Category Archives: Accomodation

Making Yourself At Home: Vacation Rentals Are a Plus With Kids in Japan

Finding “Home”

Accommodation in Japanese cities is ridiculously expensive.  No matter how far out you stay or how low-budget you try to go, prices are high and space is minimal. If you’re not careful you’ll find yourself in a hotel room where you can’t even turn around, let alone squeeze your kids on the floor to sleep. Finding spaces that work for families is easier outside Tokyo, and even more so in smaller cities and town, but our most recent trip was only to big cities. We had no choice but to dig deep for good options for our family with two kids under 4.

After much investigating we opted to rent an apartment for our time in Tokyo.

Tokyo apartment kitchen

The tiny but functional kitchen in our Tokyo rental apartment. The front entrance is visible just beyond the kitchen.

We did find several hotel options that could have worked, such as the Citadines Aparthotel. However for a similar price to the hotels, with an apartment rental we could get a little more space plus a kitchen and washing machine.

We rented a tiny, 7th floor apartment labeled a “1-bedroom” by the rental company, Live in Asia. It would would barely pass for a studio apartment in New York City. The “1-bedroom” moniker only worked because of a sliding door through the middle of the space. Nice for privacy, did nothing for sound.

The bedroom in our 1-bedroom Tokyo apartment.

The tiny double (twin plus?) bed in our 1-bedroom Tokyo apartment.

We paid about $260/ night and this was after negotiating down the price as visitors to Japan were very few due to the tsunami earlier in the year. No, Tokyo is not cheap.

One pro of renting an apartment vs. a hotel is that we found ourselves in a residential neighborhood rather than a tourist district. This meant we were close to a large grocery store and pharmacy, as well as many restaurants and a train station. Two other big plusses for us in an apartment were having a kitchen, albeit a tiny kitchen

Anna's bed

Anna (1) slept in her Peapod bed in the closet while Grace (4) slept on the floor in the kitchen.

(think RV trailer kitchen), and a washing machine. We still ate most meals out but had breakfast at home each morning. As for washing clothes, we have never seen a public laundromat in Japan so when traveling with kids it was essential to us to have easy access to a washing machine and avoid hotel laundry expenses.

In Kyoto we also rented but a private house called Koto Inn through VRBO. The home was located in a residential neighborhood but very close to the subway, busses, restaurants and a number of tourist attractions including the Heian Shrine. We loved feeling part of a neighborhood yet being able to quickly access public transportation, food and activities.

Front of machiya

Steve and Anna out front of the lovely machiya, The Koto Inn, near the Heian Shrine.

The rental house was very small, although significantly larger than our Tokyo digs and for a slightly lower cost. The Kyoto house, a traditional machiya, consisted of two small bedrooms with a small sitting/ eating area between them, plus a small but well-stocked kitchen and a good-sized bathroom/ laundry area.  The English-speaking owners provided an excellent orientation to the home and neighborhood, as well as written instructions in English for how to work everything in the home.  We found the home suitable for our needs and we loved the traditional old machiya style, which is a small old-fashioned wooden house.

Kids in Machiya

Grace and Anna hanging out in one of the machiya's bedrooms. Note the fragile paper screens in the background. Fragile but beautiful.

However “traditional” in Japan equals “fragile.” Think paper walls and delicate glass doors. Combine that with two small children and a few rainy days, which we had, and we discovered that renting such a home can be a little stressful with little ones. Our kids loved sleeping on the tatami floors and sitting on the floor to eat but given the delicate nature of old Japanese homes we would rent something more modern if we did it again, at least with such small children.  VRBO offers many good options in Kyoto, both modern and traditional. A machiya is a great option with older kids or non-mobile babies, a more modern/ less breakable home could be more restful for worried parents.

Note: For our full review of the Koto Inn in Kyoto visit the home’s site at VRBO and scroll down to the review entitled “A Lovely Place to Stay in Kyoto, A Little Difficult With Children.”

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Are All-Inclusive Resorts a Sellout?

We like to think of ourselves, perhaps somewhat haughtily, as travelers rather than tourists. Travelers immerse themselves in the local culture, living, eating, speaking and getting around as much as possible as locals do. Tourism is isolating, making a trip as comfortable as possible at the expense of authentic interactions with local people and their ways of everyday life. So we say with our noses in the air.

We love all-inclusives when we need hassle-free travel

All-inclusive resorts seem to fit easily into my cynical definition of tourism. You can stay at one without ever speaking a word of the local language, or eating regional food, or bumping shoulders on a crowded bus with someone who actually lives in that locale. You and your children can be entertained all day long by activities staff without ever knowing what people in that country do for fun.  You can eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, hamburgers for lunch and pizza for dinner.  You never have to make decisions about where to stay, how to get to a destination, or where to eat. The decision-making thrill (or burden, depending on your perspective) of travel is removed for you as you’re plunked down in a microcosm full of staff who cater to your every desire.

So what was this traveling family doing spending our last two family vacations at an all inclusive resort in the Riviera Maya, Mexico? We were having wonderfully relaxing, culturally-rich vacations, that’s what. Oh yeah, and revising our misconceptions of all-inclusives as well.

The original motivating factor for an all-inclusive vacation was our desire to travel soon after the birth of our second child, Anna. We knew roughing it was out with a 3-month old but we still wanted some sun and a bit of an escape so we booked ourselves and the grandparents into Marina El Cid in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, just south of Cancun. We thought it would be a one-time thing we could justify because hey, we had a small baby and hey, weren’t we brave to go ANYWHERE with a baby?

Upon arrival at Marina El Cid we found ourselves in a little piece of heaven. Powdery soft sand beach, warm turquoise blue ocean water, a gigantic swimming pool complex, spacious suites, attentive pool-side waiters, 3 delicious meals every day, it was all around amazing. Our first trip was September 2010 which is the start of the low-season so the resort was also fairly empty, meaning we had plenty of attention from staff for our every need and never ran into lines or crowds. Never. We all relaxed, slept, swam, dozed, ate, rested  and had a marvelous time. We enjoyed a meal in the sleepy town center of Puerto Morelos and visited a small local zoo, but other than that reveled in the quiet isolation of this beautiful resort. For that phase of life with a newborn and an energetic 3 1/2 year old it was exactly what our family needed.

Fast forward to March 2011, 6 months after our first trip, when we returned to Marina El Cid, this time

Enjoying homemade paletas (popsicles) in the local little town near the resort

with grandparents from the other side plus Steve’s brother and his family.  Yet again we found ourselves in paradise. With Anna now 9 months old we had more freedom to leave the resort so we enjoyed a fabulous combination of relaxing beach and pooltime with excursions out of the complex (more on recommendations in an upcoming post).

As for tourism vs. traveling, while much of our vacation was spent in “cultural isolation,” our particular resort served authentic regional Mexican food which we enjoyed at every meal.  The resort staff appreciated our attempts to converse with them in Spanish. Plus we left the resort multiple times, exploring the region as well as the local small town. Another plus for us was we chose a resort off the beaten tourism path so we did not encounter large touristy crowds, which can dilute any sort of authentic experience.

Playing on the playground in town with local kids

We won’t always stay at all-inclusive resorts. We thrive on eating local, talking local, staying local and love the thrill (and yes, the stress!) of travel logistics. But for our family we’ve discovered there are (at least) two specific times in life that make all-inclusives perfect. The first is when we want to travel with very little children. The predictability and comfort of an all-inclusive makes travel a possibility at a time when we otherwise would probably stay close to home. The other is traveling with extended family. Our extended family enjoys each other the most when there are minimum decisions to be made or schedules to keep.

To those of you who already knew how great all-inclusive resorts are, we apologize for our past snobbery.  We’ve been won over and we are already planning next year’s stress-free getaway!

Beat the system and save some money

I love to find a good deal when traveling.  There’s something really satisfying about getting to somewhere for less than what the airline would like to charge, or staying at a hotel for a ridiculously low price.  Fortunately, priceline.com makes it possible to stay at a nice hotel for much less than you’d normally pay.  I used to avoid priceline because the whole bidding thing just didn’t make sense.  How are you supposed to know what to bid?  What do you do if they refuse your price?

Fortunately, the world of online travelers has made it much easier to know how much to bid, and what hotel you are probably going to get.  The two sites I’ve found to help make this possible are betterbidding.com and biddingfortravel.com.  Here you can find instructions on how to bid, lists of hotels in each city that are available on priceline or hotwire, and many posts from travelers who have won bids.  For example, we stayed at a 5 star hotel in Bangkok for $100 after reading the posts from other travelers, and we knew exactly which hotel we were going to get.

Some tips to keep in mind when using this method of booking:

1.  You can’t be guaranteed of a certain type of room.  You might get put in a room with 2 doubles, or an upper floor room with a king bed.
2.  Call ahead to make requests.  You can’t make requests during the booking on priceline, so after the reservation is accepted, call the hotel to ask for a non-smoking room or for a crib.
3.  Join the hotel’s frequent guest program, if available.  Usually these are free to join and they give you perks like free upgrades or room requests.  Recently, we stayed at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago through priceline for $67, so I joined the Hyatt Gold Passport program which allowed us to check in 2 hours earlier than normal and put us in a high floor room.

On another travel-saving note, rental cars can be a big sink of money or save you a ton.  My favorite combination for saving about 50% on rental costs: join the National Car Emerald Club (sometimes available for free) so you can get any car in the Emerald Aisle no matter what you paid.  Then find a contract ID and coupon ID from fatwallet or flyertalk, book a midsize or lower online and save a bunch when you pick up your full size car.  We’ve even been given an SUV for a compact price a couple of times.  Now if they would only give us a break on the ridiculous charges for a car seat.

Do you have some tips for saving big on hotels or other travel?

Istanbul Apartment Renting: Not Quite the Pits

We always try to find apartments to rent when we travel, for the value, space, and convenience compared to a hotel. Istanbul has a unfortunate dearth of apartments for rent for tourists, so our choices were limited.  We found an agency called Manzara Holiday Aparments, and despite our early legwork we only found one reasonably priced apartment open for the week we were there.

Kitchen sans microwave or toaster

Kitchen sans microwave or toaster

The St George apartment is downhill about 2 blocks from the Galata Tower, and is across the street from a hospital.  The building is very old with a lot of character including well worn and slick marble stairs and a faintly sewerish smell in the stairwell. The apartment is on the second floor (a treacherous proposition with luggage) and is simply furnished in a very small space. There are no bedside tables and only one wardrobe in one of the bedrooms. The curtains do not block out the streetlight just outside the window. There was no toaster or iron but the staff kindly brought these to us. The bathroom is nicely redecorated but the shower leaks and does not drain like anything resembling normal, there is no soap shelf in the shower, no countertop for bathroom items, and no hooks or towel racks.

To top it off, the apartment directly above us was being remodeled. No, that’s too kind. They were using jackhammers to rip out the drywall and concrete to the posts, for 10 hours a day. With a 2 year old child who needed naps, the construction workers were kind enough to stop for a mid day break, but would you rent this apartment at all in these circumstances?

Upstairs apartment gutting

Upstairs apartment gutting

The rental fee was reasonable relative to hotels, but other associated costs were quite high. The transport from the airport was twice the cost of a taxi. The staff kindly had arranged for a meal to be prepared for our arrival, but 3 little eggplants for 50 euros? The staff was generally helpful and attentive, but overall this experience was not ideal or a relaxing place of respite. With some more specific questions upfront, a different apartment and different plans for food and transportation, Manzara might be able to redeem itself in another experience. In retrospect, the advantages of having an apartment while traveling with a toddler far outweighs the risks of getting a dud like this.  There’s probably nothing we could have done to prevent the downsides, but we did our best to make the most of it and would still recommend renting rather than paying more and getting less in a hotel.

Making Ourselves At Home In Istanbul

After 20+hours of traveling we arrived at our “home” for the week in Istanbul. We’ve rented a little flat from Manzara Holiday Apartments, a company that owns a number of apartments for rent to tourists in the residential neighborhoods surrounding the Galata Tower.  We sought out this company both for the comfort of an apartment as well as the authenticity of living in a local neighborhood, close to the tourist attractions but not set squarely in the middle of them.

istanbul-flat-kitchenGrace and Beth in the apartment’s tiny kitchen

We’ve rented their 2-bedroom St. George apartment. It’s small, tiny in fact, but so much more space than we’d have in even the best hotel. It’s simply decorated, mainly with Ikea furniture but also a few interesting old pieces like a trunk for a TV stand and a huge rickety cupboard for a closet in Grace’s room. It’s eclectic and suits our needs.

istanbul-grace-roomGrace checks out her new digs

We’re on the first floor, which in Turkey (and most of Europe) means actually the second floor (what we call the first floor, they call the ground floor). To get up to our apartment we have to ascend a steep, narrow, curved staircase. The paint is peeling in the stairwell and it smells musty, like very old building. I like that smell. Our neighbors seem to be several conservative families. Although Turkey is a secular country, it’s more than 90% Muslim. Most women we’ve seen around do not cover their heads but the women in our building do. One is even fully shrouded in black although her face is uncovered. The neighbors are kind but aloof. I’m sure they know we’re just another tourist family passing through their building, but they don’t seem to mind we’re here.

istanbul-flat-livingroomThat’s not part of the living room, that is the living room

istanbul-dinnerStuffed eggplant and salad prepared for us by Manzara.  It was nice to have dinner ready when we arrived but at 25 Euro each, I think we’d find a local fast food joint next time.

We arrived here exhausted Sunday afternoon. Manzara had prepared a light meal for us and stocked a few groceries in the fridge, both at our request. We settled in, helped Grace get comfortable in her new room (including hanging a black sheet over the window to block out the very bright streetlight outside her window), and tried to keep ourselves awake until a decent bedtime. With the 10 hour time difference and almost no sleep on the plane, we were all exhausted but knew if we went to bed too early we’d be up in the middle of the night. We kept Grace up until 5pm, I konked out shortly after 6, and I think Steve managed to stay awake until 9pm.  It was a tough night for Grace but every time she woke up she’d go back to sleep quickly with her favorite lullabies. In the end none of us woke up until 7am so we truly made up for the lost sleep. We awoke to a cool morning and cloudy skies but that didn’t stop us from heading straight out after breakfast to discover this ancient city. More about Monday’s explorations tomorrow.

istanbul-flat-frontGrace and Beth outside the St. George apartment Monday morning, ready to take on the day.

Tegucigalpa’s Offerings For Families

The last week of our trip to Honduras was spent in the capital, Tegucigalpa, or “Tegus” for short.  This was a return visit to Tegus for us, and it seems to have improved with time.  The airport is newly renovated and a much nicer experience.  The streets seem cleaner and better organized, even with political campaigns in full swing.  Truth be told, though, Tegus is probably not somewhere you’d seek out for a vacation as the culture and vibe is not quite the same as you might find in Antigua, Guatemala.  But, if you find yourself with kids in Tegus at some point, here’s our experience.

First, it’s hard to find a decent hotel with enough comfortable space for kids.  We’ve stayed at Leslie’s Place in the past before Grace, and it’s really nice but doesn’t have any suites available.  Fortunately, Humuya Inn is the top ranked hotel on TripAdvisor and deservedly so.  It’s in a quiet residential neighborhood, run by competent and attentive American expats, beautifully appointed and has huge 2 bedroom apartments for a reasonable price (and smaller hotel style rooms are available as well).  The kitchen is decent and flexible too.  Humuya staff also arranged a daily driver with van for us, which was a positive experience and well worth the moderate cost.

Humuya Inn
Humuya Inn

In Tegus itself, the highlights for us included El Mirador del Picacho, a park with huge Christ statue overlooking the city.  The overlook is next to a somewhat-maintained park commemorating the United Nations and some playground equipment.  There’s also a nearby zoo which apparently has seen better days (we gave it a miss).

Grace at the Mirador

Another worthwhile outing with kids is the Chiminike Children’s Museum, a fairly new site with a good variety of hands-on exhibits that appeal to a broad spectrum of ages.  Vacuum tubes, water games, karaoke, and a walk through the human body kept Grace entertained for several hours.

One of the most popular day trips from the city is Valle de Angeles, a small town about 40 minutes drive from Tegucigalpa.  While sometimes touristy, it’s still a pleasant colonial village with a profusion of leather shops, wood handicrafts, traditional pottery, a nice plaza and church, and cool breezes.  The bustling groups of people on the weekend provided an entertaining distraction for Grace.  We were pleasantly surprised to find a unique shop off the main street selling interesting ceramics, iron sculptures, and a plant nursery.  Called Hierro Barro y Verde, we found some beautiful ceramic Christmas tree ornaments, tiles, a cross, and iron hanging card holder to take home.  It’s a new shop, run by mother and daughter, is only open on weekends at this point, and is across the street from the Museo Santa Maria de los Angeles.

Valle shop

While in Valle, we made a return visit to a restaurant we discovered on a previous trip called El Turistico (not as bad as the name might suggest).  It’s on a hill overlooking the town, has great anafre (melted cheese appetizer) and well priced steak.  I would be remiss if I didn’t also put in a plug for the venerable chicken institution in Central America, Pollo Campero, which has several locations around Tegus.

Hopefully this brief overview of Tegus’ possibilities is helpful for your next visit there with kids!  Have you found other good spots for kids in Honduras?  Please share!

Barefoot Cay – Perfect Accomodation For Families Visiting Roatan

download-11-25-2008-271Barefoot Cay is an exquisite piece of paradise in the otherwise rough-around-the-edges island of Roatan. For Thanksgiving our extended family of seven (including our two-year old, Grace) traveled there and had almost the whole cay (tiny island) to ourselves. We took over three of the four bungalows and enjoyed getting to know the handful of other guests who were staying in the fourth bungalow, in several yachts at the marina and in the new lofts the resort has built on the mainland.

Some of the best amenities of this beautiful little cay include the palapa on a dock out over the water, the clear blue water, delicious, well-prepared food in an intimate dining area, and the well-appointed bungalows completely furnished down to the food processor and blender! We felt very comfortable at Barefoot Cay with our 2-year old, Grace. The staff went out of their way to fix special meals for her, entertain her, and suggest outings for the whole family she would also enjoy.img_5183

We were overwhelmed by the wonderful staff at Barefoot Cay. Mel and Fernand at the front desk were there for every little need we had, from taxi service to laundry to ideas for where to go out to dinner. Owners Milesse and John made us feel like personal guests in their home, not as paying guests of a resort. Staff in the dining room, dive shop, housekeeping, and spa were all so friendly but always professional. We have stayed elsewhere in the Caribbean with very little contact with resort staff, but everyone at Barefoot Cay was always happy to see us and so warm.

One highlight for our party was the dive shop. None of us were divers before but three of us did the Discover scuba class and were amazed by the personalized, professional service of the instructors at the dive shop. Most of the time we had a one-on-one ratio instructor to student, and at one point we even had two instructors to one student. They made us feel so safe and comfortable with the new sport.  We were lucky to have grandparents along to watch Grace while we were out diving.

Another daily highlight were meals. We ate about half of our dinners in the resort dining room and they all were deliciously prepared, including the special meals for Grace. The rest of the time we cooked for ourselves in our bungalows after stocking up at a nearby grocery store.

The only downsides of Barefoot Cay are not actually the fault of Barefoot Cay. They are the same downsides we posted previously about all of Roatan. Here they are: 1) garbage floating in the water 2) sand flies and mosquitoes and 3) the ugly shipping dock next door. The reality is, Barefoot Cay is in a developing nation. Garbage-polluted water is a problem in every developing nation. It wasn’t always an issue at the cay but seemed to be worse after heavy rains. We’ve heard it’s not a problem at all in the dry season (first part of the year). As for the bugs, Barefoot Cay staff work tirelessly to keep the bugs down, spraying day and night with non-toxic sprays and handing out complimentary bug repellent to guests. Still I think they’d have to drop a pesticide bomb on Roatan to get rid of them all. The one or two times we forgot bug spray resulted in literally hundreds of sand fly bites on all of us, which are still itching a week later. Finally, there is a ship yard next door but it really isn’t that bad. It never bothered us but you may want to look the other way if it bothers you.

All in all, we LOVED Barefoot Cay and highly recommend it to families traveling to Roatan. Milesse, John and their staff have obviously worked incredibly hard to create a beautiful spot in a harsh environment. It’s a wonderful destination for the whole family if you’re looking for a Caribbean destination off the beaten path, but still comfortable and affordable.

Photo Gallery of Barefoot Cay

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Grace exploring the new garden area, including a tortoise-shaped pond

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The pool area, taken from the resort’s dining room

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Our 2-bedroom bungalow with a patio opening directly onto the water.

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View of the resort as you approach from the mainland.  The cay is separated by narrow canal from the mainland but this small separation makes it completely private.

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Steve and Grace enjoy a quiet moment on one of the cay’s many hammocks.