Condé Nast Traveler’s ‘Hot List’: Too Rich For My Blood

lifestyles of the rich and famous robin leechCondé Nast Traveler (CNT) released its annual “Hot List” of the world’s “best new hotels” this week, featuring 154 newish properties in 57 countries around the world. CNT boasts that 62 of these hotels have room rates that start at $300 per night or less but is that really a realistic threshold for separating expensive hotels from affordable ones? I’ve been traveling the world for more than 20 years and I very rarely spend more than half that on accommodation.

Obviously there’s a huge difference between what $300 a night buys in New York compared to Buffalo, or Tokyo compared to Saigon, but in most places around the world I can usually find a pretty nice place to stay for $100 per night or less – sometimes much less. And I’d rather take a 12-day trip and spend $100 per night on hotels than a four-day trip where I spend $300 per night on accommodations.

I went through CNT’s Hot List and was dismayed but not surprised to see just one hotel – the Tantalo Hotel in Panama City, Panama – where room rates start at $100 per night or less. The introduction to the list explains that CNT staff and stringers anonymously evaluated more than 1,000 properties and whittled the list down to 154 of the very best new hotels.But in their ten months of research they could find only one place where room rates start at $100 or less? Meanwhile there are 32 listings for hotels with room rates between $501-$999 per night and seven listings with room rates of $1,000 per night or more? My guess is that for every one traveler who wants to spend $1,000 per night on a hotel room, there are about a million who want to spend close to $100.

palazzo duca chania haniaI have no doubt that most of the hotels that made their list are delightful places, but many of the recommendations are useless for everyone but the 1 percent. For example, just one hotel in Greece made their list, and it’s the Amanzo’e, where room rates start at the low, low price of just $1,450 per night. The reviewer also mentioned that the place isn’t on the beach (they do have a Mercedes SUV shuttle to one though) and notes that the service could be better.

I spent six weeks in the Greek Islands last year and wrote about a host of very nice hotels, all with room rates starting at $100 per night or less, (see here and here). At Lila’s Guesthouse on the island of Syros, for example, the owners picked us up at the ferry terminal at 2:30 a.m. and did our laundry for us, both free of charge. And at the Palazzo Duca, (see photo) a beautiful yet affordable new boutique hotel in Chania, on Crete, the nice family who runs the place bent over backwards to help us. So if you’re going to recommend just one new hotel in a country, why pick one that has poor service and charges nearly $1,500 per night?

I guess none of this should be surprising for a publication that in March featured an article on how the .01 percent travel (“How to Vacation Like a Billionaire) in which the author lounged around on a private island near Grenada that can be rented for a cool $165,000 per night.

“Though the price may seem a little astonishing,” the author writes, “there are quite a few ultra-affluent travelers who can afford it – and their ranks are growing. Last year, more than 2,000 people on earth were worth $1 billion or more, 185 more than in 2011…lower the bar to include people worth $30 million or more…and there are 187,000.”

In the warped world of travel media, 187,000 people in a planet that has more than 6 billion seems like a lot, I suppose. Hell, even I’m convinced, pretty soon we’re all going to be renting out our own private islands!

The truth is that luxury hotels are good potential advertisers and most have P.R. companies that know how to get their properties on the radar screen of writers and editors at all the right publications. It’s perfectly legitimate for P.R. firms to do what they do, and many of the places they promote are terrific, but the reality is that the hotel recommendations you read in the glossy magazines and even in some websites and newspapers might be right down the street from places with no P.R. muscle that are just as good but half the price.

To be fair, CNT is a great magazine and their focus on high-end travel is the rule not the exception in the travel industry. Last March, I analyzed the hotel recommendations of a variety of glossy travel magazines, including CNT and concluded that most but not all of the publications I looked at were catering more to the 1 percent than to the rest of us. Based on what I see in CNT’s Hot List this year, it looks like business as usual.

Of the 154 new hotels on the list, 25 percent have room rates starting at $501 per night or more, 13 percent have a base rate between $401-$500, 21 percent range from $301-$400, 21 percent are at $201-$300, and 19 percent of their selections ranged from $101-$200 per night. (The lone $99 entry represented .06 percent of the sample) 60 percent of CNT’s selections have room rates starting at $301 per night or higher; and nearly 40 percent have base rates of $501 per night or more. Of their 62 listings that weigh in at $300 or less, 27 of them have no review – just a listing. (And remember that these are base rates, so a place that has rooms starting at $300 might typically charge much more).

Maybe I need to hobnob with a ritzier social circle but I don’t know anyone who spends $500 per night on a hotel room, even on a special occasion. I read publications like Afar and Condé Nast Traveler because they both offer high quality features writing and beautiful photography. And leafing through their pages can be like a little vacation in and of itself, but I’d love to see more realistic recommendations for places I can actually afford. And I sincerely hope that $300 per night isn’t the new affordability threshold for hotels, because in my book, that’s still a lot of dough.

[Photo credits: Nelson Theroux]

Free Art: Exploring The Graffiti Of Barcelona

You could go to Barcelona and see Sagrada Familia, and the contemporary art museum and all of the Gaudi houses, but if you head to the capital of Catalonia and don’t take some time to simply peruse the streets and check out the graffiti, you’ll miss out on some of the best art and creative inspiration that the city has to offer.

I, for one, am not usually a fan of graffiti, but done well, it’s a form of public art. In fact, graffiti in Barcelona is as ubiquitous as spots to drink an outdoor cortado. Walking one day I noticed a huge art supply store, their main window display a collection of cans of spray paint.

Barcelona graffiti is funky, recognizable and oozing with a creative spirit that you are hard pressed to find anywhere else – well, except maybe Berlin. Make your way down any alleyway and it’s almost like you’re in a modern art gallery; plus, I don’t need to remind you that it’s free. Here, art is democratized, and you can see it on almost every street if you just look.

The best time to go graffiti scouting is outside of business hours, when stores have their shutters – common canvases on the Bracelona graffiti scene – pulled down. Granted, not everyone is a fan; a couple of years ago the city cracked down on businesses that were commissioning graffiti artists to paint on their shutters. Eventually, those works were even deemed illegal, and the scene moved to the suburbs. But there’s plenty of good graffiti to be found all around, and if you’re a fan of the independent art scene, and like a different way to get a feel for a city, plan for an afternoon or two of wandering the streets and seeing what works you can track down.

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[Photo Credit: Anna Brones]

International Adventure Guide 2013: Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio National Park

manuel antonio national parkWhen you’re lying in the shade of a towering palm tree on Playa Espadilla Sur, a glorious, often empty beach backed by thick forest in Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio National Park, the temptation to remain inert can be irresistible. But it would be a shame to travel all the way to this fascinating corner of Central America and do nothing but lie on the beach. Costa Rica has a whopping 26 national parks, so travelers can find adventure in every corner of the country. But Manuel Antonio, the country’s smallest yet most popular park, is probably the most accessible adventure hub for active travelers who are looking for more than just great beaches.

Manuel Antonio is an easy 2.5-hour drive from San Jose on a recently built highway. The park itself is a 15-minute drive from the town of Quepos, which also has a small airport. A huge variety of hotels and adventure tour companies line the main road between the town and the national park. It isn’t a pedestrian friendly place but thankfully you’ll have plenty of opportunities for exercise in and around the park.

One could spend a month in the Manuel Antonio area and not get bored. You can hike through rain forests and beachcomb, take a canopy tour, go horseback riding, take a nighttime boat tour, snorkel or scuba dive, mountain bike, go on a bird watching and wildlife hike, kayak, go white-water rafting and more.

Adventure Activities

Hiking
The national park ($10 entry fee, closed on Mondays) is a great place to hike, especially early in the morning before the heat and humidity become unbearable. There’s a terrific circular loop trail (about 1.5 km) in the park you can take from Playa Espadilla Sur, my favorite beach, or Playa Manuel Antonio, the park’s most popular beach, to Punta Catedral, where there’s an amazing view.

Canopy Tours
If you’ve never tried zip-lining through the jungle, this is a great place to take the plunge without breaking the bank. A company called Rainforest Adventures offers a combo zip-line and tram tour combo where you can zip line over the trees and also take a 30-minute tram ride for spectacular views of the rainforest for $60. Canopy Safari offers zip-lining along with a combo package that includes open bar, if you want to glide above the trees and then get plastered down below, and Titi Canopy Tours, which offers day and night zip-lining, claims they are the closest to Manuel Antonio park.

Kayaking/White Water Rafting
Through companies like Iguana Tours or Jade Tours you can hire a kayak and guide who will lead you through the mangrove forests to nearby Damas Island, where you can snorkel and swim. Or if you’d rather go white water rafting, Adventure Manuel Antonio offers a half-day tour on the Savegre River, including breakfast and a picnic lunch for $89.

Adventure Hotspots

Take a Walking Tour of the National Park
The park itself is just 3 square miles but it has rain forest, white sand beaches and an abundance of wildlife, including howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys that will come within steps of you, sloths, iguanas, agoutis and at least 350 types of birds. Arrive early and hire a guide right outside the entrance to the park. The guides typically charge about $20 for a two-hour guided hike and, with their local knowledge and telescopes, they will help you see wildlife that you’d never see on your own. If you need a guide, you’ll see plenty of available guides standing outside the entrance to the park. We hired Flander Sanchez (info@manuelantoniotours.com) and I thought he was terrific.

Playa Espadilla Sur
Most tourists flock to Playa Manuel Antonio (PMA), but keep walking along the trail and you’ll come across this huge, spectacular beach. Both beaches are lovely but while PMA is often jam-packed, Espadilla Sur is blissfully quiet. Unlike PMA, it’s also easy to find a nice spot in the shade. Our guide told us not to swim on the day we were there in mid-February because a crocodile had been spotted in the water that morning, but from what I understand, that is a rare occurrence. If you’re up for a long walk on an empty beach, this is the place to do it.

Fincas Naturales Wildlife Refuge
This is a private, 25-acre wildlife refuge near Manuel Antonio, across from the Si, Como No Hotel, that was once a teak plantation. They offer five different tours of the refuge, ranging from $15-$45, and on any given day you might see snakes, lizards, frogs, sloths, monkeys, porcupines, armadillos and dozens of varieties of birds. They also have a butterfly garden that features dozens of types of butterflies.

Where to Stay

Hotel Parador
This is a luxury hotel with spacious and stylish rooms comparable to a Westin or Hyatt. There are extensive hiking trails on the grounds and if you’re out early in the morning and late in the afternoon, you’ll come across howler monkeys and plenty of birds. The food is also quite good and the pools have amazing views of the Pacific. From $199. http://www.hotelparador.com/

Arenas del Mar
Also in the high-end category, super deluxe Arenas del Mar is right on a private beach and within walking distance of Manuel Antonio. The rooms have 400 thread count linens, high-end furnishings and decks with stunning views of the national park. The American owners of Arenas del Mar also own Finca Rosa Blanca, a gorgeous coffee plantation and inn near San Jose. From $165. http://www.arenasdelmar.com/index.html

Villas Nicolas
This is a condominium hotel with 12 one or two bedroom villas that has rave reviews on Trip Advisor and is one of Fodor’s starred recommendations. Starting at just $95 per night, this place is a real bargain. From $95. http://www.villasnicolas.com/index.php

Hotel Plaza Yara
This is a small, all-suites hotel that features custom made furniture and rooms with kitchenettes just a five-minute drive from Manuel Antonio. With rates starting at $75 per night, it’s one of the best options in this price category. From $75. http://www.hotelplazayara.com/index.php

Logistics

Getting Around: Manuel Antonio is an easy 2.5-hour drive from San Jose on a recently built highway. Manuel Antonio isn’t a pedestrian friendly area but I got around using the cheap local bus and the free shuttle provided for guests at the Hotel Parador. Taxis charge about $5-10 for rides up to about 15 minutes away. We hired a private cab driver to drive us from Heredia, near San Jose, to Manuel Antonio and it cost $150 for a family of four. Buses are much cheaper but the 2.5 hour drive will be more like 3.5 hours on an express bus (slower still on a local bus) that you can catch at the Coca-Cola bus terminal at Calle 16 between Avenidas 1 and 3.

Seasonality: The high season is December-April. You might save a little bit of money and still enjoy dry weather if you go May-August, but September and October are very rainy. Be prepared for temperatures in the upper 80s or low 90s with humidity year round.

Safety: Manuel Antonio is generally a safe area but you’ll notice that many of the restaurants and hotels have signs warning guests not to leave valuables in cars. Safety standards aren’t quite the same as they are in the U.S. but if you choose a tour company that has a good reputation and listen carefully when they give you tips, you shouldn’t have a problem on any of the adventure-related tours.

Note: You won’t find traditional street names and addresses around Manuel Antonio. On our scouting trip this didn’t prove to be a problem as cab drivers know how to find just about any beach, hotel, restaurant, store or attraction you might want to visit. If you’re driving and rent a GPS, it will recognize the names of my most hotels.

[Photo Credits: Dave Seminara, Rainforest Adventures]

Survey Finds Travelers Will Lie And Steal To Save A Penny

Traveling on a beer budget isn’t easy when you have champagne tastes but it seems some vacationers have found a way to cheat their budgets – as well as everyone around them. A survey of British vacationers has revealed the lengths some travelers will go to in order to pinch their pennies, including lying and stealing, among other tactics.

One notorious strategy involves couples pretending to be on their honeymoon in order to score flight or room upgrades, with about 5 percent of survey respondents admitting to faking a special event so they could receive a perk.

Twelve percent of travelers confessed they’d used the pool or other facilities at a hotel they weren’t actually a guest of, while 8 percent said they had used another hotel’s shuttle bus.In some instances, entire families have been drawn into the charade, with about 11 percent of those polled saying they had lied about their children’s ages so they could pay a lower entrance fee when entering theme parks.

Other travelers looked for ways to cut costs when it came to food and drink. A whopping 39 percent of respondents owned up to pinching food from the breakfast buffet in order to save money on lunch. A handful of others admitted to stooping even lower by leaving a bar or restaurant without paying their bill. Reassuringly, only 1.4 percent of people fell into that category.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Marion Doss]

International Budget Guide 2013: Granada & San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

san juan del sur surferAmericans have long associated Nicaragua with the Cold-War era Iran-Contra scandal but as prices rise in Costa Rica and safety drops in Mexico, more and more savvy travelers are discovering that Nicaragua is a safe, cheap and interesting place with great beaches, reliably warm weather and a vibrant cultural scene.

Travel writers have been hyping Nicaragua for years. In 2005, Frommer’s called it “the next big thing” and glossy magazines like Travel & Leisure and Condé Nast promoted the country as a budget friendly alternative to Costa Rica. Until recently though, Nicaragua was still considered more of an off-the-beaten track backpacker destination than a place for American families to vacation. That tide is starting to turn, as The New York Times recently illustrated by naming Nicaragua one of its places to visit in 2013. On April 1, the country’s first super luxury resort, Mukul, opened. If it succeeds, others will surely follow.

For the moment, Nicaragua is still a delightfully budget friendly holiday destination. According to the Wall Street Journal, foreign visitors spent an average of just $43 per day in Nicaragua in 2011. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, next to Haiti, so travelers should be prepared to experience heartbreaking poverty. Many who come for a vacation in Nicaragua end up staying to volunteer and even those who don’t are often changed by their eye-opening experience in the country.

In checking out our recommendations below, please note that save Mukul and a few other ritzy places, nearly every hotel, restaurant and attraction in this country could qualify as “budget” or “value” by American standards. Our recent scouting trip didn’t operate on a strict backpacker’s budget, but according to Tim Leffel, author of “The World’s Cheapest Destinations,” savvy backpackers can by on as little as $15 per day in Nicaragua.

Budget Activities

Surf the Pacific: The Pacific Coast is a haven for surfers. San Juan del Sur is about a two-hour drive from the Managua airport and is a great base for surfers. Playa Hermosa, near San Juan del Sur, is a particularly good surf spot but there are dozens of other viable alternatives. There are several shops that rent boards and offer surf lessons, including Arena Caliente, Good Times Surf Shop and Baloy’s Surf Shop. Arena Caliente also has a surf camp as does the all-girl surf camp Chicabrava.

Volcano Hikes/Boarding: There are several volcanoes that make for good day trips from San Juan del Sur or Granada. You can hike or drive up to the crater of Masaya Volcano ($5 entrance fee), which is just outside Granada, but if you stick around too long, you might get a bit light headed, as this is an active volcano. Isla de Ometepe has two more active volcanoes and is a great day trip from San Juan del Sur. There are places to hike and zip line all over the country and you can volcano board on the Cerro Negro Volcano near Leon.

Study Spanish or Volunteer: Nicaragua is also a great place to learn Spanish or volunteer. In San Juan del Sur, La Escuela Rosa Silva’s Spanish School (50 meters west of the market) offers four hours of daily instruction for just $100 per week. Roger Ramirez’s One-on-One Spanish Tutoring Academy (Calle Calzada) offers private lessons in Granada starting at just $6 per hour. The Moon Guide to Nicaragua has an extensive list of volunteer opportunities with organizations in Granada like Building New Hope, Empowerment International, and La Esperanza Granada.

ometepe nicaragua

Hotels

GranadaHotel Plaza Colon– Travelers can find perfectly acceptable hotels in Granada for as little as $25 per night, but for a little bit more, you can stay at this historic old beauty of a hotel, located right on the city’s principal square. The rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated, the staff is helpful to a fault and there’s a great little pool in the hotel courtyard. From $99. Parque Central. hotelplazacolon.com

San Juan del Sur- Villas de Palermo– By Nicaraguan standards, this condo complex is a bit of a splurge, but it’s a great value for families who want a full apartment, complete with a big, modern kitchen, rather than a hotel room. Many of the apartments have an ocean view and there’s a glorious pool and a free shuttle that makes the 1-mile trip into town on the hour during daylight hours. From $159. villasdepalermo.com

Isla de Ometepe- The Corner House B & B– Rooms at Ometepe are stylish but simple and are a bargain for what you pay. The Canadian woman and British man that run the place are extraordinarily friendly and will help you plan adventures around the island. Try the excellent breakfast. From $25. thecornerhouseometepe.com Moyogalpa.

Restaurants

GranadaRestaurante El Garaje– This intimate, little place doesn’t seem appealing from the street – they keep the gate locked, you have to ring the doorbell to enter and the place is very dark – but the food is excellent and dirt cheap, with full meals for $4-7. A Canadian couple from Vancouver who came to Granada on a vacation and decided to stay run the place out of a front room in their home, and you can watch them prepare the eclectic menu, which changes every night and can include anything from fresh fish to quesadillas to Thai. 512 Calle Corral.

San Juan del SurAsados Juanita– Juanita is very easy to find. Just look for the crowds and you’ll see her grilling up meats on the street. For $4, you get a choice of freshly grilled meats, a small salad, plantains, rice, beans and guacamole. Near Casa Oro Hostel and the Central Market.

Laguna de ApoyoAbuelas– The Laguna de Apoyo is a great place for a swim and the setting for this restaurant couldn’t be lovelier. It features very tasty grilled meats and seafood, with most entrees in the $8-12 range. Best of all, you can go for a swim and lounge on one of their lagoon-side deckchairs after your feast.

Logistics

Getting Around
Car rental isn’t particularly cheap in Nicaragua but it’s easy to get around without a car. The Nicaraguan government has invested heavily in building and repairing roads in recent years in a bid to boost tourism. In San Juan del Sur, you can hire a driver for around $50-$60 a day. Just talk to any of the cab drivers you see parked in the town or ask your hotel for help.

A ride on a local chicken bus will cost about 60-80 cents an hour and more comfortable minibuses aren’t much more. A short ride in a taxi in Granada can cost as little as 50 cents each because the drivers stop to pick up other passengers. The one hour, twenty minute ferry ride to Isla de Ometepe costs less than $2.

We used Camilo Rivera, a taxi driver based in San Juan del Sur, (505) 886-72336 – and can highly recommend him – for $50-60 per day depending on where you want to go.

Seasonality
Weather in Nicaragua is almost always hot, sunny and dry in the high season, which runs from December through February, plus Easter. March-May can be uncomfortably hot. June-August is a bit cooler and generally dry, while September-November is the rainy season.

Safety
Nicaraguans boast that their country is the safest in Central America. There is no reliable way to test that claim but in our scouting trip we felt safe in San Juan del Sur, Ometepe and Granada. As in any developing country, tourists sometimes get robbed, but in most cases, they are crimes of opportunity and the victims aren’t harmed. Use the same precautions here that you would in any large city. Americans should also be extra careful not to run afoul of Nicaragua’s laws, especially the drug laws, as the justice system is deeply flawed and a number of foreigners have been imprisoned on dubious charges.

Note: San Juan del Sur and other towns in Nicaragua don’t use traditional street names and addresses. On our scouting trip this didn’t prove to be a problem as cab drivers in Granada and San Juan del Sur know how to find just about any beach, hotel, restaurant, store or attraction you might want to visit.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]