June 14, 2015

Our Bargain, Senior Friendly, Four Months in Europe

Hotel Imperial, Vienna
Our Room
Last year, we cashed in on our points and miles to take an extended tour of Europe. We went to (in order): Barcelona, Vienna, Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, Nantes, Galway, Limerick, Dublin, Bath, Cardiff, just outside Newport, Solihull (near Birmingham), London, Nether Heyford, London, Bath, Ennis, Limerick, Bath, Madrid, and back to Ecuador.

As I have a mobility issue (not wheelchair bound, but not good for a lot of walking), we began to pay close attention to traveling in a “senior friendly” manner. While I have a patented rant on this subject, and am happy to go into this in the future, in this post I want to highlight how these two hotels successfully meet the challenge of accommodating this demographic. One hotel is a total splurge ($500 per night minimum — we used points), the other is a bargain, considering it is in the heart of a major European city (around €100).

Hotel Imperial Vienna
Kaerntner Ring 16, Vienna A-1015, Austria
www.imperialvienna.com

From the moment we were greeted at check-in (where the concierge immediately acknowledged our SPG Gold status) to the time we checked out, we were treated with professionalism and friendliness, a combination rarely achieved in the hotel industry.

The room itself was stunning, and the marble bathroom was the height of luxury. For those in the theatrical professions —  everything in the hotel is detailed to the farthest corner of the room and in the entire hotel. You couldn't see into the wings. Not in the room, not in the hotel. Beautiful fabric on the walls, comfortable furniture throughout the hotel, and even when a door opened to the back of the house, there was no break.



There were also some pleasant surprises: For example, one night as we were having a drink and enjoying the piano music in the bar, it was announced that there would be a concert. An attractive and talented quintet played for almost an hour and a half. Two guitars, cello, flute, and soprano -- lovely. 
A great unexpected bonus!



And if you like apple strudel, make sure you pay a visit to the café. I know the Imperial Torte is the house specialty, and it is excellent, but don't miss the strudel.



A special mention must be made regarding the concierge staff. They helped us so much, whether it was restaurant advice, tour information, general directions, and just about anything else. M. Grassauer, the concierge with whom we worked most often, arranged to get us tickets for a performance art piece and even helped us purchase our train tickets for our next destination (which I totally forgot to do before we left home). He is incredibly well-informed about the Vienna performing arts scene, and I recommend working with him whether you are interested in the classical performing arts or are looking for something a bit more adventurous.


Shower Bench
Hotel Imperial, Vienna

Senior friendly observation on the bathroom in our room: Many of us as we get older need some adaptation in facilities —  not the full-on handicapped access, but just some few changes to make life easier. The free-standing shower had a roomy marble seat as part of the over-all design (not just a pull-down perch) and a hand-held shower attachment. It was stable, it was easy to use, and still luxurious. Instead of merely an orthopedic adaptation, it just seemed to be an added bit of luxury.

Bottom line: Would we stay here again? Absolutely! I wouldn't hesitate for a minute — well, as long as I was in splurge mode.

Intur Palacio San Martin
‪Plaza San Martin, 5‬, Madrid ‪28013‬
www.hotelpalaciosanmartin.es

Our budget room at
Intur Palacio San Martin
Madrid
We stayed in this hotel during our 2013 trip, but we talk about it frequently as on of the nicest, affordable in-a-major-city hotels we have experienced. 

First, the hotel is so conveniently located! Only a few minutes walk from Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, El Callao, and La Gran Via (a good spot to catch the Madrid hop-on tour bus). But the big highlight for me was the proximity to El Corte Ingles, perhaps the best department store in the known universe. Besides the high-end stuff, it also has "regular" toiletries and clothing, a terrific supermarket, an ATM, and a Starbucks. Very convenient. Walking distance to Arenal and the Opera, too. 



The building formerly housed the U.S. Embassy and has been retrofitted for use as a hotel. Located on Plaza San Martin, next to a convent (Descalzas Reales), the hotel and its outdoor cafe were pretty quiet, yet central. One night we had dinner in the restaurant. A bit pricey, but the tortilla (Spanish egg and potato omelette) and the salads just hit the spot. One lovely afternoon I spent a couple of warm autumn hours sitting at the umbrella tables on the plaza drinking cappuccinos and reading magazines. 

Our first budget ground floor room was bright, and the air conditioning was quiet and efficient, which made up for the fact that the window didn't open for safety reasons. Our king bed was two twin beds joined together (fine with us), had a nice closet fitted with a safe and drawers. In addition, the modern bathroom had a brilliant shower and a very good hair dryer. The WiFi access was sufficient for us, but our friends needed a better download stream as he was to participate in a conference over the Internet.


While I realize that to some the starkness of the budget rooms might be a bit jarring, I personally thought the simple decor was a break from all the over-decorated hotel rooms in most of Europe.

The shower in the wheelchair
accessible room

Intur Palacio San Martin
Madrid
Another thing about the budget rooms: I have a mobility issue (walk with a cane) so some hotel rooms can be challenging with access steps, luggage and elevator issues, etc. These ground level rooms are fantastic. Just a tiny wide slope down and a nip around the corner to the room. For those with walkers and other devices, there are no rugs or carpets to get in your way, even in the room. Bathrooms in these accommodations are shower only, and have only a low tile barrier, so access is relatively easy. There is a metal stool that can be moved into the shower if a person finds it difficult to stand the whole shower time. In addition, one budget room is completely wheelchair accessible, including stability bars around the toilet. The shower is completely roll-in with a sturdy seat attached to the shower wall; the water spills down a drain in the floor covered by a smooth metal grill. While I didn't need all this, it was certainly nice to know it was available as I have friends for whom this is an important issue.



The staff was at all times pleasant and professional. Between their English and my limited Spanish, everything worked out nicely. They were also helpful when it came time to printing out our boarding passes (the computer in the lobby wasn't hooked up to a printer).

We liked the hotel so much that for our return to Madrid on our way home to South America, we booked there again. For the foreseeable future, unless I have some magical points option, this will be our hotel in Madrid.


* * *
Lest anyone think we are totally made of cash — we aren’t. But I have spent a ton of time trying to maximize the points and miles options that are out there for the taking. Some of it is pretty complicated, but I think it is totally worth the time and effort. For example, Iberia has a cash and points option which allowed for us to have deeply discounted air fares to and from South America. We used trains, buses, and bargain airlines throughout Europe (some of which was reimbursed by the Nantes festival). 

In addition, I won a pretty good prize from the Westin and SPG hotel group, which accounted for a good portion of our hotel stays, and the week in Nantes was courtesy of Utopiales (a futurist conference) as K. W. was one of the guests. I also bought hotel points from the IHG group during their summer sale. I spent about $300, which turned into 9 free days at the Holiday Inn in Solihull and a cash and points option for several days in London. The Wales visit was courtesy of Hilton Honors points and an incredible bargain rate of 5,000 points per night, and a cash and points option in Prague, London, and Bath (which saved a bundle). And the three weeks in Nether Heyford over the holidays was a house/pet sit so the owners could go to South Africa. Those three weeks were free. 

While we did our fair share of restaurant eating, we also did a ton of in-room picnics. Two of our paid stays in Bath and Galway were self-catering — which means kitchens and laundry facilities. And, of course the three weeks in Nether Heyford were in a fully equipped house.

Total bill for FOUR months:  Approximately $5,500, including food, hotels, travel. As we spend on average around $400 to $450 a month on food and dining out at home, I could deduct that from the cash spend. So, the total for the trip really cost around $4,000.

If you ever wondered if putting in the time to learn and implement the points thing was worth it — Yup. It is.

June 22, 2014

Cuenca, Ecuador: Two Years and Counting

Hummingbird exhibit at
Plaza de Otorongo
Last month, we signed the third lease on our apartment in Cuenca, Ecuador. Landmark! (Hey, for us, two years is longevity. Those who know us well realize that for the sake of their address books, our information should be written in pencil.)

So far, so good. Cuenca is a lovely small city and has attracted and kept a large amount of North American expats. Every week there seems to be a new restaurant, new people arriving, and local festivals. Of course, right now we are in the middle of World Cup frenzy as Ecuador is still hanging in there. On match days, you can see people all over town with tri-color face painting and wearing the bright yellow Ecuador T-shirts. Couple this with the annual week-long Corpus Christi celebrations, and it is one busy town. Many fireworks to commemorate both.

Beautiful globos
Photo by
Connie Pombo
We have been fortunate to make new friends of all ages and from all over the world, we have adapted to some of the challenges inherent in moving to a completely different culture, and have even improved our Spanish. The Spanish is rocky, but at least we can get by on the usual day-to-day things.

But the best part for us is that K. W. and I get to do work that pleases us, rather than work insisted upon by others. Also, our schedule is in our control. For example, if we want to have lunch with friends, we just schedule our work for later in the day — or even for the next day. Time is now our bitch. And it's wonderful.

Yes. We miss our friends. But we have lived in so many places that wherever we live, we will be missing somebody. We are lucky that current technology certainly has made this easier than when we lived in England in the mid-80s and were totally dependent on snail mail and phone calls that needed to be tightly scheduled. The Internet, MagicJack, FaceTime, and Skype are our new best friends.

K. W. misses his favorite
snack. If you come to visit,
please bring some.
What else do we miss? A lot of stupid stuff like Sunmaid Raisins, Skippy Natural Peanut Butter, Trader Joe's Beef Jerky, antihistamines, Pepcid — stuff like that. And a couple of big things. We are culture vultures and very much miss the high level of classical performing arts we experienced in San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, the U.K., and even Las Vegas (stop the obligatory snickering —they have some good stuff there — it isn't all The Strip). Small price to pay for all the benefits of living here.

And regular, relatively safe and efficient mail delivery. If you think the U.S. Post Office is bad, just wait until you don't really have one at all. Seriously inconvenient. But, again, we manage.

On the other hand, the cost of living has allowed us to plan for trips that fill the cultural needs and to see friends. In addition, I have the time to pursue a new hobby — making the most of airline miles and hotel points. So far, this has paid for a lot of stuff, including major hotel upgrades and a free ticket to Europe. While I did win a major hotel prize this year, luck can only take you so far.

For those who follow this part of our lives, K. W has reissued his novels Dr. Adder and Dark Seeker as ebooks at Amazon. He is also running a special deal over on his website — sign up for his mailing list and you get a free book (your pick from several). 

I still am working on my first book (nonfiction), copy editing for my freelance clients, and doing some admin work for a local real estate company. Also, I'm the family travel planner so have been busy booking our fall trip, including lining up some house sitting opportunities. Europe, Ireland, and England here we come!


May 18, 2014

Cuenca, Ecuador & Beyond: Fall 2013


Okay. This is late. So sue me!

It's been a great year for us. We are enjoying our time in Ecuador and are adjusting pretty well to life here. While we miss seeing our friends in the U.S. as often as we would like, we have had a fun time meeting new people and exploring an entirely different culture. And, living a large part of the year in an affordable country does allow us to have a travel budget — something that we were missing out on the last few years we were in the States. 

Of course, we are both still working — K. W. at the writing and me at copy editing, writing, and a part-time admin gig for a local real estate agency. What makes our life different here is that now we are in complete control of our own schedules and are comfortable knowing that we have more money coming in than we have going out. In addition, we don't have the anxiety about health insurance and medical care that is so pervasive in the U.S. 
Dream Caused by the Flight of a
Bumblebee around a Pomegranate
a Second Before Awakening
by Salvador Dalí (1944)

So what have we been doing? 


Our main event at the end of the year was the Big Trip. In mid-October, we spent some time in Madrid, then flew on to the U.K. As we had to fly in and out of Madrid to get to London, we split our Madrid time into two sections. During the first, we hung out with our friends Fred and Allison and had a blast. (We hadn't been together since their trip to Cuenca at the beginning of the year.) We checked out the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum where, in addition to the regular collection, the museum was featuring an exhibit on the Surrealists. What struck us most about this exhibit were the textures and the use of light. 


Chocolateria San Gines
Madrid, Spain
And, fun of fun, Allison introduced me to El Corte Inglés, only one of the best department stores ever! We had so much fun! On top of the usual department store stuff, there was a food hall, a gourmet shop, and a full-on grocery store in the lower level, along with a Starbucks and a cash machine. Since our hotel room had a refrigerator, this made things so easy.

The second visit on the way back, K. W. and I drank a lot of chocolate, ate churros, went to a flamenco night (awesome!), and just "hung out," Spanish style.


K. W., Jim Blaylock &
Joseph Remesar
Soho, London (2013)
After seeing Allison and Fred during Madrid Phase I, we headed off to London where K. W. was part of a signing at the Forbidden Planet bookstore. His book Fiendish Schemes, the sequel to his Steampunk novel Infernal Devices, had just been published, the World Fantasy Con was happening the following week in Brighton, and friends and fellow writers James P. Blaylock and Timothy Powers were also in town. The three of them signed lots of books for a lot of people. Afterward, the group from the store and the writers headed out for a fun late afternoon at a local pub. We were able to meet Internet friend and fellow writer Joseph Remesar, who recently published a Spanish language Steampunk novel.


Christmas Decorations
Covent Garden (2013
)
Sunday Roast Lunch
at The Charles Holden
Colliers Wood, London
During our week in London, we went to a concert at the South Bank (Marin Alsop and the Sao Paolo orchestra), met up with a lot of friends we hadn't seen in too many years, did a bit of shopping, had a magnificent Sunday lunch at the The Charles Holden in South Wimbledon (across from the Colliers Wood tube station), and just enjoyed being in one of the world's greatest cities. 

I wish we could have seen more performances, but time just didn't permit it. Next visit, attending ballet, opera, theater, and other events will dictate the schedule. I especially missed seeing dancer Madison Keesler during her first season with English National Ballet. Why did we miss ENB? Well, the company tours a lot through the UK, and everywhere we were  well, they weren't. Our next trip, we definitely will correct this omission.


Shelly Rae Clift & me
Brighton, UK (2013)
The following week was spent in Brighton at the World Fantasy Con. Pretty much the usual con event; and pretty much Brighton in the late fall — heavy rain, 50 mph winds, you get the picture. But it was fun seeing friends from Portland, San Francisco, and other parts of the sci fi/fantasy world. The day we left, the rain stopped, and we had a lovely train ride to Bath Spa.

(l/r) Sandy, K. W., me, and Pete
Bath, UK (2013)
What is wonderful about Bath is that the changes made over the years seem to have been handled with great care. Bath still looks like Bath, thank heavens! The best part of being in Bath, though, was reconnecting with friends. My friend Sandy and I just started chatting as if only a week had passed, not a gazillion years. Same with K. W. and Pete. Their daughters Clair and Sarah-Jane have grown into wonderful women who are raising their own families. 

We also spent time with the Escotts. Les and Rita, along with baby Rebecca, were our first guests when we moved to our Portland house in 1988. This visit, we met the adult Rebecca and her younger twin sisters, too. Again, the conversation was lively, and it seemed as if no time had passed at all. 

And Harold and Audrey Swindells invited us for tea, where we had a lovely afternoon. Their artist daughter Josie was working in her studio (located in the back garden) and popped in to say hello, too. Hopefully, we will be able to meet up with the rest of the family on our next visit.


That's pretty much it for now. Our plans have us heading to Europe and the UK this fall. Yay!



May 9, 2014

Reflections: Blogging from A to Z

Well, that was fun — and surprisingly less difficult than I anticipated. Didn’t run out of ideas, and only had a couple of late postings. Considering my life-long membership in the Procrastinators Union, I actually surprised myself. 

Were all the posts pearls with golden grammar? Heck no. But I did it.

What did I get out of this? Satisfaction that I could actually finish what I started — always a plus. It was fun to discover the range of bloggers participating — fiction, fashion, travel — cool stuff. A special thanks to writer/blogger Donna B. McNichol for encouraging me to give this a shot. And also a big thanks to all of you who stopped by to read and comment.

But the most unexpected fall-out for me is that the A to Z Challenge goosed my brain. I finally came up with a book idea that excites me, while at the same time strikes me as doable. The outline was done in thirty minutes; I anticipate having the book finished by the end of the summer, at the latest. And, of course, I will post plugs for the book on my blog and on various forms of social media. I have no shame.

I do have one major suggestion for the organizers: Due to the large number of participants, it would have been useful to have the blogs grouped by category. Additionally, would it be against the spirit of the Challenge to mandate that missing five (or other number) postings in a row would lead to that blog being dropped from the listings? 

Doing this certainly made for an interesting month. Thank you to all the organizers and facilitators who made the A to Z Challenge happen.