Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review- El Establo Hotel, Monteverde, Costa Rica

What would make a nearly four hour journey from San Jose, Costa Rica to Monteverde Cloud Forest worthwhile? A stay at the four star El Establo Mountain Hotel. This ingenious hotel is built into the mountain it rests on, with each building offering it's own unique view of the small town of Santa Elena.

El Establo participates in Costa Rica's Sustainable Tourism Program by asking guests to use water and electricity only when needed, reusing towels if fresh ones aren't needed daily and having garbage receptacles in the room for organic or recyclable garbage and non- recyclable.

The hotel has two restaurants, La Riendas off the main highway next to the Reception area and Laggus below building six and the spa and also offers room service. The Green Leaf Spa, is open daily from 2 pm to 9 PM and is full service, offering everything from manicures go body wraps, massages and exfoliation.

There are two swimming pools and a gym. The gym is in a building with the second pool and offers wonderful views of the beautiful grounds and the town of Santa Elena. There is also a conference center. There is free internet in public areas, such as the restaurants, bars, pool areas and reception desk. A USB port can be rented for $10 per day that snaps into a laptop and offers internet access in your room.

There are seven buildings housing rooms. Because the hotel grounds are so large and steep, the hotel offers shuttle buses to pick up guests and take them around the grounds. Even a walk downhill from the building we stayed in, building 500, to Las Riendas was a difficult walk. If a guest has limited mobility or uses a wheelchair, this is not the hotel for them as it is too difficult to maneuver around. The hallways are very long and if you have a ground floor room, the hall floors are made of stone and can be slippery and difficult to walk on.

The views get better the further up the mountain your building is located. Buildings 600, 700, 800 and 900 were higher up.  You will need the shuttle, make no mistake about it, but the shuttles came very quickly when the front desk was called.

The rooms are well sized. Our room, 503, had two queen sized beds, flat screen t.v., corner shelving unit, refrigerator, long shelves and a good sized bathroom with separate shower and tub and sink.

Room 503 also was unique in the fact that it does not offer a patio as the other ground floor rooms have or a balcony for the second and third floors. But it has a separate living room with sofa, two chairs and coffee table that proved to be very useful to relax and read a book.

Even though this is considered a four star resort, there are issues with this hotel that should be mentioned. There is no air conditioning. This is not unusual in rain or cloud forest hotels, but there also were no ceiling fans OR screened windows to open to let in fresh air. That made for a very hot room at night during our stay in May. There were four very large windows in our living room area. Two didn't open and we didn't open the other two because without screens, bugs raced each other to see who could get to the lights inside the room first. That left very small louvered windows on the top of one of our windows for air - again with no screens. When the drapes were drawn at night, those windows are blocked off by the drapes and no fresh air circulates at all- making for very hot sleeping conditions. There are also louvered windows in the bathroom but we closed those as soon as we arrived - the hallways echo tremendously and the noise reverberates throughout the room if those windows are left opened.

Besides no air conditioning, the hotel also does not offer irons,additional lights or heaters. Electricity is normal 110 American volts. If guests need to charge anything that works with 220 volts, they can bring it to reception and have it recharged there.

Another issue that we found the first night is there are blackouts occasionally. We hadn't experienced this at any other hotels we've stayed at in Costa Rica. The first time it occurred 10 minutes after we arrived in our room but the electricity was back in less than a minute. The second, about a half hour later, lasted about 10 minutes. Luckily we had flashlights that we brought with us which we used (once we found them). Some who were walking to a restaurant were not so lucky, as they could not see their hand in front of their face.

Each room has it's own 40 gallon hot water tank. If you take a bath and use all the hot water, it takes 35 minutes for the water to re-heat. This was not a problem for us as we shower and had no problem with the hot water. A few things we noticed in our bathroom that shouldn't have been in a four star resort- a light fixture was missing from the wall. The plug for the hair dryer didn't work and when the shower was on, water leaked out of the tiles in the shower wall. The lack of maintenance in a resort of this rating was a concern, especially when we spoke to others who also had non-working plugs in their bathrooms and couldn't use the hair dryers in the room. We called for room maintenance when the curtain rod holding up the room drapes fell down and to report the leak and non-working plus and no one ever came to the room. 

The beds were comfortable. For Americans, the t.v. was sorely lacking- only one channel was English speaking and it showed mostly childrens' shows. One thing that many guests who were with us complained about was the noise. The was very loud Spanish music playing beginning at about 4 pm and went throughout the night that came from a bar across the street from the hotel. What we discovered on our last day was there was a Cinco DeMayo festival across the street and there was a carnival "barker" outside with a megaphone until 9:30 each night. We heard shouts of "Tora, Tora" until 1 AM. (The barker did move inside with his megaphone each night at 9:30,but we could still hear him until 1 A.M.). There is nothing that can be done about something like that, so if you are booking during Cinco de Mayo time, keep that in mind. 

This resort is not all inclusive but meal tickets can be purchased. The meal tickets do not cover soda or liquor. Restaurant food was tasty. For dinner, you are offered a choice of soup or salad, a main dish, and dessert. Soups and chicken were good, flan desserts tasty. Breakfast offerings were eggs, breads, rice and beans, fruit, yogurt, cereal, pastries, juices, muffins. At each meal a fruit juice is also included. Most were mixed berry drinks and very refreshing.

The hotels offers their own canopy tours and night walks. The canopy tour has 16 cables, a Tarzan swing, one rappel, two rope bridges and 150 ft. tower with 260 degree view- depending on the amount of cloud cover. The final cable was 1,000 feet long and most people didn't make it all the way across!

The night walk leaves every day at 5:45 PM for two hours of hiking. You see the transition from day to night and get a different perspective of the cloud forest.

The hotel grounds are lovely. The flowers are gorgeous and we marveled at the largest hydrangeas ever throughout the Monteverde area.There are many right on the grounds. The landscaping is lush and beautifully maintained.

 Our favorite part of staying here is the ever changing landscape. The clouds roll in and out constantly so your view changes as well. You can take 20 pictures of the exact same scene and they never look the same.

This hotel is within walking distance of the town of Santa Elena which offers ore variety of things to do within close proximity. Selvatura Park is a 20 minute ride away, offering walks through the cloud forest, ziplining, a tram, walking bridges and a train. We saw some unique birds and plants on our walk with very knowledgable guides. There was also a very good restaurant there as well.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Buyer Beware - Daily Deal Sites

For those of us who receive e-mails from those daily "deal" sites, we recently saw the effect of seeing a deal that seemed great that ended up not being what the buyer thought it would be. Yes, even a travel agent can be tempted by some of the travel deals we see - but do your homework before purchasing.

We recently were on a travel agent familiarization trip to Costa Rica with a group of other travel agents to do site inspections of hotels. Hotels in Costa Rica are very different from those in other countries. Many are difficult to traverse as they are built into mountain sides and can be very difficult to maneuver around, especially if a client has any physical limitations. Many have no air conditioning. Some are basic accommodations with no air conditioning, refrigerators or ceiling fans. Many are high in remote places and far away from a town.

One hotel that we had been to before was a rain forest lodge. It was far from town, had no air conditioning, fans, refrigerator or t.v. On the property was a rain forest you could walk through, it had a semi-working farm but had a pool that was emptied every night and refilled naturally by a stream - meaning the water was very cold and it was difficult to swim in that cold water.

On the night we were there, we met a gal from NYC who was staying there by herself. It was her birthday and because she was by herself, our group invited her to join us for dinner. She had explained that she was bored stiff and had no idea that there was nothing to do at the resort.

How did she buy her room? Through one of the daily deal sites. The price was cheap and she grabbed the trip based solely on price. But she never checked the property before she bought the deal and had no idea that this was not the property for her. Food was not included and she had to buy her meals on property. She thought she would be able to walk to town - nope. A cab to the closest town cost $90 one way. There were very few excursions available. And there were also very few people at the resort - most were honeymooners who didn't want to socialize with anyone.

The great deal she thought she was getting ended up not being a good deal at all.  Had she booked through an experienced Costa Rica travel specialist, she could have been told about the hotel and what she was actually buying and I am sure that she would not have purchased the deal.

If you are considering one of the "daily deals" you see online, especially in a foreign country, remember this story.  A travel agent would have questioned this girl on her likes and dislikes and been able to tell her this was not a resort that fit her lifestyle.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Hotel Review - Hyatt Place Orlando North

Consistency is the key when staying in a Hyatt Place and the Hyatt Place Orlando North is no exception. A 7 minute ride from the Orlando airport via the hotel's free shuttle, the hotel is located in an area hosting several hotel brands. We were picked up at the Orlando airport within 10 minutes of calling after picking up our luggage by a friendly driver. Check in took 5 minutes and we were greeted by friendly staff, which we have found at every Hyatt Place we've stayed in. Our room was 519, a king bed room. Entering the room to the living room area, there is a large corner sofa with large rolling ottoman. In the living room is a wet bar with refrigerator and a desk and chair. The free wi-fi works very well throughout the hotel. The is a small closet, sink outside the bathqroom and a separate room with toilet and shower. The room and hotel is very clean. A huge flat screen t.v. turns toward the living room or bed.The bathroom amenities consist of shampoo, conditioner and toothpaste. Hyatt Places have a breakfast room where a free breakfast is served. You'll find bread for toast, bagels, various juices, cereal, donuts, fresh fruit and yogurt. There is also a snack bar for other times of day that features soda, salads, sandwiches, cookies and dessert for additional cost. They also offer made to order items such as pizza,chili, burgers and more starting at $8 and up. There was a TGI Friday within walking distance but since we arrived at 8pm we opted to take sandwiches to our room. Shuttles run to the airport starting at 4 am and run every half hour. Hyatt Place is a well priced hotel that offers great value for your dollar.