Saturday, 2 February 2013

A Hotel As It Should Be - in Budapest

Budapest hotel scene gets mentioned as a bit of a cautionary tale in hotelier circles as Budapest hotel prices are on the low side.

From a guest's perspective you can do incredibly well at reasonable rates. On a recent trip on a cold days in December we drove from Bratislava for work.

For the one night in Budapest I chose Best Western Premier Hotel Parliament. The reviews were quite positive (an impressive 9.2 on and everything seemed right including the under EUR 60 price on a Double.

We parked easily in the street in front of the hotel (it was free on a Sunday evening but paid from 8 am).

Check in was smooth and soon we were on our way to a large room (in the corner tower with large windows).

The room was initially cold as the heating was through a combination AC in the ceiling. But it was elegant, comfortable and with a relatively luxurious bathroom with a nice bath tub, toilet and bidet.

We walked a few minutes to get dinner, passing by a supermarket open late.

We slept very well in the hotel and looked forward to a breakfast served down in an atrium restaurant. The breakfast was great - well stocked and re-stocked, with a little bit of everything from pastries, through veggies, cheese, meats, yogurt, fresh fruit (including juicers for grapefruits and oranges). Two fully automatic coffee machines serving good quality coffee (Nespresso), fruit juices, cereal, eggs, sausages...

In the afternoon when we returned after a busy day to collect the car we were able to freshen up with free water, tea and coffee in a wonderful lounge.

Everything seemed offered generously with not a moment when we would have felt that they were trying to charge us for a senseless extra. Everyone on staff was professional, unobtrusive, spoke good English.

In fact the only extra I paid was for parking: the reception offered as standard service to keep updating street parking every three hours during the day. They asked only for the cost of tickets (reasonable street parking rate).

The short stay did not leave time to visit the wellness area but we did note the highly positive reviews all around.

I could go on about details but you probably get the picture. Best Western Parliament Budapest is a city hotel as it should be, an honour to its genre.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Shuttle taxi from Tel Aviv to Ben Gurion Airport

Just returned from a family trip to Tel Aviv and had an urge to share this tip.

I found it quite a challenge to Google a credible looking and reasonably priced van service from the centre of Tel Aviv to the not so distant Ben Gurion Airport (TLV).

We traveled as a group of seven, including a child needing a booster seat, leaving for the airport at 2 am. I therefore did not feel like dealing with ordering regular taxis - we would have needed two, the child seat and large cars to fit our luggage. Their pricing, although heavily regulated, involves all sorts of separate charges (late night, luggage, number of passengers, child seat...). I could not find any sherut (shared van) service between Tel Aviv and the airport.

Upon a lot of searching I chanced upon a service called Satas. I phoned them at +972 3 532 7901. The person who answered spoke reasonably good English but transferred me on to Nadab, whose English was even better. He arranged a van for us (to fit seven but there were actually 11 seats) and quoted a rate of NIS 270 (about EUR 55 or USD 70 at exchange rates prevalent in October 2012).

I was actually incredulous and had him confirm it several times making sure there were no hidden extras. This rate was comparable to the ideal case scenario of two cabs not overcharging us.

Nadav emailed me a direct contact for the van driver. A nice large van showed up on time to pick us up in central Tel Aviv and drove us to the Ben Gurion Airport (serving both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as Israel's main international airport) in less than a half hour (of course this was in the middle of the night so with no traffic).

The helpful and patient driver asked for that NIS 270 (and earned a nice tip, too). Found this great and decided to blog about it to perhaps make this Tel Aviv airport shuttle service easier to find for those who need it. Please note the website actually quotes higher rate than what we were charged and they offer services all around Israel, not just to Tel Aviv.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

What Google Trends terms should you watch to know about panic?

This Business Insider article is trying to watch for a coming by following these terms on Google Trends (click through and you can play with the terms yourself):

the depression, guns, deflation, fractional reserve, fiat currency

How about this set? debt, gold, prices, eurozone, eurusd

See the spikes in our times? Would any of those be a good indicator that the push will come to shove?

And what would you propose as a good Google Trends keyword set to know when the public is getting seriously panicked?

Monday, 15 August 2011

A Liptov Weekend: Hotel-Hopping on a Whim

Last weekend found us in Demanova Dolina, right under the illustrious Chopok peak in Nizke Tatry (Low Tatra) mountains. We drove there late on Friday afternoon more or less on impulse.

A Standard Room at the hotel Ostredok is large and done up in a neat colour scheme
I was secretly hoping to score a room at the Hotel Ostredok - it came recommended from a friend whose agency organised some of the glamourous guests and I have complete faith in her recommendations. But when I called Ostredok only had a room for Friday.

We were pleasantly surprised to find that other nice hotel we stopped by were full for at least one of the nights of this mid-August weekend. Tri Studnicky, a four-star from the Tatry Mountain Resorts (Slovak financial group J&T) portfolio was only available Saturday (and Chopok Wellness Hotel 4* as well as the appealing Penzion Drak were full).

Hotel Ostredok
Slovak three stars guarantee nothing but I was expecting much from Ostredok. We ended up liking most everything there, finding it adequate to the price charged, with the exception of the restaurant and crappy pillow.

Room 308 on the third floor (no lift) was really, really large and would have actually easily fit four beds (it turned out there was a third fold out bed already in the room posing as an ottoman). We loved the yellow (laminate wall panelling and oversized number on the room door inside) and grey (carpet) colour scheme, which my resident interior design expert pointed out was a rare departure from the usual Slovak brown and brown ambience.

The bed was OK but the pillow and duvet where from such slippery materials that they virtually undressed themselves on contact. The pillow was understuffed with what felt like pure plastic and I found it truly uncomfortable to sleep on. The hotel simply needs new duvets and pillows (the covers were of decent quality but kept sliding off as they did not close in any way).

The hotel's only restaurant is La Collina and it serves Italian food. It let us down with incompetent staff. We were served by three really friendly and polite young waiters/bartenders but they simply did not know their job. They started us off with a great impression, promising the kitchen could do and has done in the past pasta without gluten. In all fairness, this one promise they delivered on.

The soup of the day was a very tasty pumpkin but a really small portion of insubstantial thin soup was EUR 3. And then the incompetence started. Our main course arrived and we never received any further attention from the waiters. They missed out on the chance to sell us wine (!), more beer, desert, coffee. They deprived their employer of maybe EUR 25 in extra revenue and themselves of perhaps EUR 4 in tips. When after not being able to flag down a waiter in over 40 minutes I went to pay at the bar, I was explained that I cannot put a tip on my credit card because "it goes to the company in Bratislava."

The food itself was not bad. The wine menu looked OK (though for some odd reason the years were given for foreign wines but not given for Slovak wines), the views were great. If there was a head waiter who knew the basics of serving guests at a mid-market restaurant we would have had a great time.

If I were the owner of Ostredok I would go to complain to the construction contractor about this tile work.
On other issues, if I were to nit pick I would mention the shoddy plasterwork in the bathroom, which two years after refurbishing looks like it has been there for 20 years. In the morning the water pressure in our third floor room was less than adequate as well (though my wife had a nice warm shower in the evening).

But on the plus side, all the staff were friendly, breakfast was decent, architecture was a great example that a good designer can make a place look nice and feel pleasant on a budget. We enjoyed the hotel and anything (other than the cracked plaster between the tiles) can be fixed with a little bit of training. After all Ostredok gets really hot in its main season, which is winter, when you can better appreciate being literally tens of metres from the slope and ski lift in one of Slovakia's prime skiing resorts.

Tri Studnicky
On Saturday we moved to Tri Studnicky, the 70% more expensive four-star hotel. Again, a Slovak four star rating actually does not guarantee a good hotel and there are plenty of unpleasant four star hotels around the country you would regret staying at.

Not so the Tri Studnicky. We loved the hotel and found the high price justified by their faultless service, genuinely tasteful designer interiors, great breakfast and neat if small spa.

A Standard Room at the Tri Studnicky was small but really pleasant.
The lobby was beautifully furnished and decorated, a rare occurrence in Slovak hotel design. Out Standard Room was small but very functional and it never felt cramped. We had a view of the stream, which was really charming. I appreciated the info packet, which is still all too rare in many hotels. There were typos to fix but at least the packet was there.

We took advantage of our free two-hour entry in the small but tasteful Spa. It is only open from 3 pm to 8 pm but was not full. We used the two jacuzzi baths (indoor and outdoor) and there were also two saunas. The fitness room looked like a place I would want to use if we were staying any longer.

We ate dinner at the Tri Studnicky restaurant (which claims to be 'excellent' on a banner by the hotel above the main road) and I must simply say it was excellent. A competent, experienced server (whose only fault was he did not come to say goodbye before he left to be replaced by another friendly and competent colleague).

If the hotel manager (who has been awarded a top national award in 2011) were to ask me about room for improvement I would maybe send her to Wellness Patince to see how every staff member there automatically greets any passing guest. On the same note the spa lady could have given us a quick tour on arrival (would not have had to leave her chair for that given the size of the spa). But that's really about the only minor gripe I could come up with if pressed. The up-market looking clientele seemed appreciative of the hotel's qualities.

Remember, the Low Tatras are about these beautiful mountains, not about hotels.
Where to stay in Liptov then? You will do well with Penzion Drak, Hotel Ostredok or Tri Studnicky and there were many other place we passed by that look passable to promising.

It is wonderful to see such great tourism infrastructure in place in Liptov. This beautiful piece of Slovakia is well worth visiting as a family destination, sports or nature-lover destination, however far you are coming from.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Great Asian Noodle Bar in Vienna - Sharing Fruits of My Research...

You know I take eating out seriously so when my son went on a trip and we had a chance to eat out in Vienna, I spent a good half hour looking for the right Asian restaurant to visit. We were in no mood for posh, we wanted honest Asian fare at a reasonable price, without a need to dress up.

We hit the road from Bratislava with a print out with four options and used the 45 minutes drive to make a decision.

The options were:
Saigon Restaurant at Getreide Markt


Yellow at Mariahilferstr. 127

Chang Asian Noodles at Waaggasse 1

We landed at number three on my list, Chang Asian Noodles. This turned out to be a great choice - a well designed place on the right side of the Vienna city centre (coming from Bratislava on the highway). We had unpretentious, oustanding noodles, which put any Bratislava noodle bar (incl. Buddha Brothers) to shame, paying less than 30 euros for two noodle dished, a chicken satay starter, glass of wine and two mineral waters.

I do this kind of research (not only on food but other venues) before travelling anywhere and wil lmake a point of sharing my lists on the blog.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Austrian Tabloid Fined €20k for Lifting Girl's Facebook Photo to Illustrate her Alleged Prostitute Namesake's Murder Story

Wow, writing a short headline to this one seemed tough.

Interesting tale of offline/online media interaction - Austrian tabloid paper fined EUR 20 000 by Austrian court after using a photo of the wrong "Lucia Rehakova" from Facebook to illustrate story on an eponymous murdered prostitute.

Rehakova, a Slovak student of teaching, said she had feared she would not be able to get a teaching job after Slovak newspapers widely reprinted her photo. In 1995 there were 1 183 women named Reháková in Slovakia in 2005, according to the state language institute Surnames Database . With Lucia being a very popular Slovak girl's name we would expect there to be oh maybe like 20 of them. Four of them are in fact on Facebook (in Google search results).

Is it sad or funny that you can still google a Lucia Rehakova photo on the website without any explanation or apology and without knowing whether it is the wrong or right one...

The real Lucia should consider suing Slovak papers too for violating her rights - picking up the photo from Austrian paper is not sufficient sourcing.

(found via story)

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Blue Bay Hotel in Netanya Blues

Three nights at the Blue Bay Hotel in Netanya, attending a friend's beach wedding. We chose the hotel at the friend's recommendation for convenience (a few minutes drive from where the weddding took place) rather than any impressive looking features or positive reviews.

Blue Bay Hotel Netanya Photo - borrowed without permission
The hotel actually has bearable architectural qualities, decorated with taste, or at least without any 'distaste'. The room we stayed in probably used to look good, like 6 years ago but it was well worn rather than in a state of disrepair. Unlike in many newer hotels, the shower worked, water fixtures worked, most lights worked.

We were annoyed with the narrow entrance space and overall the room was not well suited to having the extra bed added. Across the hall I got a peak of a room that seemed very different from ours - a hard-wood floor rather than our wall-to-wall hotel style carpet from a bygone era and more space - I would assume that's the 'superior' room.

We arrived in the dark and I was sceptical about sea view as much as to complain to the receptionist we were paying for it. He assured me all the rooms had seaview and his words turned out to be very accurate when we woke up next morning with perhaps the best view of the sea I've seen in a hotel.

On arrival I had to return to reception to mention the extra bed we had requested (and were paying a not so friendly extra amount for). It arrived carried by a man who pretended not to really speak English but he understood the request to bring an extra towel for the third guest.

Breakfast is a good Kosher breakfast. Depending on what those three words mean to you, you either know what I am talking about or it would simply take too long to explain. For connoisseurs, here is an overview: a sizable buffet with three or four warm dishes, cheeses, "salatim", some sweets, bread and three types of rolls. Coffee not to die for (or Israeli instant). Oh, and since the breakfast is milchig, no sausages or salami (but there is some fish). And the Kosher kids run amock bumping into your chair not only without apology but without as much as acknowledging your existence.

Kosher kids running amock were a recurring topic poolside but the cold water was a bigger problem.

The lobby bar service was far from impressive in terms of selection, attentiveness of staff, professionalism. But again, the decent Israeli service standards prevailed: with every order (even the misunderstood one) the linguistically challenged man brought us a bowl of pretzels and peanuts and dusted off our table. He even tried to prevent me from leaving him a tip at one point.

I would not call the staff friendly and we never had the impression anyone enjoyed serving us. A good word to describe most staff was smug (the reception staff), oblivious (wait staff), bored (security guard outside). The only friendly gestures came from the (I assume Ethiopian Israeli) cleaning staff.

But, like much of Israeli hospitality, the hotel turned out OK. Not great, not to rave about, with lots of annoying little details but OK to spend a few nights (although I would hesitate recommending it for a long vacation). The Scandinavian and Russian holy land bible trip groups seemed happy enough, as did the guests at multiple weddings and bar mitzvahs taking place.