea, so you have to get to the pool areas early to get some chairs. I found the pool spaces to be a bit too small for the number of people on the ship, but with a bit of pre-planning, it works.

There is lots of evening entertainment, the Comedy Club, the Ice Show, Chicago, Oceanaria, The Blue Planet, Casino Royale, On-Air karaoke club, live jazz club, movies under the stars, etc. You will not lack for something to do.

I definitely recommend making reservations for the nightly shows to ensure you get in. Space does “sell out”. If you do not have reservations and wish to try to get in, the shows will release all unclaimed reservations 10 minutes before showtime and allow anyone waiting to go in.

There are several great children’s and teen programs onboard the ship based on age appropriate activities as well as teen lounge areas and a disco. There are also several family friendly activities including games and contests.

Allure of the Seas Dining Options

A ship the size of the Allure of the Seas it’s no surprise that there are many, many dining options that span both complimentary and specialty restaurants. Among the complimentary dining is the Main Dining Room open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Park Café, Windjammer Café, Wipeout Café, Promenade Café, Solarum Bisto, Sorrento’s Pizza and room service (there is a fee for room service in the very early hours of the morning). Among the Specialty restaurants, which require a surcharge and reservations to dine in them, are 150 Centra Park, Chops Grille steakhouse, Giovanni’s Table and Samba Grill. The ship also offers casual restaurants for a nominal fee; Johnny Rockets, Cupcake Cupboard, Rita’s Cantina, Boardwalk Dog House and the Ice Cream Parlor.

During my stay aboard the ship, I had breakfast the first 2 days at the Windjammer Cafe. The café had lots of people at regular dining times, but I had no trouble finding a table in spite of the crowds. The café offers great breakfast buffet fare with many food choices. To avoid the breakfast crowds, we decided to try out the Park Café in Central Park and were delighted to discover that there are not many people here, plus we had the added bonus of dining outdoors among the lush gardens. Not as many food choices, but they offered a build your own bagel bar, fresh fruit, muffins, breakfast burritos, McMuffin sandwhiches and a selection of pastries.

I had dinner in the My Time Dining Room 3 times and the food was excellent as usual and they offer a magnificent Crème Brule for dessert. Opting for the My Time Dining allowed me to choose what time I wanted to eat. With it, you can choose to make reservations at a specific time for the dining room, or you can just show up when you are ready to eat. I did not make reservations for the dining room and was able to get right in when I arrived between 5:30 and 6:30pm. If you want to use the My Time dining option but want to eat after 7:00pm, I would suggest making reservations for the dining room.

I also tried 4 of the specialty restaurants: Rita’s Cantina, Samba Grill (a Brazillian steakhouse), Chops Grille and Giovanni’s Table.

Dinner my first night was a Sail Away party at Rita’s Cantina, a Mexican restaurant on the Boardwalk which requires reservations. The meal included 3 margaritas, excellent appetizers, a main course of fajitas, and a dessert of flan and churro’s with chocolate dipping sauce. Audience participation entertainment was provided in the form of dancing along to the Mexican fiesta music as well as dancing instruction outside the restaurant on the boardwalk, familiar favorite songs, and sombreros and blinking light necklaces. My only complaint was the music was very, very loud and I felt I had been at a rock concert after leaving dinner.

The Samba Grill experience begins when you are seated and the waiter brings a warm basket of small round divine cheese rolls. One could really make a meal of these cheese rolls, they are so delicious. The meal begins at a self-serve salad bar filled with a wonderful selection of appetizers, soups, salads, shrimp (one of my absolute favorites). The main course features various cuts of rotisserie-roasted meat carved tableside and traditional Brazilian desserts.

Chops Grille feels like an upscale restaurant and their specialty is, of course, steak. The meal begins with a loaf of warm, crusty bread. Appetizer selections are always hard to make, but I choose the wild mushroom soup which was wonderful. There are several steak choices and I selected the fillet mignon. The steak was wonderfully tender and came with a side dish of broccolini, and my dessert choice was Red Velvet Cake.

Gionvanni’s Table is also located in Central Park and offered outside dining, in fact the same table I had at breakfast. Giovanni’s table is a family style Italian restaurant with many lovely pasta dishes.

There are several types of drink packages offered. I took advantage of the soda package, receiving a refillable drink cup in my stateroom and my shipboard card also had a symbol on it denoting the drink package. I just needed to show my card at any bar or restaurant and received my choice of soda. The ship also has drink machines where you can refill your cup yourself. My friend choose to purchase a 5-bottle wine package which she enjoyed. Each night at dinner, she received a list of wines that she could choose from. If she was not able to finish the wine at dinner, the waiter was able to save it for the next night. They notate the bottle with your room number on it, making it available the next night at whatever dining venue passengers decide to eat at.

Our Review of the Allure of the Seas: Part 1

I’ve never had the desire to sail onboard one of the new mega ships, but recently, I had the opportunity to take a 7-night cruise on the Royal Caribbean Allure of the Seas. The ship holds 5,400 passengers and 2,175 crew. Thanks to its size, once onboard, it is easy to forget you are on a ship. There is virtually no movement of the ship when at sea and many places where one does not even see see the ocean.

My first impression upon arrival at the pier is that this ship is gigantic–truly a floating city. We arrived at the pier at about 11:30am and was surprised at how quickly check-in went. Our staterooms were not ready until 1:45 PM, but we were able to wander around and get familiar with the ship. In spite of its enormous size the ship is very well laid out, providing plenty of places for its 5,400 passengers to occupy its time.

The design and features of this ship are really spectacular. One thing I noticed right away onboard ship is that near all the elevators is an interactive information center which is available in 5 languages. These information centers help you find your cabin, include dining and venue information, what to do right now and also give indicators on how busy each dining venue is at that moment. It also provides a very handy button for mapping the way to any destination or cabin. The ship is easy to navigate. I saw many parents with strollers and several people with mobility scooters.

Central Park

We entering on the Promenade Deck, I took the elevator to Central Park for a look around and some lunch. My first impression of Central Park was one of incredulity. Royal Caribbean has really recreated an open-air park. You actually forget that you are on a ship as there are no views of the sea but it is open to the sky. Live, lush green foliage, plants, flowers and open air bring it to life along with many hidden gems tucked away in corners. There were even live birds and butterflies sailing with us during the week.

Central Park has 4 restaurants and 2 bars; the Park Café, Chops Grille, Giovanni’s Table and 150 Central Park, Vintages Wine Bar and the Trellis Bar. It also has 3 shops, the Britto Store and art gallery, a Coach store and a portrait studio. This is also where you find the interior view balcony cabins rising up on both sides of the park. Lunch at the Park Café was tasty, offering salads, roast beef sandwiches and panini’s. Indoor and outdoor seating is available. After discovering the Windjammer Café is really crowded for breakfast in the mornings, we tried out the Park Café and had a great breakfast sitting outdoors with no waiting.

The Boardwalk

The Boardwalk is a really fun place which was inspired by seaside piers on the coast a England and Coney Island. It really feels like you are on a boardwalk. Again, hard to believe you are at sea on a ship. The Boardwalk features the Boardwalk Dog House offering many different types of hot dogs, ice cream parlor, Pets at Sea (pseudo Build-A-Bear) candy store, Johnny Rockets 50’s style diner, donuts at breakfast time, cotton candy, 2 rock climbing walls and the only all wood carousel at sea. The Aqua Theater where Oceanaria, a water/diving show with water acrobatics and high-diving is performed as well as a Madagascar water show during the day. You can also watch movies under the stars here. The Boardwalk also has the interior balconies overlooking the boardwalk as well as the Aqua Theater Suites which have really big balconies. The Aqua Theater Suites are at the end of the Boardwalk overlooking the Aqua Theater. People booking cabins in this area will have quite a bit of noise from the Boardwalk well into the night.

Promenade

The Promenade is a lovely deck that has somewhat of a 1920’s feel to it, complete with bars, shops, Sorrento’s Pizza. A really great 1920s feel to it, complete with a 1920 Cadillac right in the middle of it, a Cupcake Cupboard, Guest Services, a Coach store, the Rising Tide Bar which moves between decks 5 & 6, and the first ever Starbucks at sea and much more. The Cupcake Cupboard offers delicious cupcakes and also offers a cupcake making class (for a fee). The class was loads of fun and most of all, a delicious treat at the end!

New York on a Budget Tip

New York City is infamous for the cost of living and visiting, so it helps to save when and where you can. On a recent trip to New York, I had the opportunity to learn, as I always do on my many trips to Manhattan, a new way to improve visits to the Big Apple.

Times Square, Tim Wilson/ Flickr

Recently, I escorted a tour group from Highland High School who wanted to stay at more economical lodgings. After I personally inspected a couple that I felt might work, we ended up staying at the West Side YMCA at 5 West 63rd Street. A YMCA is like staying in a European hostel, so we had to prepare the students and parents and chaperons as to what to expect. I personally took photos of the rooms, the communal restrooms (showers, sinks, toilets) so that everyone would know far ahead of time what the accommodations were like. I passed these photos around to everyone at our pre-tour meeting. By doing this no one was surprised when they checked into the YMCA. Actually we loved it.

The location was wonderful – a half block away from Lincoln Center and across the street from Central Park. With only 3 showers on each floor for girls and 3 for boys, we were concerned about having 117 guests all trying to get ready at the same time, but it all worked out (we were spread out on 4 floors – so that helped). We were in our rooms for so little time, spent our time doing tours, workshops, attending Broadway plays, performing in Central Park, etc. and the staff at this YMCA were so friendly and accommodating – it was a real pleasure being there and certainly the least expensive option we could have ever come up with.

Back from St. Maarten, Again

I just got back from a escorting a tour to the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. An island which, incidentally, has two identities: one French and one Dutch. The Sonesta Maho Resort where we were staying stands on the Dutch side not far from the village of Maho. These were the photos I collected during my stay:

Pool at the Sonesta Maho Resort
The Pool at the Sonesta Maho Resort

Maho Beach
The beach outside of our hotel.

Airport at the Princess Juliana Airport
The Princess Juliana Airport is famous for tourists Fence Surfing as planes take off.

Phillipsburg
Phillipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side of Sint Maarten.

Orient Beach
Orient Beach

Marigot
Marigot on the French side of the island.

Maho Beach
Another shot of Maho Beach outside of our hotel.

To see all of my photos, visit our facebook or Google+ pages.

Return from Prague, Vienna, & Budapest

I’m back from my seven days aboard the AmaCerto, AmaWaterways newest ship, as we sailed from Nuremburg to Budapest. Though the sites we passed and docked at along the way are remarkable year round, I had the good fortune to visit them during the holidays when these cities are transformed with festive decorations, Christmas Markets, and seasonal goodies. Here are some of my photos of the trip:

Budapest
Budapest

Nuremberg Christmas Market
Nuremberg Christmas Market

Regensberg Christmas Market
Regensberg Christmas Market

Melk Abbey
Melk Abbey

Linz Old Bridge
The Old Bridge in Linz

Bicycling in Napa

The Napa Valley area is a lush, green valley with over 500 wineries and is an excellent place for any wine lover to visit and even non-wine drinkers such as myself. We stayed at the River Terrace Inn in Napa, a lovely hotel and a great place to base yourself. There are many restaurants within walking distance, downtown Napa with lots of great shops and restaurants, and the Oxbow Market–all of which is about a 15 minute walk from the hotel.

Napa Vineyard

The hotel offered complimentary bicycle rentals, so one morning I decided to take advantage of the bicycles and ride through Napa. I have to mention here that the bicycles were of the very standard variety with just one speed and no hand brakes. I learned from our excellent tour director Mark that the famous Silverado Trail (see www.silveradotrail.com for more information) is a scenic route that travels 29 miles along the eastern edge of the Napa Valley and is very easy to ride to from our hotel. Good thing it is a flat road as I may have found myself pushing this bicycle up any hills that came along.

Napa Road

I set off early in the morning after breakfast. The Silverado Trail has great scenery along the way with vineyards off in both directions as far as I could see. There are no buildings along the Trail, just wineries and private residences. The wineries along this trail are boutique and medium-sized wineries. As I was bicycling along, I saw many different and beautiful wineries with every structure different from the last one that I had seen. These wineries intrigued me so much so that I began riding up their long driveways just to see the architecture of each winery.

Napa Winery

I had a really fascinating and fun morning riding down the road along with wineries on both sides. There were lots of trees along the road as well proving welcomed shade as I road along the Silverado Trail.

Napa Winery

In all, I rode about 15 miles round-trip and had a most pleasurable experience. If you are in Napa and want to consider cycling and wine tasting, I definitely recommend trying the wineries along the Silverado Trail.

Napa and Sonoma Valleys: The Difference

The Napa and Sonoma Valleys are synonymous with California Wine Country. The second half of our recent tour was dedicated to an overview of both of these valleys with our hotel being based out of Napa.

My initial impression, even before going there, was that each valley was laid out around a centralized city–if they could be called cities–with vineyards sprawling out for miles. Admittedly, I was a little colored by memories of the Italian countryside. However, it was quite different.

Sonoma Valley

Sonoma Valley

The Sonoma Valley is geographically positioned next to the Napa Valley and is smaller in its physical dimensions. It was also in Sonoma where California viticulture began. Though wine is certainly what made Sonoma into the destination it is today, it isn’t the only reason to visit. Restaurants, recreational activities, boutiques, and art galleries are all available in scores.

For anyone staying in Sonoma the place to be is in the central area around Sonoma Plaza. Our stop here was quick but, for those wanting a respite from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco or perhaps even the scale of Napa, the hotels surrounding the plaza are quaint and offer immediate access to nearby vineyards and attractions. It’s also surrounding the plaza that the Sonoma Mission, the 21st in a chain of missions was built, is located. As is the local cheese factory and the town hall. Other local shops, restaurants, and boutiques exist in the area including a weekly Tuesday Farmers Market. Though the Napa Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays is probably the same size there was one thing that particularly caught my attention at the Sonoma market: the Hummus Guy. This little stall appears throughout the farmers markets of Northern California offering Tunisian style hummus and, more importantly, must-try garlic chips.

Ramekins

Ramekins features a Mediterranean-style courtyard complete with outdoor fireplace, fountains, and gardens. The interiors are comfortable with a kitchen that is easily ample enough to fit the three chefs and the dozen and a half tourists of our group. The hands on demonstration produced a four course meal served with with our choice of wines, the recipes to recreate it, and a bunch of professional tips on cooking.

Ramekins

Napa Valley

The Napa Valley is larger in size than Sonoma and reasonably spread out. A fact that regrettably does not lend it to being traversed on foot. Fortunately, we were stationed at the River Terrace Inn which was a five minute walk from local attractions like the Oxbow Market and Downtown Napa.

Oxbow Market

The hotel itself was comfortable sitting right next to the Sonoma River, down the road from the Oxbow Market, and less than a block away from the nearby restaurant cuvée where breakfast was included in our tour.

Oxbow Market

This quaint market building has several permanent artisan tenants and a Saturday farmers market. Some of our favorite shops were Anette’s Chocolates, Roasters Coffee, Ca’Momi Restaurant and Pastry Shop, and the Crepe Shop.

Ca’Momi

The Napa Town Area

Though we didn’t get to this area due to our full itinerary we were impressed with the selection of shops and restaurants, both of which were more plentiful than Sonoma, that were listed in our local guide. Here you can find the headquarter stores from the Oxbow offering greater selections. Specifically, Anette’s Chocolates where tours offer the opportunity to see the process as it unfolds as well as the Olive Press which creates artisan olive oil from olives that are grown and pressed locally .

Culinary Institute of America

Sitting in a historic building, a cooking school probably isn’t the first place you’d think about stopping for a visit while you’re in Napa, but the corkscrew museum and the chocolate shop might interest you in stopping by.

Calistoga Town Center

The small town of Calistoga was a natural lunch stop for us. Though there is only really one main street running through the town that will be of much interest to tourists it is complete with bakeries, coffee houses, a book store, several restaurants, art galleries, and other interesting hotspots. Though it probably isn’t worth an entire day to explore it is a good place to stop for a rest.