Year-end getaway. 

Happy 2016!

It’s amazing how time flies. 2015 seemed to have come and pass in a flash. It was a milestone sort of year for me, witnessing the first major investment of my life so far, with the finalisation of the flat purchase in early January. Renovation proper only started sometime in April, and has dragged on almost to the end of the year. Despite that it is still not 100% complete, the contractor’s work is done and the remaining items are touch-ups and ah hoc works that I found out I should or need to do. Anyway, we have officially crossed into a new year and this will be the year that sees the next chapter of my life.

Before the year ended, I took my final trip of the year, closing 2015 with 5 vacations! I ended where I started the year at – Hong Kong. It was the first vacation of 2015 in January, and it was also where I decided to go for the last vacation of 2015.

As always, flights are in the morning and what better way to start the trip pre-boarding, by having a aromatic cup of local coffee with a warm, lotus seed paste bun. These may not be the best choices for coffee or paus, but nevertheless makes for good comfort food at the airport!We arrived at the hotel in the afternoon, after the usual long, snaking queues clearing the Hong Kong arrival immigration, picking up our luggage and hopping onto the Airport Express train and then connecting shuttle bus from Hong Kong station. Our hotel, Island Pacific, located in the Western District area of Hong Kong Island, was the last stop on the shuttle bus route but it’s still quite a fuss-free and complimentary connection from airport to hotel!

The view from our room, which we didn’t really take the time to enjoy because most days we are out in the day. At night, there weren’t any lights on this part of the opposite shore to beautify the view so we just kept the curtains drawn, which also helps to keep out the cold!
The hotel is generally ok, but I felt the decor and its overall look and feel were a little dated – the old-school kind of hotel complete with amber lighting. I found the housekeeping standards of the hotel quite inconsistent, and they don’t seem to be thorough enough despite that on the whole, we kept the room quite clean and tidy. Maybe that’s also the reason why they don’t spend extra effort on the house-keep because they think everything is in place? Hmm.  The bathroom, with the marble vanity top, is just so typical. Haha.
After dropping off our luggage and snapping some photos of the room, we decided to head out to grab coffee. In anticipation of possibly nicer coffee that I could get, I hadn’t requested for any coffee or tea onboard, and the short hours I had the night before had already wore out the effects of the morning Kopi-O. Or so I would like to think, to justify the need for a second cuppa!

There was this place in Sheung Wan that was on my list of cafes to visit and as we walked past it, it was just the opportune time to pop in. Barista Jam, which was just on the street opposite to Holiday Inn Express Soho, which I had stayed at last December, proved to be pretty good!

We ordered a muffin and chocolate mousse cake. I think the muffin had walnut but I can’t remember if it’s banana walnut, or was it with something else.I realise that muffins in Hong Kong now are made without the proverbial ‘muffin top’, with the top overhanging the paper-cup. I wonder if it’s a conscious effort to steer away from the negative connotation of eating muffins and growing a muffin top as a result. Haha. Anyway, it was pretty forgettable and quite a disappointment for me because the top wasn’t as crunchy/crisp as I would have liked it to be. It’s rather soft, without too much distinction of texture from how the inside spongey/cakey part felt, so after this I actually did not order any more muffins from other cafes. Perhaps a good idea as well to keep to my goal of having less of such indulgences.
The chocolate mousse cake was not too bad though, as the cocoa or chocolate used had a tinge of bitterness and wasn’t oozing of overbearing sweetness like how some cakes tended to be. The size was also a comfortable one for sharing and went perfectly well with a cup of coffee or tea. 🙂The crema of my long black, along with the gold foil paper used to hold the cake, exudes an appropriate festive, yuletide feel for the moment.
We continued our traipse along down to Central, where we headed into the Landmark, and check out how elaborate their Christmas decoration was. Malls in Hong Kong probably try to outdo one another in their annual Christmas decor, and it’s on a completely different level and scale from what we have in Singapore! I wonder if any of their festive decorative pieces have caused any mishaps though. There were oodles of people all around this centerpiece vying for the best angles to take pictures or selfies. As much as I could, I tried to get a shot without too many heads bobbing at the bottom, and I think I did quite an ok job at that!

The Grand Hotel Myeongdong, Seoul

I shall continue with the Seoul trip! Now that I am done with the food proper, I will move on to the hotel. When it comes to hotels, I don’t necessarily need to stay in luxury 5-star hotels but I still like to pamper myself, even if it means having to pay a little bit more. To some, it’s extravagant because hotel is purely a place of rest for them for a short period of time at the end of a long shopping day. But for me, I want to have a nice, comfortable place of rest too! So on this trip, I decided to book a stay with the Grand Hotel Myeongdong, after reading through some good reviews online and also because of its good location. There were other similar options at lower costs, but because my trip was relatively last minute, I was left with few choices. So perhaps it is a reminder for me to confirm my travel plans earlier so that I don’t have to pay exhorbitant prices for hotels! Having said that, except for feeling the pain in parting with the money, I don’t regret staying with them, because this is really quite a good place to stay at.

The Grand Hotel Myeongdong is a very new hotel, completed only in the last couple of years so everything about it is still new and well-maintained. Let’s hope they upkeep the maintenance of the place, or in future, look out for newer hotels? It is located on the fringe of Myeongdong, so you get the benefit of being at Myeongdong but not caught within the bustle of the place. The hotel is a few minutes’ walk away from Exit 9/10 of the Myeongdong subway station, so when it comes to transport, there is little problem as well. It isn’t as well-situated as Hotel Sejong where subway or the airport limousine bus is concerned, but it is really just a 2 minute walk from Sejong, and it is much newer, unless you are able to get Sejong at much lower rates, then go for it!20140806-074053-27653369.jpgI booked a room with Expedia, and requested for an early check-in since my flight was due to arrive in Seoul really early. By the time I got to the hotel, it was perhaps only about 10+ in the morning, and most hotels have a check-in policy that they could adhere pretty strictly to, especially when they are fully-booked, or those that are booked on restrictive rates. I seldom had that problem on my past business trips, perhaps due to the hotels not being located in popular tourist areas or the city centres, but when I travel on holidays, I frequently have to make do with depositing my luggage at the hotel, freshen up at the hotel’s common restrooms, and then head out looking a little dishevelled. However, I was able to check-in upon arrival at the hotel, which I was really thankful for, so that I could get a quick freshen up and change of clothes before I headed out to explore the place!20140806-074053-27653223.jpgMy room is comfortable, nice and clean, and I liked that the room decor was accompanied with ambient lighting that further accentuated its comfort level. Dim lighting in hotel rooms somehow makes for a higher level of comfort somehow, to me at least, and in this case, it didn’t give it an uncomfortable eerie feel. Perhaps in some hotels, dim lighting exudes a slight creepy feeling, when the room is too big with dark corners that lend themselves to shadows from dim lighting, so there is probably a benefit to having rooms that economise on space. Not that I don’t enjoy larger hotel rooms, but I suppose you get the drift.

And the bathroom! One of my common gripes about some hotels that I stayed at previously, where luxury hotels have luxurious rooms without a matching luxury-level bathroom. I don’t expect too much from hotels that I book on a slightly lower budget (i.e. not your 5-stars) but I think in general, I am pretty ok, and in fact, quite like, the Japanese hotel-type of bathrooms. The ones in the Grand Hotel are similar in a way, though not as completely ‘plastic-mould’ as the Japanese ones. It was not too crammed where space is concerned, so I don’t have any complains about it.20140806-074053-27653282.jpg

One of the things I wanted to rave about the bathroom is the complimentary toiletries provided. Typically, we only see brand-name toiletries offered in expensive hotels. In this case, the Grand Hotel has managed to outdo many other hotels by stocking their bathroom with Innisfree items! This is a Korean brand that hails from Jeju, and although I have heard of them and seen them around, even in Singapore, I have never tried them. This range of bath products had a refreshing, green tea scent to it that I really liked. I only used the shampoo and conditioner a couple of times so I can’t know if they are good, but at least they didn’t make my hair feel dry and stringy after use, like how some other hotel-provided shampoos and conditioners do. Only gripe was that the bottles used should have been softer, because the conditioner wasn’t exactly fluid like the other three items, and with a hard plastic bottle, it made it virtually impossible to get the conditioner out.  

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So there is my review of the room. The hotel staff were all very friendly, helpful and could speak decent, good English. I didn’t check out the roof-top where supposedly there is a pretty good night view, neither did I try the hotel’s buffet breakfast (because it was quite costly at 18,000 KRW per head and also because I was more keen to check out the various cafes around for breakfast options), so I can’t really comment on those. But I will definitely put this hotel on my list of recommended places to stay in Seoul!

Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, Tokyo

Ok so I am back from the land of the rising sun, and thought I’d start off talking about whatever I have to talk about my trip with the hotel that I stayed at this time, but I’ll probably replicate the photos on the “Hotel Diaries” page too since I have been procrastinating since a long time ago to update that.

Sometimes when I go on holidays I tend to pamper myself (a lot) by treating myself to luxury accommodation. Of course, I am not talking about those really exclusive luxurious hotels that will clean my bank account out dry, but we’re talking about supposedly 5-star chain hotels that I have perhaps had the chance to stay at one of their residences on business travels and love the hospitality. Like last December, I booked my stay at the Tokyo Hilton; it isn’t the best in terms of luxury but for the price that I paid (which most would consider pretty extravagant already for a personal trip), I think it’s good enough.

On this trip, since it was considerably long at 7 nights, I needed to economise and I wanted to be located in a more convenient place. Hilton is in Shinjuku, but it is a rather long walk from the JR Shinjuku station (at least 10 minutes) and I think this time I didn’t want to have to walk so much. Last January when I went to Tokyo, under my friend’s recommendation I had booked a twin room (23.1 square metres with two 121-cm single beds) at Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku. It was a value-for-money place that is just a few minutes’ walk from Takashimaya Times Square and JR Shinjuku, plus the rooms were generally clean with good service.

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Of course, I chose a smaller room that is also cheaper to suit my needs. By small, it is just 15.7 square metres, with a 140-cm double bed. The option I picked was called “Bright Single Room” that came with a glass window in the bathroom for added sunlight. Well, I don’t know why you would need added sunlight in the bathroom that has its own light, and when I’m in the bath, I would of course draw the room curtains so it defeats the whole purpose of that window. Incidentally, the bathroom door is also mostly glass so this is definitely a single room.

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The bed was snug and comfortable, because as much as I felt cold in the room even with the temperature set pretty high (around 26-27), when I got under the duvet I felt cosy and warm. The pillows weren’t too hard or soft, same goes for the mattress but that could also be because I don’t have particularly high standards where bedding or pillows are concerned. I was pretty satisfied with the room I had, despite it being really small. There is a flask that you could use to boil water for green tea and also an empty bar fridge for you to stock up with whatever you get from the nearby Family Mart, or even Takashimaya Food Hall. Strawberries were in season so I bought some punnets to enjoy during my stay!20130423-091719.jpg

Since the Japanese yen is relatively weaker now as compared to December when I went, the amount I paid for the room was also, in my opinion, good (approximately S$130 per night). Perhaps the only drawback for this hotel is that if you are arriving from, say Singapore, early in the morning, you aren’t allowed to check-in until the official time of 2:00pm, and check-out is at 11:00am. They have this promotion now where you can sign-up at no charge for the hotel membership that would get you late check-out till 1:00pm, and subsequently there are also discounts on room rates. Oh, and if you are departing late from Tokyo, there may not be direct airport transfers available. In my January trip last year, as I was departing from Haneda close to midnight there wasn’t anymore Airport Limousine Bus service plying at an appropriate time, so I had to go JR Shinjuku West Exit (where the Airport Limousine counters and main bus stop are). With luggage, it takes probably about 10 minutes to walk there. This time, I was leaving Narita at about 9:00pm and also there wasn’t a bus leaving at a suitable time so I took the Narita Express instead. It is possible to walk to JR Shinjuku from the station without need to go up/down any stairs in about 10 minutes from the hotel, so this was a pretty good option. Narita Express takes 80 minutes whereas the bus could take up to 2 hours, depending on the traffic. 20130423-091730.jpg

Best of all, there is a Starbucks nearby that I like to visit because it is alongside thoroughfare of commuters. Only downer is that it is almost always crowded so it can be tough to get a seat, even before 9:00am in the morning!

Perhaps in my future trips to Tokyo, I would still consider staying at Sunroute Shinjuku because it is so convenient and I’m quite happy with what I got on both occasions.