Saturday, August 31, 2013

Colorado Rockies and Their Mountain Oysters

As some of you may know, my father is a big baseball fan, even though he never played beyond high school. But he set out one day to watch a game at every Major League Baseball stadium.

His first game was at Yankee Stadium when he was 9 years old where Don Mattingly hit a foul ball that almost made it to his seat. His latest game (27 out of 30 active stadiums) was last night at Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies.

Last year, he took my mother and me to a Miami Marlins game. This year, however, I wasn't as docile and wouldn't have been a patient fan. I'm more of a "run around screaming" girl than a "fill out a scorecard" girl. So I spent the evening with my beloved grandmother again while my parents saw Todd Helton (the Colorado version of Derek Jeter) hit 2 home runs in a 9-6 win over the Cincinnati Reds.

Because Denver is not nearly as avid a baseball fan community as say New York or Boston, we were able to score some great seats from StubHub. For $65/ticket (all in), my parents sat in Row 8 just off Home Plate.

Unfortunately, they sat beside what appeared to be ditzy baseball player groupies from California, but they didn't let the Peroxide Twins ruin their evening.

As fun as the game was (or so I heard secondhand), the highlight of the evening was my father sampling some of Denver's finest local cuisine. I had mentioned the other day that Denver wasn't known for its food (except its omelettes), but they do have something that isn't readily available in New York City - the Rocky Mountain Oyster.

If you know anything about geography, you'll realize that Colorado is landlocked. They don't have much of an oyster supply, so instead of feeling inadequate to such lame Gulf Coast states such as Louisiana and Florida and their warm water oyster supply, they came up with their own substitute.

It's not a very popular menu item. In fact, in the entire Coors Field baseball stadium, they only sell it at one outlet, right by Section 143 off left field. As you can see, Rocky Mountain Oysters are crammed into the menu.

My father wasn't sure he wanted to eat them, and asked the cashier if they were something people actually ordered to eat. She (of course) said yes. In fact, someone just ordered them just before (apparently).

My mother was not as supportive about my father's adventurous tastes. In fact, she gagged when the order came out. But to be fair, the photo looks like it's just a very fried meat with a bunch of french fries and a side of cocktail sauce. How bad could it be? I mean, who doesn't love fried stuff?

My parents took the meal back to their seats and since they were sitting so close to the action, the usher asked them to wait in between innings before returning to their seats.

While the usher was chit chatting with some of the other fans, he eyed my father's dinner quickly. It was very subtle and quick, but my mother definitely caught the look of shock on the usher's face when he identified what my father was about to eat. As they say, "When in Denver..."

Click here to see what Rocky Mountain Oysters are.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Westin Riverfront - Full Kitchen

As I mentioned in the prior post, we were given a great surprise when we were upgraded from a regular 400 sq foot traditional room to a stunning 850+ sq ft 1 bedroom suite with a full kitchen.

While having the extra space of a living room is really nice (especially when you're traveling with family), the real game changer on this vacation trip was the fact that we had a full kitchen and dining table.

This photo of the kitchen doesn't do it justice. In addition to the stainless steel refrigerator, stove top, convection oven, microwave and dishwasher, there was a lot of stuff in the cabinets and drawers that really allowed your inner Gordon Ramsey to come alive. First, they had enough china and silverware to host a nice dinner party as well as enough cocktail glasses to hold an amateur bartending class.

They also provided all the pots and pans that you'd have at home as well as a bunch of other things that you'd only have if you got them as gifts from your wedding registry.

No hotel room would be complete without an instant coffee maker, but the Westin really went to the extreme. I mean, who would have expected a Cuisinart, toaster, and blenders?

Plus, when you had to clean up, they gave you a garbage under the sink as well as a blue recycling bin (this is Colorado after all), as well as a stash of soap packets for the stainless steel dishwasher.

So instead of paying for 4 of us to eat each meal at overpriced Vail restaurants just to get an inferior version of a New York strip steak than we could get back in Manhattan, we were able to buy our own groceries and cook all our meals.

Plus, we could buy lots and lots of ice cream!

It would be one thing if we were in Tokyo (amazingly high quality sushi and ramen), New Orleans (authentic cajun/creole food), or Buenos Aires (famous parilla steaks).

But last I checked, Colorado wasn't famous for any dish other than Denver omelettes (blah) and Rocky Mountain Oysters (no thanks!).

But having a great kitchen on vacation would be pointless without convenient grocery store. Fortunately, we could just walk 10 minutes from the Westin to a City Market supermarket that had everything you could want. And trust me, this wasn't a small local market / bodega that had a limited selection. I mean, they stocked Lay's Chicken & Waffle flavored potato chips.

Also, if you happened to be driving home from Vail on I-70, then you could also stop at the nearby Safeway (Exit 173) which I found to be cheaper than City Market and only 10 minute drive from the Westin.

So nice to have home cooked meals, especially if Grandma's cooking her famous ground turkey tacos!

Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa

Hotel Stay Details
Hotel: Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa
Dates: August 25-30, 2013 
Rate Paid: 7,200 SPG Points/night 
Suite Upgrade: Complimentary
Regular Room Rate: $190/night
Regular Suite Rate: $354/night 
Total $ Benefit: $1,770
Point Redemption Value: 4.9 cents/pt

Well, it's been a great 5 night stay at the Westin Riverfront. It's my first time to Colorado, and I'm most likely going to come back soon. Just about everyone (but not everyone) we met here at the Westin was super friendly and really went out of their way to make you feel comfortable.

Background - The 25% Discount 
Back on March 26, my father made Starwood Gold Status by completing his 25th night of 2013 with Starwood. As a thank you, Starwood sent gifts to Gold members. He had the choice of either (A) double points for an upcoming month or (B) 25% of any award booking. Even though he was going to stay at a lot of Starwood hotels in 2013, he also knew that booking a 5 night award at a Category 5 hotel would save him 12,000 SPG points.

So for (A) to be a better option than (B), he would have to book and spend $4,000 at SPG hotels in a single month to earn an extra 12,000 SPG points.

My father? Spend $4k on hotels? In a single month? NFW. He went with Option B.

Now he had a 25% coupon for any award booking for up to 5 nights at any Category 1-6 hotel or resort by September 30, 2013. Clock starts ticking...

Hyatt vs. Starwood?
My father knew that we were going to be in Denver for the wedding of our friends' Ryan & Jessica in late August. As he's been doing lately, we turned the weekend trip into a longer family vacation after the wedding.

As most miles/point obsessed enthusiasts do, my father started looking at what chain hotels/resorts were in the Colorado area. Having been deeply in the midst of his Hyatt Diamond Status Challenge, he was focused on Hyatt, particularly the Park Hyatt Hotels.

Two hours away from Denver, Beaver Creek had a Category 6 Park Hyatt that would cost 22,000 Hyatt Points or $204 / night. Given it was a relatively low cash rate, he was better off using cash than Hyatt points. Plus having made Diamond status, he had a Suite Upgrade Award he could use for his cash stay that would guarantee a suite as well as free breakfasts for every registered guest in the room. So on April 18th, he booked 5 nights at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek using a refundable AAA rate.

However, it would still be over $1,000 cash out of pocket for 5 days. Then he started reading reviews from other travelers and bloggers. They all raved about the location right on the ski slopes and the high quality service levels, but had less than great things to say about the actual physical property itself.

It wasn't the same sleek, modern, luxury standard at the Park Hyatt Paris, Buenos Aires or Sydney. It was more of a traditional but dated ski lodge that was taken over by Park Hyatt. Traditional ski lodges on the slopes sound great if you're skiing, but we were coming in August. Plus, during the summers, the reviews warned that the free breakfast may only be a lame offering from their cafe and not the full breakfast at their proper restaurant.

So he cancelled his refundable AAA rate at the Park Hyatt, and we went back to my father's beloved Starwood. As it turned out, Beaver Creek was also home to a Category 5 Westin Riverfront which also received some great reviews, with the only major complaints being (A) not ideally located for skiing and (B) less than great treatment for over-entitled Platinum status holders.

At the time, neither (A) or (B) mattered for us because as I told you earlier, my father was just a Starwood Gold.

The Obligatory Math
The Category 5 Westin Riverfront costs 12,000 SPG pts/night. However, with Starwood, booking 5 consecutive nights on points gets you the 5th night free. So instead of needing 60,000 total SPG points, it would cost "only" 48,000 total.

But then stacking on the 25% off coupon, my father would save an additional 12,000 SPG points, bringing the total to JUST 36,000 SPG points for 5 nights (7,200 SPG points/night).

Of course, this rate only gets you the Traditional 400 sq foot room (seen here), but free is free. He had to call Starwood Reservations to use his 25% coupon, but it was quick and easy.

At the time of booking (April 28), my father could have also booked the same Traditional Room for the prepaid cash rate of $190/night (including all taxes). This option made his redemption worth only 2.6 cents/SPG point. Not a horrible redemption, but just barely made the cut off for redeeming points. Recall, my father's been able to get 6-7 cents/SPG point at Le Meridien Chiang Rai (Thailand) and W Santiago (Chile) earlier this year.

Then when he made Platinum Status a few weeks ago, he called the Westin Riverfront to ask about possible complimentary upgrades. He was told that he wouldn't get confirmed until the day of check in if there was even any availability. But if he wanted to guarantee it now, they said he could pay an extra $100/night to get the regular 1 bedroom suite or $150/night to get the 1 bedroom mountain view suite. It was tempting since he wasn't paying any cash for the room, but he declined and took his chances at check in. Given it was a mid-week stay before Labor Day weekend, we were hopeful but had our baby fingers crossed.

The Good...
The morning of our check in date (Sunday August 25th), my father went to the SPG iPad app and looked up his reservation information. Low and behold, it showed up not as a Traditional Room (as it had for several months), but as a 1 Bedroom Residential Suite, River & Mountain View. Suite! (word play intended.)

Those 850+ sq foot suites were going for about $354/night (all-in, including all taxes). Because of his Platinum status, those 7,200 SPG points were now getting him a room which retailed for $354/night (restrictive prepaid rate), which implied 4.9 cents/SPG point. Much better!

That pleasant surprise made the 2 hour drive from Denver on scenic I-70 all that much better. My father couldn't wait to see my grandmother's face when she walked into her first hotel suite.

As we pulled into the circular driveway, we were greeted by very friendly valets. Apparently, the hotel really insisted everyone valet park for $25/day with no mention of any self park options at all. Given we had a lot of luggage to unpack, we just went with the flow so that my father would be free to help us with all the bags. But as it turned out, the valets were super helpful and did most of the work. After loading up the trolley, he gave my father a card and said the bags will be sent up to the room after we've had a chance to look it first.

The Bad...
When we checked in with the front desk, we were greeted by an overly serious young woman named Ann. She noted that they had upgraded us to a 1 bedroom suite and that we were staying for 5 nights.

But then immediately Ann asked if we knew when we'd be checking out the final day. Thinking this was an offer of a late checkout, my father asked if a 2PM check out were possible. She immediately said, "No, the hotel is very busy this coming weekend. We can only offer you the standard check out time."

"Which is?"


11AM? Now, some mornings my mother doesn't even get up til 11:30, especially when we have really good blackout shades.

Ann then told us about the $20/day resort fee which covers internet, gym/pool access, and other hotel amenities. This would bring our hotel bill from $0 to $100 for 5 nights. Not painful but annoying. Now my well-researched father knew about this in advance (and the fact it wasn't waived for anyone), but asked anyway.

"But I believe I get all those amenities anyway because of my SPG status. Do Platinums still have to pay the resort fee?"

"Yes, it's for everyone."

Another amenity for Platinums is complimentary continental breakfast or 500 SPG points.

"Do you want the 500 SPG points?" asked Ann.

"Well, don't I also have a choice of breakfast?"


"Well, is it for every morning or just one time?"

"Every morning."

"Well, is it a full hot breakfast or continental or something else?"

"Um, it's really nothing great, like coffee and a muffin."

"I'll take the 500 SPG points," answered my father knowing full well that we'd be making our own breakfast each morning from our suite's full kitchen.

According to several travelers, there was also a self-parking option available if you didn't want to pay the premium for valet service.

"Can you tell me how much valet parking is?"

"$25 per night."

"Is there a self-parking option?"


"Can you tell me how much it costs?"

"Um, well, it's actually a pay by the hour, so you're better off doing valet."

"Well, how much is it exactly?"

"For the full day/night, it would be $50 each night."

Raised eyebrows aren't an attractive look for a full faced Asian man, but my father made the facial expression anyway and just thanked her and went to chase me as I ran around the lobby. As it turned out, self-parking was actually only $15 per day according to the Westin Riverfront Villas (timeshare) website, but we were staying at the Resort (hotel) and their website only listed Valet for $25-30/day.

So typically, a top tier hotel status member gets a late check out (not this time), free breakfast (eh) and resort fees waived (nope). At least we got our free internet... oh wait. Nope, we had to pay a $20/day resort fee for it. [UPDATE: on the third day of our stay, my father asked another Front Desk woman if he could have late check out and was happily given 1PM. Don't give up. Never give up.]

It may not have been so bad if Ann had been more sympathetic (or at least fake sympathetic) about having to comply with strict hotel policies. But talking to this young woman was like interrogating an entitled hipster Starbucks barista about the difference between a cappuccino and a cafe Americano while they're busy trying to take a selfie of their new neck tattoo on their iPhone.

Did I mention that we were the only ones checking in?

The Amazing!
Despite this rough start to the hotel stay, all our confusion / frustration with the front desk dissipated as soon as we opened the door to corner Room 400A at the very end of the hallway. We were right next to Room 400B (regular bedroom) which had a connecting door to our suite to make a 2 bedroom suite if we wanted to pay up for an extra bedroom.

Our regular 1 bedroom suite opened up into the kitchen, fully stocked with a ton of silverware, cookware, dishes,appliances (toaster oven, can opener, coffee grinder, and blender) and even a set of bar glasses (including a shaker/strainer and a mixed cocktail recipe book).


Turning the corner, you see the large living room complete with a 6 person dining table, two couches, two single seats, floor to ceiling windows, balcony, Bose stereo, and a working fireplace.


Then you go into the bedroom which is pretty standard (Westin Heavenly bed, flat screen tv, desk), with the exception that it also had a walk out balcony.

The bathroom was very nicely appointed, with its double sink and separate bathtub and stand up shower. Personally, I love bathtubs, because they can easily convert into kid swimming pools!


The coup de gras was the washer and dryer in the hallway closet. Now, I'm not sure how many of you are parents, but trust me, I go through a lot of clothes and having an on-site place to wash my clothes mid-vacation can be a life-saver!

Final Totals
If you factor in the 11,000 SPG points we received for attending the 90 minute Villa sales presentation and the 2,000 SPG points we received for skipping housekeeping for 2 days, then we really only used net 23,000 SPG points for 5 nights in this amazing 1 bedroom suite here (a ridiculous 4,600 SPG points/night, implying an incredible 7.7 cents/SPG point redemption).

Even counting the additional $20/day resort fees and $25/day valet parking for five days, spending only $225 in total cash for this view every morning is pretty amazing.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Kid's Stuff To Do in Vail

We kids have a pretty big influence on the vacations of our parents. First, we make it harder for them to go out late at night to party like they did before we came along. Second, we shift the day time activities to things that are kid-friendly, so no more zip lining or wall climbing (not that my parents really did that stuff before).

But many hotels are starting to realize that offering child care services on site will attract younger families where the parents are still physically active (or just want a break from being around us 24/7).

Westin Kids Club
The Westin Riverfront has what looks to be an amazing Kids Club experience. We've seen a few Kids Clubs in Thailand that were pretty good, but they have nothing on this Westin Riverfront edition.

First, the room itself is pretty large and decorated like an elementary school classroom on a sugar high. They had a ton of different toys, activities, crafts, shows, games, etc.

Second, the staff there are two dedicated Kids Club professionals who genuinely love children. While other Kids Clubs I've seen at other hotels were fine (Sheraton Krabi, Conrad Koh Samui), they were staffed with just 1 person who seemed like they got assigned Kids Club that day instead of cleaning buffet tables or setting up pool chairs.

Unfortunately, the Westin Riverfront had to abide by some Colorado rule that restricted access only to kids above the age of 5 years old. As you may know, I'm much younger than that, so while I didn't get to participate, I did get to sneak in 30 minutes of playtime with my grandmother one morning when they weren't so busy.

But in case any of you readers are above the age of 5, here are the rules and offerings.

- Saturday-Thursday:  9AM-5PM
- Friday-Saturday: 9AM-5PM and 6PM-9PM
- 24 Hour Reservations Required

Prices (per child)
- $95 for All Day (4-8 hours)
- $55 for 3 Hour Sessions
- $24 per Hour
- $10 for Picnic Style Lunch

After looking through the pamphlet, the Kids Club is more like an active educational day care than just a passive play area. Sessions include a healthy snack and indoor/outdoor activities (learning about animals, water, gardening, arts & crafts, etc). Looks like something I'll enjoy when we come back in a few years.

But even though I couldn't come in, they did give me a nice little Westin Kids Club backpack filled with baby toiletries (shampoo, lotion and baby powder). Thanks, Westin!

Family Mountain Hike
Now, because my parents are cheap love being around me so much, I spent most of my time with them. Instead of pawning me off to some strangers, we found other ways to enjoy our family time in a beautiful Colorado setting, such as hiking along the Vail Mountains.

So after lunch on Wednesday, my parents, grandmother and I drove 10 minutes along I-70 East to the Lionshead (western) section of Vail Village. Lucky for us, parking during the summers is free for everyone which was a nice touch.

When we arrived at Lionshead around 1PM, we walked through the quaint little village area and eventually found the Gondola Lift Ticket window where we bought all day gondola passes (10AM-4PM).

Tickets cost $26/adult, but kids under 4 years old were free. Our plan was only to use it 2x (going up, hiking a bit, and going back down), so $26/person seemed a bit much, but when in Vail...

From Lionshead (bottom red circle on the photo), the gondola took us up to the Eagle's Nest area halfway up one of the mountains (upper red circle). From there we were going to hike across (laterally) east to the other gondola that would put us back in Vail Village (the eastern section). Of course, you smart readers will ask, "How will you get your car which parked back in Lionshead?" Well, there's a free bus shuttle that goes back and forth from Vail Village to Lionshead. Now back to the story...

If you've never been on a gondola before, like my mother, you might get a bit freaked. As you can see from the photo, she was very afraid of heights. Now, my father is actually also afraid of heights, but not all the time (airplanes, gondolas) because as he puts it, "looking out the window makes it not seem real," which, even at less than 2 years old, I realize is B/S.

[Note: I'm 100% sure my mother would not want me posting this great photo of her, but thankfully she doesn't read my blog.]

So once we were at Eagle's Nest, we saw Adventure Ridge, an activity park that has a bunch of activities catered for kids of all ages, including an "adult jungle gym," a bungee/trampoline contraption, a small pony and a nature center filled with stuffed wild animals, frisbee golf, mini golf, etc).

While I was big enough to ride the pony, up until that moment, I had only seen them in books, so I wasn't ready to actually engage with a live one. So we passed on the pony ride in case that the experience scarred me for life the way my adult father is still morbidly afraid of clowns. Good call, Dad.

After spending about 30 minutes in the Nature Center, we started making our way on the hiking trail called Fireweed which went laterally across the mountain to the other gondola. Of course, there were several hiking trails that took you down the mountain, but those would take hours and my mother had her 5:30PM yoga class back at the hotel.

The hiking trail was very well worn (the first 25% was actually just a dirt road), so it's definitely not reminding anyone of Robert Frost poems. But it was my first hike ever, so cut a 2 year old some slack.

I'd like to be able to tell you all that I walked on my own for the the entire 1 mile hike, but as you can see, the photos prove otherwise.

We reached the gondola and went down the mountain to Vail Village. Checking the time, it was only 3PM so we did everything (including a short 30 minute stay up at Adventure Ridge) in about 2 hours.

Overall, I had a great afternoon being carried by hiking with my parents. I saw some dandelions and some cool rocks, which always makes for a great kid's day. But definitely put on some sunscreen before you venture out and bring some bottles of water. That Colorado sun can be pretty sneaky hot.