Thursday, 27 August 2015

Zhiwa Ling Hotel (Paro, Bhutan)


Zhiwa Ling Hotel
Satsam Chorten, Paro
Kingdom of Bhutan
Ph: 975-8-271277
Email: info@zhiwaling.com

The only Bhutan owned and operated 5-star  hotel, Zhiwa Ling is a dream come true, because of its traditional architecture and craftsmanship, its facilities, the friendliness and care of their staff, and the quality of the service.

Just entering the place is like being part of the royal family  because the hotel lobby is just like one of those palaces and temples that travellers visit in the country. A central inner courtyard with stunning (stunning with capitals) woodwork, paintwork, carving work, and the staff dressed in traditional costumes help you to realise that is a hotel like no other. Zhiwa Ling has a large wide garden area, with different blocks of grey stone where the rooms are located, tea and meditation houses, pond and seating areas around. 

THE ROOMS
The rooms where we were placed were fantastic. A block has only six rooms, so they are large and spacious. Wooden floors, Bhutanese decorative elements and classy sober facilities, with huge comfortable beds and marble bathroom.
 
My suit was very spacious, elegant and classy, with a rear balcony facing a tranquil part of the gardens and very luminous during the day. This spot was delightful, really pretty and cozy (see the photo above), and very conducive to relaxation and meditation. The room was spotless clean and kept that way during my stay. I also loved the small seating area in the room (leather armchair, a two-seater couch, coffee table and floor lamp), and coffee facilities; perfect to unwind, read or have a chat. Free fast wi-fi always makes me happy. 

RESTAURANT
The Hotel's Restaurant is spacious and very pleasant, not that imposing or posh, but the staff, the service and the food make for the rest. Their buffet breakfast is excellent. Everything there, even those things that seem to be very European or "imported", are locally produced, sourced and prepared. They are yummy, flavoursome and very fresh.  I personally loved their Danish pastries, the mini-glasses of fruit yoghurt, and their omelettes, but everything I tried was great. The restaurant opens for breakfast at 6am, but only cold dishes are served until 7am. You can have breakfast delivered in your room for no extra charge. The hotel staff will knock on your door at your preferred time on the clock.

Dinner and lunch are served in the same restaurant. Their dinner setting changes from day to night, and the mood is more intimate and classy. They have a mix of international dishes very well cooked, with several options for entrée, main and dessert. The local staff are working hard to bring an à-la-carte menu in the future (perhaps already have it, I don't know), but I really liked everything I had and they serve decent portion sizes, especially important if you are back from trekking. 

They had a good wine and spirits selection, but very expensive, more expensive than in Australia or UK. But hey, alcohol is not a necessity and if you cannot enjoy a dinner without a drink you probably have an alcohol problem :O.

SERVICE
If you want to experience what good service really is, go to Zhiwa Ling. I have been in many posh hotels in different countries, and this is the best service I have had so far. People seemed genuine, did not seem to be too pushy, too servant-like or too bothersome, they were very smiley and seemed to enjoy their job. Even the guys opening doors for you were lovely despite the task at hand, literally. I did not feel that, like in other hotels, things were done to get a tip. I hate that feeling and I get it often in many places, so it is great that these people made our stay so pleasant. 

The manager of the hotel (a Kiwi, by the way!) comes out to receive visitors personally at the lobby, no matter a couple or a group. How special is that?!

THE SPA
The Spa is not very big but very pleasant, well organised, comfortable and with very kind staff. They specialise in massage, Bhutanese hot-stone baths and facial treatments. The girls are really lovely and I absolutely loved the soothing massage and facial I had there. They are really excited that you are visiting your remote country and are keen to talk and know everything about you and your country if you feel like having a chat.

EXTRA KUDOS
>> Meditation and Yoga areas in the garden.
>> Golf cars to move you around if you need them, day and night.
>> Money exchange service at reception.
>> An oversized umbrella is placed in the veranda by your door if the weather is rainy. 
>> The boys opening the door were just gorgeous. They really look hot in the traditional dress. :O

MIND
# The hotel is a 25-minute drive from Paro city.
# Golf caddies are used to take your baggage in and out your room. The guys have to take the bags on their shoulders to the upper floors as there aren't lifts, so be mindful and don't carry too much stuff. If you do, you are visiting the wrong country. Also, think if you would like to carry that sort of weight on your own shoulders.
# Alcohol is very expensive in the bar and restaurant.
# All the floors are floorboards. So every time you walk they crack. That is specially noticeable when you have people staying in the room above yours. The movement of two wheeled suitcases might sound like the end of the world or a bunch of noisy neighbours dancing flamenco. No, it is not the case, it is the flooring system and people leaving for an early flight. 

IF THIS WERE MY HOTEL I WOULD....
>> Improve the lighting of the rooms, which is way too dim for people with poor sight, and not good for reading or opening the safe for example. I always carry a torch with me, but adding a more powerful  lamp would easily solve the problem. 
>> I couldn't  find the heating/cooling air-con. I might be disguised and operated by the staff. I don't know. The floorboards and the stone walls contribute to the overall coldness of the rooms. Bhutan is in the Himalayas, so even in spring it is cold at night. Perhaps having portable good-quality heaters or a clearly signed system would be great.
>> I would remove the small carpets from the room as they don't have stoppers and, despite being beautiful, they can be a nuisance. Bigger ones or no one. My opinion. 
>> The towel hanger and the bath were too high for me! I could not reach the hanger on my toes! This might be great for tall people, but for average sized women, is not! Perhaps I am not average :\
>> It would be great if the Spa offered a few more services for the ladies, like pedicure, manicure, and hairdressing.
>> It would be great having an ATM in the hotel

***

Visiting Zhiwa Ling is an experience in itself. This is not a luxury hotel in the strict sense of the word, but the luxury is being in that amazing country experiencing an eco-friendly sustainable hotel, the profits of which go to the locals. What is more, the hotel is stunningly beautiful and the staff really welcoming and warm. This is a kind of hotel you cannot visit elsewhere. Unique and unforgettable. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Amazon Book Store (Online Retailer)

I visit Amazon Store very often, sometimes daily, mostly to buy e-books. Although I have purchased items that are not books from Amazon, this review is about the book store, from which I have been buying for years.

I rarely buy books on paper any more unless I need them and they are not available on digital format. This being the case, and Kindle being a free app, I have buying and reading Kindle ebooks for many years at very affordable or cheap prices (and some of the classics for free). Most digital serious books in Amazon would cost you around 9-10 American bucks, some academic ones included (although these tend to be way more expensive especially if very specialised). To be fair, I have also found many Kindle books (especially old ones) to be more expensive that the hard copy, but this is the rule not the exception. And really, you do not have to pack ebooks when you move.

I usually buy my ebooks and hard copy book by using "Buy with a click" button. You just press the button, and voila. You need to have your personal details and credit card registered and the button activated. Dangerous! because pushing a digital button is the easiest thing when you fancy something. Digital books are delivered instantly to your device/s, and a sale confirmation  emailed to you. The return polices for digital books are great. Sometimes you press the "buy this ebook" by mistake or just start reading it and you think it is bad quality or does not work in your device, and you can return it, no questions asked. 

If you buy a hard copy book, the procedure is the same, but your order takes a while to be processed and dispatched. The process of fulfilling your order is not immediate, even if the book is in stock, so you have a natural cooling period to cancel your order if you want. Delivery times vary from state to state and country to country. Usually, Amazon tells you the estimated natural period when you can expect your book at home, and they are right on the spot most times. A tracking link is provided with your dispatch notification email, so you just have to wait and see. Your hard-copy book contains also return forms just in case you want to return it or exchange it once you have it at home. In the past, I bought books that were very expensive in Australia at half the price for the same edition and book on Amazon. Despite the high International rates for some of those books, I got them way cheaper.

Prime and Kindle unlimited are great, especially if you live in the USA, but not so if you do not. Waw waw wawww.  On the other hand, Amazon has full sites in several countries; if that is the case, you will benefit from having access to the many features that they have, which are limited in partial Amazon sites. One of the advantages of having an Amazon account is that if you don't find the book you are looking in the American store, you could find it in other international stores, and sometimes a way better prices, and you can access those sites by using the same email and password you use to log in on your home Amazon. I have experienced this to be the case with the purchase of bilingual dictionaries that costed a fortune on Amazon, but were one third or half the price for the same item and edition in their country of origin.

If you are new to Amazon and are making your first purchase, you might find that the site can demand your VISA to be verified. You do that through your bank's website. Most online retailers do not require this any more, and I am not sure if Amazon does so nowadays as I have been buying from them for years and my card is already verified. I think it is great that they required visa verified cards as this is an extra layer of security to your purchases. 

Before ordering anything outside the USA, not to inflate your purchase and not get surprises, check two things:
> That the book is sold and dispatched from Amazon warehouses. That means that the costs will be way cheaper than any other retailer selling on Amazon.
> If you are buying from other retailers through Amazon, check in advance their pricing for International deliveries, before proceeding to purchase, and decide if this inflates the price of your product or is still good.

In the past, I found Amazon Customer Service polite, very well organised, but extremely robotic and idiotic, annoying and frustrating despite them wanting to help. The good thing is that I only required their help once in the last 15 years. As I have already mentioned, books returns are effectuated automatically without any question being asked, no fuss, and immediate in the case of ebooks.

Amazon's reviewing system is great, but I have found a bit bunch of trolls, preachers, author's pals, author's mad fans, and free-book-for-review reviewers (Vine Voice being an example, clearly marked as so though) who can be an annoyance. Generally speaking, though, I trust the site's reviews and some reviews and reviewers are amazing. I have discovered amazing books through great reviewers. As a rule of thumb, always look for those reviews and reviewers who tend to have a "verified purchase" sign in their reviews.  Amazon does not do enough, not much really, to stop trolls, something that annoys me a lot, and they allow clear sexist comments, clear to anybody with two eyes, to stay there even if you complain. I think this is the case because those dealing with that sort of complain are... sexist themselves, which is disgusting and shameful.

The Kindle App is fantastic and you can download it and use it for free anywhere, your phone, tablet, PC and laptop. I would not recommend updating it too often, unless it is giving you problems. Many of the updates come fully charged with bugs and they can be very frustrating when they do not allow you to read the books you own or keep crashing the app. The reading experience with Kindle is fantastic as you can adjust the size and style of your font, brightness, spacing and margins and the lateral toolbar allows you to navigate the book in the easiest possible way. Unlike Google books, the passing of one page to another is not realistic, something I really love and miss. Besides, Kindle is not good for reading PDF book, EPUB books or any other format that is not Kindle. Yet, it is understandable.  Google Reader does no allow you to read Kindle books either.

Kindle for PC or Kindle on the Cloud, are also free and alternative ways to have your books at hand, especially if you need some of them for work, which is my case.

Regarding the rendering of books on Kindle format, although most books (and graphic books) are launched both in hard copy and on digital form at the same time (therefore, identical), many others ebooks are edited digitally way after the hard copy was published. Some editorial houses do not bother to update books that were not originally prepared for the digital market. So, you can find yourself exasperated because, despite being charged full price for a book, the rendering of the book for Kindle is defective, unpolished, lacking a bit of work, footnotes rendered badly, indexes rendered badly, and so on. Things that rest enjoyment to the joy of reading, and which I consider both a disrespect to the author and the reader.

Overall I am a devotee of ebooks and of Amazon Book Store.

Booking.com (Online Retailer)


 
I have used this site extensively for years and I only have good words and a great experience.

I tend to alternate my bookings between this site and Expedia, depending on which of them is selling cheaper, or better rooms for the same price, or better hotels for the same price.

The variety of accommodation is more than you will need, from backpacker places to high luxury, and everything in between. It is up to you what you pay for. They always have better pricing than other hotel online sites like Agoda or Asian Rooms, just to mention two examples, also a better review system and things are mentioned upfront to you.

Most of my bookings with Booking have been for overseas places, and I have always been happy with the pricing, booking system and how things went once in the hotel. I never found myself surprised by what I found, because, well, I knew where I was going and what I could expect.

The information page of each hotel is extensive, well organised, with a great amount of photos to see where you are heading to, plenty of reviews, plenty of room options and pricing to choose within a hotel, and specifications and pricing clearly shown.

One of the things I like most about Booking is the fact that they have more fully-refundable options than other sites, and also that changing and playing with your booking dates is not only easy, but you won't be charged for it, and your booking will maintain the pricing you first paid if the rooms are available for the new dates. This is something important to me, because I have changed dates of holidays or dates of stay quite a bit in the past with a great peace of mind.

The conditions of the booking and specifications of the rooms available for each hotel are clearly visible and stated, with colour markers for important stuff, so you won't miss anything because the font is too small or not visible enough.

I always trust their reviews, because the come from certified travellers like me that cannot post anything there without receiving the link after you finish your stay. Moreover, the amount of reviews that the place generates is higher than any other site, perhaps as bold as Tripadvisor (but here reviews are not verified, just monitored), way more than Expedia, Agoda or any other site. To me, the more reviewers the merrier, because I have an array of many different people telling me that Hotel X is bad, so-so or terrific, and which things are a miss.

The only downside I can think of, is the fact that some hotels, especially in the past, allowed you to book and pay at your hotel's reception desk. I never like that, because it opens the door to trouble in countries and with people who see Westerners as a rip-off object. So I tend to book rooms in which the payment is automatically deducted from my bank account, without me having to go to the reception desk to pay for anything but the extras.

My experience has been fantastic so far and I hope it continues the same. I have a trip coming in  a week or so, and I will be using Booking. 


They also have an app, who doesn't?!, and it is very clean to the eye and well organised and easy to browse and book. I use it just to browse, as I always prefer booking from my laptop. 

Cover-More Travel Insurance (Online Retailer)



I travel quite often, and these days I pay for travel insurance. 

Cover More has been my travel insurance company since ever, meaning since I started paying for travel insurance. There were years in which my only insurance was praying the heavens to protect me because I did not have the money to do pay for anything but the ticket. I found the pricing of the polices really high, taking into account that I have rarely had any problem and that this might be the case of most travellers. Just guessing! They claim that spend many millions on claims per year, and I believe them; however, I think that the number of people not claiming is higher.


However, there is no detour. I have compared Cover-More with other travel insurance companies (even with my health insurance company, which offers discounts to members for Travel Insurance) and Cover-More is cheaper or the same price, depending on the policy, but it has more benefits. So I am stuck with them.

I would like their policies to be a bit more flexible and considerate with regular customers. But they do not have regular customers because their idiotic system does not record us as such, no matter how many times you book with them. They should implement a rewards point system for people who regularly buy their policies, and points added for travels done without claiming anything. Then, turn the points into discounts and voila. That would make me happy. And you.

The only time I had done a claim, everything was easy-peasy. The claim was for a last-minute flight change that forced me to move intercity immediately and the only thing I could find available was a room in a five star hotel. I produced the receipts, told them what had happened and I was fully reimbursed, no fuss.

In the past, I used to book on the phone because their website was just good for quotes but useless for booking. Currently, it is pretty good for bookings and I book directly online.

I am never happy paying so much money to a Travel Insurance company, but, really, if I got sick or something bad happened to me overseas, their policies give me a great peace of mind, and they are cheaper than other companies out there. So let it be.


Expedia (Online retailer)


I have used Expedia so much in the last 7-8 years and with so much satisfaction and saving me so much money that I am surprised at the low ratings out there on the net.

I travel overseas almost every year, sometimes twice a year, and I have booked flights alone, hotels alone and combos, always with great satisfaction and Expedia working as a machine for me.

I started using Expedia because I was fed up with the poor customer service (even lies) I got from my usual travel agencies (those constantly advertising on TV ). Also their prices seemed always more expensive than those I then saw online, and last episode was that the departure of my return flight from an overseas trip was changed in the Christmas period, and nobody bothered to tell me in the agency. I found out by chance and I found myself in a dreadful situation with a lot of out of pocket expenses and difficulty to find transport and hotel.

I truly hesitated to organise my first holiday with Expedia. Travelling is something sacred to me. If somebody or something messes up things, I am going to be furious and devastated. However, everything went great. I have been using Expedia services ever since.

The offer of places and companies is huge, from the humble backpacker place to the super-luxurious hotel, from the low cost airline to the the posher one, from national to International flights. The booking system allows you to clearly see waiting times between flights, something I find important because bygone are those days in which I considered reasonable waiting 10+ hours in an airport no matter how super-duper the airport. If there is any change to your flight, no matter it is of 5 minutes, you will receive an email telling you that your flight details have changed.

Pricing is great, usually the cheapest prices in the market, that is why I book with them. My love is not blind, ever. Sometimes the hotels are better priced at Booking.com, so I book those there.

The booking system is fuss-free, clear, easy to follow, with all the important things mentioned and visible upfront.

Depending on the destination, you can also book and pay for your transfer at cheaper prices than you would if you paid it at the regular prices you find them in your country of origin. I have used the service a couple of times and worked smoothly for me. Expedia also offers day tours and activities for some places, but I have never booked any of those. Travel insurance is also on offer, and I have also used it for short trips; for long ones or combo holidays I use other companies.

My last interstate ticket was purchased with them, the arrival and departure separated eight months, at fantastic prices and with Qantas. Last year I had a multi-country trip, so I did book the flight through a normal travel agent; however, the agent offered me a limited number of hotels at ridiculous prices. I checked those on Expedia and they were cheaper and offered better rooms. I ended buying all my hotels in five different countries via Expedia. Got there, presented the voucher, tadahhhh no fuss.

I have reviewed many of the hotels and companies I booked through Expedia, following the link they provide once you have finished your flight/stay, and they have always been published. Therefore, I trust other reviewers' reviews. A good deal of the reviews in Expedia come from Trip advisor, a place I trust because I am a contributor.

Expedia has a 24/7 Customer Service. I have used just once and the guys on the phone were very helpful. Unfortunately, the conditions of my tickets were set and there was nothing I could do. Since then, I make sure I find out whether the flight dates can be changed or not, and how much would cost me. That it is easy, because that sort of information is mentioned upfront while you are booking.


EXTRA KUDOS
> They have a decent app, so you can carry your trip details on your device without the need of printing. I personally prefer using my laptop for bookings (security reasons, size reasons, sight reasons), but it is great having the choice of browsing hotels and flights from your device. 
> They have launched a reward program, which is always great to be part of if you are a regular frequent traveller.

DOWNSIDES
> Although you can re-schedule the dates of your flights and hotel bookings, there is not a straight way to do so like in other online sites. Basically, you have to cancel your existing booking and rebook again. That is not convenient most of the time, because if you do that, the pricing you will be charged is the one valid at the moment of booking, not the one you initially booked. This might result in a change of hotels or airlines and higher prices.

> There are many reviewers online unhappy with Expedia. To be honest, if I was booking for the first time, I would be scared. Yet, I don't think this is the majority of users of the site.

TIPS
Before booking you should:
> Check and recheck that the dates you have typed and shown are those that you really want.  

> Check and recheck that your name is correctly spelled.
> Be sure that your ticket or bookings are refundable or you can change them paying little.
> Buy travel insurance. Life is unpredictable.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

WTF Foodie Moment 8: The Gift

I received this email from one of the community managers of a review site in my city. It sounds good. But is it good? Is it innocent? Below the real, but edited, emails. 

(...) I’m So-and-So, one of the community managers from X site. I just wanted to get in touch to say hey and congrats on being one of our top reviewers in city X!
We would love to send you a little so-and-so gift to thanks for your awesome posting. If you could reply with your full name and postal address that would be fantastic. (...)

My reply:

Hi So-and-So
Thanks a million for the detail.
Unfortunately, I don't give my personal details online, especially to people I don't know and are managing network online sites. I am very conscious about data collection online and no "gift" is going to change that, especially when X site could easily give a voucher for the fortunate to collect the goodies in person or just a gift voucher. I always love those.
Having said that. I appreciate the good will. 
(...)

The question is, how many of the fortunate people who have received this email have said no?

THE FOLLOW UP
After my email the same manager wrote to me saying that she totally understand :O and offering me to go to their office to collect the gift in person, and that the gift is some vouchers from some business they work with. So I am not hurrying to collect anything. A block of French pate would make me happy :D. 

GIFTS THAT ARE NOT GIFTS BUT A WAY OF MANIPULATING
If you want to give me a gift. Great. Send me an email voucher that does not require of me giving my personal details to an stranger and, even worse, to a website partly financed by local businesses, which would be thrilled to get a positive review or just a review. Because you carry the voucher, they would treat you like a queen/king, very differently from the rest of mortals, so that you leave feeling that they have the best customer service ever. 

This sort of free gift policy is very similar to the polices implemented in Yelp. Although Yelp is way more generous and many of the freebies do not come with a suggestion to make a review afterwards (but they would end with one), many of the exclusive invitations to restaurants and the Elite Events are given with an explicit request to write a review, and you letting yourself being photographed no matter you don't want because it is in the Terms & Conditions and by being there "for free" you are selling your image to them for a plate of food.

Nobody forces you to review those places, of course. nobody tells you, I give you this free ticket in exchange for a review, the request is implicit, though, in many of the gifts received. However, most people being invited to an Elite event are explicitly requested to write a review about the business. High ratings are the result. There is no problem with that when the business and the product deserve it, as this benefits both parts. I can count the many times I really enjoyed the event and I was more than happy to give high ratings to a business. The problem arises when you do not like the business/product/service, or you think it is just mediocre, but you feel psychologically obliged to be grateful by rating higher than you would if you were paying for the same. This psychological bias affects us all, even if you aren't aware of, and marketers know how to exploit it. 

In the last two free activities I attended in Yelp most people I talked to thought that the food was OK and the business giving the tickets not really good. In the first one several people told me just that, explicitly, but added: "I feel bad after all the special treatment and food we have received, giving them a low rating and saying what I really think". However, most people wrote four and five-star reviews full of babble. Almost nobody said that the food was amazing or deserving of five stars, just that the evening was great and thanks to the business for organising it. I myself did so with a 4-star review (when I thought 3 would had been fair), and I felt that I was betraying myself. I did not like the feeling. The second time, I was on an outing organised by a new foodie business that gave free tickets to yelpers; as soon as the event started yelpers were explicitly required to write a review. None of the people who attended did so because, talking among ourselves, we thought that the rating would be low and that would be a bit ungrateful. However, this request was enough for me not to write anything and quit Yelp and erase my whole account. There were other important reasons why I quit the site, but the "gift for a review" weighed in my final decision. My quitting did not happen without the resistance of Yelp itself, something that convinced even more that I was doing the right thing.  In fact, Yelp does not have a cancel-your-account button you can press when you want, and you have to request it by email, and the USA and local Yelp managers contact you on this trying to convince you not to quit, as the site is really good for you (BS) and question you about why. Why do I need to give an explanation at all? Isn't my wish reason enough? Am I not a free person? Am I not an adult? Their closing-account policy is similar to that of the data-sucker flock-manipulator Facebook, and I don't like it a bit.

A gift is a gift, give it freely, not as a subtle way of manipulating people to get what you want. 

I don't want to be in that position ever again. Well, ever again is perhaps a too-bold assertion. If I was on the dole or had a low salary, I would be happy to grab restaurant invitations. If I was offered a voucher to visit the best restaurant in town, I would grab it closed eyes, too, but this rarely happens as top restaurants do not need of those tactics to get high ratings. Until then, I am independent in my reviews without the pressure of going against my gut to be grateful. I feel that doing the contrary is betraying myself and I don't like how that tastes after the meal.

NB: A friend told me just today that somebody (i.e. yelpers) could be upset because of my words. Really? I find it puzzling. I am not responsible for other people feelings, especially when this is a personal blog and what I say is my personal view of how I see things, and how things affect me.  I hate preaching or being preached, in the same way I hate being bllxited and manipulated. This is just my opinion. There are things that annoy me and I don't like. That might not be the case of other people, who really don't mind anything and are happy with the system. Well, I respect that. I really liked my Yelp "friends" and at a personal level I have nothing but praise for them. Yet, if somebody feels upset because of what I've written here, well, don't read me back :). 

Monday, 11 May 2015

Grand Aston Yogyakarta Hotel & Convention Center (Yogyakarta, Indonesia)


Grand Aston Yogyakarta
Jalan Urip Sumoharjo, 37
Yogyakarta 55222
Indonesia
Phone: 13 38 10
Website

(First photo courtesy of the hotel's website)

The Grand Aston is a modern classy and comfortable hotel located in the heart of Yogyakarta. Although not in the city centre, the Grand Aston is located at walking distance from supermarkets, shopping malls, shopping streets and some of the city sights. 

Although the Grand Aston is a five-star hotel, you won't experience that unless you stay in one of the super-expensive super-duper suites. The hotel is classy but feels a bit run down and old-fashioned, and not luxurious enough. Yet, this is a great hotel, and you have everything you need there: lovely spacious rooms, huge restaurant, café, spa, gym, travel agent, beauty salon, conference facilities, free wi-fi and what is not. This is a business hotel for locals and other Asians, so there are not many Western visitors in general, especially from Australia. Most of them were Europeans visiting the amazing ruins for which Yogya is renowned in the world. You might have to stand with stoicism the stares of some people. 

THE ROOM
The Superior Room is very spacious and uber-clean, with a very classy timeless decoration, plenty of power points to plug your gadgets (even an desk's in-built international power socket), flat screen with a good selection of International TV Channels, air-conditioning, writing desk, a wonderful firm king bed, plenty of light points, safety box, a large classy bathroom with large shower, and a good selection of good quality toiletries, robe and sleepers included! 


THE RESTAURANT
The Grand Aston has a huge cafe-restaurant (with business and conference facilities in the mezzanine). Breakfast was included in the price of the room, so that was lovely. Their breakfasts cater for eastern and western palates, with so many sweet and savoury options that is impossible not to overeat. They prepare your eggs the way you like it, the quantity you like it, on the spot. I have never seen so many different things in a buffet! Quality of the food varied, but in general was good, although I found some supposedly Western stuff a bit weird. The sweets were very arty and colourful.

Coffee is included in the breakfast voucher, but if you want a proper machine coffee you have to pay it extra. I thought their percolated free coffee was good.

Their themed dinners are buffet style, a bit pricey, but very varied regarding dishes on offer and quantity. It is self-service, so you eat and die happily. The Indonesian buffet was really lovely, especially the lamb on the spit, which was terrific! 

There is a lady offering natural Indonesian digestives to customers, for free, dressed in a traditional dress. She seats at her spot in the dining area around 9am, if my memory does not fail. I tried some of them, and they tasted, well, "herby".


THE SPA, THE GYM AND THE POOL
I loved my visits to the Spa, which is very small but well equipped and the staff have magic hands and do wonderful facial and body treatments. Their Balinese massage is just awesome and perfect after a long flight, and a must if you have never experienced one. I was impressed with the care and friendliness of the staff, the long opening hours, the style of the facilities, and the treatments and products used on me. I am lady spa, so I was quite "spased" and I cannot speak more highly of these magic ladies.

The pool is very small but lovely, with a classy and elegant layout and decoration, for both sexes, and a few chairs to seat and relax; there is a café/bar attached, quite "expensive", and the guy attending to him is also in charge of providing you with towels and keeping an eye on the pool. 

The gym is also very small but with basic great quality machinery, and the guy attending to customers was just lovely.  


TRAVEL AGENT
The Travel Agent was a bit of disappointment as they just offer private drivers, car hiring and flight sales. They do not offer organised group tours. Private driving is the best thing, and affordable for foreigners, but extremely expensive for Indonesian standards. At least you know that they have fixed prices and you won't have to bargain. They will tell you that their drivers speak English, but most of them have a very limited very basic English, and communication can become a struggle.  



THE STAFF
All the Staff in the hotel were lovely, very helpful, smiley and willing to help: from cleaners, café attendants and waitresses, receptionists, masseuses, concierge, everybody. However, I found a tendency not to give customers correct information about pricing of transportation, and hesitation in the reply when you ask them for travel agents other than the one in the hotel, even if the others offer different services. Although information online about pricing is usually correct, they do not accept that as real because, well, you are a foreigner, hello hello. Basically, some people were very reliable on pricing information, and others totally untrustworthy.

NEARBY
The Galleria Mall, is a medium size lovely shopping mall, at barely five minutes walking distance from the hotel and with not many Westerners around. It has a great selection of shops and very friendly staff and floor personnel. The Galleria comes handy for some International fast food outlets (KFC, Mackos ice-cream booth and a Wendie's) and there is a food hall in the basement with a wide selection of Indonesian and Asian restaurants and stands, plus several posh cafes spread around the mall. There is a considerable variety of clothing, sports, shoes, and beauty shops, as well as a bargain area in the central courtyard.   

I you just want to buy a few things to take to your room, there is a Super Indo supermarket just across the street, if you are brave enough to cross the street at pick hours. This is a supermarket for locals, and full of locals, something I always love, nothing compares to mingling with locals, whatever that minds :), and you can buy those extra bottles of water, snacks, take-away food and other only Indonesian thingies that you want. 

The nearest sight is about 20 minutes walking distance, but if you are not used to the humidity of the place or do not live in a tropical area, you will avoid doing that at any cost. On the other hand, a ride on a becak (pronounced bechak) is a must. 


IF THIS WERE MY HOTEL...
* I would try to revamp superior rooms and provide customers with a bit more.
* I would change the mini-bar in the rooms, because it is minuscule and outdated.
* I would provide customers with a bigger wardrobe, which is a bit small for two people if you stay for a few days. Perhaps a better organised one, with more drawers might do the trick.  
* I would include a jar or tube of hair-conditioning among the toiletries. Shampoo with hair-conditioning is not good enough for people with long hair.
* The room's windows cannot be open, so the room was a bit smelly when the air-con was off.  That happens every time you go out, as the key works as power switch as well. If this were my hotel, I would give customers two cards, to keep the power on when going out. 
* I would change more often, or perhaps replace more often, the sheets covering the treatment stretchers at the Spa, as they were a bit smelly at the end of the day.
* I would change the lighting in the ground floor common areas. It does not help to create ambience and makes the hotel look older than it is.
* I would make sure that retrograde men are not given a room beside the pool. I had to suffer the dirty stares of a group of taliban-looking guys despite me wearing a very conservative swimsuit. Perhaps allocating those rooms to families or women would be more suitable. This is a five-star hotel, so I expect certain things not to happen.


TIPS
> Most Indonesian people do not speak English, so be smiley, learn a few words in Bahasa Indonesia, and you will find that things become easier all of the sudden. It shows your respect for their culture and expands your brain.

> The level of English of the staff varied tremendously. At reception was perfect, no problem, but in other areas the staff had limited English, reduced to basic greettings and vocabulary related to their trade. Confusion might arise because of this, so I recommend for you to use writing notes to make clear what you want at times if you notice that the staff are not getting what you are saying. Then smile broadly.

> I found a "rip off the Westerner as much as you can while smiling at their face" mentality in Yogya. The tourist infrastructure is very limited outside Bali, and prices exorbitant for Indonesian standards. Be careful with taxi and becak drivers, too many of them tend to get your money and do not give you the return, no matter the quantity due. Or drive slow as a cow to get more money, or arrange a price and then say that it was double of what they say.  If you are on a budget, use your legs a bit and be firm in your haggling. Again, if you speak a bit of Bahasa, things smooth out immensely. They are just grateful for your effort.

Friday, 1 May 2015

"World of Goo" by 2D BOY

Addictive, simple, not that easy video game, that will make you love balls :D.

Well, there is a story, yes, for sure, but that one did not glue me to my tablet's screen. The story is a bit pathetic, call it odd for the sake of fairness.

What glued me to the screen was the Goos, the myriad types of super-lovely super-annoying super-nasty super-sticky Goos you find along, and the different levels of difficulty of the frizzy crazy puzzly puzzles you find. This is a game thought to make you enjoy playing without getting you stuck. There is not a hierarchic order of the episodes within every chapter to be played beyond the first and second ones. You go back and forth at will. You don't need to finish all the episodes either, just most of them and the final one in each chapter to move on to the next chapter. All of this makes the game very enjoyable and dynamic and rarely frustrating.

Generally speaking, there is a progression in the difficulty of the puzzles from chapter to chapter, with new challenges and new types of Goos in each one, but there are different levels of difficulty within each episode as well.

You can and must always go back and forth because 1/ you want to finish the game properly out of pure pride and 2/ you want to get as many extra balls as possible to have them ready to build the tallest Goo tower ever. I found the building of the tower, despite its apparent simplicity, really thrilling and entertaining, and not that easy!

Graphics are quite simple, nothing to brag about to your video-games obsessed friends. Still, the windy contaminated planet of the Goos is populated by simple lines, bright colours and surreal funny characters. There is a visual harmony in the game. Mind, that harmony could not match your visual harmony, so I can only say, well, change lenses.

I love the cute sounds that the Goos make when go up, and also the overall frenetic pace of the background music.

I have finished the game, but some of the episodes are still there for me to finish. Some of them I have figured out what to do but I haven't been able to do it, those are the most frustrating ones. Others, I have tried different things and failed miserably, so they are challenging and I also like that. 

Confession - The notice board character got me pissed a bit. Yes, of course, it usually gives clues, but, it is annoying and somewhat out of place. Why not using a special Goo informer to do that?

Confession 2 - The flies with reverse powers are the most considerate thing done for video-gamers ever. Ever  meaning in the year or so I have been playing video-games. What-ever.

Plenty of challenges and fun, plenty of hours of entertainment are guaranteed in the Goo World both for children and adults. And the price is ridiculous!

And, by the way, this is a perfect game for a tablet.

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Room 2 by Fireproof Games



The Room Two is an amazing 3-D puzzle game at an amazing price. The Room2, like The Room, is an awesome realistic 3-D game set in the 19th century, a world with esoteric Tesla-inspired absent characters, Tesla-like machinery, and utterly absorbing and mesmerising puzzles and atmosphere.

If you have played The Room, you will find the game quite easy to follow and to play at the beginning, especially the first two chapters. I thought they were a bit too easy... ha! That was a teaser, because things get very tricky again from chapter 3 and the wheels of your brain will be rolling in all directions. 
  
Visually speaking, the game has developed into a more complex and visually-enthralling game, with multi-layered rooms. plenty of devices and spots to investigate in each room, all interconnected among themselves.This being the case, the game is even more entertaining than the original. Chapter 3 offers a sort of time travel switch, which I loved, and chapter 5 is another brain electrifying knock for your mind!

The quality of the image, design, colours, textures and lighting is superb. The inventive is amazing, as well. The atmosphere is gorgeous.


I also liked the fact that the texts by AS, the absent character, and other texts and notes you find in the different rooms have clues embedded to solve the puzzles, so, in a way, they are more integrated with the game and not just a nice atmospheric addition. Still, I would like the story to be developed a bit more, as this would add another layer of enjoyment to a game that is already technically fantastic. 
  
The séance chapter and the one with the electric devices were awesome and I found myself totally there, in the room, excited as a child trying to solve the mystery and open the door to the next room.


My main disappointment with this game is the clue system. I love having clues to use when I am truly stuck, but the ones here are or too obvious to be a clue, or are not a clue but an instruction of what to do. That puts me off! For example, "you've got X see where it can fit" (helloooo, I have already reached that simple conclusion!!), "you should look for a shape like this" (helloooooo Mistahhhh), go there, do this and find this (wawwawaw, not a clue!). The good thing is that you can switch off the clue system in the settings, and problem solved. Still, I would like something a bit more elaborate, more "hintful", not so brutally there, if you know what I mean. 


I bought this game for less than 1 dollar, which is an unbelievable price if you take into consideration the quality of the game and the hours of entertainment you get.

The Room3 is going to be realised in August 2015. I cannot wait!

The Room by Fireproof Games

I was not into video-games of any sort, but this one changed my mind. And I thought it was time!

The Bafta award, the price of this app (a bit oldie now) and the raving reviews pushed me to push the purchase button. And what a purchase!

The room is an engineering 3-D maze and puzzle with a Tesla feeling to it, very 19th century, and it is very esoteric and intriguing. There are a series of boxes with many doors to open, locks you have to unlock, pieces you have to find and put elsewhere, parts that you have to fix. A bit of mental exercise and ability while you are having fun.

The  images have a great realism, and they are very detailed, crispy clean, with wonderful colours, textures and lighting. A pleasure for your senses. The retro atmosphere and the somewhat familiar music-box music create a wonderful ensemble. The fact that your fingers move around, look around, really makes you to believe that you are touching what you have in front of you, that you are in the room, handling the stuff in front of your eyes.


I would not say that The Room is a difficult game once you get used to the commands, how the game works and what is asking from you. However it is still ingenious and very challenging. If you want it easy, you can follow the clues by pushing the (?) button, but, personally, I avoid them as much as I can. Otherwise, the sense of achievement is less rewarding.  

I loved the Epilogue, especially the piano puzzle, was like playing piano with your own fingers. Also the 3-D spatial puzzles with the viewfinder lenses are cleverly done.


The Room works great in my Google Nexus 7 Tablet, with very neat images, easy movement and digital interaction. The app automatically rotates the screen, and everything works great. My only complaint is that, at least in my device, the touching around sometimes interferes with the three bottom buttons of the device, which self-hide while gaming, and they interrupt the game. Also the zooming in/out is sometimes a bit slow or perhaps not as straightforward and intuitive as I would have like it, but it might be my device. Still, this is one-dollar application game, so perhaps is too much to ask!

Mind Games Pro by Mindware Consulting

I love this sort of apps, and this one as well.

The brain exercises in the exercises are great, as they mix a series of games to develop different areas of your brain, and favour flexibility, creativity, memory retention, alertness, spatial, verbal, cognitive and numerical skills among other things. The games are not too difficult, but doing them at the correct speed is the biggest challenge many of the times. You will find more difficult those that involve an area of your brain that you need to develop or do not use enough.

I love the scoring system, with your today's results and your best results ever, which helps you to improve and beat yourself; it is great that the final scores always tell you if you are doing normal, below normal, or above normal and in which degree, and also if you are doing better (and percentage) with regards to the people in your age group.

I have a complaint. This is a paid app. This is an app for everybody out there, humans on Planet Earth who speak English, not just Americans. OK, who was the brilliant mind who decided that including questions about American Football was a great way to test MY knowledge skills?


Re the design, the welcome page of the game is very simple but very colourful and pleasant to the eye, and I love the colour scheme used in each game and the big size font used in the descriptions of what the game requires from you.

Beyond that, the visual design of the game looks amateurish. For example, most of the images and shapes you find in the visual games are Google-search-like images and shapes, not neat enough not nice enough not original ones. There are plenty of photo stock websites where to get royalty free images... The list of games page is just visually poor and crowded. And the settings of the game do not allow you to change the size or type of font. This is a paid app. A bit of more care in the design would have been great. I have mind-solving games with amazing graphics and design for 0.99 bucks. Hello Hello Mr designer!

The PRO (paid) version does NOT have adds.

The Silent Age by House on Fire

I love solving puzzles. I love mazes. I love everything time-travel. If you mix these three things I am going to be buying that "thing".

Joe is a Janitor in a corporation. He becomes the world saviour against his own will when he meets a dying scientist, Dr Lambert, who gives him a solar-powered time machine to go to the future and bend the course of history on Planet Earth.

The game is short and not difficult, except for a few points in which I found myself stuck. So I looked for a cheat online :O. But the story, the dialogues, the character and the mood of the game are really absorbing. The time travel factor is what makes the game unique, switching between present and future to collect objects and access places that otherwise you (Joe) can't.



The game has just five actions, walk, run, take and use, and dialogues, which are all done by tapping your screen. So there is no difficulty in learning how to do that, unless you don't have fingers in your hands. Ha! Moreover, the game was fully responsive to touch in my table, so the whole experience was very smooth.

One the things that I enjoyed the most in the game was... the dialogues. Truly hilarious, as well as some of the comments you get when you touch or tap any of the objects on the screen. I also fancy our hero Joe, who looks like a thinned out version of Tom Sellecks. Rescue me, my man.

The first part is free, totally free, then you have to pay for the second episode if you want it. Nobody forces you, but you will want it, guaranteed. You don't want to end the game half way the story, right? I paid 6+ bucks for some hours of entertainment. That is cheaper than a movie or my daily coffees.

The main downsides of the game are, to me, the lack of voice speech, the fact that you just see the character moving (when he uses tools, they are not seen in his hands; when he goes down a rope, you don't see him climbing down, etc.). Besides, my tablet got totally frozen a couple of times and I had to reboot it.

One of those games to do in a lazy weekend, sickie day or during your lunch break. 

 

The Moron Test by DistinctDev

It is official, I am not a moron.

The Moron Test is not only a very cheap puzzle game, it is a great brain teaser and a very cute and engaging game. When you start playing you think that it is too easy, a child game, thinking that is your knowledge what is being tested. It is not your knowledge, it is you way of thinking and reacting!

The good thing is that, no matter how much you FAIL!, you can always restart the game and try again, with the advantage of knowing already the answers to the different pages you have already passed. You will see yourself learning from your mistakes, realising that even though you know the correct answer your reflex act is faster than your discernment, you will see that your brain will read something and be tricked by the contradictory images on the page, you will see that despite you being told to pay attention your will still be distracted, you will see yourself feeling like a moron and saying damn-it, I am "moronesque". This is also enhanced by the fact that part of the replies to some of the queries require you to realise that you have to move physically your device, and think out of the square.

The second phase was the one I found more difficult to pass. I would not say that phase 6 is more difficult than phase 2, it is just that I found this one the most challenging personally. The others could be as difficult, but somewhat after no 2 one figures out what the game is asking you to do, what not to do, and what things we should be focusing on.

The game is also very humorous and cute, with all the characters being drawn in a very small children book sort of way. Some of the sounds are very funny, as well.

I found that when doing the test for second time to get to the place I was stuck, knowing already the answers to the exercises previously passed, the game would say FAIL! repeatedly. This is OK when you know the answer, and you might think it is your device's responsiveness to touch. But if you are doing the exercise for the first time, you will think that you are missing something that you are not. I think that I know why this is happening :)) I think it is not the game being badly designed, it is a wish on the part of the producers to cash in on your mistakes, as a key answer is offered for purchase many times after you fail. If you are not a moron don't buy it. Ha! If you feel stuck any time, you can go and search the Internet. Most of the exercises can be passing by you "thinking" on solving, not focusing on your frustration at not having figured out the answer yet. 


Great fun!

Monument Valley by Ustwo

Monument Valley is a gorgeous 3-D cartoon-like Escher-inspired puzzle game, with geometric architectural colourful settings, adorable characters, effective sound and animation effects, and a soothing magical music. This is a sleek game regarding design, and where colour, simplicity and fancifulness are perfectly combined.

I find the game good both for children and adults, as the level of difficulty is not high until you get to the last two levels (chapters 9 & 10) or the the last episode of the expansion. However, it is not that easy, either, as this is a 3D puzzle, so optical illusion and perspective play an important role in solving the puzzles. This makes the game very engaging. Eye candy. Mind candy. The level of difficulty steps up, literally, with each chapter and steps up with the new set extension, which is something I love. Episode 8 of the Forgotten Shores was really tricky!

The whole ensemble is mesmerising and absorbing, and unlike other puzzle games or games in general, even if you are stuck in some of the most difficult steps, you won't give up. Because it is kinda relaxing.

The game is based on touch and tap, so anybody, even a small child, can play it, to happily lead our little princess to destination. Most importantly, the game is fully responsive to touch and tap, at least in my tablet, something we cannot take for granted as many games really are not thought for or adapted for tablets and are a pain to play.

There are 10 chapters included in the game, plus 8 more if you want to expand it. You probably will do because, once you immerse yourself in the wondrous world of Monument Valley, you want to stay there for a long time. It is barely $3 AU, and, what the heck, your coffee will cost you more.

Big kudos to the whole team of Ustwo for making a virtue and an amazing game based on pure simplicity, care for the details, and charm. I am going to be buying anything these guys create!