I'm often asked for suggestions of where to stay and so I thought I'd write some posts about the various hotels we stay in around the world.
I was staying in the Westin Tokyo only last week and am staying in the Westin Grand Central NYC this week and so the difference between these two hotels was more obvious. They are both SPG hotels but not only are they geographically very far apart but they are in terms of product and service too.
Both are in major cities and both are category 5 in the SPG rating. So you would think they should be similar in standard...think again.
In terms of service this is obvious from the moment you arrive. At the Westin Tokyo there are always bell boys to help with bags and to open doors and it's common to be greeted at least once before you get to the elevator.
At the Westin GC you get to lift your own bags out of the taxi and the door guys/security are usually far more interested in their own conversions than any customers. No one opens the door and you struggle with your luggage through a revolving door whilst they watch on.
The Rooms are very similar as you can see below. The Westin CG is on the left and Westin Tokyo is on the right.
Having stayed at both hotels several times there is the same chance of receiving an upgrade to the Best Available Room in both... Not often.
This 'should' be a perk of being a Platinum SPG member. We have been Platinum members for 9 years now and this happens about 50% of the time. We currently have a corner room in the Westin GC and it really only gives us a view of office buildings from two windows instead of one...
Both hotels have great standards in how the rooms are cleaned.
The Westin Tokyo offers the option to get 500 SPG points per night in lieu of having the room cleaned. You hang a card on the room door at night. This means no clean towels for that day, but that's not the end of the world, I don't change my towels at home daily so I don't need to when I am away.
The Westin GC say in their hotel guide book that you have to contact Service express to ask if they have this option, there is no card to hang on the door. There are no recycling ruccish/trash bins in the rooms at the Westin GC either (there are in the Westin Tokyo) so maybe the environment isn't their priority...
The toiletries in the room at the Westin Tokyo are by far superior to the Westin GC. The Westin GC on the left and the Westin Tokyo on the right.
At the Westin GC you are only provided with shower gel if you call 'service express' and of course then you are obliged to tip the person who brings it.
As we were staying two weeks we just decided to go and buy our own shower gel in the nearby pharmacy to save the effort of calling everyday. Should this be the case in a hotel of this standard ?
You also have to call to request slippers, shower caps and disposable razors. Items which are all replenished daily at the Westin Tokyo.
The hotel does however supply other items on request too. See the list opposite, which is very useful if you forget to bring something. I have no idea if the Westin Tokyo does this as everything we needed was already in the room.
One of the big differences between these two hotels is the availability of an SPG Club lounge.
At The Westin Tokyo there is a lounge on the 17th floor with amazing views over the city. The lounge is open to SPG guests and Club level rooms from 6am until 10pm. You can have buffet style breakfast here and in the evening they offer canapes and a complimentary bar. Photos below.
During the rest of the day there is complimentary tea, coffee and soft drinks as well as a small selection of biscuits.
At The Westin GC (as in Many SPG Hotels in the USA) there isn't a Club Lounge.
The other major difference is the breakfast offer. I the Westin Tokyo there is a huge breakfast buffet on the ground floor. This is very popular with locals too and that does mean that there is often a queue for a table. T
he wait is worth is though as there is a huge selection available. There is an egg station, fruit smoothies, Japanese specialties, breads and pastries. The let down here is the selection of cold cuts and cheeses, which aren't as good as in some other SPG hotels, but there is enough other stuff that you don't really mind too much.
In direct comparison the breakfast in the Westin GC is miserable. As a platinum SPG member the hotels offers a breakfast voucher which covers some of the cost of a cooked breakfast or all of the cost of the cold/takeaway breakfast. We did the hot option on our first stay here and it arrived at the table cold. (no buffet you order from the menu) I complained and it was replaced by another plate of cold eggs and bacon.... we didn't bother going back.
So we now take the breakfast as a take away from the LCL where you can get a tub of granola and yoghurt or fruit, a pastry or bagel, a banana and a tea or coffee.
Its not bad and the plus side is you can take away and eat it in bed at the weekend whilst reading the newspapers, but it is a world away from the breakfast buffet offered in the Westin Tokyo and in many of the other SPG hotels around the world.
The last difference is a small one but a significant one. Its water. Bottled water.
In the Westin Tokyo both my husband and I received a complimentary bottle of water daily. When I left on my sightseeing trip in the morning I had a bottle of water to take with me.
The first time we stayed in the Westin GC when I asked if there was complimentary bottled water I was told by a surly receptionist that the tap water is complimentary.
This one answer sums up the difference between both hotels.
We love the SPG group hotels and stay in them wherever we can. We have been platinum members several years and have stayed in their hotels for 460 nights over the last 9 years. We've stayed with them in Tokyo, New York, Sydney, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Singapore, London and Berlin this year alone. (more reviews to come !)
We have had many nice upgrades over those years and are generally treated very well. Often receiving a welcome plate with fruit, chocolate and even wine. As such loyal customers this should of course be the case, but the one thing I feel really lets them down is the consistency of the brand.
The Sheraton, Westin or Le Meridian hotels are simply not the same standard around the world, which is something we have really noticed, and what prompted this post.
Have you stayed in either of these hotels? or do you stay in SPG hotels around the world too? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this post.
I've been lucky enough to travel many times to Tokyo while my husband has been visiting for business.
Not only would it be a crime not to take advantage of the hotel room, especially as Tokyo is incredibly expensive, but I really love being there. I usually book the cheapest flights I can get and go along with him. I spend the days sightseeing and just enjoying the bustle of the city and occasionally in the evening I even get to have dinner with my husband, assuming he doesn't have work obligations...
Its a really easy city to get around and to be a solo traveller in.
Here is my list of the top ten things to do on a first visit to Tokyo...
First thing to do is to ride the Tokyo Metro. I've talked about the Tokyo Metro in my post Tokyo Top Tips and I can't tell you enough how easy and convenient the Tokyo Metro is. Its the quickest way to get around the city and if you get a PASMO card at the start of you trip its very cheap too. There are downloadable apps to help you navigate the system.
Meiji-Jingu is Tokyo’s grandest Shinto shrine and is situated in Yoyogi Park next to Harijuku Metro Station. Meiji-jingu is a very calming place to visit. Even the walk through the park to the shrine is peaceful as there is a ban on any kind of noise producing activities, even jogging is banned here.
The huge 12m wooden torii gate at the entrance was apparently made from a 1500-year-old Taiwanese cyprus tree
The shrine itself is quite small but well worth visiting. The gardens are close to the busy area of Harijuku and Omotosando and are quite a nice escape from the craziness of these shopping districts. The gardens look amazing in June when the irises are all in bloom.
Senso-ji Temple is probably Tokyo’s most visited temple. Inside is a golden image of Kannon (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy), which, was allegedly pulled out of the nearby Sumida-gawa by two fishermen in AD 628.
The entrance to the temple complex is through a huge red Kaminari-mon or Thunder Gate.
There is a small shopping street running up to the temple with lots of touristy gifts and crafts. At the end of this street is a five story pagoda and a huge incense couldron. People can been seen rubbing the smoke from the incense onto their clothes and faces. Apparently this is said to bring good health.
Shibuya Crossing is probably the world’s busiest road crossing. The crossing in front of Shibuya Station is also known as ‘The Scramble’. When the lights change people cross from all sides at the same time. and the chaos with the bright lights of Shibuya and the noise really give the 'This is Tokyo' feel I anticipated on my first trip here. Take a look at this You Tube Video. The best spot to sit and enjoy this is in the window seats of Starbucks right at the junction... if you can get a seat !! Here is another interesting video with more info about Shibuya/Hachiko.
The junction is most fun in the evening when you will bump into Japans colourful teenagers dressed for a night out. Theer are also lots of really good Ramen noodle bars nearby.
Ueno Park is a huge public park next to Ueno Station.
In the park grounds you will also find the Kaneiji Temple, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo National Museum, The National Science Museum, The Museum for Western Art and Ueno Zoo.
You can literally spend days here. The park is so big you can easily find a quiet bench to sit and read on or watch the world go by.
This is one of the spots I visit on every trip to Tokyo. There is a huge lake I like to sit beside. The water lilies are beautiful when they are flowering.
Ueno Park is also one of Tokyo's most popular Cherry Blossom spots with thousands of trees lining the main pathway. The Cherry Blossom season is usually late March and early April.
Tokyo Sky Tree opened in May 2012 and is the world’s tallest ‘free-standing tower’ at 634m. There are two observation decks, at 350m and 450m. You can see more stuff during daylight hours – and on a clear day you can see all the way to Mt Fuji – but at night it is really special too with all the city lights.
The ticket counter is on the 4th floor usually has a sign to tell you how long the wait is and also what the visibility is.. Avoid the weekend if possible as there are often long queues.
If you get a chance to see a Sumo competition whilst in Tokyo - take it. Beforehand you can also visit the fascinating Sumo Museum to see sumo-related objects from the Edo period to the present.
If you are in Tokyo in January, May or September you should try to get tickets to the Grand Tournament at Tokyo's Kokugikan.
You can buy the tickets up to a month in advance or you can simply turn up on the day but you need to be there EARLY. We asked our hotel concierge to buy them for us.
After each bout you can see and often meet the sumo outside the stadium. If you can find an English speaking employee, they will tell you where to go....
Rappongi is a wealthy district of Tokyo with the famous Rappongi Hills and the city's red light district. Come here in the evening and bar hop, or go for Karaoke. Rappongi is popular with Japanese and foreigners. Nearby Azabu Juban is also a very popular area with some great restaurants. Its busy during the weekend with locals and expats who live here to be close by the American School and The American Club.
Tsukiji Market although there is lots of fruit and veg sold here its the fish and the the tuna auctions that bring tourists to the site. The inner market is supposed to move in 2016 and I guess it will be difficult for tourists to visit then, but I heard they are creating a more tourist friendly market on the original site....
The tuna auctions start early and its not easy to get a space (I have never seen the auctions) I would advise checking out the online timetables before you head off. Visitors begin pitching up around 4am for one of the 120 allotted places for viewing the tuna auctions. You need to queue at the Fish Information Center. It's on a first-come, first-served basis.... so really something for the determined...hence the reason I have never been.
Later in the morning there is still plenty to see, there are wholesalers and lots of small restaurants with amazing food and even some small souvenir stalls. Everything closes down around 2-3pm. The restaurants inside the Market area are very popular with locals, you will see lots of queues. It often takes over an hours to get inside and usually the menu is fixed. If you are a real connoisseur of sushi and fish, then go for it, but I have done a few of them and never really enjoyed the meal... there are much better small restaurants on the streets immediately outside - in my opinion.
Shinkansen train... ok, so technically this is getting out of Tokyo, but it starts in Tokyo.
This is a real Japanese experience and if you hve the time I would highly recommend a trip. Not only because Osaka and Kyoto are both beautiful and very different from Japan, but riding the Shinkansen is such a cool experience.
With speeds of up to 240–320 km/h you can be in Osaka or Kyoto in just a few hours.
I hope this post has encouraged some of you to visit Tokyo. Its truly one of the most amazing cities in the world, and after London my favorite city. Here are a few other posts I have written.
There are loads more fun things to do in Japan and if there is something you think I should try on my next trip, please drop me a line through the contact form.
There are so many preconceptions about Japan and the one I hear the most when I tell people that Tokyo is one of my favorite cities is that 'all they eat is Sushi', or more correctly the people I hear this from usually say something like 'I've never been to Japan because all they eat is sushi and I don't like raw fish'.. Its as ridiculous as saying 'I'm never going to the USA because I don't eat burgers'
Even if you remove the foreign cuisines from the conversation - pizza, pasta, burgers, Chinese and even tapas, there are still lots of very different types of food to eat here.
The one downside about eating in Japan is that often restaurants only serve one type of food. The sushi restaurant doesn't serve ramen noodle and the teppanyaki restaurant doesn't serve tempura... If you are out and about solo as I usually am, its no problem, however if you have a sushi craving and your husband had sushi for lunch then you can have a few problems.
Before I go on to write about some of my favorite foods in Japan I can not continue without addressing the 'I don't like raw fish' comment that I hear a lot.
First, I don't understand people who say 'I don't like sushi' without ever having tried it. Isn't this something we are constantly telling children?
And second, pre-packaged sushi bought in a supermarket is so far away from real sushi that it might as well be plastic, so in my opinion, unless you have tried sushi in a proper sushi restaurant you haven't eaten sushi... it would be like saying 'i don't like beef because I had a burger at McDonalds'.
I can give you a personal example to explain. I was vegetarian from the age of 18 until I was 36. I started eating fish when I was 34. I had never eaten fish apart from under protest as a child. When I started eating fish my husband (then boyfriend) thought I should try sashimi. He bought some raw salmon from the supermarket, sliced it and served it. I HATED it. I had stomach ache for a day afterwards and swore I'd never eat raw fish again. A couple of years later on a trip to Tokyo I tried 'proper sushi'.... I was immediately hooked and haven't looked back...
Ok, so moving on to the culinary delights I love in japan......and since sushi and sashimi are my favorites I'll start there.
There are so many restaurants that serve amazing sushi that its actually quite hard to go wrong. I've eaten at the 24hour holes in the wall places near Tokyo Station and had better sushi than I have had in fancy restaurants elsewhere in the world.
The sushi here is slightly different than you will find in both the UK and USA especially if the sushi trail restaurants are your benchmark. Rice on the outside of the sushi roll is a western addition, in fact I think the California Roll is a crime against sushi and should be banned worldwide.
Nigiri and Makisushi (sushi rolls), are far simpler in Japan and the flavour of the fish is usually enhanced by a simple blob of wasabi. Here are some pictures of sushi from a few of my trips to Tokyo.....
Moving on to my other favourite dishes. There are two and they sound very similar... Tonkatsu and Tonkonsu. They are one letter apart but totally different in reality.
Tonkonsu is a Ramen noodle soup bowl where the soup is made from pork bone broth and comes with green onions and sliced pork, similar but not quite the same as Ramen.
Tonkatsu is a dish where a pork cutlet has been deep fried in Panko breadcrumbs and is served with shredded lettuce and a rich sauce. A deviant dish KatsuDon is the middle dish in the photos below, where the Katsu cutlet is served over rice with a rich sauce and an egg baked over it... its really moreish and totally scrummy.
Yakiniku is basically grilled meat. We have had this a few times and it has always been a DIY thing. Its set up is a bit like a hot pot in the centre of the table but instead of the pot there is a hot pan of coals with a grill in the center of the table and the food comes on a plate so you can grill it yourself.
We have had this with Kobe beef when we were in cities outside Tokyo and it was amazing. The beef is so delicate and with a high fat content, it almost dissolves in your mouth.
There are usually some veggies that come too, and its actually surprisingly quite filling.
The restaurants we went for Yakiniku also sold Shabu Shabu and Sukiyaki too.
Shabu Shabu and Sukiyaki are similar to the Chinese hot pot. You sit at a table with a boiling pot of stock in the middle and put meat, veggies and fish. The ingredients are often dipped in raw egg after being cooked in Sukiyaki.
Teppanyaki is when fish, meat and veggies are cooked on a hot plate in front of you. I think this is quite popular in the USA as when we lived there I noticed a few restaurants where we lived serving Teppanyaki.
I have eaten Teppanyaki a few times but it has always been a fairly expensive meal.
I'm not sure if this was because of my choice of venue though...
Guests are often given an apron to wear to stop the spitting fats from spoiling their clothes.
Yakatori is basically grilled chicken on a stick, but other meats and veggies can also be used. These restaurants are usually drinking bars too and often quite smoky, due to the grilling, but also due to the cigarette smoke that can be found in drinking places.... Its a great snack on the run or if you have had a beer too many. The yakatori are often cooked on robatayaki hot coals.
Gyoza - are a fried dumpling with a meat or veg filing. They are like a fried version of Chinese Dum Sum but lighter in texture. these are one of my favourites and I even buy them frozen at the Japanese supermarket in London. They are not as good as they are in Tokyo - obviously, but they are a good runner-up.
Onigiri is the Japanese version of a sandwich and is designed to be eaten on the go. I simply called them triangles for ages before I knew the name. They are triangles (or squares) of rice wrapped in nori sheets and with a filling in the centre.
I love these for a quick snack. You can buy them in the USA and the UK in the supermarket (if you have a good supermarket).
As you can see there is so much more to Japanese food than raw fish, and there is so much more that I haven't even covered here...
Have you been to Japan, what are your favorite Japanese food items ? or do you have any questions about Japan and the food there? contact me using the form below and I'll try and help.
Golfing in Phuket is fantastic. First the courses are well maintained, all courses have compulsory caddies so you don't need to pull your own cubs around the course, they all have great food and the changing facilities are excellent too.
It is easy to book tee times directly with the individual courses, but we have been using an agent- Phuket Golf for several years now, and it makes everything a bit easier.
My husband plays every year for a week with two colleagues and he simply sends the agent the dates he wants to play and tells them which courses they prefer and the agent works around tournaments at the individual clubs and sends him back a timetable of games. The other benefit is that the agent also gets around 20% discount off the list price of a round.
There is a slight inconvenience in that you have to meet with the agent at the course before each game and pay with them but its a small price to pay to get 5 games for the price of 4.
We usually call the agent when we are about 10 mins away from the course and they come and meet us before we tee off.
The First course we played was Loch Palm.
You can have a buggy at this course but we decided to walk. Since you don't have to pull your own clubs its not so strenuous, unless of course its exceptionally hot.
When we pulled up to the caddy station and before we were even out of the car we were greeted with 'sawasdeeka' - 'hello' in Thai and smiles while our clubs and shoes are been taken from the boot of the car.
The main area of the club house and pro shop are newly renovated as are the locker rooms which have been decorated beautifully and the stocked with toiletries and towels.
Before playing I had the lunch special - 130 baht for fried chicken with rice and papaya salad it was delicious, tasty, fresh and beautifully presented.
The second course we played was Phuket Country Club. This is a 27 hole course - although we have no idea where the extra 9 holes are....Like Loch Palm it has been recently renovated and has a fabulous locker room. Very modern and lots of space inside the actual locker.
Again the caddies were lovely, and knew the course very well. Sadly our game was stopped 3 times because of heavy rain and after 12 holes we finally gave up. Every time the ball landed on the fairway it sank into the mud or water and was often impossible to find. The bunkers had become water features and there was no roll on any shots.
We did go back and play again the following week when the weather was better and had a great round. It doesn't have as much water as Loch Palm (normally!) but it is just as challenging. Maybe not as well maintained, but it is also cheaper to play...
It is worth noting that Loch Palm have a rain check policy and Phuket Country Club do not....
We were in Phuket in September which is off season and course was incredibly quiet. Only one 4-ball left in the half hour I was eating. And a couple of 2-balls who had already finished were in the restaurant at the same time. We were the last group of the day, so no pressure to play fast, very different to during the busy season over Christmas and New Year when we were here last.
Loch Palm is a challenging course, a lot of water and some very large and steep bunkers, but the caddies know every inch of it and can steer you in the right direction.
For us Europeans having a caddie is a strange concept. When I started to play golf in London I carried my clubs around the course as some didn't even allow trolleys in winter months let alone have carts.
Having a caddie not only means you get good advice about where the next shot should land but also that you don't have to wheel your own clubs if you decide to walk the course, and the icing on the cake is that your clubs and shoes are returned to your car boot squeaky clean....
The caddies in Thailand are all women, some courses even have a book of photos and bios so you can choose one who speaks good English or has worked a particular courses for a long time. I remember playing in Indonesia where all the caddies were men, but with a similar book so you could potentially select one you wanted for the day. As long as I can understand their English when they are telling me the yardage and where the sand and water are, I'm not fussy, but we have had caddies who line up your ball on the greens and even point out where you are going wrong with your swing..... Not everyone wants this kind of advice though, especially on a bad day..
There are additions to both the courses... on Loch Palm between holes 10 & 11 just outside the course through the steel gate (or over the gate if the gate is closed) there is a man with a table and golf balls for sale. They are all 'recovered' from the course and sorted into bags... ideal if that water has been causing you a few problems....
The addition to Phuket Country Club is the chicken hole between holes 12 and 13. My husband claims this is the best fried chicken in Phuket... the only downside to a late tee time is that if the guy has sold out of chicken he goes home..... it can be quite disappointing if you have been thinking about fried chicken since the 10th hole...
In addition to these courses there is Blue Canyon (two courses) which are fabulous championship courses, Mission Hills where you play along the coast and Red Mountain which is a stunning course with as the name suggests lots of red mountains in the landscape.... however there is also a lot of OB on this course.
The two women we met from Phuket Golf are Pin and Noi. Both were lovely, and were always on time when we were ready to play. My husband has used the same company for several years and it certainly takes the hassle of lining up tee times.
We paid 8600 Thai Bhat for Loch Palm and 7200 for Phuket Country Club incl caddie fees. If you are planning a golf trip to Phuket you can make contact with them through their website.
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