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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Honeymoon Trip Report, Day 1 - A Taste of Istanbul; Review of Grand Hyatt Istanbul.

In conjunction with

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  • Grand Hyatt Istanbul
After escaping from the chaos of immigration control, we walk out of the terminal toward the bus stop area for the Havatas (pronounced "hah-vah-tash") airport bus operated by the local government.

Our hotel is near Taksim Square, and while my natural inclination was to use Istanbul's metro system (since I saw a Taksim station), I'm glad I found info on the Havatas bus, since it would drop us off just down the street from our hotel without having to make a transfer.

I was still hesitant about taking the bus, being on a foreign country where neither of us could speak the language nor could even figure out the root words, but fortunately we found most locals knew enough English and were very friendly.

This included the Havatas driver and his assistant. The whole outfit made it as easy as it could be. You just follow the signs to Ground Transportation, and look for the big white buses that say "Havatas" on them, across from the taxi stand.
You wait for the bus going to Taksim, drop your luggage off to be loaded if needed, get on the bus and go. A bus runs every 20 minutes.

Payment was collected on the bus, TRY17 per person in cash. The seats were comfortable if a little tight across. There was enough overhead space for our packs, and most importantly... air vents!  A/C was definitely needed, as the temperature hovered around 80F (26.6C) with high humidity.

We read about the traffic in Istanbul, so we were expecting about a 45-50 minute trip. I suppose living in Southern California gave me traffic tolerance so I wasn't as antsy as some of our fellow travelers were.

While the trip was supposed to be direct nonstop, our driver stopped at random places along the way to let riders off. They must have been locals who ask for the extra stop. We traveled down the main artery connecting the city to the airport, running along the seashore for a big part of it. We eventually pass under the old city walls, where they built the road lanes to go through the thick stone arches.

Our bus arrived to the Taksim stop just about 50 minutes from when we left the airport. There were several taxi touts waiting, vying for customers but not being overly pushy. We were close enough to our hotel to see it off in the distance, so we start walking that direction. There was one major street to cross, and there was a traffic light at the intersection so it wasn't too bad. It seemed like most locals crossed when traffic was clear (and sometimes, when it wasn't), but be careful because cars do not yield to pedestrians here.

On our short walk to our hotel, we encountered our first refugee family on the streets: a husband and wife with 3 small children, all decently dressed, had found themselves a small alcove along the sidewalk, and were just sitting down together around some takeout boxes, probably their dinner for the night after gathering up enough money to buy it.

We walked by them and they didn't bother us. Aside from the setting, it could have been any family sitting down to dinner, chatting among themselves, and grateful for their meal. Quite the juxtaposition, since they were next to a fancy Japanese restaurant, attached to our hotel, closed down for the night.

Unfortunately, they wouldn't be the last refugees we'd see on our trip.

We found our way to the lobby, checked in, and dropped our stuff in our room (see below). Having missed half the evening because of the delay, we decided to grab a quick dinner before coming back and calling it an early night. On our way, I saw an eatery that looked like promising, so we headed back out toward the bus stop.

Apparently Beyoğlu Bereket Halk Döner is a chain, but they had a great display of hot items in the window, so after "window shopping" we were drawn in. The guys working the counter were very friendly, understanding that it was our first time in Istanbul (heck, and our first meal here!) so made some suggestions and was just overall very warm and welcoming, even cracking a few jokes. The cashier made sure I used the correct bills, and reminded us to grab some of the complimentary bread.

No seating downstairs or on the sidewalk, so we head upstairs and find a table next to the window. Wanting to sample a few things, we ordered some lamb and mushroom stew, rice pilaf, and a doner kebap pate. Everything taste fine to me, though the doner meat was a little dry.

The was very filling and we boxed the leftovers up and grabbed some extra bread and utensils hoping to run into the immigrant family outside our hotel again. Their little girl bounded up to us with her hand out; we find the family resting after their dinner, but they very much appreciated the extra food. They would be gone the next morning.

Reenergized by our meal, we decided to walk around our area for a bit. Quite the lively scene, with plenty of cafes, restaurants, and a couple of hookah bars filled with patrons. There were a smattering of tourist shops still open, as well as some convenience stores and even a Carl's Jr. I found a store that sold apple juice, so I was satisfied.

Fresh fruit, colorful even at night.
Carl's Jr. delivers!
We had grand plans for the next day... Grand Bazaar, Sofia Hagia, Bosphorus Sea. We head back to the hotel to get cleaned up, set our alarms, and turn in for the night.

The next morning...

Let's just say those plans went out the window. It because a war of attrition between us and the alarms, and our weapon of choice was the snooze button. At least our jet lag helped keep us from sleeping in too much. 

We managed to wake up and get to breakfast well after our original plans. We had a great buffet breakfast at the hotel (see below), and Kat was enjoying learning basic Turkish words and phrases. We might have spent a little to much time enjoying ourselves at breakfast, but that's what we're supposed to do, right?

With not much time left, we decided to head down to Eminonu where some of the ferry docks were. Right next to our hotel, I had seen the signs to a cable car that I thought would lead us in the right direction. Interestingly, this cable car is considered part of the public transportation system, so if we had any passes or whatnot they would have been accepted here.

Our cable car/capsule. Fun fact: You just board on this end, and you pay when you arrive.
We sat there for about five minutes before it started moving.
One other person was already there. #AwkwardSilence

We arrived and tried to figure out how to pay for our trip. The cable car operator had to come out of his control room and lead us to a machine, which spit out a token so we could exit the turnstile.

We started looking around for the tram we were supposed to transfer to; all we saw was a residential neighborhood and no sign of tram tracks. We stopped a young couple who was heading to the cable car station to ask them how to get to the tram stop.

The confused look on their faces told us all we needed to know; we weren't in the right place (d'oh!). The couple offered to show us the right direction... which required us to get back onto the cable car we had just gotten off!

You see, I somehow got turned around and thought we were supposed to take the cable car; we were really supposed to take the funicular. Common mistake, I'm sure...

We tried to get sympathy from the cable car operator to let us back on, but he just smiled and pointed to another machine on our side of the turnstiles. There was a sign taped to it; we don't read Turkish, but we're pretty sure it says, "Out of Order."

we strolled around Taksim Square, which made international headlines in 2013 for being the flashpoint of massive demonstrations against the current Turkish president. What started off as a small sit-in in Gezi Park to protest its removal for development turned into a nationwide firestorm of demonstrations from both sides of the political spectrum against the government's policies suppressing the rights and freedoms of its citizens (wow, that was a mouthful!).
The protest at Taksim Square, May 2013. Photo: Wikipedia
At the other end of Taksim Square is the Republic Monument. Photo:
Fortunately, it wasn't so "lively" as we strolled through the pedestrian pathway around the square. Just a quiet afternoon walking around the park, watching families playing, businessmen walking briskly, and vendors hawking their pretzel-like breads. 
A much-calmer Republic Monument.
There were dozens of refugees here as well, asking for help from anyone walking by and many flashing their ID cards that were in Arabic as evidence that they were from Syria. Heartbreaking, because you could sense the despair, way beyond what one typically sees in the U.S. when it comes to panhandling. Unfortunate, to say the least... we wish we could do more to help them.

Much of Taksim is under construction, with barriers and new pavement the most obvious signs. There were also very familiar stores around.

Down a side street, we found an attractive shop selling Turkish delight and baklava. 

After our all-too-brief walk, we get back to the hotel to shower up and get ready to head back out to the airport, using the Havatas bus again. This time, we had to make sure to board the correct bus, as there are separate routes that go to each airport in Istanbul (Ataturk vs. Sabiha Gokcen).

Some pics along the way:

Review: Grand Hyatt Istanbul (I)

Spoiler alert: It was our favorite property overall from the whole trip, and it was because of the people. I don't know if it was because of our status or because they knew it was our honeymoon, but the service was amazing, so welcoming and attentive, without being smothering.

Walking in from our bus stop, we were surprised to see the main entrance leading to...a metal detector??? We were invited to take off our packs, empty our pockets, and walk through, then wanded.

Talk about a jarring welcome to the hotel, especially after some long flights. We come to find out that security checkpoints are standard for most of the larger hotels, along with barriers in the driveways. It did make me feel more secure, since random people are less likely to wander in off the street, and after that initial encounter, they would just wave us on through without stopping... I guess they became familiar with our faces and knew we were guests and not troublemakers.

We check in and when the front desk agent pulled up our reservation, he gave us a hearty greeting again, telling us how much he appreciated that we chose his property for our honeymoon trip. He cheerfully completed the formalities, indicating that they had upgraded us to a suite with a seaview, if that was ok with us.

Why yes... that would be... acceptable. <cutscene to my mind>

Just before we were given our key cards, the hotel's manager game out to personally welcome us to the property. We chatted for a bit, and he apologized not being there for our next stay the following week, because of a national holiday that had him traveling with his family. He asked us to contact him personally should we need anything else.

We declined assistance with our bags and proceeded up our elevator to our room on the sixth floor.
The entry foyer to our suite.

The living area, with work desk, sectional couch, and dining table.

A gift of wine and nuts. Mmm... cashews.

Our bedroom, with king bed and sofa lounger.

Fluffy pillows!

A nice touch for our honeymoon.

Large walk-in closet.

Way oversized bathroom.

This is the second bathroom for guests (read: my personal use).

Maybe they thought that we, as Americans, would enjoy some Snickers and Twix?
They thought correctly.
After a long trip and a quick dinner, we settle in for the night, fully intending to take advantage of our jetlag and wake up bright and early tomorrow to explore our new surroundings...

The Day After...

BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ <snooze>...

It doesn't matter what time zone you just arrived from... when you need sleep, you need sleep. And sleep well we did... such a comfy bed. While we manage to get up around 8am, this is still an hour past when we wanted to head down to breakfast, so we hurry up to get ready and head downstairs.

At first we head to the hotel's Grand Club, where suite and Diamond guests typically have their breakfasts. While it's nice to have access to this exclusive space, the breakfast spread itself is... lacking. It's a basic continental offering, with pastries, breads, morning beverages, and a few other items.

Plus... it's completely empty. Sensing that something was amiss, we ask the club host if there is someplace else we could take our breakfast, and she directs us to the downstairs restaurant.

Lo and behold, it's like the gates of breakfast heaven open up before us. I'll just let the photos do the talking:
My personal haul. Kat was still getting her first plate #noshame.

Breakfast breads, pastries, and desserts area.
More baked goods: muffins, bread puddings, croissants, sliced bread...
One of the hot items area, heated by a charcoal grill.
Clockwise from top left: merguez, grilled tomatoes, chicken sausage, roasted potatoes.
Farm-fresh eggs at the omelet station. Great ingredients make great food.
Chef's spice collection.
Behind the cooking counter.
The "deli" section.
The cheese fridge. Turkish cheese isn't as good as French or Swiss, but still good.
CHEESE. And various cold cuts and accompanying veg.

Olive and olive oil counter.
So funny story with the last picture. Turkey, while having a secular government, is predominantly Muslim. That said, Istanbul is a diverse and worldly city, and the Grand Hyatt caters to a lot of international clientele. So while I'm not surprised that there is a lack of pork products (especially compared to, say, Hamburg, Germany), I am surprised that they had BACON!

The surprise is shortlived however... while the placard noted "Crispy Fried Bacon," it's stored in the tagine you see there, and with few pork-seekers like us, it probably sat there all morning, steaming itself into limp oblivion. RIP crispy bacon.

Everything else is, on the whole, delicious and well done. The eggs are amazing, with a deep golden yolk that American factory-produced eggs lack. The omelet is so simply done yet amazingly addicting, with just that pinch of red chili powder added. The Turkish coffee beat the pants off standard hotel coffee. All in all, just an amazing breakfast experience.

Service is quite attentive... maybe a bit overly zealous at times. After our first trip, both of us get up for our second run, and when we come back less than 5 minutes later, our table is completely cleared with new settings all ready to go!

The staff explain that they thought we had finished and left. (Mental note: Half-eaten food + neatly folded napkin on the chair does NOT mean "We'll be back" in Istanbul). They quickly replenish our juices and coffees with apologies, while I go fetch more of my first round.

Still, our servers are very friendly and accommodating. Kat practices her Turkish phrases with one of them, who corrects her pronunciations (at Kat's request, of course). It's actually very helpful, since throughout the trip people commented now well we used Turkish expressions.

We are so engrossed on breakfast and conversation that we leave the hotel an hour later than we had wanted, but it was so enjoyable! On our return to the hotel, we walk through the restaurant again, this time set up for lunch which looks even more amazing, especially one counter dedicated to Turkish delight and bakalava.

Next up: Vienna! (Links coming soon)


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