Europe

Lodging Review: DoubleTree by Hilton London Heathrow Airport

My colleagues and I left Hinckley in the late afternoon and made our way back to London so we’d be near the airport for our return flights the next day. As I have Gold status with Hilton HHonors (thanks to simply having the Hilton Surpass card by American Express) I considered the Hilton attached to Terminal 3 but it was a good bit more expensive and I was leaving from Terminal 2 anyway so I booked the DoubleTree which is located between T2 & T3 as most of my colleagues were flying Delta out of T3 so it worked for them too.

DoubleTree by Hilton London Heathrow
(photo courtesy DoubleTree website)

DoubleTree by Hilton London Heathrow Airport Lobby

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Lodging Review: Sketchley Grange Hotel and Spa, Hinckley, UK

Sometimes a person’s view of a hotel is colored by their reason for being at a particular property. As I’ve thought about the time spent at the Sketchley Grange Hotel & Spa I’ve realized that some of the things that I have viewed as a negative are things I wouldn’t even have thought about if I were a leisure traveler.

The Sketchley is in a rather small town called Hinckley, in Leicestershire, about two hours north of London. There are two hotels in Hinckely and the other one (our company’s first choice) was booked so we were left with this one. (I later learned that there’s a DoubleTree in Coventry, only about 10 minutes further away, and in the future I’ll use that as the backup hotel.)

Main Entrance, older wings on the left

Modern Wing where our rooms were located

As the name suggests, it is both a hotel and spa and when we arrived on a warm summer weekend there was a tour group staying there as well as several groups of friends or families milling around. While the pool is indoors, there were lots of folks enjoying the warm weather sitting on the patio or even stretched out on blankets on the grass. There were also quite a few people enjoying the pool and hot tub inside.

Leisure Facilities

The hotel also has a pretty nice gym which closes at 8 PM on Sunday night but is open until 10 PM during the week. The bad part is that it does not open until 6:30 AM. This is one thing that wouldn’t bother me as a leisure traveler but as a business traveler I was disappointed because I’d have preferred to work out in the mornings since we went out for dinner after work and sometimes did not arrive back at the hotel until 8:30 or later and I just went straight to bed.

Sketchley Grange Gym

Sketchley Grange Gym

Sketchley Grange Gym

The spa, which is operated by an outside agency, only offers services until 6 PM, another item that’s probably not an issue for a leisure traveler but really disappointed me as I missed my massage at home and was looking forward to getting one while at the hotel.

Indoor Pool

Hot Tub

The hotel itself does have character. My room was in the wing on the complete opposite side of the hotel from the spa/gym/pool and it was an adventure getting there through the building. On a couple of occasions there would be 2-3 steps up and later 2-3 steps down or an unusual bend in the hallway as new wings had been added to the hotel. It was sort of fun walking through that way, though we later figured out it was faster to walk outside and around to the side of the building where the spa/pool/gym had its own entrance.

Sofa at a random wide spot in the hallway of one of the older wings

It seemed that locals could join the spa/gym directly as I encountered a few people walking directly into the area from the parking lot, just in time for one of the exercise classes.

Junior Executive Suite

I was assigned a room on the first floor -and was reminded that unlike in America, the first floor is the one above the Ground floor.  I left the front desk and walked through this seating area which is both near the elevator and the entrance to the bar.

Sofas outside the bar (yes, they were really *that* purple)

Getting off the elevator (or “lift”, since I was in England!) I turned right and walked just a short way down the hall to my room, which was on the left, facing the back of the property.

Modern Wing Hallway

Entrance to room 152

I had booked a Junior Executive Suite and was quite pleased with the size both of the room and the bathroom. As with many hotel rooms, upon entering there was a small hallway with the bathroom immediately to the left before passing the mini-bar and then into the main area of the room.

Junior Executive Suite Room Entry Hall

The room was plenty big for a king-sized bed, two side tables and a full-sized sofa without feeling crowded.

Junior Executive Suite Bed and Sofa

Against the opposite wall was a nice-sized desk – with outlets available above it (yay!) – and a narrow table. There was no pen or paper on the desk which normally I don’t care about but on this trip there was a point I needed to write a note but couldn’t.

Junior Executive Suite Desk

Beside the bed, against the back wall of the bathroom, was a built-in vanity (with chair) and a closet which had a few built-in shelves and the safe. Inside the closet were an iron & ironing board and the hair dryer. As usual in the UK, there was no outlet for the hair dryer in the bathroom so I had to use it at the vanity but at least the outlet was easily accessible.

Junior Executive Suite Vanity and Closet

The only drawer in the whole room was a long narrow one under the vanity. I would have preferred to use a chest of drawers for the clothes I didn’t hang up but I made-do with the shelves in the closet. The doors on the closet did not slide particularly easily either.

The bathroom had dark gray slate tile that I actually liked. The sink was high profile while the counter was lower. The large soaking tub was quite nice, one of my colleagues reported.

Junior Executive Suite Sink

Junior Executive Suite Bathtub

The shower stall was just large enough and I liked that the spray could be adjusted from brisk to gentle. I also liked that it could be hand-held or put into the adjustable holder to make it quite high or low. But the shower did leak and the bath mat was always half-soaked when I was finished. The clear caulking used against the wall seemed to either have been placed over mold or mold was growing within it, I’m not sure which. Either way, it was unappealing to look at. The lack of shelving in the shower was also an issue. There was no place to put the shampoo, shower gel and/or razor and shave gel. There was also no conditioner which is not a problem with some shampoos but would have really been welcome as I didn’t care for the shampoo that was provided and I no longer bother with bringing any with me.

Junior Executive Suite Shower

Junior Executive Suite Mulben & Fearne Toiletries

The mini-bar had tea and a pot to heat water but I’m not positive it even had instant coffee. And the cabinet built to hold the mini-fridge was empty.

Junior Executive Suite Tea Station

While all rooms had the slot (standard in many European countries) which required a room key to be placed in it for the air and lights to work, in reality only with some rooms did the slot actually have to be used. In my room both the air and lights worked without anything being in the card slot.

View from room 152

And, oh, the air conditioning. The first day we arrived it was quite warm, the warmest day of the year so far, I believe. My room cooled down enough and I was so tired from the trip over that I slept quite well. The second night, even though the day had been a little cooler, the room was extremely warm. I even noticed the thermostat was at a lower setting, as if even the cleaning staff thought my room was warm. On the third night, which was much cooler, I was able to open the windows and the temperature was quite nice. I know that I prefer a much cooler room than seems to be the norm for Europe but it sure would be nice to find a hotel that can accommodate those lower temps.

I didn’t hate the room and the bed was actually really comfortable. I was a bit surprised the sofa did not have a pull-out bed as it would seem to me this would be a great room for a family with a small child or two. I had a lovely view of the back patio and the green fields beyond.

The Garden Restaurant & Bar

We ate in the hotel after arriving from London. It was Father’s Day so we enjoyed a 2-course meal (could choose starter + main or main + dessert) for a set price and it was quite good.

Special Father’s Day Lunch: pork loin, potatoes, carrots, green beans, Yorkshire pudding

Seating in the Restaurant/Bar

Bar Seating

Bar area seating

Wine Rack

The breakfast buffet can be added to your reservation and that made it easy each morning where we just checked in and served ourselves. However, the buffet didn’t open until 7 AM. That’s another of the things that’s not an issue as a leisure traveler but was inconvenient as a business traveler who would have liked to have been at the office by 8 AM.

Service at both the restaurant and the breakfast area was always rushed. Each morning when I arrived just after opening staff were still in the process of getting the food out and generally rushing around. It seemed they needed another person or two to get everything done on time. Perhaps it’s my expectations that are different from local norms. One member of our group wanted a pot of hot water to make her own tea each morning and she’d often have to ask at least twice before getting it.

I thought the buffet was quite ample though one member of our group was disappointed. Several kinds of fruit and cold cuts were available as was a hot selection with sausages, eggs, potato cakes, etc., a cold section with a number of cereals, whole fruit, juices and water and a third station with four different types of sliced bread and a very quick toaster. I certainly found plenty to eat each day.

But here and there, not only in the restaurant, attention to detail would make a difference in the impression the hotel leaves on a guest. For example, the juices were in large, clear containers with a spigot. They weren’t emptied each night but just kept chilled, which is fine. But at least one morning it was clear that the juice had separated a good bit with the more watery part floating to the top and the concentrate at the bottom. It should have been stirred up before opening the buffet to customers.

Everyone was quite friendly, nice and well-intentioned. I hope I’m not being overly critical but a few small improvements could make a big difference in perception. There were no laudry facilities nor was laundry service offered, so one team member who stayed for 10+ days had to find a dry cleaner in town to get her laundry done. Again, wouldn’t have thought twice about it as a leisure traveler but it made a difference as a business traveler.

As I said earlier, my preference would be NOT to return here for business travel but to stay elsewhere, even if it’s a bit further away.

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Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)

Danube Trip: Chicago to Brussels
Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague
Danube Trip: Marriott Courtyard Prague
Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic
Danube Trip: Boscolo, Autograph Collection
Danube Trip: Prague to Nuremberg
Danube Trip: Viking River Cruise Boats – the Njord and the Bestla
Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany
Danube Trip: Weltenburg Abbey and Danube Narrows
Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany
Danube Trip: Passau, Germany
Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey
Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria
Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary
Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)
Danube Trip: Budapest to Chicago

We arrived at the Hilton Castle District by taxi in the late afternoon after having walked all over the Pest side of the city.  A bellman quickly assisted us with our bags and we found the bell staff was very helpful each time we needed them.  We’d arranged for the taxi driver who brought us up the hill to take us to the airport on Monday morning.  When he didn’t show, the bell staff jumped in and got us another taxi right away.

There are several sets of entrances into the lobby.  Upon entering, the front desk is at the right side.  The lobby’s stainless steel and dark wood look combined with the rather low ceiling should make the area feel smaller than it is but I never felt like the walls were closing in.

Hilton Castle District Lobby

Hilton Castle District Lobby

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Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary

Danube Trip: Chicago to Brussels
Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague
Danube Trip: Marriott Courtyard Prague
Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic
Danube Trip: Boscolo, Autograph Collection
Danube Trip: Prague to Nuremberg
Danube Trip: Viking River Cruise Boats – the Njord and the Bestla
Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany
Danube Trip: Weltenburg Abbey and Danube Narrows
Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany
Danube Trip: Passau, Germany
Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey
Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria
Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary
Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)
Danube Trip: Budapest to Chicago

We awoke the next day expecting to board motorcoaches that would take us into Budapest.  However when we look out from our cabin the fog was so thick we couldn’t see the riverbank!  Viking decided that it was pointless for us to wend our way along a beautiful drive if we couldn’t see anything, so they announced we’d be staying on board until we docked in Budapest around mid-day.  That also meant that our city tour was postponed until the afternoon and any optional tours we had scheduled for the afternoon were canceled – though of course the refunds wouldn’t be processed until after the cruise was complete.

bud-foggy-morning

The view from our cabin. The Danube is not THAT wide – where’s the riverbank?!

After busy days of touring it was actually kind of relaxing to have a morning to ourselves where we could linger over breakfast and catch up on emails (thanks to the free wi-fi).  Gradually the fog lifted and we had a sunny day, though it was a bit cool on deck. Continue reading

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Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria

Danube Trip: Chicago to Brussels
Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague
Danube Trip: Marriott Courtyard Prague
Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic
Danube Trip: Boscolo, Autograph Collection
Danube Trip: Prague to Nuremberg
Danube Trip: Viking River Cruise Boats – the Njord and the Bestla
Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany
Danube Trip: Weltenburg Abbey and Danube Narrows
Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany
Danube Trip: Passau, Germany
Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey
Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria
Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary
Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)
Danube Trip: Budapest to Chicago

Our penultimate stop was the place I most wished we could have spent more time.  Of course, that just gives me a reason to return to Vienna.  Included with our trip was a morning tour of the city and the afternoon brought optional excursions to the Schönbrunn Palace, the Fine Arts Museum or accompanying the chef, Marcus, to the Farmer’s Market.

The first part of our tour was a motorcoach ride along the Ringstraße, the boulevard that encircles the city, and gaze at the gorgeous architecture.  From our bus windows we viewed many of the city’s famous buildings, like the Opera House and the Parliament building.  We also cruised by the Hotel Imperial, the grande dame of hotels in Vienna.  Its presidential suite is typically the home of visiting US Presidents.  However, in 2006 the Rolling Stones had that suite booked so when George W. Bush came to visit, he had to stay elsewhere!

We eventually stopped at Maria-Theresien-Platz, named in honor of Maria Theresa, who was the last of the Austrian Habsburg line.  Though she died in 1780, her influence is still widely felt.  She reigned for 40 years and was the ruler of 10 regions on her own and by marriage was the Holy Roman Empress.  Naturally there was a statue of her at her namesake plaza.

Maria-Theresa Statue

Maria-Theresa Statue

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Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey

Danube Trip: Chicago to Brussels
Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague
Danube Trip: Marriott Courtyard Prague
Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic
Danube Trip: Boscolo, Autograph Collection
Danube Trip: Prague to Nuremberg
Danube Trip: Viking River Cruise Boats – the Njord and the Bestla
Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany
Danube Trip: Weltenburg Abbey and Danube Narrows
Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany
Danube Trip: Passau, Germany
Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey
Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria
Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary
Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)
Danube Trip: Budapest to Chicago

When you’re cruising on the ocean or a large sea, it’s common to have a “day at sea” which gives you a chance to catch your breath between ports of call.  A river cruise typically doesn’t offer one of those but may offer a day with fewer planned activities, which can be welcome in the middle of a busy trip.

By Wednesday we were a bit tired so it was rather refreshing to have a morning where we could take it easy.  Of course since our longship could not move to the next town, we had to take a bus for a couple of hours to Melk, where we boarded a sight-seeing boat for a lunch cruise through the scenic Wachau Valley, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A church in the Wachau Valley with vineyards in the background

A church in the Wachau Valley with vineyards in the background

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Danube Trip: Passau, Germany

Danube Trip: Chicago to Brussels
Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague
Danube Trip: Marriott Courtyard Prague
Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic
Danube Trip: Boscolo, Autograph Collection
Danube Trip: Prague to Nuremberg
Danube Trip: Viking River Cruise Boats – the Njord and the Bestla
Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany
Danube Trip: Weltenburg Abbey and Danube Narrows
Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany
Danube Trip: Passau, Germany
Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey
Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria
Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary
Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)
Danube Trip: Budapest to Chicago

Due to the low water levels, Regensburg was as far as we’d be able to travel on the Njord.  Fortunately, this type of circumstance is something Viking knows exactly how to handle. To reach our next stop they brought in motorcoaches for the two-hour drive to Passau, the last major German city on the Danube before reaching Austria.

Passau is known as the City of the Three Rivers because the Danube, Inn and Ilz Rivers all come together around the city’s peninsula.  In medieval times Passau was known for the salt trade.  The salt was so valuable in these pre-refrigeration times that it was known as “white gold”.

Fire ravaged the city in the 17th century and it was rebuilt in the baroque style of the day.  That style is what is still seen in the city today.

St. Stephan’s Cathedral is located on the highest point in Old Town.  Since 730, there have been many churches on this site.  The current version dates to the mid-17th century and the interior underwent a major renovation between 1972 and 1980.

pas-st-stephans-exterior

St. Stephan’s Cathedral

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Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany

Danube Trip: Chicago to Brussels
Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague
Danube Trip: Marriott Courtyard Prague
Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic
Danube Trip: Boscolo, Autograph Collection
Danube Trip: Prague to Nuremberg
Danube Trip: Viking River Cruise Boats – the Njord and the Bestla
Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany
Danube Trip: Weltenburg Abbey and Danube Narrows
Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany
Danube Trip: Passau, Germany
Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey
Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria
Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary
Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)
Danube Trip: Budapest to Chicago

After the tour of Weltenburg Abbey, we returned to our longship for lunch.  Then we boarded the motorcoaches once again, this time for the short drive into Regensburg, where we met our guide, Hubert.  He was quite memorable as his name was on his hat and, as he was part of a men’s choir, every now and then he’d sing a little song for us. He led our tour of the medieval city center, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We began our tour along the river by the Stone Bridge.  While Charlemagne had built a wooden bridge near this location, by the 12th century a bridge that could handle more traffic was needed.  This one was built circa 1135-1146 and was used by the knights of the Second and Third Crusades to cross the river. Indeed it was the only bridge in the area across the Danube for 800 years.  It served as a model for other European bridges including London Bridge and the predecessor of the Charles Bridge in Prague.

The Stone Bridge of Regensburg

The Stone Bridge of Regensburg

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Danube Trip: Weltenburg Abbey and Danube Narrows

Danube Trip: Chicago to Brussels
Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague
Danube Trip: Marriott Courtyard Prague
Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic
Danube Trip: Boscolo, Autograph Collection
Danube Trip: Prague to Nuremberg
Danube Trip: Viking River Cruise Boats – the Njord and the Bestla
Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany
Danube Trip: Weltenburg Abbey and Danube Narrows
Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany
Danube Trip: Passau, Germany
Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey
Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria
Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary
Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)
Danube Trip: Budapest to Chicago

Monday morning our longship docked in the town of Regensburg, Germany.  I found it interesting that native German speakers pronounced “burg” like “bourg”, making the name sound almost French.  No matter, we docked there and some folks took the city tour in the morning.  We’d take that tour in the afternoon, after our optional excursion down the Danube Narrows to Weltenburg Abbey.

We boarded motorcoaches that took us through the countryside, past the retirement home of Pope Benedict XVI, to a dock where we set sail on the day cruiser that would take us through the scenic Danube Narrows.  As it was still morning and somewhat cool, the first part of the trip was spent inside, with many folks sampling some of the different kinds of beer brewed at our destination, Kloster Weltenburg.  As I don’t drink alcohol I enjoyed a non-alcoholic beverage and the pretzel that came with it.

In some places either side of the river was flat for a bit before hills rose behind it.  In other places, I guess the true “narrows” portion was where the rock walls rose high on either side of us.  The landscapes where the morning sunshine shone seemed especially cheery.

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Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany

Danube Trip: Chicago to Brussels
Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague
Danube Trip: Marriott Courtyard Prague
Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic
Danube Trip: Boscolo, Autograph Collection
Danube Trip: Prague to Nuremberg
Danube Trip: Viking River Cruise Boats – the Njord and the Bestla
Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany
Danube Trip: Weltenburg Abbey and Danube Narrows
Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany
Danube Trip: Passau, Germany
Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey
Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria
Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary
Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)
Danube Trip: Budapest to Chicago

Our first port of call was Nuremberg, Germany.  It seems a little odd to refer to it that way since we’d had to take a train out of Nuremberg to Erlangen, just so the boat could float back to Nuremberg overnight.  The cruise has a number of tours that are included with the price of the trip.  In this case a city tour was included.  While my friend and I would have enjoyed that, we decided to pay for the World War II tour.  We had no trouble following our guide as he was a 7′ 6″ former basketball player at Davidson College.

Our first stop was the Nazi party rally grounds. Six party rallies were held here between 1933 and 1938. The grounds encompass 11 square kilometers and include a number of buildings. We exited the bus at the Zeppelinfeld, a deployment area that still had the grandstand or Reichsparteitag where speakers – including Hitler himself – would rally the troops.  During its prime a massive Nazi swastika was mounted above the central part of the stands but after the war explosives were used to remove it.

The Reichsparteitag as used by the Nazis By Kurt Wittig (Privataufnahme) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Reichsparteitag as used by the Nazis
By Kurt Wittig (Privataufnahme) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Reichsparteitag as it is today

The Reichsparteitag as it is today

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