Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: International Travel (page 1 of 4)

Hotel Punta Leona Review – Stellar Price for an All-Inclusive

My wife and I are in the process of moving from just the two of us to a family of five. After literally years of waiting, we are now in Costa Rica adopting three beautiful kids. Our focus during these weeks in Costa Rica is on bonding with our kids. But this doesn’t mean we can’t take them on a few trips to see their own beautiful country. In other words, we’re taking a couple overnight trips while we’re here, and the first was to Hotel Punta Leona.

Our adoption coordinator set us up with a great rate at the hotel for a couple days midweek. Hotel Punta Leona was running a special, and we were able to book a room for $158 per night, all meals included. For a family of five, this is *amazing*.

Arriving at the Hotel Punta Leona

The Hotel Punta Leona is located on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. It is about an hour and a half drive from SJO airport, and a little bit further than that from San José itself. A good portion of the drive is on Costa Rica’s only real freeway, so it is a lot easier to access than many other places in the country.

The turn off to Hotel Punta Leona is a little north of Jacó. Once you turn off the highway, the road is dirt essentially until you arrive at the hotel property.

The facilities reception have a manned security gate. After explaining that we had a reservation, the guard let us through half a minute later. It’s not that Costa Rica isn’t safe. I’ve just noticed that many places have manned security or attendants, including parking lots and other places that would be totally mundane in the U.S.

Check-in went smoothly, except for the fact that the hotel was currently without a computerized reservation system. The front desk even had to use one of the ancient, manual sliding credit card machines. With my Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa card that doesn’t have a nicely embossed front. Didn’t work so well. She had to manually write the numbers and other info.

Selvamar Room…for the 5 of us!

The Selvamar rooms are located a distance from reception and the rest of the facilities, so we had to hop back into the car and drive a couple minutes.

I knew going into this that the room was going to be small. It didn’t disappoint.

It was a fairly standard hotel room with two full-size beds, a desk, TV, and in-room coffee.

The bathroom was adequate. Overall, it was a tight squeeze for all of us for two days. But it was a deal!

The Selvamar rooms are at least in a nice setting. There rooms are arranged in groups of 4 with walkways and gardens in between. At dusk there were monkeys to watch swinging and climbing through the foliage above.

And there were iguanas along the path at times. Even though our daughter is a native Costa Rican, they totally freak her out!

There was also a small pool close to the restaurant and Selvamar rooms. Given the much nicer facilities elsewhere, we never used it.

Hotel Punta Leona Restaurant – Carabelas

Included in our rate were all meals at the restaurant near the Selvamar Rooms. It was a quick two-minute walk away.

Everything at Carabela’s is buffet style. I’d rate the food as above average as far as buffets go. Most tasted super fresh. The beef at our first lunch was amazing. There was typically enough variety that anyone would be satisfied.

They had starters and a nice salad bar.

Every meal featured a chef at the grill or stovetop making part of the meal. The first evening it was churrasco.

Soup.

And other entrees and sides.

Soft drinks were self serve. You could also order beer or wine. A server kindly offered both evenings, but we declined.

In the mornings we had an immersive breakfast experience with the local wildlife. We were approached by both monkeys and a coatimundi.

I had a good laugh when a monkey stole some food from a guest on our first morning. I wasn’t laughing when the same thing happened to me the next day!

Hotel Punta Leona Facilities

The facilities of the Hotel Punta Leona are spread out over a fairly large area. The main highlight for the kids were, of course, the large pools.

hotel punta leona pool

Compared to the other hotel at which we are staying for the bulk of the time in Costa Rica, they were wondrously warm.

There is also an activity center with foosball and other games if you happen to be at the resort during a downpour. Fortunately, the rain that had been a fixture every afternoon let up for both days we were at the coast. On the other side of the pool there is another restaurant. Our all-inclusive rate included snacks here from 10:00 to 5:00. We enjoyed some pizza the first afternoon, and then a raccoon that got a bit too close for comfort.

I promised our six-year-old that I’d take him to mini-golf. On our second afternoon we got the chance. What wasn’t explained to me was that some of the activities cost extra, and this was one of them. I’d figured that most of the activities listed on the paper given to us at check-in were part of the resort package and included in the rate.

So, we ended up paying about $11 for three of us to play mini-golf. Which ended up being a hysterical experience. After trying for maybe a minute to instruct them (as best I can…I’m no golfer), I gave up. They ended up racing through the entire course is a matter of 15 minutes, often swatting the ball as hard as they could and sending into the grass beyond the hole or onto another section of the course. I was content to watch and laugh while proceeding through the course behind them.

This was the worst mini-golf hole ever.

Some of the other activities and facilties offered by the hotel include a butterfly house, a morning nature walk, pool volleyball, and bingo and karaoke in the evenings. We didn’t take advantage of any of these. Turns out that basically all kids want to do is swim.

Playa Mantas

The bulk of the fun was had at Playa Mantas over our stay. We went swimming there the afternoon we arrived and the following morning. The waves were super calm, and the water was heavenly. I’d never swam in water so warm.

Now I finally understand why people enjoy beach destinations so much. I might have to revise my list of places I want to visit to include some more beach destinations. Growing up on the north coast of California has left me with a poor view of “going to the beach”, where the outing typically means a cold breeze and sand flying in my eyes. I’ll pass.

In contrast, this was like a tiny sliver of heaven on earth. I’d enjoyed walking in the surf in Florida in May, but this was even better. I could have swam all day. Unfortunately, swimming ended up resulting in a little incident that cost us a bit of time and money.

Playa Blanca

The final morning we paid the other beach a quick visit. It is a bit further from the facilities of Punta Leona, but it is a whole lot more beautiful than Playa Mantas.

However, there were red flags out warning against swimming. Luckily, we weren’t there to swim, but simply to play in the sand for a while and enjoy the beautiful setting. Afterwards we headed back, ate breakfast at Carabelas once again, and then took off.

Conclusion

Overall, we had a good stay. Although it would have been nice to rent a larger room for the 5 of us, we really couldn’t beat the rate the hotel gave us for the single room under the September kids promotion. In contrast, I sent the hotel an email asking what the day-use rate would be per person. We realized that it isn’t all that far away from San José. I almost spit out my coffee this morning when they quoted me $85 per person over 6 years old!

5 Reasons to Visit San Marino

San Marino is one my favorite places I’ve ever visited (SEE: San Marino in 11 Photos). Our few days in the tiny country were some of my favorite of our entire month in Europe (SEE: Thirty days in Europe). Ever since getting The Encyclopedia of World Geography as a teen (which I basically read cover to cover), the tiny country has intrigued me.

So when we were planning our trip to France, Italy, and Ireland, stopping in for a couple days was a must. Here are 5 reasons you should visit San Marino:

It is the oldest republic in the world

The history of San Marino is rich for such a small country. Founded in 301 A.D., the country’s history can be traced back to the construction of a church by Saint Marinus. The recorded history begins to pick up in earnest in the ninth century A.D.

For  century after century, the country has retained its independence, even through major events such as the Napoleonic wars and World War II. During the unification of Italy, it thumbed its nose at the rest of the Italian territories, even housing political refugees during that period of turmoil.

All this to say, the history is rich for such a tiny country. You should absolutely visit the museums, public palace, and other historical features of the city during a visit.

The old city is UNESCO-listed

While UNESCO-listing doesn’t necessarily mean a place is a *must* visit (unless you track those things), it is definitely a good indicator of either a rich cultural site or a pristine natural area.

The old city of San Marino is small, but incredibly cool. And it’s cheap to enjoy. Out hotel offered us coupons for 50% off tickets to the main historical sites in the old city. I think the total came to $15 each for everything, including the Palazzo Publico and the towers.

The streets of the old city are pedestrian-only the majority of the time. My wife and I had to navigate around delivery trucks at 8:00 a.m. (which I guess is early in Italy/San Marino?) when most of the streets were deserted. During the middle of the day, you will likely encounter numerous tour groups and plenty of pedestrians. Make sure you stop for lunch in one of the great cafes!

The views from Monte Titano are spectacular

Seriously. Even with a bit of haze, looking eastward we could see the Adriatic Sea out over Rimini. On the other side, we were greeted with views of Tuscany to the west. There was nothing quite like walking up to the towers on Monte Titano in the morning and simply taking in all the beauty.

Definitely take a walk in the nature park when visiting the second and third towers. The trail snakes along the top of Monte Titano for a good distance, giving you wonderful views to the west and south.

It’s easy to add to a larger tour of Italy

Italy is high on many people’s travel lists. The typical stops, however, are Rome, Florence, and Venice. Now you know better than to skip San Marino.

From either Florence or Venice, it’s barely over a half day of travel to or from the tiny country. You’ll probably have one train connection, and then a connection to a bus in Rimini. We came from Milan, and it was an easy day of travel, with a 10:00 a.m. departure and roughly 4:00 p.m. arrival. Two nights in enough for a visit, so add it on to a visit of the rest of Italy!

It is a true enclave

Ok…this may be something only for geography nerds. San Marino is located fully within Italy, making it a complete enclave. There are numerous examples of enclaves and exclaves (check out this PWaC post on some unique borders) in the world.

Until our visit, however, I had never been to a country that was an enclave. We would go on to visit a second  one that trip: The Vatican City.

Conclusion

If your considering a trip to Italy, make sure you plan a day or two in San Marino. You won’t regret it! Just pick a better hotel than we did (SEE: Hotel Joli: A Review) 🙂

Banff, Alberta in 14 Photos

I have plenty to write after this trip, but I’d figured I’d start with some photos and let the beauty of Banff speak for itself. Without words, that is.




Destination: Twillingate, Newfoundland

Fond are my memories of Newfoundland. It is such rugged, pristine country. Some places are worth a single visit. Others constantly beckon you to return. Twillingate, Newfoundland, is one of the latter.

The town of Twillingate is located on two small islands in far northeastern Newfoundland, Canada. Known as the Iceberg Capital of the World, tourists venture to Twillingate during the spring and early summer to catch a glimpse of the majestic glacial remnants as they lazily migrate south along ‘Iceberg Alley’ to their eventual demise.

But don’t come just for the bergs. After they drift by, there are whales to watch as well.

Twillingate, Newfoundland Map

The local economy in Twillingate, Newfoundland is based almost completely around fishing and tourism. There are several iceberg and whale watching tour companies, and the place comes alive in the summer. Well…as alive as a quaint, little, off-the-beaten-path town can.

Because Twillingate, Newfoundland is one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited, I’ve decided to feature it as the first travel destination in what will become an ongoing series of ‘destination highlight’ posts. I hope to release a destination highlight about  once a month. It is my goal to generally pick off-the-beaten-path destinations.

How to Get There

There is no way around it: getting to Twillingate isn’t easy. It is well off the beaten path. The closest airport is in Gander (YQX), and it is an hour and a half drive away. Other options include Deer Lake (YDF, 4 hours) and St. John’s (YYT, 5 hours).

To get to Gander (assuming you don’t fly into that airport) you will need to take the Trans-Canada Highway, which stretches across all of Newfoundland. To continue on to Twillingate, from Gander you take route 330 north until you turn onto route 331. This will eventually intersect with route 340, which will take you further north all the way into the town of Twillingate. The entire drive is beautiful.

All of the region’s airports are served by Air Canada, Porter, and/or WestJet. Expect to pay at least $350 round-trip, and more like $550  to $700 from anywhere in the U.S. If WestJet serves an airport near you, they will probably be the cheapest option. Essentially all flights will require a Canadian connection, so don’t expect anything less than a 1-stop from everywhere in the U.S. You’ll be lucky enough if it is a 2-stop.

Twillingate Newfoundland Flights

As out of the way as Newfoundland is, it may be a worthy use of award miles. Air Canada is the only airline within an alliance that serves the area, so using United miles (StarAlliance partner) for an award ticket is probably your best bet. Based on my little research, the routing may be less than ideal, however, with many saver award flights arriving during the middle of the night. St. John’s is likely the best bet for decent flight options.

Driving all the way from Nova Scotia is also an option, but it requires a ferry crossing from North Sydney to either Argentia or Post-aux-Basques in Newfoundland. The drive from Argentia is shorter, but the ferry is longer and includes an overnight crossing. The Argentia ferry also doesn’t run every day.

Ferry information is available from Marine Atlantic. The overall travel time for the route from Nova Scotia (assuming you fly into Halifax) is a minimum of 20 hours. It is a great way to see more of Newfoundland if you have the time, but the option certainly isn’t for everyone.

Things to Do

At the top of the list should be an iceberg tour. A few different companies offer berg tours, and most if not all offer wildlife tours as well. All are well recommended on TripAdvisor. My wife and I booked with Cecil Stockley the Iceberg Man, and we can honestly say it was a fantastic experience! Do note the timing of the bergs and plan accordingly. We were quite lucky to see a couple in early July. Late May or early June is recommended.

Twillingate Newfoundland Iceberg

The chance to see an iceberg up close is a great reason to visit Twillingate.

The Twillingate islands offer some great hiking as well. The Top of Twillingate trail provides wonderful views of the town, as well as the nearby coastline and neighboring islands. I also recommend the trail from Long Point Lighthouse is also recommended. Twillingate’s website contains a great map of the local hiking options.

For when the weather is not conducive to outdoor excursions, there is the Long Point Lighthouse to see, the Prime Berth Heritage Center to experience, and the Twillingate and Durrell Museums to visit. The Auk Island Winery and Driftwood Gallery may be worth a peek as well. I didn’t see the latter two, though, to be completely transparent.

Where to Stay

Twillingate is far off the beaten path, so there are no chain hotel options. However, there are a multitude of B&Bs and vacation rentals from which to choose. The best way to search for availability is going to be via Google maps and/or TripAdvisor. A search by a typical online travel agency will likely yield no more than a couple results. You will have to head to the individual website for each lodging option to either reserve online or call them to book.

2009-12-31 23.00.00-1628

My wife and I had the pleasure of staying at the Captain’s Legacy B&B for our brief time in Twillingate, Newfoundland. I highly recommend it. John Huddart and his wife are excellent hosts. There are only a few rooms, so it makes it easy to get to know the other guests, especially over the delicious breakfast John and Addie serve. John was also invaluable in providing us with information on a great berg tour company and other things to do while enjoying Twillingate.

Among the other options we considered, before settling on the Captain’s Legacy (they are #1 on TripAdvisor!), were the Iceberg Alley B&B, the Rum Runner’s Roost B&B, and Kelsie’s Inn.

If you stay in Gander, there is a Comfort Inn along the main highway. This makes Choice Hotels the winner among the chain hotel options. The going rate for reward stays appears to be 25,000 points per night. Gander is a decent drive from Twillingate, but it has its own set of attractions, including the North Atlantic Aviation Museum.

As a side note, Gander was used as an emergency landing spot for a large number of flights during the 9/11 attacks. There is a book about the events. It comes highly recommended.

What to Eat

The Twillingate restaurant selection is quite limited. There is nothing that I would describe as fine dining, and most of the places are casual places that offer seafood and typical Canadian fare.

For lunch on our 2nd day there, we ate at the R&J Restaurant. The food was decent, the place clean, and the service pleasant. They have a variety of offerings and are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I would suggest the seafood options, considering Twillingate is home to a small fishing industry.

Other places we considered were the Canvas Cove Bistro and the Cozy Tea Room & Bakery. The Canvas Cove Bistro is actually associated with Iceberg Quest tours.

Final Notes on Twillingate, Newfoundland

I hope you can add Twillingate, Newfoundland to your list of places to experience someday. It is certainly one of my favorites.

Some places are great to visit because of their history and culture, others for their incredible beauty. Twillingate fits a third category: places that have a great feel, an essence that you can’t really describe. It was simply amazing being there, even if it was for little more than 24 hours.

The Anatomy of a One Week Trip to Australia

Two weeks ago I took off across the Pacific on a one week trip to Australia. Of that week, I had 5 days and 5 nights to enjoy the land down under. The rest was travel time spent on a plane over the Pacific.

But some of it was very enjoyable travel time. Part of the impetus for the trip was to fly a long-haul in a premium cabin, something I had never done before. I’ve pulled a few 7+ hour flights in economy, but none in either business or first. I did fly international business-class when I headed to Guatemala in 2015, but it was essentially U.S. domestic first-class and only 5.5 hours. It was not what I wanted, either; I only booked the ticket in business because there wasn’t any economy award availability.

When I first considered planning a trip, I wasn’t even settled on Australia. I had originally hoped to visit a friend in Guatemala in November, but that fell through for various reasons. After that, I started browsing flights to get other ideas. My list of goals and constraints for the trip developed into:

  • Fly in a true international premium cabin (i.e. lie-flat seat)
  • Fly in a 747 before the U.S. carriers retire the last of them
  • Don’t burn much/any PTO
  • Go somewhere that won’t be scrutinized by the State Department and impact our adoption home study (idea #2 was visiting my friend Daniel in Iraq…had to scratch that)
  • Keep it cheap

In November I found the perfect ticket. There was saver availability for a premium cabin ticket from Arcata, California all the way to Sydney, Australia. The routing included the ACV-SFO hop, then SFO-ICN (Seoul, Incheon) in first-class on one of United’s 747s, then ICN-SYD in business-class on one of Asiana’s A380s. Not only would I get ride in the nose of a 747, but I would get to fly on the upper deck of an A380, the largest passenger jet in operation, for the first time. It was effectively two premium cabin long-hauls for the price of one. All for 80,000 United miles and $37 in fees. Win.

I found a return flight on Qantas in economy using 40,000 American Airlines miles. I held out for another business-class seat, but it never materialized.

My wife Kelsey and I discussed both of us going. When I booked my ticket, there was only one seat available, and I didn’t have the miles for both of us in business, anyway. By the time I had enough points in December, there was a ticket available, except the leg from SFO to ICN was on a different flight. Not ideal.

Kels has also been on a special healing diet for the last couple months as well, which can make long periods of air travel difficult. We decided that I could go on a solo adventure to Australia, but we plan to return together someday in the future (Lord willing), again on miles, of course.

What can you fit into a one week trip to Australia?

One week is not much time to travel so far, all things considered. Sydney is nearly 7,500 miles from San Francisco.  Travel time cut the one week time-frame down to 5 days and 5 nights down under. But 5 days is still plenty of time to see some sights and enjoy Australia.

Plus, the time in the sky was a blast, so I don’t want to skip over it completely. The experience flying SFO-ICN on one of United’s last 747s was amazing. We did have an interesting incident along the way, but overall, the flight was great. I got some work done, watched a couple movies, and caught a little sleep in the fully lie-flat first-class seat. It was also insanely cool being right in the nose of the 747. The flight attendants were great, and they made the trip immensely enjoyable. I wrote a full review of the experience over at Points with a Crew.

The Asiana flight was great as well. The business-class seats are very nice, and the food was fantastic. Not to mention the A380 felt brand new. I got nearly 4 hours of quality sleep during the flight, so I was able to tackle my first day in Sydney feeling mostly refreshed.

Landing in Sydney at 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning Aussie time, I had a full day ahead of me to explore. I checked into the Holiday Inn Old Sydney, and then decided to take one of the walking routes suggested in the guidebook I picked up at the airport. It took me past the Opera House, through the Royal Botanic Garden, past the New South Wales State Library, and down to the Australia Museum. It was an enjoyable overview of the Sydney Central Business District (CBD).

I also walked the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which provides great views of the CBD and the Opera House, as well as the harbour all around. The Sydney Harbour is spectacular! It is the largest natural harbour in the world, and is quite the sight.

One Week Trip to Australia - Sydney Opera House

The iconic Sydney Opera House

The second day included a harbour tour. I bought a ticket that included both a 24-hour ferry pass, as well as admission to the Sydney Tower Eye. I spent the morning and early afternoon cruising the harbour, stopping at both Watson’s Bay and Manly Wharf to explore. The Aussie tour guide pointed out both Shark Island and Shark Beach as places to visit. The former is a pleasant island in the middle of the harbour. The latter is a swimming beach. Not sure how I feel about that.

I got off the ferry mid-afternoon in Darling Harbour, along the west side of the Sydney CBD, and walked to the Sydney Tower Eye. The views from the tower are spectacular. The ferry + eye combined ticket is $35 USD, but it is well worth it, in my opinion.

One Week Trip to Australia - Sydney Tower Eye

Eastern Sydney Harbour from the Tower Eye

Day three was spent in the Blue Mountains. I switched hotels that morning to a Holiday Inn in Paramatta, a Sydney suburb. It was an ideal jumping off point for the Blue Mountains and was a better deal than the one in downtown Sydney.

One Week Trip to Australia - Blue Mountains

Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains are amazing. They were by far my favorite place I visited in Australia.  The train drops you a short bus ride from the edge of the escarpment, from which you get take in beautiful views of the forest falling away before you. I hiked the giant staircase down into the valley floor and then took the funicular train back up to the top. There is nothing like hiking through the eucalyptus forest and under the giant Australian trees ferns.

My fourth day was a laid-back travel day. I caught up with work during the morning, and then headed to Sydney Central Station to catch the train to Canberra. The train ride wasn’t quite what I hoped, but it was a good day nonetheless.

One Week Trip to Australia - Australian Parliament Building in Canberra

My final full day was spent exploring the Australian Capital. I visited the National Museum and toured both the Old Parliament House and the new Australian Parliament. It was an interesting brief education in some Australian history, politics, and government. I stayed at the Hyatt Canberra, a beautiful historic hotel, for both nights I was in the capital.

The next morning it was wheels-up from Canberra airport as I began my journey back to California. From take-off at Arcata to touch-down at SFO, I was gone for 7 days, 2 hours, and about 30 minutes.

What did a one week trip to Australia cost?

Considering that we have been diligently saving for adoption, not to mention our recent purchase of a newer vehicle, a trip to Australia is well outside our normal budget.

Or is it? In the end, it was actually quite cheap, all things considered. That’s the power of miles and points. Here’s the breakdown for the trip:

Transportation:

  • First and business-class flights from Arcata to Sydney – 80,000 United miles + $37
  • Economy flights from Canberra to SFO – 40,000 American Airlines miles + $104 (covered by Arrival miles, so $0)
  • Train from Sydney to Canberra – $0 (used Arrival miles)
  • Other train, bus, and taxi – about $51
  • Total – $88

Lodging:

  • 2 nights at the Holiday Inn Old Sydney – 35,000 points per night, so 70,000 IHG points
  • 1 night at the Holiday Inn Paramatta – used part of the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit, so $0
  • 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Canberra – used 1 Hyatt “free” night certificate and 15,000 Hyatt points
  • Total – $75 annual credit card fee for the “free” night

Food:

  • Breakfasts – $22
  • Lunches – $33
  • Dinners – $26
  • Total – $81 or $16 per day, pretty reasonable

Attractions:

  • Blue Mountains Scenic World ticket – $29
  • Captain Cook Cruises + Sydney Eye ticket – $35
  • Parliament Tours and Museums – $2
  • Postcards – $10
  • Total – $76

The grand total for the trip came to $320 (or $46/day, including the travel days). For a one week trip to Australia. Including flights, transportation, attractions, and food. Talk about a bargain. I even got pajamas from United out of the deal.

But that is what this game is all about: seeing the world for cheap. Flights to Australia from the U.S. normally run at least $1,000 round-trip in economy. The hotels I stayed at would have easily been another $1,000, if not more. All of that cost was reduced to just over $100, and then I just had to foot the cost of food, attractions, and minimal ground travel.

When Kels and I return together, it’ll be the same story. That’s the power of this points and miles hobby.

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