San Rafael Four Points Sheraton
Good value for a weekend getaway
San Rafael, just about 15 miles North of San Francisco is an ideal place to visit with its local access to Sausalito and the Napa Valley wine region.
A recent visit there saw us staying at the San Rafael Four Points Sheraton, a perfect place to stay in the area, and really good value. The hotel is only one of three chain hotels in San Rafael, but don’t let that put you off. Average price of a room is $131, so if you are expecting a Four Star experience then this is not the place for you, but considering that the hotel is only a 2-star, it is terrific value.
Although the hotel is located close to the freeway, insulation in the rooms is so good that the noise is completely obliterated, at least if you are looking onto the pool. The hotel has just gone through a major renovation, and it clearly shows. However, even the manager admits that the elevators are really in bad shape and extremely small and very slow.
The front desk is maintained 24 hours, and we were very well treated considering that we screwed up our departure time, got lost on the way and arrived in the middle of the night. Parking is free, and there is a fitness center (arguably small), and an outdoor heated pool. Businessmen are well catered to with a 24 hour fax and copy center as well as a daytime business center.
The rooms, and in particular the suites have a whole host of amenities including, but not limited to free wireless high speed internet, coffee maker, hair dryer, rollaway beds, bottled water, 32′ LCD televisions and more. Suites are two connecting rooms that are extremely spacious with high ceilings, and very good value. The only problem is with the bathrooms that like the elevators are very cramped, with very low shower heads.
A major effort to upgrade the restaurant has paid off handsomely, and the couple of meals I had there were both top class. Any chef that fully utilizes mushrooms liberally is OK with me. The steaks are all very well presented and prepared, and although San Rafael has a fairly extensive range of restaurants, spend some time in the hotel restaurant, as they really do a good job. I had heard that the buffet breakfast was an extra charge and not included in the price of the room, and that upset some visitors who felt ripped off.
So if you book the hotel, make sure you clarify at the time of booking, that you would like to include the breakfast buffet (as it is also a very good breakfast), just like the lunch and dinner.
How about a martini bar that only charges about $8. Although the selection at this time is somewhat limited to about two dozen, how about trying a Chocolate Martini, with Vodka (Ciroc or Level please) and Creme de Cacao.
There is so much to do in the local area that there is something for everyone. If you are a golf enthusiast then the closest course is Mcinnis Park Golf Center, with others in the local area such as the Peacock Gap Golf Club, Mill Valley Municipal Golf Course, and the San Geronimo Golf Club.
The Four Points is located at 1010 Northgate Dr., San Rafael, CA 94903, (415) 479-8800.

U. S. Grant Hotel
The place to stay in San Diego
The U.S. Grant Hotel is absolutely the place to stay in San Diego if you are looking to be in an “Art Gallery with rooms.” The 270 room and 47 suites hotel recently underwent a $56 million refurbishment, and re-opened in October 2006 after a two-year closure. The hotel was built by the failed businessman Ulysses S.Grant Jr. to honor his father in 1910, and since the opening on October 15th that year, the hotel has hosted 13 US Presidents, including both Nixon and Kennedy who gave speeches there in 1960.
In 1875, President Grant signed the executive order that gave the Sycuan tribe the 640 acres of land in Dehesa Valley that is now their homeland. Just 130 years later, the US Grant closed its doors and embarked on a $52 million restoration project that has turned out far better than anyone could have expected. The hotel is now owned by the Sycuan Tribe of the Kumeyaay Nation, descendants of the original settlers of downtown San Diego, and their gambling profits have turned the U.S. Grant into a haven of luxury. Wisely, the tribe decided to use the managerial skills of the Starwood Group of Hotels, elevating the hotel from a local phenomenon to becoming a world class facility. The hotel is also in the National Register of Historic Places, an award that is bestowed by the Department of the Interior.
For many of the artists/architects/designers/consultants hired for the project, it has turned out to be the commission of a lifetime. Rare manuscripts by Mark Twain were found during the demolition, and when the carpet was removed on the grand staircase, it was discovered to be grey-veined Carrara marble. There are so many distinct ballrooms, meeting rooms and enclaves at the U.S. Grant, that a walking tour is essential when you visit the hotel for the first time. Make sure that you get to see the official painting of President Ulysses Grant with the bullet hole in the canvas where Grant’s left eye appears, a bullet put there one evening by well known Confederate sympathizer Wyatt Earp, in the days when San Diego was a bit rough and ready.
Here are just a few of the amenities available at the Grant. There are 32″ LCD televisions in the rooms, to go with the marble bathrooms and the stone basin sinks. The beds are extremely comfortable, with 300 count linens and pillow top beds to make sleeping here one of the best experiences ever in a hotel. The luxury carpets make it all very quiet as well, with very little unwelcome noise creeping through in the morning. The natural earth tones of the guest rooms and suites recall the land, mountains, deserts, seashore, stones, woods, seas-shells of the Kumeyaay environment, and the emphasis on blue throughout the hotel honors President Grant and the 13 other Presidents.
They also feature in room spa treatments in association with the local Spa Velia, but major plans are in the works for a world class spa to be opened in the next couple of years, and when I was at the hotel preliminary discussions were already taking place.
Celebrities and politicians are now regulars, and recent sightings have included Christina Aguilar, Stevie Nicks, Alicia Keys and General Colin Powell, and many more. The location is perfect for a stroll into the Gaslamp District or even a visit to Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres.
The spacious lobby is host to a colorful and impressive art gallery run by an ex-patriate Russian art connoisseur. Here they sell a lot of colorful contemporary pieces pleasing to the eye, but of course if you are a serious collector, then this is also a venue where the owner will be more than pleased to consult with you.
Like all quality hotels, there is a fine dining restaurant on the premises, this one being the Grant Grill, under the supervision of executive chef Mark Kropczynski and with the help of Chef de Cuisine Chris Kurth. Originally opened in 1951, the Grant Grill was the place to be seen in San Diego, but these days competition is a lot stiffer, so it is the food more than the reputation that will ensure its success. It was such a gentleman’s club at one time, that as late as 1969, women were barred from entering before 3 p.m. .
The handsome, late thirtyish chef employs foragers to scour the Farmers Markets all along the California coast, and his menu is virtually all local produce from California. One obvious exception is the Hudson Valley Foie Gras, and Marks version comes with cinnamon scented butternut squash, golden raisins and Verjus Blanc 23. All of the fresh fish items are local such as the Halibut and the Fire Grilled Sea Bass. The restaurant has already picked up a swathe of local awards such as the Dirona, Zagat and Gold Medallion, and is likely to pick up a lot more in the foreseeable future.
Three talented artists are represented in the hotel in various guises. Johnny Bear Contreras is the resident sculptor at the hotel, and he has five pieces located in the hotel on different floors. All the pieces can loosely be described as representing the Kumeyaah faith.
Yves Clement was commissioned to paint all the headboards above the beds in each room, and working like a whirlwind he has delivered in style, reflecting the high end, classy, Bohemianism of the majority of the US Grant visitors. He leases out all 336 of his “sleeping with art” paintings to the hotel, and his unique style gives the hotel a real cutting edge.
Marie Najera is a multi-media artist whose murals and paintings can be seen in the presidential suites. The San Diego based local artist emphasizes raw emotion in her work, incorporating moments with people and in new places. She often favors chaos over structure in her art and is as comfortable using ink and paper as paint and canvas.
The U.S. Grant Hotel is located at 326 Broadway, San Diego, CA. (800) 237-5029, usgranthotel@usgrant.net. Valet Parking

Palazzo Resort
Now in full swing in Vegas
The first resort to open in Las Vegas in almost three years made its long awaited debut on January 18th this year, and The Palazzo looks like being something special. The sister hotel to the Venetian will actually had a “soft’ opening on December 20th, but a lot of the high end stores and restaurants opened later in January. There are more than 3,000 all-suite rooms, and the Shoppes at the Palazzo will be connected to the Venetian via the Grand Canal Shoppes.
This hotel features the largest regular style rooms in Las Vegas at about 800 square feet, and promises a luxurious European ambience of the exclusive lifestyle of the Italian rich and famous. There will be four high end restaurants featuring the cooking of such superstar chefs as Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Trotter, Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse. I am particularly excited about going to Wolfgang’s Cut Restaurant, an outstanding Beverly Hills Steak House that has become an immediate hit in Las Vegas.
The entertainment selected that opened in April is the Broadway hit show ” The Jersey Boys,” the show highlighting the rise of those blue collar guys Franki Valli and the Four Seasons. They built a special 1,800 seat theatre just for the show, that’s how confident they are of its long term success.
When it comes to shopping, there are many high end retailers like an 85,000 square foot flagship Barneys of New York, and twenty other designer stores making their debut in Las Vegas. These include Tony Burch, Christian Louboutin, Diane Von Furstenberg, Van Cleef & Arpels, Catherine Malandrino, Chloe, Anya Hindmarch and Michael Kors. There is a lot of excitement in particular about the Hindmarch store, where the celebrated London designer will be bringing her unique selection of handbags to the Strip. Total retail space is 450,000 square feet, and is located directly across from the Wynn Resort.
The Canyon Ranch SpaClub will be located at the Palazzo, and is known as a haven to relax, re-new and re-energize. The 134,000 square foot facility is known as a leading edge health spa and fitness retreat. The SpaClub is bringing its suite of European-inspired thermal spa cabins, tubs and aquathermal bathing experience to the USA for the first time, which is known worldwide as Aquavana.
If you are into the night life then Jay-Z has brought his 40/40 club to town. Where the gambling appears to becoming almost an afterthought compared to the dining, shopping and entertainment options that a hotel like Palazzo will be offering.

Jumeirah Lowndes Hotel
Classy living in London
The Jumeirah Group, based out of Dubai, are determined to become a major player in the International market and not just Dubai, where their flagship hotel is the amazing Burj Al Arab Hotel. With expansions already in New York and London, and with up to fifty new hotels/resorts in the planning, their future ascendancy looks assured. Immediate projects include those in Dubai, Aqaba, Doha, Phuket, Shanghai, Bermuda and London.
Situated in fashionable Belgravia village where small flats can cost up to $1 million, a recent stay at the Jumeirah Lowndes Hotel can be loosely described as an urban sanctuary with a warm relaxed atmosphere. My visit in December when the weather was wet and cold, meant that the temperature in the hotel was very warm and slightly stuffy, probably better however than a hotel where the heating breaks down in the winter. However the service could not be faulted, and I will certainly consider the hotel near the top of my list when planning any trip back to London. Walking around the area is a delight, with Harrods and Harvey Nichols so close, and all the trendy designer shops and boutiques on Sloane Street that seem oblivious to any financial woes that may be happening in the global economy.
The interior of the hotel was designed by UK designer Hunt Hamilton Zuch, and the 87 rooms and suites have recently undergone a massive $17 million refurbishment, with flat screen televisions, DVD players, high speed internet standard amenities. All beds are king sized with a mattress topper, and provide coffee and tea making facilities. There are four one-bedroom Executive Suites on the sixth floor, two of them with balconies overlooking leafy Belgravia. There is also a lavish Luxury Suite with one bedroom and two bathrooms on the fifth floor.
All the colors of the rooms are soft such as green and lilac, taupe and burgundy and ivory ice blue, mixed up with stone bathrooms and some very subtle artwork. For each bathroom, the Jumeirah has partnered with Temple Spa -a spa based skin and body company with a wide range of products for men and women from the Mediterranean, allegedly a hit with the celebrities.
The restaurant at the hotel is called Mimosa Bar & Restaurant, and is also offering Mediterranean faire, and although I did not dine there, it certainly is a nice relaxing private retreat to have a drink. Head chef is Martin Gabler, and with a host of signature dishes such as the scallops punctuated by lime and a spicy chilli cucumber and tomato salsa, this is a pretty hot place for the locals to stop by. The special $30 lunch menu is known as the 45 minute lunch, and consists of a two course menu, and the outdoor patio in the summer proves extremely popular. You can also have a cocktail such as Grand Mimosa Champagne cocktail, the Mimosa Peach Martini or the Bloody Mimosa. There is even a cocktail masterclass the first Saturday of every month where you can learn the secrets from the pro bartenders about mixology for a cool $70.
Another plus for the hotel is that her sister hotel, the Jumeirah Carlton Tower is just around the corner, so the Peak Health Club and Spa can also be enjoyed by Jumeirah Lowndes guests. The facilities include a 20-metre indoor heated swimming pool and tennis courts set in private gardens in the Square.
The Jumeirah Lowndes Hotel is located at 21 Lowndes Street, London SW1X 9ES. Tel 44(0)20 78231234 www.jumeirahlowndeshotel.com Email: JLHinfo@jumeirah.com

The Queen Victoria
Cunard launches ship in grand style
The Queen Victoria is Cunard’s latest addition to their tiny fleet of luxury cruise liners, but it certainly ranks as the classiest ship so far in their illustrious fleet. Although it is slightly smaller than the Queen Mary 2, the Queen Victoria is intended to recreate the glory days of the transatlantic liners in the early part of the twentieth century. History was also made with this launch, because it was the first time in Cunard’s illustrious 168 year history that there are three Cunard Queens in service at the same time. Not bad for a company that started out with three paddle steamers. Captain of the Queen Victoria is Paul Wright, a 27 year veteran of Cunard, who takes over the coveted job after spells with QE2 and Queen Mary 2. He started out with Shell Tankers in 1966, and gained his Masters Certificate in 1976.
I was at the launch in Southampton late last year in the presence of the Duchess of Cornwall and the Prince of Wales, prior to the ship going on her maiden voyage to the Norwegian Fiords. Queen Mary launched her namesake ship in 1934, and the current Queen Elizabeth was on hand to launch the QE2 in 1967 and Queen Mary 2 in 2003. Yes, it is perfectly true that the bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne failed to break on the hull, inspiring several local journalists to write articles claiming “bad luck” for the ship, and finding any excuse to put down the beleaguered Duchess. Subsequent events concerning a violent outbreak of a notorious virus on the initial cruise to the Canary Islands that affected 78 passengers, have further tarnished the image of the ship, although I can certainly hope for all concerned that future journeys are not quite as stressful for passengers.
Sir Derek Jacobi was more or less the host of the inauguration, relaying the history of Cunard through the eyes of Phileas Fogg. The three tenors performed, and the entire event was reported to have cost $1.5 million for the 1,800 or so invited guests, many of whom spent a couple of nights on the ship. A mixed bag of British celebrities and faces were notted amongst the guests such as Sir Jimmy Saville, Robert Powell, former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Carol Voordeman, Judith Chalmers and others.
The Queen Victoria launched her first world cruise in early 2008. Princess Suites range in size from 335 to 513 sq. ft. The Queens Grill Penthouses and Suites range from 508 to 771 sq. ft, and the Carpathia Suite which is 1,100 sq. ft., is one of two master suites on board. For the ultimate buzz select the Aquitania, one of four Grand Suites on board. These suites range in size from 1,918 to 2,131 sq. ft and feature butler and concierge service, and many other first class services.
There is a spectacular Royal Court Theatre that seats up to 850 guests and is designed by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham, who has over 80 theatres to his name. There are 16 private boxes in the theatre, the first ever at sea that will house 48 guests, who are served champagne and appetizers from white gloved ushers. The shows onboard will reflect the rich Victorian decor
Dining on the Queen Victoria is headed by Todd English, named after the famed Boston chef. Refined elegance is the name of the game here with Waterford Crystal, Wedgwood china and Gainsborough silverware and Hepp cutlery. To his credit Todd was at the grand launch checking out the other onboard restaurants, and for a nominal surcharge of $20 for lunch and $30 for dinner, guests can sample Todd’s specialties such as lobster and corn chowder, ricotta gnocchi and seared sea bass.
The main dining room is the Brittania Restaurant that can seat up to 900 passengers. Designed like the old style transatlantic liners, the restaurant features sweeping staircases, decorative pillars and arches, and a combination of mahogany and old cherry woods. Even more luxurious are the Queens and Princess Grills located on the top deck. Both grills offer a single seating, and guests also have access to their own private lounge, bar and deck terrace.
Shopping is also first class aboard the Queen Victoria, and the 4,000-square foot Royal Arcade is fashioned after one my favorite parts of London, the Burlington Arcade. Shops include Harrod’s, Wedgwood and Royal Doulton. Another great place to hang out on the ship is the Commodore Club, a well appointed bar with a sweeping panoramic view, and Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar on Deck 2 is also likely to become a favorite hangout as well.
Fact File – Cost: $600 million; Passengers: 2014; Crew: 1001; Built: Venice, Italy; Length: 964 feet; Width: 106 feet; Height: 179 feet; Weight: 90,000 tons; Top Speed: 23.7 knots. www.cunard.com