A Whirlwind 50 Hour Trip to Chicago – Day 1

19553905_10154511663915974_1785449452011117391_nI’m writing this on the plane going back home from a short trip to Chicago. This was a shorter trip than Sharon and I would normally take so there had to be a good reason behind it. Just like our trip to New York in January, we traveled to Chicago because Sharon used her Ticketmaster skills to get us tickets to see “Hamilton.” Getting tickets for the show in Chicago was a little easier than for New York, but not much. To make things more complicated, we needed to change the dates of our tickets due to some conflicts that came up and then we had to shorten the rescheduled trip due to other commitments. Thank goodness I booked the original airline tickets with Southwest so I didn’t have to pay to change the flights. Even with it being a short trip and all the changes we had to make, we had a blast and are so glad we went.

Knowing we had such a limited amount of time to see the city, we narrowed down what

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Our Visit to 1950s Kitch: The Mai-Kai

The Tiki culture (the theme used in Polynesian-style restaurants, clubs and bars) in the United States started in the 1930s, increased after World War II (when solders would return from the South Pacific) and hit its peak in the late 1950s, around the time that MaiKaiStatueSignHawaii became the 50th state. Riding on that wave (do you see what I did there? ☺), the Mai-Kai, a Polynesian-themed restaurant, bar and, a few years later, live Polynesian Islander Revue, opened in Fort Lauderdale in late 1956 and has been feeding and entertaining guests ever since. An OpenTable winner in 2014 and voted Best Tiki Bar in the World by Critiki in 2015 and 2016 (because, let’s face it…they would know, right?), it is, as per Wikipedia, the last restaurant/bar in existence carrying on the traditions of service and serving the original drink recipes of Don the Beachcomber (the very first tiki bar, which opened in Hollywood in 1937), and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And yet I, a lover of all things kitchy, Polynesian/Hawaiian and off-the-beaten-path, somehow had never heard of it, never mind never been to it???
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#TBT: Japan April 2005: Kyoto: Kyoto Station, Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, Seeing Beauty & The Beast

So after waking up at 4:20am (yes, 4:20 in the morning. Jetlag sucks!) and catching up on our internet/computer stuff, Joe, Steve (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Steve is a friend of ours) and I started our day by using the hotel’s shuttle to go to Kyoto Station. Lesson #1 is get to the shuttle at least 15 minutes before it has to leave because it fills up FAST:
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We made it onto the shuttle bus, but there were a LOT of people who didn’t. My favorite was when the driver had squeezed in every single body he could, there was no room to breathe, people had suitcases on their laps, and someone came up and said, “Do you have room for 4 more?”

Arrived at Kyoto Station around 10:00am. Re-built and expanded around a decade ago, that place is HUGE…besides being the main bus, train and Shinkansen (Bullet Train) center for Kyoto, it also encompasses a few shopping malls, a department store, a hotel, the theater where Disney’s Beauty & The Beast was playing, and I forget what else…I mean it’s HUGE.
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This picture of Kyoto station, which shows how cavernous is it, is only a tiny piece of the whole complex.

We wandered around for an hour, getting our bearings and looking for a place to eat. Found a noodle shop that opened at 11am and had a good breakfast/lunch of stuff that we mostly knew what it was (wink). The shop, which was within the confines of Kyoto Station, gets a lot of tourists (and non-tourists too), so one of the workers helped Joe and Steve with what they had to do with their food (“put these spices in this liquid, mix and dip your food into it”…that sort of stuff). I apparently “won” the “Stupid American” contest…the guy only helped me once…told me to pour the broth over my noodles and shrimp and then he left me alone (wink).

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Front of the noodle shop. Notice the display of plastic food on the left side of the store. Besides showing potential customers the type of foods they offer, those who don’t speak the language can go outside with the person who is taking your order and you can point to what you want.

So after several stops at several information booths, we found our train and made it to the Imperial Palace. It’s a group of very big, old buildings inside a park. Actually, it’s much more than that. The Japanese Imperial family lived in these buildings before they moved to their Imperial Palace in Tokyo in 1868. It was built and rebuilt (ten times due to fire) between 750 and 1855 A.D. The do have free guided tours, but you need to apply in person (not by mail or phone) to be able to go on one. That didn’t work for us logistically, since we had just arrived a day and a half before, plus the tours are only conducted in Japanese. We were only allowed to stand outside the buildings and, at best, peer inside.

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One of the more ornate buildings that is in the Imperial Palace complex.

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Looks like Epcot, doesn’t it?

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General description of what we’re seeing in this particular building.

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Close-up of what was described. And no, that’s not an orb.

Since we made it to one tourist spot without incident, we decided to take our chances and took another train to Nijo Castle. Another “big ol’ opulent house where someone important used to live.” This one began construction in 1601, as a residence for the Shoguns and, like many old Japanese buildings, was burned down and rebuilt many times over the centuries. We were allowed to go inside this one, albeit after taking our shoes off to protect the centuries-old floorboards. Nijo castle was built in such a way that the floorboards always squeak if someone stands or walks on them…it was done that way on purpose, so guards could hear intruders at nighttime. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the buildings but took shots of the outside and the gardens.

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Main building of the castle

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Main gate before the castle (taken from the castle courtyard, looking back, after you’ve already gone through the gate)

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Visitors are allowed to climb the (VERY STEEP!) stairs to just one of the guard gates. This is the view from there.

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A very photogenic building in the Nijo Castle complex [wink]).

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A view of the moat

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Nice shot of the Nijo Castle garden.

By this time it was about 4pm. Beauty & the Beast was scheduled to open their doors at 6:10pm so we trained it back to Kyoto Station and found a sit-down place to eat called Toh Sai. Joe and I both had the pork cutlet in curry with white rice (before we had gone on this vacation, someone told us that when in doubt, get the curry platter) and Steve had a beef dish. Decided to get dessert…Joe and I shared a chocolate parfait, which was chocolate soft-serve ice cream with whipped cream, chocolate syrup and frozen raspberries on top, and a layer of mandarin oranges, pineapple chunks and more frozen raspberries on the bottom. I’ve never been a fan of chocolate and fruit, so all I’ll say is that the ice cream part was good (wink).

Made it to B&TB…the show is exactly like the Broadway and/or traveling version, though, of course, all in Japanese (“Ohayo Belle!” instead of “bon jour”). We were able to follow the storyline without a problem though…between the 3 of us, we’ve seen it 20 times between Broadway and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (grin).

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Posters advertising the show. Photo taken at Kyoto Station. Notice what show is coming next…Aida!

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Stairway that leads to the main entrace of the theater. The opening to the right leads towards a hotel that is also in Kyoto Station.

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A picture of the inside of the theater. Very plain, undecorated black walls and ceiling, with these BRIGHT pinkish-purple seats.

Japanese audiences are very different from American audiences…besides a few nuances that wouldn’t translate over (i.e. when Belle sings the line, “Madame Gaston, his little wife, UGH!!!”, the “Ugh” is MUCH less accentuated in Japan…because people generally just aren’t that mean to each other in Japan where they would say something that bad about someone else [grin]), their applause between songs is polite and short-lived, there was little-to-no laughing at the parts we Americans always laugh (i.e. when Gaston knocks LeFou to the ground), but they clapped for 5 minutes straight, non-stop, for TEN curtain calls at the end of the show! Now, this COULD be because the show was scheduled to close the next night, but even so, it is, by far, the LONGEST applause I’ve EVER seen!

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Joe and I and a lifesize cardboard cutout of Lumiere.

Overall, we had a very nice time and the only disappointment was that they didn’t have any Japan-specific, or Kyoto-specific B&TB merchandise…all of their shirts, mugs, etc., all had the generic “B&TB: A Broadway Musical” logo. Only thing they had was an ornament for a cell phone that had “Kyoto – Finale!,” to commemerate the closing the show, so we got one of those. I would have bought the CD but, of course, I got that YEARS ago (wink).

Took a city bus back towards our hotel and amazed ourselves at not getting lost between the bus station and the hotel. Was in bed by 11pm, with plans to meet Steve at 8:30 Saturday morning, to go on our next adventure.

My Rookie Mistake: The tale of 2 hotel stays in Fort Lauderdale.

I made one of the most rookie mistakes on a recent hotel stay and I ended up paying for it, with cash. We needed a one night stay in Fort Lauderdale for when we were going to see a production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame by the Slow Burn Theater Co.  I wasn’t familiar with the area so I looked at Hotel Hustle to see if any good values were available to book a room with my hotel points. As it turned out, one of the best values for hotel point redemptions listed was at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort. This hotel is a category 8 resort (on a scale of 1-10) and rooms go for between 40,000 and 70,000 points a night. The day we wanted to stay, the rooms were listing for 50,000 points a night. That seemed steep but you also have to consider that a paid stay at this hotel was going for over $400 on that Friday night. Since most of the websites peg Hilton points to be worth 0.4 to 0.6 cents, getting 0.8 cents a point appeared to be a great deal.

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Photo from the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort website

I do admit the location looked wonderful. It was right on the beach and wasn’t too far from where we needed to be. I had some Hilton points on Sharon’s account from a previous stay so I went and booked the room.

I started to have some concerns when I looked a bit further at the reservation details. We would be driving there for the night and the only parking available is by valet and would cost $39. So my free room would now be $39 + 50,000 points. Still not bad. This “resort” also adds a fee of $25 to the room for each night of your stay. For this fee you received:

  • WiFi access *unlimited devices
  • 2 welcome drinks
  • 2 Venti Starbucks Coffee daily
  • 2 daily Zephyrhills 16.9oz water
  • 2 beach chairs daily
  • kids activities
  • 20% spa discount
  • 10% gift shop discount
  • local and toll-free calls

I wrote to the hotel asking them to allow us to use my Hilton Diamond status for the reservation. I hoped they might waive the resort fee or at least this would have earned us more points back on the costs we were incurring and possibly a better room. We originally had to book it under Sharon’s account because she was the one with the points (and Hilton does not allow family pooling like SPG does). This was the response I got from the hotel:

Unfortunately we are not able to switch the status on a points reservation. The system does not allow us to do so as the reservation with points is the only one attachable. I apologize but on the hotel’s end it just not possible.

We look forward to your stay,

Now my “free” room ended up costing me $64.80 (don’t forget tax) plus 50,000 points. Most of the benefits of the resort fee were of no use since we were only staying overnight and were leaving early the next morning. We did stop at the hotel bar for our 2 welcome drinks, which were mediocre at best. The Starbucks coffee was from the coffee bar in the gift shop which “proudly” served Starbucks. That’s not a Venti Starbucks in my book so we stopped at a real Starbucks for our lattes. We also don’t drink Zephyrhills water because we think it tastes nasty. Finally, why the value of free local and toll-free calls is considered a perk anymore is beyond me. Like who does not have a cell phone?

We thoroughly enjoyed the show that night and saw that the company was going to be doing a production of another of our favorite shows, Titanic: The Musical. When we got home we immediately purchased tickets and started planning our next weekend trip.

So what did I learn from our first stay and what did I change the next time?  While the booking with Hilton points seemed to be a great value, I never would have paid $400 to stay at that hotel. Using that price was inflating the value I was getting for those points. I also did not take into consideration the additional fees associated at staying at this hotel. During our stay we did learn the locations of the places we needed to go in Ft. Lauderdale. This made it much easier to research hotels for our next trip.

I used my go-to hotel site, Tripadvisor, to look for hotels in the area. There was a good rate at the Sheraton Suites Cypress Creek of $158 after tax. That was much more in line with what we’d be willing to pay for this type of trip.

The hotel appeared to be an 1980’s era Embassy Suites which was rebranded to a Sheraton. The decor was a bit dated but still fitting in the Floridian style. The location, while being convenient to Interstate 95, was in the middle of a business park and next to the Tri-Rail railroad track. Not nearly as nice as the beachfront we were staying the last time, but fine for our needs.

We were still about the same distance away from the theater, the reason we went to Fort Lauderdale. We had a 2-room suite with a full living room and bedroom which was quiet and comfortable. A perfectly acceptable stay for us. Did I mention they also left a free bottle of Dasani water in the room for us without charging a resort fee, and parking was free?

For the miles and points geek, here’s where it gets interesting. Here’s a list of the Starpoints I earned for the stay:

  • 286 Base points (2 points per dollar)
  • 143 points (50% Gold SPG bonus)
  • 250 points (Gold SPG amenity welcome gift)
  • 286 points (Current SPG promotion)
  • 286 points (by using SPG Amex to pay for stay)
  • 3000 points (Suite promotion)

I love that last one. Starwood was offering 3000 bonus points for booking a suite. Since all rooms at this hotel are suites, all of the rooms were all eligible for the promotion. In all I earned 4251 Starpoints for my stay. Since Starpoints are regularly valued at 2.2 cents a piece, I received almost $93 worth of points back on my $158 bill (which could bring my cost down to $65 if you take those things into account)

So we have 2 hotel stays. One where I had to pay $65 in fees plus 50,000 Hilton points and another where I paid $158 but got back 4,251 Starpoints. For what we were going to Fort Lauderdale for, I’d much rather spend money and get back points than spend points and still have to spend money.

 

Why I Think Everyone Needs to See Sleep No More at Least Once

If you don’t immediately know what I am referring to in the title, you are probably sitting there asking yourself “What is Sleep No More?”  It’s really difficult to explain but thankfully the show sent me a pretty good summation:
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Trip Report: Because……Hamilton

16114094_10154045741360974_5686568030597608705_nSharon and I just finished a very quick trip to NYC. We left on a Friday morning and returned late Sunday night. We don’t usually take such short trips but there was one reason we went to New York just for a weekend.

HAMILTON!!!!!!

That’s right. While I confidently say I do have the greater tech skills in the family, Sharon has GoogleFu skills which outshine mine. When we saw Hamilton on Broadway a year ago last November, we decided we needed to see it again. That became quite a difficult task since it had become the hardest ticket to get since……well since we were alive.

My schedule currently gives me alternate long weekends off from work. So our plan was that when/if Sharon found tickets available, she would get them for a weekend I was off. It was then up to me to make the trip work.

Well, Sharon got tickets and I started planning. I’ll break the trip up into segments because I think each one is interesting on its own merits.

Keep following for the updates.

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