Monday, December 18, 2017

The place to stay in Maui

Maui has two luxury resorts that one can choose from: Four Seasons Maui at Wailea and Ritz Carlton Kapalua.  But because Ritz Carlton is own by Marriott, the culture and finishes in the hotel is more Marriott like than smaller hotel luxury chains like Mandarin Oriental or Four Seasons.  For my first time visiting Maui, I stayed at Four Seasons Maui at Wailea.  I know this Four Seasons was recently renovated and I was curious to see how the finishes stack up to Four Seasons Lanai.

Unfortunately this Four Seasons resort is owned by Michael Dell (as in Dell Computer) not by Larry Ellison.  What this means is there is budgetary concern when it comes to remodeling.  Now of course it is unfair to compare this Four Seasons with the one on Lanai so I will hold the standard of this Four Seasons with other ones I've been to.

This Four Seasons has done many things right and just few things that needs some improvement.  To start, the layout of the hotel is a U shape.  What this means is that unless you are at the end of the U, or middle of the U, you will have side views to the ocean.  Not the end of the world but when one comes to Hawaii, naturally one wants to have ocean view to watch the sunset.  This shape of architecture is prevalent among many hotels here in Maui.  It's the easiest way to give everyone some ocean view while stacking up as many room as possible in a limited amount of space.  I'm sure it was thought through thoroughly by the building architect.  So if you want the best view, you will naturally have to pay a steep premium.  I do think for the product, the steepness of the price is on the high side.  A side note, if you want a quick access to the beach and restaurants, the rooms at the end of the U has the quickest access in addition to gorgeous views.  If you are at the middle of the U shape, it'll be a 10-15 minutes to trek to the beach.

My first impression of the lobby is nice and airy.  It exude graciousness like most Four Seasons resort I had the pleasure to stay at.  The overall ambiance is relaxed and calm.  There is actually another floor below the entrance which has spa, shops, and gym.  They have one of the nicer gym I've seen at a Four Seasons resort. It's quite large and there is a dedicated area for treadmills that look out toward the beach area.  Although I'm not sure if you can actually see the ocean from the treadmills or not.  I also did not use the spa service as I was too busy exploring the island.  So can't comment on the spa service either.

I would say food is Four Seasons good.  Meaning it's not bad but I certainly would not write home about it.  As can be expected, Spago was the best.  The worse food was Ferraro's Bar e Ristorante.  It has the best view of the ocean but I honestly cannot recommend anyone to eat there.  The pasta I had was overcooked and sauce was not good.  The in room breakfast was good.  There were lots of fresh juice choices.  A lot more than the Four Seasons at Lanai.  I think it's because Lanai has to import all their fruit whereas Maui has their own.

I stayed at the Elite suite which I highly recommend it.  Even though the website only has two bedroom or three bedroom options available, you can actually request for one bedroom option which is what I had.  The room was very modern which I liked and you can tell everything was quite new.  The finish of the furniture wasn't quite on the same level as my suite at Four Seasons Lanai but it was definitely one of the nicer suites I had at a Four Seasons resort.  The way this suite is set up, you can easily fit a family of four.  This suite actually has two full bathrooms so kids can sleep on sofa bed in the living room and have their own bathroom.  There is also a kitchenette with its own door that lead to hallway in case you decide to hire a caterer to host a party.  The master bathroom was basically lined with beautiful Carrara marble.  It looks very modern and luxurious.  The only criticism I have is that I wish the tub is a two person tub instead of just one.  There was definitely enough space to put a two person tub.  The best part of the suite was the lanai.  The sunset view at this resort is absolutely stunning.  Everyday I rush back to my suite at 5PM to take in the view.  The sunset view here definitely has Lanai Four Seasons beat.

You may have read that people complaint about having to rush down to the pool to reserve their chaise lounges early in the morning.  I find that a bit ridiculous as they should just do what Eden Rock does: each room comes with its own assigned chaise lounge.  I know this Four Seasons doesn't have enough chaise lounges for every room.  But I would think they should minimally assign chaise lounges for the residential suites.  After all, people at residential suites are paying a lot more than typical rooms at the resort and should not have to rush down early in the morning to snatch chaise lounges.  With that said, I don't particularly care for the swimming pool... I much rather go swim in the ocean.  The second best part of this resort is snorkeling with turtles.  I'm not sure why, the turtles come out en force to swim just right off the beach at Four Seasons Maui.  I must had swam with four five giant turtles.  One of them was bigger than me!  Crazy!  I can stay in that water swimming with those turtle for days.  But alas, all good things have to come to an end.

Unfortunately I had to say goodbye to this resort after five days.  I think if this was your first time at Maui, this Four Seasons is a terrific jumping off point.  The only thing that would give me any reservation about staying here would be the price. Vacationing in Hawaii is never cheap but the best rooms at this hotel will definitely cost you an arm and a leg.  Do look into their offers tab.  If you stay at a suite in the fall, you will get a nightly resort credit of $400 which will cover your breakfast and dinner (unless you get very expensive wine) during your stay.   

Friday, December 15, 2017

Four Seasons in Buenos Aires

This Four Seasons is one of those Four Seasons that I like but not head over heel for.  I do think it is difficult to operate an urban Four Seasons as the number of rooms tend to be higher and traffic is more mixed in terms of none staying guests going in and out of the hotel.  With that said, the only other luxury alternative is Faena Hotel and that hotel has its own deficit as the choices is limited.

The location of this Four Seasons is very good.  It's at an area called Recoleta which is one of the best neighborhood in Buenos Aires.  The hotel is actually at the end of a very wide boulevard called Ave 9 de Julio.  In fact, it is the widest boulevard in the world.  The boulevard more or less ends next to the hotel and becomes a freeway.  Typically it wouldn't necessarily be a good thing to stay at a hotel next to the entrance to a freeway.  But in this case, somehow it didn't feel like a negative.  In fact, it might be a plus if you are looking to get in and out of the city quickly.  The Museo Nacional de bellas Artes is within walking distance from the hotel as well as the fame cemeterio de le Recoleta where Eva Peron is burried.  There are few other museums I didn't get to go such as Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo in the area.  Next time.

I can't say I particularly like the lobby at this Four Seasons.  Most Four Seasons go with clean line stately look with lots and lots of beautifully arranged flowers.  This one has an Eastern European fashionable look which is not my cup of tea.  It doesn't mean the lobby is ugly but just not my taste.  The Belle Epoque-style mansion on the back of the hotel is quite nice.  The mansion is connect with the hotel via a podium.  The podium level of the mansion serves as event space.  I did a walk through of the space and wish the lobby of the hotel is in the mansion.  The look is much more gracious to me and in keeping of typical Four Seasons style.

I stayed at the Mansion-view one bedroom suite.  Above this would be rooms in the mansion which has rooms decorated in traditional style which I didn't want for my stay at Buenos Aires.  The owners suite looks quite nice but it's close to three times as much as the mansion-view one bedroom suite and it's only 200 sqft bigger.  It does seem to have a fabulous view though.  I was plenty happy with the one bedroom suite I had.  I love that they have two separate bathrooms.  It's always a plus in my book.  The finishes in the living room and bedroom is nice.  The bathroom looks new and water pressure is good.  The closet was a bit on the smaller side.  It was a walk-in closet but it's a one person walk-in closet so that should give you a good idea of the size.

I had dinner at the Elena restaurant.  I really enjoyed it.  I thought the decor was on point.  I love the black and white marble tiles.  I can just imagine people doing tango on top of it!  It just feels very Argentinean.  I had a steak which was perfectly cooked.  Tip: Remember in Argentina, medium rare means medium well.  If you want medium rare, order rare.  There are lots of local Argentinean in the restaurant which is a great sign.  You know locals can go anywhere and they decided to patronize Elena so you know it's good.  Indeed, it's one of the top three meal we had in Buenos Aires.

The hotel concierge is fabulous and they arranged for me to go to Colonial in Uruguay, an estancia in Pampas region, and a tango dinner at Faena Hotel.  I would highly recommend the tango dinner.  The food, as can be expected, was just ok.  The dancers and choreography were out of this world.  It was so good.  I feel like I should take up tango for cardio exercise!  I didn't get to visit the hotel rooms at Faena hotel.  The decor of the public area of Faena I do like.  It's modern but in a French not Eastern European way if you know what I mean.  However, this hotel has two drawbacks for me: the room decor feels borderline tacky from pictures online and the hotel is in the Puerto Madero area which isn't exactly close to tourist attractions.  Hence I was happy I had chosen Four Seasons over Faena.

When I go back to Buenos Aires, I would definitely stay at Four Seasons again.  This place is at a great location.  It has delectable food at its signature restaurant.  The service standard is good although it can be better.  I do wonder since I am in South America not Asia, the service here is probably as good as it gets.  And what score would Bruno Tonioli have given to this Four Seasons? I say a solid 8.        

Monday, December 4, 2017

Luxury in Patagonia

Patagonia, for the longest time, isn't exactly the place where one can find a luxury resort.  Instead, it's about hiking, camping, wind, and gorgeous views.  Thank god that Awasi came along and set up "camp" near Torres del Paine.  Otherwise I don't think I would have ever come to this part of the earth.  While I never stayed at Explora Patagonia before, but having visited it briefly and seen various pictures online, I feel I had made the right choice for me by staying at Awasi Patagonia.  I will go into the difference I see between the two resorts so you can decide better for yourself which is more preferable for you when you come to Patagonia.

Location: Awasi Patagonia is located outside of Torres del Paine National Park.  In fact, it takes about an hour or so to get to the entrance of the park and another half hour to get to where most hikers take a boat out to start the W-trek.  So this is the dilemma for visitors: to stay at Explora Patagonia which is right in the middle of the park or to stay at Awasi and take the daily car ride in and out of the park.  It really depends on what you are looking for.  For me, Awasi Patagonia is a perfect location as I can look directly onto the famous three towers every morning when I wake up and when I go to bed (sun is up until 10PM at this time of the year).  The decision is similar to when one go to Bora Bora in French Polynesia.  Do you stay at the foothill of  Otemanu or do you stay at islets and look at Mount Otemanu.  Most people would argue that when going to Bora Bora, they want the Otemanu view from islets.  To me, this is no different.  Since I'm not an avid hiker and my purpose to come to Patagonia is so I can get photos for my instagram account (joking), Awasi was a better choice for me.

Lodging: Awasi wins hands down.  The rooms at Explora Patagonia is small.  The largest room is 450 square feet and those get booked up very quickly.  Then you are left with a tight 300 square feet rooms.  No thanks.  I get that coming to Patagonia, you are not going to stay inside all day.  It's about experiencing the nature outside.  However, when I do decide to stay inside, I want to feel comfortable and not claustrophobic.  At Awasi, every independent lodge (read lots of privacy) is 1200 square feet.  Not only it's substantially bigger, the furnishing is also much much better.  Explora Patagonia looks like a nice dorm room with a bathroom that 1990s are calling and they want it back whereas Awasi Patagonia looks like a proper luxury resort bathroom.  With that said, I had issues with my shower temperature during my four night stay going from warm to hot to warm to hot which was annoying but not a deal breaker.  Management was never able to fix it during my stay.  Talking to other guests, they didn't have the same problem so I guess it was just bad luck for me and hopefully they fixed the lodge I stayed quickly before another guest arrives.          

Food: The food at Awasi was exceptional for a resort in the middle of nowhere.  I was really impressed with the plating and taste of the food.  I would say food was around bib gourmand to one Michelin star level (closer to one Michelin star).  Chef used lots of local ingredients and service was friendly but not intrusive.  In fact, I would say restaurant staff here were some of the very best I've encountered anywhere at a resort setting.  They found out your habit and things will magically appear without asking.  I like to drink ice tea with my meal and after the first meal, I never had to ask for it again during my stay.  That gives you a glimpse of the amount of personal attention one gets when one stays here.

Guide: I was very happy with my guide.  He drove me everywhere and anywhere I asked.  We went to Torres del Paine national park as well as many other places outside of the national park.  I like the idea of having my private guide.  He caters to my schedule and not the other way around.  I know at Explora Patagonia you are put in a group and you are on a schedule.  So if you are stuck with people like me who barely hikes, then too bad for you... we are going to hike at a turtle pace.  Having a private guide, I can sleep in and start my day at 11AM.  I never have to cater to anyone else's whim except my own.  This is the way luxury travel should be.

Facility: Awasi Patagonia has one single main building where you can lounge or take in food.  Unfortunately there is no spa facility and if you want a massage, a masseuse will come to your lodge.  There is a firewood hot tub next to your villa.  Yes, you read that right, literally firewood.  The idea is great.  How often does one actually get to sit inside of a tub of water that's warm by firewood.  On the other hand, if you come here during windy seasons (spring, summer, fall), then there is a good chance the wind is too dangerous for them to lit up fire under your wooden tub outside.  To me, the idea of firewood tub is cute and romantic, but someone forgot it's really really really windy here in Patagonia ALL THE TIME (except winter as I was told).  A jacuzzi tub powered by electric makes much more sense IMO.

Activities: I stayed four nights and five days.  It was the perfect amount of time for me.  The first day was just arrival.  Currently LATAM flies to Puerto Natales on Tuesdays and leave on Saturdays which fit into my schedule to a T.  If you arrive at Punta Areanas (which LATAM flies to daily from Santiago), then you will have to take a 5 hour car ride after you land whereas Puerto Natales is hour and a half from the resort.  Much more doable IMO.  The second day I spend the whole day inside the Torres del Paine and saw waterfalls (with crazy strong wind), Lake Pehoe, lots of guanaca, and various mountains .  The third day I went to Baguales area which is about an hour and a half away from the resort.  Apparently Awasi rents access to this area from various owners and they are the only resort in the area has access to the very end of the road where I saw a profusion of dandelions.  It was stunning.  Because this area is private, you don't see hoards of tourists like Torres del Paine has.  The fourth day, I went to Grey Lake inside the Torres del Paine National Park.  Unfortunately the wind was so strong that day they cancelled the boat tour to glacier.  I did see some icebergs and you can see the glacier from afar.  My first time.  The last day was time to pack up and go back to civilization.  So five days was perfect.  If you only stay three nights, you will have to miss some stuff.  If you are very into hiking, then you will need easily eight nights nine days if not longer.  For a city slicker like me, four nights and five days was perfect.    

Overall, I was very happy with my choice of lodging.  Honestly, if you are looking for luxury lodging options in Patagonia, this is the only choice.  In fact, this place is reminiscent of experiences I have at various Aman resorts.  I would not be surprised if the owner of Awasi is an Amanjunkie.  If you stayed at Aman resorts before, you know they give you little gifts nightly.  At Awasi Patagonia, they do the same.  Also everyone here knows who you are just like at Aman resorts.  They know your preferences and you never have to repeat yourself over and over again like when one stays at those big anonymous Starwood properties.  If you are totally gung ho about hiking inside the national park all day and everyday you are here, then I would probably recommend you to go to Explora Patagonia despite their inferior lodging and food.  If you are looking for a true luxury experience with varied destinations beside Torres del Paine national park, then Awasi Patagonia will be better for you.