Archive for the 'Traveling' category

Hotel Murano, A Review

The quick and dirty: Cool boutique hotel on the inside, crappy post-mid-century modern (read: not attractive) beige building on the outside, with service that was mostly, but not entirely, “ept.”

For those of you who want more exhaustive details, then please keep reading below!

During our recent stint in Tacoma, we stayed at the Hotel Murano, which is owned by a regional upscale hotel chain. It is well located in the center of town and happens to be festooned with an amazing collection of glass art. The hotel itself is in a building that looks to have been erected in the 60s or 70s. So, while they have attractively rehabbed the interior, given what they had to work with, the exterior of the hotel is still less-than-compelling visually.

Pictured below is our standard king room. It was functional, well designed, the bed was comfortable, the view pleasant, and there were two great bathrobes, one of which actually fit Tom. (Often, when we travel, we are supplied with two robes that seem designed for Lilliputians.) We had a few quibbles: the phone didn’t work properly, nor did the television remote or the safe. We asked them to replace/fix the latter two issues, which they did speedily.

For lunch, we tried the hotel restaurant called Bite. I can say this about their food — what it lacks in excitement and quality, they make up for with portion size. The service, well, that’s a bit difficult to put my finger on. I guess it could best be described as accidentally brusque; I don’t think they realized they weren’t providing a good experience, if that makes any sense.

Some interesting features:

  • They incorporate a bit o’ whimsy into the mundane. Their “do not disturb sign” says “tied up” instead. And, they have a notice in your room that informs you: “A copy of the News Tribune is included with your stay. If you do not wish to receive the newspaper, please contact the front desk for a $0.18 refund.”

  • Each floor has an exhibit devoted to a single glass artist. Shown above is a corset from the artist on our floor: Susan Taylor Glasgow. I was enamored of this piece. She takes symbols related to the domestication of women and makes them into glass forms that are attached via non traditional methods, such as the stitching, shown here. Mesmerizing. (A snapshot of Susan working on this piece can be found below.)

  • On the restaurant floor, there was an Argentinian glass artist named Miriam di Fiore, who now lives in Italy. Her work is captured in a photo below, as well.

  • The lobby is very lively and appealing, with a bar, and also some fabulous works of art, such as the two canoes suspended from the ceiling.

  • There is a seating area outside the lobby, along the sidewalk, with music piped in, an outdoor fireplace, and some cushy upholstered furniture. I was delighted to see a hotel trying to contribute to an active street scene in this way. Bravo!

High Glass, Glassmorous, Glassy, Glastacular … Okay, I’ll stop!

Tom and I … Amtrak … Tacoma, Washington … no kids … overnight. I must say, we found ourselves entranced with the city’s historic architecture and glass art offerings.

Before our visit, I had no idea that Tacoma was Dale Chihuly‘s birthplace — he graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School. (A quick aside, Dale’s site is shockingly … well, retro … and not in a good way.) I had no idea that so much of his art was on display throughout the city. I had no idea there was a Museum of Glass devoted solely to glass art, right downtown.

And, I had no idea that said museum had a fully functional Hot Shop (glassblowing studio), complete with a guide narrating the action, in which you could sit and observe. In fact, their Web site has a live video feed of the Hot Shop, and you can even ask questions of the emcee online.

To get to the Museum of Glass, we walked across The Bridge of Glass, pictured below, on the left, which is an impressive connector between the beautifully restored, historic Union Station, and the very modern, cone-shaped museum.

There are a multitude of pieces by Chihuly on the overpass, a very impressive selection. The most visually imposing are the towering blue glass sculptures, called the Crystal Towers, that adorn the bridge, shown in two photos below. The towers were rather impressive in the sunlight, not so his remaining masterpieces on the walkway.

Enclosed in frames along one edge of the bridge is an arrangement called the Venetian Wall, featuring some of the largest hand blown works ever created. This exhibit was very poorly lit when we were there, which happened to be on a very bright, sunny day. The natural daylighting was not effective and everything looked washed out and sadly unspectacular. The Seaform Pavilion displays marine-inspired forms in an overhead installation, and again, they were very dull and muted. Both of these displays have artificial lighting for cloudy days and evening viewing. I would recommend the latter to truly enjoy the experience. (I had to play around with contrast on these pictures from the Seaform Pavilion to make them pop.)

Our first reaction to the displays: “They need to call Steve Wynn to jazz this up a bit — he knows how to light a Chihuly!!”

After passing over the bridge, it was off to the museum for us.

Two of the galleries were closed because they were installing new exhibits, so we entered with a discount and went to the Hot Shop, which was really riveting. We learned a ton while watching a team of blowers and an artist crafting pieces that were inspired by the cosmos.

We also toured the one open gallery, which contained, amongst other things, a neat program where they take fanciful children’s drawings and realize them in glass. The final exhibit includes a combined presentation of the child’s original picture and the derivative glass piece. Very entertaining, and technically, quite difficult for the artisans.

All in all, definitely worth a visit. We came away with a real respect for, and an abiding interest in, glass art.

The Location of Our Nuptials

Pictured here, in the center of Seattle, is the aptly named Lake Union, where Tom and I were married almost 13 years ago. We were joined in matrimony aboard a boat equipped with a grand piano and mirrored ceilings (rather elaborate for our wedding party of 8). As a group, we dubbed our party boat “The Disco Vilanti.”

Said ship was a bit handicapped when we were cruising due to it only having one functioning engine, which meant we were followed by a rescue vessel in case of emergency. And, there was the additional excitement (as if we needed more) of almost running aground at the end of our three hour tour. The docking mishap caused a mega freakout on the part of our marrying judge, and we had to keep on eye on her, lest she abandon ship and swim for shore.

All of this to say, we had a ball visiting Seattle this weekend with the Zs, playing tourist…something we rarely did when we lived there.

A bag of cinnamon doughnuts from the Daily Dozen in the market, we met Dee and Eric for brunch at Etta’s (the quality has gone way down, I am sorry to report), the girls put gum on the “gum wall” in Post Alley, we visited the aquarium, rode the monorail, and ascended to the top of the Space Needle, which, when it was built, was the tallest building west of the Mississippi.

Seattle is truly one of the most beautiful places in the world, and the city displayed itself to amazing effect on our little weekend trip for Zelda’s birthday.

Of course, the gorgeous Saturday shown in these pictures gave way to rain and fog for our early Sunday morning train ride back to Portland. My sandals were none too happy about the walk home from the train station in the misty rain.

The Bridges of Multnomah County

We had the opportunity recently to chaperone a very interesting on-foot tour of some of Portland’s fabulous historic bridges. Zelda’s school scored Portland bridge historian, Sharon Wood Wortman, to lead the tour and it was informative for the pint-sized and adult-sized alike.

Thankfully, the weather cooperated and it didn’t rain. In fact, as you can see, we were blessed with big light for photos.

We started our tour at the Oregon Department of Transportation and got to check out all of their bridge cameras on the big screen. The kids were even more impressed with the remote-controlled conference table, where you could press a button, and the center of the table would rise up to reveal a bank of 12 phones to be used during weather/transportation emergencies.

Next, we walked over the Steel Bridge as a freight train rumbled past us, and off in the distance, we could see the Broadway Bridge just beginning to open. It was lovely.

These lucky third graders had the privilege of ascending into the the control tower of the Burnside Bridge, and they also got to lay down on the road while the bridge was opened next to them solely for their benefit. (I’m sure the commuters were wondering what the hell was going on — no boats coming through, bridge open, kids laying on the road screaming as if they were “road kill.”)

We learned:

  • There are something like 781 Douglas Fir trees under the footings for the Burnside Bridge. (Those are waterproof and rated for 100 years, right?)
  • The St. John’s Bridge was originally supposed to be painted with black and yellow stripes. (Thank God they went with the green.)
  • The Broadway Bridge was the longest double leaf bascule bridge in the world when it was built.
  • The Fremont Bridge is the second largest tied-arch bridge in the world.

My Hospitality Review of Disney World

First, let me open with a solemn vow that this will be my final Disney post for all time! No, really.

Now, I have not visited a Disney resort since I was a child, nor had I ever been to Disney World (us West Coasters are more fixated on the easier-to-bite-off Disneyland).

Therefore, from a professional perspective, I was very curious to experience Walt Disney’s vaunted service, as the company is generally considered to be amongst the best when people talk about paragons of the hospitality industry. Perhaps my expectations were too high, because I was surprisingly disappointed on many fronts.

WHAT THEY DO REALLY WELL. They are good at what I call the mechanics of keeping the parks running. They move people in and out of rides well, the fast pass system is great, they keep everything spotless, all of the staff are well trained, and there are always people running around dusting and painting.

On a side note, the overly perky employees did drive my oldest a bit nuts, with Zoe saying, “Mom, if Disney is where your wishes come true, then I wish that these people would quit calling me ‘princess’ everywhere I go.”

WHERE THEY DROP THE BALL. We stayed at their top category hotel, in the park, on the monorail. Their rack rate pricing was comparable with other 5 star luxury hotels, and I would have expected an experience similar to what you would receive for a similar price at the Wynn Las Vegas, a Ritz Carlton, or a Four Seasons. Alas, the Grand Floridian was not even close. The myriad ways that Disney dropped the ball:

  1. We could make all of our dining reservations up to 6 months in advance, but their online system remained down and we had to do everything over the telephone.

  2. We were never able to access our zillion reservations online (each of them with their own 5000 digit confirmation code — ridiculous).

  3. They besprinkle their Web site with “WE ACCOMMODATE ALLERGIES.” Thus, we told the resort 3 months in advance that Zelda had nut allergies. Also, once we arrived, we called them again to remind them before our high tea. And, when we showed up for high tea, we reminded the waitress, who still plunked a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in front of Zelda. It took us four restaurant visits before we figured out that someone didn’t put our allergy information in the correct place in their pretty unimpressive computer system, which we finally got rectified. What I find unbelievable is that each time we had a problem, none of the Disney employees fixed the issue.

  4. We showed up for a meal having reserved months in advance, for 7 people. When we got there, we were told by the maître d’ that the restaurant couldn’t seat parties of 7. I asked them how their information system could possibly accept a reservation for that amount if the restaurant couldn’t seat us together? He had no good answer and decided to go with rude and unhelpful. In response, I got a little shirty, as I’m wont to do and said, “really, you can’t fit seven people together…can I take a look?” He let me in the room and, lo and behold, there was a banquette of seats against the wall with 3 small tables that could be pushed together. Utterly ridiculous.

  5. It was chilly there this winter, but there was really no functional heating…anywhere. It was usually colder inside than outside.

  6. They had no wireless Internet available for the rooms. You could connect, for a fee, via Cat5 cable, but even that only worked one of the nights out of seven. Disney outsources their Internet access, so no one who worked for the hotel could ever help or do anything to assist us. They kept referring us to their outside vendor, who was useless. It’s 2010, I’m paying a fortune for my room, I want functional Internet access.

WHERE THEY ARE GOING. As I talked about previously, Disney is in a tough place. They have eschewed really crazy thrill rides for experiential and animatronic rides. Unfortunately, technology is changing at such a pace that it’s hard for them to keep up. If they build a 3D movie experience, for instance, it is outdated within a year or two.

The way they seem to be dealing with this is to offer cool live shows. Hollywood Studios is a prime example. Another of the newer parks at Disney World, it was a family favorite. They had a few real thrill rides, like the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster that goes from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds. But mostly, the park is built around live shows, like the Indiana Jones stunt show and the Lights, Motors Action car/motorcycle stunt show. Both were quite enjoyable.

Tom’s Chariot of Fire

The coolest thing about the EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) theme park at Disney World was the opportunity to learn how to ride a Segway, and then take a tour around the park before it opened to the public. More on that later though…

First, let me discuss Epcot itself. Frankly, Tom and I found it to be pretty damn lame. It’s a bunch of poorly constructed plaster recreations of buildings from countries around the world. The Moroccan Pavilion was my favorite, and the most authentic because this African nation had its royal designers and tile artists do installations, thus lending it an amazing amount of authenticity — particularly in light of the mashed potato looking Chichen Itza pyramid they have in the Mexico Pavilion.

Honestly, there just isn’t that much to see in this park. Each “country” has some facades and a bunch of overpriced shops. It’s like a walk through tourist traps of the world…(I should be in marketing).

What was cool? The Segway tour. I have always wanted to ride one, and to answer the question everyone has, yes, they are as easy to ride as they appear. It is pretty incredible technology. Having said that, I enjoyed riding it less than I thought in the sense that if my body was going to be outside, upright, and exposed to the elements, I would rather be articulating my limbs and engaging my body in the task of moving myself wherever I wanted to go. We both got really stiff because we were just, well, standing around for hours!

And a big thank you to Aunt Chris for watching the Zs so Tom and I could go on this tour to begin with — Hugs!

They Have Giraffes at Disney World?

Day Three brought the Offermann/Reeves to the Animal Kingdom theme park. Besprinkled throughout this post are Tom’s photos of the wildlife that we spied while on a safari truck that took us on a poacher laden adventure (don’t ask) through the Disney preserve. (These shots came out surprisingly well since they make the trek as authentic as possible by including rough bridges and water filled potholes wherever possible.)

This was by far my favorite park. It was lush and green and actually afforded the visitor a relaxing ambience with fresh clean air, courtesy of the copious canopy of plants. In this location, Disney has concocted an interesting mix of modern rides, shows, and educational content.

We learned about and viewed up close and personal some babirusa or “pig deer,” naked mole rats (a family favorite), pygmy geese, and a pancake tortoise. We also had the pleasure of running into some gigantic bats, watching a hippo running around under water, and even spotted a huge rhino, which I learned has a hide that is about 1 inch in thickness and which they said cannot be penetrated by much in the wild. The guide relayed that the number one threat to the incredibly small rhino population remains poachers supplying the horn to the Chinese, who use it as a traditional medication for fever and convulsions.

I give a thumbs up to the live show Birds of Wonder, which offers a wide array of attention-getting avian performers in action, seen up close and personal. It was popular with the whole family, from smallest to tallest. The other live show we took in was The Lion King, which I give a thumbs down. It was kind of a mini-Cirque set to the music of the Lion King with the worst extras I have ever seen dancing. (The bar aerialist monkeys were pretty good though.)

Ride recommendations include two coasters: Expedition Everest and Primeval Whirl, as well as exciting animatronic adventure ride called Dinosaur.

Kennedy Space Center Is a Blast

Our second full day in Florida involved leaving Orlando and heading out to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which also happens to be home to the Kennedy Space Center, which is, in turn, the home of the Space Shuttle.

We got an early start to the day (for us), rented a minivan, piled in the whole family and used up my Droid battery getting turn-by-turn directions to the coast. (This may have brought back some bad memories for Peter and Kathy of riding in the third seat of our Dodge Caravan while Tom and I nattered at each other while driving, as couples are wont to do.)

Was it worth it? Totally.

We saw an amazing Imax film on the Apollo space missions narrated by Tom Hanks. There was a Shuttle launch simulator that is supposed to give a great approximation of what it’s like to travel from liftoff into orbit — very intense! Pictured above is the top of one of the Saturn V multistage rockets that sent the moonwalkers into space — it runs nearly the entire length to the back of the open hangar door you can see in the photo. We all got to touch a moon rock. The vehicles that move the Shuttle to the launching pad are amazing and get something like 43 feet to the gallon. The hangar where the Shuttles live can house 4 Statues of Liberty, complete with base.

It was a lovely day that was, in part, inspiring, exciting, and moving…what people can accomplish with so little technology and so much desire is amazing.

On a side note, you can also see some gators, manatees and a ton of bird species in the nature reserve as you are touring the various sites that comprise the high-tech complex. Having said that, I couldn’t suppress a smirk regarding the Space Center propaganda stating that NASA is a great force for natural preservation — let’s be honest folks, launching rockets with the force of a nuclear bomb on a routine basis is not beneficial for wild creatures living nearby.

Where Animatronics Go to Die

Our first full day at Disney World was spent at the Magic Kingdom Theme Park, or as we like to think of it, Old School Disney.

The Good. They can work miracles with sparkle paint, black light, and plywood. Evening fireworks (no parade the night we were there) are awesome. We especially marveled at the crazy woman in the role of Tinker Bell, who sailed down a zip line from the top of the castle at the end of the fireworks show. Main Street is appealing at night when it’s crowded and beautifully lit. (Pictured above with Tom’s family.)

The Bad. All of the traditional stuff that I feel nostalgic about from my visits to Disneyland as a kid — It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Carribean, and the Country Bear Jamboree — well, let’s just say that they seem incredibly and hopelessly outdated, both from a technology and content perspective. When three female bears began singing a song about how much difficulty they were experiencing in catching a man, I leaned over to Zoe and said, “How does your mother feel about this song?” Zoe whispered back to me, “you think it’s stupid.” I nodded, proudly. It made me realize that the age at which traditional Disney becomes lame and uncool must be plummeting. (You can see how Disney is reacting to this in their newer content options, which I will talk about in other theme park reviews.)

The Ugly. This prize goes to the Jungle Cruise, which is so bad, it’s almost good. This is a trip on a boat where you gaze upon some of the oldest and worst animatronic animals I have ever seen. Add in a dose of politically incorrect head hunting natives, and it’s really a spectacular train wreck. They have tried to salvage this ride by having comedians work their own schtick on board, making fun of the attractions as they give you a tour. The kids thought the comedian was hilarious, but really didn’t get the whole bad mechanized animal thing.

And lastly, a warning. In trying to upgrade the Tiki Bird show, they have added the character of Iago. Suffice to say, building an entire extravaganza around the blaring voice of Gilbert Gottfried is a horrible idea. I was nauseous and my ears were ringing by the end.

Traveling to Orlando World

Nothing like waking up at 3:30 am to catch a 6:00 am flight from Portland to Orlando, via Atlanta. As Zelda described us today, in a philosophic voice, “we are a family who are professional travelers…it’s like our job.”

As flying goes, it was pretty pain free. My just-awarded Silver Medallion status on Delta netted us the ability to check two 70 pound bags for free. We were shy of that weight limit, so Tom pointed out that we could go all American and buy a bunch of crap while here, so our new family motto is We Can Buy 40 Pounds of Stuff We Don’t Need! My frequent traveler status also earned us the right to bypass the boarding line, which we took advantage of to ensure that we had overhead bin space. The latter is important now that they are charging for checked bags, of course.

The trips in the air were relatively smooth and both touched down early. Yahhh! No one threw up, spilled anything, and arguing was at a minimum amongst the small and the blond (they really are becoming professional travelers).

After wending our way through the Orlando airport to the Disney Magical Express area, we were greeted by the somewhat creepy vision of an utterly vacant system of human corrals designed to sort and transport thousands of visitors. Our magical bus, pictured above, was half empty. (The girls were mesmerized by the piped in video propaganda, as you can see!)

We wondered, are we the only people going to Disney World??

We arrived at our hotel, the Grand Floridian, and were cheerfully greeted by a bunch of freezing Disney employees bundled in Disney coats. Zoe, who hates being the center of attention, grumbled, “They are very welcoming here.” She did not consider this to be a good thing!

We were reunited with Tom’s parents for the first time since our trips south of the border, and it has been lovely to catch up. Tom’s poor sister, whose flight had been canceled coming out of JFK, did arrive, but not until very late. Unfortunately, her bags didn’t benefit from any Disney magic, making it here the day after she arrived.

Hey, I thought everyone was guaranteed a perfect happy ending in Mouskateerville!