Hosteling: A Home Away From Home!

Since returning from my 18-day stay at the Hostel Suites in downtown Mexico City, many of my friends have asked, “How was it?”  In a word - “delightful.” 

Back Story: When my Mom said she wanted to go to Mexico City to see the Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine early in 2015, I thought this would be a great opportunity for us to go together (we had never before, just the two of us, travelled together). I had also been reading much about the City’s urban renewal.  An added bonus was my Mom loves staying in hostels (Blog: Discovering Hostels in your ‘70s and ‘80s) and I have always wanted to give it a try.

The Hostel Suites offered us a private room (with full bathroom) and free breakfast for $38 CDN/night (including the 10% discount because my Mom is a Hotel International member).  The location was great, just a few blocks from the Hidalgo Metro station and an easy walk into the Historico Centro (150-block historic district) full of museums, churches and shops, as well as an easy bus ride to Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine.

At the airport, I hopped into a taxi with my Hostel Suites destination and address written on a sheet of paper; however upon showing it to the driver he looked puzzled – not a good thing – but headed out.  The taxi ride was like a car chase scene from a movie - he cut in and out of traffic, headed up back alleys and side roads to bypass the traffic jams. Let the adventure begin!

Arriving save and sound at the Hostel Suites, I quickly took note we were across the street from the Plaza Revolucion Hotel (4.5 star) and half a block from Krystal Grand Reforma (4 star) – a good sign! 

Hostel Suites lounge. The wall mural was painted while we were there and completed for the "Day of Dead" dinner.  

Hotel Suites at night. There is a coffee shop and restaurants next to the entrance and across the street in the Plaza Revolucion Hotel Hotel is a Tequila bar. 

This Could Work!

The receptionist (located in a tiny space, under the stairs in the long hallway entrance) greeted me with a smile, knew that I was arriving and my room was ready.  Good first impression! I was given a quick tour of the TV room, kitchen (with large fridge for guests’ use), two lounges (one with a beer fridge) – all these rooms no larger than what you would find in a typical Canadian home, the exception being the kitchen – it was smaller than you would find in a 500sf condo.

Not our bedroom. Yes you can get queen beds and rooms with TVs. 

Our room, a barren large concrete box had two single beds, a bunk bed and a small desk; no pictures on the walls. The bathroom was large, with a sink and metal industrial lockers off the bedroom and a separate toilet and shower area next to the sink. This could work, I though!

Heading to the lounge for a beer ($1.20 CDN), I was quickly invited to join in a conversation about current world politics, travel, music and movies with group of six young adults from London, Perth, Amsterdam and New Zealand.  We then all headed out for something to eat (found a taco stand where we got 3 tacos for $2.40 CDN) and then back to the hostel’s lounge to continue our marathon discussion until 1 am.  For my entire stay, I was treated to wonderful conversations at breakfast, happy hour and late evenings.

Interesting to see how the future of mankind is viewed by 20 and 30 somethings from other countries. There was no talk of golf handicaps, aging parents, health issues or home renovations!  Over the 18-days, I realized it was not only an age thing but you view the world differently when you are travelling for 6 months at a time (which seemed to be the average length of their adventures) vs. a couple of nights or weeks vacation.  Travelling the world for extended periods of time definitely opens your eyes and mind.

Hotel Suites dining room. 

The bathroom sink.

Trip to Xochimilco

I think I cramped my Mom’s style a bit on this trip as usually when staying at a hostel, she mixes and mingles with others, even hanging out with the “kids” at times, but with me hanging around, she didn’t do that.  

The picturesque dock area is jammed with colourful boats all painted pretty much the same.  They make wonderful reflections in the water.

However, we had one major adventure with a “hostel tribe”, when eight of us headed off for an afternoon to Xochimilco, a quaint village with a wonderful market. The village is known as the Venus of Mexico for its colourful open air trajinera boats that float along canals bordered with amazing fields of flowers, garden centres, homes (large and small) and surreal, naked doll installations. 

This involved our first trip on Mexico City’s crowded subway and then transferring to another train. Once there, we walked to the dock (not really knowing where we were going) where the trajinera were. After deciding how long we wanted our boat trip to be, we negotiated a price for the boat and then again for beer and food from the boat vendors along the way. It all happened very smoothly.  After our boat ride, we wandered the streets to find a bar for more drinks and to soak up the ambience of the village, before making our way back to the train station for our return trip. A great day!

The peaceful and serene canal at the beginning of the trip is soon replaced by numerous vendor boats selling beer, food and musical entertainment. 

These dolls hanging from the trees and fences along the canal in various places make for a surreal experience. 

The Xochimilco market was a beehive of activity of merchants, deliveries and shoppers.  It was full of colour and smells, exactly what a market should be.

Wonderful display of flowers along on of the streets at the Xochimilco market. Flowers are big business in Mexico City, with incredible displays in almost every church we went into. 

Day of Dead Party

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Mexico in late October/early November was to experience the “Day of the Dead” festival.  Little did I know that one of the traditions of the Hostel Suites is to host a party for guests. The staff (and owner) prepared all the food and dressed up in their Day of the Day attire, hosting all 50 us to what I imagine to be a typical family “Day of the Dead” Party. How authentic is that!

Me, my Mom and Hotel Suites owner. 

Hostel vs. Hotel

One of the great things about staying at a hostel vs. a hotel is how much more relaxing it is. I think it has to do partly with expectations. When you stay at a fancy hotel, you expect everything to be perfect – room décor, staff and food.  As a result everybody seems to be a bit stiff, trying to make a good impression both the uniformed staff and the other guests.  When people sit in a hotel lounge, rarely does anybody already in a conversation invite a stranger sitting near them to join in a conversation – yet this is a common occurrence at Hostel Suites. 

The hostel is like being at home - people slouching on the couch watching TV, (usually soccer), others on their laptops and still others are in the kitchen/dining room.  In the morning, people came down for breakfast in their sweat pants and t-shirts, wet hair and no make-up. I didn’t live in residence at university but I imagine pretty much the same scenario. Everyone was relaxed. Nobody was trying to impress anybody. People mixed and mingled easily.

There was no menu at breakfast. Everyone had the same thing -  a bowl of fresh fruit, a couple of pieces of toast (the homemade Black Currant jam was to die for), the daily feature (I loved the quesadillas) and coffee.  And yes, you could ask for more if you wished.

There were no fancy omelettes, frittatas or eggs benedict, no espressos either. It was relaxing not having to make a choice. Everyone just seemed happy with what they got.

Unlike a hotel, there were no extra pillows or towels at the hostel. In fact one day (we did have daily housekeeping service) they replaced my towel with something that I would have thrown in the rag bag, but a request for a new towel was quickly answered and we moved on. The bed’s mattress was very firm and to my surprise, it suited my back better than ours at home. The sheets were thin but fine given Mexico City’s warmer climate.

The hostel receptionists did double duty as concierge. Every day we told them what we wanted to see and they would print out a map with how to get there (bus, metro or walk) and suggest what to see in the area or along the way.  They arranged our day trip to Teotihuacan with a local tour company. They were as good as any 4 or 5-star hotel concierges I have experienced – always friendly, smiling and helpful.

When it came time to leave, they even had a fixed-price private car service to take us to the airport (35 minute ride) for $18 CDN.  Our 18-day stay at the hostel cost us a total of $684 CDN – many would pay that for a weekend getaway.

Hotel Suites inviting lounge chairs.  The lounge had a great patio ambience with just a plastic sheet covering the rooftop opening high above. Doesn't this shout out "Relax."

Safety

Safety was never an issue at the hostel with a 24-hr receptionist. We had card key locks just like a hotel. While the streets around the hostel were visually a bit rough, I never felt unsafe during nightly walks which took me off the beaten path to find local street vendors, quaint family restaurants and cafes, as well as small parks and plazas.

Last Word

I would definitely stay at a hostel again and if I go back to Mexico City, I would stay at the Hostel Suites. It quickly became my home-away-from-home.

Hosteling isn’t for everyone and I am not sure it is for me all the time, as I too love the plush towels, bathrobes, nicely decorated rooms and other frills that come with a luxury hotel.  And I am definitely not sure if I could stay in one of the shared rooms with shared bathrooms (what my Mom usually does when travelling alone).  

Not all hostels are created equal. Some people moved to Hostel Suites from another hostel because theirs was too noisy from partiers.  Though many guests said Hostel Suites had the smallest hostel kitchen they had ever seen, many were able to cook up some tasty-looking meals.

Based on a sample size of one, I found the simplicity and friendliness of the hostel refreshing.  There was no pretentiousness at Hostel Suites - appropriate given both my Mom and I agreed that one of the great things about Mexico City is its lack of “pretentiousness.”

If you are curious about staying at a hostel, I encourage you to try it. You might like it and your wallet sure will!

If you like this blog, you might like:

San Miguel: An Experience Of A Lifetime!

Queen of the rails goes to Alaska

Discovering Hostels in your 70s and 80s

 

Florence: People & Places (a photo essay)

This photo blog focuses on the offbeat people and places we encountered over 12 wonderful days of flaneuring in Florence in the Fall of 2014. It was an enchanting experience, from my favourite gelato shop waitress, to the husband and wife seamstress half a block down the street from our apartment who spoke no English, yet managed to help me find a new handmade belt. In between are photos from thrift stores to boutiques, galleries to street art, markets to churches, parking to cycling, fashion to food.

In reviewing, my photos I noticed there were two major differences from our Dublin experience.  One being the number of seniors in the streets of Florence and the second being the centuries of urban design that create a wonderful array of textures and light in its City Centre. 

We hope you will enjoy the photos and would love to hear which ones are your favourites.

If you want to see more photos and stories about our Florence adventures, click on the links below:

Window licking along Florence’s Via Tornabuoni

Florence BFFs: Best Flaneur Finds

One Night in Florence

The ugliest pedestrian bridge in the world?

Flaneuring Florence’s Markets: Flea, Food & Fashion

Public Art: Calgary / Florence / Rome

 

Busking with style.

Salvador Dali's Bike?

No wonder Picasso painted faces as he did!

Just one of many very stylish parking garages.

A Florence office building?

Lots of open doors...

I wish I could read Italian.

A work of art and very tasty! 

Magritte would have loved this photo.

Ghost busker....

Sisters sharing donuts?

Instead of tree lined streets, Florence has motorcycle lined ones. 

Would you drink out of this street fountain? Supposedly you can.

Obviously I am not the only one taking a photo of this intriguing reflection. 

My fashionista advisor. 

Florence comes alive at night. 

What was he thinking/feeling to create this drawing? 

Art is everywhere in Florence, yet there is very contemporary little public art. 

Market madness...

There is no lack of empty shoe boxes in Florence. 

Florence's finest were there to greet us when we arrived.

These ladies were moving quickly. 

Fountain of youth?

Window licking anyone?

No line up at the Marino Marini Museum...we liked that!

Once you get to the edge of the City Centre, the streets are much less crowded.

Cars, bikes, scooters and pedestrians share the road.

It was hard to go to sleep after discovering this church was open on one of our nightly walkabouts. 

Blue Man Group?

Does it get any better than this? Taken from a balcony restaurant at lunch.

Small space, narrow places...smaller is better?

People watching fun!

Innocence?

Climbing the wall fun.

Elvis? 

Fashionistas heading to the thrift store. 

Who needs wide sidewalks? enhanced streetscapes? 

My other fashionista advisor.

Who needs a car to carry a lamp home? 

Iceberg soup!

Everyone is out for their evening stroll.

That is a mighty big steak?

No dedicated bike lane? No problem? 

Fashionista at the world's most amazing thrift store. 

Now that is a tight parking spot.

This photo is not upside down.

Self serve wine - how good is that!

Seattle vs Calgary: Capturing the urban tourists' imagination?

For years now friends and colleagues have been telling me “You have to go to Seattle. You will love it!” In May, we did visit Seattle (we have been there before but it was 12 years ago) and yes we did love it, but I couldn’t help but wonder why people love Seattle so much when Calgary has as much urban culture to offer.

Seattle, like Calgary, is a corporate city - Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks are all headquartered there.  However their downtown doesn’t feel as “corporate” with downtown blocks having a good mix of hotel, residential and office buildings, with some street level retail and restaurants thrown in.  In fact, on Seattle’s downtown neighbourhood map, they refer to it as the downtown retail core.  In contrast, Calgary has 40-blocks filled with two, three and sometimes four office towers per block and no street retail except for Stephen Avenue.

Downtown as a tourist attraction

Perhaps the biggest difference is Seattle’s downtown is perceived as a major tourist destination. Great tourist cities have iconic attractions.  In Seattle, hands down, the icon is Pike Public Market.  But Seattle also has converted their 74-acre, 1962 World’s Fair site into a year-round attractions district, clustering the Experience Music Project, Chihuly Gardens, Science Centre, Children’s Museum, Space Needle, IMAX and Key Arena into an area called Seattle Centre. Calgary’s equivalent would be Stampede Park - if we added the Calgary Tower, TELUS Spark and the new National Music Centre.

To visualize what the Calgary Flames are proposing for West Village, Seattle would be a good place to visit given its side-by-side baseball and football stadiums at the south end of downtown along the water’s edge, next to the LRT and Amtrak tracks.  We explored the area a couple of times (when there were no games going on) and it was like a ghost town. I hope the Flames do better.

From an urban design (architecture, public art and public spaces) perspective, Seattle and Calgary are similar, both having early 20th century historical buildings districts (Pioneer Square vs. Stephen Avenue) as well as many shinny late 20th and early 21st century towers.  Seattle’s free Olympic Sculpture Park along their waterfront includes a who’s who of international public art, while Calgary’s entire downtown is a sculpture park with over 100 artworks. 

The Seattle Art Museum (known as SAM), like Calgary’s Glenbow, is both an art and history museum.  We lucked out on the day we went - SAM is free on the second Thursday of the month. The place was packed – making me wonder why the Glenbow doesn’t offer one day free per month like most museums and galleries in major cities. 

Seattle, with its huge convention centre, makes Calgary’s look very minor league.  I loved that the public areas have hundreds of artworks that are free for all to explore.

Loved the psychedelic reflection of the Seattle Needle in the facade of the futuristic Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project building.

Seattle Convention Centre has a galleria over the road connecting the large exhibition spaces and meeting rooms.  Inside there are hundreds of artworks that create a free public art gallery.  A similar galleria was proposed for Stephen Avenue in Calgary connecting Bankers Hall and TD Square but never got built. 

The Seattle Central Library is an iconic architectural gem that is popular with both locals and tourists.  Hopefully Calgary's new Central Library will have the same popularity. 

Like Calgary Seattle has public art everywhere.  This piece that using water from the roof of the building caught my attention. In addition, Seattle has a massive Art Park with a "who's who" of public art artists. 

Hotel Fun

The hotel culture in Seattle seems very different from Calgary’s, focusing much more on the leisure tourist vs. the corporate traveler.  In “sleeping around” downtown Seattle, we discovered a delightful commonality - a vibrant “Happy Hour scene.” The historic Mayflower Park Hotel (famous for their martinis) offers guests free appies in their intimate Oliver’s lounge. The hipster Hotel Max offered free local craft beer in their lobby/living room (as well as great art and several large picture windows for catching the city’s “sidewalk ballet”). The playful Hotel Monaco offered a wine tasting with very liberal pours.  Seattle could well be the Happy Hour capital of North America, with 600+ happy hour listings in “The Sauce “magazine.

Mayflower Park Hotel is full of historic charm and character.  It is perfectly located for shoppers just a block away from Nordstrom and Macy's. 

Hotel Monaco had the most colourful hotel rooms we have ever stayed in.  The yoga mat was a nice touch.  

Every room at the Hotel Max had a door with a large photograph on the door by a local artists.  On our floor all of the doors had photos of Seattle musicians.  Very cool!

Like Calgary, Downtown Seattle lacks a real Main Street for shoppers.  From a tourist shopping perspective, I was surprised at not only how fragmented their retail is, but also that Nordstrom’s flagship store wasn’t more grand and upscale. Calgary’s The Core shopping center surpasses anything Seattle has to offer shoppers and Holt Renfrew is grander than anything in Seattle.

Urban Living

Urban living is exploding in Seattle - 58 residential projects will add 10,000+ residential units in their City Centre over the next few years. In comparison, Calgary has 7,194 units approved or under construction in its City Centre. Like Calgary, trendy urban communities surround Seattle’s downtown core. 

Dozens of highrise condos dot Seattle's urban landscape.  Seattle's monorail provides a futuristic perspective of the city for tourists, as does Calgary's 20 km +15 elevated walkway. 

Cafe Culture 

Belltown is Seattle’s Beltline with lots of new highrise condos, trendy restaurants and its link to the Seattle Centre (1962 World’s Fair site) i.e. their Stampede Park. 

Capitol Hill and First Hill communities are separated from Seattle’s downtown core by the I-15 interstate. Capitol Hill is the city’s hipster district with several new low to mid-rise condos and restaurants opening weekly.  It is home to Starbucks’ mega new Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room and several other local roasteries. Calgary’s equivalent would be Mission/Cliff Bungalow with its 4th Street restaurant row or Kensington with its abundance of coffeehouses and roasteries.

This Coke machine appeared mysteriously over 15 years ago, outside of the Broadway Locksmith near the corner of John and Broadway in the trendy Capitol Hill district.  Nobody knows who it belongs to, where the money goes or who restocks it.  It seems pretty popular as two people stop to buy a beverage while I was taking photos. 

The Denny Triangle is an extension of the downtown core, much like Eau Claire is in Calgary with a mix of office and condos. Amazon purchased three blocks in the district to create its highrise campus, which will be analogous to Eau Claire’s campus-like collection of dark blue glass oil patch towers - Devon and Centennial towers soon-to-be joined by Calgary City Centre and Eau Claire towers.

South Lake Union, Seattle’s newest urban community, anchored by a Whole Foods store is quickly becoming surrounded by condos, restaurants and shops.  Bridgeland would be Calgary’s equivalent.

Whole Food patio in South Lake district creates a wonderful street buzz. 

Urban Living Test Drive 

For anyone thinking of moving to one of Calgary urban communities and wondering what urban living is all about I’d recommend a trip to Seattle and staying in a couple of different hotels. Our penthouse (12th floor) suite at the Mayflower was equipped with two bathrooms, a lovely living room area with city and sea views and Macy’s and Nordstrom across the street.  If you like old world charm, this is your spot.

If you want some fun new home décor ideas, check into Hotel Max or Hotel Monaco.  At Max, each room door features a full, door-size local photographer’s work. Walk the hallways and enjoy the free photography exhibition. Our room had original art, as well as a record player with local musicians’ records. How cool is that?

Hotel Monaco is like living in an Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein 60s Pop Art artwork with its use of bright colours and bold patterns. It is amazing how big 500 square feet can look and feel when the city lies outside your front door.

Seattle is know for its coffee, what surprised us were the scrumptious biscuits and jam that on many menus. Yum! Yum! 

Last Word

Creating a vibrant city centre is more than just making it a place to “live” (new condos) and “work” (new office towers).” It is about creating a fun urban playground – shops, museums, galleries, restaurants, cafes, concerts, pubs, festivals, theatre, parks, public art and architecture. Calgary’s city centre has much to offer urban tourists as Seattle, Portland or Denver, but for some reason it hasn’t captured the attention of urban tourists. 

It is certainly not from a lack of trying by Tourism Calgary!

Click on links below for Calgary blogs that connect to statements made in this blog about Seattle vs Calgary: 

Beltline: North America's best hipster neighbourhood?

Kensington: One of North America's Healthiest districts

NoBow: Jane Jacobs could live here!

Ramsay: Calgary's FFQ Industrial District

Port Angeles: A 24 hr quickie?

On a recent trip we were trying to figure the most interesting way to get from Seattle to Victoria.  The easy way would be to just jump on the Victoria Clipper, which takes you from downtown Seattle to downtown Victoria.  However, our good friend Pam Scott at Red Lion Hotels suggested we take the bus to Port Angeles and experience the historic Black Ball Ferry from downtown Port Angeles to Victoria.  We decided to check it out and we are glad we did. 

The trip is a bit more convoluted as you have to get to the Greyhound Bus Station in Seattle, catch a mini-bus for a scenic drive to Port Angeles and then catch the Black Bull ferry to Victoria.  

As we did more research we realized that Port Angeles would make for a great over night stay so we contacted Pam to see if there was any room at the Inn. Sure enough she got us a room, but it wasn’t easy as the hotel was hosting a Transgender Conference, which made for an even more interesting experience. The fun never stops.

If you are in Seattle or Victoria and are looking for a fun day trip or perhaps an overnight quickie, Port Angeles should be on you list. 

Here is quick photo essay of the fun things to see and do in PA without a car and without leaving town. 

Port Angeles' Main Street has lots of little shops for those who want to shop and window lick, especially if you like antiquing or people watching from places like the Next Door gastropub patio. 

Great towns have fun surprises.  We loved this huge rubber ducky that was in the Safeway Parking lot. 

We couldn't pass up Port Angeles' Goodwill store where we found this "Twist Board" made by Donco Products Corporation in Lakeview Oregon and Innisfail, Alberta.  I had to have it! Thought it would be a good exercise while watching the Flames on TV this winter!  Brenda also found a few gems at this well stocked thrift store. 

Jasmine Bistro meal

After a quick walkabout to find a place to eat we settled on the Jasmine Bistro and we were glad we did.  The staff were extremely friendly and helpful. The food was as good as it looks.  We loved the names of the dishes e.g. Crowd Pleaser and Seducer.  The menu is extensive, something for everyone. 

Swain's General store was a walk back in time with lots of fun things from upscale outdoor fashions to hardware, housewares and hunting goods - something for everyone.  The wall of fishing lures was mesmerizing for a non-fisherman like me.  

Next door Gastro Pub

Lunch was at Next Door gastropub. We could have stayed there all afternoon.  We immediately struck up a conversation with a young couple at the bar who had just moved to the area and were loving it.  The beer menu is extensive so a tasting board is the best way to go.  The ale battered Albacore fish & chips were probably the best I have ever had. Brenda ordered a second helping of the citrus slaw and I had a second order of the homemade potato chips.  A ten out of 10. 

Port Angeles has perhaps the most amazing art park that we have ever experienced.  It is a delightful 1 to 2 hour discovery experience for people of all ages and backgrounds.  It is about a 20-minute walk from downtown.   More information at: World's Best Art Park

There are many lovely gardens in the spring if you wander into the residential areas, which makes for a lovely stroll on the way to and from the art park.

A short walk from downtown is the blackbird coffee house, definitely worth the walk. Good coffee and treats - I had the pecan tart.  We found the blackbird on our way to the art park.  A perfect spot to stop after exploring the art park or the residential gardens in the neighbourhood. Also a great place to mingle with locals. 

Downtown Port Angeles has several murals and lots of sculptures that make for a fun artwalk. This mural is of the 1946 Black Ball Line's Art Deco ferry, the Kalakala, which was the first to employ commercial marine shipboard radar on its Bainbridge to Seattle route. 

The Ferry Terminal in Port Angeles is a mini-museum with lots of photos and information about the interesting history of the Black Ball Ferry Line.

You should definitely get off the beaten path to find some of the fun local retailers not on Main Street.  Red Goose Shoes is like a shoe museum, with lots of artifacts and a fun children's area.  It is also a walk back in time.

Where to stay?

If you want to stay overnight the Red Lion Hotel is our pick.  It is right on the water, close to the ferry terminal and two blocks from downtown.  It is a perfect spot for your 24hr quickie in Port Angeles. They even have bikes for you to explore the waterfront or cycle around town.