Wherever we go, we have to stay somewhere. And we're picky about our hotels. So in addition to all of our user reviews, we provide staff reviews to help you find the best (and avoid the worst) places to stay. We sneak in advice about tourist attractions and restaurants too. But we save advice on frequent flyer miles and hotel points, among other travel tips and news, for our Travel Tips blog
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A stay at an airport hotel where I wish I had MORE time?!
Yes. Though the Element Miami Airport was booked as a simple late night to early morning (before a flight) convenient airport hotel, we left wishing we had been able to spend more time there. More time in the room that felt like a true 1 bedroom apartment, complete with extended stay-style kitchen. More time by the nicely heated pool. More time to use the modern on-site gym.
Even the shower had a nice spa-style showerhead with a second handheld one – not typical airport hotel style.
To be clear – this is NOT a hotel you spend your vacation in. There is NOTHING around the hotel within walking distance
(unless perhaps you need some new tires) and you would not want to use this hotel as a home base for anything except a flight before or after your stay, unless you happen to be working at the airport or nearby (if you are, you’ll have a car so it won’t be so bad and you can certainly stock up on food to cook in your kitchen).
But it’s the nicest airport hotel I’ve ever been in. And given the prices in South Beach during winter, it’s not the worst idea to save on cost the night you land or the night before you leave (or both) at this property while enjoying a room far more spacious then you’ll find in SoBe for anywhere near that price.
There’s a reason that so many New Yorkers head south to Aruba each winter. Sure, at 4 hours it registers just over an hour longer flight than heading to the old standby of Miami Beach, but once you are already on the plan, what’s an extra hour?! Aruba is an island just off the coast of Venezuela and has one of the most dry climates of any island in the Caribbean Sea. In fact, it rains only a few times a year here and as you tour around, you’ll even find cacti along the road.
Well, that is if you choose to leave the resort zone and its beautiful beaches and Caribbean sea water.
Despite happening upon the island at a time when one of their very rare rain storms hit (and you wouldn’t believe how poorly the roads handle strong rain!) that was only a couple of days of the trip and the rest of the time made clear why the love affair with Aruba exists.
Beach view from the balcony
The island has a wonderful mix of amazing beaches and sea water as well as “things to do”. There are a number of excellent restaurants to venture out to at night and every hotel along the main hotel area has a casino – all of which are buzzing at night in high season. I’ll suggest a few restaurants later on. A boardwalk connects all of the main hotels along the water and the main road provides essentials like bars, fast food, convenience stores, and even a Starbucks (a nice one, too!) and a movie theater just in case you hit bad weather.
The Westin Aruba itself is a solid 4 star property and among the nicer hotels in Aruba. The only one thatseems to be a step up might be the Hyatt Aruba. Many are local Caribbean chains and on walks around the various properties they did not seem as nice, even if they were all-inclusive.
That said, it’s a far cry from a 5 star hotel. Don’t expect ultra modern facilities (they are slightly, though not horribly dated and the waits for the elevators can be interminable as they need refurbishment). It’s a nice property *for the area*. It’s not the Ritz or even the W, but good deals can be had and it’s very family friendly.
The beach: The deal with resort chairs gets a bit confusing. You can prepay to reserve chairs in certain areas (more expensive near the water) but then you are free to use any open chairs. We were there the busiest week (Xmas) and managed free chairs each day – though not in prime spots. For us that was fine. If you are a sun worshipper that must have the most prime seats, you might want to pay to reserve your spot.
The pool: a fairly standard resort size pool, complete with a waterfall area you can stand under. Noticeably missing is any form of a hot tub, but that’s perhaps a minor complaint in the heat of Aruba,
The spa: we had one massage treatment that was “fine”. The spa here isn’t very fancy so it’s all going to be down to your massage therapist. They also offer shorter and less expensive massages outside some days by the pool.
The casino was a bit above average for the ones we saw along the strip. Around 9 table games and a fair assortment of slots + a bar area and occasional entertainment. The nicest one was inside the Hyatt Aruba and the Marriott Stellaris Aruba was decent as well.
Now, where to dine while you are at the Westin Aruba? You’ll see lots of reports of this and that. Some over-hyped tourist joints, some really amazing.
The “YES” list?
1) Madame Janette. Just far and away our favorite meal of the trip. The almond crusted grouper (shown) was amazing, as was a steak medallion, a potato leek soup, and the amazing service we received despite the restaurant being a bit harried by the storm that had just hit and rendered all their uncovered tables useless.
2) Papaimento (no website): The tableside grills (pictured) are the thing to get. And the setting outside an old historic mansion around a pool is beautiful. The chicken was probably the best I ever had, though the steak was tougher than it should have been. The fish was as amazing as the chicken. Highly recommended.
3) The cutest and most out of the way place was Gostoso. Especially if you have a car (but even if you don’t), get thee to this most out of the way and most comfortable spot – that feels like you are dining in the owner’s house. The owner/chef is extremely personable and will most likely stop by your table for a chat hello. The food is amazing and truly local. Get whatever looks good to you! We had a wonderful Caribbean stew and a fresh fish that was spectacular.
Almond crusted grouper at Madam Janette in Aruba
Mixed grill at Papaimento
Don’t worry about making it to Sole Mare – very typical of a standard (good but not exceptional) New York Italian joint with even higher prices. And Smokey Joe’s might be a solid local choice for some drinks and a bit of BBQ, but don’t expect anything spectacular there either…. Have some local favorite Yays or Nays? Leave them in the comments!
When I booked this trip – for a stag weekend trip from NY – I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Hilton Dublin looked nice, but standard, and perhaps a bit far from the main attractions. But the group really liked the attractive prices (we booked in for around 95 Euro per room) and as I’m a loyal Hilton Honors member anyway, I was pleased to see what they had to offer.
Turns out, it’s quite a nice spot to stay in Dublin. It balances out the whole price / location issue nicely. Simply put, it’s maybe a 10 minute drive to the Centre, but there is a tram called the Luas that stops literally outside the front door of the Hilton Dublin. For less than 2 Euro, it’s just two stops to the centre of town – St Stephen’s Park, Trinity College, Grafton St., etc. Nice.
Dublin’s also got a bike sharing program set up and, conveniently, there’s a slew of bikes right outside the front door of the Hilton along with some bike lanes. Nice again.
As for the hotel itself: it’s pretty standard Hilton. Moderately sized (read: Europe-sized) rooms, well decorated, and pleasant – nothing “special” and nothing lacking. Just watch out when you step out of the giant (yet oddly narrow) soaking tubs as it’s quite a drop to the floor! The staff were all quite friendly and the attached pub was a nice place to watch a soccer match.
Breakfast (included in some rates, or for Hilton Gold/Diamond members) was quite good. Lots of hot choices including eggs (scrambled and fried), Irish sausage and rashers, Irish potato bread, pastries, cereals, etc. Even worth the E10 if you’re paying outright.
Unfortunately no pool, but that seems quite common in central Dublin.
Overall, great value for money at the Hilton Dublin. Recommended.
On a recent one-week trip to Israel, we were so on the go that there really wasn’t time to properly review any of the properties fairly.
However, there was more than enough time to have a great (or poor) impression of the hotels… and in that week, we managed to stay at 3 Tel Aviv hotels, 1 Jerusalem hotel, 1 Dead Sea “hotel”, and 1 Eilat “hotel”. You’ll see why the last two get the quotation marks.
Day One: In Tel Aviv, we stay at the very new “Brown TLV“. The taxi driver had a heck of a time finding the place, since it’s so new, but happily the ride from the airport is a fixed fare so I wasn’t paying for that time! When you arrive at the Brown TLV, there’s a nice lobby with coffee / light snacks and a few couches. I waited for one person to get checked in ahead of me and then I got my room. The pros of this hotel are the sleek designs, a nice location, friendly staff and modern rooms. The only con was that the rooms (I saw two) were definitely small. If sharing, it’s a bit “intimate”. Free Wifi.
Day Two: The Harmony Hotel in Jerusalem. Here, the location is really AMAZING. It’s a 10-15 minute walk to the old city and one block off a main strip in the new part of town (who expected a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf 2 blocks away??). The staff was so friendly and they even upgraded us (3 adults) into a suite that had three beds with more than enough room to spread out and relax. Free Wifi, great staff, and a great location made the Harmony Hotel in Jerusalem a winner. It’s also modern like the Brown TLV.
Day Three: Off to the Le Meridien Dead Sea for possibly the worst hotel experience ever. The property itself is fine. The pool area, though it closes way too early at 6pm, is very nice as is the workout facility. The rooms are adequate (I mean you are there for the Dead Sea anyway). But the overpriced and lackluster buffets (about $25 a person) are your only on-property option! It’s extortionate and your only real alternate option is the McDonald’s nearby.
The worst part is the staff though – which range from clueless (it took us three tries to find someone that could get us towels to bring to the Dead Sea) to the downright rude (like the woman that denied the late checkout guaranteed by my Starwood Gold program status and made me ultimately spend over 20 minutes fighting for what I was rightfully entitled to). All after a complete bungling of the check in where we were told we had a room with three beds only to get upstairs and find a king bed and a futon with no room for the third bed. Which required an argument to get moved – to a much smaller and older room.
If I was at the Dead Sea again, I might try the Isrotel Dead Sea which we visited for a meal and looked much nicer.
Days Four – Five: Back in Tel Aviv, this time at Eden House TLV, a B&B that is somewhere between Hotel and Hostel (there’s no included breakfast, by the way, so using B&B is a bit of a misnomer…). Again, due to our three bed requirement, we were put in a different kind of room – this one across the street from the main rooms. The pro there was we had our own apartment. The con was that the included WiFi didn’t make it across to the apartment, requiring trips across the street to stand by reception in the freezing cold and download mail. It was also implied that there was parking – however the parking was not included nor was the suggested lot even open when we arrived, forcing a stay at a very expensive lot for two nights.
Overall, though, the location was good and the price was more than right at just over $100 a night and would recommend Eden House TLV on a price vs. quality scale.
Days Six-Seven: Now we head down to Eilat – the Jersey Shore of Israel. The hotel we were in was picked for us and was prepaid, so we toughed it out, but I would never recommend, to anyone, friend or foe, the Leonardo Club. No Internet access in the rooms, wired or wireless (and the Internet room has long since been abandoned), old and outdated rooms, inedible food, the included drinks (did I mention it’s all inclusive) only at certain times that we could never figure out, and a spa down a deep, dark staircase where, perhaps happily, it turned out to be locked and closed. Oh, and it’s not even on or near the beach – in a beach town. In hindsight, the Hilton Queen of Sheba Eilat would have been the best choice, right on the boardwalk.
Day Eight: Back to Tel Aviv for the night, we booked the Cinema Hotel Tel Aviv. It was a really short sleep and leave stay, but the hotel (coincidentally owned by the same company that owns the Harmony Hotel in Jerusalem) was in a good location, with working free WiFi, and randomly, a jacuzzi and sauna as well as a roof deck. The room was fine based on the short amount of time there, though nothing fancy.
When a surprise change in plans left us unexpectedly with New Years Eve in Hong Kong, I fired up the computer and booked us into the W Hong Kong. The pictures looked great; the reviews, even better. But I wanted to experience it for myself. So I booked us a “Fabulous Room” and 2 days later we were checking in.
W Hong Kong bathroom
The first thing you notice about the W Hong Kong is that it has all the “design elements” you’d expect in a W, plus about 100 more. The artwork in the lobby, the electronic Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening mats in the elevator, the faux bookcase theme by the elevator banks and in the hallways. I was in a good mood before even seeing the room, or the pool – don’t even get me started on the pool!
The room was gorgeous. A large living space, tremendous ocean views, and a bathroom I wanted to bring home with me. Large shower, deep soaking tub with a flat screen TV built in, large sink area, and two large sliding doors that could either open the space up or seal the whole space off for privacy. That tub was great after spending a day walking all over HK.
But my favorite part of the hotel was the pool and jacuzzi on the 76th floor rooftop. AMAZING. The view was
W Hong Kong Infinity Pool
just gorgeous and the pool area itself was beautifully done. You could bathe while looking at sweeping views of the ocean or the skyscape. There’s a very nice gym as well.
The location is both a pro and a con. It sits right atop the Kowloon Airport Express station, so coming and going from HKIA is a breeze. This is also a large shopping mall (Elements) with tons of shops, an elegant Starbucks (wood carved logo!), several nice restaurants (quick serve and nicer), and a subway station. The only drag about that subway station is that it isn’t on the main Kowloon side lines. So you’ll need to transfer to get anywhere you want to go (except for the Big Buddha – the train line actually goes there directly).
It’s also NOT walking distance to anything – simply because of just how far it is set back from the main road. A cab to the main road, though, would only set you back $20HKD (about USD$2.25) so that shouldn’t be a deal breaker.
Overall, the W Hong Kong is an excellent choice for those that generally like the boutique hotel feel – as long as you are OK with not being situated right in the hustle and bustle of the city.
For my first-ever trip to Asia, and given the winter temperatures at home in New York, the Le Meridien Khao Lak in southern Thailand (1-2 hours north of Phuket) was the perfect choice. Boasting temperatures in the mid to upper 80’s (F) and past the rainy season, I was anxiously awaiting my 5 days and 5 nights at the Le Meridien Khao Lak.
I left New York at 7pm on a Friday and arrived Sunday at 2pm local time – just about 31 hours later. Talk about needing some paradise! Happily, our first impression was that we had indeed arrived in paradise. We were handed some iced teas while they readied our room paperwork and we were soon off to our room and off to explore the resort. We initially had booked a deluxe room, which was quite nice, but after seeing the villas, I inquired about upgrading. After being quoted an acceptable price, we moved the next day into the “Pool Villa” that is pictured within this review. There is no doubt, you want, no, NEED, a Pool Villa at this resort. It is likely the nicest room you have ever had and because it’s Thailand, it may well be your most affordable chance to stay in anything like it.
Le Meridien Khao Lak – Pool Villa – main room
The Pool Villas are beautiful mini-houses, with a large flat screen TV, comfortable bed, enormous bathroom with two sinks, a soaking tub, an indoor shower AND an outdoor shower. Complimentary bottled water is all over the place – by the mini-fridge, on the night stands on the desks, and by each sink.
But the highlight of the villa is the private backyard with a long pool (much bigger than the plunge pool I expected) with a Jacuzzi at the back. There is also a daybed, two lounge chairs, and a table with two chairs. It really felt like we had our own private upscale hideaway for our stay – and it was just what the doctor ordered to start our holiday.
Here’s a tour of the Pool Villa:
The difference between a room and a pool villa is enormous. If you can afford the pool villa (not the lagoon villa which lacks a private pool), it is a must-book. The highest room type is the oceanfront pool villa which has the amazing beachfront view and access, but lacks the privacy of the pool villa.
Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach
The resort itself is set on a fantastically long stretch of beach on the Andaman Sea. Not the softest sand, but the water is warm and relaxing. The resort is set in two “wings” – the family wing and the spa wing. To be sure, the family wing is full of families so if you are a couple looking for a child free stay, definitely ask to be placed in the spa wing. That said, our villa was in the family side and we were not bothered at all. The main pool and beachside snack area are both in the “family area”. This would certainly not be a place to unwind on your own as there is no singles scene, nor bar scene or activities at night and the town, 20 minutes away by taxi, also lacks nightlife.
Throughout the trip, we marveled at the service. No request was ever met with a sign or shrug. Everything was handled expediently and with a smile. As a team, the staff at LMKL were some of the friendliest I’ve seen
The onsite tour companies can help you arrange excursions – dive trips and snorkeling are popular in the nearby Similan Islands and snorkeling is now available off the pristine beaches
Le Meridien Khao Lak Pool
of Tachai Island (opened to the public for the first time in 2010). We also booked an excursion north to Khao Sok National Park where we took a 1 hour journey on a longboat to an array of caves accessible only by boat. Many people stay overnight at Khao Sok and go deeper into the park and caves.
The Le Meridien is one of the priciest options around – only the nearby Saraojan competes in this price point. In our opinion, the price is completely worth it, although it would be nice if there weren’t extra charges for everything like breakfast and Internet access.
Located approximately 1.25 hours north of Phuket Airport (HKT), it’s not convenient to Phuket nightlife (almost a 2 hour drive from the resort) but it is very convenient to attractions north, such as Khao Sok National Park where you can do elephant trekking and even take long boat rides to several choices of caves (you’ll need a guide for this).
Le Meridien Khao Lak – Villas by Baan Thai
Dining Notes: We ate three times within the resort. Twice at Bann Thai – one breakfast and one dinner, and once for breakfast at the big buffet below the lobby. While the breakfasts were good in both locations, they were certainly overpriced for Thailand at 740 Baht (approx. $25USD). The dinner in Bann Thai produced so-so Chicken Satay and a much more laudable Beef Massaman curry. We passed on a buffet dinner one night at the Italian restaurant as it did not at all seem worth the hefty >$60 USD per person price tag. Unfortunately food in nearby Khao Lak was lackluster as well. Dinner in town at a hotel recommendation was solid for Khao Lak – but horrendously touristy in the menu serving everything from down-home Thai food to sandwiches, steaks, and pizza. Another few attempts to eat in town were all similar and less impressive. Rimlay on the beach just north of the resort is a local cheap option as well. You can get a 1 hr massage for 300 baht (~$10USD) as well. One last possible option we were told of was a place called Yim Yim, serving Thai/Chinese food. Not in town and not near anything else, feel free to inquire about a taxi if you want to give it a try and report back here!
Internet Notes: Internet was free in the lobby but a pricey $10 an hour / $20 a day in the rooms. Wired only in the regular rooms, WiFi (fee) is available in the villas. Personally, I believe that there should be free WiFI resort-wide at these price points, but the fee isn’t as unusual as I’d like it to be.
SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) notes: They are good about upgrades based on the requirements of the program but do not expect more than that. As a Gold member we were originally upgraded from a Deluxe to a Premium room (higher floor). We were advised, however, that the free internet and 2 free daily drinks standard with the Premium room were not part of the upgrade – so it is literally just a higher floor. Platinum level guests have reported upgrades to suites. On our second day, we paid cash to upgrade to the Pool Villa you see in this review. It was less expensive than booking a villa outright – but the risk was that there would have been none available. We were lucky. Our request for the 4pm checkout was graciously granted – especially important since our flight was in the evening and this afforded us the villa and facilities the entire last day.
Dave Grossman, HotelMagician.com
Since Harrah’s opened The Pool a few years ago, the crowd has definitely changed. The vibe: decidedly more “Jersey Shore”. On the weekend this place really heats up with party goers. It’s most prevalent on the weekend nights – but there’s definite spillover into the Pool during the day as well. So while I enjoyed my stay, I can’t say I’d bring the kids (if I had one).
Harrah’s also fits into a certain price point in Atlantic City. For example, the weekend I was there, a room at The Borgata (in my opinion, the clear leader in luxury hotels in Atlantic City with both The Borgata and the even more upscale Water Club) was over $350 + tax while my room at Harrah’s was $189 + tax. I’d pick Harrah’s over anyplace in Atlantic City (besides the Borgata) solely for The Pool and sometimes price just has to win out overall.
That said, I think a similar crowd winds up in the clubs in both hotels on the weekends – and a large percentage of that crowd could have guest appearances on the Jersey Shore.
A bit about “The Pool”. It’s open by day as a resort style pool (complete with approx 8 hot tubs, cabanas, and waitress service of food and drink). Easily the best in Atlantic City if you are looking to swim and soak. At night, it becomes a nightclub. No swimming, but crazy long lines to get in and a packed crowd inside (depending on the night, of course). They do have changing facilities. If you come to swim, be sure to bring your ID with you as they will not let you in without verifying you are a guest in the hotel and that you are who you say you are.
Harrahs is also an odd mix of old and new. The Bayview and Waterfront Towers (the same building, really) are the new ones and they are a bit upscale. If you have the choice, that is definitely where you want to stay. You’ll be on the side with the Pool and the newer shops and dining options. The older towers are – old. And the casino and older shops (like the Cappuccino Cafe) definitely show their age. It’s like you are half stuck in a time warp and half in 2011.
The room – specifically, is nice. It’s not 5 star nice, but probably a solid 3 or 3.5 stars. The bathrooms in the new tower have the requisite modern marble lined shower stalls with a seat in there (no tubs) and the room has new beds, flat panel TVs and is generally a comfortable stay. For me, personally, a nice room and access to the Pool complex was all I really needed. Aside from that I’d be gambling! So for the nearly $200 difference over Borgata, it was a good deal.
And like all casinos in AC, be warned, there is smoking everywhere but the rooms – so you will smell like smoke despite the room being smoke free. Fair warning to our readers since I know a lot of you come here for our smoke-free hotel directory.
Where do you stay in Atlantic City? Borgata? Harrahs? Caesars Palace? Why do you stay where you do? Let us know in the comments!
Victoria is one of those towns that you visit and think you could live there – it’s so idyllic that you can’t help but ponder it.
If you arrive by seaplane, as we did, you start right in the center of town – the Inner Harbour. And right away you will have your eyes fixed up the hill onto the Edwardian-era building that you either are staying in – or should be staying in. That’s the Fairmont Empress.
While known for their Afternoon High Tea, a tradition dating back to 1908, the real reason to stay here is the location and the ambiance. As you can see in the photos, it’s like staying in a wonderfully maintained (actually, resorted) piece of history.
Fairmont Empress bedroom
And you literally CAN NOT BE in a more central location from which to enjoy Victoria. You can stroll the 3 minutes back down to the Inner Harbour, relax by the water, wait on line for lunch at the famous “Red Fish Blue Fish” fish and chips stand (it’s as good as the reviews say and the lines are even longer than they say!).
Or you can stroll around any of the nearby streets that make up Victoria’s downtown. If you need a car rental, there’s one right behind the hotel.
The rooms are on the small side, especially the disappointingly small bathroom (which had virtually nowhere to put anything and had one of those slightly-too-thin bathtub/shower combos), but they are nicely appointed and have an updated flat panel TV as well as WiFi wireless Internet in all rooms.
*TIP* All Fairmont President’s Club members get free WiFi. Anyone can join for free and the WiFi is complimentary regardless of your level in the program. So be sure to join! Everyone else will have to pay up for the WiFi.
On the whole, just walking in and around the hotel adds to your trip and, while the Fairmont did cost a few bucks more than other options in town, it’s well worth it.
Fairmont Empress High Tea
What’s NOT worth it? The food. Aside from the Afternoon Tea (if you’re so inclined), please do yourself a favor and skip breakfast unless it’s in your room rate. It was in ours, but if it hadn’t been the breakfasts for two would have clocked in at over $50 for what we both thought was pretty low quality food. We didn’t try dinner but heard it was not worth it either. There are many great options in town. A bit off the beaten path (and a good 20-25 minute walk from the Empress) was Cafe Brio – a wonderful Italian place not to be missed if you love food. All plates are available as whole or half orders, so you can easily try two dishes each.
What also is not worth it? In all likelihood, the spa. While it’s ranked as a top spa in Canada by Conde Nast, I had a tour of it and it didn’t look impressive at all. Aside from a small temptation to have a soak in the mineral bath (shown), the rest seemed worn out. Save that money for a spa day back home….
In short: If you will be in Victoria, B.C., stay at the Fairmont Empress. You’ll be glad you did.
You are headed to South Beach. You want to be beachfront. You want to be in the heart of the action. You are looking for something moderately priced but not run down. The DoubleTree Surfcomber may be for you.
The DoubleTree Surfcomber is beachfront, located on Collins Avenue just north of 17th St. It’s also just a 5 minute walk from Lincoln Road – the main pedestrian (and admittedly tourist-centric) street lined with shopping and restaurants like SushiSamba, countless Italian restaurants and at least three Starbucks locations.
It’s a short walk to nearby hotels like the W South Beach (profiled here in 2010), the Delano, Shore Club, and the Setai(for restaurants and nightlife). Or, you can take a leisurely 20 minute walk down Ocean Drive or the beach to the upscale SoFi (South of Fifth) area. The location is a winner.
The staff, uniformly, was excellent – a term I don’t easily or often use to describe service! Everyone I encountered here was friendly, attentive, and helpful. Special requests were no problem. And I’m talking about everyone from the front desk to the guy handing out towels… friendly and helpful.
So we like the location and we love the staff. But what about the rooms? The amenities? This is where the proverbial one star gets knocked off. In exchange for everything mentioned – the location, service, and price – you will likely be in a very “normal” room. This is not a modern boutique hotel… The bed is very comfortable and it appears the beds and TVs are pretty new. But they are small, many with no view at all and almost none with a beach view. The bathrooms are easily the biggest shortcoming as they are small, dated, and lacking in upscale amenities (providing just standard soap, shampoo, conditioner, and lotion). The building is Art Deco in style and only 4 floors – in two nearly side by side buildings.
Outside the room, and past the nicely done lobby, we find the breakfast area serving up the almost ubiquitous hotel breakfast – scrambled eggs, bacon, french toast, waffles, cereal, fruits, bagels and toast. We did like the al fresco dining there each morning. It’s right next to the pool which shows its age. Just one row of fairly flimsy chairs on each side of a fairly small pool. Luckily you can just head straight to the beach where you can rent lounge chairs for $10 (as of this writing) and order food and drinks.
OK, so I wasn’t blown away by the room or the pool or the breakfast. But none of that really matters much when you are in the heart of SoBe – steps from the ocean and restaurants galore.
But given the price differential between it and, for example the W South Beach, along with the wonderful staff and the location, I’d happily return.
The Le Meridien Budapest, with the only 5-Diamond rating in town, did not disappoint on a recent 2 night stay. Located on a square adjacent to the Deak Ferenc Metro station, it is very central to all the major sights in town. Right around the corner is a wonderful pedestrian area where you will likely find yourself dropping into the Café Gerbaud for a coffee and one of their famous cakes or pastries. Erzsebet Terrace, a small grassy area, is right in front of the hotel if you just want to regroup for a minute. And with the Metro literally right outside your door that connects all three Metro lines (M1, M2, M3) you can be whisked to any part of the city in minutes. Also right nearby is the No 16 bus, known as the Castle Bus to locals, which can take you across the river and up into the historic Castle District. Or take a walk across the famous Chain Bridge and ride the funicular up the hills for a fantastic view back across the Danube River.
Also just a few blocks away is the old Jewish Quarter where you can visit a number of synagogues and see the areas that were the Jewish Ghettos. Or walk near the Danube and catch the tram No 2 south to Fovam Terrace where you can explore the Great Food Hall. The locals buy their meats and vegetables from the many vendors there and you can try the upstairs restaurant for some authentic Hungarian Goulash or a Wiener Schnitzel. (Be warned that the restaurant is cash only and the sides they will offer you with your main are not included in the price.) From there, you can stroll down touristy Vaci St where you may well end up dining later (Fatal is a favorite choice of the guidebooks as well as the gentleman sitting next to me now on my train to Zagreb).
On to the hotel and the room. While the Le Meridien Budapest itself is quite old, much of it has been modernized. I arrived a bit before check=in time and while I’d been upgraded from a Superior room to a Deluxe room (approx. 50% bigger in size) my room with a King bed was not yet ready so I settled for one with two single beds in order to get in and start exploring the city sooner. The rooms are modern with temperature controlled heating and cooling units, flat panel LCD TVs, a marble bathroom with soaking tub and a powerful shower, and a suitable desk for working. The bed was comfortable, if small. One small complaint in the room was that, for a 5-Star hotel, they were a bit skimpy on essentials. I was left only one towel and one bar of soap which I was expected to shuttle back and forth between the shower and the sink. While I’m all for conservation, that seemed a bit much. There also seemed to be a problem with the air-conditioning unit but not the one you’d expect… it was too cold! I couldn’t get it to moderate the cool air except to turn it off entirely. At least it works!
The staff was fantastic all around. They were all very friendly – from the gentleman that checked me in, to the woman at the desk at night warning me about local scams to watch out for (be wary if any girls try to invite you to a “club they know” as they likely work for the club and you will be in for anywhere from 40 to 100 Euro PER DRINK – you can read more about this scam on the US State Department’s travel warnings site), to the concierge who gave me advice on local transit and customs at the Szechenyi Furdo Baths*, to the kind bellman who readily called me a City Taxi without pressuring me to use the hotel’s cars. You should know that most hotels will try to get you to use their car service partners which cost significantly more than a taxi. City Taxi is a respected company you can ask for by name. As an example, I paid 1400 Forints (approx. Euro 5.50 / US$6.50) from Le Meridien to the Keleti train station when the hotel car would have been 2500 Forints (Euro 10 / US$ 12 as of August 2010). You can always ask someone for approximate cab costs vs. the cost of their car if you are unsure.
The Le Meridien Budapest does have a small pool / Jacuzzi and fitness center. I do mean small, though – the workout area was a few treadmills, a bike or two, and a few weights and weight machines. There is also a fancy French restaurant on property that appeared quite good, although I was too busy exploring local Hungarian restaurants to try it.
Overall, I found the Le Meridien Budapest to be a wonderful hotel with a boutique feel in an absolutely unbeatable center city location. With a prepaid rate on HotelMagician.com of only 87 Euro a night for 2 nights, it was a fantastic deal as well. Note the hotel will actually charge in Hungarian Forints, though that is a fixed exchange rate with the Euro – and unless prepaid, your taxes are *not* included in the quoted rate.
* Since the Turkish Baths in Budapest are somewhat mysterious to Westerners, I was a bit anxious about how to prepare and how it all worked. Let me share a bit of what I learned (this applies ONLY to the Szechenyi Furdo Baths, the largest complex in Budapest – others are undoubtedly different) : You will want to bring swimming attire and a towel as well as some shower gel for after since the mineral content in some of the baths is such that you’ll want a good cleansing if you’re not heading straight back to the hotel. You no longer need to hire a safe for your valuables as you will be given an electronic bracelet after you pay which will actually lock and unlock a locker. Just find one that’s open, press your bracelet into the lock (push it shut with the bracelet itself – it will then auto-lock. Same procedure to unlock it later). And one last tip – when you first enter you will be shown into the changing cabin (“Kabin” in Hungarian). You will have no idea how to lock this cabin and nobody will explain. There is a wooden seat that has a maybe 6 inch wide end that folds over the seat. Flip this part down and it barriers the doors on both sides, locking you in and others out. When you are all finished, fold the end back up and walk out the *other door* into the locker room area. Then find a shower to rinse off before entering the baths.
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