Monday, April 26, 2010

Get a Room

While you might not spend as much time in your hotel room as you would spend on exploring the city, hiking that mountain or chugging your pint(s) of beer, the place where you lay your head at night can make a big difference in the quality of your travel experience.

A terrible hotel experience stays with you—and not in a good way. My friend, Tricia, recently told me how she found someone’s pair of dirty socks inside her bed sheets—ick. My worst hotel experience was when I waited three hours for my room, only to find that it hadn’t yet been cleaned when I finally got to it. This was most evident in the fact that my toilet seat was, for lack of a better description, smeared with feces. So much for that supposed five-star rating.

These types of hotel stays have inspired some of the most vehemently colorful and detailed reviews to be found on Yelp and TripAdvisor. They also, more often than not, deter travelers from ever making a return visit to that destination, let alone that particular property.

A good hotel, however, gives you peace of mind when you’re far from home—it gives you a place to store your bags, take a shower and get rested. But a truly great hotel does so much more than that.

An amazing hotel stay is intimately tied to your entire travel experience: When you look back on your trip, you can’t help but remember that place; it’s as much a part of your trip as your first walk along the beach or your impromptu shopping trip through the night markets.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had some of those unforgettable hotel stays. Each one enhanced my trips in ways that I never could have anticipated or imagined and, when I look back on those memories, I can’t help but recall how much I loved being there, and being able to call these places my home away from home.

So, here they are, my favorite accommodations thus far. And yes, I’ll admit that my list is somewhat skewed more toward “luxury” than “budget,” but what can I say? It’s just another great perk—for which I am very grateful—of being a travel writer.

No. 8: Encore Las Vegas
Why: It's My Kind of Vegas
I'm not much of a Vegas person at all: I don't gamble, I don't really have a desire to go clubbing every night and I hate not knowing what time of day it is when I'm cooped up in the casino 24/7. What I do love about Vegas, however—mainly the gastronomic and retail offerings—can all be found here at Encore Las Vegas, along with the nightclubs and gambling, of course. I love the fact that the casino has floor-to-ceiling windows that reveal the outside, overly manicured gardens and pool area. And the spa (see the photo below) is just insane: it's practically gilded in gold. Sure, it's all a bit gaudy and excessive, but isn't this what Vegas is supposed to be like when it's done right? (Photo (c) Russell MacMasters for Wynn/Encore Las Vegas)  

No. 7: The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
Why: The View
When I think about my favorite rooms with a view, this one is almost always near the top of the list. Having lived in Southern California all of my life, I’ve often taken the ocean for granted. Staying here, however, reminded me why so many people live—and love to live—in Southern California: it’s just so beautiful, especially if you can afford to pay for such a view.

No. 6: Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi
Why: The Ambience

Staying here felt like being holed up in a cozy lodge in the woods—albeit one with a nightly turndown service of shortbread cookies and water and a retractable (and sizable) flat-screen TV. I stayed at the inn during my very first visit to Santa Fe, N.M., last winter and immediately fell in love with the hotel’s welcoming and cozy ambience, complete with a kiva fireplace and a balcony overlooking the Santa Fe Plaza.

Why: The Amenities
I stayed at the Langham Place Hotel Hong Kong for a week and loved it for many reasons. For one, it was smack dab in the middle of Mongkok, Hong Kong, where all the good markets are located (an absolute plus for a shopaholic like myself). And secondly, it was just, well, cool. From the moment I pulled up to the porte cochere and saw that sculpture by Jiang Shuo (see photo), I knew I’d like it here. It was also extremely hi-tech: the in-room safe could even charge your laptop while you were out for the day. And although the Langham Place encompassed a sprawling 42-story building, I never felt lost; it was like my second home for that entire week. (Photo (c) Langham Place Hotel Hong Kong)

No. 4: Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi
Why: The Bed
I know that you’re supposed to spend most of your time on the go while on vacation, but I’d never before been so tempted to stay in as I was when I stayed here. The bed at the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi was the epitome of everything I’d ever want in a bed: ultra-soft, but not too soft, and covered in Egyptian cottons and plush pillows. It was torture getting up in the mornings—especially so when we set our wake-up call at 4:30 a.m. to make it to the Tsukiji Fish Market—but it was pure bliss just to drift off into sleep at night. (Photo (c) Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi) 

No. 3: One of the campgrounds at Yosemite National Park (I can’t remember which one, sadly)
Why: The Company
I can’t even remember which campground it is that I stayed in with my boyfriend, Eliot, and his two best friends. But I do remember how freezing it was, even in the middle of the summer, and how one of his friends nearly scorched the bottom of his feet in an attempt to warm himself by our makeshift fire. Nonetheless, this reminded me that, even when your accommodations are nowhere near five-star (or even at a hotel for that matter), they can still feel like they are if you’ve got the right company with you. The entire trip was filled with episodes of hilarity: we woke up too late to make it to Half Dome in time and we didn’t bring enough blankets or clothing to keep warm at night. Even so, we had a blast and for that, it’ll always be one of my favorite camping trips.

No. 2: The Peninsula Tokyo
Why: The Welcoming Committee
The Peninsula Tokyo was the very first hotel that I stayed at during my trip to Japan last December and it set the bar high—very high—for the rest of my trip. We had just arrived at night from Narita, still groggy from our 11-hours-long flight but, as soon as I stepped into the hotel, I felt immediately at home—if only my home could be as luxurious and opulent as The Peninsula Tokyo was. In fact, it felt just like my dream home, complete with a huge walk-in closet (with a built-in nail dryer), a multi-functioning printer/fax machine/copier (yes, that kind of thing matters to me), and even a digital clock embedded into the bathroom mirror so you're never late for an important meeting. And waking up the next morning to a traditional Japanese-style room service breakfast was, for me, the best part.  

No. 1: Hoshinoya Kyoto
Why: The Experience
Have you ever stayed somewhere and just felt like you were living in a different time and place—as though you really were on vacation from your everyday life? That's exactly how I felt when I got to spend two nights here. At first, it might seem strange to describe the Hoshinoya Kyoto as a modern ryokan (traditional Japanese-style inn) but that's exactly what it was in every sense of the word. It still had all of the modern amenities that travelers expected (including those frighteningly intelligent Japanese toilets) but all of it was housed within the confines—both physical and metaphorical—of an historic ryokan. It was, simply, a magical stay from the very start: to even get to the Hoshinoya, you had to hop on a boat to travel down the river. And my room wasn't even just a room—it was like a small house, complete with a tatami-floored living room (where we had a room-service breakfast of nabe; see below), a separate bedroom and a separate bathroom. If I ever go back to Kyoto (which I hope I do), I hope I can stay here once more.

Eliot eagerly anticipated our room-service breakfast of nabe (Japanese hot pot).

This was a hallway from one of the other buildings on property.

And this was the view of the river from our room.

Now that I’ve shared some of my favorite hotels, I’d love to hear about some of your favorite—and not-so-favorite—stays, too.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Favorites, 2009 (Part 4, With Friends)

As I’ve said before, one of the least favorite things about being a travel writer (if there is such a thing) is having to travel with people that you would never—ever—want to travel with. On the flip side, however, I consider myself to have been very lucky. Last year, I traveled with some of my dearest friends—and even made some new ones along the way.

In the midst of the H1N1 scare, my brother, Matthew, and I embarked on our first cruise ever, sailing from Long Beach, Calif. to Victoria, B.C., on the Carnival Splendor. We still had fun anyway, even if it was a lot rainier and cloudier than it would have been in Puerto Vallarta. (May 2009)

My friend, Jennifer, whom I’ve known since the second grade, was my travel buddy on my first-ever river cruise, sailing down the Rhine with Avalon Waterways. We snapped this photo in Heidelberg, Germany. (Photo (c) Jennifer Eriguel; August 2009)

Cindy and I cast a shadow on the shores of Achsiv Beach in Israel. (September 2009)

And, on the first night of our trip to Japan and Korea, my boyfriend, Eliot, and I enjoyed a feast at The Peninsula Tokyo’s Peter restaurant—just one of many great meals we savored throughout both countries. (December 2009)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Favorites, 2009 (Part 3, Animals)

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two particularly photogenic types of animals that I love to snap photos of: camels and dogs. Dogs are an obvious choice but camels—well, who knew they were so obliging and had so much character?

A beer-drinking camel from Petra in Jordan (February 2009)

My favorite camel of all time, from Wadi Rum in Jordan—look at that smile! (February 2009)

Little paw prints from the salt ponds in Kauai (July 2009)

A pooped pup in front of a pub in Cologne, Germany (August 2009)

My second-favorite camel of all time. I met him outside of a pit stop while we made our way from Tiberias to Masada in Israel. (September 2009)

A happy dog in Tel Aviv (September 2009)

Another happy dog from Costa Rica (October 2009)

And finally, a Costa Rican monkey just hanging out on a telephone line (November 2009)

(All photos © Deanna Ting)

Monday, April 19, 2010

No Place Like Home

As much as I love to travel, there are some things you just can’t get anywhere else but at home.

For me, that list is fairly concise and to the point: There’s those animal- and protein-style In-N-Out Double-Double burgers (with animal-style fries—well done, of course) that I crave every time I come back from a long trip (Photo ©; don't fret—this is a fitness blog that links to an article extolling the virtues of a protein-style burger from In-N-Out).

And that mild-to-the-point-of-boring L.A. weather—almost always 72 degrees, sunny and/or partly cloudy. (BTW, anything that deviates from that is classified as a “Storm Watch” or “Heat Wave,” almost immediately and without hesitation.

Oh, and the ability to wear flip-flops and/or jeans with everything and still be considered somewhat dressy. (Definitions of “formal” or “business casual” attire are completely relative here in L.A.)

And, of course, there’s also the stuff that I absolutely detest about home, of which congested traffic would be at the top of that list.

But more than these things, I’ve also come to the realization that there are other less tangible but even more fulfilling things that no place else but home can ever provide.

This point was made even clearer to me this past week, when I found out that my weeklong trip to Germany had been permanently cancelled (thanks a lot, Eyjafjallajokull). I was so looking forward to the trip but I’m also thankful to be able to spend the week at home with my dearest family and friends. This is especially true as I make that dreaded march toward turning one year older. Ugh.

For me, it’s a comfort knowing that I’ve got a wonderful home life to return to from wherever I may be traveling to. More often than not though, I tend to forget about that, just like Dorothy did in “The Wizard of Oz.” (Photo ©

But, since I’m getting all introspective (blame it on the getting older), I think you really only start to realize just how important home is when you’re not there. In a strange way, that makes it one of the best parts about traveling—it gives you something to compare your travels to, something to look forward to and, in some cases, something to run away from, even.

Home for me, however, is something that I love—for better and for worse—and I’m sure I’ll miss it whenever it is I take my next flight.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Favorites, 2009 (Part 2, Scenes)

Sometimes, a single snapshot of a particular place can convey so much about that place or time. Here are some of my favorite photos from last year that seem to have done the trick.

I snapped this photo on a bus tour through San Francisco. I just loved how this mural seemed to envelop the entire building. (May 2009)

The clear-blue sky just seemed to melt into the glittering ocean near Waimea Canyon, Kauai. (July 2009)

I loved how this family in Amsterdam repurposed these clogs into decorative flower holders. (August 2009)

In Strasbourg, France, you can just walk along a street and—all of sudden— you might just find yourself at a beautiful cathedral. (August 2009)

Beit Shean, ancient Roman ruins in Israel, are lit up at night. (September 2009)

Thoughtful graffiti in Akko, Israel (September 2009)

Lanterns in Israel (September 2009)

Candles in the Old City of Jerusalem (September 2009)

Textiles in the Old City of Jerusalem: I loved how colorful they were. (September 2009)

Jaffa, an artists’ colony just outside of Tel Aviv, felt like a little microcosm unto itself. (September 2009)

An interesting building in Tel Aviv (September 2009)

The Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe at sunset (December 2009)

A guestroom decoration from The Peninsula Tokyo: The contrast between the gilded leaves and red backdrop was stunning. (December 2009)

The bamboo grove in Kyoto’s Arashiyama neighborhood. I couldn’t keep my camera still or in focus because my hands were shaking—it was so cold! (December 2009)

Same goes for this snapshot, taken as we crossed the Togetsukyo Bridge by rickshaw. (December 2009)

I took this photo as Eliot and I made our way up to the Senko-ji Temple in Kyoto. (December 2009)

Eliot and I literally stumbled onto the Rakkudo Temple after making a quick pit stop at a Starbucks in Kyoto. (December 2009)

Visiting the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima (December 2009)

It was so moving to see all these thousands of paper cranes at the site of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. The cranes became a symbol for peace in Hiroshima in honor of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who developed cancer from the bombing. She attempted to fold 1,000 cranes as she was dying from her cancer, in the belief that if she could accomplish such, she would be granted her wish. (December 2009)

It was equally heart-wrenching to walk around Imjingak, South Korea, where families have left photos and mementos of loved ones who never came back from the north. (December 2009)

On our last night in Seoul, we went up to Namsan Tower where we saw thousands of literal locks of love. (January 2010)

(All photos © Deanna Ting)

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Change of Plans

Right about now, I should have been at LAX, waiting in line to check my luggage or passing through airport security, on my way to Frankfurt, Germany. Instead, I’ve been grounded, thanks to that unexpectedly disastrous volcanic eruption in Iceland—the same one that’s incited “the largest shutdown of international airspace in years.” Below is a photo of stranded passengers at my intended destination. (Photo (c) Getty Images and 

Oh well, I sit here, thinking silently to myself. What is there to do?

That’s the thing about travel—as with almost everything else, I suppose. It’s unpredictable and, more often than not, it’s not only subject to change—it will change and often, when you least expect it.

People tend to react in one of two ways when dealing with such travel roadblocks and detours. There’s the path of most resistance—the one where you become a seething cesspool of unbridled rage, anger and resentment. (For proof, just watch any episode of “The Amazing Race.” Trust me.)

And then there’s the other option—the one where you simply shrug your shoulders and just move on. This one, I’ve found, is always much more preferable.

So, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m sad that I’ll be missing out on savoring those frothy mugs of beer and scouring the museums of Mainz but I know that, eventually, everything will work itself out. Who knows? There might just be yet another change of plans in the works and maybe, just maybe, it’ll be even better than I’d hoped.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Favorites, 2009 (Part 1, People)

While I think it might be a little late to revisit some of my favorite photos from 2009 (this is something traditionally reserved for the end of last year, right?), I figured, oh well, better late than never, especially since I'm getting ready for another trip soon (more details on that later). I’m not a professional photographer in the least bit, so you’ll have to forgive me if the photo quality isn’t always up to par; I picked my favorites based on the stories behind them, and not necessarily on the image quality or sense of color and depth.

Photographing people isn’t always as easy as you think. And, of course, there’s always the chance that the person you want to photograph is a little camera shy (not unlike myself). But isn’t it crazy how a single image of just one person can really capture an entire place or time, sometimes? That’s why I loved these photos so much, and I hope you might feel the same way about them, too.

In Amman, Jordan, we visited a local school, the Al-Hussein Society for the Rehabilitation of the Physically Challenged, to volunteer. I loved these two kids—they were so outgoing and inquisitive. (February 2009)

This is a photo of one of the guides who accompanied us during an overnight stay in the Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan. He just looked so cozy (it was freezing) and I’ll always remember his super-considerate offerings of steaming-hot Turkish coffee and sweet tea. (February 2009)

In Heidelberg, Germany, this ebullient older man suddenly started clapping out of nowhere, both startling and amusing the throngs of tourists around him. (August 2009)

I just loved how this Israeli couple clung to each other as they left the synagogue at a kibbutz in the Galilee. (September 2009)

In Nazareth, Israel, we were treated to a performance by a talented local Nazarene dance troupe. (September 2009)

This father and daughter from Akko, Israel, were kind enough to let me photograph them as they sat out on their rooftop. (September 2009)

This photo, also taken in Akko, was a little unsettling: I don’t know if you can see it all that well, but the boy on the far right is playing with a mock rifle. (September 2009)

My friend and I encountered this little boy as we got lost trying to navigate our way through Akko. He was really interested in checking out our camera equipment. (September 2009)

At the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in Israel, we came across large groups of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) recruits. I loved how the guy on the left decided to put on his best face for me. (September 2009)

Just another day at the pit stop for this IDF soldier (September 2009)

In Jerusalem, a father accompanied his son home from school. (September 2009)

A woman walking through the Old City of Jerusalem (September 2009)

Traditional dancers from Costa Rica—I loved how their skirts moved with every twirl. (November 2009)

I couldn’t take my eyes off of the chefs who made our fresh soba noodles at the Hoshinoya Kyoto restaurant. (December 2009)

A delighted sous chef from Tempura Matsu in Kyoto, Japan, displayed a soon-to-be-cooked-and-eaten fish for us. (December 2009)

This little boy was fascinated by the gigantic koi fish that lived in the ponds surrounding the beautifully serene Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. (December 2009)

My one and only geisha spotting from Kyoto—but I can’t even be sure if she’s a real geisha or just a girl playing dress up. (December 2009)

One big tuna at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo (December 2009)

At the DMZ in South Korea (December 2009)

(All photos © Deanna Ting)