Tag Archives: Marriott

Niagara Falls

One of the benefits of traveling for work, is that sometimes you decide to stay a little longer and discover amazing places.

Last week, I was flying to Massachusetts for a client, but plane ticket prices were insanely expensive. The cheapest ticket I found was flying into Boston, MA and flying out of Buffalo, NY. That seemed like a short drive on the map (if you scroll out really far)… I decided to see what was around Buffalo, and found “Niagara Falls” on the map. For some reason I have been hiking a lot the past months and I tend to be intrigued by waterfalls. So Niagara falls kind of fitted naturally in the list. Additionally, I’ve always wanted to see the falls ever since Bellewaerde park built the “Niagara” attraction many years ago (I had a season pass for many years as a kid and teenager). The attraction is built with Canada as its theme, and since it had been a while since I was in Canada (6 years), I decided to go to the Canadian side to see the falls. I also found a great deal on the Marriott on the Falls hotel, which had awesome pictures. Many (very superficial) reasons to go there.

The drive from Boston to Niagara Falls was long, but likable. The landscape of Massachusetts and New York state is very pretty. The mountains, the views, and a really nice long highway. I found an extreme conservative radio station praising the British for voting on Brexit. The stupidity of the radio host was only surpassed by their callers leaving an opinion. Ignorance was the rule, intelligent conversations non-existent. It was funny for a out an hour, but then got scary and I had to find another radio station.

Getting closer to Canada I found a nice radio station (great music). I only noticed it was a Canadian one when there was a commercial about the government of Ontario spending more money on doctors and hospitals. Then the weather was talking about weird “Celsius” temperatures. I found myself recalculating Celsius to Fahrenheit… that put a smile on my face. I only realize how ‘Americanized’ I am, once I go near (or over) the border. I just enjoyed the music and the (very un-american) news and radio-host stories the last couple of hours driving to the falls.  Crossing the “Rainbow bridge”, connecting the USA and Canada, I realized this was the first time I stopped at a boarder with an actual customs checkpoint. Kinda cool to think about, especially the day after England and Wales decided to leave Europe, where borders are scares.

I had two days, two nights scheduled to be at Niagara Falls, Canada. I had asked some friends if they wanted to join me, but nobody was able or willing to join. I wondered if I would have enough to do for two full days. I mean, what could there possibly be to do. It’s just a lot of water falling to a lower point, right?  On my way there, I kind of felt I perhaps made a mistake booking two days at the falls, instead of visiting Buffalo a day. Boy, was I wrong… I was setup for one of the best weekends ever!

Checking into the hotel, I got a free upgrade to a “Falls view” room. Amazing view walking into my room. Just stunning. I had already heard the waterfalls from the parking lot, but actually seeing them was unbelievably cool. The noise of the falls is so loud, that it actually trumps the air conditioning machine noise. Really impressive. I booked a 5 hour (five hours?!?) tour for Saturday with all kinds of activities. I was a tourist without a plan, or idea of what to do, so I did not really know -nor cared- what those activities would be. I got a free ticket to visit the “daredevil” museum, so did that while it was still open. It is a small museum, but really cool. People are crazy, that is all you can say after visiting it. I remember reading a comic book (“Karl May – Duel with Niagara Falls“) back as a kid about one of these people. Coincidentally, as these things go), last week the new episode of “Another Period” also featured the first person ever in recorded history to go over the falls (also a woman). I was starting to get really hungry from the long drive, and decided to find a restaurant. Found what looked like a really nice Italian restaurant to eat, only problem was that I could not find the door to get in. The restaurant turned out to be part of the Casino (there are two casino’s in Niagara Falls). Got an amazing dinner, with a great view (not talking about the falls here). I had never been in a real casino before. Since I had nothing else to do, I decided to kind of hang around and figure out what this was all about. Hundreds of slot machines (I really do not get it). The poker tables were very busy, and a bit too intimidating for me (needed at least 1,500 CAD to join, and although the people in England just helped my weekend get 10% cheaper overnight, that was still too much in my opinion). I decided to watch people play some blackjack variant game, and once I (thought) to understand the game (a bit), I decided to get myself some colorful paper out of an ATM. All in all a very good experience. Played a few hours and then went to bed, after all I had a 5-hour activity to join the next day.

Saturday, was up fairly early and walked down to the falls. The walk down was pretty, going through a park with lots of city wildlife. Then noticed there were actually 2 falls. The smaller “American” falls (~900 years old) and the Canadian “Horseshoe Falls” (the ‘original’ falls and ~12,000 years old, or just a few years, depending how you look at it). Looking at the Horseshoe falls, the “Niagara” attraction in Bellewaerde made a whole lot of sense. It is basically mimicking the shape of a horseshoe and dumping a boat into the water, creating a massive displacement of water. Well, exactly like the real Niagara falls (without boat), but smaller. Went to visit the “Niagara White Water Rapids (Category 6; basically meaning you will die if you go in them as a normal person). Crazy stuff. A waterway with 6 meter high (18 foot) waves, created by simply the sheer volume of water being pushed from the falls to lake Ontario. I have pictures and video’s, but they do not do justice to the magnificent view.

Walked back to my hotel to start the tour, almost missed my bus because I’m a tourist and do not care about time. The five hour tour featured a tour on the boat going really close to the falls (a must-do!), a walk -behind- the falls and standing right next to the Horseshoe falls. You cannot imagine how beautiful, and humbling, it is to stand next to a literal sea of water just falling into the deep at a rate of over a million liter a minute. Just insane! Nia-gara means Gods of Thunder in waters, or something like that, according to the movies. Wikipedia does not agree, but I’m all for it. IMG_0204 IMG_0239 IMG_0240

I could go on about the beauty of the falls for another thousand words. But the point of this post is that no matter what your situation is (single, couple, family), there is a lot to do for you at Niagara Falls, Canada. And I encourage you to go see it. It is beyond believe. Additionally, at the rate the Canadian government is adding new attractions, this place will just keep on expanding in the next years. You go for the falls, and they are by far the coolest thing I have ever seen, but there is so much more to do than just that. Niagara Falls should be on your agenda of places to visit. Period.

Welcome to the USA!

August 2014, my brother and friends are visiting the USA for the first time. My brother came over a few days early to visit me in Dallas and experience the ‘Cowboy way of life’. His main goal in Texas was to find an outfit and dress up like a hillbilly, similar to the ‘Cletus’ character from ‘The Simpsons’.  The search for the jeans overall and cowboy hat was an adventure on itself. We’ve visited several ‘Western Wear’ shops where people would look at us, shaking their head in disbelieve. ‘It is summer’, was the most common answer. ‘Nobody wears that in summer’. We finally found a store in Louisville that actually had the overalls in stock and we also found a great cowboy hat. We did all kind of ‘Texan’ activities, such as buying ammo (In Walmart, ammo is stored in the aisle next to the children toys… cliche confirmed), going to the shooting range with my American friend, visiting the Stockyards cattle drive, the Stockyards Rodeo, eating steak and having Texan BBQ. And although he did not actually wear the overall anywhere (a bit too hot), it were good times. After a few days of Dallas and Fort Worth, we took the plane to New York where we would meet two mutual friends from Belgium.

Originally the plan was to stay at an apartment in Jersey City that we rented through AirBnB. Unfortunately, they cancelled 2 days before we arrived due to ‘boiler problems’. We were forced to get a new spot asap, and basically did not have a choice of where we wanted to stay. We ended up booking something else through AirBnB in Brooklyn, which seemed looking at the map as not too distant from Manhattan. We turned out to be really bad at reading maps… We arrived at two different airports. My brother and I ended up in EWR (close to the original Jersey City location) and our friends ended up on JFK. Although they landed over an hour before us, and they were closer to the new location, we still ended up arriving first in Brooklyn. The cabdriver was not happy to cross NY and get into Brooklyn at all. When he saw the neighborhood we were getting into, he was even less pleased. And so were we… We spend almost 2 hours in traffic before we got to our destination. Our friends ended up waiting for almost 4 hours in immigration (JFK is the worst airport to enter the USA, if possible, always choose another!) and once they get a cab, the driver had no clue where to drive, and asked them several times if they were sure about the address. Living in the USA for some time now, I understood this neighborhood was not the best, to say the least, but for people trying to enjoy their holidays coming from Belgium, this place was worse than their worst nightmares. We had 2 studios. The first one was quite reasonably OK, something you would expect to find when backpacking through poor countries, but certainly not to our standards. The second studio was just plain really bad, and not a place you would want to stay at all. Dirty mattress, etc. We decided to make the best of it, and go out for dinner, since we’ve all had a long day of travel already. But it was obvious nobody was very happy with the place we got into.

It was getting dark, and we did not feel very comfortable walking 5 blocks to the nearest subway station, so I decided to introduce my friends to ‘Uber’. Uber is actually illegal in Belgium, so they were very surprised how good, safe, fast and cheap the app really is. We get into the Uber car, and the driver just looks at us and asks: “What are four white boys doing in a neighborhood like this?”. The tone was set and the driver recommended us to either get out of that place or at least use Uber to get out and in every time. Which we kind of already realized those were our two options. It was actually a really fun ride. “I was not planning to pick anyone up around here”, the driver said, “but I got your request and I noticed you had 5 stars… so I thought, well let’s go take a look”. “Nobody around here has 5 starts”, he said. I did not realize the Uber drivers also rated their passengers, but it was a pleasant surprise to hear I have the highest rating. He explained to us that we were not in the very worst part of town, but pretty near to it. ‘They are trying to clean it up”, he said. We were not sure what that actually meant at that point. Just being around there only a few hours, we had noticed at least 3 drug deals. The driver dropped us off at Little Italy, where one of my friends who recently moved to New York joined us for dinner. Making some jokes about ‘All Belgians being the same’ and discussing the place we ended up in a bad part of Brooklyn. Walking to the subway after dinner – we wanted to go see Times Square- faces and conversations were still a bit dark and gloomy. However, the second we walked out of the subway and saw Times Square, all of our faces lighted up and my friends were skipping around like little girls. ‘WTF is this?!”, “This is awesome”, “I feel so small”, “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaamn!”. We had a few drinks and decided to Uber it back ‘home’. This driver was a bit confused about where we were going… “Are you sure that is where you want to go?”. The drive made it clear what the first driver meant with ‘they are cleaning it up’: This was a Saturday night and there were at least 2 cops on every intersection. I’ve never seen that many police officers, and I live in Texas… Once we got into our Neigherbood, it was actually quiet and there were no flashing lights or anything. The Uber driver waited for us to get in the house, before taking off to his next customers. My friends thought that was weird, and it enforced their believe we should get out of there. It had been a long day, and we went to sleep.

We woke up the next day, and all was fine. Sun was out, people were quietly walking the street, and there was this general feeling of confusion in our group. “Was this now a bad place to be, or not”, we slept OK, but in the end we decided we could not stay there. The mattress and bathrooms were just not good enough and some of us were scared they would catch some kind of diseases. In the end, when you are on holiday you should feel comfortable. The Uber drive also cost us a decent amount, and we just wanted to be closer to the city as was the original plan. So we decided to move out. I booked one of the Courtyard Marriotts downtown and we moved out. We called the owners to let them know we would be leaving and ask if we could get a partial refund. I’m not sure how exactly that worked out,  all I know is that at some point they called us racists. We wanted to leave there because it is a black neighborhood was their assumption. Oh well. The whole experience lead to my brother and friends cancelling their AirBnB scheduled for their trip to LA the next week. “Not this again”, was their general feeling. AirBnB actually got back to my brother about it, but I do not know how that ended and if we were given any type of refund. All I know is that if you want to be comfortable, do not get anything through AirBnB. I’m sure it works really well for people on a low budget or backpacking, but for us this is just not the type of service we expect. In fact, since the Marriott gave us a huge room with 2 queen beds and a coach, and the most expensive day of the week (Saturday) was already gone, the price of the hotel room was quite reasonable and we felt really stupid to even have tried the AirBnB service.

After that, New York was awesome. We did all kinds of touristy stuff and just enjoyed the whole city. It was amazing. ‘Top of the Rock’ (going up the Rockefeller building), gives you an insane view over the city. It was the first time in my life I was actually scared in an elevator. it just keeps on going up! Biking through Central Park,… Cherry on the cake was the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon”. It is anti-religious, very politically incorrect and awesome. Not only the performance itself is absolutely brilliant, the reactions of the public is worth it too! Half the public (including myself) loves the whole show, while the other half seems to feel uncomfortable, and perplexed. To see how some people cope with it is hilarious in itself.  Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez (you know the first two as the creators of South Park), really did a great thing here. If you have a chance, go see it! Book your tickets well in advance, though. They are sold out every day for many days in advance.

After five days New York, we traveled south to Washington DC. The original plan was to take the train, but when checking we realized it would cost us 600 USD and we could not take luggage, which is kind of a showstopper. No worries, we decided to rent a car and just drive there. Stopping whenever we felt like it, and so we did. I was a bit disappointed on our road trip, the scenery between New York and Washington is mostly just forest. A bit boring. We did stop at an authentic diner and had great burgers. I had to explain my friends the concept of tipping again, again and again. Which was funny.

Washington is a great city. We were only there for one and a half days, and I think we all felt we should have stayed longer. Basically we did the National Mall the entire day, and did not even take the time to wander around every park. Washington is certainly a great place to visit. My friends and brother ended up flying to Vegas after that. I had to drive back north, to Philadelphia, for work. And so ended our holiday in the USA together. They visited Vegas, the Grand Canyon and LA without me. They tell me they loved their visit to the USA and it looks like they would not object coming back later!

I believe we made a really good choice of visiting different places. My brother visited Dallas, New York, Washington, Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon National Park and Los Angeles in about three weeks. This was a very diverse road trip and they’ve seen the different faces this great country has. And honestly, I was just happy to see my friends without needing to fly all the way back to rainy Belgium! :)


Visit from the Momma

After living in the USA for about 18 months, my Mom, aunt, sister and her boyfriend visited me. I took some days off to join them in New York. and after that they flew to Dallas, TX. What an amazing place New York is! it was my first time there and is was simply awesome. I used my Marriott reward points to stay at the Fairfields Inn New York – Time Square Manhattan. The hotel has a bar on the rooftop ‘Skybar’ which is apparently the place to be. As a hotel guest I could go up for free and skipping the lines. It was a pretty amazing sight and if I was not supposed to be up really early to meet with my family again, I would have spend many hours up there that Saturday evening! Its a great hotel, but prices are pretty insane too on Saturday evenings in summer. (Thank you reward points!),

My family visited most of the ‘typical’ tourist attractions already, so I ended up visiting only the 9/11 museum (really interesting and -forgive my words- kinda cool to visit), a bus tour and the 9/11 memorial. They are still building parts of the freedom tower and surroundings, but the monument is done really well. It is touching, extremely powerful and peaceful. It is really well done and a fitting way to remember the deaths and events of 9/11 2001.
Also went to see the musical ‘Chicago’ which is the longest running musical on Broadway (like 20 years or so). My family was very disappointed about it, it was better than what I expected. They had seen ‘Book of Mormon’ a few days before (before I joined them), so I guess they were just too overwhelmed by the South Park people to love a 20 year old production.

Lots of updates in the map (see ‘my places’).

We flew back to Dallas, basically because my mom wanted to see my apartment. They had enough of visiting museums, so I took them to some ‘American’ places that I know: Pei Wei (‘Oh my god, this is so good and cheap for fast food!’), The Cheescake Factory (‘I thought this was a fake name used in the Big Bang Theory!’), Jakes Hamburgers (‘This meat is soooooo good!!!’), Sammy’s BBQ (‘These people are so friendly and this meat is so good and cheap!!!’). Took them to ‘TopGolf’, which was really fun and did a little tour around Highland Park, Dallas to see scenery. They enjoyed their holiday and I enjoyed the company.

My family does not realize it, they enjoyed some time at my apartment pool, but they in fact visited Dallas at a historic day. It was only 65F in July, the coldest day ever recorded in Texas in July. It was raining, a horrible day. But we enjoyed playing cards together. I felt bad for them to be in Texas during the worst day ever, but they seemed to enjoy it anyway.

Waiting for my Brother and friends to join me in Dallas/USA, in August! It will be fun again, and it saves me a long trip to Belgium to see people.



A midnight MMS

I wasn’t planning to use this blog before 2013, but this night I received an MMS from one of my colleagues in the USA with a picture (see attached). This picture and the story behind it is exactly the reason why I want to start this blog, so I take this opportunity to post my first real message.

Back in October 2012, we were setting at the bar of our Hotel in Dallas, Texas when I discovered they served a Belgian beer on tap: Palm. I suddenly felt like having a Palm, which was one of my favorite beers back at university in Brussels. I got my Palm in a “normal” -American way- beer glass. Seriously, this glass must have been the biggest beer glass anyone has ever used to drink Palm. The taste was obviously good, but being Belgian -and consequently a bit of a beer-nerd-, I had to call the waiter on the beer glass. I always get excited talking about beer glasses, and -although my colleagues probably think I’m crazy- I really believe it is going to be the next big thing in the US beer market: not only serve really good (Belgian, or Belgian style) beers, but also serve them in a beer glass that respects the beer and its consumer. America is a great country, but when it comes to food and drinks there are a few things they can learn from Belgium still (not necessarily talking about taste by the way). Anyhow, we had fun showing pictures of a real Palm glass and talking about beer and food in general and how it is supposed to be served.

Now, yesterday out of nowhere I received the following MMS message from my American colleague Kevin:

Thought u would appreciate the hotel’s new glassware!!!

Palm glass

A real Palm glass at the Renaissance Hotel, Marriot, Dallas, Texas

And yes, I do appreciate it! And yes, I know what will be my first drink at the Renaissance Hotel when I arrive next month!