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The Big Easy – Kid-Friendly Indulgence

When we decided to take a somewhat impromptu trip to New Orleans with our kids (had United miles that needed to be used ASAP), we got quite a few funny looks and implied commentary about the kid-unfriendly-ness of the city.  It was mostly based on the crime and the 365 day mardi-gras atmosphere.  And well, after five days there, my almost 4 year old stated that she didn’t want to leave “because she [liked] the necklaces” (aka mardi-gras beads being thrown from second story hotel terraces by middle aged men wearing suits).

First, let’s talk Hyatt French Quarter (if you’re a new reader you should know that my husband travels A LOT for work and accrues A LOT of Hyatt points – and we’ve stayed at enough now that we’ve developed the hobby of critiquing them – even though we don’t exactly fit in with that demographic of people, I figure my insights could *potentially* be useful to some).  Resting directly on both Canal and Bourbon Streets, I was a bit apprehensive (especially after aforementioned commentary) about the location.  As it turned out, however, it was fantastic.  GREAT access to street cars, the heart of the French Quarter, the highway (for those who drive), and lest we forget, to all the debauchery Bourbon Street has to offer.  It’s newly remodeled, as much of the city is, due to hurricane’s Katrina and Rita, and may win the best designed Hyatt contest (for those who care about the color of the walls and the lamp shades in their hotel rooms).  Honestly though, it’s doused in soothing taupes and purples, with sweet alligator print carpets and abstract paintings of old New Orleans maps.  And despite the fact that it’s smack dab in the middle of party-ville,  it was totally quiet.

This was us walking into party central, on a Thursday at 5.  The walk back at 8 was a much different story.

Though it wasn’t premeditated, when we arrived in New Orleans, I quickly realized (after indulging in beignets – basically fried bread loaded with powdered sugar – while watching jazz in an outdoor courtyard) that the name of the game was going to be INDULGENCE.  I had, for the majority of the previous two months, been on a very restrictive anti-candida diet and cleansing, so the ice cream and meat eating devil on my shoulder won the debate (YES, my greatest hope is that SOMEDAY, I can maintain the cleansing mentality and evict the devil forever – BUT, this was NOT the time, NOR the place).  AND INDULGE WE DID.  Not only did 190 grain alcohol slushies flow like water (no, I didn’t go there), but so did inventively delicious cocktails and fried, sugary goodness… AROUND EVERY CORNER AND AT EVERY TURN – my self-discipline had nothing on it.

As you see below, Denali had a hard time with it as well (in his defense, it was his 2nd birthday).

Thanks to Yelp (for better or for worse), we found ourselves at some pretty amazing restaurants.  The first of which was Green Goddess.  Let me just say PORK LOLLIPOPS and BACON-ICE-CREAM.  I’m not sure what the deal is with my weakness for pork, but me oh my, those little piggies can taste so good.  Ironically, they also have decent vegan options, thus better choices COULD have been made.  BUT, after spending the day drinking Mint Juleps at Oak Alley Plantation, my self-control was taking a nap.  It would turn out to rest for the remainder of our time in NOLA.  SERIOUSLY THOUGH, BACON ICE-CREAM.  You’re just not human if that doesn’t sound good.

Rather than narrating the next three days, I’m going to give a brief list of highlights, all of which were THOROUGHLY enjoyed by both parents AND children.

HIGHLIGHTS:

Day ONEMusic Legends Park – beignets, courtyard, live jazz.

Day TWOPoor Boy Lloyd’s (Baton Rouge) – YUMMY catfish po boys and an awesome woman working behind the counter that seems as if she’s been working there since she was a teen (she totally worked the place).

Oak Alley Plantation – Gone with the Wind style plantation experience with inauthentic and underemphasized slave quarters.  Interesting history, of course, albeit a bit skewed.  AMAZINGLY beautiful old oak trees and Mint Juleps that pack a punch (though they are dispensed out of a large premixed container).

Celebration of Oaks at City Park – great display of holiday lights, complete with fair rides, a pop music sensitive light display, and an awesome fairy tale kids park.

Green Goddess – great outdoor seating for rambunctious kids, creative cocktails and inventive fusion dishes.

Day THREE Sylvain – titilating bloody marys, great food, sweet courtyard seating.

Jamie Hayes Art Gallery  – overwhelming selection of the cutest voodoo dolls you’ve ever seen.

St. Charles Streetcar – Passes through the Garden District Mansions, past Tulane and Loyola, and to Uptown.

Boucherie – quite pricey and the dishes were hit or miss, but set in sweet homey atmosphere and well worth the trek there.

Day FOURCajun Style Swamp Tour – good guide who gave great historical background, but I think there are better tours out there.  We wanted SO badly to make it to Achafalya National Reserve for to get our swamp on, but wimped out halfway there (the littliest was being less than agreeable in the car).

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve – AWESOME trek through the bayou.  We saw two alligators (so they were fairly small and kinda far away, but still something new!), beautiful birds, and incredible old cypress trees (or should I say, ONE, old growth cypress tree the loggers so graciously kept alive).

Three Muses – one of the only menus that had any kid-friendly options, Mac and Cheese (sure it had brussel sprouts in it, which mom and dad were able to enjoy), great ambiance, and mellow live jazz.  AND, to top it off, there was a street symphony playing outside as we left.

Day FIVE –  A self-guided tour through the Lower 9th Ward – fascinating, uplifting, and heartbreaking.  It’s hard to imagine the devastation directly after the hurricanes in 2005, though, seeing it more than 7 years later surely gives you an idea.  With new construction neatly erected next to long abandoned hurricane house carnage, it’s a striking paradox and a wonder as to how life has developed in the post-Katrina New Orleans.

SO, what did we do that was kid-centric?  The honest answer is, NOT MUCH.  My belief is that travel and adventures are enriching for children even that doesn’t include a trip to the local children’s museum (which we REALLY did try to squeeze in, promise).  I mean, come on, holiday light displays, street music, fried bread, and alligators?  Doesn’t get much better than that, right?

Was it kid-friendly?  Well, yes AND no.  We rarely saw other children at our chosen dinner spots, all of which had been pinned as not kid-friendly on Yelp.  BUT, we said eff it, we’re bringing the kids!  Fortunately for us, we’ve got some bomb-ass children who seem to pull it together at all some of the right times.  You never know around which corner a shrill tantrum scream sure to get the jeers of your dining neighbors may be lurking, but for the most part, they do alright.  And so, we patronize restaurants like Boucherie and Three Muses, where there is no other child in sight and people look at them like they’re zoo animals.  And when the going get’s rough and they’re tired, we pull out old tricks like chocolate lava cake and an episode of Curious George on an iPhone… because, after all, we’re in New Orleans listening to fantastic jazz music, drinking the most delicious dirty martini and MOM just isn’t quite ready to leave yet.

This photo was taken about 10 minutes before the above mentioned scene play itself out.

For me, being a parent and a person is a delicate balance and if something as simple as watching a PBS cartoon enables the family to roadtrip or eat at a nice restaurant in a new city, I’m all for it.  I am so grateful that we’re able to adventure as a family; for me, this is what happiness is made of.  I feel like I often still experience new things and places through the eyes of a child, giddiness and all, so we’re really all in it together.  Sure, children make the adventure 30% more work, but at the end of the day when they’re tucked out after a long day of roaming and dreaming of a new one, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Our family had a spectacular time in New Orleans, so much that Safari wanted to stay for “twenty more days”.

Get out there, kids in tow, and see the world!

Tokyo Mayhem and Yukata Style

We whirlwind-ed our way through a short Japanese excursion and christ, I realized that city travel with two small children ain’t no cup of tea.  I’m motivated to travel with these guys, REALLY motivated, BUT, if that meant subway, cab, and training it for weeks on end through bustling metropolises, I might throw in my towel.  With that said, our short and sweet Japanese getaway was splendid and definitely made me want to see MORE of Japan.

First, I’ll get my Hyatt tangent out of the way, or not (see below).  We opted for the Hyatt Regency Tokyo over the Park Hyatt, even though I longed to feel like Scarlet Johanssen in Lost in Translation (figured that making friends with Bill Murray would be a long shot and the Regency cost us 7000 points less per night).  If you can get past the disconnected, slightly gauty decor of the lobby and the small rooms, the location is convenient (a short walk from Shinjuku Station) and despite the not-so-toddler friendly Regency Club, cocktail hour was delicious.

After a night in Tokyo, we boarded a train bound for Hakone.  After 5 hours and three train changes, we arrived in Gora… the location of Hakone Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa.  Like I’ve mentioned before, Hyatts end up defining our family vacations these days (mostly because of my opportunisticly frugal house-wife self) and NONE have I felt more pleased with than http://hakone.regency.hyatt.com.  BEAUTIFULLY designed, IMPECCABLY appointed, and SERENELY peaceful.  Which was more than welcomed after being told by the ubber polite receptionist that no, we could not get a free ride from their shuttle with kids under 6 (to which I bitched and moaned and assumed it was going to be a repressive, sterile concentration camp of a hotel) and that we’d have to take ANOTHER train, over an hour, through switchbacks, up one hell of a mountain.  I was grateful, to be real, as that train ride turned out to be quite spectacular: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hakone_Tozan_Line.

Okay, okay.  Our trip and correspondingly, this post, is a bit Hyatt-centric (no, I’m not cool enough to be sponsored by them)… but let me get to the best part.  Gora, Hyatt Hakone, and Yukata Style.  After trying to make our way by stroller up what we found out was a mountain nearly the size of K2 to the hotel, we settled in and went to http://www.gorakadan.com for dinner.  Though far more expensive than my frugalness had hoped to spend on dinner, we dined in a private room on a coursed meal of fresh Japanese dishes and it was all made worthwhile when we were offered a ride back to our hotel in a sick Mercedes.  Ballers.  Staying at the Hyatt only because we could for free, with hotel points.  Double ballers.

During a personal tour through our immaculate room, we were told about this Yucuta Style and its suggested uses around the hotel.  We were told that we could/should (I’m still not sure) wear our Yucuta’s in all of the communal hotel spaces.  And so, we did as we were told.  Which meant that we were among a very small handful of people who executed our orders (or suggestions, I can’t be sure).  So here we are, four VERY obvious causasian folks, decked to the gills in our Japanese gear.  I almost felt like I was mocking the culture because of my eager naivety to embrace the style.  If we wouldn’t have been bringing it with our bells on, though, the world would be denied these epic-ly cute photos.

After the most relaxing of days (the hotel had a hot springs, called an Onsen – gender separated, clothing not-not optional – and to which there was a very specific ritual surrounding), we headed back to HOLY-SHIT-NOW-I-KNOW-WHAT-MAXIMUM-CAPACITY-LOOKS-LIKE, Tokyo.  And ventured through Shibuya and Harajuku (tear drop, I didn’t get to see the girls).  AND FAILED AT MY ATTEMPT TO SEEK OUT THE PLAYGROUNDS OF THE WORLD.  Damn me, damn us.  We saw a super piddly looking one while exploring through neighborhoods, hardly worth documenting.  Next time we’re in Japan, I’ll make it my mission.  Assuming that I’m not still in a selfish, lets just make the kids tag along and do whatever we want to do, mentality.

In short, great trip, much too quick but without which, Safari wouldn’t have been able to watch Alvin and the Chipmucks: Chipwrecked, 4 times, start to finish, on the flight home.

 

Taiwan – An Entirely Different Brand of China

Mainland China (the PRC – Peoples Republic of China) thinks it has dominion over Taiwan (ROC – Republic of China) and the ROC thinks it has legal control over all of China – but the two seem at least for now, to coexist peacefully.  Totally Chinese but totally not chinese, Taiwan has a unique identity.

We were able to spend a few days in Taipei, again tagging along with Daddy on business.  We stayed at the Hyatt, adjacent to Taipei 101, all 90 something floors of it.  We have, at this point, stayed at dozens of Hyatts (Daddy travels A LOT for work and accrues A LOT of hotel points) – vacations are often planned with the parameter of “where can we get on United and stay at a Hyatt”.  Anyway, I figure I should start, as a piece of my adventure blogging, document the Hyatts we stay at (for free).  So, here goes my first:

Hotel:  Hyatt Regency Taipei

Particulars:  Older hotel, nice enough suite (free upgrade).  Great service.  Decent Pool.

Highlights:  Child fun packs equipped with a new toothbrush, toothpaste and soft squishy teddy [bear]… and child sized white hotel slippers!, ridiculous but adorable.  Breakfast and cocktail hour were bomb – much better than those we often encounter.  Great views (see below).

Now that we’re done with that, onto much more interesting details of our time in Taipei.  We went to a very cool series of old coal mining villages turned touristy due to a train built to carry coal that has been turned into one that moves people.  In the town of Ping Hsi, you can write your loveliest dreams onto a paper lantern, that is then fueled with fire and sent up in the atmosphere to burn and make all your wishes come true.  Though I fundamentally don’t like the idea of sending anything up into the sky for the earth’s sake, let alone a giant fire bearing lantern (further supported by the first lantern we saw released getting caught in phone lines above our heads, sending burning pieces floating to the ground around us), I was convinced that it’d be worth the experience for the *sake* of the kids.  So, up we sent our adorned purple lantern (Safari picked), to burn to ashes and litter the land.

Taipei has incredible night markets, which anyone who has been, will surely tell you about.  My take away from the night market was this photo (which actually was quite common as I found out.  There was a “nursery” in the airport, with a crib and all):

And, finally, I’ll leave you with these:

Yes, his nails really were that dirty and yes, they look like that A LOT.

Sassy, even after I made a waffle offering to her gods.

All in all, Taiwan is a cleaner, less chaotic… I hate to say it, more westernized (for better or for worse), version of China.  Where there seem to be traffic laws that people obey and elevators that *sometimes* run below capacity.  AND, having a stroller gets you VIP access EVERYWHERE.  Which, as we’ve learned on this trip, is the shit when crossing borders and standing in security lines.  They want to get you and your little ratbags through as quickly as possible.