Rome’s Hotel Canada is an elegant joy

Rome’s 19th century Hotel Canada exudes my kind of quiet, understated elegance, comfort, and tranquility. More like a boutique property, it has just 72 rooms, all beautifully appointed and maintained with period furnishings. The hotel occupies part of an 1870 palazzo in Rome’s historic district. The place has the solid feeling of permanence and grace that I associate with the finest old English hotels.

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The discreet front entrance of Rome’s Hotel Canada respects the posh residential neighborhood.

These pictures show off my room, the view from my terrace, and the public areas on the ground floor, all confirming that the Hotel Canada in Rome ain’t a Marriott in Missoula!

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Even the front desk at Hotel Canada is elegant.
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The wonderful vintage birdcage elevator at Hotel Canada.

Hotel Canada is a Best Western affiliate, but it’s Roman to the core. I love it for its beauty, comfort, and lack of pretension. Also because it is unique, not a chain hotel, despite being affiliated with one.

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My room at Rome;’s Hotel Canada
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My room and the terrace at Hotel Canada.
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Hotel Canada interior rooms look down from the terraces onto expensive Roman flats.

The dining room has a huge breakfast spread with every imaginable morning food item. It was included in my rate, as well as complimentary afternoon drinks and snacks in the equally elegant bar, all of which I enjoyed reaching on the ground floor via the marvelous, ancient birdcage elevator.

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The elegant bathroom in my Hotel Canada room.
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The hand-painted ceiling in my beautifully appointed and well-kept room.

I never tired of the old birdcage elevator, a prism through which I flash on an earlier time in my life. In 1975-76, when I lived in Munich and worked all over the Continent, my company maintained a flat in Brussels in an ancient building with a similar birdcage elevator. I was very happy in that job (Manager of European Operations), a magic period, and I was regularly in temporary residence in that beautiful old Brussels apartment building. I used it as a base for our busy student charter flight operation in and out of Brussels.

Somehow I associated the Hotel Canada’s slow but reliable birdcage lift with the potpourri of memories I have of that place and era: bitter cold early mornings at the gritty Brussels train station open air bars watching Belgium businessmen with leathery faces in heavy wool topcoats chain-smoking harsh Gauloises cigarettes while gulping down multiple shots of cheap brandy on their way to work, the endless fields of brilliant red poppies blooming along the tracks of the train to the Brussels airport, the breathtaking beauty of the Grand-Place de Bruxelles with its medieval guild halls and the exquisite escargot served in the grand plaza’s outdoor cafes.

And many more fond memories. All reminding me why I like to travel in the first place.

But I digress. Why is a Roman hotel called “Canada,” for goodness sake? For a fascinating answer, see here.

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The breakfast buffet area at Hotel Canada.  The huge breakfast was included in my room rate.
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Just part of the gorgeous lobby and public areas, including a bar.

Getting there is easy from Roma Termini (main train station). I took a cab to the hotel for €6. I had planned to walk, as the hotel is easily doable on foot from the station, but I had a nasty fall on my right knee in a dark passageway a couple of days earlier at the Villa il Poggiale in San Casciano (near Florence), so I was temporarily limping.

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4th floor map showing the room layouts.

No one on either a business or a leisure trip will be disappointed in this hotel. What a bargain at $120/night including a huge breakfast buffet!

I miss Rome’s marvelous Hotel Canada. I don’t often say that about a hotel.

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Unique Peruvian hotels

On a recent trip to Peru with our daughter over Spring Break, our arrangements were bundled in order to assure optimal entrance times and a guide at Machu Picchu.  My job was limited to making air reservations to Lima and return, which I wrote about last week.

The bundling included hotel reservations in Lima, Cusco, and Aguas Calientes (at the base of Machu Picchu). I had no oversight, or even visibility, until we walked into each property. I had to forget the consistency of a Sheraton; every Peruvian hotel had its own character. Here are my real-time notes:

TAMBO PERU 2 HOTEL, LIMA

Our Lima Airport airport-to-hotel transfer rep met us just outside immigration as planned. Forty-five minutes after leaving the airport, we arrived at our hotel in Lima’s tony Miraflores neighborhood near the Pacific Ocean. The drive was tortuous, but fascinating, through the thriving beat of late Friday night traffic.

I guess the fellow who made the hotel arrangements for us in Lima inadvertently set my expectations at a high level. Because our hotel, the Tambo Peru 2 (of three in Lima), was a letdown. I’m pretty sure a photo of this place appears in the dictionary under the entry “charmless”. Nothing about the physical property is endearing, though the staff is friendly and helpful.

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That said, the Tambo Peru 2 is perfectly safe, clean, and serviceable. It just isn’t the level of hotel that I thought we paid for.

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View from our sole room window at the Tambo

The following morning, after a forgettable breakfast at the hotel (included), we had a taxi drop us in downtown (old town) Lima at the Plaza San Martin. The elegant old Gran Hotel Bolivar was our first stop.

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Main lobby at the Gran Hotel Bolivar

Not the fine hotel it once was, but still a beautiful building in the grand early 20th century colonial style. Its faded glory certainly eclipsed that of the Tambo 2 Hotel. .

Back at our hotel later that day, we walked around the Miraflores streets nearby. I was surprised to spot the Mercure Hotel Lima just around the corner.  After our fine experience at the Mercure in Vienna  in January, I was wishing we had been booked there. The Tambo was clean and safe, but nothing extra whatsoever.

TERRA ANDINA HOTE, CUSCO

The Terra Andina is a grand old building, formerly a large private residence, now converted to a hotel. It’s conveniently located close to Plaza San Pedro, the big local market. Plaza San Francisco and Plaza de Armas (the main square) are with reasonable walking distance.

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The hotel is fine, but with the sort of idiosyncrasies that tend to bedevil non-chain properties. Like ’em or hate “em, the Hiltons and Marriotts of the world have standardized the things that ensure our comfort. Our impressive modern-looking shower in the Terra Andina, for instance, dribbled only a pathetic stream of tepid water and never got hot. The mattresses were uncomfortable thick foam that got terribly hot in the night, as did the too-thick foam pillows. The bedside lights were inadequate for reading. The room safe wasn’t bolted down and could have easily been carted away by a thief.

Also, the buffet breakfast didn’t impress me. My wife and daughter found it perfectly acceptable, however, so what do I know?

I have long ago come to take such basic creature comforts for granted in hotels. Even Days Inn does a better job in delivering those basics than the Terra Andina. But, of course, the Andina makes up in unique charm what it lacks in the details.

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Terra Andina covered courtyard

HANAQPACHA INN HOTEL, AGUAS CALIENTES

We enjoyed a super deluxe hotel in Aguas Calientes…well, okay, a slight exaggeration. Maybe even an outright lie.

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View from our window at the Hanaqpacha Inn Hotel

At least we have a view now. The hotel initially assigned us a room in the back of the building with no windows at all and only a single dim bulb working. The only other room light was broken. It resembled a forgotten dank storeroom more than a hotel bedroom. I politely but firmly explained our unwillingness to accept that accommodation, resulting in being switched to one of their best rooms on the front. This one has stunning views , such as of the hotplate on the table in the one-room flat across the alley, and at no extra cost!

 

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That is the Hanaqpacha Inn Hotel entrance on the right just beyond the smiling man

Deluxe? Not. All kidding aside, though, this is exactly the kind of modest, but clean and safe hotel that my wife and I would have researched and selected for ourselves. The reason I’m grousing is that for this trip, to make it special for our daughter, we opted to let a tour operator arrange everything, and, just like my disappointment in the Lima hotel, we were led to believe this property was much better than it is. It’s a matter of setting expectations.

I looked up the property. The Hanaqpacha Inn Hotel (perhaps management felt two descriptors would attract double the custom), for several dates, including this week (Catholic Holy Week, which is high season). Rooms for two with breakfast were consistently $39/night, for three (2 adults and 1 child), $49 nightly including breakfast. I’m pretty sure a tour operator would get a discount below those public rates.

The Hanqpacha is fine and dandy at those price levels. In addition to breakfast of some sort, the wifi works well, and the amazing shower (lots of hot water and torrential water pressure) almost redeems the dismal location. The staff is super-nice, too, and, to repeat two important base elements of any hotel, it is safe and clean. I just feel we aren’t getting what we paid the tour operator for.

BACK AT TERRA ANDINA, CUSCO

Not sure what we did to deserve this nice suite (208) at the Terra Andina hotel here in Cusco, but it sure was a great surprise to be already checked into it last night when arrived exhausted from the day of climbing at Machu Picchu and then the train and van rides.

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Photos don’t do the 2-room suite and luxury bathroom (with huge tub and separate glass shower) justice. Still has the same uncomfortable foam mattresses, but the hot water works well in this room, and with plenty of pressure.

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Maybe it was the nice tip I left the staff here before we departed for Aguas Calientes. I think I reported how great the hotel staff is here, nice enough to overcome my nits and make me want to return. So I rewarded them.

IN SUM

All three hotels in Peru were fine because they were safe and clean.  As I said about the property in Aguas Calientes, all three were exactly what my wife and I might have selected for ourselves, which is how we ordinarily plan our trips (that is, we arrange most everything). We just didn’t get what we paid for, a different issue.  The hotels were fine for holiday travel, but probably not for most business travelers. Each property was a total surprise, a nice contrast from the predictable monotony of major chain hotels,

Never again Latam to Peru

Our daughter is a high school sophomore, and she wanted to see Peru over Spring Break: Lima, Cusco, and Machu Picchu. My wife and I agreed, and I chose Latam Airlines for our air carrier. Now that it’s over, I regret that decision and would not fly Latam again in coach.

Looking at air travel alternatives between Raleigh (RDU airport) and Lima as I planned our trip, I quickly discovered that flying Delta or American on actual DL or AA flights was a good deal more expensive (by $200 or more per person) compared to a code share fare RDU/LIM using oneworld partner Latam Airlines.

No coach fare to Peru was cheap, but okay, we were going over Holy Week (Easter) to a predominately Catholic country.  The Latam routing was RDU/MIA/LIM, with the Miami connection flight legs on American Airlines going and returning.

Latam looked doable, with a short five and a half hour flight Miami to Lima that landed us in Peru at 10:15 PM. I had never flown on Latam and didn’t know what to expect, but heck, I thought, five hours is a piece of cake compared to 19 hours nonstop Newark to Singapore. So I booked the Latam code share to save us hundreds of dollars.

Both Latam flights were 767 airplanes, which seatguru.com reported were 32” pitch and 18” width in economy. Minimal comfort, but better than the other Latam aircraft configurations with seat width a confining 17.3”. Even so, I decided we needed seats as far forward as possible.

When I contacted the airline, I was told that seat assignments right behind business class cost extra, even though those chairs are no different from the endless rows of sardine class seats behind them.  I eventually agreed to pony up over a hundred bucks (altogether) for the three of us to get seats in the first three rows behind business. I thought seats there would give us a leg up on boarding and finding overhead space for our bags (we never check luggage), and we would also be able to deplane sooner on arrival.  Turned out I was half right: We did get off ahead of most coach passengers.

I also contacted American and obtained seat assignments on the domestic connection flights (RDU/MIA/RDU) right behind first class.  As a Lifetime AAdvantage Gold Million Miler, I was not charged for those seat assignments.

RDU/MIA

When the day arrived, our first flight was a new 737-800 (no, not a MAX!), Once seated, first thing I noticed was that it was not equipped with screens. Instead, AA now expects that we will bring our own smartphone or tablet and use their wifi or our downloaded content to watch at your own expense, not the airline’s.  The two pictures below are of the nifty little seatback cradles American now provides to hold our devices.

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Personally, I think it’s a cheap cop-out to eliminate the screens, but I seem to be in the minority, as usual these days.

CONNECTING IN MIAMI FROM AMERICAN TO LATAM

On arrival at the sprawling AA complex at Miami, we had very little connection time. An American gate agent said that Latam left from the distant H concourse. Further, we were required, she said, to leave security, hoof it way down to that concourse, and then re-enter security.

A strike against Latam, I thought.  And American for not caring to make oneworld connections easy at a very busy international airport.

We took off as fast as we could, with less than an hour to connect.

It was indeed a long hike to the Latam H concourse. On arrival to the security screen, I realized that Latam does not participate in the TSA Pre-Check program as does AA.  We therefore had to take off our shoes and belts and remove liquids and so on from our bags, which took some time since we had not anticipated that requirement by making the items easy to reach.

One more black mark against Latam.

Finally clear, we rush down to the gate, where boarding was just commencing. There I noticed that Latam has installed columns with row number groups and asked passengers to line up behind the one that corresponded to their seat assignments.  We dutifully queued at the boarding stanchion that included our row, as shown below.

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Business Class and Latam elite passengers were first to board, naturally. Then rows were called by stanchion starting at the rear of the plane.  That meant we were going to board dead last despite the extra money I had spent on the seat assignments.

Latam was accumulating mental black marks faster than I could keep track of them.

I grumbled to my wife that I hoped the onboard flight attendants were monitoring the overhead bins to make sure that those over our most forward coach rows were remaining open for us when we were finally called.

On entering the aircraft, I was relieved to find enough—though barely sufficient—overhead bin space for us to stow our bags.  Those passengers who had preceded us had indeed taken much of the bins in the forward cabin with, apparently, no complaint from the cabin staff monitoring the boarding process.

Another strike against Latam.

Though we were among the last folks to find our seats, the plane sat at the gate for another half hour with no explanation.  And no air conditioning.  It was Miami in April, and hot.  The 767 cabin soon began to roast, with nary a whiff of air, let alone cool air, coming from the overhead vents.

We had not even left the gate, and already I was starting to loathe Latam Airlines.

MIAMI/LIMA

The Latam Airlines flight experience in coach from Miami to Lima was predictably claustrophobic. The guy in front of my seat reclined into my space, leaving me insufficient room even to hold up my hardback book to read. Was it really 32″ of pitch?  Didn’t feel like it.

To calm myself, I made feeble attempts at zen meditation and dreamed of the relative luxury and roominess of the previous week’s business class flight from Rome to JFK on Delta.

My meal of cold salmon and salad with yogurt dressing was tasty, to my happy surprise, and the young flight attendants handing out the prepackaged food trays were all smiles and enthusiasm. Alcoholic beverage service in coach was limited to lukewarm beer, cheap white wine, and really bad red wine, so I didn’t get the ice-cold Pisco Sour I had yearned for while enduring the sweltering sauna at the gate (Pisco Sour is the national drink of Peru).

I’ve rarely been so happy to leave an airplane as when we reached Lima at 10:15 PM. The uncomfortable ride in Latam’s coach cabin did not make me want to book the airline again.

Nor did the truly ancient, museum-ready seatback screens. Mine had continuous video and audio dropouts throughout the flight and was depressingly dim even at the highest brightness setting. I dreaded the idea of the return flight, but put it out of my mind to enjoy Peru, which we did, very much.

LIMA AIRPORT ON LEAVING PERU

Checked in to our Latam flight the night before online, a very tedious process requiring me to re-enter all our birth dates and passport numbers and our home address, even though I had entered all that online the previous week when we flew to Peru. Thank goodness for a strong wifi signal at our hotel, but yet another strike against Latam.

Still had to stop by the Latam counter to pick up our boarding passes. After a long wait while the nice counter agent repeatedly tried, Latam’s computer system was unable to print our AA boarding passes Miami to Raleigh. This despite Latam being a oneworld partner with AA and the tickets being Latam/AA code share.

First time that’s ever happened to me. I knew that would mean having to exit security at Miami, find the AA ticket counter, have our MIA/RDU boarding passes issued, and then re-enter security. Very inconvenient and avoidable. Another Latam demerit.

Lima Airport was not a terrible experience going through the various security and immigration screens. Faster than most International airports, really.

Stopped by the Hanaq VIP lounge—access thanks to my Priority Pass card—adjacent to gate 17. I’ve been to a lot of Priority Pass lounges worldwide, and they are all unique. Some are naturally better than others.

The Hanaq VIP lounge was exceptionally good (see photos below), and I highly recommend it. It is gigantic (3 levels), modern, sparkling clean, has a bar as well as at least three different eating areas (all well-stocked with a good variety of tasty hot and cold food), and shower rooms adjoin the clean and spacious lavatories. Plenty of plugs for recharging phones, tablets, and laptops, too.

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One cautionary note: We apparently arrived just before a rush. Despite its enormous size, the Hanaq VIP had a long queue waiting to get in as we departed, and there was no place to sit anywhere.

LIMA/MIAMI

Latam was at least consistent: Not much worked on the plane, and the trip was uncomfortable. Just like flying to Lima the previous week.

No A/C on board the airplane while at gate or in the air. No idea why not, and requests to make it cooler yielded no joy until three hours into the flight.

No seat controls worked for lights or to call flight attendants or to control video in the front coach cabin of the 767-300 airplane. When I asked the unsmiling flight crew, they just shrugged, mumbled “not work”, and moved on. So much for bilingual training, I guess.

Indifferent service throughout by a crew that looked like they hated their work and could hardly wait for the flight to end. Well, I could empathize.

Unlike the cold salmon plate going to Peru, the box lunch type meal was not good.

Just as on our outbound flight, the red wine was undrinkable, and my flimsy plastic cup only half filled.  Turned out that the low pour was a good thing, as I didn’t finish even that much. I should have known better than to order it, but hope springs eternal.

FAs hesitated to give us even a second glass of water. I had to beg, and again only received a half glass.

No toilet paper in the forward starboard coach lav, and no water from faucet. In both regards, very much like most Peruvian public toilets, but I didn’t expect that on an airplane.

On the positive side, the flight was on time.

Overall, I would give Latam a “D+” grade simply because we made it safely both ways and on time. That said, I will try hard to avoid booking the airline ever again in coach.

MIAMI/RALEIGH

American Airlines dropped my carefully pre-selected seat assignments (made seven months in advance) in the forward part of coach. The Miami elite counter agent could not explain why, though she hunted the history in the computer record and saw that our mighty good seats had once existed but had vanished. Her forensic analysis revealed only that we would have to plead for seats at the gate.  She gave me seat request cards to get us through security. At least the seat requests said “TSA Pre” so we could zip through.

I chatted up the gate agent and briefed her on our quandary.  She smiled and gave us three seats together in Main Cabin Extra. The seats were one row behind what I had originally selected many months before the AA system dumped them, but I thanked her graciously and did not say what I was thinking about the failure of AA and the needless anxiety and frustration.

We touched down in Raleigh just before midnight.

IN SUMMARY

A sample of one airline (Latam) is not enough to draw definitive conclusions. I can only say that stories from consulting colleagues who have recently flown to South America confirm that the level of service from Latin American carriers in general, Latam included, is inferior to that of Delta and American (I do not know of United’s rep to S.A). I would definitely not book Latam again except in Business.

Delta 767s in Delta One

Delta Air Lines puts just four seats across (1-2-1) in its international business cabin on the narrowest of widebodies, the 767 airplane, but it still feels tight. I thought all those Delta 767s were about the same, but recently I flew in Delta One on two of Delta’s 767 models, the 300 and the 400, and I was surprised to discern a comfort difference.

Delta Air Lines calls its international business class cabin “Delta One” to infer it is First Class, the luxurious way we used to fly going overseas.  Of course Delta One is not international First Class. That level of service is mostly dead now, and certainly gone from Delta, which only half-heartedly offered it when they began flying across the ponds that separate the continents.

Nonetheless, Delta One is quite comfortable on most aircraft equipped with the biz class chairs and service, so maybe I grouse too much.  I certainly love flying Delta One over any coach option.  My impressions of flying on two Delta 767 aircraft equipped with international cabins follows.

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Delta 767-300ER Delta One cabin showing staggered seats

767-300ER – In the Delta One cabin, I selected 1A. Seats are staggered on all Delta 767 aircraft to make them fit in what some analysts call a herringbone pattern.  Thus only the odd-numbered rows have windows directly adjacent to the windows on the port and starboard sides.  Even-numbered row seats are spaced about an arm’s length away from the windows.

The interior of the plane I flew was tired and wearing out. IFE (in-flight entertainment) system appeared to be an early generation with tiny screen and poor resolution. Looked like an old TV monitor. Blurry. How quickly I have been spoiled by the very large, razor-sharp, high-def LCD screens in more modern cabins.

The standard Delta One headphones are not noise-canceling on any Delta flight, but I always take my superb Bose headphones on long flights. I turned the standard issue headphones back to the flight attendants as soon as I boarded.

Cheap “Champagne” was barely chilled and had a repulsive flavor like I imagine hair tonic would taste. Plenty of legroom, but the seat was not comfortable: It was too narrow. SeatGuru.com says mine seat was 21” wide.  Maybe so, but it felt cramped.

The LA-based crew were all very nice and efficient. All smiles. They made it a good flight even if on a tired airplane that badly needs refreshing.

767-400ER – In Delta One, seat 3A. JFK to Rome.

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767-400ER Delta One seat 3A

Much more modern interior than the 767-300 aircraft. And with a bigger front cabin. Ancient tiny screens were too far away, not bright enough, and too fuzzy to watch movies easily.

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767-400ER Delta One cabin

Seats, like the -300 airplane, were too narrow, but the cabin somehow felt roomy and comfortable. The hundred year old Flight Attendants (in other words, close to my own age) up front were friendly, competent, and really cared. I find Delta FAs, always very senior on long overseas flights, usually make a positive difference in the overall experience.

Really great dry Prosecco was served as boarding “Champagne” and properly chilled.  Real French Champagne (Gardet) was popped open after takeoff. 8 hrs, 48 mins to Rome meant lots of time to watch a movie and then sleep.

A nit: I was the first person to board in biz class, but five seats were already occupied. When I asked a flight attendant who they were, I got a shrug. I assumed the FAs were embarrassed to admit Delta nonrevs upgraded to Delta One had snuck on early. The one in 2A ahead of me had already taken all the overhead luggage space over my seat, which irritated me.

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767-400ER Delta One cabin

Not much surprises me on planes any more, but the meal was delicious, as good or better than one in a fine restaurant on the ground. Better than the meals on Qatar Airways or Cathay Pacific, and those airlines really put on the dog in business class. Wonderful carrot soup and cold shrimp starter. Was this really Delta?

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Excellent Gardet French Champagne complemented the plump and tasty Maryland crabcake entree with mashed potatoes and asparagus and a decent remoulade sauce. Cherry vanilla ice cream followed with hot chocolate-caramel topping. One scoop was plenty, and plenty good.

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Watched a movie (“Green Book”)—or, more accurately, listened to it while squinting at the faraway, tiny screen. Then put the seat flat and slept for a few hours. Joe Brancatelli warned me the business class seats on Delta 767s were short, and I didn’t think it would bother me because I am short. But it did. I barely fit into the space in front of me.  Same on both 767 models.

The cabin was quiet and dark wearing my Bose headphones and heavy Tumi eye shades (part of the strange Tumi hardcase amenity kit Delta provides to Delta One customers).

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767-400ER Delta One cabin with itty-bitty screens

SeatGuru.com reports that Delta has four 767-300 international configurations (26-36 Delta One chairs), but just a single 767-400 layout (40 Delta One seats). I must have flown in one of the oldest 767-300ER airplanes.

Delta just announced new non-suites seats for its 767-300 and 767-400 airplanes that are actually an inch narrower than current (20” rather than 21”).  This seems like a step backward in comfort based on my recent experience. And the length of the new seats is no better.  Yet somehow the overall dimensions limit the 767-400 cabin to just 34 new Delta One chairs versus 40 seats now.

Present or future configuration, I prefer Delta’s 777, A350, and A330 Delta One cabins and seats to either of the 767 models.  But of the two I just experienced, I’d eagerly opt for the 767-400ER over the older model.

A tale of two Singapore hotels

March 28, 2019 — I first came to Singapore in the 1980s to consult when it was cheap and booming like nothing I’ve ever seen before or since. The pace was even more frenetic than Hong Kong. I loved it then and do now, though it’s no longer inexpensive. in fact it’s now one of the costliest cities on earth.

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Singapore at Gardens By The Sea

In the 1980s through early 2000s I stayed at luxe hotel properties in the bustling business district, but now I prefer more modest and interesting hotels, and recently opted to try two very different places in Singapore’s always-fascinating Little India.  Here are my real-time notes describing and contrasting the two hotels.

Staying first for a couple of nights at the Parkroyal Hotel on Kitchener, a Pan Pacific property. The lobby needs sprucing up and has a weird incense odor that permeates every nook and cranny, but my room is quite large and comfortable (no incense odor here). The bathroom is roomy, too, with a great shower. The hotel hallways are nearly as wide as the Champs-Élysées. I prepaid to get a cheap rate and feel it’s definitely well worth it.

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The Parkroyal is a short block off Serangoon Road in the heart of Little India. The area’s lively pulse and high energy quickens my step even in the relentless heat.

After a couple of nights at the Parkroyal, I walked from one hotel to the other (a newish Hilton Garden Inn) after breakfast as I had planned.

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Little India, Singapore

The Hilton Garden Inn on Serangoon is actually also a block off Serangoon on Belilios, a 15-minute walk from the Parkroyal on Kitchener. The hotel is not easy to see unless you are looking for it. I found it okay because I checked the location on my phone before setting out.

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Big screw-up on my part. Must have made the reservation for Feb 6, but it’s Feb 5. Hilton GI took pity and found a room for me on the busiest day of their year despite my date error. Today is Chinese New Year.

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Lobby area, Hilton Garden Inn Serangoon, Little India, Singapore

The HGI is a “Limited service” property.  The hotel industry now prefers the term “focused service” which means no bellhops or room service. In HGI’s case, they do all have a restaurant. Hampton, also owned by Hilton and also a “limited service” brand, has a free breakfast, but no on-site restaurants.

My day room ended up costing a few dollars more than I had planned, but I smiled and thanked the front desk manager profusely because it was entirely my fault. I booked it in a hurry just before I went to Austria two weeks ago and selected the wrong date, easy to do when my flight technically leaves tomorrow (just after midnight tonight).

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Room 505, GHI Serangoon, showing tiny dimensions

I am in room 505 at HGI. Initial impressions: ultra-modern and super-clean property. Rooms tiny, especially compared to Parkroyal. But very bright and cheery.

The Parkroyal room was far larger, but underlit and always a bit gloomy. Very nice and well-trained staff at HGI. Parkroyal staff was always cheerful and ready to help, but a clear difference at the Hilton in professional appearances and training.

Bottom line so far: I like both, and despite the crisp modernity of the HGI, I’d choose the Parkroyal again even with its eccentricities.

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Itty-bitty bathroom at HGI Serangoon

Wow, this HGI room is soooo small. The bathroom alone in the Parkroyal wasn’t much smaller than this entire space. Bathroom here is like one on a train.

The aging Parkroyal had electric receptacles that took either Asian or US plugs, but the HGI, despite being so new, requires adapters. I brought one or two, of course.

The  room is very attractive and bright, however. And then I did find two receptacles by the desk for laptops and phone chargers that take US and other plugs. Odd, though, that they are the only receptacles in the room that do.

If I was tall, I could almost reach the four walls standing in the center, but most American business travelers always go with the consistency that they feel is certain with a chain hotel like Hilton. Most U.S. businessmen would choose this hotel over the Parkroyal simply because Hilton is in the name.

The room is actually replete with receptacles: two by the desk, two on a small stand, one on each side of the bed, plus the usual ones in the throne room. I think the ones on the stand are meant for the coffee maker so didn’t think a guest would use them for charging. If so, then why did they install two there?

My room (505) is in the so-called (by the front desk staff) “tower” across the narrow street from the main hotel. “Tower” is an odd name for it since the main building stands far taller, at least 10-12 floors.

An overhead walkway connects the two buildings, but it’s on the 4th floor, so guests who are not in “tower” rooms on the 4th floor must take two elevators (one in each building) if they choose to use the connecting walkway instead of simply crossing the narrow street. I am guessing they built the skyway to protect guests from rain during the monsoon. Or perhaps just to provide guests wary of mixing with the locals a way to stay safely insulated from their present reality (i.e., the scary thought of being in Singapore rather than Poughkeepsie; personally, I’ll take Singapore).

I wondered if the rooms in the main building were larger. I caught up with a hotel maintenance guy on my floor and asked him. His exact words were that the main building rooms “are little big” as he held up two fingers to indicate a small measure. I’ll take his word as an expert that the difference is negligible.

This hotel supplies hand towels whereas the Parkroyal, oddly, did not.

I tried out the bed in my room. It’s very comfortable, but while lying there typing on my phone, I soon discovered that the tiny room dimension contributes to a very annoying problem: The A/C blows directly down onto the bed because it has nowhere else to distribute air, resulting in an arctic blast on my face and body every time the thermostat is triggered.

I had to get under the covers to stay warm. Even then, my head and arms got so cold that I turned off the A/C entirely. Now it’s getting hot; the outside temp is 91°, but at least I am not shivering.

A great deal of corridor noise penetrates my room. Partly that, too, may be attributed to the small room size. Though the bathroom should act as a sound shield, it doesn’t thwart the noise. I think it is due to poor sound insulation in the walls.

I did hear a baby screaming in the hall last night about 10:00 PM at the Parkroyal, but it was quickly removed, and that’s the only time I heard anything there.

But here at the HGI I can distinctly hear every word said in the corridor outside my door every time somebody goes by. That would be a consideration for me should I return.

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Resturant and bar at HGI Serangoon is on the 8th floor

I checked out the HGI restaurant, which is also the bar and breakfast cafe. It’s on the 8th floor, along with the pool. The youthful staff seemed very friendly and genuinely welcoming in the restaurant. God bless the young for not being jaded.

Back in my room, I noticed there is no bathtub, just a shower, but that’s my preference anyway.

Joe Brancatelli wrote about that coming feature in so-called three point bathrooms. Here is Joe’s 2007 article on the movement of hotels away from tubs to showers, which, to my surprise, was already well underway 12 years ago.

The back wall in the HGI shower is translucent glass and forms the wall by the bed, so weak but noticeable sunlight pierces the glass and brightens the shower interior.

No door on HGI shower, so some water tends to splash out even with a slightly depressed floor.

Only way to avoid either scalding or freezing myself is to remove the telephone shower head and hold it facing away until the desired water temp is achieved.

Shower water temp fluctuates slightly hotter at irregular intervals. I assume that’s because a toilet has been flushed somewhere.

Heck, that’s not good. My dorm room shower at North Carolina State University almost 50 years ago had conquered that old plumbing problem. Surely a country that can build an entire subway of 124 miles with 119 stations from scratch (opened in 1987) can keep a shower from scalding me.

My obsession with perfecting hotel and airline services comes from having spent forty years flying across the globe, spending far more nights in hotel rooms every year during those decades than I did in my own bed at home (usually five nights a week on the road versus two at home).

Those years taught me to closely observe every detail of what services were provided and how well the hotel and airline companies performed in delivery of what they promised. I learned to see things that infrequent travelers may not think were important. The practice has stayed with me.

Looking back, I was comfortable and could embrace either hotel as a base when working in Singapore.  The Hilton Garden Inn is very modern, but I still prefer the larger rooms, the consistent room quiet, and the better plumbing at the Parkroyal. I also had a larger table area and more room to work on my laptop at the Parkroyal than at the HGI. The other differences between the full service property and the so-called “focus-service” HGI  are not as important to me.

Vienna in the snow

March 21, 2019 – Touring palaces is not high on my list of favorite things to do when traveling, no matter where on the planet. But castles are practically synonymous with Vienna, so I was very glad and grateful that my wife made going to the summer home of the Habsburg royal family a priority on a recent (January, 2019) trip to Vienna. Anticipating a mundane walk-through of dreary old rooms, I was instead delighted to be deeply immersed in European history.

After all, the Habsburg dynasty and rule held sway in Austria for 600 years, ending only a century ago on November 11, 1918 at the close of World War I. The Habsburgs contributed mightily to making Europe rich and powerful.

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1898 Schönbrunn U4 subway station

The U4 subway line took only 15 minutes to reach the palace stop from the Vienna Opera House (Karlsplatz) on the Ring (central Vienna). Even the 1898 Schönbrunn subway station itself is part of history, an Art Nouveau gem designed by famed architect Otto Wagner.

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Schloß Schönbrunn looks better outside with a snow blanket.  But inside it is spectacular!

At 1441 rooms, Schloß Schönbrunn (the symbol “ß” is double-s in German, not to be confused with capital B) is monstrous and not very attractive from the outside.  But the overnight snowfall did what snow does: It made everything look prettier, even that homely pile.

The so-called “Grand” walking tour covered forty of the most important palace rooms and took about two hours to complete at a leisurely pace. At €18 (about $21), it wasn’t cheap, but was in my opinion well worth the investment of time and money.

The tour included an easy-to-use digital audio device keyed to each room and was better, I think, than a tour guide. Each room’s description was thorough and fascinating and could be repeated by the device.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as an impish-looking young boy. The prodigy’s first Viennese performance was at Schloß Schönbrunn in 1762.

We were aghast at the sheer grandeur of every one of the forty spaces, not to mention the building’s history. In one small salon was where six year old Mozart performed for the first time in Vienna for the royal family in 1762. His piano playing was so well-received and complimented by the empress that Mozart reportedly leapt into her lap and kissed her.

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JFK and Khrushchev enter the Schloß Schönbrunn grand ballroom, 1961

Two centuries after Mozart’s Viennese debut performance, President John F. Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev met in 1961 for the first time in the palace’s 40 meter by 10 meter grand ballroom, a trial balloon to thaw the Cold War (the effort failed, notwithstanding the opulent venue).

Opting for a self-guided tour meant we could linger or hurry through each room as we liked. I think the experience was enhanced by the time of year. Snowy, cold mid-winter isn’t exactly high tourist season, though several large Chinese tour groups with guides swooshed through.

Leaving the building, we traipsed through snow slush and mud to the rear for a quick look at the garden. Not much to gawk at in late January, but reportedly gorgeous in season.

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Pastry chefs in Vienna are masters of sugar and chocolate. Yum!

After riding back on the U Bahn train to the Vienna Ring (CBD), we found the famous 1880 coffee house, Cafe Sperl, for a late light lunch. The Sperl is furnished exactly the way it was when opened in 1880. It has always been a favorite spot of Viennese royalty and politicians and civic leaders. I enjoyed the place for its understated elegant ambiance and history, but thought its bill of fare unimaginative and pricy.

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Cafe Sperl, the same in 2019 as it was in 1880.

Austria’s part in starting World War I was reputedly concocted over Sperl coffee by two royal dukes. I can’t say that we planned anything quite that dreadful at the Sperl as we sampled offerings of baked chicken and cream of pumpkin soup.

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A tram at the point of articulation, showing how it is all one long car. The interiors of trams in Vienna are accessible end to end, quite roomy and comfortable. We rode a lot of them.

As the afternoon faded, my wife took me on an extended walking tour on the back streets and alleys surrounding St. Stephen’s cathedral. Passing the church, we got a good view of the omnipresent Habsburg symbol, the double-headed eagle, embedded into the roof.

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Habsburg symbol, the double-headed eagle, in the roof of St. Stephen’s cathedral, a constant reminder to the Almighty of what family funded Vienna’s biggest house of worship.

My feet hurt by then from the day’s walking, and I groused about going with her, but once again, I was happy that I did and later thanked my wife for dragging me along. The little streets were full of well-known and obscure Viennese history, and I was captivated by it all.

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The main pedestrian-only platz (above) that goes on for close to a mile. Reminded me fondly of famed Marienplatz in Munich.

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The snowy scene from our hotel window that January day (2019).

We compressed as much as possible into our short 5-day visit, but we didn’t want to leave.  Neither did our son after a month in residence performing with his college symphony orchestra.

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Vienna e-scooters in the snow weren’t getting any love that morning.

I couldn’t help contrasting Vienna with another fascinating place, Hong Kong. Always in frenetic renewal, Hong Kong is different every time I go there, while Vienna changes slowly and in small increments, like recently adding e-scooters.  The two cities couldn’t be more different in superficial appearance, the old and the new. Yet just beneath Vienna’s serene look of staid permanence lies a vibrant young and modern lifestyle as exciting and interesting as any on earth. We can hardly wait to go back.

In Vienna, a night at the opera

March 14, 2019 – Continuing my paean to classy, cultured Vienna , which boasts (rightly, in my opinion) the best quality of life on the planet, my wife and I attended the opera on our second night in town at the magnificent Vienna Opera House.

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Vienna State Opera house

I have never been a big fan of this bombastic expression of the fine arts. Thus, when my wife told me several months before our trip that the Vienna Opera website had orchestra seats for €200 each, but that we could instead snag €10 “obstructed view” seats, I opted for the cheap way out.

Of course I acknowledge that a night at the opera, notwithstanding the brilliant Marx Brothers movie, was and is the height of Viennese musical culture. Every opera star since 1869 has performed on the boards of the gorgeous and breathtaking Vienna State Opera stage, and I was looking forward to the experience of, well, just being there, obstructed view or no.

We were delayed arriving, barely making curtain call.  Attendants in fancy dress rushed us up a lavishly-appointed gold elevator and briskly walked us down the right side corridor behind the boxes on the second level.  As we were ushered into the pitch-black anteroom of our box at the very end, I began to wonder where our bad seats were located. Surely not in a closet!

But then, as my eyes adjusted to the darkened theater, I was astonished to realize that we had landed in the premier box directly over the orchestra, the best private box location in the theater.  See my wife pointing to our box in the photo below.

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Our premier box at the Vienna Opera

The permanent box owners (or their guests) were seated at the balcony, with one elevated chair directly behind, already occupied by an elegantly-dressed lady.  Our two seats were also in elevated chairs with comfortable foot rests directly behind her.

Obstructed view, yes, but we had a direct view down onto the orchestra, one of the world’s finest, and a partial view of the stage.  I was startled to realize that we had some of the best seats in the place for €10 each.  We settled in to enjoy Verdi’s “Falstaff”.

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Our view from the “obstructed seats” wasn’t half bad.

Not much takes my breath away after these many decades, but that Vienna Opera experience did. The spectacular hall, the symphony orchestra flawlessly performing Verdi’s gorgeous music, the stunningly beautiful voices, the adoring audience in respectful formal attire: Perfecto! Pure happiness!  I remember thinking: This is civilization.

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The view from our seats of the rest of the house.

It was difficult to get the entire stage in a picture both because of our “obstructed view” seats and because I didn’t want to be caught at that sophisticated venue acting like a dirty American tourist, which I’d have been embarrassingly hard-pressed to disavow had I leaned way out over the box balcony for a photo.

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Yours truly during intermission at the Vienna Opera

At intermission, we stole quickly to one of the many bars and had a ridiculously over-priced glass of ice-cold French Champagne, perfect for the occasion. We sipped and wandered up and down the staircases, noting the fashionable attire of patrons and the sheer grandeur of the hall.

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Intermission at the Vienna Opera
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Intermission at the Vienna Opera

Afterwards, still tingling with opera magic, we relished a late night meal at the Bierteufl cafe and beer hall just a half block from our hotel. The Bierteufl is in the basement of Beethoven House, where the great composer lived for 35 years while in Vienna.

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Bierteufl in the basement of Beethoven House, Vienna

I marveled that Beethoven lived and worked just a stone’s throw from our hotel, a reminder of Vienna’s long and remarkable history of music.

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Quite the cultural contrast to a Vienna opera, the Bierteufl boasted its own distinct airs of Viennese charm, including an astonishing beer list (over 100 selections). We ordered two “vom Faß” (on draft) half liters of their namesake brew, and both were fantastic. I’d love to have time to go back for several weeks in order to drink my way entirely through their extensive offering. I’d then be an expert on Austrian and German beers, though perhaps 20 pounds heavier and bordering on alcoholism.

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Wießwurst and Wießwurstsenf – a delectable combo!

The Bierteufl menu proved equally marvelous to its beer list. My wife ordered a delicious pork soup with noodles and vegetables, but I had an old Bavarian favorite of mine, Wießwurst.

Wießwurst (pronounced “vice-vurst”–the symbol “ß” is double-s in German, not to be confused with capital B) is a scrumptious Bavarian white sausage made from minced veal and pork back bacon, usually flavored with parsley, lemon, mace, onions, ginger, and cardamom. It is always served with a unique sweet Bavarian mustard (Weißwurstsenf) made specially to accompany Weißwurst.

For me, it is comfort food, since I came to savor Weißwurst when living and working in Munich 1975-76. It’s traditionally served in the morning with Weißbier (pronounced “vice-beer” is literally “white beer”, a. yeasty wheat beer served in dramatically tall, skinny glasses).

I felt lucky to find Weißwurst still available for late night dinner since the sausage contains no preservatives and is made fresh daily. My little sausages at Bierteufl were divine!

Wikipedia has an interesting long article on Weißwurst.

Opera and sausage: both exquisite ingredients of Germanic culture, equally important parts of the sumptuous tableau of Viennese life. Vienna is a perennial delight, with rich treasures literally around every corner. I counted us lucky that night to be living that experience on so many levels.