Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: February 2019

Hong Kong with Kids Day 1: Exploring from Kowloon Bay to Victoria Peak

After our long travel day and later evening than normal, I let the kids sleep in. It was nearly 8:00 when I finally roused them, which meant we didn’t wrap up breakfast at the Hilton Garden Inn until 9:30. But they needed the rest. 

Our Hong Kong adventures began with a subway ride from Mongkok to Tsim Sha Tsui. It’s only a couple stops, but it is better than hoofing it the whole way to the water. There is still a good amount of walking involved to and from the subway stations. Well…a good amount in the kids opinion. I told them this was hardly anything. 

Mongkok is a fascinating neighborhood. The sounds, smells and bustle make it one of my favorite places. It is a dense residential neighborhood, with a strip of brand-name retail and restaurant along Nathan Road, flanked by shops and stalls selling anything and everything imaginable along the side streets. I was unsure of staying here, but now I would actually recommend it.

Signal hill and tower

Before heading across the bay to Hong Kong itself, I wanted to make a brief stop at a small park in Kowloon. I figured it’d give us a good view of the city across the water. It didn’t have *quite* the view I hoped for, but we did get our first glimpse of Hong Kong Island from here. Visibility wasn’t great, but it honestly wasn’t bad given China’s notoriously bad air quality.

Signal Hill Park is barely a block from the Hyatt Regency Tsim Sha Tsui, which would have been in the running for our hotel stay has I had enough Hyatt points at the time. You can see it towering in the background, the taller of the two buildings. I love tall hotels, and China is full of them. In the foreground you can see the Signal Hill Tower.

The tower in Signal Hill Park is pretty cool. It has a very narrow spiral staircase that takes you up two more levels.

The view really isn’t any better since you’re not right on the edge of the hill, but we enjoyed exploring.

Harbour view of Hong Kong 

From Signal Hill we made our way down to the water. We walked along the edge of the bay, enjoying the view of the skyscrapers along the shore of Hong Kong Island, Victoria Peak towering over them. I was struck by the sheer uniqueness of the city. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite like Hong Kong. The mix of east and west, new and old, greenery and concrete is fascinating.

The weather was fantastic. Unlike Beijing, which was in the 40-50s most of the days we were there, Hong Kong was an utterly perfect 70-75 degrees for most of our visit. The kids enjoyed finally being able to wander around in shorts.

Taking the classic ferry ride from Kowloon to Hong Kong Central is a must, and it was next on the itinerary. It is also very affordable at $5.90 HKD (~80 U.S. cents) for all of us.

The view of Hong Kong is arguably the best from the water. You can definitely argue that it is fantastic from Victoria Peak as well, but that gives you more of an overview. From the channel, you get a view of both Kowloon and Hong Kong up close and personal.

Heading up the hill

From the central ferry terminal we slowly meandered in the direction of the Botanical and Zoological Gardens. These were our first minutes in Hong Kong proper. Hong Kong is now more than just Hong Kong Island, which is differentiated from Kowloon, the mainland peninsula where we were staying. The city is like the Asian version of New York, at least on the surface.

I made sure our trek included ascending the longest outdoor escalator that takes you from Central to the Mid-Levels. It was an enjoyable ride as we slowly climbed to the towering residential skyscrapers of the mid-levels. Hong Kong Island rises sharply from its shore, leaving only a relatively narrow flat strip down by the water. The “mid-levels” are the next neighborhood uphill of “downtown” Hong Kong, known as Central. 

We rounded a corner after getting off the escalator, and suddenly found ourselves in an enclosed courtyard. It turns out the area used to be the location of the central magistrate, and possibly the jail as well. Now one of the buildings is an arts and heritage center. As we made our way through, we came across a simple amphitheater. A band was playing live music, so we stopped and watched for a bit.

Continuing up the hill, there was no shortage of tall apartment buildings. Hong Kong holds the record for the most skyscrapers over 150 meters, with a whopping 80 more than New York City, which is in second place.

We eventually arrived at the Hong Kong Botanical and Zoological Gardens. The gardens are free and a perfect spot to burn an hour with kids. They have quite a few monkey exhibits, as well as some lemurs, tortoises, and a few other species.

We were getting hungry by this point, and exiting the gardens to the uphill side left us without dining options. We made our way along through a web of roads, eventually back down to one of the tram stations for Victoria Peak. Along the way we were treated to more great views of the city around us. 

Still without a cafe to stop at, and the time marching ever onward, I found that the only way lunch was going to happen quickly was by heading down the hill. We entered an office building that promised a food court. It didn’t disappoint. Lunch may have been over twice what we would have spent in Beijing, but the food was honestly delicious at a small place called Simplylife. I’d been hoping for something more authentic, but we were behind schedule and I took the closest thing we could find. 

Our stomachs satiated, we made our way to the Victoria Peak tram.

The best view in Hong Kong

The line was bad. I hate lines, so a wait of 20+ minutes wasn’t welcomed. But I’m sure it gets way worse at other times. We slowly shuffled through the queue until it was our turn to board the tram up the mountain. 

The Victoria Peak tram is an excellent way to get to the top. We bought combo tickets for the tram round-trip plus access to the viewing deck, which set us back nearly $30 USD. But I wanted the full experience. 

The tram was a bit reminiscent of the incline railway at the Blue Mountains in Australia, but with a little more sightseeing and less excitement. 

The viewing deck at the top was awesome. You have to scale multiple levels of escalators to the top and dodge a plethora of overpriced retail shops, but once you do, you’re in for a treat. The view is excellent. 

With the mediocre air quality and general haze over Hong Kong, it obviously isn’t the best you can get the day we were there. But we still had a very nice view of the channel between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island and all the skyscrapers lining both.

We decided to take a short walk along the old road around the top of the Peak. If you have the time, you could do the whole circuit. It’d be exquisite on a clear day. You can look back and see the whole structure of the viewing deck, including the numerous escalators inside. Further along, there are points from which you can get a great view of the Hong Kong side.

Wrapping up our first day

I decided we better turn back around 4:30. We had to make our way to the tram station, take it to the bottom, walk to the metro station, take the metro, and grab dinner on the walk back to our hotel. The kids had also skipped showers the night before, so I had to factor that in as well. I’d be lucky to get them to bed by 8:00. 

On our way to the Admiralty metro station we wandered through Hong Kong Park. With fish ponds, a waterfall, and fun fountains, it is a great little green space within the city.

Half an hour later we finally popped up in Kowloon once again, headed for McDonalds. I figured we’d better play it safe, given we were pressed for time. Not to mention it is always interesting to see what is offered at McDonalds in a foreign country. I think the bolognese burger with an egg wins “most odd menu item”. 

The kids still managed to hit the hay at 8:00. Not sure how we accomplished that. It was a full and fun first day in Hong Kong.

Fare Deal: Both Paris and Beijing for under $400!

These are the two primary international destinations to which I took my older two kids last year, and they are both on sale! You can fly one-stop from the San Francisco Bay Area to either destination for less than $400 on a couple different carriers.

Paris fare sale details

  • Departure from: San Francisco
  • Dates: March-April, September 2019
  • Destination(s): Paris (CDG)
  • Airline(s): American
  • Class: Basic economy
  • NotesMinimum two night stay (which would be silly anyway)
  • Sample Google Flights link

Beijing fare sale details

  • Departure from: San Jose
  • Dates: February-April 2019
  • Destination(s): Paris (CDG)
  • Airline(s): Air Canada
  • Class: Economy
  • Notes: None
  • Sample Google Flights link

These are both excellent sales to these destinations. We saw the very good Air Canada sale to Beijing out of SJC last year, and I would expect to see something similar again in the future.

Note that you will need a Chinese Visa to visit Beijing on a round-trip itinerary. The city is eligible for a transit without visa (TWOV) waiver, but you must have a confirmed onward ticket to another country.

Here is a rundown on some of the posts from our trip:

Vino Bello Resort Napa Review

Over New Year’s 2019 I took our older two kids on a 3-night getaway to Napa. Amazingly, I was able to find a property in the Wyndham portfolio that did *not* have the dates over New Year’s blacked out and that looked like it would make for an excellent stay. We weren’t disappointed. Here is my Vino Bello Resort Napa Review:

I used a total of 45,000 Wyndham Rewards points for our stay. Most of these were earned from promotions during 2018, and 15,000 were from the annual bonus I receive each year when I renew my card at a cost of $69. We received over $600 in value, though, so I am not complaining! Wyndham’s award “chart” is a flat rate, as all hotels cost 15,000 points per night per bedroom. I’d booked a one bedroom suite with a king bed and a sofa bed.

Arriving at the Vino Bello Resort Napa

The drive down from where we live to Napa is just under 4 hours. Rather than head through Santa Rosa, I prefer to take Highway 128 and drive through the bulk of the Napa Valley. It’s just so scenic. We left the same way, too.

Dinner was at the same place we ate the year before when I took them on a quick one-night trip to the Best Western in Calistoga (SEECelebrating New Years 2018). It was our one splurge, since the Vino Bello Resort Napa has a kitchen and I cooked most of the rest of our meals. We had maybe another 40 minutes of driving until we finally arrived at the hotel.

Man, was the parking lot full when we showed up. I found a spot, not knowing it was conveniently in front of our building. The lobby of the Vino Bello Resort Napa is lovely. We were greeted warmly by the doorman who chatted it up with me until it was finally our turn at the desk.

Check-in was a bit interesting, as I was quoted a cash rate for our stay. I’m not sure how the system integrates with Wyndham’s but it apparently isn’t seamless. It took the lady most of a minute to confirm that we were indeed on a n award rate. Adding to the complication is that they actually have two resorts in one: the Vino Bello and the Meritage.

We were given a welcome packet after checking in from the concierge, who also tried to get me to sign up for a 90-minute timeshare presentation. If only my wife was along, I totally would have made us suffer through it. Unfortunately, your spouse must be present. We would have all received free breakfast that morning, plus 25,000 Wyndham points. Would have made up for most of our stay!

One Bedroom Suite at the Vino Bello Resort Napa

Our suite was in the Cabernet building, which is closest to the lobby and restaurant, and overlooking the pool. We were on the second floor. You have to go through no fewer than 4 doors to get there, all of which require your key card, which is a bit annoying. But I guess it makes it more secure? I really didn’t understand the point. This tiny “lobby” area was between the first and second doors.

Each door from the hall opens into a small entry room with two doors leading into two separate suites. I guess this would be super convenient if you booked two rooms, as they aren’t truly adjoining, but it would provide a secure way to still pass between them.

A one bedroom suite at the Vino Bello Resort Napa is excellent. The suite is spacious and would easily accommodate our family of five if we brought sufficient bedding one or two kids. You first enter into the kitchen. There is a nice high counter at the end.

Across from that is the large dining table. The bench against the wall is super soft and the kids sunk into the cushion until there chins were barely above the table.

Beyond that is the living room area with a sofa and two armchairs. The sofa also contains the extra queen bed.

The kids immediately eyed the fireplace. I grew up with a wood stove, so this is a sorry excuse for a fire, in my opinion. But they really enjoyed it. My daughter fell asleep with it on each night, and it did keep that corner cozy.

On the high counter was a welcome bottle of wine, part of what is included in the resort fee. Funny how you don’t get one per night, even though you pay the fee per night (unless you’re on an award stay). Spolier: the wine isn’t very good anyway.

The bedroom is connected to both the living room and the bathroom.

There is one king bed, and a second TV, as well as a full closet.

The spa tub is also inside the bedroom and not the bathroom. I’m not really a fan of this. I’d rather it be part of the bathroom as well.

The bathroom itself is very large with two sinks and an oversize shower.

I was in heaven each morning. I love a nice shower. This one wasn’t quite up to the awesome rain shower in our room in Beijing back in November (SEE: Renaissance Beijing Wangfujiung Review), nor did it top the most amazing shower I’ve ever used (SEE: Park Hyatt Milan: A Review). But it was still great. Until I realized one of the kids had dropped the bottle of shampoo the night before and I was suddenly unable to wash my hair and slipping all over the tile in the morning. The things they don’t tell you…

The one bedroom suite also has a deck, or lanai. I’m still not used to that word. Lanai is an island in Hawaii, not an outdoor deck thing. In December, it was exactly the nicest place to hang out. But I’m sure it is amazing in summer.

The best part of the one bedroom suite is the kitchen. Maybe you aren’t the sort of folks who like to cook on vacation, but depending on the situation, we really don’t mind. It’s way cheaper and quite easy when we have a more relaxed schedule, such as on this trip. The kitchen had pretty much everything you’d need for 4-6 people, including plates, cutlery and cookware. There is even a dishwasher and a couple soap packs.

You can ask for necessities from housekeeping and the front desk, but if you want the room actually cleaned, this comes at as a surcharge. I’m pretty sure this is standard to Wyndham’s condo properties. We managed just fine for three days without housekeeping, and it saved us $75.

On the whole, our one bedroom suite at the Vino Bello Resort Napa was excellent. I highly recommend this as a place to burn your Wyndham points as a family.

Facilities and activities

The Vino Bello Resort Napa offers a number of things to do on-property, as well as access to everything Napa has to offer. It may not be the full extent of what many expect from a resort, even though that is part of the name. There is a decent sized pool between the Chardonnay and Cabernet buildings, and we spent and evening and morning here enjoying it.

vino bello resort napa

The kids always try to get me to spend as much time as possible in the water. The pool at the Vino Bello Resort Napa is heated, but with the air temperatures as low as they are in December and January, it still isn’t all that comfortable. The kids didn’t care, but I would last only about 15 minutes before I wanted to soak in the hot tub for the remainder of the time.

On the opposite side of the restaurant and lobby is the Bordeaux building. It also has resort rooms, but also contains the crush lounge, which is where we headed the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. The lounge has a bar, but it is also family friendly (they serve food as well, so it is technically a restaurant). Kids are welcome.

One of the best features of the Crush Lounge at the Vino Bello Resort Napa is that it has a half dozen bowling lanes. Bowling isn’t especially cheap, but it was still reasonable enough that wanted to rent a land for an hour. We got two games in. Prices are per person per hour, $15 for adults and $10 for kids on weekdays. Prices go up $5 per person per hour on weekends.

The concierge is a helpful source of anything else you might want to know about the resort and the Napa area.

The Napa area

I know, most people probably don’t take their kids to Napa. The typical itinerary is probably all-day wine tasting at the many vineyards in the valley. There are a couple that are family friendly, and the concierge pointed these out. Taking them to the Castello di Amorosa, a winery in the style of a Tuscan castle, was an option, but I decided against it, mainly due to the cost. We had what we needed at the resort anyway.

But that doesn’t mean we didn’t do any sightseeing. The first day we headed to church at Calvary Chapel Petaluma and then spent the afternoon in Sonoma at Train Town and then the mission.

Train Town is good with kids for a couple hours. The train ride itself is fun for kids of pretty much all ages. The other rides are more fair-style, and aren’t all that thrilling for older kids. But we bought a single pack of tickets for these and had fun on a few.

The morning of our second day we drove over to Fairfield and toured the Jelly Belly Factory. It had been well over a decade since I’d visited, and I hardly remembered anything. Our one bummer: they gave everyone New Year’s Eve off as well as New Year’s Day, so we didn’t get to see any action on the factory floor. But the video monitors spaced out every 100 feet or so still let us have a glimpse into their candy making process.

There is plenty more to do in the Napa area, and I am not a Napa expert, so I’ll have to leave you to do your own research!

Conclusion

Our stay at the Vino Bello Resort Napa was excellent overall. The one bedroom condo is spacious and perfect for a family, I’d happily stay here again. We still have Wyndham points to burn, so another visit might be possible this year.

The one thing I should note is that the Vino Bello Resort tried to charge us a resort fee at check out. This is against the Wyndham Rewards free night policy. I had to pull up the terms on my phone and present it to the agent at the front desk, who then took it to his manager. They did relent, but it was a bit disappointing. There is a separate write-up on this whole experiences (SEE: Waive that resort fee! Holding a hotel to its program policies).