After a summer of COVID, and sensing the pandemic would continue to rage on, my friend Julian and I felt the desire to get out of Chicago before being cooped up for the winter. Given that we’re both in the unfortunate state of unemployment, we found ourselves fairly flexible on the scheduling front, so we decided to save some money and book a road trip out of town for a few week days. After thinking through some options, we landed on Grand Rapids for its proximity to fall color hiking, outdoor food and drink scene, and - then - lower rates of COVID infection. After looking at a few options, we landed on the AC Hotel, a brand I quite enjoy, due to its upscale feel and affordable price.
The AC Hotel brand is a relatively new Marriott concept on the shores of the US. With its roots across the Atlantic in Europe, the hotels offer an upscale refined vibe to the select service sphere - hotels that offer reduced amenities and smaller footprints. One of the moments I enjoy most about the brand is it’s activated lobbies: the bar really becomes a social centerpiece where people gather. The design and furnishings of the hotel are another key selling feature for me. In my mind, AC’s are more of a compact full-service hotel rather than select for this reason.
The Grand Rapids property fits the mold of what I’ve come to expect, but this time packaged in a restored industrial brick building that had an awful 1980’s facade covering its charm. The hotel is quite cool from the street and leaves a good impression. It’s location didn’t hurt either - located right downtown, it was a scenic walk or a quick car ride to anywhere we’d wanted to go, and just steps away from one of my favorite coffee shops: Madcap.
As part of our booking process, Julian and I knew we wanted to keep costs low, so we explored hotels where I had a Free Night Certificate available. In this case, I had an outstanding certificate from when I’d had the Marriott Bonvoy American Express Card, which I’d closed when I opened my American Express Platinum Card. By booking directly with the hotel, and using a free night certificate, our total for two nights came to $173.65 - not too shabby. This netted me 522 Ultimate Rewards Points by booking with my Chase Sapphire Reserve and 1,685 Base + 421 Elite + 250 Extra Bonvoy Points with my Gold Status.
Arrival, Check In & Lobby
After an easy drive in from Chicago, but one in which we’d forgotten about the time change, we were glad to pull up to the generous loading area in front of the hotel to get our vacation started! Upon entering, both of us were immediately struck by the moody elegance of the entry space, especially the show stopping front desk, but then we hit a hiccup… The front desk agent was a bit odd, and didn’t seem to want to be there. Dressed in a yellow t-shirt, she was quite robotic and not very talkative. She didn’t ask any questions, thank me for my loyalty, or mention any information about the hotel. She was also unable to answer most of our questions and seemed to just want us to move on. Luckily, when we returned down a few moments later, a super friendly suited agent was at the desk, and Julian spent a great deal of time getting answers to his questions and inquiring about upgrades while I waited in the lounge.
If you know me, you know that I’m a proud Floridian, and that for some reason I dislike the Tampa Bay area, yet find myself there too often. Perhaps it's because I’m a Florida Panthers fan and had to watch the Tampa Bay Lightning be lauded in the playoffs by locals, but during my time back home amid COVID-19, I once again found myself in the greater Tampa Bay area for a family getaway.
This trip was originally scheduled to occur the weekend prior and then hurricane Isaias decided to give Florida a bit of a scare that week, thus we postponed for the following weekend and I once again extended my stay in Florida. As a family we highly prefer the beaches of the Gulf Coast as they tend to have warmer waters, white sand, and stunning wildlife from sea turtles and dolphins, to manatees and sand dollars - we saw it all on our short escapade.
When I originally booked this property, what really drew me in was not only its location near the stunning Fort De Soto State Park, once voted one of America’s most beautiful beaches, but also the fact that it was cheaper than most in the area and brand new having opened in January. Unclear to most travelers, but true of most Residence Inns, this property was franchised and had outside management, which ended up being crucial with all the turns the trip took.
I booked this hotel directly on the Marriott website and had originally reserved a Bay View 2 Queen Studio Room for $195/night totaling to $430 with resort fees and taxes. However, due to circumstances you’ll read about in the next section, we ended up paying $100/night and with taxes and fees totalling $226 for both nights of our stay. I earned 1,000 Bonvoy Points and since I paid with my Chase Sapphire Preserve, which earns double points on travel, I also earned 550 Ultimate Rewards Points for my stay.
We ended up having to rebook this trip due to hurricane Isaias making a dash at the Florida coast the week we were supposed to go. I had the pleasure of talking to the property owner, and as a fellow Floridian she totally understood our worry with driving and traveling during a storm. She very kindly offered to waive all fees to rebook or cancel the day prior to the stay as we awaited to see the storm's path. To be safe we rebooked and she happily changed our days for a week ahead with no extra fees.
Arrival, Check In & Lobby
Finally the weekend arrived and after a surprisingly quick three and a half hour drive from the South Florida coast, we arrived at the Residence Inn Tierra Verde, which sits on a small barrier island before Fort De Soto and requires a small toll to enter - be aware of that anytime you travel the Florida Gulf Coast. The lobby was very well appointed and spacious, with plenty of sunlight and water views as well as coastal furniture and beechwood tones. On the ground were creative sand footprint social distancing decals - to promote standing 6 feet apart; the check-in desks had tall acrylic panels and all the staff were wearing masks; however, the same cannot be said about other guests even though it is required.
Check-in was a breeze and the front desk manager was nothing but a delight, we got our room keys and headed up, but upon entering we were facing… the parking lot. As you recall, we had booked a bay view. I went down to the front desk and asked if it had been an error where we ended up or to see what happened. They explained that it must have been an error with the system and our reservation was not showing the bay view, and that unfortunately, they had no more rooms facing that direction and were fully booked for the weekend. After some back and forth - mainly concerning the rate difference between a bay and parking lot view room - she offered to take off $95 off per night, leaving me at the discounted rate above. It was quite the discount and I was beyond happy with the resolution!
The Ritz Carlton brand began in Europe with The Ritz and The Carlton hotels in Paris and London, respectively, in the 1890’s later expanding into North America by the 1910’s. After many historical years and properties, the brand was fully purchased by Marriott International in 1998 and have since expanded to include over 100 properties in 30 countries.
The Ritz Carlton Guangzhou opened 2008 in the central business district of Guangzhou, China, and underwent a major renovation in 2018 for its 10th anniversary. The skyscraper housing the hotel and residences is across from the new IFC tower and faces the Zhujiang River with the absolutely stunning Canton Tower across the water. The Hotel is conveniently placed near many of the city’s modern attractions like the opera house, various museums, and is a short walk from the nearest station of the very expansive metro, making it easy to reach all destinations in the city from the hotel.
Guangzhou itself is the 5th most populous city in China and capital of the Guangdong region, with a metro population of over 50 million it is part of one of the largest urban agglomerations on earth. The city has a long history as a trading port having been a major stop for the silk road, add in its proximity to Hong Kong and Macau and it has grown into one of the largest trade capitals in the world, home to the second largest trade fair every spring and fall; The Canton Fair.
For this stay, we booked directly with the hotel at www.marriott.com reserving a Deluxe Room at a rate of $197 + Taxes and fees earning us 2,858 Marriott Bonvoy points. This also counted towards our Bank of America Travel Rewards card $1,000 minimum spend sign-up bonus to receive a 25,000 point reward.
Booking was truly where the Ritz experience truly began. I booked this trip a few months in advance and did my research on what I was planning to do in Guangzhou; however, many things were difficult to book from the US. Thus I decided to email the concierge about my plans in the city to see if they could help me booking things, one being tickets to the Guangzhou opera who had a show in their acclaimed Zaha Hadid designed venue, which as an architect I had to go to. I also requested help with dinner reservations at their Michelin starred restaurant Lai Heen, and cab directions among other things on my birthday trip around the Pearl River. The staff was nothing but helpful, they purchased the opera tickets, received my train ticket to Macau in the mail, and prepared me for my visit. I cannot stress enough how exceptional the staff was from the moment I booked.