Beijing, Hotel Review Redux

I’ve just wrapped up another week in Beijing, visiting my awesome team, and eating endlessly. Chinese food in China is significantly different from Chinese food in the US, as you would expect, and frankly although I sound like a snob for saying it, it’s better. I’m a big fan of the eggplant dish they serve here.

My hotel room has a scale in it. This, has only served to make me repentant the next day. It has not, of course, modified any of my eating habits.

With that, I give you a hotel review of the Somerset Hotel in ZhongGuanCun, Beijing.

First off, I’m not entirely sure why, but I ended up with a two bedroom apartment (rather than a one-bedroom). This room is bigger than my first and second apartments, probably some 800 square feet, and comes complete with a real kitchen (there is no “-ette”, it’s a real kitchen and if I wanted to make a Thanksgiving Dinner I could do it between the oven and 3-burner stove).

I could then serve it at my dining room table for six, and then we could retire in the living room on the couches with my view of the city.

In short: big, and overkill for just my needs, but has been crazy comfortable.

There is a washer/dryer (single machine, does both things sorta well) and breakfast is provided on the 5th floor each morning. There is a gym, and a minimart, but no restaurant on site; if you want food at night then hit the Carrefour hypermarket that’s about 1km away and shop to your heart’s content. You can get local (very, very local) or you can browse the imported aisles if you need your French wine or Italian pasta.

In short: great for a longer stay and if you don’t have dinner plans every night (short of one Peking Duck night – and there’s a great restaurant for that 3 blocks away – that’s described my experience).

PS – they have all kinds of toiletries that they simply provide: toothbrush packs with toothpaste (presealed in plastic), conditioning shampoo, body lotion, and of course soap. They also have cotton swabs (also prepacked in plastic) and laundry detergent (ditto) and shoeshine cloths. But good luck finding a razor, or deodorant (this time I remembered mine, but if you forget yours, hit the aforementioned Carrefour).

The “Dolphin”

Ok, little known fact: I have a BS (Bachelor of Science, not Bull Sh!t) Degree in Zoology. As such, it took me about 45 minutes of concentrated staring to discover why the “Dolphins” of the Walt Disney World “Dolphin” Resort threw me for a loop. It wasn’t that they were cartoon stylized. It wasn’t the scales (ok, that was part of it). It was the complete lack of a dorsal fin.  After deciding this was the only thing wrong with this resort, I laid back and enjoyed myself.

Look, you can go to Expedia or even the WDW site to find out how lovely this place is, you can see pictures, etc. I’ll offer you the things that aren’t spelled out:

1. The all important toiletry rating: “plus”… it has separate Shampoo, Conditioner, Lotion; all good stuff. No funky smells, nice and gender neutral. Also, flip-top caps. And they replenish daily.

2. Everyone is friendly. EVERYONE. Maids, pool lifeguards, the guy who advises you on sunscreen, waitstaff, busboys, gardeners, etc. EVERYONE. It’s kind of bizarre, and kind of cool.

3. The busses are worth it when going to the parks, but understand that they come as they come — so it may take up to 15 minutes for one to show for the destination you want. They do go all over the place– in the park. If you want to go outside of the park, I’ll write about that later.

4. The Grotto Pool — best seats are under the waterfall (especially if you, you know, burned yourself to a crisp on day one) or across from the waterfall. The Cabana Restaurant will happily serve you drinks and food at the bar, but will not deliver. You can charge that to the room, along with floatie rentals, sunscreen (yep, it is $17, so you may want to check a bag to pack that), kids goggles, etc. Towels are complementary and thick. They have a water slide to go with the waterfall, and it’s fun — this big kid already did it. Twice.

5. If your typical breakfast is Starbucks, head to the Java Bar at the Swan (it’s a nice walkway to the hotel across — about a block). If you want sit-down, head to the Garden restaurant in the Swan, they have character breakfast on the weekend. Note– sweet stuff is almost cloying sweet, so those chocolate chip pancakes? Really love chocolate. Those apple cinnamon crepes? REALLY love apples and cinnamon.

Other stuff: there’s a National/Alamo rental car company in the hotel, and I will point out it’s cheaper to rent a car for a day for when you want to go to, say, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (at Universal) vs. a cab. Same day rentals are available in the lobby.

Next post: “Budget” travel (no, not really).

The Alex Hotel

Ok, so, moving on: time to (finally) review my last hotel stay. I’ve been reviewing hotels on my other blog, which is all well and good, but at this point there’s no real reason to keep it on the down-low. I work for a travel company: get over it.

The Alex was set up for me by one of our local gurus based on the very basic requirements I had of a hotel: it needed to have a gym (that was back before the triathlon) and it needed to be relatively close to the office. At ten blocks and complete with cardio bikes, it fit the bill.

First impression: Swanky, narrow storefront, done in that tasteful Western-Faux-Asian Minimalism you see pretty much everywhere (e.g., lots of beige with dark/black wood, a single orchid in an interesting clear vase, etc.). Right next to a restaurant that looks decent, done in the same style (yes, they work together). Friendly staff (at the cab, at the door, behind the desk, at the elevator).

The room in question was on the 27th floor (yeah!) with a view of other tall buildings. As it was a suite, the separate dining area (again with the minimalism) had one eccentric (and appreciated) flourish: five (5) each Starburst candies on each of four place settings. If you are doing the math and come up with 20 Starburst candies, you are correct. If you further figure out that I had just got off a 6 hour flight and hadn’t eaten anything since a sad little bagel earlier that morning, this was good news. Fifteen (15) Starburst candies later, I went and unpacked in the separate bedroom.

OK, let’s get this over with: hotel rooms in New York are small. They just are. They have to be fit into buildings that were made with smaller rooms and there’s only so much an architect can do with that. So the “suite” itself was probably 200 square feet, maybe slightly larger, but they used the space exceptionally well. The bedroom had another tv (there was one in the living/dining room) and the bathroom had one as well. The only way you could practically watch tv in the bathroom though was to be sitting perpendicular in the bathtub, which doesn’t strike me as either comfortable or a good idea. I don’t sit in hotel bathtubs for the same reason I take off the comforter cover in hotels — I don’t care how clean it looks, I know it’s not. I digress…

Second impression: After going to an event for the evening I got back to the hotel when it was dark out, and the view had much improved — lots of little lights in lots of little windows, and anyone wishing to play voyeur was treated with a view of an executive sitting by himself at a ten person conference table, working until what turned out to be 11:30. I know this because I worked until midnight, as I was referencing my computer clock (PST) and not the local time (no clocks anywhere in the main room, anyway).  Having a kitchenette equipped with the usual mini-bar accoutrements as well as real dishes and cookware was great — if you want to cook. When I’m working I don’t want to cook, but made a mental note that the cookware itself was quite nice.

The three times I went to the gym, it was manned by a nice guy sitting next to a rack of towels and headsets (towels so you can sweat onto something other than the machine, headsets so you can take advantage of the individual tv’s in front of each machine). There are at least 2 treadmills, 2 elliptical machines, and a cardio bike (there may be more than one, I was half asleep most of the time).

The Toiletries: Now, on the other blog I have a rating system for hotels based entirely on toiletries. This is important, because if you think about it, toiletries tell you a lot about a hotel:

  • How do they see themselves?- a hotel with a simple bar of soap and shampoo is validating it’s utilitarian existence: you’re not staying here for the hotel, you’re staying here because you can’t stay anywhere else.
  • How much cash they spend on the “little” things? – hotel-branded toiletries are fine, but they’re an X factor. Now if they’ve partnered with a spa, they’ve paid a bit more for the toiletries
  • How lavish are they with said little things? – some places want to give you the impression of reckless and relentless luxury: replacing toiletries daily, even if it is evident that you have only used a little bit (or none at all) of the previous day’s provisions.
  • What do they think it likely that a guest will need, and/or want, that they haven’t packed? – I get a kick out of places where they include something like bath salts or mouthwash or face lotion (separate from hand and body lotion).

The tag I gave the toiletry rating was based on gasoline (hey, I coined it five years ago) with your Motel 6 single-use bar soap and purportedly conditioning shampoo equivalent to “Leaded”. Your separate shampoo and conditioner hotels? That’s Regular. Separate shampoo, conditioner, and lotion is for a “Plus” gasoline rating; although I don’t know anyone who actually buys that gas. You either buy the super high-octane or regular. Supreme is a hotel that has everything “Plus” has, and an item (or two) that they use to differentiate themselves (bath salts, mouthwash, vanity kit). And racing fuel? That’s reserved for the hotel that has *everything* — bath salts and mouthwash and a shoe polish kit and reusable sewing kit etc. etc. etc.

The Alex is, I’m happy to say, “Supreme”. They have *good* shampoo and conditioner, and the bath gel makes you smell like Fruit Loops (a bonus in a hot, humid, smelly city). They didn’t overdo it on the replenishment, either — the pattern seems to be every other day.

Internet is $15/day and there’s a hotel use service fee thing of $1.50 per day that’s beyond the usual Room Charge and occupancy tax. Room service is available from the restaurant downstairs near the entrance (hi, Riingo!). I did eat there on my last day, the food is good and frankly not as expensive as you would expect for that kind of food in NYC.

Verdict: I’d definitely go back. Especially on the company dime 🙂