Sunday, July 25, 2010


This post is a bit of a departure from the norm. On such busy weeks as this was, it’s good to be able to draw on actual travel, where the research has already been done and digital photos lie a-waiting. (All photos on this post are ScheckTrek unless otherwise noted.)

Our dilemma was where to spend the extra couple of days we had in Australia: either Sydney or Melbourne. I voted for the latter, which everyone said had a more European flavor. Besides, I’d already fallen in love with the perfect place to stay there (will have to share that one with you!). But everyone, including assorted Aussie friends, voted for Sydney. The clincher was, “Sydney has one of the most beautiful harbors in the world. If you see that and whatever else you can fit in, even in only two days, you’ll feel you’ve seen Sydney. But you cannot spend the same amount of time in Melbourne and feel that you’ve seen it.” I was outnumbered.

Al and I struck a deal, if we go to Sydney for him, we get a room with a view of the Opera House for me. So the search began which led me to the Shangri-La. It was said to have the best views of any hotel in Sydney, including the Four Seasons next door. It did not disappoint!

This is the room we booked.
(Photo from the Shangri-La website)
It is not, however, the room we stayed in. But more on that later.

In order to bring the Shangri-La down to a price I could get "Left Brain" to agree to, I found that the best deal at the time was to book their Horizon Club level, which included breakfast and, in the evenings, substantial appetizers and premium wines/liquors in the Horizon Club. Of course the price was higher than just a room alone, but it was less than the cost of eating those meals elsewhere.

Considering that this is the Horizon Club lounge, and that when one is actually in it (rather than looking down on it from overhead), the view is of the Harbor – including the bridge and Opera House – I would be quite happy to have breakfast and dinner there for two days. Thrilled, even.

However, another option for Horizon Club guests was to receive two free passes for a full breakfast in the hotel’s café (usually AUS $38 each at the time / US $68 for two).

The café breakfast included cappuccinos.

We arrived at the hotel, and it was lovely.

 There were a number of exotic flower arrangements.

It was the first time we’d ever booked the Club Level in a 5-star hotel, but I could so get used to the treatment! “Good afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Scheck. We have private check in for you. Would you please come with me?” She took us up the elevator to the 30th floor and introduced us to the receptionist in the Horizon Club. We were early for check-in, but the young woman told us, “Your room is ready, but I could offer you a very good price on an upgrade to one of our Premium Grand Harbor View rooms [one of their renowned #13 rooms]. Would you like to see it?” Yes! It would be one of the best views in Sydney.

First we went to the Opera View room. It was lovely, and just what I expected.

Then we went to the Premier Grand Harbor View room on the 33rd floor, #3313. It was a 645-square foot junior suite with a 270-degree view of Sydney, including the bridge, the Opera House, Luna Park, and the inlets and outlets of Sydney Harbor all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Al hadn’t seen this online, so it made quite an impact. The price they were offering was another US $60 per night (it would add a whopping $120 to the total cost of a trip to Australia). He turned to me and said, “What do you think?” He’d agreed to what I’d asked for -- the Opera House view room -- so I didn’t want to push the envelope: “It’s up to you,” I told him. He turned to the lady and said, “We’ll TAKE it!”

Here are photos of that amazing room:
(Photo from

The bathroom was spacious, with a separate tub and shower.

Within a few minutes, there was a knock at the door for a complimentary tea service.

The most special thing about the room wasn’t inside the hotel. It was definitely the view.

And we really appreciated the “Welcome to Sydney” bonus rainbow. It was a really big rainbow, and once the drops started falling a little harder, it doubled.

We could see the pot of gold down below in The Rocks, but couldn’t get to it fast enough.

The view was mesmerizing, day and night. I spent a lot of time staring out those windows and thinking, “This is what people come to Sydney to see, and we’ve got one of the best views in the whole city.”

A frequent position for me.

It was magical at night.

I liked window-gazing so much that my husband had the bright idea that I could just keep doing that instead of going on the shopping trip I’d planned, but that brainchild was left undeveloped!  I went on the shopping trip, though truth be told, it was more for photos than purchases.

For some positive reinforcement while shopping, I chose to have tea for one at The Tea Room in the Queen Victoria Building.  (Al spent the day in the Blue Mountains with a friend.)

One of my favorite shots. I took the picture so I wouldn’t have to buy the dress.

The shopping trip involved extraneous city-streets sightseeing.
This was another of my favorite shots. Everyone says I should lop off the left part, but it is the juxtaposition of the very busy and the very calm that I think is part of the reason I like it.

And of course there was Darling Harbor to see, this shot looking from there to the 1000-foot-plus Sydney Tower.

Seen from The Rocks, the Shangri-La is the tall building on the right. The Four Seasons is the angled building on the far left.

(Photo from Shangri-La hotel website)

It wouldn’t be right to leave Australia without seeing some kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, and such. We did witness kangaroos in the wild in Bright, Victoria, but the animals below were at Sydney Wildlife World. In several cases I was very thankful for the glass barrier.

The loveable favorites

A kangaroo

Wallaby on the right (it looks like a smaller version of a kangaroo). Wombat on the left.

The venomous Gila monster. An Arizona Dr. Ward has been quoted as saying in 1899, “I think a man who is fool enough to get bitten by a Gila monster ought to die. The creature is so sluggish and slow of movement that the victim of its bite is compelled to help largely in order to get bitten.”

This guy is clearly plotting his escape!

It was our final morning, and everyone had told us we had to take the ferry to Manly Beach, which was very enjoyable and provided additional views of the city while leaving the harbor.

Our next ship was an airborne one. We flew the A380 on its maiden voyage from Sydney to Los Angeles, October 24, 2008.
And, so ended an exciting excursion to Oz!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Marrakech, Morroco

It was a fantastic Saturday evening in Morocco! Yes, Morocco definitely needed to be the next stop on the ScheckTrek; we hadn’t been to Africa yet. But where in Morocco? Casablanca sounded the most romantic, but Bogart and Bergman are no longer there, and from what I saw, it didn’t look like the place I’d necessarily want to be either. After a quick tour of the options, Marrakech emerged as the clear winner.

Founded in 1061, Marrakech (the “Red City”) is in northern Africa and is considered to be the most beautiful city in Morocco. It is the place where East meets West. Between its old city, the medina, and the adjacent modern city, it has a population approaching 1.1 million. Of greater interest to tourists is its souk (traditional market), which is the largest in Morocco. The maze of souks stretch out from the center of the Medina: the Djemaa el-Fna, the “place of the executed” where the convicted where still being separated from their heads as late as the early 20th century. Today it’s filled with multihued displays, food stalls, restaurants and everything from acrobats to musicians to snake charmers. Not sure how healthy my appetite would be with snake charmers nearby! (Information provided by 100 Wonders of the World, by Michae Hoffmann and Alexander Krings.)
My mission, however, wasn’t to shop for colorful, handmade items or sample exotic foods, but to choose the one hotel that stood out, in my mind, above all the others. I (virtually) traipsed in and out of hotel after hotel in Marrakech, admiring the differences and sameness of each. A common thread was the 2-story building height and the center, open-air courtyard. Each had its central water feature – whether pool or fountain. Overhanging the courtyard would be a second floor balcony that encircled the open atrium, and atop floor two would almost always be a rooftop terrace with plenty of seating/lounging options, often with Moroccan-style canopies for shade from the overbearing sun.
(Photo of Riad Dar Zahia by fabianjean 2010 05, )

Beautiful close-up illustrates the detailed filigree seen all over Marrakech -- in as many designs as there are buildings -- both in wood and metal. (Photo taken of La Sultana Marrakech, from

The land conjures up images of One Thousand and One (Arabian) Nights. Divans tossed with vivid pillows and floors scattered with Oriental rugs. Arabian arches. Pools and fountains. Courtyards and awnings. Palms in terra cotta pots. Rooftop terraces. Ornately carved doors. Columns and architectural bumpouts. Color on top of color – or conversely, Out of Africa neutrals. Tiles – so many types and colors of tile! Words are inadequate to describe the architecture and style of Marrakech. Thankfully, we have photos to help. Here are a few examples:
Riad El Faris. At 315 euros/night for a villa that will sleep 10, it's quite a deal! (

Riad 5 Sens (

Riad Andalouse (

Riad Hayhati (photo from hotel website)

Riad Zolah, which comes highly recommended by friends who honeymooned there. (

La Sultana Marrakech (photo from

La Sultana Marakech (photo from

Dining at the Villa Marrakech 43 does not come cheaply: 2500 euros/night, not including food
(photo from

There's quite a lot of style in the dining room at Palmeraie Golf Palace & Spa, especially considering room prices quoted at $89-173/night (photo from Expedia).

Riad Zolah (

Dining Room at Dar Rhizlane (photo from

Another rentable villa, the Dar Ayniwen -- food extra (photo from

Quite a magnificent setting at the Amanjena Hotel, where rooms go for an average of over $1000 per night.

La Sultana Marrakech (photo from I haven't decided if I like it yet...
...but, the one below is from the same hotel, and I know I like it. Look at that door!

(Photo from


Riad Hayati (photo from the hotel's website)

Someone said this one at the Villa des Orangers Hotel looks like it could be anywhere, but it has great doors, and the Out of Africa decor is appealing. (Photo from the hotel website.)

And talking about doors! This is the Baldaquin Suite at La Mamounia. (Photo from Expedia.)

A Couple of Bathrooms
(Photo from
One of the bathrooms at the villa, Riyad El Mezouar. Nice touch to have the water running for the photo.

(Photo from the hotel's website)
The Hagar bathroom at the Zamzam Riad. They incorporated a stylized version of Arabic design. I love the way those pendant chandeliers throw light against the ceiling and walls.

First Runner-Up from the Saturday-night tour: the Palais Sebban
The architecture at Palais Sebban is absolutely stunning in every direction. Having watched some videos on the hotel’s website, I’m convinced no photography can do it justice.

(Photo from

Palais Sebban cupola
(Peterhala photo on Flickr)

This shows, better than any photo I've seen, the levels of detail in the filigree.  My thanks to  Peter Hala for permission to include his photo.

I was not crazy about some of the rooms, but they’re all different, so there’s probably something for every taste. This was my favorite there, though I was quite entertained by the bordello-styled room (not shown here).

(Photo from

As I retired to my own comfy bed in Southern California, with this kaleidoscopic vision of sugar palms and magic carpets in my head, it was the images of one hotel in particular that eventually crowded out the rest. Ironically, it was the hotel that was ranked on Trip Advisor as #200 out of 391. It nonetheless had a user rating of 4 (based on only 7 reviews), but the review that wasn’t included in that was Conde Nast’s. They listed it on the Conde Nast Hot List Hotels 2009. A Conde Nast recommendation means something. The hotel was also a three-time winner of the World Hotel Awards.

My pick for Marrakech is the Anayela. As one reviewer said, they accomplish the impossible: “they are authentic and modern,” and the result is a jewel of a hotel. The AnaYela has only five rooms and suites in a 300-year old city palace. As transformation work began on the building, the discovery of a hidden love story which began, “Ana Yela” (“I am Yela") inspired part of the design. It was a story the 16-year old girl wrote on her wedding day. While over 100 Moroccancraftsmen were transforming the building to what it is today – making each piece of furniture, every lamp, and even the tableware – one of the most renowned calligraphers of Morocco hammered out the words of Yela’s love story in silver door panels, which appear chronologically in the hotel, like pages in a book. The hotel is a work of art.

(Photo from the hotel's website)

(Photo from

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(Photo from

Surprising as it was to my husband, it was the room below that attached itself to my imagination. It's a fresh interpretation, but is also wonderfully authentic. Notice the pattern in those ancient bricks, and the beamed ceiling. The inset bricks in the floor. And of course the rug is great. I’d love to see what the rest of the room is like. Wonder what's up those stairs on the left?
(Photo from Anayela website)

And this is the Anayela's crowning glory, the "Magic Carpet" on the roof.
(Photo from Anayela website.)

Somewhere along the journey, I departed from my mission, which was to pick my favorite accommodation and share it with you. In Marrakech, I was not equal to the task. In spite of my Saturday-night pick above, I was so taken by Moroccan design that I kept looking and looking; and even if it wasn’t a favorite when taken as a whole, I felt the need to share photos with you, which prodded me further still.

And then I found it.

Dar JL.

My very favorite photos of Dar JL were ones that didn't allow copying. But if you at all like what you see here, do yourself a favor and check out, click on The Dars, and have yourself an amazing tour. The going rate for Dar JL is 4,000. That’s not for a month or a week, that’s per night. And it’s not in dollars, it’s euros. But feel free to help yourself to a complimentary tour at the website. 
In the meantime, here are a few photos I could capture, to whet your appetite.

Dar JL

(Photo from

Dar JL
(Photo from

Dar JL
(Photo from

Though it isn't obvious from these photos, the stepping stones in the pool above lead through those tall doors to the bedroom below.
Dar JL
(Photo from

I also found other villas -- somewhat, to considerably, less costly -- that are also very lovely.
Riad Camilia
(Photo from

Riad Monica
(Photo from