Preps and Research, Taiwan

Changing hotels: why a 24-hour concierge is important to me

After the glow and excitement of going to Taipei with the hubby has finally subsided. I took stock of the hostel I reserved and asked myself if I am really happy with the available amenities.

The first hotel I booked, Mr.Lobster’s Secret Den seemed like a good deal and even ranked high both at TripAdvisor and at Booking.com. I have never been too picky when it comes to hotel stay. I’ve always mentioned that for as long as there is a good flushing toilet and a room that guarantees my safety (and without bed bugs!) — then everything is just icing on the cake for me.

Unfortunately, this hotel, in spite of the fact that is promises a relaxing stay — does not have a 24 hour concierge. Concierge is available half day only – from 9AM to 2PM (I think) which became the deal breaker for me.

Using the country’s top budget airline also means arriving in Taipei Taoyuan International Airport at a very ungodly hour. Factor in the one hour travel from Taoyuan county to Taipei City and this leads to a strong possibility of arriving in Taipei and at our hotel at 1:30 to 2:00 AM.

This situation alone calls for the presence of a concierge who will check us in, get our details, usher us to our room. At an ungodly hour, with the possibility of a sleepy husband who is a first-timer in Taipei, I don’t want to be blindly looking for rooms.

Photo not mine

Photo not mine

In a wired world, what is the concierge is for? The concierge is there to make the stay pleasant and to ensure that all your concerns are answered.

A good concierge provides you insights on your planned itineraries, provides tips and tricks to maximize the stay and even at night, answers your questions on where is the best neighborhood joint open even at an ungodly hour.

I immediately wondered how are we going to get checked in at 1:30AM. I am sure there are already SOPs in place, but I am also the type that needs a semblance of order and the familiar. I don’t like to entertain what if’s and if paying extra means having the convenience of a 24 hour concierge who will answer our questions and be our first line of defense during emergencies — then I am definitely changing hotels.

Good thing that I booked my first choice at Booking.com which allowed me to cancel the first hotel and choose another without any hassle. I will be paying an additional PHP1,000 but that came with my 24/7 concierge and a free buffet breakfast AND a strategic location right at the middle of Ximending.

So far, I am happy with my choice. Though note that I am still looking. This is the benefit of having Booking.com — it gives you the opportunity to shamelessly look for the best option for stays without the guilt and expense.

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Taiwan, Travel Diaries

Taipei: Lasting First Impressions

It was hard to provide our first impression of Taipei — it was dark and quiet when we arrived on a a humid Sunday morning. It was 1AM to be exact and we just wanted to check in at our hotel and sleep. Good thing that our driver sent by CityInn Hotel Plus was already there carrying a sign that spelled my first name wrong. She was quick, agile as she led us out of the airport and into the parking lot where her spacious car was located. She typed something on her smart phone and showed it to us, it read: “airport to hotel is 45 minutes away. I hope it’s okay…” we nodded and she smiled, then reached for our luggage before stuffing it on the trunk. The trip was a bit long and it’s hard to see what Taipei has to offer.

It was way past midnight and we can barely make out buildings and houses. All we know is that we were already in Taipei: the land of Meteor Garden, of Jay Chou, of shaved ice, milk tea and Taipei 101. At midnight, the lights of the city blaze freely in spite the fact that only a few people remained on the streets. We were in the middle of the city, but it was quiet and peaceful.

Our limo driver parked in front of City Inn Hotel Main Station, but we were supposed to stay at the nearby Keyman’s Hotel. After a bit of explanation, sign language and a few back story in between, the kind and amiable night manager of City Inn Main Station brought us to the hotel next door. Before he left, he gave us ideas on how to go to their Ximending Branch the next morning.

We spent our first night trying to sleep — we were both wired from the long flight, giddy with excitement being in Taipei and the beds at Keyman’s were effing hard. It was like trying to rearrange your spine, only not for the better. By 3AM, we finally closed your eyes, anticipating our long day ahead the next morning. The next morning, we woke up early, availed our free breakfast and checked out. We need to go to Ximending to check in at CityInn Plus Hotel, our home away from home while in the city. We were advised to take the cab but I had our itinerary and our maps down pat. The easiest and cheapest way was to try the train stations. After all, Ximending wasn’t too far from the Main Station — just one station away. Something we can easily wing. Plus, we have to buy our “Easy Card”.

the main highway in front of the Taipei Main Train Station and the Taipei Bus Station

the main highway in front of the Taipei Main Train Station and the Taipei Bus Station

The streets of Taipei were both busy and calm at the same time — buses whizz by, people walk a busy pace yet there’s a certain kind of calmness, especially in the areas near the City Hall. Well, except in Ximending which was pulsating in a steady, addicting pace. My sister and I agreed that we will spend our first day in Taipei hearing mass then discovering the tried and tested tourist attractions of the city — Taipei 101, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall then spend the rest of our night chilling out at Ximending. As usual, we were armed with a trusty map, my travel journal where I took copious notes about Taipei and an MRT guide map given by the kind people of City Inn Plus Hotel.

After checking in at CityInn, we headed out for mass. My research brought me to St. Christopher’s Church which was usually frequented by Filipinos living in Taipei. Mass at St. Christopher’s was bought inspiring and fun — definitely one of the best masses I ever attended both here in Manila or anywhere else in Asia (well, for the countries I’ve been to anyway)

After mass and spending a bit of time at Taipei Expo Park, we took the trains going to Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. Going to this attraction is easy. You hop on the train and you alight at…Chiang Kai Shek Train Station. That’s one of the things I love about Taipei — they tend to name their MRT stations after the attractions nearest it. Saves any foreign traveler the hassle of trying to figure out where you should alight. Train stations are also clean and well-lit with a smattering of signs written in Chinese and English. So, getting lost is next to impossible.

MRT signages. The Tamsui line takes you to Beitou.

MRT signages. The Tamsui line takes you to Beitou.

train stations usually serve as galleries or performance space. for this station, they transformed the walk way to an art gallery

train stations usually serve as galleries or performance space. for this station, they transformed the walk way to an art gallery

standing on the edge

standing on the edge

Similar to Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, train stations also serve as mini-hubs of commerce – there are 711s, Family Mart, a nice sushi to-go place, as well as other shops selling from milk tea to medicine. Rest rooms are well-labeled and clean.

Barely 24 hours in the city, and we have already fallen in love with Taipei.

Now, for the first day attractions:
(A quick summary of impressions)

1. Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall – My first impression of Chiang Kai Shek is that it’s…overwhelming and amazing. From the imposing main gates, to the intricate and jaw-dropping architecture of the National Theatre and National Concert Hall flanking the memorial hall, to the gleaming and seamingly mysterious Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall lording it in a safe distance. It was a sensory overload.

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I love this photo of my sister chasing after the fat pigeons...

I love this photo of my sister chasing after the fat pigeons…

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I saw my first cherry blossoms at the park surrounding the memorial hall — I can’t believe I am seeing these beauties up close! They are simply magical and pretty. I have always contemplated on getting a cherry blossom tattoo to remind me of how short and fleeting life is, but my fear of needles and pain and of not finding a job is keeping me from crossing off this item from my bucket list.

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If you’re the type who likes her history and has a thing for architecture, visit CSK Memorial Hall. It’s worth the trip. Entrance on the grounds are for free but the memorial hall has exhibits which may require a fee.

Address:
Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall
No. 21號中山南路 (Zhongshan S. Rd) Zhongzheng District Taipei City, Taiwan 100
+886 2 2343 1100

2. Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall – Went to SYS Memorial Hall after CSK. From the SYS grounds, we first had a glimpse of the Taipei 101 — this brought us to fits of giddiness. In our mind, we were really in Taipei for real. The grounds were full of people, mostly families enjoying their Sunday break. We headed inside the hall to try to catch the Changing of the Guards but ending up seeing a bit of the action amidst the sea of heads.

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If you’re someone who likes her history, then you will enjoy Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. My sister and I did not had the time to get around which was a shame really, considering we love our history (at home, History Channel and National Geographic were on heavy rotation). But the day we were day was so chaotic and busy (due to all the tour groups) we had no chance but to move on to Taipei 101.

3. Taipei 101 – I’ll be really honest. I enjoyed Taipei 101 more when I was outside posing with it on the background, than when I was up the building. Well, a highlight for me is the chance to ride the world’s fastest elevator which took us from the 5th Floor lobby to the viewing deck in less than a minute. Up, it was underwhelming, especially since it was a very cloudy day the day we went up Taipei 101. I kept waiting for my magical moment, the same way I felt when I was up the N Tower, looking down on the twinkling lights of Seoul. Maybe, I’ll blame it on the crappy weather.

Buying tickets to the Observatory

Buying tickets to the Observatory

This is the "Damper" which stabilizes Taipei 101

This is the “Damper” which stabilizes Taipei 101

So, my two cents worth? Go up if you have the budget and loves looking down on cityscapes, but be prepared to be disappointed when it’s cloudy and all you see is nothing but hazy, grayish thing from the wide windows of Taipei 101. Before you go, check the weather but Taipei weather has a tendency to change in a heart beat, one minute it’s cold, then the next thing you know, the sun is shining like crazy.

Address:
No. 7 Hsin Yi Rd. Sec. 5, Taipei 110
Entrance: NTS 500
www.taipei-101.com.tw/en

NEXT: Adventures in Yehliu National Geo Park

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Taiwan, Travel Tips

Review: Modern Toilet Restaurant Taipei (a very CRAPPY experience – literally!)

This post is just screaming for a lot of bad puns and offensive, double-meaning titles.
But I guess, one can summarize it best with this: if you look for crap, then you will get crap! This we realized to be true following our not-so-stellar experience at Modern Toilet, located at the Ximending District in Taipei, Taiwan.

For the uninitiated, Modern Toilet is a theme restaurant where the main feature and novelty is being served on toilet seats, while eating in a bidet or toilet shaped plate decorated with variations of poo. It’s a sort of thing that would be really funny for ten year old boys who find humor in bodily functions.

However, we were in Taipei for a limited time only and wanted to just get on with the experience of dining here because we were there anyway so might as well try.. We first went to Modern Toilet on our second night in Taipei, the restaurant is located on one of the alleys within Ximending and finding it is not an easy task. But we wanted to try it, so off we go following a trip to Shilin Night Market. After a bit of a search, we finally found it by 9PM.

We excitedly went up the stairs only to be turned away, with the servers explaining that they are already closed. We wanted to argue that it’s still 9PM and their sign downstairs say that they close at 10PM. But there was a language barrier and I was just tired from roaming around (Yehliu-Shilin then a mad dash to Ximending for Modern Toilet) that I just gave up.

Modern Toilet Restaurant, Ximending, Taipei

Modern Toilet Restaurant, Ximending, Taipei

You would think that the experience will be enough to make us stay-away, but no — we decided to come back the next morning for brunch and to celebrate the first meal of the day celebrating my sister’s birthday.

hey. mr. crapman! :)

hey. mr. crapman! 🙂

This time, we were accommodated immediately. At first, the place was empty but then tourists and high school kids start arriving one after the other. We were given english menus and told that we have to order and pay first on the counter before food can be served. Here’s how you order:
1. You will be given the menu and a dry-erase marker.
2. Mark your order from the items indicated in the menu.
3. Bring it to the cashier and pay.
4. Wait for your food.

Food
My sister and I chose a set meal, Tuna Pasta (NTS 275) for her and a breaded chicken with melted cheese (NTS 260) for myself. The mains came with soup (hers was a creamy pumpkin puree while mine was flavored water with floating green bits), green iced tea (tasted awful) and soft-served ice cream which came at the end of the meal.

my set meal (chicken, flavored water as soup, rice and green tea, with ice cream)

my set meal (chicken, flavored water as soup, rice and green tea, with ice cream)

my sister's pasta served in a "wash basin" type plate.

my sister’s pasta served in a “wash basin” type plate.

Okay, let’s talk first about the food. Honestly, it’s nothing to get excited about. The pasta was watery and needed salt and the iced green tea tasted awful we decided to stick with the water we have at hand. The breaded chicken was okay, made delicious by the melted cheese that oozed out. I did not enjoy my soup nor the rice (since I do not eat rice that much). The soft-served ice cream is okay, at best. Considering how tasty and delicious the food of Taipei is (and cheap too! Shilin Night Market proved that), Modern Toilet is a bit of a let-down considering the high expectations we had for the restaurant. The cost, in my opinion, is okay (NTS260 for a set) but note that you can get a yummier option at lower the cost in any of the many themed restos around Ximending.

Design
Admittedly, the allure of Modern Toilet comes with the whimsy display of poop. There are poop figures; they were selling candies shaped like poops; you can upsize your drink and order it served inside a plastic urinals for just NTS40; you are sitting on toilets with cute covers; food is served on glass-topped bath tubs and your ice cream comes shaped like poop. It’s a nice experience to have and something which can be best enjoyed with your family and friends, as you laugh on the cute poop displays and the fact that you are drinking on a miniature urinal.

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light fixtures are shaped lovingly like poop

light fixtures are shaped lovingly like poop

No, this is not the ladies' restroom. This is the sink.

No, this is not the ladies’ restroom. This is the sink.

The sink is a whole toilet bowl modified with a faucet. This is a great idea with a weird execution. It didn’t help the sink is already dirty by the time I used it that it kinda grossed me a bit.

It is indeed funny for a while, until you realize you are no longer ten years old and words like “poop”, “fart”, “dork” and others that may connote further bodily functions no longer amuse you.

Here’s how to find Modern Toilet
1. If you are coming from the metro, get out of Ximending station exit 6.
2. Head to the right side of Eslite mall. That street is called Emei street. Just go straight until you reach the end of the road which is called Kunmimg Street.
3. Turn right as soon as you see the parking lot.
4. Then turn right once again. Walk a few steps. Modern Toilet is to your left and located on the second floor.

Sorry for the crude interpretation. But here's how to find Modern Toilet

Sorry for the crude interpretation. But here’s how to find Modern Toilet

After you have your fill, I suggest you explore the neighborhood where Modern Toilet is located, lots of nice shops and hole-in-the-walls to discover.

Address and contact information:
Modern Toilet
2F, No 7, Lane 50, Xi-Ning South Road, Taipei Taiwan.
Tel:(02)23118822
Website: http://www.moderntoilet.com.tw

Prepare around NTS 250-NTS400 per person depending on your food preference.

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Taiwan, Travel Tips

Review: CityInn Hotel Plus Ximending – Getting 5-star service in a whimsical boutique hotel

If you have plans to visit Taipei, here’s a recommendation. Stay at City Inn Hotel Plus Ximending!

Forget that this little gem has comfortable, clean rooms that is just a hop, jump and cartwheel away from the Station 3 exit of the trendy Ximending district. Forget the whimsical designs, the art decorating the walls and the lifesized horse statue (lamp?) parked at the lobby. Forget its affordable rates, or that booking a room over the internet is easy.

Exit 3 of Ximending Station. Look for the bright orange sign and count to ten -- you're now at CityInn!

Exit 3 of Ximending Station. Look for the bright orange sign and count to ten — you’re now at CityInn!

…at the end of the day, prepare yourself for unrivaled customer service that surely must have been prevalent only on five-star establishments.

The first thing you’ll notice upon entering CityInn Hotel Plus Ximending, aside from the bright orange colors, is the wall of artwork…and yes, the horse:

lobby of CityInn Hotel Plus Ximending (photo coutesy of my sister's Instagram)

lobby of CityInn Hotel Plus Ximending (photo coutesy of my sister’s Instagram)

The shelf near the horse sells unique souvenirs that reflect the art visible through out the building. The items are both cute and functional, the perfect souvenir for the budding artiste in you.

If this won’t set you up for expectations that you are in for a very unique experience, then just wait until they start rolling out the virtual red carpet.

Okay, enough with the hyperbole — some basic realizations first:

1. Rooms are small but gets the job done. There is no closet, instead you will be provided with around 4 to 5 hangers. If you do not have the wardrobe of a famous celebrity, no problem. We booked for a twin room (for NTS 2,180 or about PHP3,270 per night) which came with two single beds, complete bathroom amenities and free munchies on the top drawer. There is a small fridge and free mineral water. The beds are super comfy. After staying at Keyman’s, where our backs were realigned no thanks to the rock-hard beds, the soft and comfortable mattress and pillows offered by CityInn were a welcome respite. We ended up oversleeping on our first night. A/C is okay and adjustable based on your preference. Room light is backlit so you don’t have to fumble through out the night as you look for a switch.

Twin Room at CityInn Hotel Plus. Comfy beds!

Twin Room at CityInn Hotel Plus. Comfy beds!

2. No breakfast provided. However, you can have your fill of coffee, tea or fruit juice for free on the basement floor. There are also two desk top PCs provided if you want to browse the internet. Wifi is available throughout the building. CityInn also offers free usage of the laundry machine, also located at the basement. No need to buy soap, it’s also available at the basement.

If you start craving for munchies or for breakfast, you can arrange for sandwiches to be delivered to your room, courtesy of the cafe nearby. Just place your order via the hotel reception and they’ll bring it up your room. Munchies (Doritos and veggie chips) are also placed on the top drawer. A small ref is also provided if you want to buy water, fruits, ice cream and other snacks from the nearby 711.

free munchies on the top drawer. menu for room service is on the left (breakfast only, 8AM to 11AM only)

free munchies on the top drawer. menu for room service is on the left (breakfast only, 8AM to 11AM only)

3. Bathroom amenities are provided and even includes sanitary pads in case emergency strikes. Inside the shower area, there’s a soap and shampoo dispenser. Hot water is of course, available.

nice shower!

nice shower!

complete bathroom amenities! there's even a hair dryer

complete bathroom amenities! there’s even a hair dryer

4. Walls can be a bit thin though. You can hear your neighbor going about, and during our stay — we can hear them turning on the shower. God forbid that you are rooming next to a pair of amorous teenagers. There’s also no window in the room so you have to make sure to always set your clock on time, especially if you have trips to neighboring counties.

Whatever this hotel lacks, they pretty much make up for it when it comes to customer service. The reception area is always very accommodating and easy to talk to, always helpful and willing to lend a hand. As we prepare for our trip back to Manila, we asked the front office if there’s a toilet in the first floor that we can use to freshen up and change clothes. They immediately pointed to the rest room located behind the front office area. Wash room is also clean and stocked with everything that you will possibly need: soap, lotion, a bidet and even a mouth freshener (especially if you had too much grilled squid or fish ball).

Our stay coincided with my sister’s 31st birthday. On the night before we left, we were at the basement eating and relaxing when two of the guys approached my sister and I. They were clutching a fluffy hat, oversized shades and a birthday cake for the dear sister:

my sister and I celebrating her birthday with one of the staff of CityInn

my sister and I celebrating her birthday with one of the staff of CityInn

The Queen with her birthday card from CityInn!

The Queen with her birthday card from CityInn!

My sister said it was one of her best birthdays, ever.

More than the birthday greeting, the staff of this hotel is truly one of the best. They are friendly and very helpful, warm and efficient and were good problem solvers. The treat guests as family and you can sense that they will truly bend over backwards just to please a guest or make their stay comfortable.

Information:

Address: No.63, Baoqing Rd., Zhongzheng Dist., Taipei City 100, Taiwan (R.O.C.)
Tel: +886 (2) 7725-2288
Fax: +886 (2) 7725-2799
service4@cityinn.com.tw

NOTE: I paid for my stay at this hotel and no part of this trip was sponsored.

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Travel Tips

BPI ePrepaid Express Card: A Convenient Booking Tool (without the dreaded credit card bill!)

After marrying the hubby, one of the first things to go were my credit cards. Aware that budgeting is not one of my greatest skills, the hubby decided to cut-off and discontinue all my cards.

To quote, “I should learn to live according to my means.”

Unfortunately, a credit card is a very important tool for travel fiends like me — yes, even if I am pretty much always after a very good deal.

A few posts back, I insinuated about getting an ePrepaid card in order to fund my online purchases like plane tickets and hotel reservations. After a while, it gets pretty tiring asking people to book your tickets for you. After choosing between two banks, I figured that it’s better to get BPI since my savings and payroll account are both from the same bank. This lessens the hassle of transferring from one bank to another. I just log in using my Express Online account and voila! It’s locked and loaded and ready to use for online booking!

Booking to the CityInn Hotel Plus Ximending using my BPI ePrepaid

Booking to the CityInn Hotel Plus Ximending using my BPI ePrepaid

Applying for an express card is easy. In my case, I applied online by filling out the form available at the BPI Express website. . You will need to indicate the BPI branch nearest you where they will send the prepaid card after 5 days.

You will need to pay PHP500 while claiming the card — then if you have express online, apply it to said feature so that you can transfer money from your savings account to the debit card. This is what I did especially with the pressing need to find and book a hotel for the upcoming Taipei trip.

I already got the chance to use my ePrepaid Card when I chanced upon CityInn Hotel Plus on TripAdvisor. While I mentioned in one of my earlier post that I am partial to getting Keyman’s Hotel due to its proximity to Taipei Main Train station and to its marvelous Japanese rooms, I decided to go with CityInn due to its amazing room designs, its sleek interiors and the fact that it’s new. It also doesn’t help that it consistently rated high at Trip Advisor.

I was actually supposed to book the CityInn Hotel III which was nearest the Taipei Main Station but a quick check on their very efficient reservations system revealed an almost filled up hotel, the same goes for its CityInn Hotel II branch. In the end, I decided to go with City Inn Hotel Plus is Ximending, the so-called Harajuku of Taipei.

Cliche as they may sound — booking is as easy as 1-2-3. To confirm my reservations and in order to pay the 30% deposit, I entered my card details similar to how you do it with a credit card. Booking was immediately confirmed. After just an hour, I already had CityInn Hotel Plus calling my mobile phone long distance to confirm the reservations and arrange the transfers from airport to the city (we are arriving at 12:40 and after immigration and all that, might be able to go out the airport by 1:30AM).

So, if you are the type to trawl the various websites of airlines looking for cheap deals and still wouldn’t want to get buried in credit card debt, perhaps you might be interested in getting a prepaid card. This way, we can still satiate our wanderlust yet still be responsible with out finances.

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