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  1. Location and Rates - Website Prologue - Part One Well, I beat the traffic (barely), and I beat the storm (by a full day); now, I just needed to get well out of range, and find a decent place to stay. As I was driving South, I knew I'd be gone for at least several days, and decided to take advantage of the DC Snowstorm by making a themed vacation out of it. A couple months ago, I needed to go to New York, and decided to make that trip "the 2015 James Beard Semifinalists in New Jersey," hitting three of the four (Elements, The Flaky Tart, and Zeppoli); now, I'd do the same thing with "the 2015 James Beard Semifinalists in North Carolina," at least as well as I could under the circumstances: Given the track of the storm, I headed east, already knowing that on Friday evening, I'd be having dinner in Kinston. Washington, DC to Kinston, NC is 293 miles - not brutal by any means, but considering I'd left mid-afternoon, I got in late, and was glad I had some provisions in the car. I got a two-night reservation at the Hampton by Hilton in Kinston which really didn't look like very much: but it had strong reviews online, and turned out to be the nicest hotel I'd stay in for the duration of my trip - which also turned out to be longer than I thought it would. I guess I checked in around 8:30 (after a quick stop at Smoke & Brew ), fairly tired, and glad to have a warm, dry bed to sleep in. I'd gotten a special rate (*) of $89 a night, and these days, any decent hotel you can find under $100 seems downright cheap. Forget the outside of the hotel which is generic and bordering on ugly; this place was pretty nice inside, with an ingratiating front desk staff, clean rooms, a good mattress, a decent bathroom, small exercise room, and linens you have no problem sleeping in. Not only did I stay at the Hampton Inn, Kinston for two nights, I extended my reservation for a third. On a five-star scale, this is a three-star hotel, but it's a *solid* three-star hotel, with no outstanding weaknesses. As with all Hilton properties that I've stayed in of late, there's round-the-clock coffee, and it's not at all bad - I've mastered the trick of carrying three cups *and* pushing the elevator button; it's when you get to your room, and have to set them down on the ground where it gets a little tricky. Most Hampton Inns are individually owned franchises, it needs to be added, so even though there's some "Hilton consistency," there will still be variation from hotel-to-hotel - this place is one of the good ones. Boy oh boy did it rain the next day, but I knew that what I was seeing as rain, was something a lot flakier than that 293 miles to the north - I was *so happy* to be here, and I was even happier when I went to dinner the following evening - this hotel is just a few minutes away from Chef & the Farmer. Also nearby is the CSS Neuse Memorial. (*) Hey look, I'm not implying anything, but those of you over 50 are eligible for AARP at only $16 a year. I would *never*, of course, admit that I'm getting older by joining such an organization (cough, cough), but I'm just saying that you can get a consistent 10% off the lowest-available rates if you do join, and if you spend just two nights a year in hotels, the membership fee more than pays for itself. And this hotel felt like a steal at $89.
  2. Napa, CA I recently spent six nights at the DoubleTree by Hilton in American Canyon, which is about fifteen minutes south of downtown Napa. This is a hotel you won't forget once you see it due to the radical design over the entrance: While this hotel looks like an avant-garde project from the 1950s (and, quite frankly, feels like it, too), it was surprisingly built in 2006. Truly, it's difficult to imagine this is only a nine-year-old hotel, and although the layout is nice, the general air is that of a run-down traveler's rest which is being propped up, and has seen better days. The good news is that it's fairly inexpensive - you can find rooms here for around $100 if you look, and the rooms themselves are perfectly fine, with fairly new-seeming, clean sheets, very friendly service at the front desk, and cleaning service which is very responsive to quirky requests, as long as those requests are made on a timely basis, and are reasonable. My room was directly above the gym, which is a tiny little thing - really, just a guest room which has been made into a rectangle, containing about ten pieces of equipment - it's good for an exercise bike ride, some light weight work, and things like that. The gym had a very, very strong odor of antiseptic (like a hospital) when I was there - I just sucked it up, and got used to it). Although I'd stay here again if the price were right, that's only if I wasn't going to be spending much time in my room. Though the beds themselves were comfortable, with very clean sheets (I cannot emphasize that enough), the bathroom was a dump, with pump bottles of shampoo, body soap, and moisturizer in three containers plastered against the shower wall near the faucet area. The tile floor was very dated, and the linens were not at all fluffy. Even though I *might* stay here again, I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend this DoubleTree by Hilton to anyone, although I wouldn't urge them not to stay there unless they were the type of people to expect a bit more pampering in their vacations. The room coffee is feeble, and it was worth walking over to the lobby restaurant in the mornings in order to get a freshly poured cup - there's a mini-fridge in each room, so you can bring your own beers and store them there to save money. Parking is free, as this is right on State Route 29, but since the rooms are around back, surrounding a lagoon area, road noise isn't a problem. DoubleTree by Hilton is very much of a three-star hotel - calling it two-star is needlessly unfair because the important things - with the glaring exception of my bathroom - are comfortable, and the beds themselves are perfectly fine. This should be on your list of places to look if you want to stay in Napa, but don't want to pay exorbitant prices - you have to not mind driving an extra ten miles each way to get to Napa, but in my situation, I didn't care - DoubleTree by Hilton served me perfectly well during my stay, and central operations was responsive when it needed to be; unintrusive when they weren't.
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