Excelsior, MN, USA ~ Hotel Excelsior

January 2023

In January in Minnesota, winter is still fun – a bit of a novelty after a hot, green summer and a cool, orange fall. And this winter has brought lots of snow, which can make parts of the Twin Cities feel like a ski resort town, sans the mountain views. To live happily in the “Bold North,” it’s important to get out in the cold and snow, and there’s more than enough to do. We may not have mountains, but the hiking, cross country skiing, snowperson building, winter beer gardens, ice fishing and snowmobiling (the latter two are not our thing, but still a big part of MN life) can make winter tolerable and even enjoyable.

During this three-day weekend in mid-January, we were determined to do all the winter things we love but also to get out of the house and try something new. The Hotel Excelsior, which we have had our eyes on since it opened in spring 2021, had a vacancy, and we saw it as an opportunity to see Lake Minnetonka in January.

The verdict: charmed.

All we needed and more

Hotel Excelsior is a small hotel – four rooms that sit atop a coffee shop and a Faribault Woolen Mills store  – without traditional guest services. On the day of arrival, guests receive a text (or email) with entry codes, check-in/out information, and a phone number with an offer to help with whatever is needed. We asked for some restaurant recommendations and got a prompt reply. We typically prefer hotels to VRBOs or Airbnbs, and Hotel Excelsior’s approach seemed a little more like a vacation rental than a hotel, but as we relaxed in our room with a cocktail after a seamless “check-in” and before heading out to one of those restaurant recommendations, we reflected on what we really need from a hotel. In this case, a lobby with 24-hour guest assistance and services like daily housekeeping didn’t seem important.

In our estimation, the best feature of our room – the Smithtown Bay Suite – was the six windows that run the length of the space; the view down to Water Street was terrific, and two suites in the hotel – ours and the St. Alban’s suite – have this orientation. (We did hear from another guest that she prefers the other two suites because they have a separate bedroom. To each their own.) Beyond the windows, our room had a full kitchen, a spacious seating area, a king-sized bed and a roomy bathroom with an even roomier shower. One of us described the room’s décor as “lakey.” It did, admittedly, have lots of references to Lake Minnetonka, including a few coffee table books that we had fun paging through. We also appreciated the “Hotel Excelsior” pillow on the bed, which, upon closer inspection, was a reference to Hotel Excelsior in Milan (maybe this one?). After recently returning from northern Italy, it was a welcome déjà vu.

In our short stay, we experienced just a few hiccups. We found only one robe in the room for the two of us. The hot water in the shower was only marginally hot. The kitchen sink was a little slow to drain. And the keyless entry to the room was a little hard to see at night. But these are minor quibbles and easily remedied. All in all, we appreciated the evident care and attention to detail given to the room since the hotel’s opening.

A new weekend getaway

For a getaway that feels much more “away” than it really is, we semi-regularly head east from our house to Stillwater, Minnesota, and stay in either the Lora or the Crosby. We more rarely go west from central Minneapolis, mostly because there seem to be fewer options. And while we’ve stopped by Excelsior on our way to other destinations, before this stay, we had never lingered for more than an hour or two. With Hotel Excelsior, we now have a new go-to when we want a change of scenery and a special treat within our hometown.

Stay details

What we did, where we ate

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New York City, USA ~ ModernHaus SoHo

December 2022

During our visits to New York City, we’ve come to love SoHo, and we have a favorite place to stay — the Crosby Street Hotel — but an Architectural Digest article on 11 new design-centric hotels in NYC described ModernHaus as “a case study in color and an homage to the postwar Bauhaus movement.” As lovers of all things concrete, we couldn’t resist.

It’s about the building…and the view

One of us grew up in a concrete house — designed by an architect dad — so modernist/brutalist/Bauhaus designs have always held an attraction. When we arrived at ModernHaus we pulled right up to the front door and didn’t get a look at the building itself. It wasn’t until an hour later when we headed out for a walk and saw the structure sitting in juxtaposition to the more classic SoHo cast iron facades and rising decidedly skyward. In fact, the front door of ModernHaus in on the intimate Grand Street, and it adjoins its neighbor on that lane, but two sides of the hotel are surrounded by small parks, big avenues (Canal Street and Sixth Avenue), and an approach to the Holland Tunnel. That makes a view of the whole building possible from the outside and the view looking out from inside just about as “storybook New York” as you can get.

Almost everything in ModernHaus is oriented vertically. The small lobby is all that occupies the first floor. Up a handful of steps in the restaurant, Veranda, and then the hotel’s lobby and bar occupy the second floor. Up top on the 18th floor, is the rooftop bar and long-time neighborhood staple, Jimmy’s. Even with its relatively small footprint, the hotel features more outdoor space per room than any other hotel in downtown Manhattan, according to a Forbes article on ModernHaus. We’ll admit that we didn’t take time to thoroughly explore these spaces, even though the New York City weather was amazingly mild for late-December.

Our room, a skyline king studio on the 11th floor, had stunning views of the financial district to the south (including the World Trade Center buildings), but also west toward the New Jersey skyline. The only thing obstructing the two walls of windows in our corner room was a TV mounted to the concrete pillar. While it did interrupt the scene, we understand that hotel guests expect a TV, and all the glass in the room really didn’t allow for another spot.

Nice touches but a few distractions

We arrived in our room to a bottle of chilled Cava, a cream puff (which was delicious even two days later when we finally got around to eating it), and a welcome note from the guest services manager. (As an aside, we’ll say that the staff was attentive and helpful and got us an on-the-spot booking at a restaurant where we could satisfy our paella craving.) When we managed to pull ourselves away from the view, we found a room that was well-designed and functional, and it offered more breathing room than many NYC hotels. The wrap-around windows, the high-ceilings and glass wall into the bathroom (with a mechanical blind) made the room airy and light-filled. We also appreciated that we could open the windows each night to allow in the fresh air; that — in combination with the Beautyrest “Black” mattress and Frette linens — made for a very good night’s sleep.

While we have much good to say about ModernHaus, there were a few misses. Perhaps because we’ve stayed in some truly exceptional properties, we were disappointed to see the wear-and-tear on the room and its furnishings, particularly considering the hotel opened as the ModernHaus fewer than two years ago (it was formerly the James Hotel but went through an extensive reimagining after being acquired by urban-development firm Thor Equities in 2017). The nicks and dings were visible reminders that many people had come and gone in the room, and then when we found both a pillowcase and a towel with stains, a sink that didn’t drain properly, and white duct tape securing something around one of the windows, the illusion of luxury faded. We know how hard it must be to keep hotels in pristine condition — and we know how carelessly guests can treat things that aren’t their own — but we’ve seen high standards maintained. Modern design leaves little room for scratches and dents; anything short of perfect detracts from the aesthetic.

All in all, the bones of ModernHaus are solid; a property with so much going for it deserves the constant attention a top-notch hotel requires.

Stay details

  • Modernhaus, Grand and Sixth in SoHo,
  • 3-night stay: December 28-31, 2022
  • Skyline King Studio, 11th floor

What we did, where we ate

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Amsterdam, The Netherlands ~ The Dylan

October 2022

Our stay at The Dylan was a long…time…coming. Two-and-a-half years to be precise. We originally made a booking for March 2020 but had to cancel when the pandemic arrived. The Dylan was kind enough to offer a credit to use by year’s end (we had prepaid). But when COVID dragged on, The Dylan extended our credit two more times, eventually until May 2022. Travel began opening up in The Netherlands in March 2022, but at that time, we couldn’t get away.

When it looked, at last, as if we could visit Amsterdam in October 2022, The Dylan once again extended our credit. In our minds, this courtesy went far above and beyond, and we wanted to make sure The Dylan realized at least some financial benefit from our stay two years after our original booking, so we upgraded our room and assured the folks at the hotel that we would, in fact, make it this time. Much to our delight, we did!

Finally, we have arrived

Upon our arrival at the hotel on the Keizersgracht Canal (we took the train from Schiphol Airport to Amsterdam Central Station and then had a lovely 10-minute walk to The Dylan) we were welcomed in to the intimate lobby to sit by the fireplace and take care of registration details. While completing the paperwork, we’ll admit that one of us was momentarily overcome with emotion; the check-in process was symbolic of the fact that we had finally made it to The Dylan after so many false starts and, on a larger scale, symbolic of the fact that we were finally travelling internationally again.

Our luggage was taken off our hands in exchange for tea and baked goods. Because we arrived at 11 am, our room wasn’t ready, but after giving us a tour of the hotel’s amenities, the reception staff pointed us in the direction of a nearby spot to get coffee and handed us a city map so we could do some exploring. They promised a phone call when our room was ready.

A truly beautiful room

After a cappuccino and walk around central Amsterdam, we returned to see if our room was ready. It was, and a member of the staff escorted us up to give a primer on the room’s features. We had chosen a junior suite with a canal view, and the view was one of the first things we noticed. Two big windows looked directly out on the Keizersgracht. But the room itself matched the view. The generously sized suite included a seating area with a love seat and two chairs, a desk for two, a well-stocked coffee/cocktails bar, and a bathroom with a deep soaker tub, a spacious shower and a separate toilet closet. The design in darker hues was modern but not cold; it felt a little masculine, which was a nice shift from the design approach we often see.

A few features of the room are worth noting. The Bose sound system with The Dylan’s playlist was queued up when we arrived and each day when we returned to the room. The playlist hit just the right tone – coincidentally, it included a song from a “neighbor,” Bon Iver – and although we played our own music once or twice, we were happy to let The Dylan choose the music. The Illy espresso machine was perfect for the few mornings when we had to wake to an alarm and needed a caffeine boost before leaving the room. We couldn’t get enough of the Aesop bath products. And after a hot shower or a nice bath, the fluffiest-ever slippers awaited.

Getting it right again…and again

The room hit all the right notes for us, but it was the service that capped off the experience and made The Dylan one of our all-time top stays. Shortly after arriving, a staff member delivered a big bottle of water, a box of Vinoos wine gummies and a handwritten note from the general manager. These little surprises continued throughout our stay, with each night’s turndown service featuring a little gift (a Dutch clogs keychain, baked goods, more wine gummies) and daily housekeeping service that replenished anything we may have used the night before.

The concierge team was top-notch and helped us with restaurant bookings and an early-morning transport to the airport. And the bartenders in the hotel bar, Occo, introduced us to some terrific local spirits.

Beyond our room

The Dylan occupies two buildings that represent classic Amsterdam architecture; from the street, the hotel blends right in with its neighbors. The front entrance sits at the far end of a lovely courtyard, and the connected buildings result in passageways made for exploring. Our room was the ideal choice for our first stay at The Dylan; the canal view is classic. But every individually designed room at the hotel looks like a stand-out, and we’d be tempted to try a different room on our next visit just to experience something new. Beyond our room, we spent time in the hotel’s lounge looking out on its inner courtyard. All of the common areas are inviting and feel like extensions of guest rooms’ living space.

Before our visit to The Dylan, it had been 30 years since we spent time in Amsterdam. For travelers from the US, the city can tend to be viewed as a transfer spot to other European destinations. But Amsterdam is a city with much to offer, and The Dylan is one of its shining stars. We can’t wait to return.

Stay details:

  • The Dylan Amsterdam, 9-Streets neighborhood on the Keizersgracht Canal
  • 4-night stay: October 6-10, 2022
  • Canal view junior suite, Room #40

What we did, where we ate:

Eating and drinking:

Coffee at:
Drinks at:
Dinner at:
Outings and adventures:

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Minneapolis, MN, USA ~ Four Seasons

August 2022

We’ve had some great hotel experiences in our hometown(s) of Minneapolis/St. Paul but none that we would call “five-star.” Therefore, when ground broke on the Minneapolis Four Seasons a few years ago, we immediately added it to a list of places we’d like to stay. The property opened in early summer 2022, but based on a few opening reviews, we thought it would be best to give it a handful of weeks for the team to work out some bugs. We’re glad we did. While we won’t say the hotel rises to our list of all-time favorites, it was enough to make us see our home city through fresh eyes.

Solid execution from start to finish

Because we wanted the full tourist experience, we decided to take the train from our home in downtown St. Paul to the Four Seasons in downtown Minneapolis. As we approached the front doors of the hotel with roller bags in tow, a valet greeted us and asked – in a playful and friendly way – where we were coming from and if we had walked from there. We told him we were arriving from across the river and then had a nice but quick chat about being from the same city. We would learn later that this is a Four Seasons thing – making personal connections with guests – but we have to say that it felt totally authentic.

During our two-night stay, this first experience with the valet was representative of our encounters at the hotel. From the reception staff and housekeepers to the servers and bartenders at the hotel’s two restaurants, we felt like we were dealing with pros. And we’ll admit, it had been some time since we had experienced that. The pandemic and its aftermath had understandably thrown the hospitality industry for a loop, and for the last few years we have calibrated our expectations. But with the exception of a few small things – and things we didn’t really need such as the clothes pressing serving – the Four Seasons seemed be operating on all cylinders, and we embraced it.

A room with a view

The hotel occupies 8 floors in the middle of the tower with offices below and residences above. Our room on the 24th floor delivered views of the Mississippi River and the metropolis from downtown toward the northwest suburbs. We had fun looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows and identifying landmarks we had spent time in on the ground; in fact, from the hotel, many of Minneapolis’s iconic buildings are visible. The room was thoughtfully conceived and well-executed with design-grade furnishings throughout. Everything just worked: The drapes opened upon entering. The integrated technology was advanced but intuitive. The storage allowed us to unpack our admittedly small bags and store them away (although we had a small quibble that the luggage rack couldn’t be stored in the closet without getting in the way of hanging clothes). The coffee/tea bar was well-stocked. And the bathroom was luxurious with an oversized shower and separate toilet closet. The room did, however, still feel like a room in a corporate property, which isn’t necessarily a detractor but worth noting.

The hotel’s amenities, only a few of which we took advantage – those mostly connected with food and drink – were also an appeal. (We will note that our reservation at Mara, the hotel’s restaurant, was only possible because we were staying.) And, of course, the entire property was brand new – not a scratch or dent, which added to the allure. All in all, we felt like we were having a luxurious getaway, even if we didn’t feel anything distinctively “Minneapolis” beyond the view.

Re-inspired by Minneapolis

Perhaps the best part of the Four Seasons stay was that it helped restore our belief in our city as an urban core with things happening. We had the good fortune of being at the Four Seasons on an amazing late-summer weekend, and the city felt alive. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Minneapolis has had its challenges in the last few years, but all of the people we encountered – from diverse age groups, socioeconomic statuses, ethnicities, cultural and religious backgrounds – helped make the city feel energetic, vibrant and inviting. This may have had nothing to do with the Four Seasons, but we’ll always give the hotel credit for a weekend that re-inspired us.

Stay details:

What we did, where we ate:

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Taos, NM, USA ~ El Monte Sagrado

July 2022

A one-night stay at El Monte Sagrado is certainly not enough, but that’s all we had. We arrived in Taos — a party of four that included the two of us and two parents — after a terrific four-night stay in Santa Fe at a VRBO. We had two days in Taos and booked two rooms in a small, boutique hotel (Palacio de Marquesa) that, upon our arrival, we discovered was for sale and, quite frankly, felt neglected by its owners, Heritage Hotels and Resorts, Inc. The Marquesa looks to be a special place, and the staff went above and beyond to welcome us for the night we stayed. We do hope the property lands in good hands — someone who will give it the attention it deserves and restore it to its full potential. But…for our short stay, we wanted something with a little more energy and a more robust suite of hotel services. So it happens, El Monte Sagrado is part of the same ownership group, so it was an easy transfer for our second night.

From an 8-room inn to a sizable resort

The first thing we noticed about El Monte Sagrado — and the highlight — was its grounds; they were beautiful — manicured but still respectful of the Taos landscape. Each of our rooms had a patio overlooking a lush pond full of big koi, and we had fun wandering the property to see the gardens surrounding the rooms, suites and casitas. It would have been nice to have a day or two just to really appreciate the property and perhaps visit the pool and spa, but we were on the go most of the time. We did get a few hours in the early evening to enjoy a cocktail and read a book out on the patio.

A spacious, well-appointed suite, but it’s the balcony we’ll remember

Our rooms, two Native American suites, had a living room, separate bedroom and a bath with an oversized (room for plenty) shower. The rooms felt a little dark in the middle of summer, but they honored the architecture of the area where getting out of the sun is important. And we couldn’t help but imagine how cozy they would feel during a Taos winter with the kiva fireplace burning. Each room featured unique art pieces that took away any corporate edge you might otherwise feel.

El Monte Sagrado describes the garden and pond that our rooms overlooked as the “sacred circle” and the “green beating heart” of the property. We felt fortunate to have such a beautiful view and spent almost all of our time while at our room out on the patio.

Lingering pandemic effects

As with everywhere else we’ve traveled since the arrival of COVID-19, it was clear that El Monte Sagrado was dealing with the effects — and after-effects — of the pandemic. Hotels are coming back to life, but it’s hard to plan for guests and for staffing. On the morning we checked in, one very helpful staff person was covering reception and, seemingly, all guest services. During happy hour, one bartender was serving everyone; in the restaurant, we saw the attentive staff juggling more people than they could reasonably handle. And it looked like a few maintenance projects on the grounds may have been deferred simply because staff was short. Still, we couldn’t end this post without thanking three staffers at the valet stand (they referred to themselves as “the boys at El Monte”) for giving us a fabulous green chile cheeseburger recommendation.

Stay details:

  • El Monte Sagrado
  • Our stay: 1 night, July 15, 2022
  • Room: Native American Suite, #16 Shenandoah

Where we ate, what we did:

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Santa Barbara, CA, USA ~ Palihouse Santa Barbara

March 2022

It was March 2022. The pandemic lingered on, although conditions had certainly improved since early in the year. Still, international travel was spotty and, for many destinations, hassle-filled. Therefore, for a week away in spring, we decided, once again, to stay in the U.S. We had several domestic destinations on our list to visit, but many of those were still emerging out of winter, and we needed some sunshine and warmth, so we settled on California. Palm Springs and Santa Barbara were our two choices, but the ocean was calling.

The American Riviera

The “American Riviera” town of Santa Barbara it would be.

With a destination chosen, we set about researching a place to stay and decided that Santa Barbara’s geography would dictate the decision: Did we want to be beachside? In the heart of town? Or up in the foothills of the Santa Ynez mountains that surround Santa Barbara? Although the ocean drew us to Santa Barbara, most of the best oceanfront hotels in Santa Barbara are resorts that seemed a little isolated for our taste. The same was true for our top choice up in the hills; we would have a car, but our goal when traveling is typically to stay out of the car and explore on foot or on two wheels. With those factors in mind, we went with our city pick: Palihouse, a 24-room hotel situated in Santa Barbara’s historic Presidio neighborhood.  

Quintessentially Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is recognized for its Spanish colonial revival architecture; its sophisticated but laid-back attitude; its proximity to the ocean, to the wine country of the central coast, and to Los Angeles; and, of course, it’s weather: warm, sunny days and cool mornings and evenings. To us, Palihouse embodied many of these features and, as a consequence, felt very place-based.

The hotel itself is comprised of several individual structures that surround two lovely courtyards. Against an almost-always blue sky, the white stucco walls, red-tiled roofs and iron railings of Palihouse provided a postcard-like view from almost any spot in the hotel. Our room – like all in the hotel – had both a fireplace and a balcony, and we’ll admit, on a few occasions, to having the double-doors to the balcony wide open while simultaneously enjoying the warmth and glow of the fireplace.

The courtyard off the reception and bar area, which we overlooked from our room, had a central fountain with umbrella-covered tables along with couches and chairs suited for lounging. Throughout the day, guests could be found having a coffee or a cocktail, chatting with friends or reading. The second courtyard was home to a lovely small pool, which was reportedly kept at 86 degrees – warm enough for just about any day. The attentive staff was always busy assisting guests, but no one ever seemed hassled or in a hurry, and our requests always received quick responses.

During our stay, one of our favorite rituals was walking into and out of the hotel property through the back entrance where we would almost always see a few small lizards sunning themselves on the sidewalk (one of which we could recognize because of its half-tail) before walking in between two historic buildings to emerge into the grounds of the Presidio. This route made the hotel feel like part of the historic monument itself.

Room No. 3

The hotel began as the Santa Barbara School of the Arts in the 1920s and, immediately before becoming the Palihouse, was the Spanish Garden Inn. In fact, we found the hotel through a London Telegraph article that pointed us to the Spanish Garden. In March 2021, the Palisociety group opened the hotel after completing all new interiors throughout the property, which Palihouse describes as an aesthetic that blends “vintage preppy” with “American Riviera.” That design – however one would describe it – was clearly articulated and cohesive throughout the hotel, and elements from individual rooms carried through to the common areas, which happened to be some of our favorite spaces.

Our room was spacious and, with the exception of the bathroom and entry, bright. One of our favorite features was the two soft chairs that sat just inside the balcony. With the doors wide open, we could enjoy the view from the balcony while still having the privacy of sitting in our room. In addition to the already-noted fireplace, the room also featured a big, comfortable bed with Frette linens and a Nespresso machine (although we wouldn’t have put the coffee in the bathroom).

Perhaps because the hotel was not purpose-built, a few elements in our room did feel a little awkward, and one or two choices didn’t fit with the rest of the generally well-executed rooms. First, the room wasn’t effectively set up for stays of more than a few days. The closet was spacious – and the staff cheerfully delivered a bag full of additional hangers – but the quite-small chest of drawers inside the closet wasn’t enough to allow us to properly unpack. (For the record, we were there for a week but only brought a carry-on suitcase each, so we didn’t need vast amounts of storage.) Additionally the bathroom, which we’ll admit was our least favorite part of the room, didn’t have any towel racks and only a few hooks. From a sustainability perspective, we aren’t guests who need or want fresh towels every day, but we didn’t have anywhere to hang wet towels or washcloths, so we took to draping them over the tub. The bathroom itself was dark, and the shower and toilet, which were in a separate “closet” from the tub and sink, felt cavelike; a glass window between the shower and the tub only partially mitigated the challenge. Perhaps if the fixtures of the bathroom had been of higher quality, the feeling would have been different, but the soaking tub was plastic, and the faucet was loose. The vanity for the sink didn’t have any storage for toiletries, and it was clear that an older piece had been spruced up by covering it with a pleated fabric drape rather than bringing in a new vanity, sink and counter-top.

Other smaller quibbles related to visible extension cords, burned out light bulbs, and oddly placed art, which may have been from Santa Barbara’s vibrant arts community, but seemed oddly commercial and not in keeping with the rest of the hotel’s interior design. Finally, in our room, the placement of the full-sized Smeg refrigerator right at the front door made for an oddly tight entrance. (We did happen to walk by a few other rooms when the front door was open, and the refrigerator placement seemed unique to our room.)

Cocktails anyone?

The Palisociety brand is unstuffy and fun, and from what we can see the hotel facilitates fun by encouraging cocktail/wine/beer consumption. Upon arriving in our room, we were invited to enjoy a half-bottle of prosecco “while getting settled in.” The room’s refrigerator was stocked with all of the cold necessities for crafting any cocktail, and what wasn’t in the refrigerator was in a bedside tray. Of course, while on holiday, who really wants to make their own drink? This is especially true when the hotel offers a complimentary cocktail hour many nights (we never quite figured out the logic of what nights featured a cocktail hour and what nights didn’t) where anything on the menu – or off the menu – was on offer. And during hours when the bar was closed, we also had access to an honor bar off the main courtyard. Let’s just say, we definitely didn’t go thirsty during our stay.

El Compendio

All in all, Palihouse Santa Barbara was a good choice for our week-long stay in Santa Barbara. We loved the quiet neighborhood that was close to so much we wanted to see. The staff were genuinely kind and helpful. The size of the hotel lent itself to an intimate and cozy vibe without feeling too inn-like where everyone knew everyone else’s comings and goings. And we loved the inside/outside spaces.

Palihouse embodied many of Santa Barbara’s distinctive features and, as a consequence, felt very place-based.

Would we add Palihouse to the list of our top hotel stays? Probably not this time around. We tend not to put “value” high on our list when assessing a hotel, but we will say that Palihouse was as expensive or more so than some of our favorites, and we don’t think it quite stacks up, even when considering that Santa Barbara is a costly destination and we were traveling during a peak week. This feeling was reinforced when, after returning home, we got a second credit card charge from the hotel. After calling to inquire, we learned that although we had paid for our room upon check-in, this additional charge, which was not negligible, was for the daily resort fee. We would certainly call Palihouse a lovely small hotel but not a resort.

Stay details:

  • Palihouse Santa Barbara in the downtown Presidio historic district
  • Our stay: 7 nights, March 19 – 26, 2022
  • Room: deluxe king, #3

Where we ate, what we did:

Eating and drinking:

Breakfast at:

Breakfast at Rudy’s

Coffee at:

Beer and snacks at:

Dinner at:

Treats at:

Outings and adventures:

Near Butterfly Beach

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Key West, FL, USA ~ H20 Suites

August 2021

Key West is an interesting place. On the surface, it has the markings of a party town: abundant access to frozen drinks, purveyors of “excursions” on every corner, and people cruising the main drag in golf carts designed to fit half a dozen passengers or more. When we arrived in Key West in August 2021 – still in COVID times – this was our first impression.

There’s more to Key West than meets the eye.

But during our week-long stay, we came to see that there’s more to Key West than meets the eye. And H2O Suites served as a terrific base camp to explore the island and, when needed, escape from it.

As first-timers to Key West, we chose our hotel based on experience of properties we tend to favor: small but not too small, independent (generally) ownership, quality (over quantity) amenities, and exceptional service. In a town – or is it on an island? – with loads of choices, H2O Suites seemed to check all the right boxes.

Key West International to H20 Suites

The drive from the Key West airport to the hotel is only about 10 minutes and takes a route mostly along the ocean with a few quick jogs during the latter part of the trip. In terms of landmarks, H2O Suites is just a few blocks from the island’s Southernmost Point. While most destinations we’ve traveled to by air involve flying into airports on the outskirts – or beyond – of central districts, this cab ride was amazingly quick, and it gave Key West immediate bonus points as a destination. We’ll note that many visitors access the island by car from Miami; according to all of the Key West residents with whom we spoke, the drive through the Keys Causeway is beautiful, but it can also be excruciatingly slow. We were happy to fly right in.

A hotel highlight: the central garden

Upon checking in with two friendly staff members in a modest lobby, we were escorted to our room through a beautiful central garden that gave us Northerners pause the first time we saw it and, quite honestly, every time we walked through during our stay.

In addition to the lush tropical foliage, the garden has a water feature that runs nearly its length with sculptures and a fireplace that came on each night; while certainly not needed in August temperatures, the fireplace was beautiful nonetheless. Early in our stay, we met a tiny lizard in the garden that came out on the sidewalk to catch some sun and some bugs. We took to watching for it each time we walked by. On several days, we even got to see the lizard’s big green uncle as we were going to/from our room, which, like each room in the hotel, was accessed from the garden rather than through a typically interior hallway.

Suite 15

When we made our booking, we debated whether we wanted a room with a private plunge pool on the first floor or one with a balcony overlooking the garden on the second (top) floor. The hotel has a really lovely rooftop pool, so we opted for the balcony rather than plunge pool, thinking we could request a change once we arrived if the plunge pool was too good to pass up.

Upon seeing our room – and the rooms with pools below us – we were happy with our choice. We really liked our perch on the top floor, which – from the balcony – felt a lot like a tree house. A few days into our stay, we did learn that the “plunge pool” rooms across the garden from us are more private; on a return visit, we might give one of those a try.

The balcony overlooking the garden (our room had a second, smaller balcony on the opposite end) was surely one of our favorite features, and we spent several mornings with coffee and several evenings with cocktails there. In between the two balconies was a spacious, comfortable and well-appointed room for our week-long stay.

A few features worth noting:

  • a marble-heavy bathroom with a big shower, plenty of space for two people, and lots of natural light;
  • a mini-bar with a sink and built-in fridge and freezer drawers. Turn-down service each night included Dove ice cream bars, along with baked goods for the next morning, and the staff made sure we always had plenty of water – very important for hydration in Florida in August;
  • a seating area with a couch and coffee table – and a second TV, which we turned on once just to say we used it;
  • more than adequate storage. The room had a large, well-structured closet and plenty of additional furnishings with drawers. Our only request would be for a few more hooks to hang wet bathing suits, towels, and exercise gear washed freshly washed from hot and humid excursions;
  • Egyptian cotton robes; two big umbrellas capable of standing up to tropical storms; and lots of towels, which came in handy for the multiple daily showers required by tropical heat.

Beyond our room

H2O Suites isn’t heavy on amenities; beyond guest rooms, it’s only the pool with poolside bar and fitness room. We didn’t set foot in the fitness room, but we spent plenty of time at the pool and were treated fabulously by the two staff members who were on duty during our stay. Throughout the day, a selection of gratis drinks and snacks are offered at the pool, and if those don’t suit, the bar is fully stocked. The pool isn’t large – it’s really more suited for soaking than swimming – but it’s perfect for cooling down and just the right depth for propping up on the edge to read a book – Hemingway perhaps?

The hotel also offers a concierge service; we didn’t end up using it much, but we did appreciate being able to rent bicycles for the week, which were, by the way, the perfect way to explore the island. On the list of excursions offered by the hotel is a day trip to Cuba. COVID – and politics – put that one on hold, but if we return, that would be top on our list.

Feedback for…a handful of guests

Our only quibble had nothing to do with the hotel itself or the staff, who were generally wonderful. One reason we were attracted to H2O Suites was the 25+ age policy; we felt this policy, along with the room rates, would eliminate visitors who had come to Key West for only a party. Unfortunately, there were a few (just a few) hotel guests who seemed to treat the hotel and the staff with little regard. For example, we cringed when – from the middle of the pool – a guest took to barking out orders for drinks to the person working at the poolside bar.

While H2O Suites may not make our top three all-time favorites, this Key West boutique hotel was certainly well-executed, rarely missing a beat. With a great location, a friendly and professional staff, and standards that met all our expectations, it’s a place we would certainly return to when we find ourselves in the southernmost tip of Florida again.

Stay details:

  • H20 Suites near the Southernmost Point in Key West
  • Our stay: 7 nights — August 7 – 14, 2021
  • Room: Luxury second-floor balcony suite

Where we ate, what we did:

Sunset in Key West from Hot Tin Roof

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Pandemic Hotelling

June – November 2020

Hewing Hotel, Minneapolis, Minnesota ~ Hilton Tru, North Platte, Nebraska ~ The Kindler, Lincoln, Nebraska ~ Hotel Crosby, Stillwater, Minnesota

COVID-19 and hotel stays. As most travelers have found, the two don’t go well together. When the pandemic arrived in the U.S. in March, we were scheduled for a 12-day holiday in London at The Standard and in Amsterdam at The Dylan with a Eurostar journey between the two cities. Those plans got put on hold when, first, we thought we might not be able to get back from Europe and, then, when much of the world went under some sort of “stay at home order.” So we did just that until late June when it seemed okay enough for a quick night out of the house at the Hewing in Minneapolis. That was followed in mid-July by a road trip to Denver to visit family with stays in North Platte, Nebraska, at a Hilton Tru (outbound) and in Lincoln, Nebraska, at The Kindler (return). Thanksgiving brought a few days away from work and a stay at the Hotel Crosby.

Minneapolis, MN, USA ~ Hewing Hotel ~ June 2020

We had stayed at the Hewing once before and wanted a chance to get to know it better. It’s a Minneapolis favorite, and we were a bit underwhelmed on our first stay. We should have known that pandemic conditions would not lend themselves to a destination that is all about buzz — from its rooftop bar and pool to the lobby that has been called the North Loop’s (the neighborhood’s) living room. We arrived to a completely empty lobby — in fact, much of the public space on the first floor was cordoned off — and we made our way up to our room without encountering a single person. Once inside our room, we logged on to the special COVID guest information and learned that, to ensure health and safety for guests and for staff, the hotel was only booking rooms on every fourth night. We also noticed that amenities like the mini bar and decorative items like throw pillows had been removed. It all made sense, and, in fact, we had brought our own container of sanitizing cloths to give everything a quick wipe down, but it all made the room feel a little sad and empty, much like the rest of the hotel.

Our first stay at the the Hewing was in a standard king room; this time we chose a suite with the hopes of having some extra features and a good view. Our corner room was spacious and well-designed, but hopes for a good view were dashed when we walked in and saw that each of the room’s three windows began seven feet from the floor and went up from there. Even standing on the bed, we couldn’t see out. The lack of (any kind of) a view made us feel even more sealed off from the world. We contemplated asking if another room were available, but knowing all of the extra cleaning done and safety precautions taken — and because we were only staying one night — we didn’t want to cause a fuss.

So what do you do in a hotel that trades on hustle and bustle when everything that fosters that is shelved? We were able to have a masked and socially distanced drink on the rooftop. The pool was open to guests who reserved (we didn’t have swim gear), and a small group looked like they were having fun on the hot June afternoon. We took a few good walks down the nearly empty streets. And we got takeout burgers to eat back in the room while watching old movies. All in all, our Hewing stay wasn’t quite the break from pandemic world that we hoped for, but it was a welcome change of scenery and a surely safe outing.

We do have to compliment the hotel for COVID-related safety precautions taken. At a time when spending a night at any hotel might have seemed risky, we never felt like the hotel had anything less than our complete safety in mind.

Stay Details:

  • Hewing Hotel, North Loop Minneapolis
  • 1-night stay, June 27, 2020
  • Hennepin Suite

North Platte, NE, USA ~ Hilton Tru ~ July 2020

We’ve made the drive between Minneapolis and Denver dozens of times, and one thing we’ve learned is that — even in normal days — the road is heavily traveled, and lodgings can be in high demand. And most of them are your garden-variety roadside inns. When we planned to make the trek to Denver once again, we knew we should book ahead, and pandemic days made us lean toward one of the bigger chains, which we thought might have a better handle on health and safety protocols (at that time, many of the more rural areas between Minneapolis and Denver were treating coronavirus pretty casually). We figured we would do our stopover in North Platte, and did a booking.com search for possibilities. Perhaps not surprisingly, the options had grown since we had last stopped in the central Nebraska town, and we had lots of choices. Having never tried the Hilton Tru brand — and seeing that the brand was new to North Platte — we made the booking.

We weren’t sure what to expect when we pulled into the parking lot on the edge of town adjoining the highway. The hotel was visibly new, a big structure sitting on a bare lot surrounded on all sides by parking lots or a road. As we pulled in, it was clear that the pandemic was driving people to car travel; the parking lot was nearly full — quite the opposite of what we had experienced a few weeks earlier at the Hewing, and we weren’t sure what to think. Inside in the lobby, we found a fair bit of activity, but everything was well managed.

The room had a functional European vibe (complete with a few features to love); it reminded us of some of the places we stayed in Norway. The room was small, but space was optimized, and everything had its place; the room felt modern and clean (not the worst thing during a pandemic.) Overall, the feeling was friendly and fun, and the experience was more than we expected at a surprisingly low price point.

Stay Details:

  • Tru by Hilton, North Platte, Nebraska
  • 1-night stay, July 18, 2020
  • King Room

Lincoln, NE, USA ~ The Kindler ~ July 2020

On our return trip from Denver, we stopped in Lincoln, Nebraska. When we drive between Minneapolis and Denver, we typically opt to stay in Omaha, which is 60 miles to the east and a bit bigger with more choices. But Lincoln is home to the University of Nebraska, and we both have a fondness for college towns. We booked The Kindler in advance, having found it in a search for hotels close to the university. It billed itself as a modern deco hotel, which was intriguing for a town that loves its cornhuskers (not a concept immediately associated with deco, although, we suppose, the deco movement did celebrate business and industry).

Right away, it was clear that the 49-room Kindler was trying to make its mark in downtown Lincoln, offering visitors something more than the typical college-town lodging. We could imagine what the lobby bar — Boitano’s — might be like on a typical, non-pandemic July evening. We had booked a “luxury king” room, and upon check-in were told that we’d get a lovely room with a balcony; the staff just needed to check to make sure the room was ready. Unfortunately, something went askew, and when we returned with our bags to pick up the key, we were told that room was no longer available. The room we did get was quite nice with the exception of the view. Rather than a sliding glass door with a balcony on the front of the hotel, our room had a window overlooking a parking garage.

With the exception of the giant flat screen TV and built-in mini fridge, the room did have a deco feel and was very well executed. What’s more, everything was in pristine condition. The hotel is new, so everything is fresh; the team at The Kindler will have to work hard to keep the standards up, particularly when the Nebraska football fans roll into town, but so far, they had done a good job.

Boitano’s Lounge

Did we mention that the bar is named after figure skater Brian Boitano? We made a point of stopping in — it was open, but empty so seemed not too coronavirus risky — and we wanted to give the bartender a little business. She, like all of the other staff we encountered, was super helpful if not too experienced. We asked her about the name of the bar. Did Brian Boitano have a connection to Lincoln? Perhaps to the university? Apparently no, but the hotel’s owner, who lives in Arizona, is friends with Brian. Or maybe it was Brian’s mom? Or something like that. The bar is quite simply an homage, and we think Boitano would approve.

Stay Details:

Stillwater, MN, USA ~ Hotel Crosby ~ November 2020

We spent two nights at the Crosby over the Thanksgiving holiday, so we decided it deserved its own post. Find it here.

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Stillwater, MN, USA ~ Hotel Crosby (pandemic edition)

November 2020

By the time Thanksgiving 2020 rolled around, we had been living in pandemic world for eight months. Most of us (those paying attention anyway) had cancelled — or never made — holiday plans. For us, Thanksgiving is never a great time to connect with family, as we both work right up until the day. We do, however, routinely, organize a quick two-person getaway for the long weekend, leaving on Thanksgiving morning. This year, we longed for a change of scenery but knew we had to stay within driving distance. And we had wanted to check out a new hotel — the Crosby — in Stillwater, a town on the banks of the St. Croix river just 30 minutes’ drive from St. Paul. In fact, we had booked a room at the Crosby in Summer 2020, but a reservation system error on the part of the hotel upended those plans. As an apology, the hotel sent us a free night’s stay. We thought we would accept that gesture but also give the hotel some business by staying a second night. We’re so glad we did.

Quiet but never lonely

The 55-room Crosby felt just right for the times. Although the hotel was relatively empty when we were there — at least we saw very few people other than staff — it never felt lonely. Someone was always available in the cozy lobby to help if needed, and even though the hotel bar and restaurant were closed for seating, a fabulous bartender, who may have also been a member of management, set us up both nights with cocktails and quite exceptional food from the hotel’s restaurant, MatchStick, to eat in our room. During our stay, we developed what felt like a kind of solidarity with the staff; it seemed they were genuinely happy to have us there, and we were so grateful the hotel was open to host us. (In one of our conversations, we learned that the two-year-old hotel had its best summer ever in 2020 catering to people like us who needed a little break from the pandemic in an environment that wouldn’t sacrifice health and safety.)

In non-COVID days, we could imagine the Crosby being quite the happening spot. Between the bar and restaurant — with its focus on craft spirits: 700 of them — and the rooftop pool and fireplace, the public spaces were inviting even when empty.

Celebrating Stillwater’s heritage

Unlike many buildings in Stillwater, the Crosby is new and purpose-built; it opened in October 2018. But references to the town’s history as an important sawmill center play prominently in the hotel. Our room featured wood beams, a sliding barn door, and furniture made from reclaimed wood, including a big platform bed perfect for toe-stubbing. Our room was bright and cheery with a roomy balcony (unfortunately not of much use in November in Minnesota but appreciated nonetheless) and playful touches like a bathroom mural featuring a cigar-smoking matron. Because all of our meals were taken in our room, we also made good use of the seating area in front of the TV where we stumbled upon and somehow got enchanted by old episodes of “The Partridge Family.”

Perfect for adventures on foot

Unlike the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Stillwater’s core is small enough and tourism-focused enough to still have some life during a pandemic. We happened to be out getting coffee when Santa rolled through on a Stillwater fire truck, and the lights on main street helped get us in the holiday spirit. We took two longs walks: one along the river where the lift bridge has become a foot bridge and one up through the neighborhoods above the bluffs to see all of the big Victorian homes. We had fun looking at real estate listings for an “inside” tour of some of the homes.

Together with The Lora, Stillwater is now establishing itself as a town with some terrific lodging options that go beyond the traditional bed-and-breakfast choices that dominated until recently. With a nice selection of restaurants (we hope they all outlast COVID-19), non-chain retail and beautiful surroundings, Stillwater is becoming a favorite destination for a quick break. We’ll certainly return to the Crosby.

Stay details:

  • Hotel Crosby on Main Street in Stillwater
  • Our stay: 2 nights — November 27 and 28, 2020
  • Room: Premium King

Where we ate, what we did:

Interested in more pandemic hotelling adventures? Visit this post.

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Mexico City, Mexico ~ Downtown Mexico

January 2020

Four-and-a-half hours traveling south through a single time zone will get you from Minneapolis to Mexico City. The access hasn’t always been so convenient, so until recently, we had delayed a visit, even though mega-cities have long ranked high on our list of places to see. When Delta introduced a direct flight from Minneapolis and friends invited us for a long weekend in the city, we jumped at the opportunity. When those friends unfortunately had to cancel, we decided to go on our own, have some mezcal and tacos for them, and bring home ideas for next time.

La Condesa. Roma. Polanco. Coyoacán.

Downtown Mexico

These were the neighborhoods that kept coming up as we researched Mexico City and places to stay. They all sounded lovely, but we were intrigued by a handful of articles that featured a hotel in the historic center of the city just a few blocks from the Zócalo, its main square. This part of Mexico City is experiencing a kind of renaissance, and while the hotel itself – aptly named Downtown Mexico – is only six years old, it is housed in a 17th-century palace situated in a UNESCO World Heritage area.

Palatial in a modern, minimalist way

In a city with 23 million people and things to see from end to end, we knew we would only dip our toes in the water during this short stay. The list of sights we wanted to see included several near the historic center, so that neighborhood seemed like a strategically wise choice. Then, when we read about Downtown Mexico and its adaptation of the palace building into what The Telegraph described as a neo-industrial hotel with lofty pared-down rooms and cool communal spaces, we were sold.

We arrived at Downtown Mexico on a warm January afternoon after being picked up at the airport by the hotel’s driver. As the porter delivered bags to our room, we enjoyed a welcome shot of mezcal and then got a brief introduction to the hotel’s facilities, including the rooftop pool and bar and the breakfast terrace. From there, we were on to our room, the Revolution Suite.

Panorama – The Revolution Suite

We had seen pictures of the suite on the hotel’s website but were surprised – in the best way – when we entered for the first time. The scale of the space was breathtaking with barrel-vaulted ceilings 20 feet tall. The stone and plaster walls, tile floors and shuttered doors were complemented – but not overwhelmed – by simple wood and leather furniture. The architecture of the space provided the design, which had brutalist elements, but at the same time was soft and warm.

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Downtown’s good company

The hotel is small – 17 rooms – but it shares the palace building with several other businesses, many of which we took advantage of during our stay.

Azul Historico

Azul Historico occupies one of two courtyards and is perhaps the most popular restaurant in the area. It was perpetually busy during our stay, and after having dinner there, we knew why. The palace also has a second restaurant, Puntarena, that specializes in fish; a small collection of Mexican-owned shops that sell boutique clothing, foods and gifts; and a well-regarded coffee shop on the first floor. Just outside the door of the hotel is one of Mexico City’s primary shopping districts, so we didn’t need to go far to find anything we might need.

Good to know

We don’t often use concierge services when we travel because we aren’t big planners, but Downtown’s chief concierge and her terrific colleagues helped us with several arrangements, including transport to and from the airport; tickets to the Frida Kahlo Museum; and reservations at Emilia (aka Milia), a relatively new arrival to Mexico City’s excellent dining scene. Throughout our stay, the staff also gave us helpful tips on things to see and do.

Downtown Mexico may not be the most luxurious place in which we have stayed, but it is certainly one of the most unique and memorable. It ranks in our top 3.

A few cautions for travelers with particular expectations: The hotel is in a bustling area, and the rooftop bar turns into a party spot at night. With our balcony door open, we could hear the sounds of the city late into the night. When we closed the door, it was very quiet. However, we can imagine that the rooms directly under the bar aren’t quite so peaceful.

Additionally, the rooms can be dark, particularly on cloudy days. We appreciated that the architecture of the room wasn’t cluttered with things like light fixtures, but that did mean the vast space was lit only with lamps and a votive candle — yes, a real candle. When the sun was out, light found its way in, and our room had the advantage of two shuttered doors on the east and west sides. Other rooms face only into the courtyard, and on a rainy day when the courtyard covers were drawn shut (we got to see the remarkably quick button-up on a rainy day), the whole building became quite dim. We love spaces that fluidly move between inside and outside and express the mood of the day, but we know not everyone feels the same.

Feeling fortunate

Downtown ranks as one of the most distinctive places we have stayed, and we feel lucky to have found it. The suite made the visit even more out of the ordinary; we highly recommend booking this particular room. Pictures can’t accurately capture the hotel’s spaces – and we could go on for much longer describing the many details we appreciated – but suffice it to say, Downtown Mexico is well worth a visit to experience yourself.

Stay details:

  • Downtown Mexico, central historic district
  • 3-night stay, January 17-19
  • Revolution Suite #14

Where we ate, what we did:

Frida Kahlo Museum