Category Archives: Hotels

Visiting the Mall of America

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Photos via Mall of America

Earlier this summer, I attended a travel blogger conference called TBEX North America 2016 primarily because of its location – the Mall of America. Yes, because the conference location was adjacent to this mall.

Located in Bloomington, Minnesota, about 15 minutes from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, the Mall of America is far more than a place to shop. Featured on travel shows, the Mall of America is a hybrid of retail stores and tourist attractions. And it’s a big place, at 4.87 million square feet. Really big. To put it in perspective, this mall can fit seven Yankee Stadiums, 32 Boeing 747s, and 258 Statues of Liberty.

Besides massive space, here is what else you find during a visit to the Mall of America.

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Photo via SEA LIFE Minnesota Aquarium

SEA LIFE® Minnesota Aquarium
Underneath the mall, the SEA LIFE® Minnesota Aquarium is a 1.3-million gallon aquarium featuring a 300-foot ocean tunnel and being home 10,000 sea creatures. The low-lit, lower level location is easy to explore, with stops along the way for observing marine life such as jellyfish, seahorses, stingrays, and sturgeons. One neat attraction to take your time going through is the Shark Discovery exhibit. Here, you walk through a glass tunnel and view sharks and other ocean neighbors swimming below or alongside you. There are daily feeding times, where for a small fee you can buy food to hand to certain aquarium residents like stingrays.

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Nickelodeon Universe
In the center of the mall, Nickelodeon Universe is a fun indoor theme park with 27 rides and attractions. When I was there for TBEX, my friends and I spent time going on rides that fit with our style (there’s a number of ones with paces that go smoothly or get a little twisted). While we were there around Memorial Day Weekend, we got to try a new park attraction called FlyOver America. FlyOver America is a fully immersive, flight simulation ride that takes riders on an aerial tour of well-known U.S. landmarks and regions. Nickelodeon Universe also contains an indoor zipline that takes you 60 feet above the ground, and features special visits by costumed TV characters like Sponge Bob Squarepants and Dora the Explorer.

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Specialty Stores/Restaurants
The Mall of America has a good mix of major retail brands (think clothing, electronics, cosmetics, accessories, etc.) plus regional finds. Among them, the LEGO Store is where kids of all ages can let loose on this Danish toy with its Pick-A-Brick wall, play areas, and larger-than-life models such as over 34-foot-tall robot. Fans of American Girl will not just find the store but also an American Girl ® Bistro. And being in Minnesota, and near neighboring Wisconsin, find stores carrying everything from locally made cheese to Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers gear or other state-inspired products. As for dining, there are 50-plus restaurants, including national chains like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Hard Rock Café, Rainforest Café, and Buffalo Wild Wings, to more regional brands like Caribou Coffee and A & W All-American Food. Consider Pizza Studio, where you can have a custom pie made; Crave American Kitchen & Sushi Bar, for a sit-down meal or Noodles & Company, which prepares noodles in Asian, Mediterranean or American style.

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Photo via Radisson Blu Mall of America

Hotel Accommodations
There are more than 50 hotels in various proximity to the Mall of America. The most direct one is the Radisson Blu Mall of America, as it’s connected to the mall via a skyway. I paid to stay here for the conference and liked how you could literally enter the mall from one of the hotel levels. It’s definitely convenient, for when you, um, realize that you need a last-minute extra pair of pants. That you pick up along with some Wisconsin cheese sticks and a cup of Caribou Coffee.

In short, if you happen to be in this area or thinking of a different kind of weekend getaway, the Mall of America might be the place to be. And shop.

Westin Hotels & Resorts Introduces Sleep Well Menu

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Here’s some news from my inbox…. Westin Hotels & Resorts has been busy promoting their “Well-Being Movement,” a new travel wellness brand, with a messaging campaign and a FitStar by FitBit partnership introducing a set of exercise programs at their properties worldwide. Its latest addition to this branding initiative takes an edible approach to getting a good night’s sleep.

Said to be available 24/7, the Westin Sleep Well Menu offers superfood options specially designed to promote rest and recovery. According to a press release from Westin, this specialty menu was designed to help guests “ease into sound slumber so that they can easily adjust to a new time zone, recover from a hectic day of travel or prepare for an active day ahead.” With input from SuperFoodsRx, the meals on this menu contain amino acids, vitamins, and minerals including magnesium, potassium, folate, serotonin, and thiamin to prevent insomnia and reset sleep cycles.

Choices include:

  • Grilled wild salmon with walnut quinoa;
  •  A micro chopped turkey salad;
  • Poached eggs on asparagus with snap peas and shitake mushrooms;
  • Oatmeal tabouleh, among others.

If guests prefer more of a bedtime snack, they can opt for whole grain crackers with peanut butter; non-fat yogurt with granola; edamame and whole wheat pretzels; or cherry walnut oat muffins. There’s tea too. Find herbals with a calming effect such lavender, peppermint, cinnamon, passionflower, lemon balm, ginger, chamomile or valerian root.

To celebrate their new Sleep Well menu, Westin Hotels & Resorts is giving away a five-night stay at any Westin hotel or resort, a Westin Heavenly® Bed, and other Westin items. Enter by April 30, 2016 by visiting this link.

 

 

Saybrook Point Inn & Spa Opens Tall Tales

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Saybrook Point Inn & Spa recently opened Tall Tales, at right. It’s next to Three Stories.

Two years ago, I was invited to visit Saybrook Point Inn & Spa and take a tour of the main property and its then latest addition, a luxury guesthouse named Three Stories. This past weekend, I went back to the inn to stay at a new and exquisite set of accommodations known as Tall Tales.

Opened in February 2016, Tall Tales is an elegant yet private Italianate-style guesthouse right next door to Three Stories. Like its neighbor, Tall Tales gives off the feeling of staying at a quaint bed and breakfast inn overlooking the Connecticut River.

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Tall Tales contains six rooms – two on each level sharing a common area – with each named after real-life individuals with significant ties to Old Saybrook. Each room also is decorated in different color schemes and furniture to reflect the character of their namesake. My room is called the Barbara Maynard, who is considered to the “Town Mother” of Old Saybrook for her involvement as a former First Selectman and Registrar of Voters.

If Barbara saw her room, I think she would be proud.

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On the second floor of Tall Tales, the Barbara Maynard room contains a private seating area off of the main bedroom. Not that this area takes away from the bedroom. My bedroom has an electric fireplace, with an adjacent balcony. With a four-poster, king-size bed, the fine linens reflect a Victorian period look yet feel comfortable for a present-day guest.

Its full bath contains classic fixtures, with a walk-in shower with a seat in place of a tub. Plus Tall Tales has Wi-Fi available in these rooms. The second floor also features a billiards room. On the first floor, there is a small kitchen area and an open-floor plan dining room where guests can grab a muffin or piece of fruit or use a Keurig to make instant coffee.

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Parking is available behind Tall Tales and Three Stories. Both guesthouses are located across from the main inn. For dining, the main inn’s restaurant, Fresh Salt, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus a weekend brunch. Its menus are seasonal and promote New England’s agriculture. The inn’s Sanno Spa features 11 treatment rooms and services such as facials, massages, and manicures and pedicures. Amenities include indoor and outdoor pools, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a ballroom and event spaces, and a marina that can accommodate vessels up to roughly 200 feet in length.

Editor’s Note: My stay at the Saybrook Point Inn & Spa was comped but the opinions expressed in this piece are entirely my own.

 

Hilton Offers Exclusive Room Rates with Direct Booking

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If you’re a member of Hilton HHonors (Hilton’s guest loyalty program), here’s some news for you. This week, Hilton Worldwide announced the launch of its “Stop Clicking Around” promotion that encourages Hilton HHonors members to book reservations directly through the program to get specialty discounts. The promotion is valid at more than Hilton’s 4,500 properties worldwide.

In a sense, it’s to encourage members to not turn to third-party travel sites to book rooms but go to Hilton HHonors. Valid methods include the program’s mobile app, reservation call centers, or through preferred corporate travel partners and approved travel agents. If Hilton is a must for you, it’s a bit of a money saver. But also look at other discounts too like AAA (or yes, going back to those, um, other search engines).

Hotels.com Unveils Hotels.com Gift Card

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Recently, I went to a media event for Hotels.com, to reveal new offerings for holiday savings and insights on travel trends for 2016. Here are some highlights.

Perhaps Hotels.com’s big news is the release of a gift card that can be used toward its various participating hotels within the U.S. and Canada. What seems neat about the gift card is that it goes beyond specific brands, so for the most part you get to pick – and apply – from multiple options for where you want to stay. It only goes toward new hotel reservations.

The gift cards are said to have no application fees or exploration dates; just apply the balance when you’re making your booking. They can be sent electronically or as a plastic card. Amounts can start from $10 and go up to $500.

At the breakfast, Hotels.com’s North American VP and GM Josh Belkin shared some info about the company’s Cyber Monday sale. For Cyber Monday, Hotels.com is encouraging travelers to supply their email address and in return get sent a discount range that is said to give savings that can range from $250 to $1,000. Reservations have to be booked that day.

As for 2016, Hotels.com had various predictions for destinations on everything from stays to visits. They include:

  1. Queens will surpass Brooklyn as the most popular destination for NY visitors staying in the outer boroughs. If Lonely Planet was right about picking this borough as a must-see location, its diverse food scene and hotel offerings will be enticing.
  2. Buffalo will emerge as a top travel destination, as Hotels.com data finds Rust Belt cities like Buffalo (as well as Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh) have gotten an upswing in visitors for the past two years.
  3. Milwaukee is also on the upswing for visitors, and is projected to become a Hotels.com’s Top 50 Domestic Destination. It’s due to the Midwestern city’s  brewery and culinary scene and other attractions.
  4. Mexico will gather more international visitors beyond its traditional places of Cancun and Maya Rivera, and Canada will continue to shine as an under-the-radar destination.

 

 

Villa Blanca Cloud Forest Hotel & Nature Reserve

photo 1(54)After a good first day in San Jose, Costa Rica, my group headed toward to the country’s Central Highlands region to see the Cloud Forest – and to spend the night at a property there.

The various cloud forests in Costa Rica is where there’s an abundance of bio-diversity with different species of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and insects. It’s also a lot cooler here, but comfortably. Rain showers are the norm.

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My group went to the San Ramon area for a stay at the Villa Blanca Cloud Forest Hotel & Nature Reserve. It’s an eco-minded boutique hotel that originally was owned by former Costa Rican president Rodrigo Carazo Odio and his wife, Estrella Zeledon de Carazo. Now owned by a company called Greentique Hotels, what makes this property pretty neat is that it’s surrounded by Los Angeles Private Biological Reserve, a wildlife sanctuary that guests could go on a guided walk through.

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The main building on the property is where the hotel reservations desk and restaurant can be found. There’s also a gift shop, game room, lobby bar, lounge areas on the ground floor and on the second level, and even a movie theater. Outside this building, guests can opt to stay at one of a number of casitas (garden villas) that are small cottages equipped high-speed internet access and feature nice touches like a wood-burning fireplace.

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The property has a sustainable farm that provides ingredients for the restaurant. In the greenhouse, you can find eggplants, lettuce and herbs that will end up on someone’s dinner plate. There’s also a working dairy farm where guests can learn how to milk “celebrity cows” in residence. There’s Lady Gaga and Brittany Spears, since their names were chosen by hotel guests.

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Farming aside, you’ll also find a chapel on the property that was an anniversary gift from the president to his wife. We were told that the chapel is pretty popular for holding weddings. By taking a look at the ceiling, we found out why. The ceiling is covered with various hand-painted pictures of symbols of Costa Rica and other countries in Central America.

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One really neat building here is the Jose Miguel Alfaro Research Station, where researchers from the University of Costa Rica monitor what’s happening in the adjacent nature reserve. You can go inside the station. Here you’ll see dioramas of various insects and watch a video from a monitor that records nighttime creatures.

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As for visiting the reserve, there are daytime and nocturnal guided walks where the hotel guides can lead you on a path and stop to point out any inhabitants along the way. My group did a nocturnal walk and we were able to see walking sticks, a viper (very far up in the tree), and different frogs. And we really lucked out by seeing the famous red-eyed tree frog!

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Back at Villa Blanca’s main building, we had our meals inside the restaurant, with locally sourced ingredients incorporated into every dish: coffee, plantains, and pineapple, among others. Very good and very tasty. Overall, the stay was very relaxing, and even as the rain greeted us, it was a good sign.