Monday, June 19, 2017

Most beautiful River Cruise in the World - Li River Karst Mountains

Guilin is a large city in southern China, with a population of 5 million, but it has a colonial feeling to it. Like if time stood still for the city surrounded by limestone karst hills.





How to get to Guilin? It's just a quick one hour flight from Hong Kong. You can fly Dragon Air, that is part of Cathay Pacific, with brand new planes 737-800.

I hired a local company called Guilin Photography Tour to guide us around China and it was the best choice to fully enjoy this trip. Jessica picked us up at the airport and took great care of us for the next five days. 

Where to stay in Guilin? Lots of choices. We stayed at Shangri La but even though I was blown away by their property in New Delhi, India, their Guilin hotel was huge but not up to par with the other hotels of this upscale chain. We spent two nights there, visiting the city and ancient villages in the countryside. It is as magical as it sounds.


Shangri La Hotel Guilin

On our third day, we got in an old and rusty boat heading to another city called Yangshuo. And nothing cold prepare us for the scenic boat ride on the Li River that was ahead of us. The South China Karst is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and for a good reason - it's spectacular!




As the 4 hours boat ride began, we got immersed in the karst landscapes and that is something so unique that literally, it takes your breath away. See the images bellow that I captured along the way...


We arrived in Yangshuo, a remote town in the Guangxi region, but in the heart of the karst mountains. We stayed in a charming rural hotel called Tea Cozy and the warm service and beautiful accommodations added to our unforgettable experience in that region.

Tea Cozy Hotel - Yangshuo

There was one morning in Guilin that I woke up at 4:30 in the morning to be able to capture the sun rising over the karst mountains. It was January, the cold was almost unbearable but the images I captured that morning were the highlight on this incredible journey.


I can't recommend enough a trip to this region of the world that, with New Zealand and Yukon Territory in Canada, they make my list of the Most Beautiful Places on Earth!


Safe travels!






Saturday, June 3, 2017

Best credit cards to get points for travel

Getting points every time you use your credit cards and then redeeming them into a hotels or airlines programs with a good ratio, can be challenging for many people. And usually I see people wasting their hard earned points buying stuff on Amazon for a terrible ratio, instead of getting a room for free on a luxurious US$500+ a night hotel somewhere. From all the credit cards offers out there, this is the choice that I made and it changed the way I travel and honestly, it changed my life!

I have to confess that I learned the best way to do this years ago, reading The Points Guy Blog and following him on Facebook and
Twitter. Thank you, Brian Kelly!

First I got the Chase Sapphire Preferred and at that time (3 years ago) they were offering 100,000 points bonus after you spend US$3K within three months. And then the magic began! I transferred the points to my Hyatt account (ratio 1:1) and I started to book hotel nights. You can book a great hotel in US or overseas, on their category 4 property using 15K per night or 7,500 points plus US$100 in cash. 100,000 points can go a long way.


Then I added Chase Freedom, Chase Ink and Chase Hyatt card and with that combination I hardly pay for hotels when I travel... and believe me, I do that very often. The beauty is that you can combine all the points from all your cards into your Sapphire account (even adding family members with different accounts) and then transfers to partners like: Southwest, United, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, KLM, Air France or hotels: IHG brand (Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, Indigo, among others), Marriott Hotels, Ritz Carlton and of course, Hyatt.

The sign up bonus now (June 2017) for Chase Sapphire is 50K.
There is also the new Chase Sapphire Reserve card that gives you 3 points for dollar spent on travel and restaurants but it comes with a steep US$450 annual fee - vs US$95 for Sapphire Preferred.

Every time you pay hotels, restaurants, car rentals, any travel related expense, you receive 2 points per dollar on the Sapphire Preferred.

Chase Freedom card has a different promotion every quarter and you get 5 points per dollar when you use the card in supermarkets (April-June) or restaurants (July-September) and so on. This is a powerful way to add points to your Sapphire account - specially if you add a spouse to the equation.

Chase Hyatt gives you two free nights when you sign up in any hotel of their brands (and that includes Park Hyatts all over the world - including the Park Hyatt New York and Park Hyatt
Paris-Vendôme  - with nightly rates going for US$1,000). Then on every card anniversary you get one free night at any hotel up to category 4.


Chase Ink for business gives you 5 points per dollar for phone bills, internet bills and office expenses.

In the last three years I stayed in many 5 stars Hyatt properties all over the world - Hong Kong, Cambodia, Tokyo, Paris, Vienna, London, Costa Rica, Hawaii, just to name a few, using the points that I got paying bills with my Chase credit cards.


Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort - Costa Rica
Sweet deal, right? What are you waiting?

Safe travels, everyone!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The filthiest hotel in the world - Mont Saint-Michel


There is a careless man in France called William Delpoux (delpoux@merepoulard.fr) that owns several hotels and restaurants in a charming island in Normandy called Mont Saint-Michel. This place is a destination for thousands of travelers every year and it's easy to understand why.



An ancient abbey on a remote beach that tides turn into an island during most of the nights of the year. Unique and beautiful but that over time turned into a tourist trap.

The first time I was there in 2014, I did a day trip from Paris and had a nice visit and great first impression.

This time, April 2017, I decided to spend the night on the island and I research on www.booking.com to find the best place to stay with my family. I noticed that there wasn't a lot of options and mostly two stars hotels that seemed charming on the photos posted by Booking.com. But this could not be more deceiving since this place was a big scam run by Mr. Delpoux to accommodate tourists in a filthy property knowing that most travelers only spend one night at Mont Saint-Michel and they will take this disgusting situation and he could get away with his criminal negligence.

Look at the conditions of our room at the Le Mouton Blanc:










The room and common areas were filthy and dusty.

In America, Mr. Delpoux would probably be in jail - black mold is serious business everywhere, but apparently not in France.

When we saw the room, I called Booking.com and demanded to be placed in a clean property. It was 9 pm and nothing was available on the island. So we were forced into spending the night at this dump and Booking.com refunded me the amount paid for the rooms. I asked them to remove all Mr. Delpoux properties from their site, since they were allowing this man to exploit travelers selling false advertisement. I'm not doing business with booking.com until they remove Mr. Delpoux hotels from their site. I can't trust a travel site that sells this kind of properties.

On top of that, Mr. Delpoux owns a restaurant on the island called La Mere Poulard (I only found out after the fact) and they sell an infamous US$40 omelet. This thing has more butter than 20 croissants. Overrated and fattening.





Visiting the abbey at Mont Saint-Michel is an experience but you can do it without spending the night on the island. 

Places like Le Mouton Blanc should be out of business. It's a disrespect to any traveler!

BTW, this was the view from our room:




Safe travels!





Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Naked Truth about Sundance Film Festival




There is something fishy going on before and during the Sundance Film Festival. As Robert Redford said during the 2016 festival: "We will have to make changes." That is for sure.

 And here is my take from my experience during the last two festivals:

In 2015, I attended the festival with a package that I bought through #Chase. It cost US$4k for 5 nights of hotel for 2, 10 passes for any film of the festival and two tickets for the awards ceremony. Note that Chase is a major Sundance sponsor and my experience was flawless. I got tickets for the best movies and other screenings that I chose later, without waiting in line for hours like most attendees. Again, if you attach yourself to major sponsor and pay premium, all doors will open.

In 2016, I booked my own hotel - Hyatt Centric - with points transferred from my #ChaseSapphire Card and I bought two packages of 10 tickets for the festival, back in October.

These packages must be bought early, with no guarantees, and in January you are assigned a time slot to log into Sundance's website and choose the movies you want to see during the festival. Note that, people with the packages have priority on choosing the screenings before they go on sale to general public days before the festival.



So, on January 7, I logged in, at the time slot assigned by the Festival with my titles in hand, ready to chose my movies, but... SURPRISE! All the movies I wanted to see were already sold out. How could that be? I called the festival and asked that question. And the answer was short: "It is what it is. Choose other movies." I ended with a bunch of vouchers that I would have to exchange at the box office during the festival. Keep in mind that I paid US$500 for each package of 10 tickets. 

Then, I decided to take my indignation to social media and posted my experience at their Facebook page and on Twitter using the hashtag #SundanceFilmFestival. Within the hour, I got the follow e-mail from the festival:

 Dear Vicente, 

We are sorry you are disappointed with the ticket selection process this year. We would like to help you secure some tickets instead of vouchers. Do you know exactly which films you were trying to select yesterday? 

Please send us some of your film choices so we can see if we can make some exchanges for you. 

Thanks,

Sundance Film Festival Customer Service


So I did. I sent them the list of titles I wanted to see and someone called me to confirm and in less than a hour I got the confirmation for the movies I originally wanted to see. 
So what happened? I thought. It wasn't sold out? 

By what happened, I understood that the screenings weren't sold out, they were blocked for sponsors, movie industry people, high rollers... That was when I realized that attendees were just used to fill up undesirable space left by all the "important people". But when you are willing to pay US$50 per ticket to see a movie, don't you expect a little respect? Not at Sundance.

I met two ladies during the festival, that went through the same process, paid premium, bought the same package and ended up with a bunch of tickets for documentaries and short films, since the films they wanted to see were "sold out". Disappointed, they were giving their tickets away during one of the screenings. 

What Robert Redford said during the 2016 festival is true. There are crowds everywhere. Park City is a small town overwhelmed with the number of people that show up during Sundance week. Restaurants and hotels charge premium, you can't drive anywhere since there is no parking, so you are forced to use the transportation system they provide and walk around in freezing cold.

The screenings are like a mob scene. The Eccles Theater, the biggest venue in the festival, that can seat 1500 people, has an outside tent to be used by people waiting for a screening that fits 300 people . The remaining 1200 have to wait for more than an hour, outside in the cold, snow and rain. I saw older people getting in the theater completely soaked after waiting outside for a screening. Again, where is the respect for the patrons? No, not in Sundance. They just don't care!




I'm not going back to Sundance any time soon. I will enjoy Park City when the mobs leave town and watch the Sundance Festival movies on Netflix and Amazon relaxing in my living room.






Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fall in France

I had never visited France in the Fall, until this October when I spent five nights in the City of Light as a base to explore the countryside.

Don't expect the colorful leaves that you see in the Northeast this time of the year, but you can expect the best weather in this "not-so-crowded" season.

Eiffel Tower


My stay was like a pleasant marathon, since I wanted to visit sites that were on my bucket list, like Mont Saint Michel, Bruges and Giverny. It was challenging, with all the trains, taxis... but I made it and all I can say is that it was more than worthwhile!

Good planning is basic when you have a limited amount of time to cover a lot of territory. I carry with me for the first time a GoPro camera and I was able to capture the amazing images that you will see below.


To my visit to Brittany, I found a company called Link Paris (http://www.linkparis.com/) and they offer a one day trip to Brittany and Mt. Saint Michel by train. The guide meets you at St. Malo train station and that day was the highlight of my trip to France. It's a small group tour (8 people max) and it was very organized and pleasant.


Saint Malo is a little jewel that has a lot of charm and character and it's a must for any visit to France. 
Saint Malo
Inside Mt. Saint Michel
Mt. Saint Michel is more impressive than in the pictures and the interiors of the abbey are like traveling in time with breathtaking views.
Mt. Saint Michel

Another destination was Giverny, the little village where Monet lived for several years before his death and where he painted his masterpiece "Water Lilies". It's just a one hour drive from Paris (you can also get a train to Vernon).

Monet's Garden, Giverny


This is a magical place where I had a chance to enter in several of Monet's paintings in the property magnificent gardens. 

Walk around the little village is a charming experience and the locals are very friendly and knowledgeable of their history.

Another day trip from Paris is Bruges in Belgium. It's a 2:30h train journey from Paris and it's a charming city, with channels, a lot of history and the best chocolate in the world!

Bruges, Belgium

 It's amazing how many different places you can visit around Paris on day journeys and how much you can learn visiting these ancient places surrounded by amazing tales of war, death, vengeance and hope.

Travel is a magical thing, indeed.

Safe travels, everyone!