Category Archives: Hotels

Clarendon Hotel – very hot and camp in Phoenix

How to describe the idiosyncratic Clarendon Hotel in Phoenix? There kind of isn’t really anything in Phoenix itself apart from a sort of downtown high-rise bit, with offices and banks, so you probably really need a place like this to hang out. Surrounded by desert and mountains, Phoenix in the summer is blisteringly hot – 40c/110f. Everyone says it’s dry heat so you don’t feel it – well that’s nonsense – you feel it from your feet slowly traveling up your legs until you know that you badly need a dose of air conditioning.

Anyone for some modernist architecture?
Anyone for some modernist architecture?

But luckily there is the Clarendon Hotel. It all feels quite camp, from the reception to the bar and beyond. No further comment needed! The rooms are clean and quite pleasant, large with essential industrial-powered air con, but there are really three main attractions – the pool (voted the best in Arizona), the bar (where they mix incredible cocktails) and the restaurant. Where if ever you doubted whether you like Mexican food, then this is the place to dispel those doubts.

I should also mention that the service at this hotel is second to none – absolutely nothing is too much trouble. Especially when the lift is broken.

The infamous cocktail menu
The infamous cocktail menu

The pool is a very popular place to be and it is clear that on Friday evenings through the weekend all the 30-something party animals party here hard, spending their time between the pool and the bar.

But most important of all is the bar. Ruled by Matt who allegedly mixes the best margaritas in Arizona. And they are really good. He also knows about many things. The Old Tortoise and a drinking companion had worked about half way down the cocktail board when the conversation moved to whether we preferred  modernist architecture, at which point it was time to accept that we were in the wrong conversation. But the cocktails, well they were to die for.

Mind where you put it
Mind where you put it

Oh – I nearly forgot to mention … take a look in the Gents if you ever get to visit. This is a visit that you won’t forget in a hurry!

Green Valley – a Spa too far in Utah

Mmmm … this is where the trip began to come a bit unstuck. Briefly. It’s not that it was a bad place, it was after all what the Tortuga and her friend intended – a health spa stop over in St George, Utah – but the Old Tortoise was expecting another 5-star hotel, not some scientific research facility with a reception manned by Mr Personality-Removed.

Having said that the rooms were spectacular with the most amazing beds. The children had a great time in the pool and a day playing tennis, the Tortuga got herself encased in mud and massaged. And once we worked out that the dining room was not the place to be and catered au-apartement courtesy of the local Wall-Mart things turned out not so bad.

It is worth mentioning that the service in the dining room was appalling. Plus once we identified the (limited) wine list, the only interesting item – the champagne – was inevitably out of stock. I am ashamed to say that this Old Tortoise spent a day and a half mostly on the couch, mostly watching daytime TV and mostly swigging vodka and tonic, waiting for the moment he was instructed to load up the truck and head out of Dodge. He didn’t dare spark up a cigar in case the Spa Police got wind of it.

Waldorf Astoria – luxury in Park City

OK, so I have to admit it, we needed a dose of abject luxury after the rigours of six days of Waldorf Park Cityhard riding. On the way south on our road-trip journey to Arizona we checked-in to the Waldorf Astoria in Park City for two delightful nights. This is 5-star luxury as good as it gets. In the summer time it’s great, the hotel apartments are arranged around the outside swimming pool, but in the winter it must be spectacular. We had a duplex room arrangement with the kitchen and living area downstairs and a large bedroom and the main bathroom upstairs. Great set-up if you have children with you who can sleep separately downstairs.

The apartments have inside and outside fireplaces and I can imagine that sitting out on the balcony at night with the fire going, après-ski, must be sensational. The kitchen was kitted out with all the best quality gear and could quite happily have formed the centre of a luxury flat.

The service is second to none. Nothing was too much trouble from the good-natured unloading of the SUV (suitcases, boots, plastic bags bulging at the seams and spilling their contents) to accommodating a late night meal and keeping the bar (unofficially) opened. Here they officially stop selling alcohol at nine in the evening – it’s Utah after all.

A really nice touch was a barbeque area out by the pool where the children could sit into the evening toasting marshmallows. Pity the person who’s job it was to scrape the burnt sugar off the stones in the morning. But, you know, I bet whoever’s job it was did it with a smile.

We would absolutely love to come back here in the winter.

Wort Hotel – Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Wort HotelPicture the old Wild West meets Disney. Buildings straight out of a Hollywood film set, but with shops full of designer clothes. The main street of town is packed with luxury SUVs and there are people everywhere. Jackson Hole is America’s top ski resort, but in summer time it is the centre of the outdoor life tourist scene, surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. At the centre of it all is the Wort Hotel and the best restaurant in town, the Silver Dollar Grill.

The first thing to mention about this hotel is that the service is excellent. Apart from the American doorman most of the staff seemed to be from abroad, but nothing was too much trouble for them. As you would expect the theme throughout was the Wild West, from the swing doors into the bar to the tacky pictures on the wall. Golden wood panelling everywhere, chandeliers, fake oriental carpets and plenty of glitz. Wort Hotel 3Entering the main lobby you are faced with a stairway that puts you straight onto the set of an old Western movie – the town hotel, complete with a large moose head staring at you. In your imagination you can picture the barmaid singing along to the old piano as she glides down the steps. One American guest looked longingly at a picture of a buffalo out on the prairie and nodded at it in an appreciative way, “you can always tell HIS work.”

But you just can’t help but admire the place.

The rooms are filled with large comfortable deep beds and if you’ve nothing better to do you then you won’t ever want to leave!

Apple martinis again – in Copenhagen this time

The Marriott hotel in Copenhagen is a hotel you don’t really need to ever leave. Not only are the staff great but the restaurant is an excellent place to linger too. There was some very good Danish beef on the menu as well as the usual US fare, cooked in their open kitchen style restaurant, which has a pleasant atmosphere. Clean surroundings and excellent service with a reasonably priced wine list for Scandinavia, where prices are normally outrageous. A nice touch at the end was the complimentary mini barbeque with toasted marshmallows. Well, guess what, that’s Marriotts for you – service and quality like nowhere else.

With lemon and egg white!
With lemon and egg white!

Of more interest to the weary traveler however is the lobby bar.

On the eternal quest for the perfect apple martini we discovered Ronnie in the lobby bar. The waitress in the restaurant explained later that he is the occasional barman at the Marriott. But he knows just how to host a bar that you want to stay in. A sociable barman in pleasant surroundings, good service and a warm fire to sit by – why would you want to go out anywhere?

So we gave him the challenge and he came up first with his own apple martini recipe, which he explained included lemon and an egg white topping. They were quite sharp with little of the usual apple sweetness. Well, they went down so well that we had to also try the traditional recipe from the book!

... and the more traditional look
… and the more traditional look

I have to sat that although I’ve been to Copenhagen many times, I’ve never stayed in the city centre area before. Mostly it’s hotels way out of town at some impersonal business park. This was a nice change and for anyone who likes Marriotts then this is the hotel bar to try.

Next week we’re back to the London JW where there is also a bar that you want to stay in for a long time!

Only Americans really know how to do Christmas properly!

It’s a fact – only Americans really know how to do Christmas!

Pfister hotel lobbyWe had to visit Milwaukee and were recommended to stay at this strangely old fashioned hotel called the Pfister. I don’t think Milwaukee is really known for its old architectural charms but this place had all the feel of a slightly world-weary central city hotel from Paris or Vienna during the last century. There was nothing old fashioned about the rooms or service I should add, but the most impressive part was the main lobby which had a rococco style to it complete with the wildest ceiling that you will find in any hotel. It looked as though it was inspired by the paintings from the Sistine Chapel, even down to the Salve at each end.

Of course being Christmas the place was wonderfully decorated and sported an enormous tree that would have put London’s own Claridges Hotel tree to shame. Naturally there is also a great lobby bar just asking to be relaxed in.

This is some ceiling!
This is some ceiling!

There is something magical about a trip to the big cities of the north or east in the US around Christmas time. They manage to make everything so atmospheric and you can just feel the holiday thrill through the decorations and the lights.

The wildest lights everywhere!


Berlin and peace and quiet in the old Russian sector

We found ourselves with a couple of days to spare and undecided where to spend it. Berlin, we thought. I’ve been there many times for work both before and since 1989, but never for fun, so it seemed like a good idea to in take a couple of days just wandering around. When you travel for work you often just taxi-in from the airport to hotel and back again. But some years ago during the early part of the 1990s while working in western Poland we based ourselves at the Intercon by the zoo and would drive across the old Russian sector and what was East Germany to the Polish border. The wall had been down for a couple of years and the transition from West to East was still as marked it had been in the old pre-unification days of Checkpoint Charlie and all that.

Getting to the border then was something else. There is one massive road that crosses Europe, starting in Moscow it trails westwards to Minsk then Warsaw, Posnan and on to Berlin and beyond. This is it, picking up various European ‘E’ road designations and local variants along the way. Heavy lorries taking goods between east and west, interspersed with Ladas, Trabants and Wartburgs with roof racks piled high with personal belongings and garden produce for sale. Water melons, tomatoes and pumpkins, sometimes loaded to twice the height of the car itself and in danger of toppling the whole lot over over. Military trucks in convoy with their canopies lashed tightly closed. And in the more dangerous two lane sections there would be the inevitable horse and cart moving between village and farm, slowing the traffic to a trotting speed and acting as a reminder of just how far the economic gulf was between the agricultural villages and the cities. Between all this the flash new Fords and Audis would be weaving in and out driven by ‘business men’ at breakneck speeds and bursts of engine-wrenching acceleration and sudden forced deceleration. Polish roads were particularly dangerous and we worked out that a slightly longer, but safer, drive from Berlin to Zielona Gora was better for our life expectancy than playing chicken with the lunatics who drove west out of Warsaw.

The East German autobahn was mostly two lanes in each direction, but you had to travel in the fast lane because the tracks made by the heavy lorries in the slow lane were in some place inches deep and just plain dangerous to try and drive on. The fast lane was like a badly maintained road back home, but at least it wouldn’t send you off the road towards the verge or the other lane every few yards. The border crossing was at a place named Frankfurt, of the ‘an der Oder’ variety, not ‘am Main’. For several kilometers each side of the actual crossing the road would be choked by heavy lorries waiting to pass through customs. This could take up to seven days and clearly was not a delay that a busy consultant on a mission could tolerate. The trick was to find a gap in the central reservation and to cross to the fast lane of the opposite carriageway with headlights and indicators going until the actual border crossing was reached and it was possible to switch back to the empty road approaching the border guards and their seemingly casual but in fact intense scrutiny of passport and car boot. I was first shown this trick by a Dutchman in a big old Mercedes who stopped behind me at the end of a line of trucks several kilometres long blocking the road. He ushered me through the gap ahead of him shouting as he ran back to his car “remember … the flashers … you must put them ALL on!”.

A colleague got it badly wrong one day trailing in the car behind me. We were in a rush to get to Tegel and he inadvertently called the Polish border guard a donkey. There must be something international about this word as it took him two hours to catch up with us having had his car literally taken apart. In fact we never made the flight that night because the colleague I was traveling with, an Irishman from Limerick, was doing the navigating. I knew something was badly wrong when we were less than 50 kilometres from Leipzig. “You’re not a navigator, are you?” I commented as I caught him using the map like a steering wheel beside me in the passenger seat. ‘No” he admitted “I was a rally driver”. I later found out that the reason he stopped drinking was he once killed a cow after leaving a pub in County Limerick one night following a session on the Guinness.

The transformation twenty years on is complete. Although you can see examples of old Eastern Bloc architecture around the place, Berlin is now just another busy city in central Europe but with a lot of special atmosphere. We based ourselves in the previous Russian sector slightly to the north east of the centre (or ‘mitte’ as they call it) in a quiet residential area packed with cafes and small family restaurants. The hotel was part of a run of three or four buildings in a terrace owned by the same person. Stylishly designed rooms with plenty of living space and a decent sized bathroom looking out onto a designer landscaped courtyard. In our case it was a water garden, a quiet sanctuary with a pleasant conservatory which felt like being in a well-tended greenhouse with haphazard potted plants and comfortable chairs to sit out in, complete with a self-service honesty bar. From here as a base you can easily explore the city with a reasonable walk to the centre. We spent most of our time shopping-wise wandering around Hackische Hoefe, a network of courtyards with an assortment of unusual shops. Nearby we found a fabulous place specialising in all those delightful wooden toys that only the Germans can do. Just the place you always wanted to find yourself in as a child.

For cultural input we decided not to spend time at the many galleries they have in Berlin, but instead spent several hours wandering through the Berliner Dom cathedral. This place has to be seen to appreciate the sheer size and magnificence of the interior. Taking a direct hit through the dome in the Second World War, decades of restoration have transformed it to its former glory and it has everything from the majesty of the main cathedral itself to a sole-of-the-foot tingling climb outside the dome and a spine-tingling visit to the crypt where four hundred years of the Hohenzollern ruling house are lying in their tombs. If it wasn’t for the crowds it would be the stuff of Gothic horror movies.

A casual stroll down Unter den Linden, which I am sure has lost much of its original grandeur along with the rebuilding of this part of the city, takes you to the Brandenburg Gate. This used to mark the border between West Berlin and East Berlin, but now the whole area plays host to modern embassies, the French, British and Americans, built over what used to be the no-man’s land between east and west. On through the gates, the last of the former city gates, leads to the wooded splendor of the Tiergarten where you can take a wonderfully pleasant and cool walk through an extensive inner city woodland where paths wind around monuments and ornamental lakes and you get the chance to see the iconic Berlin Victory Column up close.

We found an excellent small restaurant close to the hotel, called Pasternak, specializing in central European Jewish cuisine set in an intimate 19th century atmosphere of starched tablecloths and white-aproned waiters. Kreplach and strogonov with latke, salmon and shashlik karsky (aka rack of lamb) washed down with Proseco and something very good from the Languedoc, cleverly recommended by the waiter when we couldn’t find a Mosel on the list. Great comfort food and just what was needed after a day of hard walking around town. A really enjoyable end to the day, once again within staggering distance from the hotel. Can’t recall much of the rest of the evening so it must have been worth the visit.

Hotel Ackselhaus, Belforter Strasse 21, we thought was reasonably priced at €160 for a double. It’s just 20-30 minutes by taxi from Tegel or by the U-Bahn station nearby at Senefelder-platz.

Orlando – where it was also cold

You always associate Florida and Orlando in particular with being a warm and uncomfortably humid place. Well let me tell you that it isn’t always so. I had some friends from the Orlando area staying last week and they said it was definitely warmer in England. It doesn’t get exactly freezing but it gets to nearly that there, just a couple of degrees above and enough to discourage you from being a smoker. For those that don’t know, you are banned outside to smoke just about anywhere in the States now.

We were staying at the Orlando World Center, a Marriott property (as the Americans like to call them) south of the city and north of International Drive. It’s a strange characterless area with these vast hotel and golf complexes dotted around the Kissimmee area centred on the Disney and Universal tourist attractions. You only realise just how little there is in terms of civilisation out there when you have a room high up and can look out across this vast flat expanse of flood plain, pretty much at sea level having been drained and reclaimed in the 19th century. High rise hotel and resort complexes appear out of the landscape in isolated pockets of development. It’s really quite eery. And the whole place is make believe. From the shopping malls, to the hotel complexes, to the fantasy attractions, it is home to a constantly changing, transient population of tourists, visiting with the sole intent of having fun. As always in life, when that is the sole contrived objective, it never really works. Personally I hate the place. That’s not to say that there aren’t really nice parts of Orlando, where normal people live out their daily lives, just like anywhere else in the world. Well, maybe not quite like anywhere else, but I think you get the point.

To be honest I have only ever done the conference thing in Orlando hotels, so I do not know what it is like as a family holiday destination. But I guess there’s an excitement to any really large hotel if you are there on holiday. More restaurants than you can imagine, pools of every variety and all the usual big hotel amenities. Conferences revolve around massive ballrooms that seat hundreds of people and endless supplies of coffee, carbonated drinks and unhealthy snacks. Like so much in the US it is larger than real life. Alcohol when it’s served invariably comes in disposable plastic containers and outside, where it’s either uncomfortably humid or, as in this case, too cold. But the event must go on regardless.

The bedrooms are tired and don’t feel very clean. I think it’s a visual thing rather than anything else, to do with the dark wood finish and slightly grubby carpets. There’s never anything better than a low level foot bath and the showers are always badly pressured and alternate between being too hot and too cold. Mind you, if you’re taking a shower in what must be nearly a thousand rooms, then I can imagine that’s going to be some kind of plumbing miracle. And of course there’s the inevitable connecting door to an adjoining room, which you could always go to reception and get changed, but you’re in some tower on the umpteenth floor and frankly it took twenty minutes to get there and anyway if you turn on the air-conditioning it will be so noisy that you can’t hear the television properly let alone anything from the next room.

I did go to Disney and Universal once. With some clients. The company insisted I take them over one weekend. After seven hours on the first day at Disney they begged me, please, no more. It was the weak bottled beer and the frozen margaritas that did it I think. There was so much frozen stuff and so little tequila and a chemical green tinge to everything. It sounds a bit like the start of a bad joke, but honestly, there was a Turk from Istanbul, two Nigerians from Lagos, a Pole from London, a South African from Munich and a German, also from Munich. So on the second day I promised them we would only do the really good rides at Universal and then I’d take them for a special treat in the evening. So we raced around Back to the Future, Terminator and Jaws, followed by a long lunch. All of which I have to admit was quite fun for a first time experience. The treat in the evening? Well, I am now ashamed to admit that it was an evening at Orlando’s very own little strip club, Rachel’s. A sort of feast of silicone and peroxide. They told me it was the best part of the trip.

It really isn’t my thing these resort hotels.

Some thoughts about Wroclaw and another hotel

It’s been a while since I was so cold. Here it was -20c overnight and an early evening wander around without a coat was not a good idea either. This city is 1,000 years old and has everything you would expect from an ancient Central European city – romantic old buildings, squares, cobbled streets, cafes and restaurants. Until 1945 it was one of Germany’s foremost industrial cities and still today Lufthansa confusingly refers to it by its German name, Breslau, like Gdansk the formerly named Danzig. However, it has one of the worst airports in Europe. Copernicus airport, named after Nicolaus Copernicus the Renaissance astronomer and mathematician, is without a doubt the most unworthy tribute imaginable to the man who probably had the single most profound impact on the understanding of scientific teaching over religious belief of the Renaissance. The airport itself is small, lacking in services and there is nowhere to sit. Plus it is extremely dirty.

The other extraordinary thing about Polish airports are the security guards. They dress like a paramilitary force, black tee shirts with Straz Graniczna emblazoned in white on the back. This means Border Guard in Polish. The ensemble is finished off with combat trousers and military boots … oh and a pistol casually strapped cowboy-style to the thigh. It’s quite some get-up for the girls if you like that sort of thing. But the whole image is one of heavy-handed oppression. I made the grave error the other day of smiling at a very attractive ‘Straz Graniczna’ of the female variety while waiting to be scanned at Warsaw airport. That’s Lotnisko Chopina for anyone who hasn’t been there, named after Chopin. What is it with these romantically styled Polish airports? Must be something to do with the perceived glamour of travel. Anyway, she fixed me with a stony glare and pointed to my laptop bag.

Now, I don’t know how it is with others, but my laptop bag, a Tumi one in fact, is a small portable part of my private world when I am travelling. It has many interesting things in it. Along side the work items like the laptop, mobile phone and papers there is a bag with all sorts of gadgets and adaptors required to connect to the outside world from alien hotel rooms, a plastic knife, fork and spoon set because sometimes you can’t get hold of these things easily on the road, Macbook Air or iPad for personal use depending on length of trip, my personal iPhone, pens, tie-pin, access cards to multiple offices, quite a lot of spare currency from various frequently-travelled countries, a couple of passports to avoid any unnecessary embarrassment in certain unfriendly countries, photographs to remind me at times why I get up and go to work at all and most importantly my glass evil eye to ward off bad things when I am airborne. A few years ago some unmentionable stole the trusty forerunner of my current bag while I was under the influence in a London restaurant and I had to travel all the way to Istanbul to replace that evil eye. It was a nerve-wracking flight without it.

But back to the bag. She took it off the belt and removed every last item from it and after examination spread them out over several trays as she put them back through the scanner. I stood there in absolute disbelief and after a few well-chosen words, which I don’t think she could have understood or otherwise I would probably not have got off lightly, I realised that I had no option but to just stand there and endure the smirks of other passengers as she made her point and no doubt her day. Beauty in an iron fist. I hope she stops terrorists.

By the way, I can highly recommend the Radisson Blu hotel in Wroclaw. It is clean and the staff are excellent. It also has a good bar that you can sit at and observe the comings and goings in the lobby. This is always a very entertaining activity to pass the time in Polish hotels. All round a very worthwhile place to spend the night and to base yourself if visiting.

A special Manhattan hotel – Andaz

Imagine a hotel where there is no reception, the rooms are modern and clean, and you are greeted on arrival with a glass of quality wine. Imagine the Andaz on Wall Street. Well, actually it’s on Water Street in Lower Manhattan, but the building is on the corner of Wall Street. I’ve always thought it a bit strange that this iconic-sounding street, at the very heart of the US financial world and mentioned reverentially in the same breath as the London Stock Exchange in the City (of London that is), is in fact a tiny street tucked away in Manhattan, that takes at most three minutes to traverse. But there it is.

Anyway, I rarely use the adjective cool, as it’s usually synonymous with language spoken by non-adults and adults trying to sound like non-adults, neither of which I am. But the Andaz is definitely just that, there’s no other word for it. And contemporary. They told me it is an exclusive Hyatt brand and certainly the name Hyatt isn’t obvious anywhere, except on the website.

On arrival you are greeted by good looking chaps wearing grey suits and open neck shirts. Check-in takes place on an iPad, which they each have attached to one hand, along with the offer of a glass of wine. Happy hour in the lobby is every day for two hours and the wines are worth drinking. The process is speedy and no nonsense. The rooms are spacious and contemporary. Mine boasted a 50 inch flat screen TV and a large bathroom, walk-in shower on one side and a sizeable ‘tub’ on the other. A glass panel separated the bath from the rest of the room. The loo was a separate room, rather essential if you needed to accept the offer of two room keys on check-in. Wi-fi and minibar are both provided for free. There were slightly disappointing touches where damaged edges of furniture and damp stains under the glass sink had started to show signs of extensive use. This is one aspect of this type of hotel that really does have to be absolutely up to scratch, that is if the contemporary designer look is going to stay modern and attractive.

Just like the City (London again), Sundays are dead in this part of town, so other than a great Irish bar behind the hotel, where I badly overdid the apple martinis again, everything was shut including the hotel bar. A long cab ride up town is necessary if you want to eat properly. Apparently there’s an Andaz in Liverpool, so one of the hotel staff told me. Actually I think he was mistaken and he meant Liverpool Street, which is in London. I’d be fascinated to compare either of them to the Manhattan hotel some day, but I bet Manhattan beats them for location!