Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Dots: A game about connecting by Playdots Inc

 There are many dots games, but this is the best and the most imitated, and the most challenging. There is a reason why it has a cult-following -- once you start playing you will understand why. 

This is a simple colourful puzzle game, clean and sleek, customisable and fun. You will find yourself totally addicted to it. The game is easy  to play, without locked levels to pass. What you have to achieve is to get a high score, get to 500+, which is something very difficult. That requires focus, strategy and also a bit of luck and knowing how the system works to undermine it a bit in your favour. Getting 100 or 150 points might be relatively easy, but getting 200+  is far from easy and I am stuck in the 300+ benchmark right now in the Moves Mode and about 200+ in the Timed Mode, and, honestly, it is difficult!

What do you have to do? Connect dots of the same colour and score high. The aim of the game is to make as many squares as possible, as one square gets you 10 points not 4, and squares beget more squares, which start to appear more often the more you make.

There are four playing modes. The Timed Mode (60 seconds) which is the most difficult; the Moves Mode (30 moves to finish, that is the one I recommend to learn and find your way without the pressure of time); the Endless Mode (which you have to pay for) and the Blind Competition with other gamers. To help you with the scoring. you are given three tools to improve your changes. They are called runners-up. One is the time-stop (the clock stops counting for 5 seconds), the shrinkers (you press one and it eliminates the dot you press from the screen) and the expanders (it eliminates all the dots of the same colour from the screen).

The game is free but not cheap, if you know what I mean. It is pleasing to the eye, customisable, scores are kept safe for next time you play, and your best score on each mode is recorded without you having to do anything. So, there is no need to access Facebook or Google+ to save anything or play with other gamers. There are several free themes and colour schemes. I tend to use the purple one a lot, and the original white. The other ones are not as good to me.

You get extra bonus points for playing certain number of matches, at certain times of the day, with certain themes, for benchmark points, for using the runners ups, for number of dots eliminated by one move and so on. Each time you get one of those bonus it will show at the end of your match by small red characters with a description. 

The game gives you plenty of points that you can exchange for any of the runners up, if you want, for free, without the need of purchasing anything.  

The best way to score high is to make as many squares as you can. It sound easy but it is not. Sometimes the  initial dots panel is set in a way that makes difficult to make any square at all, no matter how good you are. You cannot do anything about it. But you can restart the game and start it up again with a new dots panel. I do that until I see I have some workable changes to start with and I am not doomed from the start. 

I have played the game in my tablet and phone, and for whatever reason I find playing with the pone is easier, probably because there is a bigger distance between the eyes and the screen and one can spot shapes better. 
+ I find the game easy to find on buses, planes and in moments when you don't have much time. Lunch break or bus commuting for example. 
+ It occupies little memory and runs smoothly.  
+ It saves your scoring and piles up on it automatically.
+ Unisex game.
+ All ages game. 
+ Colour blind mode.
+ Play matches with other players without the need of registration or interacting directly with them.
+ Free exchange of points for runner-up dots.
+ No annoying ads or promotional interruptions.

> Start with the Moves Mode to practise your focus and strategy without the pressure of time.
> Use your shrinkers and expanders wisely. Unless you are getting a high score and want to improve it, you are wasting them.
> Set the theme that best suits your sight and you feel most comfortable with. I personally found the original and the purple the ones that work best for me. I cannot resist purple anything
.> Restart the game if you see that the initial dots panel is setting you for a low scoring.
> Avoid the temptation of linking many dots in a long line. By making a square and linking four dots you are getting 10 points, which is more of what you get with long lines most of the time. 
> Focus, focus, focus. Patience, Patience, Patience.
> Don't rush. I have seem that a mechanical impulse of my fingers has just destroyed a square that I saw a millisecond after my fingers had touched the screen. 
>  If you are playing the Time Mode and need a few seconds, instead of using your time-pause runner up, press the time/moves on the left top of the screen and the game is suspended automatically. Then, you can press the green button and return to the game as you left it, or you can restart by pressing the red button.
>  The use of shrinkers and expanders is very useful, but it is worthless if you are scoring low and waste them in this occasion. Use them when you are scoring high to score higher and get more squares! The shrinkers are specially convenient as they are very cheap to exchange for your gathered points.

# Initial explanation about what the function of shrinkers and expanders is missing from the game unless you press on them and you see what the text says. The game starts with a simple exemplification of how the game works, why not doing the same with the runners up?  
# You cannot adjust the sizing of the dots to your liking.
# If you want to change the colour palette and customise it, you have to pay for it.
# You can buy double scoring dots. This being the case, any gamer who is using those has way more chances of scoring high that you will ever have even if you have the same skills and create the same number of squares. Unfair!

I tend to download heaps of free games and they have a very short life in my gadgets for several reasons. Basically they don't give me what I am looking for. Dots is difficult but gives me what I am looking for. It is here to stay!

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Comfort Inn Wenworth Plaza Hotel (Perth WA)

300 Hay St, Perth WA 6004
(08) 9338 5000
Bookings:1800 355 109


I stayed in this hotel for a night during my last visit to Perth. There are two good things that this hotel is worth staying for. The first is its central location at the corner of William St and Murray St, surrounded by many shops, cafés, bars, and Rayne Sq Shopping Mall. The train station is across the street as well. The second thing is that this a good value-for-money hotel taking into account that it is in Perth, a city with indecent prices for everything. These two things make it a winner if you intend staying overnight or want a couple of nights in the heart of the city without spending a fortune. This is also an upgrade from a backpacker hotel, cheap enough if you are sharing room and with more facilities and comfort that any backpacker place in Perth.

There is secure access to the rooms as you need your card to get the lift. 

The Hotel is directly communicated with La Bohème Bar and Restaurant, where you can have breakfast (from 7am onwards) lunch, dinner or just a drink at night, when the place is very popular with locals for after-work drinks. The English pub Moon is next door as well.   

On the other hand, the hotel looks old and run down, outdated (1950s like) with ugly rooms and decoration. If you love the style, my apologies. Having said that I loved the style and colour scheme of the corridors.

My room was very basic and functional. I had everything I needed for my overnight stay, TV, clock, desk, complimentary coffee and tea facilities and a mini-bar. I loved the toilet with its retro look, and the set of toiletries was basic but good enough. Both the room and toilet were spotless clean

The mattress was medium hard, so not my cup of tea, as my back suffers with those, but not bad either. The main problem of the room is the the lack of natural light as the window faced an inner courtyard full of other windows. Also, the rattling of the ventilation system was noticeable during the night. 

The staff  member at Reception when I arrived was matter of fact, not specially welcoming. On the contrary, the girls in the morning shift were truly friendly. Yet, I asked something to one of them and I was misinformed, so another staff had to correct her. 

>There are always taxis at the door, so no need to call one or wait for one.  

In my booking online page, in the room information area, among the facilities in the room, the following are listed:
> Toilet
> Bathroom
> Towels
> Linen
Woohoo!!! I am impressed!!

I organised a wakeup call for 630am just in case I missed my phone alarm and my connection. It was 6.19 a.m. according to my watch and to the room's clock when I heard the phone ringing. It was one of those pre-recorded wakeup calls, and said "this is your 6.30am wakeup call." WTF. There are many minutes from 6.19 to 6.30... just saying. It seems that the wakeup system is jet-lagged.  

Well, guys, remember, just in case you come from the North Pole, or you have just left your hut in the jungle that the contents of the mini-bar are not complimentary. 

> I would revamp and change the colour palette used for bed covers, cushions and bed linen to make it more modern and pleasant to the eye. 
> I would fix the wakeup system.
> I would make sure that the staff, even trainees, are informed of the basics. Otherwise, well, let them have a trainee badge. 
> I would fix the power points that do not work. One of those in my room.
> I would make sure that sachets of creamer are added to the set, or just replaced. None in my room.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

WTF Foodie Moment 9: Strong Coffee

I order my coffee, a regular size that has two shots of coffee.
The barista prepares it.
> Do you want sugar?
> It depends, how strong is it?
> It has two shots.
My eyes roll around my head like  a Saturn satellite.
> Yes, but the strength depends on the beans used and the roasting so two shots can be strong or weak. (not to mention the size of the regular cup, that is not always the same or regular.)
She looks at me as if I am talking in Chinese.
>  I don't know at all, I don't drink coffee.
Where? Two Brews Cafe

Friday, 4 September 2015

Kungfu Kitchen (Northbridge WA)

Shop 3, 145 Newcastle St
Northbridge WA 6003
0413 908 997

Kung Fu Kitchen on Urbanspoon Kung-Fu Kitchen is a little eatery serving authentic Szechwan Chinese food at cheap prices. The place is not glamorous, but is very luminous, functional and quiet.

The selection of dishes is varied, and you have them photographed on the wall with both their Chinese and English names.
They have plenty of soups, and dishes using products that Australians are not that keen on: tongues, paws, and other animal body parts. Others, on the contrary are the sort of food that you find in Chinese-Western restaurants.

My spicy dry noodles were fresh and tasty, full of flavour, a nice mix of textures, a bit hot, and a large serving portion. The noodles were cold, so a bit of the joy dissipated when I tried them. Perhaps this is how they are originally served in China, I don't know. If this is the case, would be worth adding a "cold dish" sign to the photo. I do not want cold noodles in winter! 

The searing hot pot is so spicy hot that it was impossible for me to eat. A priory it was great. You choose four vegetables and two meats and they prepare your soup. When it arrived it looked great, fresh and yummy. However, the chilly was so strong that no flavour came out but that of the chilly. Two girls from Hong Kong  were eating the same soup and agreed that the soup was extremely hot. I was crying a river out of spiciness even though I eat very spicy hot food without a problem. I told the lady behind the counter to have it medium spicy, but I want to think that she did not understand me well.  

Some of the soups I saw looked yummy and were huge in size, and customers were positively commenting on them, so I will definitely return for those before summer kicks in. Their simplest of the simplest burgers are also in my to-try list.

They have free barley tea for customers. Free self-refilling makes me always happy.

The place is fully packed with Chinese people, which is always an indication that the place prepares authentic food. It is becoming increasingly popular with non-Chinese, but there is not much hype because the place is not glamorous and very simple, and because the Tuck Shop Cafe is just across the street.

The service is matter of fact and not especially welcoming. The lady behind the counter is very cold, I think out of shyness, and you feel that you have are being punished and given the the cold shoulder for something naughty you did in your past life. The girls attending to the tables were, on the contrary, quite friendly.

Pricing is very good, with most dishes under 15 bucks, and the serving portions are generous.

It is open every day, almost every hour of the day. It is perfect for a lunch escapade if you work in the Northbridge area. Yet, are you prepared for authentic Chinese food?

Kailis Brothers Fish Café (Leederville, WA)

101 Oxford Street, Leederville, WA
(08) 9443 6300
Opening hours:
   Mon-Sun: 7am-11 pm

The place is comfortable, and very functional in its decoration, but also crowded and noisy depending on the day and time you visit. The restaurant seems to attract large crows of +70yo on Sundays, and families, and +35y.o. couples and groups on Saturdays.

The staff are lovely, and they are very accommodating about everything. Service in general was fast, friendly, and attentive -- Very good.

As you can expect, the fish they use is super-fresh and yummy, but the food I tried was nice overall, nothing more. The fish and chips were average. The fries tasted of frozen ones. The fish was good, but very oily, and needed a bit of a dry-off. The creamy chowder was utterly disappointing and tasted more of corn flower than of fish. That is unforgivable! I have had a better chowder at Bivouac, and they aren't fish experts. The entrées of prawn croquettes and zucchini chips were the best thing I tried there, really flavoursome. 

They have a decently priced and varied chart of local and international wines, and a good selection of sweets. 

The place is utterly overpriced for the quality of the cooked food they offer. Example: 4 little croquettes, tapa size, 20 dollars. A rip-off. It made me want to swear the continental way. I swallowed a WTF instead!I have found better prices for croquettes in posh restaurants in Perth. Just saying.

The fish markets are great, but you will pay top dollar for the fresh fish and marinated goods they have for sale. Yet, this is Perth.

Circa Bistro (Mount Lawley, Perth WA)

676 Beaufort St
Mount Lawley, WA 6050
08 9371 9971

    Mon-Fri 11:30 am - 10:30 pm
    Sat 8 am - 11 pm
    Sun 8 am - 4 pm
Circa on Urbanspoon 

I have tried almost everything at Circa, as I was a regular visitor when I lived in Mount Lawley.

Occupying what
once Diva was, Circa revamped and upgraded the space but kept the layout. They added a cushioned seating area, some Art-deco elements of decoration and turned the café into a simple elegant one.  I love all the Art-deco items of decoration (the starry mirror, the hand lamps, and the horny chandelier at the top area)At night, the candlelights and the subdued lighting create a cozy, romantic and chic ambience.

The place is always clean and tidy and rarely crowded. The place attracts people from all ages looking for a quite place with nice food to catch up and relax. 

They have clean very nice toilets, as well.

I have been there for breakfast, lunch and dinner, quite often, and this is so because they have a small but interesting menu. Sometimes the food has been delicious and done to perfection, while others (even for the same dish) the dish was just nice (aka mediocre). The fact remains that after so many visits, their food has never wowed me, but it has never let me down either;there is a lack of consistency in the quality of the dishes. Many times I told myself, this dish would be great just if.., only if the added... They have great ideas, but the realisation of some dishes lacks that j'ai ne sais quoi that brings any dish to a level up. There are a few dishes that I thought were great (the Roasted Root Vegetables, chorizo and manchego toasts, the beetroot ravioli, the beetroot infused salmon breakfast, and some of their pasta dishes), while others were average (Spanish eggs with pecorino, polenta chips, some of their breakfasts, some of their pasta dishes).

They have a really nice chart of wines, my favourit was the Calo Rioja Tempranillo, worth every cent of the 11 dollars per glass I paid. 

Portions are always on the small side for mains, something that bothers me a lot. If I am charged a lot of money for a main dish I want a decent serving portion, unless I am in a fine dine restaurant, which is not the case.    

They have always had a nice selection of desserts at Circa, but, like the food, they could have been great but they got aborted midway, lacking technique and authenticity at times. Yet, lovely overall. 

Regarding their coffee, they use Origins Coffee, which is not amongst my favourite beans, as it is lacks in flavour. However, they prepare a good coffee even though the quality varies from barista to barista. 

The staff are always lovely, some of them extremely friendly. The serving tempo is not bad, on the slow side at times, perfect others. The staff are often distracted (even when the place is half full) and their warmth and willingness to please gets blended with a lack of attention to the most important thing in the restaurant - customers. In the past I have seen people leaving the restaurant because they got tired of waiting a waiter approaching them to take their order despite the place being with few clients.

Although the food is really nice, this cafe has always been overpriced for what they serve. My opinion. More expensive than Cantina 663 at times for dishes that do not match the quality of Cantina's kitchen.
>> I know that in these days using foreign names for the ingredients and dishes is the last new thing. I don't have a problem with that if what I get in the plate is  what it is supposed to be or it has the essence of the dish. For example, if you call something a "mousse" I expect something to have the consistency of a mousse, and to be fluffy and light. If you call something "pannacotta" I expect the consistency and texture of the pannacotta. That sort of thing. Please don't mislead.
 >> Their dinner menu has (or used to have) most of the things you find for lunch. Why not creating a complete different menu for dinner?

>> They didn't have specials for ages. Then they started offering some specials, but not regularly or changing them frequently. That is not good for them. You can cross the street and go to Cantina 663 that succeeds at keeping a huge amount of regulars by constantly renewing their menu.  
 >> They need to work on their music. There is a mismatch of tunes. If you want to create a certain atmosphere you need integrity and consistency in the music. The selection is better at night but, in general, music create ambience or destroys it, if you know what I am saying. 
>> I think the methacrylate chairs don't blend well with the Art-Deco woody style of the place. They feel odd to me. But this is just a personal preference.

Overall Circa is a lovely place, with lovely food, high prices and nice staff. Some of their dishes and desserts will surprise you for good, and others will let you indifferent but with a big bill. The perfect place to catch up and great for night dates.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Clarences (Highgate, Perth WA)

 566 Beaufort St
Mt Lawley Western Australia 6050
(08) 9228 9474
    Mon-Thu 16:00 - 0:00
    Fri-Sat 12:00 - 0:00
    Sun 12:00 - 22:00

Clarences on Urbanspoon

My first visit to Clarences was good enough to made me return because of the nice ambience, relaxed vibe and good modern pub food. I love their backyard, which is very laid back and cool. The inner space is quite dark, very different in vibe, but great for dates or  cozy chats. I have visited both during the day and at night, and the place truly changes.

The pumpkin ravioli were divine. They were cooked in a similar style to the Autumn gnocchi at Bivouac. Pan-fried with a colourful mix of flavour and textures that really turn this vegetarian dish into be wow. I would have eaten two of those easily!

The octopus with "ajo blanco was an octopus salad with nuts. The octopus was very tender, and the mix of textures very pleasant; however the "ajo blanco" was not really "ajo blanco" but a strong garlic mayonnaise, too garlicky, so it overwhelmed the rest of the flavours in the plate.  

The cookies with ice-cream and peanut syrup dessert was OK in flavour, big serving, but hard and sticky, and impossible to to handle with your bare hands -which was my first intention- or with the spoon and/or knife as the cookies were very-very hard. I thought that this would make a perfect children dessert, so your child -if you have any- gets all sticky and smiley eating syrupy things.

The Booze, coffee and cigarettes dessert was truly creative and a great alcoholic dessert. It was nicely plated and had great textures. Superwow feeling. I had all the people in the backyard looking at my table (with envy).

I have had other dishes there, but this was long ago and I did not take notes. Yet, I left happy and satisfied. 

The music is great, although a bit loud at times, unnecessarily so if the place is not full during the day It must be needed at night-time. 

There is a lot of hipsters and hype about Clarences.

Service is very friendly and fast enough.  

Pricey place. 

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Zhiwa Ling Hotel (Paro, Bhutan)

Zhiwa Ling Hotel
Satsam Chorten, Paro
Kingdom of Bhutan
Ph: 975-8-271277
Email: info@zhiwaling.com

The only Bhutan owned and operated 5-star  hotel, Zhiwa Ling is a dream come true, because of its traditional architecture and craftsmanship, its facilities, the friendliness and care of their staff, and the quality of the service.

Just entering the place is like being part of the royal family  because the hotel lobby is just like one of those palaces and temples that travellers visit in the country. A central inner courtyard with stunning (stunning with capitals) woodwork, paintwork, carving work, and the staff dressed in traditional costumes help you to realise that is a hotel like no other. Zhiwa Ling has a large wide garden area, with different blocks of grey stone where the rooms are located, tea and meditation houses, pond and seating areas around. 

The rooms where we were placed were fantastic. A block has only six rooms, so they are large and spacious. Wooden floors, Bhutanese decorative elements and classy sober facilities, with huge comfortable beds and marble bathroom.
My suit was very spacious, elegant and classy, with a rear balcony facing a tranquil part of the gardens and very luminous during the day. This spot was delightful, really pretty and cozy (see the photo above), and very conducive to relaxation and meditation. The room was spotless clean and kept that way during my stay. I also loved the small seating area in the room (leather armchair, a two-seater couch, coffee table and floor lamp), and coffee facilities; perfect to unwind, read or have a chat. Free fast wi-fi always makes me happy. 

The Hotel's Restaurant is spacious and very pleasant, not that imposing or posh, but the staff, the service and the food make for the rest. Their buffet breakfast is excellent. Everything there, even those things that seem to be very European or "imported", are locally produced, sourced and prepared. They are yummy, flavoursome and very fresh.  I personally loved their Danish pastries, the mini-glasses of fruit yoghurt, and their omelettes, but everything I tried was great. The restaurant opens for breakfast at 6am, but only cold dishes are served until 7am. You can have breakfast delivered in your room for no extra charge. The hotel staff will knock on your door at your preferred time on the clock.

Dinner and lunch are served in the same restaurant. Their dinner setting changes from day to night, and the mood is more intimate and classy. They have a mix of international dishes very well cooked, with several options for entrée, main and dessert. The local staff are working hard to bring an à-la-carte menu in the future (perhaps already have it, I don't know), but I really liked everything I had and they serve decent portion sizes, especially important if you are back from trekking. 

They had a good wine and spirits selection, but very expensive, more expensive than in Australia or UK. But hey, alcohol is not a necessity and if you cannot enjoy a dinner without a drink you probably have an alcohol problem :O.

If you want to experience what good service really is, go to Zhiwa Ling. I have been in many posh hotels in different countries, and this is the best service I have had so far. People seemed genuine, did not seem to be too pushy, too servant-like or too bothersome, they were very smiley and seemed to enjoy their job. Even the guys opening doors for you were lovely despite the task at hand, literally. I did not feel that, like in other hotels, things were done to get a tip. I hate that feeling and I get it often in many places, so it is great that these people made our stay so pleasant. 

The manager of the hotel (a Kiwi, by the way!) comes out to receive visitors personally at the lobby, no matter a couple or a group. How special is that?!

The Spa is not very big but very pleasant, well organised, comfortable and with very kind staff. They specialise in massage, Bhutanese hot-stone baths and facial treatments. The girls are really lovely and I absolutely loved the soothing massage and facial I had there. They are really excited that you are visiting your remote country and are keen to talk and know everything about you and your country if you feel like having a chat.

>> Meditation and Yoga areas in the garden.
>> Golf cars to move you around if you need them, day and night.
>> Money exchange service at reception.
>> An oversized umbrella is placed in the veranda by your door if the weather is rainy. 
>> The boys opening the door were just gorgeous. They really look hot in the traditional dress. :O

# The hotel is a 25-minute drive from Paro city.
# Golf caddies are used to take your baggage in and out your room. The guys have to take the bags on their shoulders to the upper floors as there aren't lifts, so be mindful and don't carry too much stuff. If you do, you are visiting the wrong country. Also, think if you would like to carry that sort of weight on your own shoulders.
# Alcohol is very expensive in the bar and restaurant.
# All the floors are floorboards. So every time you walk they crack. That is specially noticeable when you have people staying in the room above yours. The movement of two wheeled suitcases might sound like the end of the world or a bunch of noisy neighbours dancing flamenco. No, it is not the case, it is the flooring system and people leaving for an early flight. 

>> Improve the lighting of the rooms, which is way too dim for people with poor sight, and not good for reading or opening the safe for example. I always carry a torch with me, but adding a more powerful  lamp would easily solve the problem. 
>> I couldn't  find the heating/cooling air-con. I might be disguised and operated by the staff. I don't know. The floorboards and the stone walls contribute to the overall coldness of the rooms. Bhutan is in the Himalayas, so even in spring it is cold at night. Perhaps having portable good-quality heaters or a clearly signed system would be great.
>> I would remove the small carpets from the room as they don't have stoppers and, despite being beautiful, they can be a nuisance. Bigger ones or no one. My opinion. 
>> The towel hanger and the bath were too high for me! I could not reach the hanger on my toes! This might be great for tall people, but for average sized women, is not! Perhaps I am not average :\
>> It would be great if the Spa offered a few more services for the ladies, like pedicure, manicure, and hairdressing.
>> It would be great having an ATM in the hotel


Visiting Zhiwa Ling is an experience in itself. This is not a luxury hotel in the strict sense of the word, but the luxury is being in that amazing country experiencing an eco-friendly sustainable hotel, the profits of which go to the locals. What is more, the hotel is stunningly beautiful and the staff really welcoming and warm. This is a kind of hotel you cannot visit elsewhere. Unique and unforgettable. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Amazon Book Store (Online Retailer)

I visit Amazon Store very often, sometimes daily, mostly to buy e-books. Although I have purchased items that are not books from Amazon, this review is about the book store, from which I have been buying for years.

I rarely buy books on paper any more unless I need them and they are not available on digital format. This being the case, and Kindle being a free app, I have buying and reading Kindle ebooks for many years at very affordable or cheap prices (and some of the classics for free). Most digital serious books in Amazon would cost you around 9-10 American bucks, some academic ones included (although these tend to be way more expensive especially if very specialised). To be fair, I have also found many Kindle books (especially old ones) to be more expensive that the hard copy, but this is the rule not the exception. And really, you do not have to pack ebooks when you move.

I usually buy my ebooks and hard copy book by using "Buy with a click" button. You just press the button, and voila. You need to have your personal details and credit card registered and the button activated. Dangerous! because pushing a digital button is the easiest thing when you fancy something. Digital books are delivered instantly to your device/s, and a sale confirmation  emailed to you. The return polices for digital books are great. Sometimes you press the "buy this ebook" by mistake or just start reading it and you think it is bad quality or does not work in your device, and you can return it, no questions asked. 

If you buy a hard copy book, the procedure is the same, but your order takes a while to be processed and dispatched. The process of fulfilling your order is not immediate, even if the book is in stock, so you have a natural cooling period to cancel your order if you want. Delivery times vary from state to state and country to country. Usually, Amazon tells you the estimated natural period when you can expect your book at home, and they are right on the spot most times. A tracking link is provided with your dispatch notification email, so you just have to wait and see. Your hard-copy book contains also return forms just in case you want to return it or exchange it once you have it at home. In the past, I bought books that were very expensive in Australia at half the price for the same edition and book on Amazon. Despite the high International rates for some of those books, I got them way cheaper.

Prime and Kindle unlimited are great, especially if you live in the USA, but not so if you do not. Waw waw wawww.  On the other hand, Amazon has full sites in several countries; if that is the case, you will benefit from having access to the many features that they have, which are limited in partial Amazon sites. One of the advantages of having an Amazon account is that if you don't find the book you are looking in the American store, you could find it in other international stores, and sometimes a way better prices, and you can access those sites by using the same email and password you use to log in on your home Amazon. I have experienced this to be the case with the purchase of bilingual dictionaries that costed a fortune on Amazon, but were one third or half the price for the same item and edition in their country of origin.

If you are new to Amazon and are making your first purchase, you might find that the site can demand your VISA to be verified. You do that through your bank's website. Most online retailers do not require this any more, and I am not sure if Amazon does so nowadays as I have been buying from them for years and my card is already verified. I think it is great that they required visa verified cards as this is an extra layer of security to your purchases. 

Before ordering anything outside the USA, not to inflate your purchase and not get surprises, check two things:
> That the book is sold and dispatched from Amazon warehouses. That means that the costs will be way cheaper than any other retailer selling on Amazon.
> If you are buying from other retailers through Amazon, check in advance their pricing for International deliveries, before proceeding to purchase, and decide if this inflates the price of your product or is still good.

In the past, I found Amazon Customer Service polite, very well organised, but extremely robotic and idiotic, annoying and frustrating despite them wanting to help. The good thing is that I only required their help once in the last 15 years. As I have already mentioned, books returns are effectuated automatically without any question being asked, no fuss, and immediate in the case of ebooks.

Amazon's reviewing system is great, but I have found a bit bunch of trolls, preachers, author's pals, author's mad fans, and free-book-for-review reviewers (Vine Voice being an example, clearly marked as so though) who can be an annoyance. Generally speaking, though, I trust the site's reviews and some reviews and reviewers are amazing. I have discovered amazing books through great reviewers. As a rule of thumb, always look for those reviews and reviewers who tend to have a "verified purchase" sign in their reviews.  Amazon does not do enough, not much really, to stop trolls, something that annoys me a lot, and they allow clear sexist comments, clear to anybody with two eyes, to stay there even if you complain. I think this is the case because those dealing with that sort of complain are... sexist themselves, which is disgusting and shameful.

The Kindle App is fantastic and you can download it and use it for free anywhere, your phone, tablet, PC and laptop. I would not recommend updating it too often, unless it is giving you problems. Many of the updates come fully charged with bugs and they can be very frustrating when they do not allow you to read the books you own or keep crashing the app. The reading experience with Kindle is fantastic as you can adjust the size and style of your font, brightness, spacing and margins and the lateral toolbar allows you to navigate the book in the easiest possible way. Unlike Google books, the passing of one page to another is not realistic, something I really love and miss. Besides, Kindle is not good for reading PDF book, EPUB books or any other format that is not Kindle. Yet, it is understandable.  Google Reader does no allow you to read Kindle books either.

Kindle for PC or Kindle on the Cloud, are also free and alternative ways to have your books at hand, especially if you need some of them for work, which is my case.

Regarding the rendering of books on Kindle format, although most books (and graphic books) are launched both in hard copy and on digital form at the same time (therefore, identical), many others ebooks are edited digitally way after the hard copy was published. Some editorial houses do not bother to update books that were not originally prepared for the digital market. So, you can find yourself exasperated because, despite being charged full price for a book, the rendering of the book for Kindle is defective, unpolished, lacking a bit of work, footnotes rendered badly, indexes rendered badly, and so on. Things that rest enjoyment to the joy of reading, and which I consider both a disrespect to the author and the reader.

Overall I am a devotee of ebooks and of Amazon Book Store.

Booking.com (Online Retailer)

I have used this site extensively for years and I only have good words and a great experience.

I tend to alternate my bookings between this site and Expedia, depending on which of them is selling cheaper, or better rooms for the same price, or better hotels for the same price.

The variety of accommodation is more than you will need, from backpacker places to high luxury, and everything in between. It is up to you what you pay for. They always have better pricing than other hotel online sites like Agoda or Asian Rooms, just to mention two examples, also a better review system and things are mentioned upfront to you.

Most of my bookings with Booking have been for overseas places, and I have always been happy with the pricing, booking system and how things went once in the hotel. I never found myself surprised by what I found, because, well, I knew where I was going and what I could expect.

The information page of each hotel is extensive, well organised, with a great amount of photos to see where you are heading to, plenty of reviews, plenty of room options and pricing to choose within a hotel, and specifications and pricing clearly shown.

One of the things I like most about Booking is the fact that they have more fully-refundable options than other sites, and also that changing and playing with your booking dates is not only easy, but you won't be charged for it, and your booking will maintain the pricing you first paid if the rooms are available for the new dates. This is something important to me, because I have changed dates of holidays or dates of stay quite a bit in the past with a great peace of mind.

The conditions of the booking and specifications of the rooms available for each hotel are clearly visible and stated, with colour markers for important stuff, so you won't miss anything because the font is too small or not visible enough.

I always trust their reviews, because the come from certified travellers like me that cannot post anything there without receiving the link after you finish your stay. Moreover, the amount of reviews that the place generates is higher than any other site, perhaps as bold as Tripadvisor (but here reviews are not verified, just monitored), way more than Expedia, Agoda or any other site. To me, the more reviewers the merrier, because I have an array of many different people telling me that Hotel X is bad, so-so or terrific, and which things are a miss.

The only downside I can think of, is the fact that some hotels, especially in the past, allowed you to book and pay at your hotel's reception desk. I never like that, because it opens the door to trouble in countries and with people who see Westerners as a rip-off object. So I tend to book rooms in which the payment is automatically deducted from my bank account, without me having to go to the reception desk to pay for anything but the extras.

My experience has been fantastic so far and I hope it continues the same. I have a trip coming in  a week or so, and I will be using Booking. 

They also have an app, who doesn't?!, and it is very clean to the eye and well organised and easy to browse and book. I use it just to browse, as I always prefer booking from my laptop. 

Cover-More Travel Insurance (Online Retailer)

I travel quite often, and these days I pay for travel insurance. 

Cover More has been my travel insurance company since ever, meaning since I started paying for travel insurance. There were years in which my only insurance was praying the heavens to protect me because I did not have the money to do pay for anything but the ticket. I found the pricing of the polices really high, taking into account that I have rarely had any problem and that this might be the case of most travellers. Just guessing! They claim that spend many millions on claims per year, and I believe them; however, I think that the number of people not claiming is higher.

However, there is no detour. I have compared Cover-More with other travel insurance companies (even with my health insurance company, which offers discounts to members for Travel Insurance) and Cover-More is cheaper or the same price, depending on the policy, but it has more benefits. So I am stuck with them.

I would like their policies to be a bit more flexible and considerate with regular customers. But they do not have regular customers because their idiotic system does not record us as such, no matter how many times you book with them. They should implement a rewards point system for people who regularly buy their policies, and points added for travels done without claiming anything. Then, turn the points into discounts and voila. That would make me happy. And you.

The only time I had done a claim, everything was easy-peasy. The claim was for a last-minute flight change that forced me to move intercity immediately and the only thing I could find available was a room in a five star hotel. I produced the receipts, told them what had happened and I was fully reimbursed, no fuss.

In the past, I used to book on the phone because their website was just good for quotes but useless for booking. Currently, it is pretty good for bookings and I book directly online.

I am never happy paying so much money to a Travel Insurance company, but, really, if I got sick or something bad happened to me overseas, their policies give me a great peace of mind, and they are cheaper than other companies out there. So let it be.

Expedia (Online retailer)

I have used Expedia so much in the last 7-8 years and with so much satisfaction and saving me so much money that I am surprised at the low ratings out there on the net.

I travel overseas almost every year, sometimes twice a year, and I have booked flights alone, hotels alone and combos, always with great satisfaction and Expedia working as a machine for me.

I started using Expedia because I was fed up with the poor customer service (even lies) I got from my usual travel agencies (those constantly advertising on TV ). Also their prices seemed always more expensive than those I then saw online, and last episode was that the departure of my return flight from an overseas trip was changed in the Christmas period, and nobody bothered to tell me in the agency. I found out by chance and I found myself in a dreadful situation with a lot of out of pocket expenses and difficulty to find transport and hotel.

I truly hesitated to organise my first holiday with Expedia. Travelling is something sacred to me. If somebody or something messes up things, I am going to be furious and devastated. However, everything went great. I have been using Expedia services ever since.

The offer of places and companies is huge, from the humble backpacker place to the super-luxurious hotel, from the low cost airline to the the posher one, from national to International flights. The booking system allows you to clearly see waiting times between flights, something I find important because bygone are those days in which I considered reasonable waiting 10+ hours in an airport no matter how super-duper the airport. If there is any change to your flight, no matter it is of 5 minutes, you will receive an email telling you that your flight details have changed.

Pricing is great, usually the cheapest prices in the market, that is why I book with them. My love is not blind, ever. Sometimes the hotels are better priced at Booking.com, so I book those there.

The booking system is fuss-free, clear, easy to follow, with all the important things mentioned and visible upfront.

Depending on the destination, you can also book and pay for your transfer at cheaper prices than you would if you paid it at the regular prices you find them in your country of origin. I have used the service a couple of times and worked smoothly for me. Expedia also offers day tours and activities for some places, but I have never booked any of those. Travel insurance is also on offer, and I have also used it for short trips; for long ones or combo holidays I use other companies.

My last interstate ticket was purchased with them, the arrival and departure separated eight months, at fantastic prices and with Qantas. Last year I had a multi-country trip, so I did book the flight through a normal travel agent; however, the agent offered me a limited number of hotels at ridiculous prices. I checked those on Expedia and they were cheaper and offered better rooms. I ended buying all my hotels in five different countries via Expedia. Got there, presented the voucher, tadahhhh no fuss.

I have reviewed many of the hotels and companies I booked through Expedia, following the link they provide once you have finished your flight/stay, and they have always been published. Therefore, I trust other reviewers' reviews. A good deal of the reviews in Expedia come from Trip advisor, a place I trust because I am a contributor.

Expedia has a 24/7 Customer Service. I have used just once and the guys on the phone were very helpful. Unfortunately, the conditions of my tickets were set and there was nothing I could do. Since then, I make sure I find out whether the flight dates can be changed or not, and how much would cost me. That it is easy, because that sort of information is mentioned upfront while you are booking.

> They have a decent app, so you can carry your trip details on your device without the need of printing. I personally prefer using my laptop for bookings (security reasons, size reasons, sight reasons), but it is great having the choice of browsing hotels and flights from your device. 
> They have launched a reward program, which is always great to be part of if you are a regular frequent traveller.

> Although you can re-schedule the dates of your flights and hotel bookings, there is not a straight way to do so like in other online sites. Basically, you have to cancel your existing booking and rebook again. That is not convenient most of the time, because if you do that, the pricing you will be charged is the one valid at the moment of booking, not the one you initially booked. This might result in a change of hotels or airlines and higher prices.

> There are many reviewers online unhappy with Expedia. To be honest, if I was booking for the first time, I would be scared. Yet, I don't think this is the majority of users of the site.

Before booking you should:
> Check and recheck that the dates you have typed and shown are those that you really want.  

> Check and recheck that your name is correctly spelled.
> Be sure that your ticket or bookings are refundable or you can change them paying little.
> Buy travel insurance. Life is unpredictable.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

WTF Foodie Moment 8: The Gift

I received this email from one of the community managers of a review site in my city. It sounds good. But is it good? Is it innocent? Below the real, but edited, emails. 

(...) I’m So-and-So, one of the community managers from X site. I just wanted to get in touch to say hey and congrats on being one of our top reviewers in city X!
We would love to send you a little so-and-so gift to thanks for your awesome posting. If you could reply with your full name and postal address that would be fantastic. (...)

My reply:

Hi So-and-So
Thanks a million for the detail.
Unfortunately, I don't give my personal details online, especially to people I don't know and are managing network online sites. I am very conscious about data collection online and no "gift" is going to change that, especially when X site could easily give a voucher for the fortunate to collect the goodies in person or just a gift voucher. I always love those.
Having said that. I appreciate the good will. 

The question is, how many of the fortunate people who have received this email have said no?

After my email the same manager wrote to me saying that she totally understand :O and offering me to go to their office to collect the gift in person, and that the gift is some vouchers from some business they work with. So I am not hurrying to collect anything. A block of French pate would make me happy :D. 

If you want to give me a gift. Great. Send me an email voucher that does not require of me giving my personal details to an stranger and, even worse, to a website partly financed by local businesses, which would be thrilled to get a positive review or just a review. Because you carry the voucher, they would treat you like a queen/king, very differently from the rest of mortals, so that you leave feeling that they have the best customer service ever. 

This sort of free gift policy is very similar to the polices implemented in Yelp. Although Yelp is way more generous and many of the freebies do not come with a suggestion to make a review afterwards (but they would end with one), many of the exclusive invitations to restaurants and the Elite Events are given with an explicit request to write a review, and you letting yourself being photographed no matter you don't want because it is in the Terms & Conditions and by being there "for free" you are selling your image to them for a plate of food.

Nobody forces you to review those places, of course. nobody tells you, I give you this free ticket in exchange for a review, the request is implicit, though, in many of the gifts received. However, most people being invited to an Elite event are explicitly requested to write a review about the business. High ratings are the result. There is no problem with that when the business and the product deserve it, as this benefits both parts. I can count the many times I really enjoyed the event and I was more than happy to give high ratings to a business. The problem arises when you do not like the business/product/service, or you think it is just mediocre, but you feel psychologically obliged to be grateful by rating higher than you would if you were paying for the same. This psychological bias affects us all, even if you aren't aware of, and marketers know how to exploit it. 

In the last two free activities I attended in Yelp most people I talked to thought that the food was OK and the business giving the tickets not really good. In the first one several people told me just that, explicitly, but added: "I feel bad after all the special treatment and food we have received, giving them a low rating and saying what I really think". However, most people wrote four and five-star reviews full of babble. Almost nobody said that the food was amazing or deserving of five stars, just that the evening was great and thanks to the business for organising it. I myself did so with a 4-star review (when I thought 3 would had been fair), and I felt that I was betraying myself. I did not like the feeling. The second time, I was on an outing organised by a new foodie business that gave free tickets to yelpers; as soon as the event started yelpers were explicitly required to write a review. None of the people who attended did so because, talking among ourselves, we thought that the rating would be low and that would be a bit ungrateful. However, this request was enough for me not to write anything and quit Yelp and erase my whole account. There were other important reasons why I quit the site, but the "gift for a review" weighed in my final decision. My quitting did not happen without the resistance of Yelp itself, something that convinced even more that I was doing the right thing.  In fact, Yelp does not have a cancel-your-account button you can press when you want, and you have to request it by email, and the USA and local Yelp managers contact you on this trying to convince you not to quit, as the site is really good for you (BS) and question you about why. Why do I need to give an explanation at all? Isn't my wish reason enough? Am I not a free person? Am I not an adult? Their closing-account policy is similar to that of the data-sucker flock-manipulator Facebook, and I don't like it a bit.

A gift is a gift, give it freely, not as a subtle way of manipulating people to get what you want. 

I don't want to be in that position ever again. Well, ever again is perhaps a too-bold assertion. If I was on the dole or had a low salary, I would be happy to grab restaurant invitations. If I was offered a voucher to visit the best restaurant in town, I would grab it closed eyes, too, but this rarely happens as top restaurants do not need of those tactics to get high ratings. Until then, I am independent in my reviews without the pressure of going against my gut to be grateful. I feel that doing the contrary is betraying myself and I don't like how that tastes after the meal.

NB: A friend told me just today that somebody (i.e. yelpers) could be upset because of my words. Really? I find it puzzling. I am not responsible for other people's feelings, especially when this is a personal blog and what I say is my personal view of how I see things, and how things affect me.  I hate preaching or being preached, in the same way I hate being bllxited and manipulated. This is just my opinion. There are things that annoy me and I don't like. That might not be the case of other people, who really don't mind anything and are happy with the system. Well, I respect that. I really liked my Yelp "friends" and at a personal level I have nothing but praise for them. Yet, if somebody feels upset because of what I've written here, well, don't read me back :). 

Monday, 11 May 2015

Grand Aston Yogyakarta Hotel & Convention Center (Yogyakarta, Indonesia)

Grand Aston Yogyakarta
Jalan Urip Sumoharjo, 37
Yogyakarta 55222
Phone: 13 38 10

(First photo courtesy of the hotel's website)

The Grand Aston is a modern classy and comfortable hotel located in the heart of Yogyakarta. Although not in the city centre, the Grand Aston is located at walking distance from supermarkets, shopping malls, shopping streets and some of the city sights. 

Although the Grand Aston is a five-star hotel, you won't experience that unless you stay in one of the super-expensive super-duper suites. The hotel is classy but feels a bit run down and old-fashioned, and not luxurious enough. Yet, this is a great hotel, and you have everything you need there: lovely spacious rooms, huge restaurant, café, spa, gym, travel agent, beauty salon, conference facilities, free wi-fi and what is not. This is a business hotel for locals and other Asians, so there are not many Western visitors in general, especially from Australia. Most of them were Europeans visiting the amazing ruins for which Yogya is renowned in the world. You might have to stand with stoicism the stares of some people. 

The Superior Room is very spacious and uber-clean, with a very classy timeless decoration, plenty of power points to plug your gadgets (even an desk's in-built international power socket), flat screen with a good selection of International TV Channels, air-conditioning, writing desk, a wonderful firm king bed, plenty of light points, safety box, a large classy bathroom with large shower, and a good selection of good quality toiletries, robe and sleepers included! 

The Grand Aston has a huge cafe-restaurant (with business and conference facilities in the mezzanine). Breakfast was included in the price of the room, so that was lovely. Their breakfasts cater for eastern and western palates, with so many sweet and savoury options that is impossible not to overeat. They prepare your eggs the way you like it, the quantity you like it, on the spot. I have never seen so many different things in a buffet! Quality of the food varied, but in general was good, although I found some supposedly Western stuff a bit weird. The sweets were very arty and colourful.

Coffee is included in the breakfast voucher, but if you want a proper machine coffee you have to pay it extra. I thought their percolated free coffee was good.

Their themed dinners are buffet style, a bit pricey, but very varied regarding dishes on offer and quantity. It is self-service, so you eat and die happily. The Indonesian buffet was really lovely, especially the lamb on the spit, which was terrific! 

There is a lady offering natural Indonesian digestives to customers, for free, dressed in a traditional dress. She seats at her spot in the dining area around 9am, if my memory does not fail. I tried some of them, and they tasted, well, "herby".

I loved my visits to the Spa, which is very small but well equipped and the staff have magic hands and do wonderful facial and body treatments. Their Balinese massage is just awesome and perfect after a long flight, and a must if you have never experienced one. I was impressed with the care and friendliness of the staff, the long opening hours, the style of the facilities, and the treatments and products used on me. I am lady spa, so I was quite "spased" and I cannot speak more highly of these magic ladies.

The pool is very small but lovely, with a classy and elegant layout and decoration, for both sexes, and a few chairs to seat and relax; there is a café/bar attached, quite "expensive", and the guy attending to him is also in charge of providing you with towels and keeping an eye on the pool. 

The gym is also very small but with basic great quality machinery, and the guy attending to customers was just lovely.  

The Travel Agent was a bit of disappointment as they just offer private drivers, car hiring and flight sales. They do not offer organised group tours. Private driving is the best thing, and affordable for foreigners, but extremely expensive for Indonesian standards. At least you know that they have fixed prices and you won't have to bargain. They will tell you that their drivers speak English, but most of them have a very limited very basic English, and communication can become a struggle.  

All the Staff in the hotel were lovely, very helpful, smiley and willing to help: from cleaners, café attendants and waitresses, receptionists, masseuses, concierge, everybody. However, I found a tendency not to give customers correct information about pricing of transportation, and hesitation in the reply when you ask them for travel agents other than the one in the hotel, even if the others offer different services. Although information online about pricing is usually correct, they do not accept that as real because, well, you are a foreigner, hello hello. Basically, some people were very reliable on pricing information, and others totally untrustworthy.

The Galleria Mall, is a medium size lovely shopping mall, at barely five minutes walking distance from the hotel and with not many Westerners around. It has a great selection of shops and very friendly staff and floor personnel. The Galleria comes handy for some International fast food outlets (KFC, Mackos ice-cream booth and a Wendie's) and there is a food hall in the basement with a wide selection of Indonesian and Asian restaurants and stands, plus several posh cafes spread around the mall. There is a considerable variety of clothing, sports, shoes, and beauty shops, as well as a bargain area in the central courtyard.   

I you just want to buy a few things to take to your room, there is a Super Indo supermarket just across the street, if you are brave enough to cross the street at pick hours. This is a supermarket for locals, and full of locals, something I always love, nothing compares to mingling with locals, whatever that minds :), and you can buy those extra bottles of water, snacks, take-away food and other only Indonesian thingies that you want. 

The nearest sight is about 20 minutes walking distance, but if you are not used to the humidity of the place or do not live in a tropical area, you will avoid doing that at any cost. On the other hand, a ride on a becak (pronounced bechak) is a must. 

* I would try to revamp superior rooms and provide customers with a bit more.
* I would change the mini-bar in the rooms, because it is minuscule and outdated.
* I would provide customers with a bigger wardrobe, which is a bit small for two people if you stay for a few days. Perhaps a better organised one, with more drawers might do the trick.  
* I would include a jar or tube of hair-conditioning among the toiletries. Shampoo with hair-conditioning is not good enough for people with long hair.
* The room's windows cannot be open, so the room was a bit smelly when the air-con was off.  That happens every time you go out, as the key works as power switch as well. If this were my hotel, I would give customers two cards, to keep the power on when going out. 
* I would change more often, or perhaps replace more often, the sheets covering the treatment stretchers at the Spa, as they were a bit smelly at the end of the day.
* I would change the lighting in the ground floor common areas. It does not help to create ambience and makes the hotel look older than it is.
* I would make sure that retrograde men are not given a room beside the pool. I had to suffer the dirty stares of a group of taliban-looking guys despite me wearing a very conservative swimsuit. Perhaps allocating those rooms to families or women would be more suitable. This is a five-star hotel, so I expect certain things not to happen.

> Most Indonesian people do not speak English, so be smiley, learn a few words in Bahasa Indonesia, and you will find that things become easier all of the sudden. It shows your respect for their culture and expands your brain.

> The level of English of the staff varied tremendously. At reception was perfect, no problem, but in other areas the staff had limited English, reduced to basic greettings and vocabulary related to their trade. Confusion might arise because of this, so I recommend for you to use writing notes to make clear what you want at times if you notice that the staff are not getting what you are saying. Then smile broadly.

> I found a "rip off the Westerner as much as you can while smiling at their face" mentality in Yogya. The tourist infrastructure is very limited outside Bali, and prices exorbitant for Indonesian standards. Be careful with taxi and becak drivers, too many of them tend to get your money and do not give you the return, no matter the quantity due. Or drive slow as a cow to get more money, or arrange a price and then say that it was double of what they say.  If you are on a budget, use your legs a bit and be firm in your haggling. Again, if you speak a bit of Bahasa, things smooth out immensely. They are just grateful for your effort.