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The Fairmont Empress Hotel (review), Victoria, B.C. Canada

The Fairmont Empress HotelFairmont Empress
721 Government Street
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

– Dave Grossman,
September 2011

Victoria is one of those towns that you visit and think you could live there – it’s so idyllic that you can’t help but ponder it.

If you arrive by seaplane, as we did, you start right in the center of town – the Inner Harbour. And right away you will have your eyes fixed up the hill onto the Edwardian-era building that you either are staying in – or should be staying in. That’s the Fairmont Empress.

While known for their Afternoon High Tea, a tradition dating back to 1908, the real reason to stay here is the location and the ambiance. As you can see in the photos, it’s like staying in a wonderfully maintained (actually, resorted) piece of history.

Fairmont Empress bedroom

Fairmont Empress bedroom

And you literally CAN NOT BE in a more central location from which to enjoy Victoria.  You can stroll the 3 minutes back down to the Inner Harbour, relax by the water, wait on line for lunch at the famous “Red Fish Blue Fish” fish and chips stand (it’s as good as the reviews say and the lines are even longer than they say!).

Or you can stroll around any of the nearby streets that make up Victoria’s downtown. If you need a car rental, there’s one right behind the hotel.

And honestly, there’s nobody in town that doesn’t know the Fairmont Empress.

The rooms are on the small side, especially the disappointingly small bathroom (which had virtually nowhere to put anything and had one of those slightly-too-thin bathtub/shower combos), but they are nicely appointed and have an updated flat panel TV as well as WiFi wireless Internet in all rooms.

*TIP* All Fairmont President’s Club members get free WiFi. Anyone can join for free and the WiFi is complimentary regardless of your level in the program. So be sure to join! Everyone else will have to pay up for the WiFi.

On the whole, just walking in and around the hotel adds to your trip and, while the Fairmont did cost a few bucks more than other options in town, it’s well worth it.

Fairmont Empress High Tea

Fairmont Empress High Tea

What’s NOT worth it?  The food. Aside from the Afternoon Tea (if you’re so inclined), please do yourself a favor and skip breakfast unless it’s in your room rate. It was in ours, but if it hadn’t been the breakfasts for two would have clocked in at over $50 for what we both thought was pretty low quality food. We didn’t try dinner but heard it was not worth it either. There are many great options in town. A bit off the beaten path (and a good 20-25 minute walk from the Empress) was Cafe Brio – a wonderful Italian place not to be missed if you love food. All plates are available as whole or half orders, so you can easily try two dishes each.

Mineral Bath

Mineral Bath

What also is not worth it? In all likelihood, the spa. While it’s ranked as a top spa in Canada by Conde Nast, I had a tour of it and it didn’t look impressive at all. Aside from a small temptation to have a soak in the mineral bath (shown), the rest seemed worn out. Save that money for a spa day back home….

In short: If you will be in Victoria, B.C., stay at the Fairmont Empress. You’ll be glad you did.


Categories: Fairmont Tags: , ,

30,000 bonus Starwood Starpoints for new SPG Amex (Personal or Business)

This is as good as it has ever gotten in terms of bonus points from the Starwood American Express cards.

From now until August 22nd, new signups for either the personal or business cards will get a total of 30,000 Starpoints as long as you spend $4,500 within the first 3 months.  I value Starpoints at about 2.5 cents each, so this is worth about $750 just for getting a credit card. And the annual fee is even waived the first year.

There has never been a better deal and it will be only be offered for a bit over 3 weeks, so don’t wait.

And, as always with Hotel Magician, you can get $20 back as an Amazon Gift Card when you sign up and are approved for a personal Starwood Preferred Guest credit card from American Express and $50 back as an Amazon GC when you signup and are approved for a Business SPG Amex.

Links are:

Starwood Business American Express Credit Card (SPG)

Starwood Personal American Express Credit Card (SPG)

Remember you must be a NEW cardmember to get the bonus and you can get one bonus from each “flavor” – personal and business.

Donate to the Red Cross to help Japan’s earthquake recovery and earn AAdvantage miles.

This just in from American Airlines:

American Airlines is partnering with the American Red Cross to help the victims affected by the March 10, 2011, earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami in the Pacific.

If you would like to join us in supporting the disaster relief efforts by making a cash donation, American will reward your generosity with an AAdvantage® bonus mile offer. Through April 15, 2011, AAdvantage members can earn a one-time award of 250 AAdvantage bonus miles for a minimum $50 donation, or 500 AAdvantage bonus miles for a donation of $100 or more to the American Red Cross.

Thank you in advance for your generosity and support.

DoubleTree Surfcomber Miami (South) Beach, Florida review

DoubleTree Surfcomber (by Hilton), Miami Beach, FLDouble Tree South Beach Miami Florida
February 2011, Dave Grossman

You are headed to South Beach. You want to be beachfront. You want to be in the heart of the action. You are looking for something moderately priced but not run down.  The DoubleTree Surfcomber may be for you.

The DoubleTree Surfcomber is beachfront, located on Collins Avenue just north of 17th St. It’s also just a 5 minute walk from Lincoln Road – the main pedestrian (and admittedly tourist-centric) street lined with shopping and restaurants like SushiSamba, countless Italian restaurants and at least three Starbucks locations.

It’s a short walk to nearby hotels like the W South Beach (profiled here in 2010), the Delano, Shore Club, and the Setai (for restaurants and nightlife). Or, you can take a leisurely 20 minute walk down Ocean Drive or the beach to the upscale SoFi (South of Fifth) area.  The location is a winner.

The staff, uniformly, was excellent – a term I don’t easily or often use to describe service! Everyone I encountered here was friendly, attentive, and helpful. Special requests were no problem. And I’m talking about everyone from the front desk to the guy handing out towels… friendly and helpful.

So we like the location and we love the staff. But what about the rooms? The amenities? This is where the proverbial one star gets knocked off. In exchange for everything mentioned – the location, service, and price – you will likely be in a very “normal” room. This is not a modern boutique hotel… The bed is very comfortable and it appears the beds and TVs are pretty new. But they are small, many with no view at all and almost none with a beach view. The bathrooms are easily the biggest shortcoming as they are small, dated, and lacking in upscale amenities (providing just standard soap, shampoo, conditioner, and lotion). The building is Art Deco in style and only 4 floors – in two nearly side by side buildings.

Outside the room, and past the nicely done lobby, we find the breakfast area serving up the almost ubiquitous hotel breakfast – scrambled eggs, bacon, french toast, waffles, cereal, fruits, bagels and toast. We did like the al fresco dining there each morning. It’s right next to the pool which shows its age. Just one row of fairly flimsy chairs on each side of a fairly small pool. Luckily you can just head straight to the beach where you can rent lounge chairs for $10 (as of this writing) and order food and drinks.

OK, so I wasn’t blown away by the room or the pool or the breakfast. But none of that really matters much when you are in the heart of SoBe – steps from the ocean and restaurants galore.

But given the price differential between it and, for example the W South Beach, along with the wonderful staff and the location, I’d happily return.

Click here to view our discount rates on the DoubleTree Surfcomber Miami Beach.

Click here for more hotel deals in Miami Beach, FL.


Get 25,000 MQMs on Delta + 50% bonus miles on Amex Membership Rewards transfers

Here’s the link to enroll with Delta (you CANNOT do this if you don’t register and wait a day or so for it to appear in your account with Delta):

These can be from your own MR account or from a friend’s although they say it needs to be your own account. Experience, including my own, is that these will post nearly instantaneously.

Once you register, you’ll earn a 50% mileage bonus on all the Membership Rewards® points you transfer into your SkyMiles account by December 15, 2010.
And if you transfer 50,000 points or more, you’ll also receive 25,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs). That’s enough to give you Medallion status and benefits like waived baggage fees, unlimited upgrades, preferred seating, and more.
Not a SkyMiles member? Enroll now, it’s fast and free.

Terms and Conditions for the Membership Rewards® program apply. Visit or call 1-800-AXP-EARN (297-3276) for more information. Participating partners and available rewards are subject to change without notice. To modify your receipt of valuable offers from American Express, please visit
Terms & Conditions

Offer Eligibility:
To participate in this offer, eligible members must register online at If you are not yet a SkyMiles member, enroll now or call 1-800-323-2323. Offer available to U.S. residents only. This offer is non-transferable and is only eligible for the SkyMiles member receiving this communication directly from Delta Air Lines.

Point Transfer Details:
Membership Rewards program enrollees will receive one mile for every eligible Membership Rewards point transferred. Allow up to 1 to 2 business days for Membership Rewards points to be transferred to your SkyMiles account. Transferred points cannot be transferred back to the Cardmember’s Membership Rewards program account. Cardmembers must transfer a minimum of 1,000 Membership Rewards points per transfer. There is no limit on the number of transfers.

Bonus Award Information:
Members will receive a 50% mileage bonus on all miles transferred from the date you register through December 15, 2010. Bonus miles will be posted 4 to 6 weeks following the end of the promotion. Members will also receive 25,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) toward Medallion status when you register for the promotion and transfer 50,000 points or more from the date you register through December 15, 2010. MQMs will be awarded to qualifying members within 4 weeks of the end of the promotion. MQM bonus limited to one time per registered member during the promotional period. May not be combined with any other Membership Rewards offers between October 4 and December 15, 2010.

Medallion Benefits:
Preferred Seating and Medallion Complimentary Upgrades are subject to availability and may not be available on all flights or in all markets. Complimentary Upgrades for Economy Award reservations and Pay with Miles will be upgraded to First Class beginning at the eligible Medallion tier window based on availability. Excess, oversize, and/or overweight baggage fees may apply.

Taxes and Fees:
Enrollment in SkyMiles is required. Airline tickets are subject to availability. For each conversion of points into the SkyMiles program, a fee of $0.0006 per point, with a maximum fee of $99, will be charged to your Card account. We charge this fee to offset the federal excise tax we must pay on such conversions. The fee may be more or less than the actual amount of the excise tax we pay on any individual conversion. We may offer you the option to redeem points to pay this fee.

All SkyMiles program rules apply to SkyMiles program membership, miles, offers, mile accrual, mile redemption and travel benefits, respectively. To review the rules, please visit Membership Guide & Program Rules. Taxes (and if applicable, fees) for Award Travel are the responsibility of the passenger and must be paid at the time the ticket is booked. Award Travel seats are limited and may not be available on all flights or in all markets. Stated destination count includes those served by Delta and its worldwide codeshare partners. Offers and benefits subject to change without notice. Offers void where prohibited by law. Additional terms and conditions may apply. Other restrictions may apply. Please refer Delta customer service representative to 973615; American Express Representative to R981:0002.

© 2010 Delta Air Lines, Inc.

Categories: Air Tags: ,

London Theatre on the Cheap

September 28, 2010 2 comments

London’s West End is one of the world’s most vibrant and dynamic theatre scenes. Boasting more than 50 theatres, offering a mix of heart-rending musicals, epic musicals, hard-hitting drama, and untapped amateur gems, the West End is a veritable mecca for theatre enthusiasts worldwide.

Perhaps the one downside is the ticket prices. London is notoriously expensive, and the theatre is no different. However, happily there are a number of tips and tricks to ensure you get the best deal.

One of the best ways to save money is to attend a preview show. Many productions put on preview performances ahead of their official opening, and tickets are often on sale at substantially lower rates. These previews are designed to give the cast an opportunity to acclimatise to a live audience. Consequently, the shows may be a little ‘rough around the edges’ , but this can merely add to their authentic appeal. You can snap up premier tickets by contacting theatres or ticket agencies directly.

Another trick of the trade is to pick up tickets on the day of the performance. These tickets are often discounted and are available from ticket booths at select points across London including ticket booths in Leicester Square and at Canary Wharf DLR station. The benevolent souls who make these fantastic deals possible are the Society of London theatres, who simply hate to see empty seats. Tickets of this kind are generally sold at a 50% discount.

Whilst ticket agencies are often the quickest and most efficient way of securing theatre seats, you also need to pay for the privilege in the shape of service charges and postal costs. These can see your costs shoot up and make what originally seemed like an affordable cost begin to appear prohibitive. One answer is to by-pass these agencies and go straight to the theatre box office. Simply find out which venue the respective show you want to see is playing at, and buy your tickets direct. Despite London theatre performances taking place in the afternoon and evenings, most box offices are open from the morning.

Another cunning ploy for keeping your costs down is to book as part of a group. Most theatres offer cheaper deals for group bookings. To find out which, visit the box office and request more details, since minimum group sizes and rates of discount vary depending on the show.

Finally, if you’re planning on more than one London threatre trip over the course of time, you should consider joining clubs and mailing lists. There are a number of groups that offer special deals and discounts. Many ticket agencies similarly have mailing lists with regular news from the theatre world as well as ticket discounts.

Paul Joseph is a London-based writer and author. He has written for national magazines and newspapers including the Independent. He also writes for a blog called, which offers information and tips about London theatre.

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