Wednesday, November 28, 2007

How to get a complimentary stay at a top hotel

This article is about being assertive and demanding a better service, rather than looking for ways to deceive and get a free stay. The story below is a true incident, and may not elicit the same offer everywhere, but it is worth knowing about.

We had booked a very nice room with a view for a special occasion a few months ago. This was at one of Chicago's top hotels and we were very excited about it. The day arrived and there we were at the hotel reception, relaxed and ready to check in. We noticed that there were a lot of people around, including families and groups of young men. Anyway, we proceeded to check in.

Minutes later, we were told that we would not get the room we had asked for. We were flabbergasted, and asked for a reason. The manager on duty informed us that there was a ball game, and that they had overbooked, and so the room had been allocated to someone else who had turned up earlier. Additionally, the hotel made no guarantees apparently about room allocations.

We understood that, but our reservation online was made for this room, and this room alone. The package was named after the room. How could we not be guaranteed that room? The manager, who was looking quite disheveled and frazzled, probably due to the volume of people around him and our querying, kept repeating himself. He went on to say that he was not the regular manager, who was on vacation. It seemed of no use to carry on the conversation. Extremely disheartened, we took the key, but we got all the details of the regular manager.

We got to our room, several floors below the one we wanted, and facing blocks of concrete: office blocks. It was depressing, but we made the best of it, and departed very early the following morning. Not what we were expecting.

So this is what we did. We carefully drafted an extremely detailed letter addressed to the manager who was on vacation. We also posted a review on Tripadvisor, and included a link in the letter. We emphasized that as professionals, we had come to expect professionalism for services we had paid for, and how this incident had given the hotel a bad reputation for us. We added how we would recount this to friends and colleagues, and recommend that they don't make a reservation there.

We made a copy for the hotel's customer service department, and posted both letters, registered.

A month later, we received a reply from the hotel manager. After exchanging pleasantries and saying sorry for the fact that we were dissatisfied, his letter included a free one night's stay at the hotel. Not in a regular room, but in a bi-level presidential suite. With full access to its Executive Lounge, with complimentary drinks, appetizers, desserts, and a cooked-to-order breakfast.

We were thrilled of course. Not only had we been given, what we considered, a suitable compensation, but we were very happy that our complaint was acknowledged. The stay turned out to be one of the most luxurious ones of our life. The hotel succeeded in changing our mind about it.

So many of us when faced in a similar situation get upset, shrug it off, and fail to do anything concrete about our dissatisfaction. It is time-consuming, but if you were legitimately expecting more for your money, my advice to you is to document your complaint, and let the right people know. Be authoritative. State the time and detail the incidents. Document names. This isn't just true about hotel rooms by the way.

Following this procedure above is not a guarantee in securing a complimentary stay. It is at the discretion of each individual hotel. But it does mean that you would be asserting yourself if you have been genuinely shortchanged, and you may have a chance in getting something back. The opinion of every guest is important to a hotel, especially when it is a well-known name, so use that knowledge wisely.

Do you have a similar experience? Did you get the same results? Share your stories by posting your comments, at this link.

Monday, November 26, 2007

What are the popular shops in London(UK)?

If you are going to visit the UK for the first time, you might be wondering what the main shops or departmental stores are. Here's a quick guide:

  • John Lewis
  • Harvey Nichols
  • Fenwick
  • Barker's
  • Selfridges
  • Harrods
  • Peter Jones

High/Mid-Range (but excellent quality)
  • Debenhams
  • House of Fraser
  • Marks and Spencer

  • Primark
  • TK Maxx
  • TJ Hughes
  • BHS

Stylish and Trendy
  • River Island
  • Zara
  • Mango
  • New Look
  • French Connection
  • Oasis
  • Top Shop/Top Man
  • Morgan
  • Jane Norman
  • Monsoon

Great cosmetics , essentials and OTC drugs
  • Superdrug
  • Boots
There are lots of other excellent stores to explore, but this is just a snapshot of the most popular. Caveat: the terms 'high end' and 'mid-range' could be considered subjective. They are used here in relative terms, or how they are generally considered in the UK. In other words, what is considered 'mid-range' in London could be considered in 'high-end' or even 'budget' in another city.

Holiday Shopping in London

Granted, the US dollar is not at its strongest right now, and everyone's flocking in from the UK to the US for this at the moment, but the shopping experience in London is just very satisfying, even if you plan to just window shop. Holiday or Christmas shopping as it is better known as in the UK, can be a competitor sport, but this article is about informing you about alternatives to the popular areas tourists usually go to (i.e. Oxford Street and Knightsbridge).

Okay, here's a bit about the lingo. The British do not generally use the term 'mall'. The rest of this post uses the phrase 'shopping centre' which is essentially the same thing, and is the preferred term in the UK. Also, you'll notice the spelling for 'centre'...

1) Whiteleys Shopping Centre: Situated just north of Hyde Park on Queensway in the popular Bayswater area, this mall is medium-sized and houses stylish upmarket fashion names such as French Connection and Karen Millen, as well as super-trendy Zara to name but a few, the Spanish fashion chain which is affordable and popular with the 18-35 bracket. There is a food court, a cinema, and countless shops and various ethnic as well as mainstream restaurants in the surrounding area.

2)Whitgift Shopping Centre: If you're not staying in central London but closer to South-East London, then this mall is where you should be. This huge covered shopping center is located in the busy town of Croydon, and has all the big names you expect. There are many dining options, and being here gives you a taste of where some of the real residents of the city shop.

3) Brent Cross Shopping Centre: Located in North London with tons of free parking, this is another gigantic covered mall with all the main heavyweights having a significant presence. It used to be the country's biggest covered mall when it was first built in the 1970s, and it is always being improved in terms of its look and accessibility. Highly popular with the locals.

4) Richmond: I recommend this mainly for the warmer months, and if you are into more high end, unusual and boutique-y shops. Richmond is a beautiful area in South London, and as soon as you exit the train station and walk towards the Thames (should be signposted, or ask anyone around you), you will fall in love with the 'village-within-a-town' feel. I say summer, because there isn't a covered mall as such, and also the riverside here is stunning (see my posts under London). There is a good mix of the popular high street names as well as upmarket boutiques with beautifully tailored clothes.

5) Kensington High Street: Or as the locals say 'High Street Ken' is a beautiful and popular shopping alternative to Oxford Street, located in the posh area of Kensington. A couple of excellent shops are located in a covered section adjoining the station, but the bulk of the shopping is out on the open street. It is very easily accessibly by both the tube and buses. The main departmental stores are all clustered in the area between the western edge of Hyde Park and the tube station. Great departmental stores, boutiques, supermarkets, restaurants and coffee shops, this area has it all.

6) King Street Shopping Centre: Situated in Hammersmith Broadway in West London and minutes from the Hammersmith tube and bus station, this offers a somewhat grittier shopping experience compared to the others mentioned above, but does offer the household names. There is a covered mall called the 'King's Mall' as well as free standing shops along the street. There are several discount shops too so if you are looking for a bargain or more reasonably priced items, you are more likely to find it here, compared to say, High Street Ken. There are some excellent pubs around, and the station also has some smaller shops which are worth exploring.

Given London's excellent public transport network, all these areas are easily accessible from Central London. Doing a quick Google search on each should yield you with directions of how to get there. Or ask at your hotel or local tube station for assistance. Get hold of the free tube and bus maps to help you as well. Bus maps may not be visible at the stands, but if you ask an attendant, they should be able to provide you with one. Bus maps are broken up into regions (central, north west London etc) so check which ones you need.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Traveling to India this winter?

Not only am I going to be in Kolkata for a few days, the city where I grew up, but we have managed to chalk out some time to visit another city. This not might sound like much, but given how big India is, how short previous trips have been, and how easy it is to just be in one place where you have family and will be ritually pampered, this is a big undertaking.

Both of have never been to the South, so that is a strong contender. We have no idea where exactly to go though. There is so much to see. We do want to fit in a beach, so the Keralan coastline is winning so far.

Even though we are both of Indian origin, and I was there since 6, I am overwhelmed about the complicatedness of it all. How to get there, where to stay, is it safe etc etc? We have no family there nor do we speak the languages. I can only imagine how harrowing it must be for someone with no connections to the country whatsoever, who simply wants to explore without confusion.

I recommend getting in touch with a very reputable travel agent who has experience in creating completely inclusive packages to India for the western traveler. While this may be on the expensive side, nothing beats peace of mind. You can also do a web search and contact Indian travel agencies, and see what they offer.

But firstly, start off with a good book, and I recommend Lonely Planet's 12th edition of 'India'. It is a gloriously detailed and enjoyable read of 1236 pages, and you will feel a lot better knowing what this book tells you. Borders stores it for $30, but you can get it for $20 at Amazon.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

We just finished watching 'Stranger Than Fiction', starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson, and though weird at first, it turned out to be a watchable and sweet movie.

It's past midnight, so it is Thanksgiving Day already. This is my third Thanksgiving, and we have been invited over to a family friend's do. I am looking forward to the long weekend, catching up with stuff, and planning our trip to India in January. Yes, the last time we were in Kolkata was in 2005, when we got married. We also plan to visit one other place while we're there. Given that it's such a big country, every time we have been back has just been to be with family and friends, and not sight see. We don't know where yet, but that's what's exciting.

Anyway, my point is that I probably won't be blogging for the rest of this week, but I would love for you to hang around and read my previous posts if you're new. If you like what you read, be sure to subscribe and vote using the icons to the right. If you've visited already, drop in again. Comment on my posts so that I can visit your blogs too.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Should we deceive children - Part Deux

This post is largely in response to a well-written comment posted for one of my earlier posts. It got me thinking. My post was about a recently hyped cookbook called 'Deceptively Delicious', in which parents are taught how to sneak in nutritious foods in various disguises into foods kids love.

The author raises an important point in his comment. The book's themes suggests that children avoiding healthy foods is inevitable, and if we can't beat them, join them. But who is in charge? Is parenting the issue here?

I used to teach in a large private school in Chicago last year, and nutrition was on the curriculum. Call me naive, and perhaps its because I am not a parent yet, but I was genuinely disturbed by how many students disclosed that having soda at breakfast was okay now and then, and that having McDonald's for dinner two or three times a week was no big deal. And I was not dealing with disadvantaged kids. Their parents were either professors or doctors. Overworked and ambitious individuals who simply could not, or did not want to make time for family meals. So, is parenting one of the main feeders to the problem of growing childhood obesity and health issues? What do you think?

Time pressures and the decline of family traditions such as a meal together may be contributing factors, and parents may well be to blame. But what about societal and media pressures? Perhaps it was easier when we were growing up or easier still when our parents were kids. We did not have television or the Internet constantly bombarding us with fast food commercials. Burgers at $.99. Buy one get one free soda. These messages are incessant and out there making a mark on young minds. The same medium is then telling them to eat their greens. If you were a 10 year old whose friends were all having pizza parties, which would you pick?

So assuming that we cannot change what media spouts out at us and cannot make time for family meals all the time, can we perhaps get more creative in how we do cook the nutritious fare, in terms of the spices we use and the dishes we cook? No, this is not the same as what the aforementioned book is selling. But maybe we can cook that broccoli a bit differently. It's still broccoli. But perhaps some ginger and salt could liven it up. Or we could roast those peppers with some garlic and serve with a salt-natural yogurt-parsley mix. And it needn't be time consuming. The kids could get involved in the preparation.

After all, given the day and age we live in where everyone has a chance to taste and savor global cuisines, it is probably unfair to expect a child to eat boiled sprouts in all its bare glory. Children's taste buds have never been so challenged before, and now is the time to be in charge, and train those taste buds for the better.

It is okay to go to IHOP or Pizza hut once in a while. But it's all about moderation. Fast food is evolving. Healthy food can evolve too. It is up to us make it interesting for the younger generations. As long as no pureed spinach in brownies is involved.

A fine wine bar in Chicago

Most of Saturday was taken up with chores, so I really wanted to relax and unwind somewhere in Chicago. My husband had been here with friends a good few years ago, and he was impressed. So we decided to check it out.

Webster's is located on a street which lends its name to this cozy and stylish nightspot. It is not pretentious at all. The clientele seem to mainly in the late 20s to 30s bracket. Most of the revelers appear to be close buddies, but this wine bar is romantic enough and couple-friendly.

Get there late (I mean late; we arrived at 11:30) and you might just save yourself the $10 by parking yourself further down the street. There is some construction work going on around the bar right now, but you forget that once you're in.

I just love ambient lighting, and Webster's scores big points for me in this area. The whole places buzzes with intense conversation and Brazilian music in the foreground. It is packed. As there is a (delectable) food menu, there are regular tables, but you can opt to sit at the bar (which we did) and check out the competition.

This bar is serious about its wines. And so it should be, for being Chicago's oldest wine bar. The wine list as extensive as it is distinctive. The Lebanese Red and the Argentinian Chardonnay are some of the current highlights that I really enjoyed. Go for a glass, share a bottle, or select the tasting option. A glass is roughly $7, a tasting portion $3.

The food is exquisite and certainly complement the fine wines on offer. Our selection of olive and fig tapenade on crispy and thinly sliced baguettes, almonds enclosed within succulent dates wrapped in bacon hit the spot. Each of these appetizers was a very reasonable $5. We then proceeded to sample one of their famous cheese plates (of which there are many). By then we had ordered a glass of 20 year-old port which was excellent, and what could go better with port than mature and creamy English Stilton, served with red seedless grapes and a warm mini-baguette? Simply delightful.

Webster's hold one or more tasting sessions every month, and you can get more information form their website. I plan to visit one soon and tell you all about it. In the meantime, if you have been to Webster's or any other wine bar which made an impression on you, why not tell me about it here? I am glad I made this little Chicago discovery, and would love to hear about some other hidden gems from anywhere in the world.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A savvy soup recipe...

This soup recipe has got to be one of the fastest, tastiest, healthiest and simplest ones around. What I'm posting here is a variation of one I read a while ago in a magazine; it is guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser. Perfect as a starter for an intimate dinner party, or on a cold evening, or just something nutritious for the kids.

Homemade Tomato and Celery Soup

What you need:
  • 1 to 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 lb tomatoes (halved)
  • 3 medium-sized celery sticks (coarsely sliced),
  • 1 clove garlic (thinly sliced)
  • 1 onion (coarsely chopped)
  • 1 fresh green chili pepper and 1 dried red chili pepper (this is optional, but it really enhances the flavor this is recipe without adding heat)
  • 500ml or 18 fl oz vegetable stock
  • 2 oz spaghetti (uncooked)
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Fresh or dried parsley.
Serves 4.
  1. In a large saucepan, add the tomatoes, garlic, chillies and celery to the hot olive oil.
  2. Cover and cook on low for 45 minutes, periodically shaking the saucepan to mix the ingredients.
  3. Once the mixture is pulpy, puree it in a food processor till it is fairly smooth in consistency. Should appear pumpkin/orange in color.
  4. Pour the pureed mixture into the same pan or a clean medium-sized pot.
  5. Add the stock and bring to the boil.
  6. Add the spaghetti, bring back to the boil and cook (uncovered) until the spaghetti is 'al dente'.
  7. Remove from the heat and ladle in to four individual soup bowls.
  8. Season with the freshly ground pepper (there should be no need to add salt as the stock contains a lot of it)
  9. Garnish with fresh or sprinkle dried parsley and serve.

This soup has a bisque-like quality to it, and is incredibly tasty. Not how I did not add any extra salt to the recipe, making it healthier without compromising taste, since the stock cubes have such a high sodium content. Try it and tell me what you think.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Recipe for the perfect foolproof cookie!

Though I love to cook and indulge in experimental cooking pretty much every week, my dishes tend to be of the savory variety. I am thinking of giving baking a try now, and am on a quest to find a recipe for a delicious oatmeal and cranberry cookie.

Why oatmeal and cranberries? Well, I guess I want to feel less guilty by opting for two ingredients which are healthy and nutritious. And it helps I love both. By the way, I have recently become a huge fan of Ocean Spray's Craisins (sweetened dried cranberries). If you haven't tried it, go for it. They're high in fiber and other nutrients, and is really helping me stay off those candy bars!

I went to Jewel this afternoon and bought some baking staples: all-purpose and self-rising flour, baking powder and soda, and some vanilla essence.

In the past, I have used standard prepared mixes for cookies and cakes, but making cookies from scratch should be fun and healthier. Now that winter seems to be here finally, I can imagine nothing better than sitting in front of the fireplace, with a mug of freshly made coffee, accompanied by some warm and sweet oatmeal cookies.

Are you a baking guru? Do you have tips for the perfect homemade cookie? Then let me know by posting a comment here...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I am so missing these foods....

They're about to run out and I'm panicking. Judging by the battered packaging, you can tell I have been hanging on to them for dear life but there's not much left!

I'm referring to some of my favorite foods I brought back with me on my last trip to England. Before I moved to Chicago two years ago, I lived in London for 11 years. Full of bittersweet memories, and fortunately, more of them sweeter rather than bitter.

Two of my favorite M&S Cookies are the 'Pistachio and Almond Cookies' and 'Redcurrant Puffs'. You can almost taste the nuts jutting out of the deliciously crumbly cookie. Also, the delicateness of the dollop of redcurrant jam sitting in the middle of the exquisitely fine pastry.....aaaah.

Another quintessentially British product I am missing is Whittard's Spiced Chai Tea (see picture). If you are a fan of Starbucks' Chai Latte, you'll love the convenience of brewing such a cuppa in your own home. The shops back in London are delightful treasure troves selling both traditional and flavored tea, in leaf or tea bags, and cute cups and plates and other items relating to tea.

When I looked at their website, it said that there is a Whittard in Boston. However I couldn't find a web page for this store. Perhaps you've heard about it? Have you visited and bought anything there?

I couldn't help but suppress a smile at the irony - a very British tea store in the heart of the city where they got rid of all that tea a few hundred years ago...

Should we deceive children when it comes to nutrition?

I was on the other day and one of the books being heavily marketed on the home page was Jessica Seinfeld's newly released 'Deceptively Delicious'. I have not seen the physical book nor have I read any reviews, but I did see her on Ms. Seinfeld in a recent TV interview, so I got that it was about hiding the nutritious goodies in foods that children love. In other words, deceiving them to eat foods that are essential for healthy growth.

I have some problems with this concept. Firstly, why should a parent have to do this? Pureed cauliflower in Mac n Cheese? This is time consuming and most parents work full-time? Secondly, are we and should we be sending the message that it's okay not to want to eat vegetables in its wholesome natural selves? Thirdly, is it right to deceive children? Once they find out, and they will, that the broccoli they hate so much is being injected into their pepperoni pizza crust, will they trust their parents about other things? Fourthly, is this pureed vegetable as nutritious compared to the vegetables in other forms, such as steamed, lightly stir- fried or even boiled and seasoned? I should think not, but maybe you can disprove me with facts and figures.

Why not explore different ways of cooking vegetables, adding more aromatic spices and seasoning which make it fun to eat? Why not work on devising creative ways to make kids realize that it need not taste and look boring if cooked differently?

Perhaps Ms. Seinfeld's book has other worthwhile material which is truly going to help the modern day parent to counter the growing obesity rates. But veggies in a Trojan horse of junk food doesn't cut it for me. What do you think? Do you think that the book is a godsend, or just another gimmick which will make no difference? Post your comments...

Monday, November 12, 2007

What is a Zartini?

A very intriguing name indeed. I came across a certain news bite on Sunday's Chicago Tribune written by William Hagemen, which I wanted to share with you guys on this blog.

A 'zartini' was a drink invented at an office party in 2003. The company was and is called the 'Z Factory' and one of its head honchos is called Cary Zartman, hence the name 'zartini' (don't quote me on this; this is my guess as to the origin of the drink's name).

Before I digress further, the company have since 2003 been holding an annual competition to find a winning zartini on an annual basis. This competition had been held internally (company clients, friends etc) until this year!

Visit the link below for more information. You can not only peruse past winning recipes, but also look and try out other recipes entered for previous years. Most importantly, you, the discerning drinker, can get to vote for the 2007 Zartini. The winning recipe will grace the web page in all its glory, as I'm told by the tribune article.

I am very intrigued by the 2004 winner called 'Protein'. Not sure whether I am going to get my daily recommended amounts from this one, but I am going to pretend it will. The deadline is this Thursday, so get voting! Meanwhile, as quoted in the Tribune, "Try every recipe by Thursday and all you'll get is an interesting anecdote for your obituary". So have fun, but responsibly.

Have you ever tried a Zartini, or know someone who has? Post a comment...

Vote for the 2007 Zartini.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Fantastic views from the Sleeping Bear Dunes

I think the photos speak for themselves. We drove about 25 miles west of Traverse City to the famous Sleeping Bear Dunes. We just followed the directions in the navigation system, and looked out keenly for a sign for the Dunes closer to our destination. Finally we came across one marked 'Scenic drive' which turned out to be a road called the 'Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive'. The amber-colored trees hugged the narrow road as we drove on, looking as if it were set on fire on a cool blue day.

You pay $10 for a self-guided tour of the Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore once inside the area. This is valid for about 7 days, so it's a good deal. The tour is divided into 11 or 12 vantage points, as marked on the leaflet given to you at the start of the tour. You drive through these spectacularly windy roads, and stop at the clearly marked points to photograph the stunning scenery, or simply to take it all in. We climbed a dune to be fact-to-face with stark white sands and turquoise waters. Looking at the photo, you could mistakenly think you were in somewhere in the Caribbean.

Picnic benches are placed very strategically, and in most cases give you a view of Lake Michigan across the sandy dunes and multicolored foliage during fall. It is really beautiful. Looking at the pictures, wouldn't you agree?

The Wii got me!

A couple of days ago, I acquired a 'Wii injury'. It had been a while since I played it, and my husband was bragging about his exceptional rating at tennis, so I saw a chance of improving my own and beating him by a huge advantage. I did increase my score by a meager 50 points, at the expense of wrecking my left arm. I know, it's all in the wrist movements; there is no need to wave my arms about like a madwoman! But I guess I got a bit carried away.

To cut a long story short, I did not feel like writing at all. Feeling much better now, I am glad to be back at the keyboard. I'll concentrate on beating him at Scrabble instead.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Fine dining in the Old Mission Peninsula

We just went in to grab a quick bite, but came out very impressed and satisfied.

The Peninsula Grill can be found on M-37 northbound from downtown TC towards the Chateau Chantal or the Old Mission Lighthouse. There are several other eateries and a little market place adjacent to the restaurant, making it easily visible from the main road.

The environment is casual and full of well-heeled locals. Their satiated faces was an indication of what we could expect. Our server was extremely gracious and recommended we try a Michigan brew called Bell's Winter White ale. Amber colored and slightly sweet, the delicious ale got us going. My entree was fresh mussels seeping in garlic and wine, fresh herbs and other such spicy juices. It was splendid! Freshly baked bread came with a butter which had a hint of maple, but I wasn't sure and didn't care as it was so tasty! My husband opted for a hearty fried whitefish sandwich which was devoured in seconds.

The bill came to $35. Definitely worth repeat visits.

The Peninsula Grill: 14091 Center Rd, Traverse City, MI 49686

Since Chateau Chantal's restaurant is closed on Sunday, a complimentary brunch is provided at the intimate Boathouse Restaurant just minutes away from the Peninsula Grill. The environment is very family-oriented, but quietly elegant. The white and shell color scheme is complemented by fine furniture and fittings. Jazz piano plays on the CD and the waitress pours wine for other guests at the well-stocked bar.

As the name suggests, the views are of the beautiful Grand Traverse Bay and surrounding scenery. The multicolored foliage looked very inviting as we gazed out.

Our server again was very well-spoken, and brought out fruit, coffee and juice. My Egg Benedict was perfectly done. The eggs must have been organic because the yolk was so creamy and flavorful. My husband's Belgian Waffles melted in the mouth. Complemented by danish pastry and broiled potatoes with fresh mixed herbs, we were ready to tackle the 6 hour journey back home. Truly remarkable food to sign off our memorable stay at the Chateau. Visit their website for more details.

The Boathouse Restaurant

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

An elegant stay in Traverse City

On Saturday, we left early to check into the much anticipated Chateau Chantal. We drove north of downtown Traverse City on M-37, and within minutes it became a beautiful scenic drive. The foliage changed, the colors were stronger, and the landscape became more rustic and peaceful. Signs indicating 'Honeycrisp Apples', or 'Maple Syrup' dotted the road as we zoomed past. The comparatively higher speed limits in Michigan meant that the windy road trip on the peninsula in the Mazda Miata became all the more thrilling.

We discovered Chateau Chantal by chance. Long live Google. Both Abhijit and I wanted to stay there as soon as we finished surfing the website. It is unique in that it is a working winery with accommodation attached to it. It is located in one of the most picturesque regions of Northern Michigan. The Old Mission Peninsula is flanked by the Grand traverse Bay on other side, so you can imagine the views.

The drive up to the Chateau was spectacular. A windy uphill road took us past the vineyards and up to a commanding mansion. The view from the top was jaw dropping. We were greeted by the receptionist who was very polite, and showed us to our suite, the Behrens Suite, immediately.

Decorated in Old English style, it was exactly what we wanted. Looking at the view from our room and from the front of the Chateau, I felt as if we had been transported to Provence, France. How right we were to reserve this experience for the second night in Michigan. The fall colors from the high altitude were breathtaking. Look at the pictures below to get a feel. All furnishings and fittings were terribly upscale, as were the little touches: the exceedingly romantic jazz CD playing on loop or the luxurious and numerous silky down pillows .

We met and talked to a number of interesting people in the tasting room that night. They all informed us that they had reserved their suites months in advance. I guess we got lucky as we had only just stumbled across the website a couple of days ago.

The cost:$232 per night including taxes. The justification: The elegance and exclusivity. The huge space. The amazing scenery and views. The magnificent tasting session which was open all hours to resident guests. The complimentary glass of wine per night of stay. Access to complimentary gourmet coffee, tea, juice, toast and cereal in the morning. A stunning brunch, included in the stay. If you want to get away from it all in style, choose this. Look at the website for more details. Above is a view from the Chateau, and below, the Chateau itself, and the living room in our suite.
The Chateau Chantal

A modest stay in Traverse City

For our first night, we stayed at the Cherry Tree Condo Hotel. One of the main draws was the extremely off-season reasonable price - $82. TC is a very popular summer and fall destination, so it is a good idea to go just as winter season prices kick in, because you may not get a snowstorm right away, but could enjoy TC's colors at a cheaper price.

The cons were that we did not get a bay-facing room, nor one with a jacuzzi. But it did have a king bed, and we were only staying the night. We had reserved a very upscale suite at another TC venue (see the other TC post) for Saturday, so it made sense for us to stay modestly on Friday, and save the best for last.

After parking at the amply-spaced car park, we made our way to the reception where we were greeted politely. We were told of free drinks at an adjoining room so we decided to unload and have a taste. Also adjoining the reception was a medium-sized communal sitting room which doubled up as a library and had internet access. We also noted that there was a fairly large swimming pool and a hot tub, both of which looked inviting. So we planned the rest of the evening, and decided to have a swim before going to bed.

When we came down for the drinks, we realized that it was a sales trap. Cherry Tree Inn is a condo hotel, so all of the hotel rooms are on sale for those looking for a vacation home. As soon as we entered the room, we saw a wall full of floor plans and a couple of people coming towards us, asking us what we would like to drink. It was too late to turn back, so we decided to taste some cherry wine, a local favorite, and engage in some polite small talk before indicating that we were not interested. The agents were pleasant enough, but we would have appreciated the receptionist telling us that there was a catch to the free drink. As they say, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

The fittings of the room were pretty basic, but it was a good size. What was unique was the view to the swimming pool (see picture). We went down for a swim, but the pool was as cold as Lake Michigan itself. We looked around to see if there was a switch, but gave up and relaxed in the hot tub itself. While in the hot tub, someone from management came in and we relayed the problem to them. Having investigated the problem, we were told that the heater had somehow been turned off, and that they were sorry. If I did not know better, I'd say they were conserving energy since we were the only people down there. So not being able to use the pool was a let-down.

We had a good night's sleep but the complimentary breakfast next morning was not very appetizing at all. Still, the freshly brewed coffee and the thought of checking into our second hotel kept us distracted enough from this. It was only $82 after all, and well worth the price. Here's a view of the swimming pool and the breakfast area from our room.

The drive to Traverse City and Fall colors

So as I said, we planned to visit Northern Michigan last weekend, where neither of us had been before. I inaugurated the flask we had bought by filling it with some hot sweet tea for the road. Armed with other edible goodies, we hit the road at around 10 am on a sunny Friday morning.

According to various fall foliage reports, the color in Michigan was tending towards peak. However, while that was evident along some of I-94 and made for a pleasant drive, leaves had started to drop. But pockets of color indicated how beautiful it must have been a week or two ago. We still loved the drive.

We drove down the I-90, then down the I-94, followed by I-196 towards Grand Rapids, then moving onto US-131 and finally M-37. M-37 is not the fastest of routes, but since it went through the Manistee Forest reserve, we wanted to try it. However, there was not a lot to see, so it is best to stick to the faster US-131 on your way to Traverse City.

We got there around 6 pm ET, leaving at around 10:30 CT, and taking a couple of rest breaks, so it wasn't bad at all. There was still enough daylight to indicate that the fall colors were certainly at its peak in TC (Traverse City). We drove along Front St and towards our hotel with the Grand Traverse Bay to our left. Tired and excited about our mini-break in this pretty little city.