Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Avia Hotel Napa

The Avia Hotel Napa is a trendy hip boutique hotel located in downtown Napa, in the heart of California's wine country. The hotel's oversized wrought iron doors open to a modern and spacious lobby with a wine bar providing a convenient place to relax after a long day of wine tasting. The hotel website advertises "complimentary wine tasting every night in the lobby wine bar" however, it's actually a representative from a local winery offering a limited number of tastings. The night we stayed, he ran out of wine within 30 minutes.

The 5-story hotel offers 141 stylish guestrooms and suites with hardwood floors and 9-ft. high ceilings.  The rooms and suites vary in size and luxury. We booked the Master Tub Suite via the hotel's website. Initially we were given the wrong room, the Lux Suite, upon check-in and had to go back to the lobby with our confirmation email pulled up on our iPad to get the correct room. I recommend booking the upgraded Master Tub Suite. The Lux Suite is really just a large room with a too small haphazardly placed wall dividing the living space from the bedroom, whereas the Master Tub Suite had an actual wall dividing the two rooms. The Master Tub Suite included a comfortable king size bed, 42" flat screen television, iPod docking station, coffee maker and organic gourmet coffee, fluffy bath robes, a waterfall shower and an oversized tub located in the bedroom to soak in. The mini-bar is stocked with Dean & Deluca snacks and an assortment of beverages. When you check-in ask the front desk to "unlock" your mini-bar, it took us about ten minutes of fighting with the thing to figure out we had to call the front desk to open it up!

Overall the Avia Hotel Napa is a great hotel for couples staying in Napa. Its conveniently located downtown so you don't have to drive to get a meal or glass of wine. The hotel is contemporary and stylish and quiet which is nice after a hard day of wine tasting.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sun, Surf and All-Night Dance Parties

Nha Trang Beach
Nha Trang, a seaside resort town located on the south central coast, is Vietnam’s beach capital. Nha Trang attracts many types of visitors, from sun worshipers, to scuba diving enthusiasts, to the hard core party goers. If you are looking to explore another side of Vietnam and still catch a few historical sites between mojitos and all-night dance parties, then Nha Trang is your ultimate destination. This idyllic seaside community with its backdrop of jutting mountain tops, palm tree lined white sand beaches, and turquoise colored water dotted with islands offers a plethora of activities to keep you busy.

Nha Trang Beach and Surrounding Islands
The number one attraction in Nha Trang is the beach. For beach bums, the best time to visit is June to October in the dry season but the beach is usually busy with tourists and locals year round. Nha Trang’s 6 kilometer stretch of white sand beach is lined with palm trees, water front promenades, and oceanfront resorts from budget to 5-stars. During the day, the beach is full of activity with vendors selling everything from cigarettes to sunglasses to lunch. Local vendors steam up lobsters, prawns and other delicious seafood in large cast iron pots, and slice up exotic fruits for tourists right next to where they are laying in the sand.  In addition to catching rays on the beach, you can rent a pool side deck chair and enjoy the western style beach resort atmosphere at either one of Nha Trang’s popular pools: Nha Trang Sailing Club or the Louisiana Brewhouse.
Fishing village
Nha Trang offers an assortment of water sports and activities. For the adrenaline junkies, the best time to visit is October through February in the wet season when the sea is rougher.  Numerous shops along the beach offer equipment rental and lessons for kayaking, wake boarding, wind surfing, sailing, jet skiing, paragliding, body boarding and snorkeling. Nha Trang is also the number one scuba diving destination in Vietnam offering the best visibility and cheap PADI certification. If you aren’t into adventure you can enjoy more relaxing water based fun at Phu Dong Water Park located near the beach or the island resort of Vinpearl Land accessible by a scenic cable car with amusement park style rides, arcade games and a water park. A great way to also enjoy the water is on a boat tour of the outlying islands of Nha Trang. For dirt cheap you can take a boat tour visiting four of the nine islands: Mieu Island, Ebony Island, Swallow Island and Bamboo Island. For a break from the sun and surf visit one of the many spas offering cheap massage. The Thap Ba Hot Springs, located a few kilometers outside of Nha Trang, provides the ultimate in relaxation with hot springs, mud baths and a hot artificial mineral waterfall. You can organize a private spa trip with a group of friends for a discount or be a big spender and enjoy the VIP spa.
Po Nagar Cham Towers
 The best way to see the city’s cultural sites is by bike. Po Nagar (Thap Ba) Cham Towers are located north two kilometers outside the city across the Cai River. The towers were built by the Cham civilization between the 7th and 12th century and sit on top of a hill providing beautiful views of the harbor below. Only four of the eight original towers still stand with the tallest being 23 meters high. On your way back to town take some time to visit the fishing village located between the old and new bridges and the “real” Nha Trang, a bustling Vietnamese city vastly different than the seaside resort town along the coast. To the west of town is Long Son Pagoda, a Buddhist temple founded in the late 19th century, still home to resident monks. At the top of the hill, behind the pagoda, is a 79-foot tall giant white seated Buddha visible from town. Climb to the top of the hill for stunning panoramic views of the city and bay.

Giant White Seated Buddha

Take a ride south and visit the Oceanographic Institute and Bao Dai’s Villas, a beautiful example of French colonial architecture and the former residence of the last king Bao Dai. The grounds are lush and well manicured and it’s a great place to enjoy a leisurely lunch overlooking the sea on a hot day.
At night, a different side of Nha Trang comes alive. Known as the Cancun, Mexico of Vietnam, you can party all night in Nha Trang. Most nights the beach district is teeming with locals and tourists drinking at bars, dancing at clubs and partying in the streets. The best place in town to dance is the Nha Trang Sailing Club, which hosts its very own version of Koh Phangan’s famous all night Full Moon Party called Insomnia. Another way to join in on the debauchery of Nha Trang is to take a booze cruise, an all-you-can-drink party boat on a scenic trip around the bay. If you aren’t ready to shake it, head to one of Vietnam’s tradition local bars called a “bai hoi” for cheap keg beer curbside. The city also offers a more relaxing evening at one of the many waterfront restaurants along the beach. There’s a wide range of choices, from Western to Vietnamese cuisine to local seafood specialties. For cheaper food try the restaurants in town or the waterfront restaurants away from the main tourist district. A popular option is Lac Canh, one of the busiest local restaurants in Nha Trang located near the Cai River area. 
Nha Trang Bay is widely considered among the world’s most beautiful bays and is fast becoming a popular destination with international travelers of all ages. Whether you spend your days kayaking the bay or relaxing on the beach, Nha Trang has an assortment of activities to please just about everyone.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Baker and Banker: Foodie with an attitude

For our third anniversary, John and I went to Baker and Banker in Pacific Heights. We live one block from the restaurant and I pass it everyday on my way home from the bus so I was super excited to try it. The restaurant is small and seats about 50 people. Its classic old school Pacific Heights, with dark wood and snooty patrons. We might have been the youngest people in the restaurant, so its not the hip and happening spot I had hoped for. Its more of a place you take your wealthy aunt and uncle from out of town.

Happily, we were seated right away. The only problem is that the two tops are all in a row on the left side of the restaurant and closely spaced together. I could have easily joined in on the conversations around us. In classic Pacific Heights fashion the table of two ladies to our right were complaining about their son's boarding schools. Oh heavens! And the table to our left were giving each other the judging eye at our lack of foodie knowledge. Our server promptly greeted us and took our drink order. She proceeded to explain the appetizer special of an Italian white truffle dish which 'the chef had procured' for a banging $40. At this point she pretty much lost John with her floral explanations of the food and I was soon to follow.

I ordered the Panko Crusted Hama Hama Oysters for an appetizer and John ordered the Braised Monterey Bay Calamari. Both were OK, even though the oysters were beautifully plated, I wasn't impressed with the flavors nor was I impressed with the calamari which reminded me more of a tomato soup with calamari than a proper appetizer. We both ordered the Housemade Pappardelle with Braised Short Ribs for our entree. The entrees were delicious but I would have rather the short ribs not be shredded but more larger solid pieces.

One aspect of the restaurant that I was disappointed in was the service. I would have liked to see the team work together rather than everyone have distinct roles in the restaurant. At one point, our appetizer plates had yet to be cleared after we had been finished for over 5 minutes. Our server came by and asked how it was, but never took our plates, the maitre d' came by and said hello but still no plates cleared. I watched as the bus boy systematically went around the restaurant as the servers and other staff did nothing to assist. I worked in the restaurant industry for many years and understand how you have your duties in the restaurant but to stick to your server role and not clear a dish is completely unacceptable to me and makes me feel like there is social stratification at work here. The staff of the restaurant should work together not in parallel or against each other. In all I give the restaurant 3 stars for being beautifully decorated and for the food. I would have given the restaurant 4 stars had the service been better.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dreams Puerto Aventuras

The Dreams resort in Puerto Aventuras is an excellent value set in a beautiful location. Puerto Aventuras is a private gated residential community located in the Riviera Maya on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. I would recommend the private community setting to people traveling with small children or to people who want an American feel to their Mexican vacation, not to backpackers or people looking for the 'real' Mexico. Once you pass the gatehouse, it's beautiful but it really doesn't feel like your in Mexico.

Overall Dreams is a wonderful vacation spot. The all-inclusive resort is situated on a private beach and backs to the Puerto Aventuras Marina. The resort is small in size compared to the mega resorts of Cancun and the Riviera Maya. With only 305 rooms, the resort is manageable and every room has either a Marina or Ocean view.

Rooms: We stayed in a marina view room on the 3rd floor. We had exceptional views of Puerto Aventuras and the marina and enjoyed sunset and happy hour on our balcony almost nightly. Once we even saw a stingray in the water directly in front of us. Upon arrival, we were surprised to find the room had a second floor lounge. We really didn't see the point in the second floor unless you had small children who could sleep on the futon, but it's really not the best place for kids because the exposed spiral staircase is much too dangerous for kids. Overall, the room was nicely decorated and very clean. Our mini bar was stocked each day with bottled soda, water, Coronitas and an orange juice. We had a coffee maker but never actually given any coffee to make by housekeeping. The bathrooms were modern and the water always hot. Funny thing about the bathroom was the "convenient" phone by the toilet that only called out to the US, Canada and UK.

Pools/Beach: The resort has two pool areas each with a swim up bar, the activity/all ages pool and the adults only pool. The activities pool starts to get loud early, so if you had an ocean view room, we heard it was hard to sleep in. The activities pool is large in size and is attached to a 30 person whirlpool. The sun sets first over the activities pool, so most adults either move to the adult pool on the other side of the resort which gets a half hour more sun or move to the whirlpool for sunset and happy hour. Although, the adults pool is quiet all day, it does get a little louder at happy hour though. My favorite pool was the quieter adult pool as the activities pool was a bit too Cancun party-party for me.

The beach was absolutely beautiful with white sand and crystal clear water. The beach is small but comparable for the size of the resort. Chairs were plentiful and you could always find a quiet spot to read and relax. The beach service was fast and offered sandwiches, salads and drinks so you could be extremely lazy and never leave your chair. The water is active with small fish in the beach's shallow area so beware if you aren't a fish person. To the right of the beach was a natural rock saltwater pool for swimming and snorkeling; however, one day a small nurse shark found its way into the water and caused a bit of excitement on the beach.

Activities: The resort offers a plethora of activities. Each morning we picked up a copy of the Sundial resort newsletter which detailed restaurant availability and the activities for the day, rain or shine. The resort offered an Explorer's Club for kids which was nice because then most of the kids were cooped up in their own private area. The daily activities ran by the Dreams Entertainment Team centered around the pool and beach including: volleyball, yoga, water aerobics, ping pong, bungee trampoline, etc. The beach also offered free water sport equipment such as kayaks, Hobie cats, and snorkel and windsurf equipment. The nightly activities consisted of a show in the cruise ship like theater. We hit the Mexican dancing show, the Elvis impersonator show and the Halloween show. All slightly cheesy but entertaining as you know the dancers and singers put a lot of work into it. Nightly on the beach was either a movie or American sporting event projected on a big screen or a performance show such as "Dreams Idol" or the Fire and Rain show. The activities kept people busy and the staff always tried to get everyone involved but quickly left you alone if you didn't want to participate.

Food/Beverage: The resort offers your choice of 7 restaurants and 4 bars. All  food and beverages are included in the all-inclusive price unless you "upgrade" your dinner for the lobster or your drink for a specialty bottle of wine. Every day at least 3 different restaurants are open for dinner with the World Cafe and Seaside Grill open for lunch. We never ran into more than a five minute wait for a table for two even during the busier hours. My favorite restaurants were: Gohan for sushi, Seaside Grill for steak and other traditional grilled items and Portofino for Italian. The traditional Mexican restaurant, El Patio wasn't anything to write home about, I could get the fajitas I ate at any basic Mexican restaurant in America. The adults-only Oceana was my least favorite as it didn't have a wide selection of fresh seafood choices. The World Cafe, the family orientated buffet open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, was your standard buffet with food for the masses. The World Cafe was very nice option for a quick afternoon snack if you weren't interested in having a hot dog or hamburger at the beach side Barefoot Grill. Also, you could order room service 24 hours a day free of charge. The food was good for an all-inclusive restaurant, better than I have had before, but the flavors were bland as it had to appeal to the masses.

The resort had 4 bars to choose from. During the day, the best spots were the swim up bars, Sugar Reef and Manatee. I really enjoyed hitting the beach side Barracuda bar at sunset and after dinner for a peaceful drink with a view and ocean breeze. The nightclub Desires, was entertaining for late night people watching and to catch a game in the afternoon. If you aren't interested in partying with crowd, you could always grab a drink and enjoy the view off your room's balcony.

Service: Overall, the service at the resort was great. The concierge, Gina, was very helpful when we checked in. She was pleasantly surprised to find out we had rented a car and would manage our own tours, unlike other concierges who would recommend the "safe" tours and provide us with vague directions to the local sites. We were extremely disappointed that the resort did not have a map of the surrounding area or offer to print one for us.

The rest resort staff and restaurant staff were always helpful and went above and beyond to make our stay enjoyable. We always tipped in the restaurants, bars and for room service. I loved to call room service (which is included) as whichever gal answered, she called me "Mrs. Hunt" and when I tried to correct her as that's not my name, she would say every time "OK, Mrs. Hunt." The resort provides you with "Resort Credit" which are really just $200 worth of coupons to use at their resort, such as $10 off a bottle of wine or $20 off a spa service. We never used our coupons and four days into our stay, the front desk called to see if we were OK and if we had lost them. Sadly for Dreams, we didn't spend a penny at the resort but we did have an excellent time!