This is part 4 in a series about my November 2016 trip to New Zealand, booked off a $215 mistake fare.
**This post was composed prior to the earthquakes in New Zealand this week, which I will address in my next post.
Preliminary note: I was traveling in New Zealand – specifically, on a boat/bus trip from Doubtful Sound to Queenstown, as I watched the frightening, disturbing election results roll in. I was alone, and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more alone in my life. For the first time in my life, I actually wonder whether I’ll face hate crimes as a Jew or as a gay man. My career is a civil rights attorney is likely massively to be altered, and I have no idea if or how long I will stay in my job working for the federal government. At first I thought how silly blogging about hotels seemed in light of the fear that is filling many Americans – and I can attest, many in foreign countries – right now. But I realized that for me, one reason I started blogging in the first place was as an escape. Those who have been readers a long time may know that I was much more active on this blog when I started it five years ago, and now it has become nearly exclusively trip reports. Part of the reason was that my life in New York five years ago was so stressful that I needed to sit and write as a release, whereas the past three years ago I’ve had a generally positive working environment. Now more than ever, it’s a personal coping mechanism for me to look at travel and blogging – not because I won’t be working hard on the civil rights front, but precisely because I will be. (I’m also going to sprinkle in some of what I heard in NZ after Trump’s election.) Now, onto the hotel review.
As I’ve said before, Intercontinentals are my favorite hotel brand, and I’ve enjoyed them since my first work trip – to San Francisco – in 2009. They are consistent, they honor the benefits of the Ambassador program as they are supposed to, the rooms are comfortable, they generally have good gyms, and the staff is typically accommodating. Yes, I pay for my status, and unlike other programs, lounge access or breakfast isn’t a benefit, but they still have always impressed me. They’re also more understated than the ostentatious St. Regis or Ritz-type properties. The marginal utility of what those hotels offer me over an Intercontinental is practically nil.
One benefit of being an Ambassador member is an annual buy one, get one free certificate for a weekend at any Intercontinental. This is a really smart benefit from IHG’s perspective, as it actually incentivizes spending money. In my travel plans, Wellington was the city where it seemed the best use, as the Intercontinental is one of the city’s best hotels, and was rather pricey. I was staying in Wellington three nights, though. So even though I probably could have used my annual Chase IHG free night award at a pricier property given the rates weren’t bad on Thursday night, I decided to just combine the three nights for one stay.
The week before my stay, I emailed the hotel to flag for them that I had two separate reservations but would appreciate staying in the same room. I do this most of the time I have two consecutive reservations for whatever reason, even though most hotels figure out themselves, or have no problem fixing it at check-in. So I was pleased to promptly receive an email back that began, “Of course, it is no problem,” but it continued with “for $40 since the first stay is a points night and it is prohibited to upgrade you on an award stay.” (paraphrasing except for the “prohibited”) I thought this was extremely tacky, especially it would actually save the hotel money to keep me in the same room, rather than do a full room turnover twice from my visit, and they would be expected to give me double welcome amenities. 40 NZD is only about $30, but out of principle I wasn’t going to pay it. It certainly isn’t prohibited to upgrade people on an award stay, it just isn’t required by the terms and conditions of the Ambassador program. What they really should have done if it was an issue was say they would have to see availability on check-in.
I responded that I would not pay and to keep my reservations separate, and that I may cancel the first night. I was quite serious, as it would defeat the purpose to change rooms mid-stay, and there were better value options available. The hotel was not worth the free certificate and 40 NZD, when I could use the certificate at a more expensive property and stay at a pretty nice hotel in Wellington for $150. The manager ended up calling me from Wellington and saying that as a “one-time” gesture, because it was my first time at the hotel, they would make an exception, which I thanked him for, which he then followed up with an email confirming they were making a special exception because, again, it was “prohibited” to upgrade me.
I actually figured out a little more to the story that sheds a bit more light. Hotels set different rates for the Ambassador BOGO certificate, which are always more than the Best Available Rate. (I think that’s BS, but whatever.) They may also limit which rooms are available at that rate. And it turns out that when I booked the cheapest room available, it was actually the second cheapest room at the hotel. The hotel had upgraded me to the next highest category for both my BOGO nights and my award night, but that led to me being in two different level rooms. This was particularly weird because the lower level room was actually larger, because the hotel seemed to have unrenovated rooms of multiple sizes (“Classic” rooms), followed by renovated rooms of multiple sizes (“Executive rooms”), then suites. I was originally booked in a Standard room and a Superior room, both Classic rooms, and then had been upgraded to a Superior room and a Deluxe room (not to be confused with a Deluxe Executive room). Without counting different bed configurations, the hotel has eleven different room categories. That’s insane for a hotel with 230 rooms.
Once I was there, though, the hotel was excellent. The hotel is perfectly situated for the CBD, about a block and a half from Lambton Quay, the main shopping street and also where the airport bus stops, and a block away from Queen’s Wharf, a waterfront area with lots of restaurants and museums, and ferry connections – and a great place to run. The area is a bit sleepy at night, but still very safe, and the 15-20 minute walk to Cuba Street, the heart of the city’s nightlife, was pretty easy. The only public transit I took within Wellington was the cable car up to the Botanical Garden; everything else was walking.
The building is nothing special from the outside, a 9-story appendage to a larger glass ANZ Bank office tower. The hotel is only nine stories, with a fairly small lobby area, which also serves as the bar/lounge.
Check-in was easy, and my room was ready for me at 2pm. The room was lovely, with plenty of room and a great view of Queen’s Wharf. There was a couch along the window, along with a desk area. The sheets, as I’ve come to expect, were smooth and soft. The bathroom was very modern, though a bit on the small side, with a stall shower with a window into the room. The consistency of Intercontinental shone with awesome water pressure, but that may have also been me having traveled for 20 hours or so. Not surprising since New Zealanders take coffee very seriously, in addition to a hot water kettle and instant coffee and a package of cookies, there was a French press and a complimentary bag of coffee, which was replenished every day.
My Ambassador welcome amenities had already been placed in the room. There was a large bottle of spring water, a bowl of fruit, a small tin of New Zealand teas, and a decorative soap in a box. In addition, I had been given a voucher for a discount at the breakfast buffet in the ground floor restaurant – 25 NZD instead of 37, which is reasonable for a hotel breakfast but I didn’t use.
The speed of the complimentary wifi was very good, but I did find it annoying that I had to re-log-in every time I tried to connect to the internet, instead of once every 24 hours.
The gym was on the small side for an Intercontinental, with a range of cardio equipment and a few benches, racks, and resistance machines. The amount of equipment was less the problem than the small space it was in. It serves as a membership gym in addition to the hotel gym, and, although it wasn’t crowded, it was a little difficult working out when more than 2 people were there. There was also a nice-looking indoor pool I didn’t try.
The closest thing to a problem I had had to do with housekeeping, but wasn’t a big deal. On my second day, I left the room at around 9am and hung the “Please Make the Room” sign, but when I came back at 1:30, the room hadn’t been touched. Not a huge deal, so I called for housekeeping when I left again around 2:30. Also, in the morning, the sun beating down on the glass walls of the building led to a “popping” sound I’ve heard before with glass buildings, which was not conducive to sleeping.
The concierge was very friendly and helpful, even though he couldn’t get me a reservation at the place I wanted for dinner one night, which had been recommended to me, but I didn’t realize was the most popular restaurant in the city.
My room ended up having a great view of the fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day, known as the Wellington Sky Show, which take place at Queen’s Wharf (and last only 10 minutes). It was also interesting that the hotel was used by Air New Zealand for its flight attendants spending the night, and a host hotel for the Haka Classic Rally, a road race around New Zealand for people driving classic cars, over a month. That made for an interesting crowd.