The Scenario – MrsMJ and I are cruising from San Juan, Puerto Rico this December. We are arriving in San Juan two days prior to our cruise. I immediately booked a two night stay at the Marriott San Juan using Marriott Rewards points. I’ve stayed at the hotel before. I like it. I like the staff. I like the live music in the evenings. I like the beach. It’s free.

MrsMJ wishes to stay at the Hotel El Convento, a hotel rich in history, and definitely not free.

The Result – We are staying at the Hotel El Convento.

Sometimes it really is about the experience. Obviously, miles and points are made for aspirational experiences, but in this case I will save those points for something else. I’m going to pay for our hotel stay in San Juan out of pocket. This will be our big vacation of 2013, and it’s not every day that I get to stay in a hotel with a history dating to 1646. After considering my options with alternative points currencies like Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards, I elected to book the hotel through our Virtuoso affiliated travel agent.

Hotel El Convento is a preferred Virtuoso property, and MrsMJ and I will enjoy some benefits as a result including an upgrade on arrival (subject to availability), complimentary continental breakfast, a $25 credit towards a massage, a $75 dining credit, and early check in/late check out. The benefits aside, the hotel just looks awesome. Cookie-cutter it is not. Here’s an excerpt from their website:

El Convento Hotel History in San Juan, Puerto Rico -

 Celebrate more than 360 years of tradition at our luxury old San Juan hotel in Puerto Rico. As the first Carmelite Convent in the Americas, it housed the nuns for 252 years until closing a few days before Christmas in 1903. Vacant for a decade, the abandoned building served as a retail store, a dance hall, and, for the next 40 years, a flophouse without running water, sanitary facilities, or electricity.

Opened on Jan. 27, 1962 as El Convento Hotel, it offered a tranquil, European-style alternative to the glitzy hotels lining the Condado strip. Since that time, we’ve maintained a high standard of luxury and style – constantly improving our amenities and recreational services. Notable present-day features of our boutique-style Puerto Rico luxury hotel include:

      • Named the premier “Small Luxury Hotel” in Puerto Rico
      • Oldest member of Historic Hotels of America
      • Rated as a AAA Four Diamond property
      • Daily Manager’s reception, serving a variety of wine and hors d’ouevres on La Veranda terrace
      • Plunge pool and Jacuzzi, offering breathtaking views of San Juan Bay
      • Fitness center, with free weights, treadmill, elliptical trainer, and stair climber, offering guests unlimited use
      • Three diverse restaurants, serving cuisine ranging from tapas to traditional Puerto Rican fare
      • Library, with access to our business center
      • El Convento Beach Club, featuring beach and pool privileges at our sister properties, located on two of the best beaches in Puerto Rico

Not to mention, the hotel’s team page includes the resident hotel cat, Trixie.

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Yes, sometimes it is about the experience. I’m looking forward to the Hotel El Convento experience this December.

-MJ, July 20, 2013

I recently completed a 2-night stay at the fabulous Hotel Arts Barcelona (Marina 19-21, 08005 Barcelona, Spain). This was my first visit to Barcelona, and my first stay at a Ritz-Carlton Hotel! No, I’m not making that up. :) My love of W Hotels aside, no one ever called me Mr. Fancy Pants when it comes to hotels. Basically, I want a bed, a TV, and wi-fi, and I’m happy. That said, the Hotel Arts was our first stop after a fabulous 14-night cruise which we were taking to celebrate MrsMJ’s (ahem) 29th birthday, and I wanted something nice. I contacted our wonderful travel agent, Michelle Bemis, at McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia for advice. She recommended the Hotel Arts, which was a partner hotel with the Virtuoso network. As a result, not only would we be staying at a great hotel, we would receive a room upgrade at check in, an 85 Euro credit to our room for use during our stay, and late checkout, not that we needed that with a 6am flight! I was not disappointed.

Check In

We arrived at the hotel rather early following our cruise, just before 10:00am. Early check-in had been requested by our travel agent, so I wasn’t worried. It was likely that our room would be ready, and if not, we would just leave our bags and spend our time touring beautiful Barcelona! Arriving via taxi, we were immediately greeted by Bell staff and sent to the elevator for a short ride to the main lobby. Upon arriving there, we were immediately assisted. We were warmly welcomed, by the front desk assistant. While being checked in, we were even greeted by the hotel concierge. Our front desk assistant recognized not only my Marriott Gold status, but our Virtuoso affiliation as well. She presented us with a card detailing our benefits, and then, much to my surprise, escorted us to our room on the 16th floor of the hotel.

The Room

Our room offered a partial sea and city view. I suppose it was the best of both worlds. Our front desk person kindly explained the room and presented us with a map of Barcelona, pointing out important sites and the best ways to get there. I was quite pleased with the room. It was large, offered nice views of the city, a comfortable bed, and a TV that came with a remote control that weighed as much as a baseball bat! Seriously, that was the sturdiest remote control I’ve ever seen! After spending a generous amount of time with us, the front desk attendant left us to our own devices….which after such a long cruise meant, we took a nap! At some point, champagne and strawberries arrived, another Virtuoso amenity compliments of our travel agent. The room was extremely comfortable, and featured wireless internet access. ($28 Euro, but complimentary for me as a Marriott Gold member). The room featured a large bath with separate walk-in shower and tub, dual vanities, etc. It was very nice! I snapped a few photos around the room with my iPhone.

Around the Hotel

There was a nice lounge for elite members that I only caught a glimpse of. Frankly, we had too much to see and too little time, so we did not spend a lot of time just lounging around the hotel. I can say that the fantastic restaurant, Cafe Veranda, offered one of the better breakfast buffets I’ve seen. If you go, do not leave without enjoying one of their phenomenal crepes! I went with strawberries and Nutella. Just sayin’. The hotel is located in the Olympic Village area of Barcelona, next to the sea, and within close proximity to many oceanview restaurants and clubs. We walked everywhere we went, which of course included the Ramblas. However, I think my favorite destination during our short visit was Sagrada Familia.

You are welcome to view my photos of Barcelona. (Added December 6, 2012. More photos will be added as I work through them)

Final Thoughts

I cannot say enough good things about the Hotel Arts. From the moment we arrived, it exceeded my expectations, and continued to do so throughout our all to short stay. I will not hesitate to stay at this fabulous hotel again.

There simply are no words to describe it. Our second visit to the ancient city of Ephesus was every bit as awe inspiring as the first, and I expect our next visit to be the same. I could spend days here, but an awesome way to get a taste of the history of this fascinating place when visiting on a cruise is to book a private tour, which I arranged through our travel agent. We booked a private tour last time we were here, and enjoyed such a positive experience that we even requested the same guide. We were very excited to learn that our requested guide, Tuba, who works with Sea Song Tours, was available.

On arrival at the port of Kusadasi, Turkey, we proceeded to the terminal building where Tuba was waiting for us with a van and driver. Enroute to the ancient city, Tuba expertly provided us with information on the history of Ephesus, its development and ultimate destruction by an earthquake.

After a drive of about 15 minutes, we arrived at the archeological site encompassing Ephesus. We did not have to wait in any lines for tickets or touring as our guide had already obtained our tickets in advance. We simply went in and started exploring. Each step of the way, Tuba took the time to explain the history behind what we were seeing. Along the way, we viewed the Odeon Theatre, and the Hadrian Temple. Dedicated in 118 AD, to Artemis, it was very impressive. When you consider these magnificent buildings were constructed not hundreds, but thousands of years ago, it is difficult not to marvel at the engineering capabilities of the time.

Among my favorite features of the tour, was our visit to the Terrace Houses. Located within the city, these magnificent homes were inhabited by wealthy residents of the city. These homes were discovered during excavations that began in the 1980s. I still can’t believe just how well preserved they are. The mosaics and frescos are breathtaking…..and believe me, I’m no art junkie/snob/whatever. Our guide was with us throughout our tour of the Terrace Houses, carefully explaining the architecture and history of each.

Following the Terrace Houses, it was on to the Celsus Library, and then the stadium, once capable of entertaining up to 25,000 Ephesians. After our tour of the archeological site, we were driven to the Ephesus Museum where we able to see some artifacts and statues on display that had been removed from the site and sent to the museum for preservation.

I cannot adequately describe our day. And this site is by no means the only thing to see near the port of Kusadasi! We ended our day with a little shopping, and a major purchase by MrsMJ which will be subject of another blog.

Link to all of my Kusadasi photos.

 

MrsMJ and I have just returned from a wonderful day touring some great parts of Tuscany. Specifically, we visited San Gimignano and Siena. Enjoyed lunch in Siena, and capped our day with a wine tasting. I arranged this tour a few months ago through our travel agent, Michelle Bemis, at McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia. McCabe is a Virtuoso agency and has contacts throughout the world to help you arrange special experiences. Today’s tour was truly special, and also my birthday present to MrsMJ.

Our day began at 9:30am with a pickup by our driver and guide for the day, Matteo. As we drove through Florence, enroute to San Gimignano, Matteo took the time to explain all the sites of historical significance. His knowledge of the areas history was impressive, and made the drive fly by. Upon arriving at San Gimignano, Matteo thoroughly briefed us on the sites to see, and then we were on our own to explore at our own pace. The architecture was fascinating, and MrsMJ was quick to remind me to just think about my complaining about our 100 year old home as we walked by homes closer to 500 years old!

After San Gimignano, we drove over to Siena, one of Italy’s most visited attractions. It is a Medieval city with beautiful architecture, and wonderful food. Once again, we were educated by our professional guide on the history of the city. Interestingly, we learned that one of the most popular activities in the city is a horse race held twice during the summer which has been going on for hundreds of years. There is lots of shopping available in Siena if you’re in the mood for that. We just walked around admiring the city prior to lunch.

Following our time to explore, our driver transported us to La Chiacchiera for lunch. Our guide had prearranged reservations for us, which was a good thing as the restaurant was small, and quite busy. Further, the preponderance of native Italian diners led me to think that we may be in for a great meal. I guessed correctly. Lunch was amazing. I enjoyed the Penne Arrabbiatta, while MrsMJ dined on Spaghetti Ragu. I tried hers, it was phenomenal. Meals were obviously prepared with the freshest ingredients. Of course, I find all food to be excellent in Italy! :)

Following lunch, we were driven to the beautiful Casa Emma winery for a tasting. During the drive, Matteo steered the conversation towards wine, and educated us about the various wines the region is known for. I am by no means an expert on wine, and don’t even pretend to be. I know what I like, and I loved the Chianti Classico Reserva we tried at Casa Emma, and so did MrsMJ, an unapologetic white wine lover. That’s one thing I love about Italy, MrsMJ will drink the reds! We like the Chianti Classic Reserva so much we bought some to be shipped home.

After a drive back to our hotel, we parted ways with Matteo and can now reflect on a truly fabulous day, only a taste of which I have been able to share here. With a lot of work I might have been able to put together a day almost like this on my own, but that would likely have included hospitalization or jail because I would have had to do the driving. Instead, we invested in a private tour, arranged by a professional travel agent, so we could focus on enjoying ourselves. I would not have had it any other way.

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