Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Travel Year In Review

Well, it's the last day of 2014, and wow, I've had an amazing year.

Since my father's an Asian math nerd, according to his excel spreadsheet, I have:

1. Flown approximately 51,422 miles this year.
2. Taken 26 flight segments (6 of which were 8+ hours long).
3. Flown out of 16 airports.
4. On 6 different airlines.
5. Traveled to 6 foreign countries.
6. Earned 25,931 frequent flyer miles!

I was able to earn Gold Status on Aegean Airlines, but unfortunately, it won't be lifetime as we hoped. I suppose I'll just go with earning United miles and try to hit 1,000,000 miles at some point in my life. I'm only at 5,279 miles with United, so I still have a long way to go.

On the hotel side, we have:

1. Stayed 43 nights in hotels this year
2. Across 21 different cities
3. In 20 unique hotel brands including all 9 of Starwood's.

Our most frequent brand was Westin (11 nights across Atlanta, Austin, Chicago and Costa Navarino). We re-qualified for Starwood Platinum status, but lost our Hyatt Diamond status.

So as we close out 2014, here's a photo snapshot of our favorite lapchild adventures each month.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas Eating

Now, my parents tell me that starting January 1st, millions of Americans will sign up for gym memberships in a futile effort to lose all those extra pounds from holiday feasting.

Our family won't be joining them in over paying for the use of treadmills, but we will have a tougher time squeezing into our pants this New Years.

That's because we had more than our fair share of excessively delicious (albeit unhealthy) food over the long weekend.

Buffalo Chicken Wings at Pic-a-Lilli Pub
Now, you will probably smirk when you read this next statement and think, "What a cute little kid." But I'm 100% serious - this place has THE BEST WINGS EVER.

You'd never expect anything superlative from a tiny bar in the run-down part of Atlantic City (231 South Tennessee Avenue). In fact, the inside of Pic-A-Lilli Pub probably matches your expectations based on the outside. It's really just a plain bar that serves more AC locals than any Zagat readers.

But there's something in their secret wing sauce that makes the entire trek to Atlantic City worth it. First, the wings are doubles (meaning both the wing and drumstick) so an order of 13 wings is actually comparable to 26 at another establishment. Second, the sauce is a great combination of savory-sweet that we've never experienced before. Truly unique!

Even my aunt (who's had her fair share of delicious food) remarked that these were the best wings she's ever had. If you don't believe us, then you'll just have to drive down to AC and taste for yourself.

And if you don't, then that's OK too, because we actually prefer having our secret eating spots kept quiet.

Italian Sub Sandwich at The White House
This place is less a secret than it is a local institution. I can't quite put my tiny toddler fingers on it, but there's something magic about their sub sandwiches. Maybe it's the way they overload the deli meat or the sprinkle of chopped hot cherry peppers that give it an extra kick or perhaps the amazing South Jersey bread. I'm not sure, but I don't question deliciousness, I just enjoy it.

It's located in downtown AC at 2301 Arctic Avenue, but unfortunately, there's no where convenient to park outside, so you'll just have to get lucky with street parking (good luck!) or you'll have to have your parents circle around the block while your sandwiches are being made.

Once you get inside, the set up is a bit complicated if you've never been before. There are stools and booths for people to eat inside, but you have to wait outside in line for those. If you want to place an order for pick up, however, you can come inside, walk to the back and order from one of the 3-4 sandwich specialists behind the counter. But don't forget to take a number.

Also important to know - the White House is cash only. So save your plastic and flash the cash. Subs are $7-8 for a half (12") and $14-15 for a full (24"). A full easily filled 3 of us (my grandma, aunt and father), but will probably be more appropriate for just 2 adult males.

There's also a second location at the Taj Mahal casino, but we've never gone there.

Roast Pork Sandwich at Tommy DiNic's
Philadelphia has no shortage of great sandwiches, but their cheesesteaks have a much better PR agency. Unbeknownst to many outside the 215, the Roast Pork sandwich at Tommy DiNic's at Reading Terminal Market is arguably one of the "best sandwiches in America" (as nominated by Man vs. Food's Adam Richman).

The stall is right in the middle of the market. You'll be able to find it by looking for the longest line of hungry waiting patrons. But it's definitely worth the wait to sample one of Philadelphia's finest.

The $10 sandwich is about a foot long packed with fresh slices roast pork (cut into thin slices like you'd find on a cheesesteak). Then topped with sharp provolone chesse and broccoli rabe.

But when you're in Philadelphia, you can't ignore their famous namesake sandwich...

Cheesesteak at Dalessandro's Steak & Hoagies
While I've never been to the infamous Pat's or Gino's, we actually prefer going outside the city to Dalessandro's (at 600 Wendover Street, Philadelphia but about a 20 minute drive northwest of Center City). While still technically in Philadelphia proper, the neighborhood scene is more comparable to a Brooklyn than a Manhattan.

On the corner across from a few gas stations, you'll find our hands down favorite cheesesteak place in the world. Another cash only institution, you walk in and pass the dozen or so patrons waiting for their order to come out. Most people have already ordered, so you should walk right up to the front and ask for my parents' favorite "steak with mushrooms and American cheese and hot peppers on the side."

Everything is made to order when you physically arrive, including those who call in ahead. For $8-9,  you get a perfectly made cheesesteak on a super soft sponge like roll that perfectly captures the juicy cheesy meat without getting soggy. Unlike the thin strips of meat, the steak here is chopped into tiny pieces which make the sandwich so much better in our humble opinion.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

SPG Mission Accomplished

Hotel Details
Hotel: Le Meridien Philadelphia
Dates: December 26-27, 2014
Rate Paid: $171/night (incl. taxes)
Upgrade: Used a Suite Night Award
Suite Cost: $329 (incl. taxes)
Points Earned: 2,286 SPG points

Well, after coming so close last year, my father finally achieved the Starwood Cycle by staying at one of each of the 9 SPG brands in a single calendar year.

Instead of heading north from Atlantic City the day after Christmas, my parents, grandmother and aunt decided to swing by Philadelphia to mattress run get some Philly cheesesteaks and roast pork sandwiches.

The hotel is located in the heart of Center City on Arch Street, within a stone's throw from City Hall and a few blocks away from Reading Terminal Market. We couldn't have picked a better hotel since we went to the Market about 3 times during our 1 night stay. Since we had our car with us, we opted to park in a nearby lot on 15th and Spring for just $18/night (significantly cheaper than the Le Meridien Valet rate of $40/day).

My father was able to book a nice AAA Rate for $148 plus tax for a basic room with 2 double beds (225 sq feet). At the time, Starwood also had a promotion where he would receive an extra 500 SPG points if he booked using the SPG mobile app on his iPad or phone and paid using an American Express card. Plus, there was another Le Meridien-specific promotion where we would receive an additional 1,000 SPG points for our first Le Meridien stay during the promotional period.

Then he applied a Suite Night Award (which he received for hitting 50 Starwood nights this year) to get upgraded to a Superior Suite (500 sq feet). The SNA was confirmed a few days ago, so the four adults and 1 adorable toddler had some space. Of course, we may have been upgraded to that suite anyway at check-in without the SNA, but we didn't want to leave it to chance.

The Property
The hotel was a retrofitted YMCA so you could see the remnants of the former space as you entered the lobby. Interestingly enough, they placed the lobby bar directly across the room from the front entrance, so you have to make a turn left into the adjacent room where the front desk was stationed.

Upon check-in at 3PM, my father was confirmed into the Superior Suite for 1 night. He asked if the hotel were busy this weekend, and they said it was a lot more active than the past week (Christmas week), but still not that full. He was given the keys to Room 549 which was on the floor with the sleek business center that was retrofitted from what used to be an exterior inner courtyard.

We navigated the twists and turns of the hallways and finally found our room.

The Suite
Upon entering the suite, we were pleasantly surprised at the stylish furnishings and cleanliness of the room, especially after the prior two nights at the Borgata in Atlantic City. The livingroom area had a nice couch for lounging (though not a pull out as we had hoped) and a bar stool desk area with a flat screen TV. Fortunately, there were plenty of electrical plugs on the desk that made modern travel with your personal gadgets very convenient.

The bedroom area was not separated by a door, but the wall partition made it sufficient enough to feel moderate privacy. My parents actually prefer not having a door since then they could always keep tabs on me when I was in the other room pretending the bed pillows were my own stable of cowgirl horses. There were also two large windows that gave the feeling of old world sophistication even though neither of them were made to actually open.

The closet was a free standing structure (again since the hotel was retrofitted from a YMCA) and the bathroom had a sliding door which definitely did not seal either sound nor smell. But hey, they say Family means never having to say, "Excuse me."

We were only staying for one night, but we made the most of our location by visiting the nearby Reading Terminal Market several times during our sub-24 hour visit. The area didn't seem that desolate at night, though it was pretty void of pedestrians - though there were some needy people we gave some food to during our walks to/from the Market.

We used the free wifi in the room (just pick the most expensive $14.95/day option, and it would be removed from the bill) as well as chose the Platinum breakfast over the 500 welcome SPG points. The breakfast was actually a $12/person credit at their lobby restaurant, Amuse. Click here for their breakfast menu. My mother and I partook in the breakfast downstairs, while my father and extended family opted for a hearty Roast Pork sandwich at Tony DiNic's in Reading Terminal Market.

Overall, it was a perfectly pleasant stay and for the price we paid ($148/night + tax), we'd definitely stay here again should we stay overnight in downtown Philadelphia again. That being said, the primary reason we chose the Le Meridien was to complete the Starwood Cycle - all 9 hotel brands in a single year. And earning another ~$50 in SPG points didn't hurt either!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Historic Smithville, NJ

About 15 minutes outside of Atlantic City, you'll find a little historic town called Smithville. My family and I tend to appreciate these quaint experiences more than the flashy glitz of Atlantic City where the "Jager and Redbull" crowd like to frequent.

My father actually heard about Smithville by eavesdropping overhearing the NJ Transit Train Conductor talking to his colleague about his holiday plans. Then after looking it up online, my father knew I'd really enjoy it, so come Christmas evening, we found ourselves driving through southern NJ looking for this hidden treasure.

We left the Borgata at 6PM and arrived in Smithville about 20 minutes later. We wanted to come in the evening since it was Christmas day, the dozens of little shops would be closed anyway.

But set on the lake, the townspeople constructed a wonderful light show on floating barges set to Christmas music blasting throughout the village.

Merry Christmas, everyone!