Thursday, August 25, 2016

Seeing Jon Snow in London: Review of the Duke of York Theatre Box Seats

During our visit to London, Mrs. Points Ninja and I had the chance to see Jon Snow... er, Kit Harrington, doing his take on Dr. Faustus. Discount theatre tickets are fairly easy to come by in London; but, since we were there for only a short time, I decided to plan ahead.

Dr. Faustus was playing at the Duke of York Theatre, a smallish house in the West End that was an easy walk from the Conrad St. James. I wanted to make sure that we had good seats and a good experience, so I agonized over seat selection. Fortunately, there's at least one decent resource for figuring out which seats are "good" in various London Theatres. Theatremonkey, for instance, is a great resource. 

In the end, I chose Box C in the Royal Circle at £60.00 each, which included "the Ambassador experience." The Duke of York's has two boxes on each level, each with two movable chairs. 

Our box, circled in red.

Apologies for the poor photo!

Boxes E, F, H, and O.
The benefit of "the Ambassador experience," is that you will find in your box a champagne bucket with two splits of cava, a ramekin of nuts, a ramekin of chips, and a small box of (quite good) Belgian chocolates. Having a nice glass of bubbles was definitely a good way to get ready for the show.

Mrs. Points Ninja enjoying her cava.
Our view was unobstructed, but at an angle. 

To my mind, the chief benefit of booking a box was that there was absolutely no concern about having our view blocked by other theatre-goers. It wasn't cheap, by any means, but including a little booze in the price dulled the pain somewhat!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Howtown Hotel - Review: Off the Beaten Track, but Perhaps my Favorite Small Hotel ... Ever.

Earlier in the spring, I wrote a post regarding the booking process for the Howtown Hotel, in Howtown, Cumbria: Booking the Old Fashioned Way. This was the first time I'd booked by mail, and I hoped that the hotel itself would live up to it's retro booking process.

Let me say that I was definitely not disappointed. The Howtown Hotel easily ranks near the top of my list of the favorite places I've ever stayed. The accommodations were quite old-fashioned, but then so am I in many ways! So let's get on with the review.

Howtown is a hamlet (not even a village!) on the eastern shore of Ullswater in the Lake District. There are two ways to get there: 1) down a very narrow B road that runs along the Ullswater, or 2) via the Ullswater "Steamers", a boat service that runs between Pooley Bridge, Glennridding, Aira Force (a National Park), and Howtown.

Since we were in a rental car, we took the road after being stuck behind a very unlovely truck for some miles:

Frankly, if I'm going to get stuck behind a truck in England, I'd much rather it be one like this:

The most wonderful lorry in England, found at the Chelsea Flower Show... but more on that later.

Still, we were rewarded for our patience by arriving at the very, very lovely Howtown Hotel:

This is a long review, I'm afraid, as I found little clear information about the hotel online. Accordingly, I wanted my review to be very thorough. A full review follows after the break...

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: