Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

When my wife and I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, after a full day of traveling from our safari lodgings to a boutique hotel in the Camps Bay area of the city, we were surprised to learn we had been upgraded from our original room to a suite for the first four nights of our stay. However, we are also surprised to learn the suite wasn’t available on our fifth and final night, so we would have to move rooms.

Tired, hungry and cranky, we asked if there was anything that could be done to avoid having to move rooms. (We’re not the neatest unpackers, and didn’t want the hassle of having to pack up, unpack, and pack again a day later.) We asked if it was possible to cancel the last night’s reservation–we were thinking if we had to pack up everything anyway, we might try to find a hotel room in another part of the city for our final night in Cape Town.

The front desk staffer said he would call the owner, an American gentleman, about our situation. Shortly after, the same staffer found us and explained that no other rooms were available for our last night, and we would indeed have to move rooms our fifth night. He was nice and polite, and by then we’d settled into our room and were in better spirits. We said sure, it was no big deal, and the matter was over in our eyes.

About ten minutes later, while getting ready for bed, I received an email on my phone from the owner of the hotel, which I’ve included below. (I took out a handful of text from the original email to redact any personal information, about us and him, or impertinent comments.) We’ve decided to take the high road and not “out” him by revealing his name or which hotel in Cape Town he owns. But the email itself is too good not to share; it’s truly a master class in how not to speak to your hotel guests. Enjoy.

Oh, and despite this insane email, the hotel was actually really nice and we stayed all five nights.

Hello Bobby,

I just received a call from our night manager sayin that you are unhappy about having to move rooms for the extra night you added to your stay.

I probably should have spoiled the surprise at the time which you have done yourselves now.

I wanted to do something nice at the time upgraded you to our largest and most expensive suite. You added the extra night on and only a different room was available.

I feel really put out. Rather than a thanks for the upgrade you want to leave the last night you added on because you have to change rooms.

I turned away a guest who stayed with us twice before yesterday as we didnt have the [fifth and final night] available. We are not a 300 room Westin and I am now really upset with this and I have so much work to do just too upset to deal with guests full stop.

There will be no refund for the [fifth night] if you decide to leave. In fact I would rather you left and upgrade some other guests as your wife played up and is giving us difficulty after what I did. This is such a slap in the face. Do I dare ask who you are voting for?

It will be a long time before I do this again for a pair of American guests. I cannot keep up with our enquiries and I am very very put out to have my time wasted like this as well.

I dont care if you like this message or not. Let me make this clear! Yes I do take it personally as [this hotel] is my baby!

[Signed owner’s name]

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The following travelogue details the first four days of a recent two-week trip my wife and I took to South Africa. This first post, in a series of, well, I’m not sure how many yet, describes our experience on safari in Kruger National Park, South Africa’s prodigious game reserve, in the northeast corner of the country. (All photos courtesy of Kimberly Calise.)

Each day of our three-night stay at Jock Safari Lodge began the same way.

We awoke at 5 am to a call from Lazarus (Laz for short), our safari ranger for the duration of our stay. From that point we had 30 minutes to get out of bed and get to the green open-air Toyota Land Cruiser where Laz was waiting.

dsc_1159With our eyes barely open we threw on the safari outfits we’d carefully picked out a few weeks before–breathable outerwear to keep us cool (which we’d learn would not be a problem on safari in September) and cover us the strong African sun and the persistent, (possibly) malaria-carrying mosquitoes. We’d step out of our room, spray ourselves down with bug repellent, head to the dining room for a quick cup of coffee* and a snack, and get going on the first of two three-hour game drives that day.

*On the advice of a friend who had been on safari in South Africa a few years before, I made a point not to have too much caffeine before we left. You don’t want to be the guy, my friend warned, who makes the ranger turn back so you can use the bathroom in the middle of a drive.

The Big Five

The goal of of a safari trip is, ostensibly, to see The Big Five: African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. The Big Five (TB5, as I’ll refer to them) might seem arbitrary to the uninitiated, as it was to me; I was more excited about seeing, say, a giraffe than a Cape buffalo. But in fact these are the five animals that were historically the most difficult (and dangerous) to hunt on foot.* (We did see TB5. Kind of. More on that later.)

*These days, TB5 is essentially a marketing campaign, a brand, even. From the airport gift shop to the hundreds of small shops in between Kruger and Johannesburg and Cape Town, TB5 adorned kitschy souvenirs, from placemats to postcards. There’s also some historical context around TB5, as Laz explained to us one night over dinner: When European hunters would come to Africa to hunt dangerous and rare game, many were killed attempting to fill their trophy room with heads and hides. Laz says it wasn’t uncommon for European hunters to have safari tales about how a buffalo, or a rhino, killed one of their family members or friends.

It didn’t take long for us to see our first TB5 animal. In fact, we saw one from our cab from the airport to the park, 90 minutes before we arrived at Jock. Our driver, a part-time safari ranger himself, pointed to his left and matter-of-factly said, “Elephant.”

Sure enough, about 30 feet from our car was an adult African elephant. My wife, perhaps without realizing it, exclaimed “Oh my word!”–simultaneously channeling the wonderment of a 5-year-old and the phraseology of a 90-year-old. But I can’t blame her, because that’s why we were there: to see things we’ve never seen before, and see them up close. And we were off to a pretty good start.

But as exciting as it might have been to see that first elephant, Laz made sure the full Jock experience was worth the price of admission–and a massive upgrade from casual cab-side animal spotting.

Laz was undoubtedly looking for and finding clues that were going right over our heads. He would examine dung and tracks in the sand, listen for birds tipping off the location of land animals, scan the horizon for movement hundreds of yards away, and I imagine he was doing things we didn’t even realize, like smelling for clues. Even when it got dark, and the rest of us could barely make out an elephant if it was charging the vehicle, Laz was pointing out tiny rodents climbing up trees with nothing but a flashlight he waved back and forth in front of the truck like a windshield wiper. Laz and his fellow rangers–usually three or four trucks went out at a time–would communicate on the radio to let each other know if they spotted something that was worth taking their passengers to see. To be honest, I didn’t want to know how Laz was so good at his job. I thought of him as a safari magician. Telling me how he does the tricks would only detract from the experience.

On Safari in Kruger National Park
south-africa-mapOf Kruger National Park’s (KNP) 7,523 square miles (about the size of Israel), Jock had exclusive rights to game drives on 23 square miles, and could also track game on any public land within KNP.

While some animals, like cheetahs, are very rare in Kruger, others, such as impala, were everywhere.* The rangers call impala the fast food of the safari because a) they’re plentiful for any predator looking for an easy meal, b) they run fast, and c) the markings on their back side look a lot like an “M,” which might remind you of the golden arches of McDonald’s.

*There are about 150,000 impala in KNP, versus about 150 cheetah. Oddly enough, we saw 3 cheetahs at once–or 2% of the total cheetah population in KNP.

Elephants were fairly easy to find as well, both because they’re one of the more populous animals in the park (about 14,000 in KNP), and they’re huge. We were fortunate to see this scene a few times. We even had an angsty teenage elephant take a few threatening steps towards our truck and trumpet at us, before losing interest.

Giraffes, though not part of The Big Five, were one of the animals we had hoped to see. Kruger didn’t disappoint. Of course we knew what a giraffe looked like, and we’d seen then in zoos, but experience is amplified in their natural environment. (Fun fact about giraffes we learned on one of Jock’s daily nature walks: they eat upwind. Apparently the type of tree they typically eat releases bitter-tasting tannins as a defense mechanism to prevent animals from feasting on them. The wind can often carry the scent of those tannins to other trees nearby, which then triggers those trees to release their tannins. By eating upwind, i.e. in the opposite direction the wind is blowing, giraffes avoid the bitter leaves. They’re like the guy at the table who sends wine back.)

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About an hour into our morning drives, Laz would pull over in a safe-ish part of the park, pull down a little metal shelf attached to the front of the truck, put down a safari-patterned tablecloth, and set up a coffee and cookies for his passengers–my wife and me, a 40-something German couple, and a 30-something Swiss couple. He would carefully scoop two spoons full of instant coffee into each mug (ours first, then his once we all had a cup), the hot water from the Thermos, and even a splash of milk. (He also offered Amarula, a cream-fruit liqueur, if we preferred.) We would stand around the truck, sometimes asking him questions, other times just enjoying the quiet. What I enjoyed most about these little coffee breaks–besides not being at my desk at work–was that they forced us to stop, look around, and appreciate how lucky we were in that moment.

A few minutes after the coffee break on our first morning out, and not too far from the “safe” spot we were casually drinking coffee, we stumbled upon an adult male lion napping–our first lion sighting. While we certainly hoped to see more than just one lion, I think everyone in Laz’s truck silently checked off “lion” on their TB5 mental Bingo card.

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Big Five, Schmig Five

Though the TB5 is table stakes for a great safari experience, my wife and I were also hoping to see some “bonus” animals. After a relatively uneventful drive on our second day on safari–meaning we only saw elephants, impala, giraffes, kudu (essentially an African antelope), and buffalo–we stumbled upon a small body of water within the park. (Water is rare in Kruger during September and October, the end of their dry season. In fact, our bungalow at the lodge overlooked a river bed, but it was completely dry and we actually ended up using it as a road during our drives. Occasionally some rhinos or buffaloes would drop by to say hello to diners at lunch.)

In the water was a bashful hippopotamus who barely poked her head out a couple of times, enough for us to snap a few photos. Laz explained that hippos, despite being vegetarians, were actually the #1 human killers in Africa.* While not carnivorous, they’re very territorial. It doesn’t take much, just a poor soul in rural Africa washing up in some water, to motivate a hippo to defend her territory by crushing its perceived threat.

If being within spitting distance of a hippo wasn’t scary enough, a crocodile just happened to be hanging out nearby as well. Crocodiles, according to Laz, are the #2 killers of humans in Africa. And yet he didn’t make a move for his gun–all rangers carried a rifle in their truck, just in case–but instead took some video on his phone. That’s a sure sign you’re seeing something special: when the ranger gets excited about it. (Special was the word Laz would use in a whisper, if we asked about seeing something very rare, like a kill–e.g. a lion catching a zebra–or the live birth of an animal.)



That night, we ate a boma-style dinner with our fellow drive passengers and Laz. When my wife asked him what a boma was, he explained its original was the “British Officers Mess Activity.”) He then explained that he was lying*, and that a boma was actually a traditional African meal in which a large group of people cook, eat and then go to sleep around a large fire. The boma buffet menu included kudu (very tender beef-like meat), buffalo pie (like shepherd’s pie) and sausage, warthog (tasted like chicken but gamier), plus some chicken and beef. I made a point to taste everything.

*Laz got us a couple of times like this. He also pointed out a small bird and pretended it was a baby ostrich before coming clean. “If I just said it was a regular bird, none of you would have wanted a picture!”

Big Cats

We spent our last three drives chasing a leopard.

One of the other rangers alerted Laz and the others that he had seen a leopard guarding a fresh kill, an impala carcass hanging from a tree. Leopards are solitary animals, and they don’t like to share their hard-earned meal–“fast food”–with wild dogs or other scavenger animals. (Fun/Gruesome nature fact: the impala carcass was wholly intact. I was expecting a bloody scene, but the leopard had apparently suffocated his prey without actually spilling any blood.)

When we arrived, the leopard wasn’t home. Laz thought he wasn’t far off, but now that we were on a public part of Kruger (as opposed to Jock’s exclusive land) there was a lot more tourist activity and the leopard wasn’t having any of it. We hung around for a bit, but the leopard never appeared.

Before our second attempt at spotting the leopard–see what I did there?–Laz suggested we try to track down Jock’s local pride of lions. (Think of it like the local chapter of an Elks Lodge, but, ya know, nothing like that.) I think he was hedging his bets that if we didn’t end up seeing the leopard that night, we’d settle for a bunch of lions.

Perhaps just to build up some drama, Laz stopped the vehicle in the middle of the arid river bed, took his rifle out of its case for the first time since we’d been there, and started walking towards the other side of the river bed, where he’d have a better view of the landscape. As my wife started to snap a few pictures of Laz walking away, he turned, and with his fake serious expression and tone of voice, said, “If I don’t make it back, send that picture to my kids and tell them I love them.” Then he smiled, and kept on walking.

He returned a few minutes later with the data he needed, and we were off to find the pride.

Most of our animal-spotting had been done from the side of the road, but the lions weren’t going to make it easy for us to see them. Laz pulled the Land Cruiser off the dirt road, warning us to duck our heads as we drove in between gangly trees and over dead branches to get a closer look. And just like that, there they were: 12 male lions.

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While the older male lions–the ones who had facial hair, a.k.a. manes–conserved their energy, the younger ones did battle. Against each other. My biggest takeaway from the safari is that animals are deliberate about how they use their time and energy. Everything they do is purposeful. For the older lions, napping was the best use of their time in that moment. But for the younger ones–think teenage Simba*–they were using the time to practice.

*Laz referenced The Lion King quite a few times on the trip, referring to warthogs as “Pumba,” or a mountain as “Pride Rock,” or working “Hakuna Matata” into the conversation. The Lion King, he said, was a common language among any of his guests, regardless of where they came from. 

The young lions, three or four of them, took turns walking away from each other, stalking slowly, and then running at and pouncing on one another. Once a lion was pounced on, a short wrestling match would ensue, and then another lion would start it all over again. It was remarkable how clear it was what they were doing, and how relatable it was to the behavior of human boys playfighting in the schoolyard.

As for us, we scored tons of pictures and video, and this sighting made our safari trip. Even if we never got a glimpse of the elusive (and quite frankly, rude) leopard, we had our lions. At that point we were playing with the house’s money, so Laz took another shot at finding Cousin Jeffrey’s favorite animal.

It was about a half hour drive from to the leopard’s refrigerator (a.k.a. the tree where he was storing his impala), and it was already dark by the time we got there. Laz shined his flashlight around the tree, and sure enough we could just barely make out a glimmer of the leopard’s eyes catching the light, betraying his location behind a bush directly beneath the tree. It was only a matter of time, we thought, before he came out of hiding, climbed up the tree, brought it down and started feasting.

But, as it turned out, a faint outline of the leopard behind the bush was the best look he’d allow.

With not much going on except us starting at a tree illuminated by a flashlight, Laz took the opportunity to serve our puza, or safari happy hour. (I asked him if puza, like boma, had a special meaning in African culture. “It means drinking.”) The leopard never came out of hiding, but at least now we had booze.

That night we went back to the lodge, recapping the day with the older German couple from Laz’s truck, and a younger German couple who were part of a different group. The younger Germans happened to be at the right place at the right time the day before, and actually had photos of the very same leopard we were chasing, bringing his kill up into the tree. Timing is everything on safari.

Still, despite a mild case of FOOMOS (fear of missing out on safari), we were satisfied with the day’s drives and Laz’s efforts to give us a special experience. On our final drive the next morning, we went directly to the same spot, hoping the leopard would seize the opportunity to dine in peace–besides the minor distraction of being there creepily watching him. But by the time we arrived the carcass was gone. He’d either eaten it and then the rest had been taken by scavengers, or more likely he had moved the stash.

I’d hardly say we’re disappointed by the leopard’s shyness, thought it would have been cool to see the last of our TB5 animals in action. But, as a fellow tourist told us a few days later at our next step, Cape Town, you don’t want to see everything a place has to offer on your first visit. Now you have an excuse to return.


If this post wasn’t long enough for you, here’s some bonus material:

  • The male red-crested korhaan (a.k.a. “the baby ostrich”) has a unique mating ritual. To advertise its mad flying skills to its female counterparts, it performs an aerial display. The kurat shoots itself up into the air like a rocket, hits the peak of its flight, then drops like a rock down to the ground before parachuting its wings just a moment before landing.
  • Speaking of mating rituals, male rhinos defecate, then stamp on it track it on the ground around them to denote their territory. Female rhinos catch the scent, then they defecate nearby to advertise their own availability.
  • We often spotted large dirt mounds around trees. Our nature guide explained that these were termite mounds. Termites don’t actually eat wood. They eat mushrooms. So, they create these soil piles, under which mushrooms–and ultimately the trees themselves–grow.
  • On one drive we saw four or five male lions lazily sunning themselves, bellies up. Laz explained that they had just eaten a big meal, and turn their bellies up toward the sun because it apparently aids their digestion. Sounds like an old wives’ tale to me, lions.

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If you’ve done any air travel in the last year or so, the airline you’re flying has probably asked you to solve a problem for them—for free. I know I’ve been asked, and I don’t like it.

Because the airline business is apparently a tough racket in which to turn a profit (fuel is expensive, etc.), many airlines now charge customers to check their bags as a way to drum up some more cash (or haven’t you noticed?).

The domino effect of charging for bags, of course, is that more people are carrying on smaller luggage avoid the checked baggage fees. This means that the once-sufficient overhead compartment space on planes is now full of bags that would have been checked (if checking was still free). The lack of overhead space is the problem they’re asking us to solve.

Airlines are now asking passengers with carry-on luggage to volunteer to check their bags (free of charge!) at the gate to cut down on delays when boarding; this was the case on my last few trips with Delta and Sun Country. The thinking is, if we all take our carry-ons onto the plane and there’s no room left in the overheads, some of us will have to check our no-longer-carry-on bags with the flight attendants anyway, which takes more time than if we’d done that up front.

As a Business Insider article points out, it’s unclear what the airlines’ incentive is for even bothering to ask passengers to gate-check Are airlines really concerned about these boarding delays, considering the whole industry constantly experiences customer-facing delays? Is there anyone among us who, when traveling by plane, doesn’t automatically assume their travel will take longer than it’s “supposed to”?

But the part that confuses me is the incentive of a customer to gate-check a carry-on bag for the greater good, i.e. the rest of the passengers on the aircraft, in the hopes of moving things along a bit more quickly.

I have, nor will I ever, volunteer to check my carry-on—which, incidentally, I packed specifically so that I wouldn’t have to check it, and thus wait at baggage claim. How much time does it even save? On my last flight I overheard the flight attendant say that 24 carry-on bags were checked at the gate, and yet there still wasn’t enough room for several of the unlucky last-boarding passengers’ bags in the overheads. (I was fortunate to find some overhead space a few rows behind my my seat, and after we landed another passenger was nice enough to pass my bag forward so I didn’t have to wait for the plane to empty to get it.)

Not to belabor the point, but seriously, why would anyone volunteer to check their bag? I saw a clergyman board my plane this weekend and even he carried his bag on and stuffed it into the remaining space in the overhead!

The aforementioned BI article suggests that the stick, i.e. penalizing non-checkers, is the best way to incentivize people to check a bag at the gate. (He recommends threatening them with no in-flight beverage service.) But I think the carrot would work better for someone like me. Currently, the “reward” for checking at the gate is nothing other than allowing the checkers to board the plane first (after first class, people with young children, disabled people, active duty military personnel, etc.). But in my view, the only benefit to boarding first is to make sure you get a spot for your bag in the overhead. Why do I care if I’m boarding first if I still have to wait at baggage claim when we land???

People like free stuff. Why not simply offer a $10 or $20 credit on the airline, good for future travel or an alcoholic drink or for-purchase food on the plane? Money towards cab fare or parking? A Best Buy gift card? Or literally anything else worth any value to a customer? (Think about it: what would it take for you to agree to gate-check your bag? Not much, but something, right?)

A New York Times columnist recently applied similar logic to the question of reclining one’s seat, which has drawn the attention of the air traveling public. Some planes have had emergency landings because of passengers fighting over leg room gained/lost by a reclined seat. The columnist suggested that if airlines want to avoid this, they should pay passengers not to recline. But I’m not sure the right to recline, knowing it will make the person behind you uncomfortable for the entire flight, is the same as the right to carry-on your carry-on.

I realize that it might not be worth it to the airline to save a few minutes while boarding if they have to pay people to do something (checking at the gate) they were previously asking them to do out of the goodness of their hearts. But if that’s the case, then I’d really like for Delta, Sun Country, or whomever I’m flying, to stop asking its customers—who have already paid for their seat with dollars—to now also donate the most precious currency they have, their time, without getting something in return.

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“TMI,” the popular acronym meaning “too much information,” is typically reserved for when someone overshares details about something such as their romantic endeavors, or their bathroom habits. But I never thought I’d be using it when it came to reading online customer reviews while trying to book a vacation.

Admittedly, this is not the first time I’ve struggled with online customer reviews. A few months back I blogged about the “paralysis by analysis” I encountered while sifting through countless Amazon customer reviews for iPad Mini cases. The sheer volume of reviews became overwhelming, but luckily my time spent reading them paid off, as I ended up with a great iPad Mini case from Devicewear. Still, it was a tedious process considering the item was relatively inexpensive ($27) to begin with.

If my Amazon experience was the minor leagues of reading online customer reviews, then I was called up to the majors last month while planning a Caribbean vacation with my fiancee. We headed over to TripAdvisor to see which hotels had the best reviews based on the handful of islands we were interested in.

Knowing that there would be more reviews on TripAdvisor than I could possibly read, my strategy for reading reviews was to read only those in which the reviewer graded the hotel a “3” on a 5-point scale. I’ve found these reviews to be the most honest and useful ones. Too often, a 1 out of 5 review overstates the negative aspects of a customer experience, e.g. an indifferent hotel staff becomes “rude,” or a mediocre meal becomes “inedible”; while a 5 out of 5 is too glowingly positive to the point that there’s nothing to learn from it, and it often lacks any detail, e.g. an “amazing” dinner. (The 2’s and 4’s are usually not much better than the 1’s and 5’s as far as exaggeration.)

Luckily, TripAdvisor’s reviews do allow readers to filter by “Couples,” “Solo,” “Families,” and “Business.” Traveling with my fiancée, I selected Couples to see only reviews written by those people who had been on couples-style vacations. Using this filter we got a few good tips, such as asking for a free room upgrade upon check-in.

But despite my 3-rating strategy and the Couples filter, after a few days of reading reviews my head was spinning. Where one reviewer would laud a hotel’s staff for friendly and helpful service, another would trash them. Some people loved the beach at a hotel, where others found it too crowded or noisy.

Just as I was reaching the brink of complete frustration, I had an epiphany.

Because my TripAdvisor account is connected to my Facebook account, I could see that one of my friends had previously visited one of the hotels we were looking at with his wife back in 2006. His wife wrote a glowing review about a particular hotel and about the island in general. Though a lot about a hotel could change in seven years, I reached out to them anyway in the hopes that they could give me the inside scoop. They explained that their trip to Curacao was a great vacation for them at the time, in their mid-twenties, especially since it was their first Caribbean vacation together. However, they said, Curacao was not necessarily a place they would go back to after having been to other islands such as Turks & Caicos, where they were married and have been to several times since.

My epiphany was that I wanted to read more reviews written by people I know–friends and family are typically a more trusted source of information and recommendations than strangers. However, going off of only personal recommendations would be a little impractical unless I planned to solicit reviews about specific destinations or hotels from my social network via Facebook.

The next best thing, I realized, was to read reviews by people like me, even if I didn’t know them personally. By people like me I mean people who are around my age; have a similar travel budget; who live in New York City like I do or at least another major city (preferably on the East Coast); and who have comparable previous travel experience. (That last one, travel experience, is important because someone who rarely travels might not notice or care about the same things I do when they travel.)

I began to re-scan the reviews (already filtered on Couples) for people from the New York area, since this was the only real demographic information available on TripAdvisor. I knew I was on the right track when I found one NYC-based reviewer who said that a hotel bar had “New York prices.” To further filter for travelers like myself and my fiancee, I skipped over reviews from people who were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, as they were obviously in a different lifestage than we were. (Note: This is not to say older travelers’ opinions aren’t valid, just that they don’t resonate with me as much as the opinions of travelers closer to my own age. Again, it comes back to travel experience.) I also read the reviews more carefully for language that might suggest these people were frequent travelers.

Ideally, I’d like to be able to filter reviews by the factors I mentioned above to give me a reasonable chance to make sense of all the reviews. (This might require TripAdvisor asking a few innocuous demographics questions to its reviewers before they can post a review, but it’s worth it!) I’d also like to see a search box like they have on Yelp so I can search within the reviews for terms like “renovations” (is the hotel under construction?) or “palapas” (do I have to get up at 5 am to reserve a little tent on the beach?). TripAdvisor’s current set up shows frequently used words in its reviews, but they’re not useful for anything more specific than “restaurants” or “happy hour.”

I love that TripAdvisor allows me access to so much information, but sometimes it’s just TMI and goes past the point of usefulness.

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Back in April last year, I wrote a blog post detailing the first ever episode of Hotel Impossible. It’s become one of my most popular posts, so I thought it would be appropriate to write a follow up as Anthony Melchiorri, hotel fixer extraordinaire and star of the show, visits six of the hotels from the first season to see how they’re doing since he left them on last night’s episode.

Like I wrote in my last post, my favorite part of watching shows like Hotel Impossible and Restaurant Impossible is looking up the properties after the fact to see what the reviews say. (Full disclosure: If the owners hesitate, even slightly, to listen to Anthony, I start rooting against them hardcore like a Deal or No Deal contestant who went against the mathematical odds for a chance at the million-dollar suitcase instead of cashing in for $250K.)

Here’s what I hoped to find out from this follow-up edition of Hotel Impossible: Was it, in fact, possible to revamp these properties? Did Anthony’s tough love and business strategies pay off? Did the owners ultimately heed his advice, or did they just yes him to death until he was gone, then go back to their old ways?

Here’s a brief recap of each follow-up, as well as a few tweets Anthony (@AnthonyHotels) sent out in real time last night:

Ocean Manor Resort Hotel (Fort Lauderdale, FL), 10 months later
The hotel seems to be doing better now that the owner is less involved and the GM is running the show, but it’s still receiving negative reviews on TripAdvisor. A January 28 review called it “The worst hotel ever!” Not a ringing endorsement for the job Anthony did, but I appreciate the show tellin’ it like it is by actually mentioning the negative reviews in its recap. My favorite line from the follow-up came from the owner, who said that since Anthony left, they’ve renovated “over 37 rooms.” So…38?

Dude Rancher Lodge (Billings, MT), 5 months later
There was nothing too remarkable about this hotel’s recovery. During the initial visit, Anthony won over the curmudgeonly sales manager, but she retired and they hired a younger manager from the area to replace her. This seemed to be working out just swimmingly until THERE WAS A SHOOT-OUT BETWEEN POLICE AND A CRAZED GUNMAN AT THE HOTEL. (The police eventually shot him dead, in case you were wondering.) Still, the recent reviews are mostly positive…

Purple Orchid Inn, Resort & Spa (Livermore, CA), 8 months later
A couple-owned hotel and spa, this appeared to be one of Anthony’s easier missions. The property is gorgeous; the spa just needed a little updating. Also, Anthony persuaded the couple to put on some events to promote their own wine and that of other local vineyards. According to the owners, who have since had a son, they’ve now gotten 150,000 visits to their website and they’re doing 300 spa appointments per month (previously they were doing about two appointments per week), which is what Anthony said a spa in the area should be handling in order to maximize its profits. See their reviews here.

Purple Orchid Resort & Spa in Livermore, CA

Purple Orchid Resort & Spa in Livermore, CA

Dream Inn (Daytona Beach, FL), 5 months later
This place was being run by an older couple (the mother was recently diagnosed with cancer) before her son took over the day-to-day operations. It was a pretty classic case of a hotel that was being run by people who, despite the hotel being their only source of income, didn’t know (or care) how to help themselves. The rooms need to be CLEANED? The hotel staff should wear UNIFORMS? We NEVER woulda thought of that! (Also, the property was overrun with dolphin statutes, like a lot of dolphin statues, which was just weird.) Since Anthony’s visit, the owners replaced their housekeeping staff with a professional cleaning service, and guests no longer have to clean their own dishes (in the original episode, leaving a dirty dish would have cost a guest a $25 charge at check-out). Per the owners, revenue is up 25%, occupancy up 10%. With the hotel’s phenomenal view of the ocean, Anthony thinks it can do even better than that. Still, the recent reviews are very strong.

La Jolla Cove Suites (La Jolla, San Diego, CA), 7 months later
Like Purple Orchid, Anthony’s primary role in fixing this place was to consult on the marketing front. And like Dream Inn, the view was not the problem. The owner wasn’t utilizing the roof space, they launched a marketing event to get locals up there to expose them to the view. The owners were also in the process of renovating the rooms but ran out of money. Since Anthony’s visit, the owners didn’t disappoint. They replicated the sample room Anthony’s designer created 22 times, all rooms have new mattresses, and Anthony’s famous “face plant” method–falling face-first onto the mattress–is now used the staff to test the mattress softness. Meanwhile Anthony struck gold with his suggestion to use the roof top as the hotel’s main selling point: since he left, La Jolla Cove Suites has hosted 29 weddings and 35 corporate events on roof deck. Per the owner, the hotel was named the second-best wedding venue in the county, and she says people mention Hotel Impossible when they call to inquire about rooms and events. Occupancy is up 22% occupancy, and there’s been a $400,000 increase in revenue (I believe that number was year over year) in the last five months. Anthony earned his paycheck on that one. Here are the reviews.

New Yorker Boutique Hotel (Miami, FL), 10 months later
As with the Dream Inn, this too was couple-owned and the co-owner wife had been recently diagnosed with MS. Meanwhile the financial struggles piled up, with the owners’ whole family living in a small apartment in the back of the hotel, now $1 million in debt. They seemed generally clueless about how to run a hotel, in one instance admitting that they let emails sit in their inbox for several days, even for a corporate client inquiring about rates for 150 nights a year (Anthony, incredulous, closed the guy over the phone in about two minutes for $85 a night). But after Anthony’s visit, which included a few lessons in marketing in sales, the couple says they’ve paid off 50% of their debt, and the co-owner is better able to manage her health and see doctors more often. Meanwhile, they report the hotel’s occupancy is at 80-95%. The reviews, on the other hand, are a mixed bag (don’t stay in room 223, apparently).

Much like Robert Irvine’s drill sergeant style on RI, Melchiorri’s New York Italian brashness was not always well-received by his would-be clients. (As the viewer, I didn’t mind the brashness, perhaps because it wasn’t my failures as a businessman he was exposing on a TV show whose title posits these hotels may be “impossible” to fix, or simply because I’m a New York Italian.) There was often resistance in the form of crying, yelling, or just, well, interesting comments from hotel owners like, “paper never crashes” in response to Anthony’s insistence that they invest in a computer system to track reservations rather than just writing them down and filing them away.

Of course I’m sure many moments were played up or down for the cameras, but Anthony seems to be having a positive effect on these hotels, if nothing else than for some increased visibility as “that hotel from the TV.” Perhaps Melchiorri’s reputation will start to proceed him as the show becomes more and more popular and he’ll have fewer clashes with these failing hotel owners, who might actually just shut up and listen. But then, where would the fun be in that?

Hotel Impossible can be seen on Mondays at 10 pm on Travel Channel.

RELATED: Hotel Impossible’s First Mission: Gurney’s Inn on Long Island

RELATED: Hotel Renovation Proves ‘Impossible’ for Anthony Melchiorri

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A shared pastime of my fiancée and me is to watch an episode of the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible and then, once it’s over, to Yelp the featured restaurant to see if they were able to turn things around once the camera crew packed up and left. It’s not that we don’t trust Sir Robert Irvine, the ex-military Brit with a heart of gold shrouded in an exterior of tough love and culinary expertise. It’s that we don’t always trust the restaurateurs to stick to the blueprint Irvine has laid out for them.

Inevitably, we’ll find reviews like this one, which reference the restaurant’s appearance on the show, often telling other would-be diners that it’s still the same old dump. In some cases, we find out the restaurant closed shortly after Irvine’s intervention. And while it’s sad to see, there are thousands of other restaurants that don’t have the benefit of a deus ex machina like Irvine. Instead, if they want to survive in the business they have to, you know,  run their restaurant correctly.

Still, we love the show and so we were quite pleased to stumble upon the series premiere of Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible last night. Hotel Impossible is centered around an expert in the hospitality field and hotel “fixer,” Anthony Melchiorri, with a brash style similar to Irvine’s. In Hotel Impossible’s first episode, Melchiorri goes out to Montauk, Long Island, to rescue Gurney’s Inn, a family-run hotel that has seen a steady decline since the family patriarch and general manager passed away two years ago.

Melchiorri immediately diagnoses Gurney’s biggest issues: crappy service, outdated decor, and the general ineptitude of the management, who are all members of the family. In one scene, he asks the current GM to round up the staff for a 10 am meeting on the beach, and by 10:30 no one’s there. When Melchiorri confronts the GM, his excuse is that everyone’s “on Montauk time.” About fifteen minutes in, we already hate the GM if not the entire family. The head chef, one of the few relatives who actually seems competent, admits on camera that some of the other family members would not have a job at Gurney’s if they weren’t flesh and blood. It’s as if their father left them a coveted masterpiece, and they can’t be bothered to dust the frame from time to time.

OK, we get it: it’s a TV show; there’s got to be some conflict. If they only tackled projects where ownership was totally willing to adopt every change Melchiorri suggested, it wouldn’t seem quite so “impossible.” (Or, for that matter they wouldn’t be in so much trouble in the first place.) But throughout the episode, Melchiorri makes references to the other newer, hungrier hotels in Montauk who can’t wait to “eat their lunch” if Gurney’s keeps going the way it is, and that the only thing saving them is the gorgeous view of the ocean from their property, which this generation can hardly take credit for.

Wouldn’t it make for a decent, and similarly impossible show, if Melchiorri, or Irvine for that matter, helped out one of those competing hotels or restaurants to put a bigger one out of business? While the Impossible shows are entertaining, I can’t help but think that if these were baseball teams instead of service businesses, they’d be swooping in to help the New York Yankees spend their $200 million payroll more efficiently, while the financially challenged Oakland A’s looked around and said, “What about us?”

All that said, there are probably hundreds of newer, hungrier hotels, restaurants, pet shops, bakeries, food trucks, writers, and yes, even baseball teams, who are slowly making headway in their respective industries, chipping away at the market share–all without the help of a TV show. But for their sake, let’s hope that Melchiorri or Irvine don’t show up one day to help their competitors across the street.

RELATED: Hotel Renovation Proves ‘Impossible’ for Anthony Melchiorri

RELATED: Hotel Impossible: After Anthony Special – A Review

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Recently, I’d been itching to get down to Atlantic City. I hadn’t been there in a while, plus I’ve been watching a lot of Boardwalk Empire lately. It was time to visit my old friend again.

So, using an amNY daily deal, three coworkers and I took the Hampton Luxury Liner bus down to Atlantic City for the day this past Saturday.

For $7, the deal included a round trip ride to Atlantic City–normally $25 on Hampton Luxury Liner–and $10 food and $5 slots vouchers for the Resorts casino. (I ambitiously bought three thinking I’d make multiple trips, and since the remaining two will expire at the end of the month, I’ll have paid $21 for this $7 deal.)

Cheap round trip bus rides are nothing new for Atlantic City casinos. Long before Groupon or LivingSocial, casinos figured out that if they subsidized the cost of a customer’s bus ticket to AC, they’d easily make it back on the tables.

One of the challenges of gambling in AC on the weekends is the higher table minimums. Blackjack generally has the best odds of any table game, but if you only have $100 to spend and you’re playing at a $10 minimum bet table, you don’t have much margin for error. If you are lucky enough to find a $5 table and sit down with that same $100, you might have enough money to stick around and survive a few losing hands until you find yourself on a “heater.”

So when I spotted two $1 minimum blackjack tables at the Trump Taj Mahal, I sat down immediately. I had never seen a blackjack table with such low limits outside of Las Vegas, and I figured there must be a catch. And there was.

The $1 blackjack tables were charging a “hand fee” of 25 cents per hand for any bet under $10. Meaning, if I played 50 hands an hour (and didn’t bet at least $10 on any of them), the casino would get $12.50 even if I broke even. Despite a few bad beats and many questionable decisions from the really nice but inexperienced gamblers playing beside me,  I walked away with $110–a net profit of just $10 after hand fees and tips for the waitresses and dealers. The casino’s profit (even though I won) was $2.50.

Experienced gamblers will warn you about all the “sucker bets” the casinos build into their games to win even when they lose. This includes the “Insurance” bet at the blackjack table, where you’re given the option of insuring your bet against the dealer’s possible blackjack, or accepting a smaller payout for blackjacks at a “Single Deck” table (they pay 6-to-5 instead of the usual 3-to-2). In my excitement over finding a low stakes table on a weekend, I failed to identify the 25-cent hand fee as yet another obvious sucker bet.

Clearly, the $1 blackjack tables were designed to attract the low stakes gamblers who didn’t really know how to play the game to their best advantage. Even as I, a more experienced blackjack player, used by-the-book basic strategy, I barely managed to turn a profit. The other guys at the table, a bachelor party from Virginia, walked away one by one having lost all the money they had started with. (Mind you, none of them lost no more than $30, which was basically their “casino fee” for being able to sit around with their friends and ironically drink White Russians.)

As for me, by the time we returned home to New York my wallet was only $60 lighter than it had been when I stepped onto the bus that morning, and I’d been able to gamble, eat, and drink all day. Considering my history with AC, I’d call that a win.

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For a long time, I’ve loved the idea of living in Colorado. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a skier, I didn’t know anyone living there who could plug me into the social pipeline, or that I hadn’t ever actually been to Colorado.

One of my close college friends moved out Fort Collins a few years ago to pursue an advanced degree at Colorado State University, met a nice girl, and was getting married on July 3. He asked me in December if my girlfriend and I would like to come out for the wedding. Yes, we would.

We arrived in Denver the morning of the wedding, which gave us just enough time for a quick lunch on 16th Street Mall, a nap in our room at the Embassy Suites, and then we were off to the wedding, just across from our hotel at the Ellie Culkins Opera House. After a night of catching up and mingling, dinner and dancing, and a cake that Cake Boss would be proud of (it was deliciously heavy on the FAHN-dahnt), the first leg of our Colorado trip was in the books.

On Day 2, the Fourth of July, we checked out the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, a 15-minute drive from our Downtown Denver (a.k.a. LoDo). The event was terrific. Artists came from all over the U.S. for the event to display and sell their work. Prices ranged from $40 for a ceramic tea cup into the thousands for some of the larger framed paintings and photos. One piece grabbed my attention right away: a colorful wooden statue by Jef Raasch, carved and painted in the shape of a life-sized human, but whose body parts were made of animals—meaning its chin was the face of a squirrel and its left butt cheek was a turtle and its hamstring was an owl.

My favorite booth featured a collection of clocks, key hangers, and shelves by Jim Rosenau made out of similar-themed hardcover books on the same subject (e.g. cooking, or writing). One shelf was built using two cookbooks stacked horizontally with a third cookbook sliced into a triangle wedge as the shelf bracket, and an egg beater poking through the middle of it (perfect to mount in your kitchen to hold, I guess, more cookbooks).

We were priced out of most of the artwork, but we had enough to buy a $3 bottle of water from one of the Pepsi “Hydration Stations.” Normally I’d wince at paying $3 for bottled water, especially when nearby bars were selling Rolling Rocks for $2, but each station’s proceeds went to a different cause, including a local high school’s music program. We happily contributed and hydrated.

Our Fourth of July evening activity was a concert at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. Toad the Wet Sprocket and Matisyahu were the opening acts before Blues Traveler, the headliner, who has played at Red Rocks every July 4th since 1994. (The next time you hear a ‘90s band on the radio and think, “What ever happened to those guys?” remember that fact.)

Tailgating is popular at Red Rocks, but we hadn’t come prepared. I walked around the parking lot to try to buy a couple of beers off some fellow tailgaters–I was willing to go as high as $6 for two cold ones. A friendly group of guys gladly handed me two chilled Miller Lites, free of charge. Colorado, you’re the best!

I’m not much of a concert guy, so I knew virtually nothing about Red Rocks going into the trip. Set against flat, pale red rocks and overlooking the city of Denver, the Ampitheatre is easily the best concert venue I’ve ever been to. And on July 4th, we were particularly spoiled by the view from the cheap seats: as the sky darkened, the fireworks across Denver started in waves, first a few puffs of red, white and blue, and later many blasts, big and small, throughout the city. I’m also not much of a fireworks guy, but that citywide spectacular blew me away.

The concert audience was a pretty standard, couples and groups of friends in their 20s, 30s and 40s, plus some families who showed up for the fireworks. As for concessions, my made-to-order burrito ($7) was surprisingly good. I drank an $8 local craft beer (16 oz) before downgrading to $7 Coors Lights (20 oz).

A group of friends sat to our left, dressed in Hulk Hogan-esque red, white and blue 80’s gear, including fake mutton chop sideburns, mustaches, and blonde mullets. To our right, a guy bargained with a group of stoners: “Who wants to trade me two seats in row 29 for one hit of pot…or I’ll just buy it.” I had heard the marijuana laws were pretty relaxed in Colorado…

The wedding and concert were enjoyable, but we were banking on Day 3 in Boulder to make or break our trip. We left around 10 am and drove 35 minutes north of Denver to Boulder, and beelined for University Bicycles, a bike rental shop recommended in our travel guide. For $15 apiece, we rented two really nice bikes for four hours—my girlfriend got a Specialized and I got a Cannondale. In a couple of hours, we did most of the scenic and physically challenging 16-mile loop around Boulder—I’ve never seen a city with so many parks! We made a quick stop at a nearby church so my girlfriend could do a couple of laps around their labyrinth, then locked up our bikes and went to The Kitchen for lunch, just as the rain started. We sat down just after 3, an awkward time for most restaurants, so we were only able to choose from their “Community Hour” menu. We picked on hummus and mac and cheese, nursed local beers, and mulled over our plans for the rest of the day. (We even had a tiny argument over moving to Boulder; I, of course, was ready to move immediately; my girlfriend suggested that one of us have a job lined up in Boulder first.)

After lunch, we did a little window shopping on Pearl St. Mall, Boulder’s main shopping drag, before heading home to meet up with my now married friend and his new wife for some drinks and tapas before they left for their Hawaiian honeymoon the next morning. Always welcoming an insider’s look at a city, we accompanied them to Linger, the latest trendy restaurant in Denver, which was converted from a mortuary.

The new owners manipulated the large neon sign atop the building, formerly “Olinger Mortuaries,” to read “Linger Eatuaries.” I was expecting a ghoulish theme: cocktails named Witch’s Brew and dishes like Spooky Spaghetti. But it was surprisingly polished inside. The only remnants I noticed from the former morgue were the dinner tables, flat glass placed on top of rolling metal cylinders I’d guess were once used to slide corpses back and forth; and brown glass water pitchers, which ostensibly were meant to resemble old embalming fluid bottles. The menu was separated by continent, featuring three or four dishes from each of Asia, North America, Europe, etc. The food was tasty, though it seemed as if their global menu was an afterthought: I assumed most people were coming for the décor and the atmosphere, not the cuisine.

For Day 3, we had planned a trip to Fort Collins to take a tour of the New Belgium brewery. I’ve had their  Fat Tire Amber Ale a few times while visiting relatives in Arizona and Las Vegas, but had never seen it sold in New York (rookie mistake: calling it “Flat Tire,” which I did several times when I first discovered it). But after checking the New Belgium website, we found out their tours were booked for a month solid.

Plan B was a second trip to Boulder, this time hiking up the Flatirons in Chautauqua Park. The woman working behind the desk at the Ranger Station mapped out a couple of trails for us and lent me a used water bottle from a box labeled “Clean Water Bottles”—a woman who worked there regularly brought these home to wash in her dishwasher. (Note: I would never agree to drink from a used water bottle in a visitor’s center in New York City, but in Colorado, it was copacetic.)

The hike was challenging but worth the view at the top. Along the way we came across serious hikers with those little backpack-straw contraptions (the hiker’s answer to the beer helmet), families, and lots of dogs. When I struggled slightly on the rock scrambles or particularly steep sections of the climb, I would talk myself into picking up the pace: Dogs and children are doing this trail. Man up. When that didn’t work, I blamed the altitude. I always forget that the difficulty ratio of hiking uphill versus downhill isn’t like Chutes & Ladders. Each step of a downhill hike is deliberate and soft, like sneaking in after curfew.

With New Belgium struck from our agenda, we were still feeling like a cold beer after our hike so we Yelped a list of local breweries and Twisted Pine Brewing Company came up. We recognized the name from Linger’s beer list the night before, and sought out its headquarters, which turned out to be an easy-to-miss building in an industrial park a mile and a half off Pearl Street. After perusing the seasonal beer list, we decided on a grilled cheese sampler: four sandwich halves (different cheeses on each) and four 5 oz. beer samples ($8 total).

Twisted Pine looks like a small operation from the outside, but it’s actually been brewing since 1995. And oddly enough, its owner, Gordon Knight, started brewing after he acquired some of New Belgium’s original equipment. The brewing is done on site, but they don’t give tours (we asked)—though if you look right when you come out of the restrooms, you can see the brewers working. Twisted Pine, according to their site, is now being sold in Colorado, Texas, and Louisiana. So while I’ll probably have a tough time finding it in New York City, their Blueberry Blonde was the perfect summer afternoon beer. After lunch we made a quick trip back to Pearl Street to pick up souvenirs at Jackalope and Company and then headed back to the hotel.

For our last night in Denver, my girlfriend arranged to have dinner and drinks with some family friends she knew from back East who had moved to Colorado recently. But we had a little time to kill in between, so we stopped in at the hotel’s “manager’s reception,” a free happy hour for hotel guests. It was also a chance to watch the Shriners kick back a little. One hotel staffer told us that about 15,000 of these Shriners—an international “fraternity based on fun, fellowship and the Masonic principles of brotherly love, relief and truth”—were in Denver for their 137th Imperial Council Session, which explained all the white-haired gentlemen in the tall maroon hats. Much like the altitude, the preponderance of Shriners became an incidental scapegoat for any snag in our own plans, such as a minor traffic jam. (On several occasions, I found myself angrily muttering, teeth gritted: I swear to God, if I see one more Shriner… Still, based on their gumption at the manager’s reception, it seemed like they were all about having a good time, which made me wonder what the hell they were doing in the Denver Convention Center six hours a day for four days straight.)

When I say that Colorado was exactly what I expected, it sounds like an insult, but that’s not how I mean it. Perhaps instead, I should say it was every bit as good as I thought it would be. I don’t know how likely it is that we’ll move to Colorado any time soon—though our newly married friends gave us the hard sell—but I’m already hatching a plan to visit again: if I become a Shriner, odds are they’ll be back in Denver some time in the next 50 years. Now all I need is a fancy hat.

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