Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Bumbershoot 2016: The Rock Emerald VIP Experience with Starwood Moments

The Blind Boys of Alabama at the Starbucks' Stage with a Seattle icon in the background.


I've written about Starwood's excellent "Moments" program before. In 2013 I was able to take my Dad to see the Cubs in Starwood's luxury box at Wrigley. While there have been some fantastic auctions on the Moments website, none have them have fit in with our schedule. That changed earlier this summer when I saw an auction offering two "Rock Emerald VIP" passes to Seattle's Bumbershoot festival, one of the longest running arts and music festivals in the country. We'd never been to Seattle before, so I was intrigued.

I looked into the festival a bit more and learned that a couple of bands that we liked were playing, after checking our calendar and talking with Mrs. Points Ninja, I pulled the trigger and started bidding. I'd set a bid ceiling for myself, and ended up getting the package for around 25,500 Starwood Starpoints.  I value Starpoints at around 1.5 cents per point (CPP), so, by Points Ninja Math, I paid $382 for a pair of tickets that retailed at a minimum of $1,400. Not bad!

Well, now that I had the tickets I wanted to figure out exactly what I'd gotten. For the first three decades of its existence, Bumbershoot was run by either Seattle citizens or the city government. Then, a couple of years ago, AEG Live events took over the management. Among the changes that they made, in addition to raising prices (and the ire of Seattleites), was to introduce a VIP option. The description of just what "Rock Emerald VIP" meant was pretty sparse:

One of the more amusing items on the list is the invitation to the Mayor's Arts Awards Ceremony, because, as the Seattle Mayor's website makes clear, that event is open to the public. Well, as we later learned, there was a nice reception at the Seattle Science Center after the Arts Awards at around 1:30 on Friday afternoon, and our tickets got us on the guest list.



There was music, a pretty decent buffet:

and several local beers on offer. It was a nice little event, and I got to ride the death-defying, pendulum bicycle:

Video to come, I promise!

The VIP lounge was open-air, and located on the rooftop just behind the Fisher Green Stage, but that didn't matter on what turned out to be a pretty nice weekend:

There were a number of seating options, including some sort of air-filled bean bag thing (that had a tendency to blow away every time the wind blew).


There was an open bar all-weekend that had a variety of offerings, from mixed drinks to some classic Northwest beers:



The Emerald Lounge also featured food at various times throughout the weekend.  Top Pot Donuts where typically available in the early afternoon, along with breakfast tacos (a bit strange, but, presumably, some guests had just rolled out of bed). Later in the day there was Sizzle Pie pizza and a variety of Chipotle burritos. Snacks of various kinds were always available.




There was a second, smaller, lounge at Memorial Stadium, that offered massages, food, sodas, and a few other attractions.
Sadly, I never got around to having a massage.


Commemorative t-shirts, screen printed while you wait!
 But, of course, getting close to the bands is what music festivals are all about, and event organizers did a good job of providing un-crowded VIP areas, at least on Friday and Saturday.





By Sunday, the VIP areas where packed as organizers began letting vendors, artists' hangers-on, and various others into the VIP area.

It was a good event, though the VIP operation felt a bit disjointed at times. I wouldn't be happy if I'd paid $1,400+ for the tickets, but I expect they'll get the hang of it in future.



Monday, September 19, 2016

Always Check Your Amex "Offers" - Up to 25,000 Membership Rewards Point Bonus for Amex Business Gold

I was looking at my Amex Business Gold account page to check the Amex "Offers" when I saw an offer that mentioned the possibility of earning an extra 25K MR points. I was intrigued and followed the link that led me to the landing page for the offer:
5,000 bonus Membership Rewards Points for each $5,000+ purchase (up to 25,000 ) from now until December 15. Now, this offer is only valuable to folks who can make large purchases like this, but fortunately, I just happen to know a way to make that happen.

UPDATE: Just looked at the Ts&Cs:
Since this offer appears to be restricted to the Business Gold Rewards card, it might be worth delaying any plans to take advantage of the an offer of 50K MR points to upgrade from BGR to Business Plat.

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 a couple of 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.