Friday, June 8, 2012

Resort Review - Riu Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Riu Guanacaste

Four hours on some of the worst roads we've experienced in Costa Rica traveling from Monteverde to Guanacaste brought us to the Riu Guanacaste resort. Located about 45 minutes from the Liberia airport on paved roads brings you to the hotel. The resort is currently in the process of building a Riu Palace  next door schedule to open in November, 2012.

We arrived by bus at the front entrance at about noon, passing a casino across the street as we came in. Being with a group, our luggage was off loaded and placed in the lobby. We could not check in until 3:00 sharp, so we completed the required paperwork, had bracelets strapped on and were invited to eat at one of the restaurants, Ocotel, for lunch.  Before doing that, we stopped at the reservation table for dinner reservations for the next day. Unfortunately, at Riu you must make reservations for dinner a day before and the only restaurants available were the Asian or Italian restaurants for the next day, but we wanted to eat at the Asian restaurant so that wasn't an issue.

Our lunch was buffet style at Ocotel.  We found ourselves a table and walked around the huge restaurant to see what was offed. There was salad, cheeses, guacamole, chips and taco fixings, paella, the ever present and delicious rice and beans, some meats and a whole section of Costa Rican native dishes.  The food was very good, but it was difficult to find a server to bring us some soda. There was tapped beer and wine, water and orange juice and soda available as self service.

After lunch we checked into our room, 1018. Our building was away from the construction and we faced a nature preserve, which delighted us as we we able to sit and watch howler monkeys from our balcony. These rooms are called jungle view and in our opinion, they are the best views.  The beach is swimmable but not very pretty, as many beaches on Costa Rica. The sand is brown and appears muddy. However, the water is delightful. No waves and warm.

The jungle view rooms are quiet because they face a jungle. There is no noise from the pool area and it is delightful to sit on your balcony and watch the animals.

Our room was nicely appointed. Upon entering we were in a wide hallway with the closet, safe and across from it the refrigerator and mini-bar. On top of the mini bar were bottles of vodka, gin and tequila. There were also various soda, beer and water in the refrigerator, all included. The liquor was all house brand. There were two bars that served Smirnoff vodka - the sports bar and the lobby bar. Otherwise, you will be drinking house brands. Same goes for the wine. Air conditioning worked well - after staying at two hotels with no air conditioning, it was a pleasure to arrive here and crank the thermostat down.  It was VERY hot here in May. 

The bathroom was large with double sinks, bathtub/shower combo. The only amenities in the bathroom were a shower cap and soap. If staying here, make sure you bring your own shampoo and conditioner. There is a group of stores outside the hotel that does sell toiletries but they are very expensive - $24 or $47 for a bottle of suntan lotion!

The food was surprisingly better than we expected. The buffets were plentiful- there were so many choices that it would be difficult NOT to find something palatable. Every morning,   one restaurant is open for a buffet breakfast near the lobby and Ocotel is open for lunch, near the beach.

For dinner there are four choices - the buffet, Ariago the Asian Restaurant, An Italian Restaurant or Ocotel, a steak house. Ariago is another all buffet restaurant. Food ranged from sushi prepared fresh to tempura vegetables and Japanese and Chinese offerings.

The Italian restaurant had a salad buffet but you order your dinner off an a la carte menu.

There is corny nightly entertainment in their "theater". Shows ranged from karaoke to a review night, to a take off the mens' t-shirts and have them act like fools  to get them back show.

There were plenty of pool activities, from exercise to dance lessons to Bingo. There are two pools, one for adults only which had the swim up bar and another zero entry pool for kids. In addition, there was a small kids playhouse, pool and playground equipment.

Water sports included were snorkeling, Hobie cats, kayaks and peddle boats. There are optional excursions that can be purchased in the lobby. On the beach area were peddlers offering fishing, jewelry, dresses, wooden items and massages - $35 for one hour. I opted to purchase a spa treatment from the Riu. A 25 minute hot stone massage was $49 and I was sorry I didn't take a longer option. Other massages, facials and body wraps were similarly priced. We found these to be the best priced spa treatments in Costa Rica.

As we stated before, there is a small casino a five minute walk away with a night time disco.  Neither seemed very busy at night.

The hotel is beautiful, well maintained with comfortable rooms, but this resort is similar to many resorts in the Caribbean and you do not get the true essence of Costa Rica here.  I suggest taking excursions to other areas, such as Arenal to see the volcano and hot springs or some nature walks and zip lining.  This resort would be a perfect end to a multi stop itinerary where you would fly into San Jose and travel up to Guanacaste through Monteverde or Arenal to do many of the great activities offered. Cap off your stay with a few days of total relaxation before flying out of Liberia.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

My Flights Have Been Changed! What Can I Do?

In the current economic environment, we are seeing many flight schedules changed or flights canceled by airlines before passengers are due to fly. Flights booked early, six months or more before flying, are particularly vulnerable to changes as the flight dates get closer.

While the majority of flight schedule changes are nothing more than changing a flight by a few minutes, some are major changes.  We have seen direct flights changed to indirect and flights canceled that affect a connecting flight - resulting in a long layover between connecting flights - even a day or so.

We were recently victims of flight changes. Three months before traveling, we purchased tickets for a flight leaving JFK at 6 AM, arriving in Orlando at 9:00.  Our connecting flight from Orlando was at 10:15 to San Jose Costa Rica.

We were contacted a month after booking by our airline advising us that our 6 AM flight was canceled, and putting us on the next flight at 8:30 would not get us into Orlando on time for our connecting flight. Our option was to fly into Orlando the night before, stay at a hotel at our own expense to make the 10:15 flight to San Jose or to fly out of another airport farther away that had a 6 AM flight.  Because the airline had another option that didn't incur an overnight stay (leaving from a different airport), they did not have to reimburse us for flying in the night before.

A month before we were to leave, we were again contacted by the same airline advising us that our return flight home from Orlando to JFK was changed to an earlier flight time - and we would not make the connection with the 12:30 flight we had leaving San Jose.  We had two options - fly into LaGuardia Airport, or  pay again for an overnight hotel in Orlando and fly home the following day.  Since we weren't going to pay for another hotel, we opted to return to LGA - at an additional cost of $70 for a cab ride home.  What the airline did do was give us a $60 credit for a future flight in lieu of the fact that they inconvenienced us not with one flight but with both.

What should you do if you are contacted by your airline with a flight change?  If you read the Terms and Conditions on your tickets, you will find that every airline has the option of changing flights for various reasons.

 First - stay calm.  This doesn't mean you will be left in the lurch. If an airline makes a significant schedule change that makes your itinerary unworkable, it will try to rebook you on an alternate flight, on a space available basis. If that doesn't work, the airline will refund your fare without penalty. What qualifies as a substantial schedule change depends on the carrier. One carrier's contract of carriage doesn't specify a timeline, while anothers rules stipulate that a two-hour shift in arrival or departure time is grounds for rebooking or a refund.  You will need to review your particular airlines contract of carriage (or if you have wisely booked through a travel agent, your travel agent can do this for you).

Next, go online to your airline's website and see what flights are available for your travel dates.  When Delta Airlines changed a connecting flight on us from Seattle to Vancouver, they rescheduled us on a 4 PM flight. We went online and found there were two earlier flights and had that information to give the airline rep. when we called to say that the new flight was not acceptable.  (Your travel agent can usually see the flights and how many seats are available).

If there are no other flights, check flights for the prior day or from another nearby airport.  If you find flights that are acceptable, tell the airline rep. when you call that you want to be put on the flights you found open. Just be aware that you may have to pay for your own hotel.

If you find no viable alternatives, check other airlines online to see if they have flights available.  If they do and your airline has a reciprocal agreement with that airline, ask your airline if they can put you on those flights.  If your airline does not have a reciprocal agreement, you will have to ask them to cancel your reservation and rebook yourself on another airline. The airline has to give you a full refund if they have no acceptable options for you.

Just be aware that this is likely to be your most expensive option, as flights purchased several months in advance are usually much lower in price than last minute flight bookings.  You will receive a credit card refund within a few days from your airline, but your new flights could be quite a bit more expensive.

If you have wisely booked through a travel agent, these are the steps your travel agent will do when you contact them if you are contacted directly by the airline.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Chocolate, Wine & Dessert Tour of New York City

Ever have a creme puff freshly baked and piped when you order it?  Have you visited the oldest fine wine merchant in the U.S.?  We recently found these and more on a Chocolate, Wine and Dessert Tour in New York City that was fun for all.

We met our guide, Dan, on the upper west side.  There were 11 people in our group ready to go on this fun tour of hidden gems in New York City.  First stop was a wonderful European bakery, Grandaisy, where we sampled a pastry that tasted like an Italian version of rugala.

On to Acker Merral & Condit, which bills itself at the oldest fine wine merchant in the United States and the world's leading wine auctioneer, where we had a lesson on champagnes and a private wine tasting.  The shop is beautiful, a mixture of old world and new wines. There were wines for every price range here and a leading Sommelier told us all about the three wines we sampled. We left with a purchase of La Spinetta Moscato D'Asti, a delightful sweet wine.

On to Beard Papa at 2167 Broadway, between 76th and 77th Streets for the most delicious creme puff we've ever tasted. The puff was crunchy and the custard absolutely delicious - not too sweet but in many flavors from vanilla to green tea, chocolate, pumpkin and more.

On to several more bakeries (can't give away all the secrets!) and then to JaquesTorres chocolates for a lesson on the production of chocolate and tasting of the most decadent hot chocolate and chocolate we've ever tasted.

The tour took about two hours and our guide also gave us some history on the area on some of the buildings in the area.  It was a great way to spend a few hours finding some great new places. All food and wine was included in the price of the tour. 

Interested in this or something similar? Contact us for a list of different food tasting tours or too book. 516-608-0568.