Friday, July 29, 2016

The Horse & Groom, Bourton-on-the-Hill: Review of a Non-Chain Hotel option in the Cotswolds

In late May Mrs. Points Ninja stayed for a few days in the Cotswolds, one of our favorite places on earth. While there, we made our second visit to the Horse & Groom in Bourton-on-the-Hill (The Good Pub Guide Pub of the Year for 2016), and this charming little inn remains one of my favorite places to stay:

The Horse and Groom, owned by Tom & Will Greenstock, is a "restaurant with rooms," situated at the top of the hill and looking down across the village towards the larger town of Moreton-in-Marsh. I'll get to the restaurant part later, but the rooms (all of which are ensuite) are tastefully decorated and comfortable.

The Large Double:

Photo courtesy of the Horse & Groom

The Deluxe Double:
Photo courtesy of the Horse & Groom

Two Double Rooms:
Photos courtesy of the Horse & Groom
No, the view from Room 4 is not photoshopped! It really is that fantastic.
And the "Garden Double:"
Photo courtesy of the Horse & Groom

     All of the rooms feature flat-screen televisions, lovely H&G branded toiletries, in-room tea kettles, and (best of all) a packet of "June's Scrummy Flapjacks." Lest you be confused, these aren't "flapjacks" in the American sense. Rather, they're a scrumptious, buttery, bar cookie that goes perfectly with coffee or a nice cuppa. And "June" herself isn't the product of some branding campaign, she's the wife of the H&G's affable barman, Des.

Truth in advertising.

     The cozy window-seat in Room 4 (in which we stayed on our previous visit) offers a perfect view down the village lane towards Moreton and across the valley. The rooms at the front (including Room 4) do get a bit of road noise, so if you're a light sleeper, you may want to consider one of the rear rooms, like the Garden Double, which we picked for our latest stay.

     As you can see from the picture above, the garden double opens up onto the back lawn, a pleasant, grassy expanse with picnic tables and a bit of a view. That made it simple to slip out for a drink in the afternoon or for a stroll around the village in the evenings.

After one such walk, the lights of the H&G were a welcome sight at the top of the hill:

The room features a very comfortable bed that would likely classify as a queen-size in the US.

The bath was nicely appointed, with a shower/tub combination:

Water pressure and temperature control are good, which isn't always a given with small inns. The H&Gs house-branded toiletries are also quite nice.

The H&G offers a reduced room rate if you dine with them, and you'd be a fool not to take them up on it. Did I mention that they're the Good Pub Guide's pub of the year? It's no surprise, what with real ale on the handpumps,

a cozy pub,

and friendly service. As for food, I'd note that they're also the Good Pub Guide's Gloucestershire Dining Pub of the Year. I'm afraid that their reputation is borne out by how irresistible I found the bunless Dexter burger, since I clearly tucked in before remembering to take a photo:

Bourton-on-the-Hill is a pretty village, with one main street and side streets choc-a-block full of cozy cottages:

It has won Gloucestershire village of the year at least twice. And apparently both times the prize money was used to repair an (admittedly pretty) spring-fed horse trough:

Aside from the Horse and Groom, the only other establishment of note in the village is Bourton House, which is now open for tours of the garden and features a small tea shop:
The Bourton House garden isn't so expansive or enchanting as the nearby Hidcote or Kiftsgate, but its a nice spot for garden lovers.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

How a Points Ninja's mind works: Chipotle "Chiptopia" edition

Over at One Mile at a Time, Lucky posted on the unnecessarily complicated Chipotle "Chiptopia" rewards program. I'm not a huge Chipotle fan, but I am a fan of gameable loyalty programs in general. Where Lucky saw complication, I saw opportunity. As a thought experiment, I wanted to determine how good of a deal this program was. Here's how Chipotle explains the program:

The simple version is that making a minimum purchase of $6 before tax earns one "burritopia" point towards completing the promotion. If you make 11 purchases per month (which includes your "free" entrees), you would receive a total of 9 free entrees, and catering for 20. Let's say you wanted to treat (Ed: treat?) your office to a Chipotle lunch in the fall. You would have two options: 1) you could pay $240 like a sane person, or 2) you could figure out what it would cost to max out this promo. Guess which one I'm picking?

So, let's dig into this deal. If there's a catch, it's going to be in the terms and conditions. As Chipotle puts it in the Ts&Cs:
As usual, "some exclusions apply":

So, the purchase has to equal $6 at minimum, but does not have to be an entree. Off to my friendly local Chipotle online menu:

Look at that! Three drinks come to an exact total of $6 before tax, which should be a qualifying purchase. Adding tax would take my cost up to $6.60. Doing that 9 times in July would cost me exactly $59.40. Doing it again in August and September would bring my total up to $178.20. Which is (drumroll please) $61.80 cheaper than purchasing catering for 20 outright. That's setting aside the value of the free burritos and all the drinks you paid for.

So, would I actually go through with this in reality? Maybe if I had a Chipotle nearby... or if I could pay for online orders and never actually pick them up (something I briefly considered) but, alas:

But still, the payout for maximizing this promotion (and thereby your waistline) is impressively large.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Conrad London St. James - Executive Lounge Review/Blue Boar Breakfast

Thanks to my Diamond status we had access to the Conrad St. James' Executive Lounge during our recent stay, and it really improved our experience. Having a place to relax and have a drink before dinner or going out makes a stay much more pleasant and, particularly with London prices, more affordable.

First, we arrived at the Conrad early and our room wasn't yet ready.  After an overnight flight, I'm generally ready to take a shower and change clothes, so not having a room ready can be a real inconvenience. In this case that was mitigated by the fact that the Conrad's lounge has two shower rooms available. We left our checked luggage at the front desk and proceeded up to the lounge where we were able to shower.

Throughout the day, soft drinks and water were available:
We returned to the lounge in the evening for some pre-theatre drinks and nibbles.  Canapes, snacks, and alcohol were complimentary:

 Havana Club 7 Anos is a personal favorite!

Diamond guests can choose to have breakfast either in the lounge or in the Hotel's restaurant The Blue Boar. We tried both and, on the whole, I found the lounge more convenient. The selection didn't materially differ between them. 

In the lounge there were breads and pastries:

Meats and cheeses:

Hot options:

A coffee set-up, including an espresso machine:

And cold cereals, fruit, and yogurt:

And a toaster!

We also had breakfast at the Blue Boar one morning and I found that the selection was virtually identical to the lounge. The major difference was more hot items in the restaurant:

And a better selection of fruit:

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Conrad St. James, London - Review

I'm a Hilton Diamond, thanks to the Amex Hilton Surpass card, so I tend to seek out Hilton when I'm travelling.  Hilton's Diamond benefits aren't as good as those I use to enjoy as an Intercontinental Royal Ambassador, but they really do add value to any stay.  In this case we booked (using points of course) at the Conrad St. James, and my Diamond status was good for lounge access, an upgrade, and breakfast each day.

The Conrad St. James used to be an Intercontinental, but switched to the Conrad brand last year.  I was interested to see how they'd handled the transition, and it appears to have gone quite smoothly.  Booking the room was quite a hurdle, as I discussed in this post. Eventually, I was able to book into a King Superior Room for 80,000 points a night:

The best flexible rate for a King Superior is £319. At that rate, I was getting .6 CPP value for my Hilton points. Not an outsized value, by any means, but well within my comfort level.  The above shot, by the way is from the Conrad's "3D Floor Plan" page, which has floor plans for almost all of the room types. I like knowing pretty much what to expect when booking and the availability of floor plans helps.

Hilton also offers Premium Room Rewards that allow you to pay more points for a better room.  Sometimes the additional points are reasonable, and sometimes they're astronomical. In this case, I decided to check what was available. I discovered that for 26K HH points a night, I could upgrade from the King Superior to a King Grand Deluxe. The Grand Deluxe was priced about £54 above the Superior, so that meant I'd only get about .3cpp of value out of each additional point.  .3cpp is my par value for HH points, but I was interested in seeing how the "Premium Room" booking would affect my upgrade chances.

We ended up being upgraded to a Junior Suite, which runs around £479 per night.  I had hoped for a better upgrade, but the hotel was quite full. I'd been told that it was beforehand, and, when I checked online that proved to be the case. (Ed: Trust, but verify.) The room itself was quite nice and was spacious (for London).  From the corridor, the room opened into a small sitting area facing the back side of a (reversible) television.
Just inside the front door is a closet, the minibar (water from the minibar was complimentary for Diamonds), and a coffee machine:

Since this trip was partly in celebration of my wife's birthday, the hotel had left a nice little treat for us:

Beyond the mid-room television is the bed, which was quite comfortable and offered useful reading lights (a pet peeve of mine is reading lights that don't operate separately from the rooms main lighting, a problem we encountered at the Paddington).  Bottles of spring water were left by the bed each evening.
Beyond a sliding door from the bedroom is the bath, with a separate tub and shower, and a private room for the WC.

The rainfall shower was very good, though it had a tendency to leak onto the bathroom floor.

If I had it all to do over again, I probably would not have gone for the Premium Room reward. My Diamond status would likely have meant an upgrade out of the entry-level room, and for a short two-night stay, getting the slightly larger Junior Suite wasn't vital.  This is particularly true given that Hilton Diamond gives lounge access no matter which room you book into.  As you'll see in the next phase of this review, lounge access at this hotel is no small thing.

A final note about the hotel: the basement gym features a mini-fridge with very handy plastic bottles of spring water.  These are complimentary and are nice to have when walking about London.