Friday, May 02, 2008

Restin' in Reston

The beautiful Westin Reston Hotel in Reston, Virginia.Today I'm in Washington DC. Actually, technically right now I am in Reston, Virginia, about a half hour northwest of Washington DC. Had an enjoyable visit yesterday at the World Vision office in DC (just a few blocks away from the Capitol), and spent 3 hours navigating DC's amazing metro and bus system in an attempt to get to my hotel without the outrageous expense and frustrating experience of getting ripped off by a taxi.

I got ripped off twice by taxis yesterday while trying to get from Reagan Int'l Aiport to the World Vision office, which is only like 20 minutes away even with heavy traffic. It took me two separate taxi rides and $35 to get there. I was trying to imagine how much I would have to pay, by taxi, to go twice the distance (again, with traffic) to get to my hotel. I was warned it might be $75 or more. So I decided to roll the dice and take my chances with the Metro system.

The taxi drivers who ripped me off were very nice. They always are. But they always charge more than they should and I don't know how to stop them. I'm told I need to negotiate with them before I get into the taxi. But I'm not very good at it. I guess I just look like a sucker.

Chancing the Metro

Anyway, I walked 4 or 5 blocks to the Union Station (one of the Metro stops) and after enlisting the aid of a few good Samaritans was able to negotiate what is practically an indoor city to get to the right place to get a ticket and get on the Metro. I put $5 in a machine and got a ticket. Took me awhile longer to find the right entrance to the Red Line station and get through the turnstiles (couldn't figure out how to insert the ticket the right way in the turnstyles while the attendants were yelling at me something like "Arrow in! Arrow in!" amidst the total chaos with impatient people pushing behind me).

Anyway, I finally made it onto a train, only about 50% sure I was actually heading in the right direction. Fortunately I was, and a few stops later I got off at the right place to catch the orange line, which a helpful attendant had told me I could ride to the end (in Vienna, VA) then catch a bus north to the Dulles airport, where I would be able to pick up a free hotel shuttle to my hotel just a few miles away. A roundabout trip, but definitely cheaper than a taxi. Hopefully.

So I got on the Orange Line successfully, right from the same platform, so I didn't have to reinsert my ticket. And I rode the orange line all the way to the end, Vienna, VA, almost an hour, quite a ways west of Washington DC. I got off and walked over to where the buses were ... then was chagrined to discover that they all went south. None went north.

Again, a helpful Good Samaritan came to my aid, a Metro employee who told me I was mistaken, that the northbound bus was two stops back. She very kindly let me back through the turnstile (without charging me) and I got back on the Orange Line eastbound, then got off at the correct stop.

I had to reinsert my ticket to get out, but I think the whole trip of more than an hour on these very fast and comfortable trains only cost me $1.65. It could be more, I'm not sure, but I know it wasn't more than $5. Amazing. What a way to travel! I wonder how many billions of dollars that whole system cost taxpayers? Most of it is underground. It all runs very smoothly, though you really have to stay away from the tracks, there is no rail up. If you were bumped and fell off the side when a train was coming, or simply didn't watch where you were going, you'd be dead. Don't know how many children they lose there, but I'd be surprised if they didn't.

Catching Z's on the Washington Flyer

No trouble finding the "Washington Flyer" bus bound northbound to Dulles. The ticket was $9 but they were very pleasant, the bus was the nicest I'd ever been on, and it was still way better than a taxi. The ride was so comfortable it was all I could do not to fall asleep ... mainly because I had come in on a redeye the night before my meetings and hadn't slept in 40 hours.

They dropped me off at the airport and I had no trouble making my way to the shuttle stop. The shuttle supposedly ran every 30 minutes but they had said to call them when I got there. I tried directory assistance and it took a long time too get the right number for the Westin Reston. I didn't know this at the time, but they were brand new. The night I was there was their first night open. Which is why, I think, I got such a great deal -- $125 for a night in a very swank hotel, in an area where not-as-swank hotels often go for $200/night.

Anyway, the driver came and I was the only pickup at the airport. He seemed perplexed about that, but drove me to the hotel anyway. The desk staff gave me the impression they were in training or something, seemed stumbling over themselves to be pleasant. Like they had never done that before. Weird. (At the time I didn't know I was one of their very first customers.)

The Westin Reston -- One SWANK Hotel

The hotel was spotless and immaculate, the nicest I had ever been in. (Again, I guess a room would be very clean for its very first customer.) Only three incidents interrupted what was otherwise a VERY restful 10 hours of sleep. Which in my case is a rarity; I rarely sleep more than 6 hours a night, 7 at most. Often subsist on less than 6. I know this isn't good for you; I'm just a little too high strung to get enough sleep. I am so interested in whatever I'm doing, that I have a hard time quitting to go to bed. But I have to get up at a certain time in order to start the new day. A dilemma.

By the way, my wife says I am ADD. Actually, both my wife and boss told me (in the same week) I was ADD. If either of them had told me that, without the other, I probably wouldn't have believed it. When two people I trust tell me something independently of each other, even if it's an unpleasant truth, I pretty much have to assume it's true. Just a rule of my life. (Now don't go taking advantage of that!)

By the way (another diversion) ... my wife defines nagging as "the necessary repetition of unpalatable truth."

So, I guess I'm a little ADD. Among other things, that means I have a hard time sticking to a topic. I get interested and wander off. Now, let's see, where was I ... ?

Oh yeah, the Westin Reston Hotel. Three things bugged me: 1) I tried to log in to their wifi and was informed it would cost me $9.99 to do so. The wifi was there, they just wouldn't let me in without ten bucks. Grrrr.

Which I can understand if you're at the airport. After all, you're not paying the airport $125 to sit there in your chair and take up space. You have to wait there, for your plane. (Plus, you practically have to be stripsearched on the way in.) So, if they need to charge you for internet access (by the way, they only charge $6 or $7 for 24 hours' access, not 10 bucks), I can live with that. But I can't abide coffee shops like Starbucks (even though I love Starbucks' coffee) charging you for wireless access, because most of the others don't and it doesn't cost them that much. After all, you are paying $5 for a cup of coffee, albeit good coffee.

And I REALLY can't abide a swanky, $125/night hotel charging $10 for internet access?. Fuhgetaboutit. Heck, even Motel 6 gives you free wifi!

In my frustration I reached for a bottle of water. I had been happy to see two nice, juicy bottles of water sitting on the desk when I entered my very swank room the night before. I tore the label off and was about to take a swig, when I noticed a printed tab hanging around the neck of the bottle. The fine print read something like: "Your room will be charged $4.50 for this bottle of water." Which I assumed meant they would charge me $4.50 for ripping the label off, even if I didn't drink their stupid water. Strike two.

My Wake-Up Call

Strike three came at 5:00 a.m. I had gone to bed about 11:00 East Coast time, which was 8:00 Pacific Time. Early for bed, but after 40 hours up, I was danged tired. I planned to sleep as long as I could in the morning, knowing I didn't have to check out 'til noon. I didn't even set an alarm. I was sure there'd be no way I'd sleep more than 12 hours anyway.

But here it was, 5:00 a.m., and my very swank and modern bigscreen LCD TV set (the nicest I had ever seen in a hotel room, by the way) had woken itself up, then me, filling my room with pleasing blue light, and playing very pleasing wake-up music. Why? I had no idea.

It took me maybe 10 minutes to find my glasses, then find the remote, then figure out how to turn the TV off. By that time I was really awake. And really mad. I went back to bed. Fortunately, I was still so tired it only took me maybe 30 or 40 minutes to go back to sleep, even though I was really pissed off by strike three.

The good news is that I did indeed go back to sleep, and woke up about 9 a.m. or so, so I did get at least 9 hours of sleep and was a relatively recovered human being again. I was still upset about the three strikes, though. Took a nice hot bath, felt better, packed all my things, and got down to the desk about 11:30.

"Checking out?" they asked pleasantly. (I still didn't realize this was only their second day on the job.)

"I am," I said. "But first I would like to know if you would like my amateur review in person, or whether I should give it online." While I was showering I had made up my mind to tell them about the three strikes in person, and to counterbalance my negative feedback with the positive. After all, I really did like the hotel. The bed was SO comfortable, and everything was so swank. They even served free Starbucks coffee. (Why on earth would you charge for bottled water while you were serving free Starbucks coffee? Baffling.)

When I asked them this, they actually looked a little frightened. Which was also a bit of a mystery to me. Several gathered around.

"Yes," a woman who looked in charge assured me, "by all means please tell us your feedback. That's better than going online." That made sense to me. That was how I was hoping they would respond.

So, first I gave them the good news, about how clean and swank my roomn was and how much, overall, I loved the hotel. They smiled, but didn't look very relieved. They were smart enough to know I was offering a sugar pill before the bitter medicine.

Then I told them about the three strikes. They were baffled about the TV turning itself on.

"Do you have programming to provide wake-up calls?" I asked. "Because that's obviously what it was. Maybe a prior room resident had programmed it."

"No," they assured me, "there was no prior room resident. You were the first. Last night was our first night open. We don't know anything about the TVs being able to do wake-up calls." Weird. But that's when I discovered the truth, that this hotel was brand new. And then I felt a little guilty about lambasting them with my review; but I guess it was probably good for them. To their credit, they took my feedback very, very well.

They apologized for the wireless access charge. "That's just the way Westin does it," they told me. "We know it's weird to charge for it." They also told me I could get free internet access in the lobby. "Really?" I asked, surprised. I wasn't sure how they could confine free access to the lobby of a building but then charge residents in their rooms for it.

So, I whipped out my laptop and tried it. And I was right. No free access in the lobby. I showed them the screen where Westin wanted me to pay $10 for access.

At that point the desk lady went back and consulted with "her IT people." And when she came back she apologized again. "I may have misspoken," she said. "We apparently do not have free internet access in the lobby, after all.

"But since I told you we did," she offered, "Go ahead and put it on your room tab, then we'll remove the charge."

So I tried that. But they had already checked me out. So, they checked me back in, then my access worked. Strike two resolved. (Assuming I get home and don't find the charge on my credit card!)

Then I pulled out the bottle of water. "Okay," I said, explaining how I had opened the water before I saw that it would cost me $4.50. "I understand if you need to charge me for the water. I ripped the seal off, so you can't really give it to anyone else. But really ... $4.50 for a bottle of water? Gimme a break!"

By this time the woman really looked like she just wanted me out of her life. "Take it," she said. "The water is yours. On us."

Enjoying a Rare Burger Experience at the Westin Reston

I was so gratified I took my free wifi access and my free bottle of water back into their little restaurant, where I think I was their first lunch customer ever, and ordered a hamburger. Only $12. (The cheapest thing on their swank menu.)

But at least they cooked it the way I like it. I always ask restaurants for "rare" burgers because no one really cooks it that way. If you ask for rare they cook it medium and slightly pink (which in reality is barely even medium rare). Everyone is so worried about salmonella liability these days.

But at the Westin Reston, I actually got my burger rare. Truly rare. It was probably a full pound of lean angus burger, only slightly browned on the outside and red and juicy (even cool) on the inside. Wonderful! I really enjoyed that burger.

Even if I do get salmonella now (which would be something of a surprise -- I pretty much have a cast-iron stomach after traveling throughout Eastern Europe and Latin America and Africa and eating about everything you can imagine) at least I've eaten at a restaurant where they (probably not knowing any better since they are so new at this) actually cooked a burger the way I asked for it.

So if I do get salmonella I'll struggle through it, knowing it's my own darned fault.

OK, let's see ... where was I? Darn this ADD.

Well, I guess actually that brings us up to the present. I'm sitting here in the hotel lobby, after having finished my wonderful hamburger and thoroughly annoyed the staff, enjoying my free internet access and working on my blog while waiting for my daughter Amanda and her fiance Alex to arrive. We are going to tour DC this weekend, and do it right. I'm ready for an adventure now.

I'm sure I'll have more to report when we're back! Bye for now!

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