Sunday, April 22, 2012

Singapore: The Lion City - Part 2 - Reviews

This post is 2 of 3 about Singapore. This one contains some reviews I have on on the Mandarin Oriental and the Conrad hotels. I also give my $.02 worth on the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino complex.

The reviews of the Conrad and the Mandarin Oriental are from my very first trip to Singapore in 2007. Some things have changed and I have made the edits/updates. 

Conrad Centennial Singapore:
In a word this place is amazing. There are always at least 2 people waiting to help you wherever you go in the hotel. The service is so outstanding that no request seems unreasonable to them. We were on the top floor, 31, and had great views of the ocean and Suntec City. The other side of the hotel has the great harbor and city views. Our room was a corner room (non-suite) and it had a little window on the side wall that was not all windows. The rooms are spacious and classy. The pictures on the Conrad site make them look dated and do not do them justice. There is a flatscreen TV with a dvd/radio sound system that is excellent. You can borrow CDs and DVDs from the executive lounge. We had a fresh fruit plate everyday and bottled water, which we really needed in the heat and humidity. The toiletries are Acca Kappa and they give you a ton of everything, and the bathroom is huge. It must take up half of the total area in the room. This floor is where the executive lounge is and it is great with a wonderful staff. Food in the lounge is good and there are computers with free internet. This is truly a business hotel, but we were here on holiday and we did not feel as if we were out of place. The breakfast buffet at Oscar’s is really good too. There are staff people everywhere. The buffet has a nice balance of western breakfast items and Asian breakfast items and my favorite, dim sum. 

As for the location of the Conrad, if you want to be close to an MRT stop, then it is about a 5-10 minute walk to a couple of stations. You can walk almost completely through several shopping malls all the way to City Hall station, but it is closer to Esplanade via Millenia Walk. The City Hall station has better lines than Esplanade depending on where you want to go. If you want to be near shopping that is not Orchard Rd, this is the place for you. It is across from Suntec, Millenia Walk, and Marina Square. But in Singapore, no matter where you are, there are at least 3 shopping malls in close proximity. There are restaurants across at Millenia Walk and in the other shopping malls. Across the street at Suntec there is a nice indoor food court there, Food Republic. 

Since we were scheduled to arrive around 1:45am, we splurged and booked the hotel limo, but worth it for us because we had never been to Singapore before and our driver was waiting for us right after baggage claim. After coming from LAX via Tokyo on a 2 hour-delayed flight, we were exhausted and it was nice to be taken care of at 4:00am. 

All in all, we loved this hotel. We stayed at The Oriental after a side trip to Phuket, and we like the Conrad better. It might help that we are Hilton Diamond members, but there just seemed to be a better vibe for us at the Conrad. Coming back to the Conrad after being out all day felt like coming home.

Mandarin Oriental Singapore:
This hotel is really nice and all of the Asian décor in the lobby makes it slightly cold. The staff are nice, but do not seem to be very warm. The hotel and the experience are great though. We booked our room through the Amex Business Platinum Fine Hotels rate which was only $9USD more than the lowest rate on the hotel’s website. For this rate we were given an ocean view room with a bottle of red wine and a cheese platter delivered once we got to the room. It was a very nice and classy touch. We were also given free breakfast at Melt-The World Café. The rooms that are ocean and harbor view rooms are actually smaller than city view rooms. We were on the 10th floor with a great view of the pool and the Ritz Carlton. The rooms have a nice entertainment system that is quite complex with a remote control that has more in common with a palm pilot than a remote control. There are mounted speakers in the room too. The bathroom is not that large and the shower is quite small. The toiletries are huge. You cannot possibly take them with you unless you have a large toiletry bag. The room came with lots of extra toiletry amenities such as razors, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc. One wall of the bathroom is glass that looks into the room which is a nice touch. The air conditioning in the room, though, does not make it that cool and the bathroom can get quite warm.

Melt-The World Café has a great breakfast spread. There are several stations with everything you could possibly want. This is the only hotel buffet I have ever seen that serves pure maple syrup from upstate New York. They have it sitting along the waffle and pancake bar. I was very impressed. I never thought I would see pure maple syrup 9,000 miles away from the States. The downside to this place was the service. There was a long line to get a seat and the place was empty. They seemed to be understaffed. I could not get anyone’s attention to bring me coffee even though they had looked at our table. We even returned to our table and everything was gone including silverware and cups. We had to wait to get new sets of everything, and getting them to clear the used plates was impossible even with staff looking at our table. I could not believe how bad the service was. It was completely different from any kind of Mandarin Oriental experience we have ever had at other locations. I hope it was just a coincidence and is not usually that bad.

The pool area is great and it overlooks the road and has very cool night views of the harbor. Even though the pool closes around 9pm, they leave towels out and people swim after hours.

As far as the location, the hotel is connected to the Marina Square mall, but you have to go out of the hotel a few feet and go up a very odd stairwell to get to the mall. The other option is walking toward the street and walking to the front of the mall. The hotel is very close to the Esplanade and all the food places there. The Esplanade seems to be a very popular area with lots of people hanging out there. The hotel is nearest to the Esplanade MRT station, but also close to City Hall MRT, but it is a little bit of a walk. 


Those are the two hotels I've stayed at in Singapore. You really cannot go wrong with either hotel, but I am partial to the Conrad. I have stayed there 3 times and loved every stay.

Put the SIN in Singapore - Marina Bay Sands
If you know anything about Singapore, you'll know that they recently allowed gambling. The Marina Bay Sands is this three-building hotel and casino complex that is topped with what looks like a ship connecting all of the buildings at the top. There is a swimming pool at the top that spans most of the distance of the surfboard-looking structure. There have been a bunch of TV shows on the Marina Bay Sands because it's such a marvel of engineering. There are a museum, a shopping mall, a theatre, and much more in the entire complex. It's very impressive and the good news is that it is a really nice walk from many of the nice hotels like the Conrad, Ritz Carlton, Mandarin Oriental, and others. The bridge itself that you walk along is really cool. Each of the three buildings has a mega atrium as shown below. Lots of the hotels in Singapore have atria. I guess they like that for some reason.
The Sky Park is the top part of the hotel where visitors can get a unique look at just about all of Singapore. It's basically an observation deck with a club and a restaurant/bar up there. From the Sky Park you can see Indonesia and Malaysia. Remember Singapore is only about the size of Manhatten, so it's quite small. So look right over the top of Singapore.
The Sky Park costs $19SGD which is about $15USD. It's worth going because the views are amazing and you won't believe that there is a swimming pool up there. But the pool is only for hotel guests and visitors can get a sort of view of it. They try to block it off from non-guests, but everyone wants to see it because it is so long and it is an infinity pool, which makes it look like it just drops off the side of the building. 
Just about the entire observation deck area is on top of the unsupported (cantilevered) area of the surfboard part of the building. As you can see from this picture, it is curved too. It really is amazing.  
In the evening, there is a light show from the Marina Bay Sands which is really cool. It's so Vegas. Every single building and part of the whole complex lights up in sequence and at the very top they have laser lights. 

Stay tuned for Part 3.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Singapore: The Lion City - Part 1

A dear friend of mine who wants to plan a trip to Singapore suggested that I write a post about this amazing city-state. So, this post has travel tips and the next one will have reviews and suggestions. For a small city, there is a ton of things to do and I have not seen even half of it all.

10 Things to know about Singapore:
1. English is spoken everywhere. If you don't know English, getting around Singapore will be difficult unless you know some Chinese, but even then, most signage is only in English.
2. It is hot, hot, hot...and humid. You will be making all of your plans around getting in and out of air conditioning. The sun is also very strong. It is only 1 degree north of the equator which is roughly 124 miles or 200km.
3. The subway system, SMRT, is the best way to get around town. Get the Singapore Tourist Pass that is good for the subway and the buses. It will save you a ton of time and some money too. Taxis are everywhere and relatively cheap and I've only ever used them to get to/from the airport, late at night, or getting somewhere the subway doesn't go.
4. It is very clean and I have never encountered any of those things you have probably heard about the strict rules regarding chewing gum, littering, and flushing public toilets. It's really a matter of common sense and decency.
5. Nice hotels are not exactly cheap, but there are deals out there to be had. It's still cheaper than Tokyo or NYC though. Look at Singapore is so clean that just about any level of hotel will be acceptable. Definitely take a look at tripadvisor for suggestions. I always burn points to stay at the Conrad, but the Mandarin Oriental is a world-renowned hotel that is awesome too.  I will post my reviews of these hotels.

6. Food is amazing and cheap. I should put this as #1 because I tend to plan the whole day around where I want to eat which means choosing the appropriate hawker center or shopping mall food court. If you are not familiar with Asian cities, then pay attention. Mall food courts in Asia are good and some are AMAZING. Forget your conception of Hotdog on a Stick and Panda Express. They will undoubtedly be packed with people, which is always a good sign, and each stall will usually only sell a few things with some variations. Since Singapore has tons of shopping malls, finding a food court will not be difficult. Hawker centers are basically permanent street food carts that are now in the form of a stall. In Singapore, some are outdoor and some are indoor. I'll give you none guesses which ones are more comfortable, but I have eaten at outdoor ones too. Check out these websites: makansutra and hungrygowhere. Singaporeans love their food and it's difficult to have a bad meal there. Gluttons Bay and Lau Pa Sat are two of the outdoor ones that are really good.
7. Eat the dish called chicken rice. Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations did a great episode about Singapore that had great suggestions about where to get chicken rice. You can actually get it at just about any hawker center, but go where you see lines of people. Chicken rice is just that. It is boiled or grilled boneless chicken over a bed of rice. But the rice is the best rice you will ever have...EVER. They use chicken broth to cook the rice so it has a meaty taste. It's awesome. Get the boiled, it's much better even though it doesn't look as appetizing. With the spicy condiments to add, it will knock your socks off.
8. Eat the fruit. There is something so much more refreshing about eating fruit in S.E. Asia than at home. I think because it is so freakin' hot, the flavors are much more intense. If you don't want to eat the fruit, then drink it. All food courts and hawker centers will have drinks for sale in separate stalls than the food and they all have juice or grind fresh fruit. A certain person I always travel with always gets watermelon juice, which makes me gag, but I know it's good for those who actually like watermelon.
9. Spend some time in the airport. Changi Airport is super nice and has really nice shopping. It has everything from a gym, swimming pool, spa, butterfly garden, rainforest, dayrooms, and a hotel. All of this is within security--airside. So you don't even have to pass through immigration and customs to enjoy this. Because Singapore is a stopover point for many travelers to/from Australia and Europe and elsewhere, the airport caters to these travelers who may or may not leave the airport. Geting out of Singapore can be very cheap. There are lots of low cost carriers (LCCs) such as Air Asia, Jetstar, Tiger Airways just to name a few that fly to Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, and many more countries, and even Australia and New Zealand for very cheap. Air Asia and Jetstar are very good no-frills airlines. I have flown both and they are just fine for a 1-2 hour flight.

10. Understand the culture. Singapore is a wonderfully unique blending of east and west even more so than Hong Kong, in my humble opinion. This is a huge oversimplification of the situation, but here goes. When you walk around you will see that the people are mostly Chinese. You will notice lots of Indian, Malay, and British too. All of these groups influence the cuisine and the overall vibe. You will see mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, and churches all near each other. Everything works and everyone gets along.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Travel Day: Sacramento to OC

I arrived at the airport a little early because I needed to return my rental car. Returning my car went very smoothly and only cost me $1.20. I used my Hertz points which saved me a whopping $240 for a three-day rental. Totally worth spending the points. My airfare didn't even cost that much. Once I arrived at the United counter and checked in, it was a matter of minutes by the time I was through security and the daunting body scanners. They no longer show you in your birthday suit, rather they show your outline like a cartoon and the computer screen shows where you might have metal or something else on your person. I stopped in to Starbucks to get a coffee and took my chocolate muffin from my grandpa's to a table right near the window so that I could watch the planes take off and land. After a minute a server walked up to me and asked what I wanted and I said, "what?"  I thought I was sitting in a food court. She said I was sitting in a restaurant. I didn't realize that I was sitting at a table for either the bar or the California Pizza Kitchen. She said it was fine as long as I picked up my mess. I thanked her and continued to enjoy my coffee and muffin. 

My flight was connecting in SFO once again and I was on a puddle jumper. The flight was relatively light and there were three or four employees on the flight as passengers. This was the plane.
Even though these EMB-120s tend to feel a little unsafe or unstable or something, I think it's fun walking out to the plane. I do not like not being able to stand up completely inside. It's a good thing the flights are short enough that you don't need to get up. TRAVEL TIP: If you ever have to fly on one of these, sit on the side with only 1 seat or sit in row 9 on the side with 2 seats because it is an exit row on that side only. There is unlimited leg room and it makes the flight much more comfortable. There is an exit row in row 6, but there isn't any extra legroom, so go with row 9.

Our flight path was less direct today than the flight to Sacramento. I think the total flight time was all of 30 minutes. I had about an hour to wait in SFO for my next flight to Orange County and I made my way to the gate to see that everything was on time. I love that the United terminal at SFO has a bunch of Ghiradelli chocolate stores because they will give you a sample. I wanted to try the sea salt one even though that wasn't the one I was offered, so I asked anyway and got to try the new flavor. 

My SNA flight was on a CRJ-700 (CR7) that has really nice large windows. The row I was in had the windows a little misaligned but it was fine. On this flight they actually served refreshments unlike the previous flight. It was an uneventful 58 minute flight down the left coast. We arrived at the end of the terminal where the small planes park and deplaned via a ramp. It was nice to be back home where it was much warmer than it was up north. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Article: Things to do in Phnom Penh

I stumbled upon this article and can't wait to research Phnom Penh.  We will be going back to Cambodia this summer. 

Things to do in Phnom Penh

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Travel Day: OC to Sacramento

I woke up at the buttcrack of dawn to catch my flight to Sacramento. I had to fly to San Francisco first and then take a puddle jumper to Sacramento. My flight to SF boarded 30 minutes before takeoff which I thought was really early considering that the flight was very light. We left the gate on time and were in the air a few minutes later. I watched an episode of New Girl, which I have never seen before. It was kinda funny. We flew up the coast and 65 minutes later landed at SFO. We were really early and our gate was still occupied. So we sat there for about 15 minutes.

My connecting gate was not very far. And when I arrived there, they needed volunteers to take a later flight. They took my boarding pass and said they'd let me know. Once they started boarding they called me up. They said they would accept me and I signed a paper. Then they saw that some people were missing their connection and they wouldn't need me after all. I boarded the plane and took my seat.

The 80 mile flight was only 25 minutes long. It was actually really nice scenery. I stopped into Starbucks to get a cup of coffee. When I got to the baggage claim my bag was waiting for me. I hopped on the rental car shuttle and when I got off the bus the driver knocked my coffee out of my hand and onto the ground. I was pissed but what could I do. I got into my red Toyota Corolla and was off to my grandparents' house.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Travel Day: SFO-LGB

Sunday was another early morning wake up with breakfast at the executive lounge. Most of the students opted to wake up early enough to eat before heading to the airport at 7:30am. When I checked-out all of us they said that their system was down and that they would need to email me the receipts. Fine with me. We boarded the shuttle around 7:40am and headed to SFO. When we arrived at the international terminal, it was quite empty and the two chaperones dropped off our bags at the counter. Every single one of the students did carry-on. I hate fighting for overhead space these days now that airlines charge per bag so I decided to check my bag. Also, Jetblue doesn't charge for the first bag; so why not check it? Oh, I was also able to check everyone in for the flight the day before online and print out boarding passes for everyone in the executive lounge of the hotel. Gotta love hotel business centers.

We all proceeded to the security check with a very short line, but it took forever to get through. I think they had brand new recruits working that shift because they couldn't figure out anything. There was one lady checking boarding passes before allowing you into the line. She yelled at one of my students because she had two carry-ons and her purse out, which looked like 3 carry-ons. She told her to go back to the airline desk. She also told her to step aside to figure it out. I was really irritated at this point, but had gone through ahead of her so I wasn't able to help ease the situation. Thankfully my student had enough sense to tell her that her purse was in one of the bags and she only got it out to get her ID out, which wasn't even necessary yet. So once we were all in line for security it took us at least 30 minutes to get through. Mind you that there were only two planes in the whole terminal--ours and a Hawaiian Airlines plane. It was insanity. They only had one security line going and that included the one for crew and premium passengers. Crazy. Then they opened more lines and still went slow because they were moving people to the crew line and then moving them out into the others. One of the supervisors was getting into it with the guy controlling the lines because there wasn't supposed to be a backed-up line in the crew line. It was dreadful. Then we all get through the body scanner and I made sure that I was the very last person in our group in case they pulled one of the students out of the line for liquids or something stupid. Once we got through security they made the "final call" for our flight throughout the terminal and we had to get all the way through to the end of the terminal. I'm glad I ate breakfast before and wasn't counting on eating in the terminal because there was no time by this point.

When we boarded there wasn't a lot of overhead space left and the last student in our group was in front of me. He found a spot to put his bag and I started helping him and moved bags around up there. This guy sitting on the aisle said "be careful that bag up there is fragile," and I gave him the stink eye. I wanted to tell the guy "if it's so fragile then put it down by your feet where you can watch it." It took us a while to move things around and finally get his bag in the overhead bin. I was waiting for the idiot to say something again about his fragile crap. I was ready to unleash on this guy, but he kept his mouth shut. Even writing about this now gets me worked up about it. I guess it wouldn't have been good for me to have my students see me get into an altercation on an airplane and get whisked off to airport jail.

So I make it to my window seat and the two women in the row already decide they don't want to get up and I have to squeeze between them to my seat. I just watched my TV and looked out the window. Once we took off, my TV/XM radio decided that it didn't want to work anymore. It was frozen and wouldn't change modes or channels. Oh well. Thankfully I had my iphone (in airplane mode).
An uneventful hour-long flight went by and we actually landed about 15 minutes early. The one thing I absolutely love about the Long Beach airport is using the stairs to board and deplane. It feels so retro and I love being able to experience the enormity of the wings and engines.
Here's the last look of Blue Velvet.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Hilton SFO Bayfront: travel review

This hotel was our home for three nights. We arrived at SFO around 7:00p and caught their free airport shuttle that they share with the Embassy Suites hotel that is right down the street. All 12 of us fit in their shuttle and we were off to the hotel within minutes of getting our bags. Their shuttle runs about every 20 minutes and we only had to wait about 5 minutes for it. This hotel is south of the airport and right along the water, hence the name Bayfront. This is the wall right behind the reception desk. It changes color and is pretty cool. It was blue when we arrived and it looked like a wall of water.

The check-in was very fast and easy considering I had 5 rooms under my name. We had rooms all on the same wing on the top floor (15th), which was the executive floor. It was worth booking that level especially with so many people in our group because we all had access to their concierge lounge that serves snacks and drinks all day long. Breakfast in the lounge was also included as well as evening hors d'oeuvres. They serve Starbucks coffee to boot. The lounge staff were very nice and attentive. The rooms are standard for a Hilton hotel complete with large flatscreen TVs. The rooms also had 2 bottles of water per day for free. Well, they replaced them if you drank them, it's not that they brought two more every day.

The hotel is close to the airport but I didn't notice any jet noise. You can see planes land from the rooms. This was the view from my room.
  Here are more views.

Here are some pictures of the room.

Another great use of the hotel's free airport shuttle is that you can take it to the international terminal which is where the BART station is located. From there you can take the train right into San Francisco for $8.10 to the Embarcadero Station. It's not exactly cheap, but it will only take 30 minutes. This hotel is a very good choice if you need or have to be near the airport. It's even a good/cheap alternative to staying in the city if you don't mind taking the shuttle to the airport and then the BART up to SF.