Category Archives: Hotels

Review: Hilton Reykjavik Nordica

There are not many points hotels in Reykjavik. You have two Club Carlson options and two Hilton options. Hilton offers the older, cheaper Nordica and the newer, more expensive, and more centrally located Canopy. Since we were low on points after our December Spain trip, I was able to make the Nordica work for $71 and 16,000 points a night.

Pros: Nice hotel; affordable price; large, upgraded room; club lounge access; pretty views.

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The Nordica lounge

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View from the lounge

Cons: A 30-minute walk from the center of town; lounge is on the small size.

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All in all, we were happy with our choice. The walk into town forced us to do quite a bit of walking and see more of the city. Our first day in Reykjavik, we walked more than seven miles! While the lounge was on the small side, it was still lovely to have access to free food and drinks (mmmm, diet coke), and the views were nothing to sneeze at. Finally, the free parking was useful once we rented our car. If you’re planning a trip to Reykjavik on points, the Hilton Nordica is a great way to keep costs down.

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Spain, Here We Come!

In less than a month, M and I embark for Spain. This is our first international trip together and M’s first business class experience. We’re both very excited to see all the traditional sights, but I’m also over-the-top excited about the hotels I booked.

Madrid

I booked our Madrid hotel first. I knew I wanted lodging close to the Prado art museum in the center of the city. With its five nights for the price of four policy and central location, SPG was an obvious choice. It came down to choosing between the Westin Palace (category 5) and the The Principle Madrid (category 5). The Westin was 12,000 points a night while the The Principle was 16,000 (despite both being category 5 hotels) and M preferred the Westin’s traditional decor. I booked six nights at the Westin for 60,000 SPG points.

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Granada

Next, I booked our single night in Granada. There is a dearth of points hotels in Granada so it came down to a choice between the Marriott’s AC Palacio De Santa Paula, Autograph Collection and non-points options. For 35,000 points, I splurged on the AC Palacio even though it’s a bit removed from the center of town. I’m even more excited about this decision now that I’ve achieved gold status with Marriott after completing a status challenge this fall. Turns out, there are some benefits to living out of three star hotels in suburban Pennsylvania. With gold status, we’ll get free breakfast and hopefully, a sweet upgrade.

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I’d love to get upgraded to this gorgeous suite.

Barcelona

Barcelona was my biggest dilemma. I was sitting on a nice pile of Hilton points, but the Hilton of my choice – the Alexandra Barcelona DoubleTree cost 50,000 points a night vs. 113 euros. That is not a great points per dollar value. In contrast, there are several good value Hiltons for 30,000 points a night, but they are farther from the center of town. Thus began the great debate of 2016:  Stay father away and save some of my points, fork over $600 for four nights at the DoubleTree, or bite the bullet and hand over 200,000 Hilton points. After much agonizing, I decided on the latter option. I love the idea of staying in the center of Barcelona and decided to save our money for other trip expenses. Plus, as a diamond Hilton member, hopefully we will score a nice upgrade. The DoubleTree boasts a couple of spacious suites that will make my day.

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Seville

Seville has no points hotels in the old quarter where we want to stay. Since we’re not traveling in peak season, there are many afforadable options. My major priority after location was space. While we’re not planning to spend a lot of time in our hotel, I hate walking into European hotel rooms that are essentially a box. Is it too much to ask for some space on either side of my bed? In the end, I settled on an apartment-style lodging that is affiliated with a nearby hotel. Apartamentos Murillo gives us 300+ square feet for two nights, and it’s a short stroll to the Royal Alcazar.
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Cordoba

Cordoba was the least stressful decision. We will only be there for one night, and there are only a handful of decent options in our price range within the city walls. For $70, I booked Eurostars Conquistador, a four star hotel next door to Mezquita.

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The Crazy Things We Do For Points

As you know, points make it possible for me to travel the world. I’m also one of those weird people who love the points game (aka “the obsession”) – the organizing, the tracking, the credit cards, the absurd opportunities that allow people like me to rake in thousands of points.

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There aren’t as many opportunities to do that as there used to be, but IHG (the umbrella company for Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, and Holiday Inn) offered the points obsessed an opportunity this winter. Many other blogs have reported on the details (here, here, and here), so I’ll spare you the technical requirements.

Here’s the short story: IHG’s Priceless Surprises promotion allows participants to earn points without hotel stays. All you have to do is fill out a 3×5 piece of paper with your name, address, phone number, and other required information – all handwritten. You are allowed 94 entries, and each entry must be in a separate envelope. Prizes range from 500 IHG points to free nights to much bigger (and less likely) prizes.

Bloggers figured out that participants are statistically very likely to win something with every entry. The costs of stamps alone will cost $46.06, but even if you only win 500 points per entry, that will be enough for one night at a  five star hotel in Europe.

I started small earlier this month with 16 entries. Warning: My arm hurt like hell. And I grew despondent when I heard nothing in return. Then, this week I received 16 emails inviting me to play the Priceless Surprises game online – an easy process of picking one out of six floors on a make-believe elevator. My 16 entries earned a total of 13,500 IHG points. This pretty much made my night – not exaggerating.

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I quickly filled out another 62 entries, and have another 16 to go. My right arm for a free night? Sign me up!

 

 

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Vietnam #14: Sheraton Hanoi Hotel

Vietnam #1: It’s a Long Ass Flight to Vietnam
Vietnam #2: The Best Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam #3: A Lesson in History and Propaganda
Vietnam #4: The Streets of HCMC
Vietnam #5: Is the Mekong Delta Worth It?
Vietnam #6: My First Overseas Doctor Visit
Vietnam #7: Welcome to Central Vietnam
Vietnam #8: Two-Wheeling in Vietnam
Vietnam #9: Don’t Skip Hoi An
Vietnam #10: A Hot Day in Hue
Vietnam #11: Exploring Hanoi
Vietnam #12: Hanoi Hilton
Vietnam #13: The Best View in Hanoi

We opted to stay at the Sheraton Hanoi Hotel, located on the edge of West Lake, Hanoi’s largest lake. The Sheraton cost a mere 3,000 – 3,500 points a night. The northern location is a 45 minute walk or 15 minute drive from the Old Quarter, but the Sheraton offers a complimentary shuttle into town (but not back to the hotel), and taxis are so cheap that it wasn’t an issue.

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The decor in rather dated, and I was surprised to find out the hotel was only 10 years old.

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The best part of the hotel though is the Sheraton club room. Although I have no SPG status, the SPG business credit card gives me access to all Sheraton club rooms. It may seem like a silly thing to get excited about, but after nearly two weeks of traveling, it was a pleasure to have constant access to water, diet coke, and fresh fruit, not to mention other snacks. Of course, the views didn’t hurt either.

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Vietnam #7: Welcome to Central Vietnam

Vietnam #1: It’s a Long Ass Flight to Vietnam
Vietnam #2: The Best Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam #3: A Lesson in History and Propaganda
Vietnam #4: The Streets of HCMC
Vietnam #5: Is the Mekong Delta Worth It?
Vietnam #6: My First Overseas Doctor Visit

We chose the coastal city of Danang as our base for exploring central Vietnam. I used my Chase points and my free annual night to book three nights at the Hyatt Regency Danang Resort.

I don’t think I’ve seen Lisa happier in my life. She loved waking up to the sound of the waves and strolling along the beach every morning. Seriously, ecstatic does not begin to describe it. As an added bonus, we were only a 25 minute ride from the ancient city of Hoi An, and we enjoyed a complimentary shuttle thanks to my Hyatt gold status.

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Lisa relaxing on our patio. She quickly deemed this couch “my chair.”

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Dipping my toes in the water and – what else? – taking pictures

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Lisa. In. Heaven.

The resort is beautifully decorated with light and airy touches. There are multiple pools on the premises, a fitness center (we even squeezed in a yoga class), a spa, restaurants, a water slide, and a climbing wall.

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And now the views. Be prepared to have your breath taken away.

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**2015-11-30 07.32.48-cropped As a final touch, we came back to our hotel room Monday night and found this extra waiting for us in honor of Lisa’s birthday. Happy birthday Lisa! What a great way to celebrate the birth of you!

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The Hyatt is about a 15 minute ride to central Danang. Despite overwhelming exhaustion, we grabbed a cab into town Sunday night to watch the big local attraction: Danang’s fire-breathing, water-spurting Dragon Bridge.

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Construction on the bridge started in 2009, and it opened to traffic in 2013. It quickly became something of an artistic and engineering marvel – a 2,185 feet long beauty with thousands of LED lights that come to life at night. Every weekend night at nine p.m., the dragon actually breathes fire and spurts water for half an hour in ten-minute increments. The weekly event is a hit with tourists, but even locals gather with their tiny plastic chairs and street food to enjoy the spectacle.

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Vietnam #2: The Best Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam #1: It’s a Long Ass Flight to Vietnam

I am in love with the InterContinental Asiana in HCMC. Like head-over-heels, I-want-to-marry-this-hotel in love. Has anyone ever said that about an InterContinental hotel before? I don’t know, but I will explain.

The InterContinental Asiana has two buildings. The first is your standard InterContinental hotel. The second is the InterContinental Asiana Residences – which are apartment style hotel rooms. You get all the benefits of staying in a hotel, but you also get an apartment. Why anyone would book the regular hotel over the residences boggles the mind (the prices were the same when we booked).

Our apartment is 700 square feet – huge by hotel standards, and even large by New York City apartment standards. That includes a large bedroom, a lovely bathroom, a living room, a dining room, a small kitchen area, a terrace, and a washing machine. Yes, a WASHING MACHINE. In HCMC’s sweltering, unrelenting humidity, the washing machine has changed my life.

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Living room, dining room, and kitchen

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Living room

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Dining room and living room

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Bathtub

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Bedroom (before we figured out how to turn on the lights)

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WASHING MACHINE!!!

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The view from our terrace

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The view from our terrace – you can catch a glimpse of Notre Dame Cathedral in the bottom left hand corner

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The restaurant located in the lobby of the residences

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The front desk

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The lobby

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The outdoor swimming pool

The hotel is centrally located on the border between District 1 and District 3 – the two main tourist areas. We are a 10-15 minute walk to the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum in one direction and a 10-15 minute walk to the Saigon River in the other direction. We are a stone’s throw away from at least two malls, and our building houses a small grocery store on the ground floor, which has proved abundantly useful.

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12 Nights of Vietnam Hotels for $92.50

I hope you’re not tired of listening to me gush about the  power of miles and points. WARNING: There is more gushing to come. We leave for Vietnam in one week (!!!!!), and we’ve been busy planning.

The short story is we booked 12 nights at pretty nice hotels for $92.50 a person. Here’s the breakdown:

Ho Chi Minh City: Five nights at Intercontinental Asiana Residences for 95,000 IHG points, one free night, and $40.

Da Nang: Three nights at the Hyatt Regency for 18,000 Hyatt points, one free night, and $75.

Hue: One night at the Eldora Hotel for $70.

Hanoi: Three nights at the Sheraton Hanoi for 10,000 SPG points.

The long story is, well, much longer.

As soon as Lisa and I booked our flights to Vietnam, I made a map and chart of all the possible hotel options. I did an audit of my hotel points and asked Lisa to do the same. I had spent many of my points in Scotland, so I need to figure out which points I needed to restock.

We started with Lisa. I had convinced her to get the IHG credit card for a bonus of 70,000 points. A couple of months later, Lisa was sitting on 75,000 IHG points. That was enough for three nights at the Intercontinental Asiana Saigon Residences in Ho Chi Minh City at 25,000 points a night. Ho Chi Minh has a number of nice hotels – from Hyatt, to SPG, to IHG, to Marriott – but the Asiana Residences offered apartment sized rooms with an actual living room and kitchen. That was a no-brainer. I just had to cobble together points for two additional nights. Luckily, the anniversary on my own IHG credit card reset on October 1, granting me another free annual night. Four nights down, one to go. Thanks to IHG’s 10 percent rebate on redemptions and my Chase points, I managed to accrue 20,000 points. That plus $40 gave us our fifth night.

Next up is the coastal city of Da Nang. This was a simple process of elimination. Da Nang has two points hotels: The swanky Intercontinental and the Hyatt Regency. We were fresh out of IHG points so I needed to cobble together three nights’ worth of Hyatt points. My Hyatt credit card give me a free annual night at a category 1 – 4 hotel. That’s one night. I transferred 12,000 Chase ultimate reward points and booked our second night. For our third night, I used 6,000 Hyatt points and $75. Three nights – done.

Our next stay is in the ancient city of Hue. There are no points hotels, but plenty of great, affordable options. You can book a motel for as low as $15, but we splurged on the four-star Eldora Hotel for $70.

Our last hotel stay is in Hanoi. We decided to stay in the ultra-bargain Sheraton (where my SPG credit card will get us access to the lounge!) for 3,000 – 3,500 points a night.

And that’s how we booked 12 nights of hotels for $185. Split between two people, that’s only $92.50 a person!

 

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Scotland #18: Where to Stay in Scotland

Scotland #1: Welcome to Edinburgh!
Scotland #2: The View from Arthur’s Seat
Scotland #3: The View from Scott Monument
Scotland #4: Going Forth to Forth
Scotland #5: The Beauty of Fife
Scotland #6: Whisky Fail
Scotland #7: Defeat at Culloden
Scotland #8: Cawdor’s Not-So-Secret Garden
Scotland #9: The Loch Ness Loop
Scotland #10: The Road to Skye
Scotland #11: Old Man of Storr
Scotland #12: Pieces of Skye
Scotland #13: Rubha Hunish AKA The Hike from Hell
Scotland #14: Losing my Phone in Scotland and Other Adventures
Scotland #15: The Road to Glasgow
Scotland #16: Welcome to Glasgow!
Scotland #17: Street Art Scavenger Hunt in Glasgow

The goal of picking hotels for our Scotland trip was to spend as little money as possible while maintaining a basic standard of quality. I wasn’t expecting anything grand – I just wanted to stretch my points as far as they would go.

This is not the most interesting post, but in case anyone is planning a trip to Scotland and wants to see some options, I’m happy to be of service.

Edinburgh: Radisson Blu Hotel Edinburgh

I booked this hotel back when Club Carlson offered an insane deal to anyone who held the Club Carlson credit card: Last night free when you book a hotel with points. Our three nights in Edinburgh, in the heart of Old Town, was only 80,000 points (40,000 points per night).

Dundee: Double Tree by Hilton Dundee

For a mere, 20,000 points, we got a free stay at the Double Tree en route to the Highlands. The room was nice, but on the small side.

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Inverness: Holiday Inn Express Inverness

There was only one points option here: The Holiday Inn, and probably not the best points value, but better than paying $200 a night. We stayed three nights here. Nothing to write home about, but it got the job done.

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Isle of Skye: The Bosville Hotel

This was the nicest hotel we stayed in, and the only one we paid for. There are no points options on the Isle of Skye, and the hotels can get pricey here. We chose a mid-level boutique hotel at about $250 a night, and it was quite lovely with a very large space and complimentary breakfast.

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Glasgow: Radisson Blu Hotel Glasgow

We barely spent any time in the hotel. We just wanted a place centrally located, so I unloaded another 40,000 Club Carlson points and booked a room at the Radisson Blu Glasgow.

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Living Large in Cancun

For the record, I’m not a beach person. I get antsy. I want to see and do things. But I had two free Hyatt nights I needed to use and the idea of relaxing in the lap of unadulterated luxury appealed to me. So my friend Eliana and I hopped a direct Southwest flight from Baltimore to Cancun for a four-day weekend.

This review needs to be prefaced by the fact that I was pretty sick most of the trip. Being the stubborn overachiever that I am, when I get sick, I go all the way – boxes of tissues, endless sniffling and sneezing — the works. Needless to say, I was fairly miserable. But that is not the hotel’s fault.

The hotel is beautiful. The rooms are large (though not as large as I have seen in some descriptions) and all have lovely views of the Caribbean Sea. The massive Jacuzzi is kind of hysterical, and I caused a mild flood in our room when I gave it a whirl. Oops.

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My friend Eliana relaxing on the hammock on our balcony.

The hotel is all-inclusive so once you get your bracelet, everything (except for the spa) is free. The hotel boasts five restaurants, a cafe, and a 24-hour club room. The thrill of drinking as many diet cokes as I liked was intoxicating.

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The weather was hot and humid, hitting a consistent high 80s each day. We spent the majority of our time in the pool (Eliana) or lounging by the pool (me) and sleeping (both of us). I had big plans to go to the gym and try out the yoga classes, but the persistent congestion killed those plans. I made it to the gym on the last morning, and while small, it is modern and stocked with everything you might need – including excellent wifi. (P.S. Netflix works in Cancun!)

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As many people have reported, the cabanas and lounge chairs get snapped up at a ridiculous hour of the morning that I refuse to get up at on vacation, but we managed to find adequate spots to rest our lazy butts.

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There is nightly entertainment in the main lobby and a lovely spa where we enjoyed deep tissue massages (thanks Eliana!).

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Dancers doing something exotic.

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The spa

All in all, it was a very relaxing and luxurious weekend. It’s not something I feel a need to do again, but if you are a beach person, I highly recommend the Hyatt Zillara.

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Part #17: Loving the Indigo in Shanghai

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review
Part #11: Family History in Shanghai
Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai
Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to Zhijiajiao
Part #14: Traveling Solo and the Great Tea Festival Scam
Part #15: Ancient Shanghai
Part #16: The Perfect Night in Shanghai

I LOVED – yes capital L-O-V-E-D – the Indigo hotel in Shanghai. The Indigo brand is part of the IHG hotel group, offering a boutique, modern hotel experience. Thanks to my IHG credit card, I used my free annual night at the Indigo for my last night in Shanghai, and fell deeply and irrevocably in love. Sure, there are other hotels that offer better free perks. And the location, while stunning, is not ideal for sightseeing in Shanghai. The Indigo is located in a newly developing area on the riverfront, at least a 17-20 minute walk from the closest metro station. It would not have been ideal for a long stay, but for my last night in Shanghai, it was perfect.

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Why? Because the views were stunning and the decor was to die for. I am moderately obsessed with modern, funky furniture and design. And if I could, I would have happily taken every piece of furniture for my own home.

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The entrance to the Indigo Hotel

The funky decor hits you as soon as you walk in: Modern art with an Asian twist.

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The hallway:

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And my room – did I mention I’m in love?

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Oh, and check out that view.

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And that view:

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Is it weird that the bathroom was my favorite room? It was huge, with a separate area for a super large bathtub and stunning views of the Pudong. You know, just in case I wanted to leave the blinds open while I took a bath.

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And a TV in the bathroom!

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And one of those new-fangled toilets that prepared me for my trip to Japan. Peeing was never so complicated.

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Even the slippers made me smile.

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The rest of the hotel was just as beautiful, including a library, a lounge area with computers and massage chairs, an uber-modern restaurant and a penthouse bar.

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I wandered outside and walked along the water for a bit. It is hard to beat this view.

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When I came back at night, I was surprised to find a present waiting for me. I’m not much of a wine drinker, but it was a nice touch.

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I was excited to hang out at the rooftop bar, taking picture after picture, but the weather had turned rainy and painfully frigid. I snapped this mediocre shot before I relented and ran indoors. It must be amazing to sit outside on a warm night, nursing a diet coke and watching the lights of the Pudong come to life.

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