A Travellerspoint blog

Tiptoe Through the Hedgerow: The Hamptons From A to Z

It's spring! That time of year when we move our clocks forward, clean our houses for the first time since Halloween, and drag an unsuspecting groundhog out of his hidey-hole to tell us whether we should bury our winter coats in the back of the closet, or just bury ourselves under the covers. And for me, it's also that time of year when I start getting giddy at the thought of spending weekends at our cottage in the Hamptons.

Sure, the Hamptons are overpriced, overcrowded, and often filled with what I'd hoped to leave behind in New York City . . . but those are only some of the reasons why I love it. Here are 26 others.

A is for Almond.

A classic French bistro with a great wine list and fantastic food, Almond is the kind of place where you can snuggle in with some steak frites and a glass of Bordeaux in the winter, or enjoy the breeze from the flung-open French doors and a fig martini at the bar in the summer.

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A is also for Alan Alda, who also dines at Almond, and to whom I once sent a fan letter. (I watched a lot of M*A*S*H after school. It came in great with the rabbit ears on our TV.) After surreptitiously snapping this photo of him at Almond a few summers ago, I was thisclose to interrupting his dinner to ask, "Hey, do you remember that fan letter you got from that 8-year-old girl that time?"

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You know he does. Nobody could forget something that weird.

B is for Beacon.

Located atop a fancy yacht club in Sag Harbor, Beacon boasts excellent food, friendly service, and a postcard view, which is why you will find us here almost every weekend.

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Of course, we had to tell our accountant that we're broke due to huge gambling losses, but it still sounds better than, "I'm paying the mortgage over at Beacon."

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C is for Cowfish.

The Hamptons are all about the water views, and one of the best can happily be found within a 10-minute drive of our cottage.

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Cowfish, however, ups the ante with its location on a small peninsula, affording water views on three sides, thus avoiding the temper tantrums that can occur when a Hamptonite suspects that he didn't get the best table in the house.

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And with an outdoor bar/living room, house-made rum punch served in chilled Mason jars, and the freshest seafood around, it's easy to understand why we're on first-name basis with the waitstaff and the owner named his first kid Trangel.

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D is for Dockers.

Fourteen years ago, Dockers was a casual little spot on the bay that served as the post-party after our wedding. It's where we danced on the tables and the DJ played the chicken dance and one of my girlfriends threw up in the bushes.

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Today, Dockers is done up in crisp navy-and-white fabric and oversized hurricane lamps, and the drinks are way too expensive to get all that drunk, but the friendly service and stunning sunsets haven't changed one bit.

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E is for East Hampton.

In 1725, Dick Syme was elected Common Whipper for East Hampton and was paid 3 shillings for each person whipped. Of course, there is no Common Whipper in East Hampton today; instead, the town extracts its pound of flesh by charging $700 a night for a hotel room and $40 for a bowl of pasta.

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You didn't think National Geographic's "Most Beautiful Village in America" was going to come cheap, did you?

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F is for fall.

Though it's hard to top a sultry August afternoon in the Hamptons, fall is even more sublime. The crowds have migrated back to the city, the ocean is still warm, it's harvest time at the vineyards, and restaurant menus are bursting with locally-grown apples, pumpkins, chestnuts, and Brussels sprouts.

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Best of all, there's trick-or-treating in the villages, and Angel and I are easily mistaken for oversized hobos, which results in a pretty nice haul.

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G is for the Greenport Brewing Company.

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Rosé is all the rage in the Hamptons, but at least once a season Angel shrugs off his pastel polo, ditches the Brooks Brothers khakis, tucks in his pinky finger, and guzzles some beer.

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I go along for the great shopping in Greenport, since the best way to pry your husband's fingers off his credit card is to wrap them around a pint glass.

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H is for house drinks.

It seems that every bar and restaurant in the Hamptons has a "specialty" cocktail, and picking a favorite is like picking your favorite kid: It can be done, but not without some hurt feelings. That's why I have several favorites.

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Besides being a boozy summer picnic in a glass, the watermelon margarita at B. Smith's in Sag Harbor tastes a bit different every year depending on the quality of that summer's watermelon crop. And so we find ourselves obsessively consulting our Farmer's Almanac and saying things like, "Ah, yes, the summer of '96. Now that was a great year."

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The Prickly Pear at Rumba in Hampton Bays is both sweet and tart, and the color is even more delicious. But do not be fooled: Two of these babies and you will be pronouncing them "Plucky Purrs."

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The blueberry mojito at Docker's may come in a small glass, but it's chock-full of memories, from wild weekends with my sister to romantic sunsets with Angel to leisurely Sunday brunches in early spring when the sun finally begins to warm our backs. Over the years the price has increased dramatically, but can you really put a price on happiness?

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Apparently you can, and that price is roughly $8 an ounce.

And then there's the Sweet Life, an off-the-menu special at Rumba, which I think is my favorite favorite. Maybe it's because it tastes exactly like the homemade limeade my mom used to make to take along on summer picnics . . . which I now realize must have been spiked with gin. Mama was no dummy.

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I is for Italian food.

Long Island's climate is similar to that of Naples, Italy (they share the same latitude), and therefore many of the best things about Italian food -- tomatoes, basil, asparagus, spinach, squash, and melons -- grow like gangbusters on Long Island, to say nothing of the fresh seafood and abundance of dairy farms. And no place puts those ingredients to better use than Tutto Il Giorno, an intimate spot off the beaten path on Nugent Street in Southampton.

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Yes, the portions will be on the small side, and the bill will rival the GDP of a small island, but if the Lear is in the shop and you can't make it to Italy for the weekend, Tutto is a pretty good substitute.

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J is for John Scott's Surf Shack.

An open-air surf shack tucked among the million-dollar homes along Dune Road in Westhampton Beach, John Scott's is the perfect place to kick back Hamptons-style, with a cold beer, a bucket of popcorn shrimp, and the knowledge that Anderson Cooper lives just down the street.

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K is for killer views.

At least there's something to do while you're sitting in traffic.

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L is for lobster.

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It wouldn't be summer in the Hamptons without lobster, and one of the best ways to enjoy it is stuffed into one of the insanely huge lobster rolls at Canal Cafe in Hampton Bays.

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Served not on a measly hot-dog bun like a traditional lobster roll, but on a hearty, nearly foot-long baguette, Canal Cafe's lobster roll is positively bursting with fresh lobster meat and not much else. I hold these lobster rolls personally responsible for the state of Angel's waistline from April through October.

If lobster rolls aren't your thing, head on over to the Lobster Inn, a classic seafood shack where the namesake dish can be grilled, steamed, stuffed, or served as a "splat," which comes with steamers, hard clams, mussels, shrimp, and crab.

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M is for money to burn.

Everywhere else in the world, that's a metaphor.

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N is for neighbors.

Our neighbors Norma and Daniel are two of the kindest, most generous people we've ever had the pleasure of knowing. Norma brings us things like homemade garlic-herb bread made with fresh rosemary from her garden and homemade caponata with her garden basil, while Daniel brings us goodies like homemade cherry-basil vodka and invites us over to "the Bungalow," as he charmingly calls it, for BBQ chicken and coconut cupcakes.

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All of which is to say, these two could be complete jerks and we'd still keep 'em around.

O is for our wedding.

On August 5, 2000, Angel and I exchanged our wedding vows at the Westhampton Bath & Tennis Club on Dune Road.

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There were some bumps along the way -- the cake was inexplicably the wrong color, and the lobsters weren't de-shelled even though I'd paid extra to make sure they would be -- but we were surrounded by the people we love the most . . . in the place we love the most.

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And that made it perfect.

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P is for Plaza Cafe.

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I have three words for you: Lobster. Shepherd's. Pie. What's better than three words, or even 1,000? You know.

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That feat of seafoody splendor is served up by Bari, one of the sweetest and most knowledgeable waitresses around, and cooked up by chef Doug Gulija, one of those maddening people who is insanely talented but also extremely nice. This guy could be cooking up frozen fish sticks and I guarantee they'd be the best you'd ever had. Luckily, though, there's stuff like pumpkin-lobster bisque; shrimp with porcini risotto; soy and acacia honey marinated black cod with yuzu beurre blanc; and red snapper stuffed with lobster instead.

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Q is for Quogue.

Our friends Jennifer and James joined us for a weekend in the Hamptons last summer, and we took them to lunch at Dockers in East Quogue, a gorgeous little oceanfront village boasting dozens of homes built in the 1700s . Over lunch, Jennifer recounted a story about an episode of the "Real Housewives" (don't ask) in which one of those snots moaned about having to drive from her house in Southampton "all the way" to Quogue for a party.

After lunch, we did that exact drive in reverse, which took maybe 25 minutes. And as we were walking down the street in Southampton, we overheard a woman at an outdoor cafe complain to her friend, "So, I have to go to this party tonight . . . but it's all the way out in Quogue!" Poor Quogue. So close, and yet so far away. I guess that explains why I don't have any photos of it.

R is for Rumba.

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We all dream of a place like "Cheers," where we can walk in and everybody knows our name (and, more importantly, what we'd like to drink). Rumba is our Cheers. So close that we can bike there (not that we ever do - that would be a little too much like exercise), Rumba's got it all: A slew of Adirondack chairs at the water's edge, plentiful seating outside on the deck, friendly servers, fantastic food, and the best drinks in the Hamptons, most of which are served "Bigga" style in oversized Mason jars.

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In season, Rumba operates a tiki-themed RumBarge that runs back and forth between Rumba and its sister restaurant, Cowfish, and is operated by a guy who I swear is not wearing a pirate costume.

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Best of all, there's free shots of homemade banana-vanilla rum for the regulars. And even the irregulars.

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S is for Shelter Island.

Remember Howard Hughes, the fabulously wealthy yet famously reclusive business magnate and aviator who, in order to avoid conflicts with the owners of the penthouse hotel suite he'd been occupying for years, simply bought the hotel so he'd never have to leave?

Shelter Island is a lot like that.

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How else to describe a 9-square mile island just minutes from the chi-chi Hamptons that doesn't have a movie theatre, bookstore, a single traffic light . . . or a bridge to the mainland?

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All of which sounds delightful, but for now we're staying put. Experience has taught us that relying on a boat to get to lunch or dinner can result in unacceptably long delays while you untangle your anchor line from around the propeller, or whatever.

T is for tomatoes.

As you probably know, I am obsessed with tomatoes. And so we spend a good part of the summer chasing down the Tomato Lady in Sag Harbor and buying up the multicolored heirlooms at Hayground Market for the one thing I can "cook" that always comes out perfectly: mozzarella and tomato salad with a drizzle of aged balsamic.

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And last summer, I gleefully welcomed the debut of the biggest, baddest tomato event of them all: A tasting of 55 of the whopping 350 varieties of heirloom tomatoes grown from seed by tomato goddess Steph Gaylor at Invincible Summer Farms in Southold, including oddballs like the Amazon Chocolate tomato and the Chartruese Mutant.

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Perhaps not surprisingly, I was the only one who brought my own salt shaker, prompting a photographer from Newsday to follow me around all afternoon.

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Now I know how poor Angel feels.

U is for Umbrella Beach.

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Every Fourth of July, I manage to convince Angel to make the drive out to Montauk for a sunset dinner, followed by the "Stars Over Montauk" fireworks display at Umbrella Beach.

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We usually end up at Gosman's Dock, a quaint shopping and dining district where you can watch the boats come in with the day's catch . . . or watch the fog roll in and destroy all of the carefully-coiffed hair in its path.

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Angel has teased me for years about my obsession with fireworks, and the display at Umbrella Beach does not disappoint. Put on by the famous Grucci family, which handles the over-the-top pyrotechnics for presidential inaugurations and the Olympics, the Stars Over Montauk display runs for nearly an hour, eliciting a series of oohs and aahs from the lucky spectators.

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Or maybe that's just me.

V is for vineyards.

With its glacial soil and maritime climate, the east end of Long Island is home to more than 40 wineries, many of which are turning out good-to-very-good Chardonnay and Merlot, along with Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and others.

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In Napa or Sonoma such small, rustic tasting rooms and family-run operations would be delightful "off-the-beaten-path" finds, but on the North Fork they're business as usual, which suits us just fine.

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And down on the South Fork, there's our beloved Channing Daughters in Bridgehampton, also known as the "hippie winery" for its dedication to lesser-known European varietals like Ribolla Gialla, Dornfelder, Blaufrankisch, and Legrein. I know the end of the previous sentence looks like my fingers landed on the wrong keys, but I assure you they are real words.

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W is for Wolffer.

I'd still love the Hamptons even if it didn't have wineries, but obviously not as much. One of our favorites is the stylish Wolffer Estate in Sagaponack.

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The main winery building is open, airy, and has a small shop where you can buy those useless wine-vacuum gadgets. I mean, who ever has wine left over?

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Tastings are offered outside on the spacious patio, just a stone's throw from the vines.

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While we love the main winery location for its gorgeous architecture, we actually prefer the winery's smaller offshoot, known as the Wine Stand, which is just a short drive away. The Wine Stand has a small, uncrowded patio, endless views, and live music on Friday and Saturday evenings for the sunset.

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We typically choose the patio for the shade (and proximity to the bar), but the "vineyard" tables are just as lovely.

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Best of all, you can arrive by scooter, or by Rolls Royce. Your choice, obviously.

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X is for x-citing cars.

Okay, that's a stretch, but there are not alot of xylophones or x-rays in the Hamptons, and really, where else can you see so many ridiculously cute, sherbet-colored cars in one place?

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Y is for yachts.

While most middle-aged men try to show off their virility with a shiny new sports car, that trick doesn't work in the Hamptons, since even the plumbers are driving Maseratis. So the next-best, um, yardstick is the mega-yacht.

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Preferably equipped with a crew in matching polos, a Jeep, and a whole other normal-sized boat.

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Z is for cathing up on our Zzzs.

When you live and work in the city that never sleeps, being well-rested during the week is like being sober on the weekends: It's an admirable goal, but does anyone ever really achieve it? And so, by the time the weekend rolls around, Angel and I are ready to loll around.

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The Hamptons. They may be glitzy, glamorous, and sometimes even grating, but there's no better place to get your sloth on.

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Posted by TTG 07:35 Archived in USA Tagged beach winery beacon montauk westhampton hamptons sag_harbor east_hampton hampton_bays channing_daughters wolffer almond cowfish dockers greenport rumba shelter_island Comments (2)

The BVIs, Part 1: BBQ, Boulders, and Blacklists

When your last tropical vacation involved unimaginable horrors like low water pressure and plastic wine glasses and a boat nicknamed "The Divorcinator," the last thing you want on your next vacation is to rough it. On your next vacation, you want to be pampered. You want all of the high-end luxuries you missed on your last trip, like electricity and real silverware and hot water. And you most definitely want someone else to drive the boat.

We found all that and more on our recent trip to the British Virgin Islands.

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Now, I know that most folks who frequent the BVIs are hardy souls who live aboard their sailboats and take quick Navy showers and don't own hair dryers. And to them I say, you have my utmost respect. I, too, have lived as one with nature -- on our last vacation, for example, there was a large spider in our house that made it impossible to get to the ironing board -- and I know that it takes a special kind of person to spend a week or two peeing in what amounts to a bouncing broom closet.

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Our ten days of soaking up the modern conveniences sunshine began after a short direct flight from New York, when we arrived in St. Thomas, hopped the ferry over to Tortola, picked up our 4-wheel-drive, buckled ourselves in, and wedged our overstuffed luggage in place to serve as makeshift airbags.

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That's because driving on Tortola is not for the faint of heart, or the fearful of heights, or the lover of life. Imagine that you're in the front car on a roller coaster. You approach the first steep incline and the coaster begins its ascent, inching its way up, up, up, until it's almost at the top, and then that dreaded clicking sound slows to a excruciating pace. Click . . . click . . . . . click . . . . . . And then comes that final lone click, and for one terrifying heartbeat there's complete silence.

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The front car of the coaster peeks hesitantly over the edge of that first drop, and then, with an audible whoosh, the car suddenly plummets over the edge at breakneck speed, only to barrel full-tilt up the next incline, repeating the cycle until your eyes are watering, your stomach is flip-flopping, and your white knuckles have to be pried from the safety bar.

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Now, throw in a dirt track studded with potholes and rocks; switchbacks set at absurdly steep angles; obstacles like goats, chickens, sinkholes, and hitchhikers; and a distracting postcard view around every turn, and you have a good idea of what it's like to drive on Tortola.

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I realize this might sound daunting, but it's actually not all bad. For example, unlike on most other Caribbean islands, on Tortola you don't need to worry about remembering to drive on the left. That's because everyone drives straight down the middle of the road, swerving into their proper lane only at the last possible second, involving you in an unwitting game of chicken every time you leave the house.

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And so it was with some trepidation that we double-checked our seat belts and followed the property manager up a one-lane burro path of rocks and rut and dizzying precipices to the house we'd rented for our stay, the charming Peach Cottage, which rewarded us with breathtaking views of St. John and the islands beyond.

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The house also came with a sweet little cat named Bella. We quickly developed a mutually beneficial relationship, like those tiny birds that eat the bugs off hippos: I rubbed her belly and scratched her ears, and she kept the scarier tropical creatures that would have otherwise invaded our house at bay.

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After getting acquainted with the house, we ran the route from the main road to the house one more time in the waning daylight to make sure we'd be able to find our way back at night -- left at the superette with the stray dogs outside; right at the crumbling yellow retaining wall; left at the house with the cow tied up in the front yard -- and then settled in to watch the sunset.

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Soon we were hungry, and it was time to head out for some dinner. We'd driven on Tortola before, but our skills were rusty, so what better way to sharpen them up than with a first-night drive up and over the mountain . . . in the rain? Sure, that sounds stupid, but when Myett's BBQ ribs are at stake, you'd duct-tape yourself to a blind, three-legged mule to get there.

Angel has been teasing me for years about our last visit to Myett's, where I'd ordered the chicken because I liked the sound of their spiced-rum-and-tamarind BBQ sauce. Now, I am not a big fan of chicken. Not because it's dry (which it is), or because it's boring (which it is), but because it is often full of unpleasant surprises. Nobody ever finds a random vein or tendon in a bowl of spaghetti, but in a chicken breast? It's like a gristle-y pinata.

But that BBQ sauce at Myett's sounded so good that I ordered the chicken. A half-chicken, replete with bones and tendons and veins and those rubbery joint-socket things and god knows what else.

But oh, that sauce was good. It was so good that, like a crazed piranha, I proceeded to pick that poor little half-carcass completely clean, as Angel looked on in stunned silence. I'd never done anything remotely like that before, and I've certainly never picked a chicken clean since, all of which is a very long-winded way of explaining that Myett's serves some damn fine BBQ sauce.

And so we piled into the car and headed off to Cane Garden Bay. All was going fine until the we reached the last switchback, a hairpin turn set on an angle so steep that it's impossible to see the oncoming traffic, even at night. The only way to take the curve is by going wide, into the oncoming lane.

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Me, I'd have closed my eyes and crossed my fingers and taken the turn wide. But Angel is a rule-follower. He always does the right thing, even when the right thing means almost certain death. And so he stayed in his own lane. But the angle of the switchback was just too steep; the turning radius too narrow. The car began to lose its grip on the road, and we began to slide back down the mountain . . . on our backs . . . in the rain . . . without a guard rail.

Even roller coasters don't usually do that.

Eventually we made it to Myett's, where we devoured tamarind ribs and coconut polenta and nerve-calming cocktails, and Angel inquired about a long-term rental so he wouldn't have to drive back up and over the mountain.

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Of course we did make it back, and were greeted at the house by creatures great and small.

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Very small.

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Obviously I'm getting the short end of the stick in this deal with the cat.

The next day we awoke to a glorious view.

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And if we hadn't already planned a day trip to Virgin Gorda, we'd probably still be lazing around in that bed. But one of the things we like best about the BVIs is its generally efficient ferry system (even if most of the schedules do require you to get out of bed before noon). Some of the ferries are less, um, sea-worthy-looking than others, but for the most part they are fast, on-time, and inexpensive. Best of all, the ferry boats are typically operated by people who know how to drive them and dock them and avoid grounding them, which was a nice change for us. Ahem.

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Upon arrival in Virgin Gorda we picked up the car we'd rented for the day, which came with an air freshener that probably doesn't sell too well north of the Mason-Dixon line.

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It also came with a set of keys, which Angel proceeded to confuse with our other set of keys . . . for our rental vehicle back on Tortola. Now, I understand that normal people do stuff like this all the time. But in the nearly 20 years that I have known Angel, he has never so much as forgotten his keys, or temporarily misplaced them, or lost a pair of gloves, or left an umbrella behind at a restaurant. Do you know what it's like to live with someone who has never experienced a Senior Moment, ever???

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It is maddening.

Thus it is with no small amount of glee that I tell you that Angel spent a good 15 minutes trying the (wrong) keys over and over and wondering how he'd locked himself out of a car that had been working fine when we picked it up just five minutes earlier. Eventually he gave up and used the phone at the Top of the Baths to call the rental company and inform them about the "faulty" keys; later, of course, he had to call them again once he figured out his mistake.

I am not ashamed to admit that watching him make that phone call was the highlight of this vacation, if not this year.

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Once my 15 minutes of glory were up, our first stop was to re-visit the Baths. We hadn't been there in about six years, and back then Angel had to convince me that checking out a bunch of boulders was a worthwhile way to spend a day. I had been decidedly unimpressed by the time we reached the end of the path, not realizing that we hadn't even started yet, and that the "cave" is where the Baths really begin.

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And so we slipped on our water shoes (the Baths are no place for any footwear that is not water-friendly and preferably equipped with suction cups on the soles) and took that same route this time around, following the narrow path down to the beach and the entrance to the cave.

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The last time we were here, we didn't know much about the Baths, so we'd asked our elderly taxi driver, and his equally ancient buddy who'd come along for the ride, exactly how the boulders at the Baths had ended up there, expecting to hear something about volcanoes or landslides or shifting tectonic plates. Instead, both men had looked at each other, then replied with the exact same answer, at the exact same moment: "Creation." And the truth is, whether you believe in a higher power or not, it's easy to believe that the island's volcanic origins only partly explain how these massive granite boulders came to be strewn on the beach and balanced precariously on top of one another, as if tossed by the hand of a giant.

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We spent the next two hours picking our way among the boulders, squeezing and shimmying and sliding our way along, all the while marveling at their immense size and ethereal beauty.

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Occasionally it wasn't clear which way we should go, but there were a few hints.

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Before our visit, I'd seen a review online which said that the Baths were no place for anyone over 40, which cracked me up. Then I climbed these 85 flights of stairs and cursed my own hubris.

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The path ends at the beach, which on this overcast day lent an eerie grey tinge to the mossy, water-worn boulders.

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After a short rest and a quick swim, it was time to head back.

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Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves for not tearing our ACLs in the face of nearly insurmountable odds with a couple of frozen drinks at Top of the Baths.

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Indeed, we were enjoying ourselves so much that it wasn't until 11:37 that I suddenly remembered that I'd made reservations for lunch at Little Dix Bay . . . at 11:30. This couldn't be happening! It was like one of those dreams where you show up for your final exam 3 hours late. You see, I am a planner with a capital P. I am organized and on time. I never miss an appointment (and never, ever miss a meal), and if I'm going to be late, I call. Things don't just slip my mind. And yet, the reservation at Little Dix had done just that, leaving me embarrassed and wondering if forgetting a lunch reservation is the first step toward forgetting that your pants should stop at your waist, not your ribcage, and that sandals should be worn sans socks.

And so I urged Angel to leadfoot it over to Little Dix, while he reminded me that we were on island time, and reassured me that they probably wouldn't notice if we were an entire hour late, let alone 10 minutes. He's probably right, I told myself. Heck, they probably never even put me in the reservation book . . . if they even have one, that is. We made a quick pit stop for directions to avoid the possibility of misreading our map, and were instructed to turn "at the gap," which (we eventually determined) refers not to the place where you buy khakis but to the place where you can next make a right or left turn.

Luckily the resort wasn't far, and in short order we found ourselves at the Little Dix security gate. We explained that we were here for lunch. And then the security guard uttered the most humiliating words I have ever heard.

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"Oh," she said, eyeing a Log of Latecomers apparently inscribed with my name, social security number, and date of birth. "You're the 11:30 people."

"You're the 11:30 people"?!? I was mortified. I slunk down in my seat so she couldn't get a good look at me and mumbled something about island time and the Gap. She radioed ahead to the restaurant and repeated the damning words -- "The 11:30 people are here!" -- motioning us through the gate and making some kind of notation in the Log that I am sure will follow me around for the rest of my life, like a blacklist for lollygaggers.

We parked the car, raced down the winding path, and arrived sweaty and panting . . .

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. . . to a completely empty restaurant.

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That's right: They were expecting the 11:30 people . . . because we were the only people.

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By this time I was so stressed out that despite the Beach Grill's lovely menu of grilled fish and salads and other island fare, I went straight for the pepperoni pizza. Nothing says "It's okay to be 12 minutes late" like extra cheese.

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Once you make the decision to eat an entire pepperoni pizza for lunch, you might as well have a bowl of homemade potato chips and a Bailey's banana colada, too.

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We also had a Planter's punch, a bowl of gazpacho, the grilled fish, and some of the best tuna tartare I have ever had. Which didn't work out too well for Angel, since he's the one who ordered it.

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At least I think he was. You know what they say: Once you hit 40, no more climbing ladders for you, or remembering who ate what for lunch.

If you can even remember to show up, that is.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
The next day was Christmas, and it was the worst one since that year I received a pink bottle labeled "toilet water" and realized that Santa really was keeping a list. Click here for Part 2, or click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know when a new post goes up!

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Posted by TTG 06:27 Archived in British Virgin Islands Tagged tortola Comments (14)

The BVIs, Part 2: We're Just a Couple of Swingers

Back on Virgin Gorda, during a day trip in which we locked ourselves out of our car, defied the AARP by climbing a bunch of ladders at the Baths, ended up on a blacklist for latecomers at Little Dix Bay, and then proceeded to eat their restaurant out of all its pepperoni, potato chips, and rum, we were now in something of a food coma. And so our waitress suggested that we take a look around the property and told us to feel free to relax on the beach loungers or take a swim.

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That was our first inkling that Little Dix is truly someplace special. Not only is the service impeccable, but the staff there truly cares, and the pride that showed on the faces of everyone we encountered -- from the gardeners to the waitstaff to the shuttle drivers -- was lovely to see, particularly in a part of the world that often gets a bad rap for service. "Have you seen the main dining room?" they asked, beaming. "What about the pool?" "Oh, but you must visit our spa before you leave!" they urged us, their eyes lighting up. It wasn't a sales pitch. It wasn't formal, forced politeness. It was a warm, welcoming embrace, and we quickly realized that Little Dix treated a couple of day-tripping interlopers better than some of the high-end resorts we've actually stayed at.

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And so we checked out the beach and the grounds . . .

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and the main dining room . . .

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and the pool . . .

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. . . and, to AmEx's great delight, the well-stocked gift shop.

Later, we hopped in one of the complimentary golf cart shuttles that roam the resort -- the main stop for which is at "deh big tree" -- and climbed the hill up to Sense, the spa at Little Dix that we'd heard so much about. There, we were greeted with our choice of lemon or orange water and given free reign to explore at our leisure.

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If you actually climb the dozens of near-vertical steps up to this platform, yoga itself would seem to be overkill.

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Besides, you will be too busy taking in the incredible view to worry about perfecting your downward dog.

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Once we descended from the yoga platform, we made our way past the infinity pool to a steep stone path that leads to a secluded, secret beach.

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Obviously we had no choice but to act out the surf scene in "From Here to Eternity" here.

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It was no small task to pry ourselves away from the beauty of Little Dix, particularly since we were adapting quite nicely to being treated like visiting royalty, but eventually we made our way over to Coco Maya, a chic new spot on the beach known for its sleek decor and sexy cocktails.

Coco Maya was like a big, beachy showroom for all my favorite things: Edison bulbs, fire pits, cushy couches, ivy walls, beds-for-two on the beach, and booze.

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And just when I thought that I couldn't be any more in love with this place, I saw this at the end of the bar.

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Oh, how I loved that swing. I loved it the way I love the corner booth in a cozy bistro, or the window seat on an airplane, or any seat on the subway.

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That day's special was a mango daiquiri, which was made simply and from scratch, with freshly cubed mangoes, rum, and a pinch of sugar, as opposed to the cloying, sugary syrup that so many other daiquiris are made from. For his part, Angel went with the Passion Martini, which was made with puréed passion fruit, raspberry vodka, guava, and a bit of chili, this last ingredient both adding some kick and ensuring that Angel got a drink all to himself for once.

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Don't have too many cocktails, though, or you might get confused about which bathroom to use.

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Out back, Coco Maya has a cool "game room," with more couches and a couple of dart boards nestled among the boulders.

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There was a small playground, too, because we all know how well children mix with alcohol and flying darts.

The day's forecast had called for an 80% chance of rain, and sure enough, by late afternoon, the clouds began to roll in in earnest. As we swung and sipped, the sky darkened to a charcoal grey, and soon it was raining heavily.

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Angel likes to tell the story about how one Labor Day in Cape May, I was so determined to soak up the last few hours of summer sun that I stubbornly refused to leave the beach, despite the day's gale-force winds. He tried to stick it out with me but finally, his mouth full of sand and his eyes full of grit, he had no choice but to leave me there. When he returned a few hours later, only the edge of my blanket, the corner of my magazine, and a few strands of blonde hair were visible beneath a wind-swept, Tracey-shaped mound of sand.

That was me with that swing as soon as it started to rain. I knew that if I didn't move, I was going to get soaked. I knew I would be cold and damp later, particularly on the air-conditioned ferry (and that somehow it would be Angel's fault). And I knew from experience that running around in wet flip-flops is the safety equivalent of running around with both legs stuffed into one pant leg. But I also knew that I had the best damn bar seat in the universe, and no tropical depression was going to get me to move.

Eventually, though, the rain became so heavy that I knew we'd better make a run for the car before it floated away.

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Although I felt bad for this driver, I was immensely relieved that that tree didn't land on our car. After the false-alarm calls to the rental company about the keys earlier that day, a call informing them that we could not return the car because there was a tree on top of it surely would have landed me on yet another blacklist.

That night marked the first of three reservations I'd made back on Tortola at The Dove, a tiny jewel-box of a restaurant housed inside an historic West Indian cottage near the waterfront in Road Town.

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I guess the fact that I started emailing them back in September and made three reservations over the course of a nine-night visit made an impression, because when I gave the hostess my last name she exclaimed, "Oh, you're Tracey! We've been expecting you!" Which translates to, "We doubled our usual food order this week, just to be safe."

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The Dove had been one of the highlights of our trip six years ago, and we were delighted to find that virtually nothing had changed since our last visit: The restaurant was still cozy and candlelit, with warm red walls, comfy banquettes strewn with satin pillows, and a glimmering chandelier.

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Since our last visit, however, they've added a funky outdoor patio, the centerpiece of which is a mango tree aglow in flickering candles, along with a comfortable lounge area for nibbling appetizers and sipping Champagne. That's right, Champagne. From France. I told you this trip was going to be luxurious, n'est-ce pas?

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For dinner that evening, we each started with a bowl of spicy coconut lobster bisque with cumin-roasted almonds, cilantro, and lime creme fraiche, followed by the seafood melange for Angel, which was overflowing with cod, clams, shrimp, scallops, squid, and chorizo, and swimming in a rich, Chardonnay-and-tomato broth perfumed with saffron.

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I decided on the mushroom and leek risotto, which had a lovely bit of "crunch" to it thanks to a celery-walnut ragout . . . and a fried egg yolk on top. Those delicious little cholesterol bombs ought to come with a warning: Don't try this at home . . . unless your life insurance is up-to-date.

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Throw in an icy bottle of Sancerre with just enough left after dinner for a nightcap outside on the patio, and The Dove easily held on to its place at the top of our must-do dining list in Tortola.

But really, they had me at fried egg yolks.

The next day was Christmas. Although we had agreed not to bring any gifts with us to save room for more important stuff in our luggage, like hair dryers and ironing boards, Angel not only broke our agreement, but got me one of the best Christmas presents of all time. You see, my sister Trina has exquisite taste, particularly with respect to home décor and apparel. Over the years I have been so enamored of various items in her possession – everything from candleholders and beach cover-ups to dishtowels, sweaters, and even a reclaimed radiator cover that she cleverly refurbished – that she frequently jokes that she hides all of her best stuff when I come around, for fear that I will “stamp” it with my name and take it home with me. And so, “Quick, hide that before Tracey gets her stamper!” is as common a phrase when I am around as, “Wait, you ate all of it?”

Which is why Angel got me this for Christmas.

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Forget that old saw about a good spouse being one who knows everything about you and likes you anyway. What you really want is a spouse who not only tolerates your worst habits, but actually facilitates them.

After a quick swim and a short visit with the sleepy Bella, it was time to begin the day.

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Little did we know that it would end in a hail of obscenities and (squirt) gun fire.
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Posted by TTG 06:22 Archived in British Virgin Islands Tagged virgin_gorda Comments (9)

The BVIs, Part 3: Merry Christmas, Ya Filthy Animal

It was now Christmas Day, and I'd naturally made our lunch plans well in advance. I decided on the Lambert Beach Resort, an out-of-the-way property at the far eastern end of Tortola, and through a series of emails I was assured that they were most definitely open for lunch on Christmas and that no reservation was necessary and that they looked forward to seeing us. And so on Christmas morning we set off for the other end of the island, taking the longer but more scenic Ridge Road, which runs along the island's mountainous spine.

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For the first hour or so, we ascended higher and higher up the mountain, stopping frequently for photos. Although the day was hazy, the views became more and more spectacular.

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Along the way we encountered donkeys, cows, and other animals, almost none of whom were happy to be having their photo taken . . . and were not shy about saying so.

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Well, except this guy. Then again, if he knew how many of his brethren I've gobbled up over the years, he probably would've told me to get lost, too.

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The route soon became slow and arduous, repeatedly requiring us to scale the mountain via a series of angled switchbacks; slowly and carefully descend back down; then climb right back up again in order to go . . . straight ahead.

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By the second hour, we both had to pee and were getting hungry.

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As we neared the three-hour mark, I was kicking myself for not packing a jar of emergency peanut butter.

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Finally, a Christmas miracle -- a sign directing us to Lambert Beach Resort! We attempted to gun the engine up the final series of steep hills -- the Tortolan equivalent of a marathoner crawling across the finish line and then promptly throwing up -- and, at long last, we pulled into the parking lot at Lambert Beach Resort, nearly three hours after we'd left the house. We were tired, hungry, and in urgent need of both a bathroom and a cocktail.

But both of those could wait because . . . kittens!!!

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Eventually I tore myself away and we made our way over to the restaurant.

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The restaurant was completely empty. I don't just mean that the 11:30 people never showed. I mean empty: No table settings. No menus. No bottles or glassware behind the bar.

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And no people, save for a lone woman sitting at one of the tables using her computer. She gamely explained that the waitstaff had all gone home and the chef was at the beach, and therefore there hadn't been any food or drink at the resort for the past several days.

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She also genially offered to make us sandwiches in her room, which we politely declined (though not without some regret on my part). Later, while we explained to the disinterested woman from the front desk that this whole fiasco was completely unacceptable, Sandwich Lady helpfully piped up, "Oh, you should have been here last year. It was even worse!"

(Wait a minute. You spent last year's vacation at a resort with no food or drinks, and then you came BACK the following year?!?! I have some swampland in Florida that we should talk about.)

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Now, if you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I like to eat. And I eat way more, and way more often, than the average person. And so, when it finally became clear that we had driven almost three hours LITERALLY UPHILL BOTH WAYS to get to Lambert Beach Resort for lunch, and that there was not actually going to be any lunch, well . . . I lost it. And it is particularly fitting that I lost it on Christmas Day, because the only way to explain what happened next is to use an example from one of the most famous Christmas movies of all time, "A Christmas Story." You know the scene: Young Ralphie, having been tormented for weeks by the neighborhood bully Scut Farkus, finally snaps and beats the living crap out of him, all while uttering a string of unmentionable curse words. In a voice-over, adult Ralphie explains: "I have since heard of people under extreme duress speaking in strange tongues. I became conscious that a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing of all kinds was pouring out of me as I screamed."

There were no beatings that day at the Lambert Beach Resort -- it was Christmas, after all -- but there was most certainly a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing of all kinds when I found out that I wasn't going to get my lunch.

(I wish I could say that we jumped in the car, revved the engine, and left skid marks on our way out of there, but the 90-degree hill we had to chug up to leave the parking lot didn't really allow for a dramatic exit. It was like trying to stomp out of a tent.)

After about another hour of driving, we made a fortuitous wrong turn in Road Town and ended up at the Village Cay Marina, a spot that we both vaguely remembered from six years ago as the site where we crashed a wedding after one too many bottles of wine at The Dove.

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Thank you, Village Cay, for operating a restaurant with actual food. Your chicken fingers were juicy and tender, your shrimp wrap was overstuffed and tasty, and I am grateful that your bar was open so I did not have to go all "Roadhouse" on you.

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Right nearby is the quaint and colorful Crafts Alive outdoor market, where I put that new stamper of mine to good use.

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Back at Peach Cottage, we took a quick nap, then got ready for our dinner reservation at the Sugar Mill Hotel, whose lovely restaurant is housed in a romantic 17th century sugar mill with the original stone walls and beamed ceilings.

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The Sugar Mill was one of several restaurants we visited on this trip that indulged us in the charming British tradition of the "Christmas Cracker," a brightly colored tube that's twisted at both ends. The cracker makes a popping sound when pulled apart, and inside you'll typically find a small token gift, a joke, and (best of all!) a shiny paper crown. We'd received utilitarian gifts like a tape measure and a shoe horn in the crackers at other restaurants, but the Sugar Mill must have known I was coming, because Angel received a mood fish and I received . . . a miniature pink squirt gun!!! You probably don't need a mood fish to guess Angel's mood from that moment on.

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Dinner was fantastic, with pumpkin-and-black-bean soup for Angel, tuna tartare for me, and an un-ordered salad course for both of us. Extra food: Merry Christmas to me!

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Angel barely even looked at the menu before deciding on the traditional turkey dinner, while I settled on the lobster medallions with risotto.

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We each ordered the apple pie for dessert, which was the only disappointing note of the meal because it was served cold. So we took it to go, warmed it up back at the house, and ate it in bed.

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That's one way to salvage Lunchless Christmas.
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Next up, a day trip to Jost Van Dyke, where the beaches will be beautiful, the Painkillers will be plentiful, and the restaurant will be open . . . or "Boxing Day" will take on a whole new meaning.

Posted by TTG 06:36 Archived in British Virgin Islands Comments (5)

The BVIs, Part 4: A Soggy, Stress-Free Day

The day after the worst Christmas since 1978, when I accidentally glued my eye shut with the sticky remnants of a chocolate-covered cherry, we hopped a ferry to Jost Van Dyke, where I planned to spend the entire day eating cheeseburgers to make up for missing lunch the day before.

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I even matched my outfit to the ferry for good measure.

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We enjoyed the short ride over to Jost, taking in the sights along the way.

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Soon we arrived at the ferry dock at Great Harbor.

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That's where we met up with taxi driver Gerald Chinnery, who kindly stopped the car so I could take a few photos on our way over to White Bay. "You think I'm stopping for you," he quipped as we admired the stunning view, "but really, I'm stopping for me!"

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Soon we found ourselves at White Bay, where we had arrived at the Soggy Dollar bar early enough to claim the best chairs (a pair of slouchy Adirondacks) on the best part of the beach (as far away from everyone else as possible, without being accused of stealing said chairs).

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Up at the bar, Mic whipped up a batch of Painkillers, grated fresh nutmeg over them, and mugged for the camera.

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On our last visit to Soggy Dollar, we'd eaten lunch on the boat and came ashore just long enough to have a round or two of Painkillers and then swim back to the boat. That was also enough time for me to sniff out the charcoal-grilled cheeseburgers they were serving out back, which I have naturally been thinking about ever since. And so when it came time for lunch this time around, Soggy Dollar had the unenviable task of making up for Lunchless Christmas and living up to the cheeseburger that I'd been dreaming about for the past six years.

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I am happy to report that it rose admirably to the occasion, serving up a great burger, more fries than we could eat, and the best pasta salad you're likely to find anywhere, coated as it is in a creamy, garlicky Parmesan cheese dressing.

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After lunch, it was back to our chairs for more Painkillers (or, in my case, Banana Bombers) and some more soak time.

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Later that afternoon we decided to take a walk over to Ivan's Stress-Free bar, which entailed a short walk down the beach, then up and over a small rocky outcropping, with helpful signs to guide the way.

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Ivan's is at the quiet end of White Bay, away from the crowds at Soggy Dollar.

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We took a swim, chatted with Ivan, and ordered up a round of rum punches, but His Highness the Rum Connoisseur snubbed it after noticing that it was made with Captain Morgan's instead of a locally-made rum. (I harbor no such pretensions when it comes to booze and happily drank them both.)

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I like to think that instead of those stupid team-building exercises where one person falls backwards and the team catches him, Brenda Davis and the good folks at Starkist get bombed on Painkillers, then play strip poker and naked Twister before leaving their name badges at the scene of the crime.

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Too soon, it was time for Gerald to pick us up and return us to the ferry dock. We'd learned that morning that he was currently enjoying a long visit with his baby granddaughter, Arianna, and I'd half-jokingly suggested that he bring her along when he came back to pick us up, so we could meet her.

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I guess I should have clarified that he should bring her in a car seat.

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On the ferry ride back to Tortola, I had the good fortune to be seated next to Mic from Soggy Dollar. "Let me get this straight," I teased. "The most famous bartender on Jost Van Dyke actually lives on Tortola???" Mic responded with some delicate euphemisms about cocks and henhouses to explain that he's slept with everyone on Jost, and therefore had no choice but to move to Tortola.

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Which I suppose is the Caribbean equivalent of Harry having to move back to New Jersey, because he's slept with everyone in New York.

As we approached Tortola, we noted the huge black cloud affixed to its highest point, and patted ourselves on the back for having had the good sense to spend the day on sunny Jost.

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But by the time we arrived back at the house, happily the cloud had moved on, and we were able to share some wine on the patio as the sun sunk below the horizon.

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We toasted to our enjoyable day -- "Here's to lunch! With food!" -- then headed back over to The Dove for dinner.

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By now we were on our second reservation in three days, so we were treated to the best table in the house: a cozy banquette in the tiny, private "porch" room adjacent to the main dining room.

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Over the past two days I'd eaten just three measly meals, and scurvy or rickets or whatever was starting to set in. I listened eagerly as our waitress described the specials.

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And then I ordered the meatloaf. Or, more specifically, the sage meatloaf en croute with walnut Merlot gravy.

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Which was served in a puff pastry crust.

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And stuffed with foie gras.

And pork belly.

And is also known as "how to out-heart-attack a fried egg yolk."

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Now, you might have noticed that this meatloaf was preceded by a large cheeseburger earlier that day at lunch. And there is a very good reason for that. It begins with that other time that I almost starved to death, during the East Coast blackout of 2003. I had just graduated from law school, and my graduation present from Angel was six weeks at a rented beach house in the Hamptons, at which I would get to be gloriously alone Monday through Friday while he was at work back in the city. One Thursday afternoon I picked up 2 lbs. of ground beef at the grocery, planning to grill a burger or two for myself that evening and have the rest on Friday night when Angel arrived. As soon as I got home, however, I realized that the power was out, along with my cell phone service, and when neither had returned after a few hours, I started to panic. Was I going to have to spend the night here in the pitch dark, alone? I wouldn’t have a stove, or a refrigerator, and all that meat was going to go bad! Most importantly, how long would it be before I’d get to eat again?!? In my ensuing panic, I formed all 2 lbs. of that ground beef into burgers and grilled them up on the gas grill outside. . . and then proceeded to eat every. single. one. of them. Later, through tears of laughter, Angel asked me, “But why didn’t you just grill them and put them in the fridge? They would have stayed cool overnight, and then you’d have had some cooked burgers to reheat on the grill the next day.”

I'll tell you why. Because, in the heat of the moment, it just never occurred to me to ration them out. All I knew was that the power was out and it wasn't coming back on and god only knew when I might get to eat again. And so I ate two pounds of ground beef in one sitting . . . just in case.

Which also explains why I ordered that meatloaf/insurance policy at The Dove.

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For his part, Angel started with the tuna ceviche, followed by the ribeye in a black peppercorn brandy sauce that came with a ridiculously good spinach, oyster, prosciutto, and potato mash. Prosciutto: That's how you get people to eat their vegetables.

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One of the things we noticed about the food at The Dove was that each entree was like its own little tasting menu. So instead of serving, say, a slow-roasted chicken breast with sweet potatoes, The Dove serves a slow-roasted chicken breast with "cinnamon ginger rub / cherry orange glaze / carrot / fennel / apple braised cabbage / sweet potato bacon apple hash / green bean parmesan salad / mustard vinaigrette." Which was just fine with us, though we did worry that this place was going to go bankrupt buying ingredients if it served one more New Zealand rack of lamb with "cocoa chile rub / mint raisin chutney / fennel asparagus ragout / pear pistachio pumpernickel pudding / preserved lemon / red pepper arugula salad / sesame vinaigrette."

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The next day, we ventured up and over the mountain again, this time lured by the promise of a bottle of Sebastian's rum.

You might be wondering why I didn't just take over the driving at that point. I tried to, but Angel's insistence that I stay in my own lane and yield to oncoming drivers and stuff like that took all the fun out of it. I mean, why apply the brakes when you're barrelling down a hill, when you need the momentum to get back up the next one anyway?

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Anyway, Sebastian's may not be the the best rum, or the strongest, or the most famous, but in a world where virtually anything you desire can be ordered online and delivered directly to your door, usually overnight, a rum that can only be purchased in person, and only at Sebastian's, is way too much catnip for spoiled New Yorkers like us to ignore. Plus, we really like it.

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And we love Sebastian's rotis, which are soft and puffy on the outside and filled with tender, white-meat curried chicken, diced potatoes, and carrots on the inside.

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After lunch we took a ride over to Long Bay and Smuggler's Cove, checked out the beach bars, and then headed back to the pool to laze the afternoon away.

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Soon it was time to eat again, so that evening we headed over to Bananakeet.

To watch the sunset.

To take in the panoramic view.

For free shots.

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Take a tip here, Key West. Clapping for the sunset is for amateurs.

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We decided to stick with the fresh seafood at Bananakeet, which included an Asian-accented scallop dish for Angel and the coconut-rum shrimp for me. Both were delicious.

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The next morning, we started the day with a little shopping at Soper's Hole before lunch.

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Soper's Hole, also known as the West End, is home to a full-service marina, customs house, provisioning market, and nearly a dozen charming shops, including Latitude 18, Arawak Surf, and the Pusser's Company Store.

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Of course, my favorite is the one that sells food: Sunny Caribee, a spice shop selling everything from hot sauces and marinades to curries and West Indian hangover cures.

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After snatching up everything in sight, including t-shirts, beach cover-ups, spices, and rum, we headed over to Cruzin's for lunch. I had heard great things about the food here, and we were excited to give this place a try, but I cannot deny that I was secretly somewhat relieved to find that it was closed when we arrived for lunch, seeing as how the surrounding area reminded me of an old episode of "Sanford & Son." In addition, it had begun to rain, so we jumped in the car and headed back over the mountain in hopes of seeing the sun. Lacking a backup plan, we took the easy way out and ended up back at Soper's Hole and Pusser's.

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There, we started with a round of Painkillers served in tin cups to keep them nicely chilled.

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Those were followed by an order of the bang-bang shrimp, and then fish and lobster sandwiches that were as good as you might expect a place that primarily sells rum.

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In short order the sun returned, so we headed back to Peach Cottage, where we lounged in the sun, immersed ourselves in our books, and took refreshing dips in the pool while sipping on frozen pina coladas with lots of fresh nutmeg.

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Angel and I struck a deal: As long as he continued to bring me drinks, I resolved to put my new squirt gun away for the afternoon.

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Marriage, it's all about compromise.
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Posted by TTG 16:57 Archived in British Virgin Islands Comments (5)

The BVIs, Part 5: Please, Sir, I Want Some More

On Sunday evening we decided to relax at the house with some pina coladas before heading out for the evening.

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I'd made reservations for the Elm Beach BBQ that evening, which in island-speak means that I received an email from Steve stating that he'd "let the girls know that you are coming."

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Of course, once we arrived "the girls" had no idea what I was talking about and were loath to seat us since a few large groups were supposedly on their way. But after Lunchless Christmas at Lambert Beach Resort, I was in no mood for another mealtime bait-and-switch. One look at my face must have made it clear that I had no intention of leaving without some ribs, even if one of those large groups had to eat their ribs sitting in their car, because in short order we were seated at a nice, large table right in front of the band.

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Do you remember that scene in "Jurassic Park" when they lower that cow into the velociraptors' paddock using a sling, and after some thrashing about in the bushes, all that's left of the cow is some bones and the shredded sling? That was me and Angel with Elm Beach Bar's fantastic BBQ ribs.

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Soon the Elmtones got going, and everyone made their way out to the dance floor. Some more reluctantly than others.

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Sure, this guy is glaring at me now, but like so many others before him, by the end of the night he will absolutely insist upon taking a blurry photo of me and Angel, while I give him an uneasy smile that pleads, Please don't drop my camera.

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The next day we decided to take a day trip over to Anegada, partly because we didn’t make it there on our last trip to the BVIs, and partly because Anegada is low, flat, scrubby, dotted with salt ponds, and composed of coral and limestone . . . just like our beloved Anguilla. And so we boarded the ferry at the ungodly hour of 6:45 a.m. and set off through the early morning gloom for, um, Aneguilla.

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After a quick stop in Virgin Gorda, the ferry continued on its way, the sun made an appearance, and soon we were docking at Setting Point, the main harbor on Anegada.

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After a quick pit stop, we decided to make the short walk over to Neptune’s for a quick breakfast, not because we were particularly hungry but because we had heard raves about Pam’s cinnamon rolls, and deciding to skip cinnamon rolls because you’re not hungry is like deciding to skip dinner because you ate yesterday.

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Soon the adorable Neptune's came into view, and Angel snagged the last waterfront table while I went inside to choose our cinnamon roll.

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Unfortunately, we must have arrived on off day, because although we could tell that these cinnamon buns are probably delicious when freshly baked, the one we got was clearly a day old. What a waste of 5 lbs. of butter.

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After breakfast we hitched a ride with local taxi driver Jerry, who was friendly and knowledgeable and knew all the best cow-watching spots.

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As we bounced along I worried that Jerry's rickety van might shake apart, held together as it was with seemingly nothing more than spit and glue.

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Literally.

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A short ride later and we found ourselves at Cow Wreck Beach, which on this particular day was so windy that it was all we could do to remain upright, let alone sane from the constant whistling in our ears.

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Look up "classic Caribbean beach bar" in the dictionary and there is undoubtedly a picture of Cow Wreck Beach Bar. Perched at the edge of a stunningly perfect sliver of beach, Cow Wreck features a brightly painted bar decorated with debris from the sea, a couple of good house drinks, a simple menu of grilled seafood, and an assortment of sun-faded Adirondack chairs nestled in the soft, white sand.

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Cow Wreck reportedly got its name when the Rocus, a ship carrying animal skeletons to a bonemeal factory in the U.S., wrecked on one of the many reefs encirling Anegada and the skeletons washed ashore.

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More likely, though, Cow Wreck just refers to the state you'll find yourself in after a couple of the bar's famous Cow Killers, which are made with light rum, dark rum, passion fruit juice, and ginger ale.

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Or whatever else you might feel like throwing in, since Cow Wreck functions as an honor bar at which patrons can simply slip behind the bar, whip up the concoction of their choice in the strength of their choice, and then keep track so they can let the bartender (who also doubles as the waitress, the cow-patty-on-the-beach remover, possibly the cook, and hopefully the hand-washer) know what they had.

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Indeed, these guys felt so at home at Cow Wreck that when they were bothered by some flies while eating at the bar, they headed out to the shed, grabbed a ladder, dragged it over to the bar, and proceeded to hang up a few baggies full of water to keep the flies away. (After all that effort, I didn't have to heart to tell them that a few drops of hot sauce around their plates would have worked just as well.)

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Did I mention that there's also a country club here? This vacation, it really was all about the finer things.

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Angel thinks God loves Painkillers, but I hear he's partial to the Cow Punch.

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Luckily the small dune here protected the restaurant from the incessant wind, and the flies were busy over at the bar, so we enjoyed a peaceful lunch while admiring the view.

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Of course we had to try the Anegada lobster. I stupidly ordered a half-lobster, which was tasty but disappointingly puny, while Angel decided to try the "Anegada-style lobster," which is made by sauteeing lobster meat with onions, peppers, and . . . ketchup. You can go ahead and read that again, but I doubt it is going to sound any more appetizing the second time around. Still, I should have known that anything made with ketchup -- even fresh lobster -- would be delicious, and in fact it was.

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We also had the lobster fritters, which did not contain any discernable lobster but were still good because fried dough.

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After lunch we decided to head over to Loblolly Bay in hopes that it would be less windy.

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It was not, but they did have a lovely assortment of plastic flamingos, and if forced to choose I think we both know that I will pick the kitschy lawn ornaments every time.

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We spent a little time in the water, a little time lounging in the sun, and a lot of time sipping pina coladas.

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And then, because the meat on that half-lobster I had at Cow Wreck could have fit inside a coin purse, and at the rate this trip was going, I couldn't be sure when or if I might ever get another meal, it was time for lunch . . . again.

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Two lunches in one day? Now that's what I call luxury.

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The sixth and final part of our BVI adventure is coming soon! Check back to wrap up our visit with hot dogs, hooch, and one very unfortunate frog.

Posted by TTG 05:19 Archived in British Virgin Islands Comments (5)

The BVIs, Part 6: Of Hot Dogs and Hooch

The next morning we headed over to Cane Garden Bay to check out the Callwood Distillery. Although no one knows exactly how old the distillery is, the stone and brick architecture suggests that the distillery, which uses sugarcane instead of the traditional molasses, dates back to the mid 1700s.

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We've tasted homemade hooch like this before on other islands, and if you have ever taken a sip of turpentine, then you have, too. And so we took the tour for the sole purpose of seeing the place and snapping some photos, and then we got the hell out of there before they could make us drink the stuff.

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Still, you have to respect a place that has its priorities straight.

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We had reservations around noon for the Pimm's Poolside Brunch at Bananakeet, which we expected to have Pimm's Cups and live music, but instead featured a rousing chorus of whooping children.

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We tuned them out with a couple of Bananakeet Bombers, then moved onto an Irie Omelet for Angel and the pesto flatbread for me, which unexpectedly came with pepperoni on top and was therefore almost as nice a surprise as a miniature pink squirt gun.

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After lunch we headed back down to Cane Garden Bay again, this time to visit the Green VI Glass Studio.

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The glass studio is Green VI's first project in the BVIs, which is intended to promote recycling, sustainability, and other environmental issues. The glass studio therefore makes all of its gorgeous, handmade items from recycled beer bottles collected from a local restaurant, and soon it will begin using their leftover cooking oil for power.

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The beer bottles are lovingly transformed by Greg, one of the resident glassblowers at Green VI, into dozens of works of art featuring sea turtles, palm trees, dolphins, and other motifs, all in a kaleidoscope of gorgeous colors that catch the light and sparkle in the sunshine.

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You might think you'd have to be crazy to get anywhere near a glass furnace in the Caribbean heat, but blowing glass in Siberia isn't all that different from blowing glass in the tropics, since the area around the furnace will typically reach 110 °F or so no matter where it's located. (The temperature inside the oven hovers around 2,400 °F.)

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Once the glass is sufficiently heated as to be pliable, the glassblower uses a variety of tools -- paddles, tweezers, shears, molds, and even, terrifyingly, balled-up newspapers -- to achieve the desired size and shape, and then sand can be added to provide depth of color.

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The glassblowing process is truly fascinating, and it would have been even more fun to watch if I could have stopped thinking for even one second about what would happen if that blob of molten glass accidentally plopped onto Greg's bare leg.

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The end result might just be worth it, though.

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The director at Green VI, Charlotte, was a wealth of information, and after I purchased one of Greg's stunning suncatchers for myself -- a dreamy tropical swirl of vibrant green and turquoise -- she kindly gifted me a second one (which I reluctantly gave to my sister, but only after carefully stamping the back with my new stamper in case I changed my mind later).

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Charlotte also explained that the gift bags are made from recycled clothing and fashioned into drawstring bags by a local woman who is 87 years old. Which makes sense, since anyone who gets to be 87 surely has decades' worth of old clothes lying around.

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After the glass, it was time for some gas, grass, or ass.

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At the Bomba Shack, that is.

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Although it looks to be held together with nothing more than spit and glue, the Bomba Shack is actually reported to have sustained only minimal damage during Hurricane Earl in 2010.

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Then again, who could tell?

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Last time we were on Tortola we attended Bomba's infamous and crowded Full Moon Party, where someone offered to sell us some "magic mushrooms" out of their car trunk.

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You know you have had too many Bomba Punches when your problem with that offer is not that those mushrooms could have been poisonous, but that they might not have been all that fresh, seeing as how they'd been sitting around in an airless trunk.

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That evening we had reservations at The Clubhouse on Frenchman's Cay, which we remembered and liked from its days as Oscar's.

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The setting here is lovely and, more importantly, the wine list is so large that it arrives in its own treasure chest.

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I started with the local pork shu mai with a spicy tamarind dipping sauce, while Angel went with the grilled shrimp and black bean gateau layered with cilantro cream cheese and plantains. Nothing says fancy like using a French word in place of the English one, unless that something is real silverware.

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As if all this luxury were not enough, Angel's fresh catch of the day -- local wahoo -- came with actual granola on top. I don't remember what it was made of or why it was there, but you can bet that the only place we saw any granola, savory or otherwise, on our last vacation was at home before we left for the airport.

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I went with the Veal Poelle, which was pan-roasted, topped with a caramelized shallot jus, and accompanied by mashed potatoes that, like my meatloaf earlier this week, were served in a puff pastry crust. You know what doesn't taste better when wrapped in a puff pastry crust? Absolutely nothing.

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I am not much of a dessert person, but one of the Clubhouse's offerings caught my eye: frozen key lime custard, which is really just gussied-up frozen key lime pie guts on a plate, and therefore one of my new favorite desserts of all time. Crust just takes up valuable stomach space, you know.

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The next day we'd arranged to take a day sail on Aristocat, one of the catamarans based in Soper's Hole.

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We'd done a similar trip on the Kuralu on our last visit and enjoyed it immensely, and the Aristocat was shaping up to be even better because their lunch menu includes hot dogs.

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Yes, I know what hot dogs are made of. But when I was a kid, my mom bought me my very own at-home hot dog steamer, an ingenious little contraption that allowed you to gently boil the hot dog and steam the bun into pillowy softness at the same time. Since operation of that machine eventually came to represent the Lifetime Achievement Award in terms of my cooking skills, I have a soft spot for hot dogs, and when the occasion calls for one -- at a ball game, at an amusement park, on a day sail around the BVIs -- I will happily partake in a hot dog or three.

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We had a nice, small group on this sail, consisting mostly of a few older couples, one woman who had clearly never set (a be-wedged) foot on a boat before, and a delightful family of six from Philadelphia. I am embarrassed to admit that I can remember the names of only three members of this family -- well, two, really, since one of them was a junior -- and will refer to them here as the Jeff Family. (The fact that we cannot remember their names has nothing to do with how much we enjoyed their company, and everything to do with how much we enjoy free rum punch.) Then again, they probably remember me as "that girl who wouldn't shut up about the hot dogs," so I guess we're even.

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Soon we got under way, soaking up the sun and the invigorating salt spray.

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Our first stop was at Sandy Spit, a classic desert island paradise about half an acre in size that looks like something out of a movie (and is in fact rumored to be the location of many of the Corona beer commercials).

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As we got closer, the water changed from cobalt to turquoise to green, then back again as clouds swept past the sun.

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We continued to lounge about in the sun and sip our rum punches for a bit, then eventually decided it was time to cool off.

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On our last visit here, Angel and I snorkeled the reef, then swam ashore to take a look around. We'd taken about three steps on dry land before Angel cut his toe open on a sharp piece of coral.

This time around, we were hoping for better luck. And so Angel scuttled down the swim ladder and pulled on his brand-new, never-been-worn "travel" fins . . . at which point the ankle strap promptly snapped off and sank to the bottom of the ocean.

I think that was right around the time that Angel's mood fish burst into flames.

I should add here that the crew on the Aristocat, Gilbo and Emily, are young, good-humored, good-looking, have fabulous British accents and even more fabulous tans, and were willing to go above and beyond the call of duty, which included diving for Angel's missing ankle strap and reattaching it while we were taking a swim. If you are considering a day sail in the BVIs, you couldn't be in better hands.

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Next up, we pulled into a protected area near Diamond Cay to wait out a brief rain shower and do a little more snorkeling.

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Here we spotted a few sea turtles and stingrays, indulged in a few rum punches, and had such an engrossing chat with the Jeff Family that for a minute there, we thought we'd missed lunch. Like I was going to let that happen . . . again.

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Why don't I have any photos of the hot dogs, you ask? Because I don't have three hands, that's why.

Our final stop of the day was at White Bay. Angel was skeptical when I told him I planned to jump off the boat instead of using the swim ladder (I'm known for freak accidents, not feats of daring), but liquid courage is a marvelous thing, so Angel grabbed the camera in order to capture the proof. Knowing I was being photographed, I leapt into the air with what I hoped was uncharacteristic grace . . . but was instead a spot-on imitation of that frog NASA accidentally blew up during a rocket launch a few months back.

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The hour at White Bay passed quickly -- we had just enough time to enjoy a round of Painkillers, walk down to One Love Bar & Grill and catch Reuben Chinnery's last song of the day, and pick up a few CDs, before it was time to swim for the boat . . . with the CDs in hand. Suffice it to say that while Angel is good at many things, swimming against the current with one arm held above his head while everyone on the boat "waves" back at him is not one of them.

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Is there anything better than the end of the day on a boat? Everyone is suntanned, wind-whipped, slightly buzzed, and wrapped up in their fluffy towels, and the gentle rocking motion of the boat lulls everyone into a sleepy haze, smiles lingering on their salty lips as the sun begins to slowly melt into the horizon.

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Or it could have just been all those hot dogs.

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Next up, we're taking an "A to Z" tour of the Hamptons, and then it's ten days of friends, food, wine, and hangovers in northern California. Click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know when it all goes, um, sideways.
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Posted by TTG 06:30 Archived in British Virgin Islands Comments (7)

A Long Weekend in NYC: Sunny With a Chance of Meatballs

New York is the only city in the world where you can get run down on the sidewalk by a pedestrian.
— Russell Baker

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If you've ever been to New York City, you've probably noticed that we're an impatient lot. We walk at a slow jog, we talk like an auctioneer with a bad case of Tourette's, we fold our pizza for maximum eat-on-the-run efficiency, and we expect everybody to get with the program. That Chinese delivery guy better be buzzing our apartment before we've even hung up the phone, and our taxi driver better weave through traffic like a lead-footed drunk wearing a blindfold, while we holler from the backseat, "Yo, I'm kinda in a hurry here!"

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Amid all of this hustle and bustle, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of what possessed us to make New York our home in the first place. Which is why, when out-of-town guests arrive, armed with their to-do lists of landmarks and restaurants and shows, we are reminded that we live in one of the greatest cites in the world. We recall why we moved here and why we are now completely unsuited to ever live anywhere else.

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When company comes, we actually get a chance to stop and smell the roses. Or, you know, the garbage. Whatever.

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And for this particular visit, we weren't hosting just any houseguests. We were hosting a tiny, tattooed terror otherwise known as my sister Trina, and her boyfriend Scott, a brave soul who agreed to fly to NYC to meet a couple of strangers and spend two nights on a sofabed in the middle of their living room in a masochistic mash-up of Airbnb and "Meet the Parents."

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Adding to the excitement of squeezing four adults into an apartment the size of a Port-a-Potty was the fact that a Nor'easter decided that this would be the perfect weekend to blow into town and blow all of our outdoor plans to smithereens. But Trina, who with good reason refers to herself the Good Weather Fairy, wasn't the least bit worried. When, at the last minute, the forecast changed from three days of chilly temps and pouring rain to three days of warm, glorious sunshine, Trina took all the credit, explaining, "I just put Mother Nature in a headlock and stuck my fingers in her nostrils." Oh.

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Trina and Scott left me in charge of our agenda, which is a lot like leaving a monkey in charge of all the bananas. And so our weekend began, as so many of my weekends do, with a food tour. None of us were particularly interested in an organized tour -- we dislike being on other people's schedules almost as much as we dislike other people -- so I made up one of my own, with double the carbs, triple the fat, and quadruple the calories of a typical organized tour, minus those annoying admonitions about pacing yourself.

With approximately 500 eclectic restaurants in an area that would fit easily inside Central Park, Greenwich Village was the perfect place for us to begin.

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Abandoning the formal grid structure that defines the city north of 14th Street, Greenwich Village is a mish-mash of narrow streets made for meandering, and the area's low-rise buildings allow more sunshine to reach the street.

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We began our tour at Joe's Pizza, a Village institution that many famous people have said they would choose for their last meal on earth. Sure, the pizza at Joe's is pretty good, but if your last meal fails to include things like bacon, cheeseburgers, and bacon cheeseburgers, you obviously need to spend more time watching "Locked Up Abroad" and planning ahead.

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Next up, we made a stop at Grom, a gelato shop based in Turin, Italy, and renowned for its rich, creamy gelato and refreshing granita, which is a coarse, Italian-style slushie.

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You can make granita at home, of course, but I can tell you from experience that nailing the exact consistency between "water" and "frozen block of ice" requires a degree of scientific skill that could probably be put to better use doing something useful, like curing cancer or cooking meth, instead of hacking away at an ice floe with the tines of a fork.

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Next, we made a few quick stops for cheese, pasta, bacon brittle, and cookies that were bigger than Trina's head. Then again, even regular-sized cookies are bigger than her head.

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Then it was on to Bantam Bagels, which, like taco shells made out of Doritos and cronuts, are one of those things that I really wish I'd thought of first.

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Bantams are round, donut-hole-style mini bagels stuffed with whatever you'd normally spread on top, in creative flavors like the Cinnamonster (cinnamon-raisin bagels filled with sweet walnut cream cheese), the Bleecker Street (a pizza-dough bagel topped with a thin slice of pepperoni and filled with marinara mozzarella cream cheese), and the Hangover (a cheddar cheese and egg bagel filled with bacon cheddar cream cheese and a drizzle of maple syrup).

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We scarfed down half a dozen, which was a really good idea after pizza, and then lugged our leaden bellies around to take in the sights.

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Some of which were more unusual than others.

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Along the way we encountered a number of homeowners ready for Halloween . . . or just desperate to keep nosy tourists off their property.

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These jack o'lanterns are so wildly creative that I bet it's no accident that a few of them look just like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."

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Eventually we made our way over to the Meatball Shop, a polpette-y playground of balls, sliders, and heroes, plus Jell-O shots, ice cream sandwiches, floats, and fun cocktails.

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The naked balls can be mixed and matched with various sauces and come four-of-one-kind to an order, but luckily there were four of us, so we got to try a little bit of everything, including the classic beef balls with tomato sauce, chicken balls with creamy parmesan sauce, spicy pork balls with mushroom gravy, and the day's special ball and sauce, bratwurst balls paired with beer and cheddar sauce.

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Oh, and a side of rigatoni, a side of Brussels sprouts with chorizo, a round of Jell-O shots, and some cocktails, including a Moscow Mule for Trina that was served in a traditional copper mug. Yeah, that's alot of food, but walking off pizza and bagels takes a lot out of you.

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Which is why we had to order a walnut brownie (or, as Trina called it, a Bronut), and a scoop of heavenly brown-sugar ice cream, for dessert.

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I wasn't sure if the Meatball Shop could live up to all the hype, but the balls were meaty, tender, and delicious, and the sauces were "I could eat this like soup" good. Throw in some interesting cocktails, crazy ice cream flavors, and the fantastically awesome Whiskey Grid -- and magic markers to mark up your menu, so you don't have to talk with your mouth full when it's time to order more stuff -- and you can see why I am petitioning them to let me move my bed in there.

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Post-balls, we spent a little more time walking off the damage, also known as "preparing for more damage to come."

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Eventually we headed back uptown to show Trina and Scott around our neighborhood in midtown, which we like for its mix of towering skyscrapers, historic walk-ups, and charming pocket parks.

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Oh, and this. You didn't really think we picked this neighborhood at random, did you?

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Just as running a marathon leads to vomiting, walking around leads to drinking, and so we ended up at Vero, a small wine bar near our apartment where we could sit outside and enjoy the warm weather.

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A quick nap and change of clothes later, it was time to head downtown for dinner.

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New York City has more Italian restaurants than the Pope has pointy hats, and the more tiny, quaint, and candlelit the spot, the better I like it. And so we made a beeline for Chelsea and one of our regular haunts, Cola's, a postage stamp-sized storefront complete with tiny topiaries, exposed brick walls, a pressed-tin ceiling, and warm, caring service.

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Oh, and a lion's head! Nothing says Italy like la testa de un leone.

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Meals at Cola's begin with crusty Italian bread served with a large dollop of fresh ricotta swimming in extra-virgin olive oil and topped with ribbons of fresh basil, all served gratis. In a town where a bowl of chicken soup can set you back $25, some free ricotta is as close to winning the Lotto as you're likely to get.

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The guys both ordered the homemade pappardelle with wild boar ragu, while I decided on the pork loin with cremini mushrooms, fresh sage, and dry Marsala.

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Trina went all vegetarian on us with the penne topped with eggplant and goat cheese, so no picture for her.

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New Yorkers temperamentally do not crave comfort and convenience — if they did, they would live elsewhere.
— E.B. White

The next morning we headed down to SoHo for brunch at a popular spot called Jane.

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Angel and I used to be regulars here, or at least we were until an ill-fated dinner with friends last year, when the restaurant kept us waiting for over an hour despite a reservation, then seated us near the kitchen at a table for five . . . even though there were six of us. I swore that I'd never return, but the location was good for the rest of the day's plans with Trina and Scott, and what were the chances of yet another hour-long wait?

Pretty good, it turns out, as our wait at the crowded bar dragged on toward 40 minutes . . . despite again having a reservation. At least they had the decency to send over some free homemade donuts with hot chocolate and creme Anglaise dipping sauces this time.

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We soothed our irritation with a round of brunch cocktails -- tart apple-Champagne cocktails and a passionfruit Screwdriver -- plus a Concord-grape margarita, which was insanely delicious. If grape juice had tasted like this when I was a kid, I might not have thrown such a fit about going to church on Sundays.

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Then it was on to the kinds of dishes that keep me coming back to this place despite the abuse: Poached eggs with maple chicken sausage, corn pancakes, and roasted tomato hollandaise for Trina; scrambled eggs with smoked ham, gruyère, and caramelized onions for Angel; the vanilla-bean French toast with crème brûlée batter for Scott; and scrambled eggs with cheddar grits, ham steak, and a flaky buttermilk biscuit for me.

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After lunch, the guys wanted to catch the end of the Steelers-Jets game, so they headed over to Milady's, a knock-'em-back, rack-'em-up dive bar that has somehow managed to survive SoHo's transformation from "starving artist" to "wealthy artiste" with its outer-borough prices still intact.

That left me and Trina free to scour the neighborhood for everything from jewelry and bath products to sweaters and shoes.

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On Prince Street, we saw these guys setting up a piano and a set of drums in the middle of the street while a crowd began to gather.

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Soon they began to play, and the guy on the piano was into it, white-guy-jazz-face and all. As for Trina, she was into poking a little fun at him.

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After that it was time for a little snack, so we stopped at Marie Belle, whose tiny, jewel-like chocolates come in eclectic flavors like dulce de leche, jasmine, caipirinha, saffron, and cardamom.

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Later we stopped in front of a real estate office, where we spotted this apartment with a shoeboxed-sized living room for the bargain price of $22,500 . . . per month.

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Eventually we stumbled upon Novecento, a cute Argentinian bistro on West Broadway. We put our names on the list for one of the four Parisian-style cafe tables fronting the sidewalk, then waited on a bench out front while staring at the people hogging the prime tables in an effort to get them to move along.

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Once seated, we decided to take advantage of the two-for-one Happy Hour deal. We settled on a glass of sangria for Trina and a cachaça-spiked mojito for me, which might have been a good deal if the "one" hadn't cost $14. I mean, you'd think they'd cut the locals some slack, seeing as how they're already shelling out $22,500 a month for their apartments.

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We met the guys back home and then got ready for dinner at Naya, a cool, cleverly designed Lebanese restaurant around the corner from our apartment.

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One of the many reasons we love Naya is because they serve kibbe, which are addictive little fried meatballs fattened up with bulgur wheat, minced onions, and pine nuts.

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I know you are wondering how I manage to live so close to unlimited meatballs and still have time to hold down a full-time job, but it's really not that hard: When my colleagues duck outside for a smoke break, I take a meatball break.

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Angel insists on calling these little Lebanese balls of bliss "kippe," which is what they are called in the Dominican Republic. The day you find yourself arguing over the correct pronounciation of a food that most Americans have never even heard of is the day you become a true New Yorker.

In addition to the kibbe, we ordered shrimp in a spicy red sauce; pita stuffed with minced lamb, onion, and parsley; hummus with ground sirloin and pine nuts; potatoes sauteed with garlic and fresh coriander; falafel with tahini sauce; pickled baby eggplant with walnuts and garlic; Lebanese rice; and muhammara, a spicy red pepper dip with walnuts, pomegranate, molasses, and cumin.

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What was our favorite dish? That’s like asking someone to pick their favorite child. Then again, my parents did, so what the hell. While everything was delicious as usual, one of the dishes Scott chose that we hadn't tried before -- the hummus blended with ground sirloin and pine nuts -- was so good that eventually we dispensed with the pita bread and just spread it directly onto our tongues.

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After dinner we jumped in the car and headed upstate -- a geographic area that New Yorkers understand to encompass everything from the northern Bronx to the Canadian border -- to the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze.

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You might remember that Angel and I visited this flaming free-for-all last year, and we couldn't wait to return this year to share it with Trina and Scott. Bundled into cozy sweaters on a crisp, clear fall evening, we enjoyed the addition of some new displays, dinosaurs, dragons, and Venus fly traps among them . . .

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Along with even more stunning, intricately carved works of art than last time.

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Best of all, none of us managed to accidentally set ourselves on fire. That's two years and counting!

New York is where you can get the best cheap meal and the lousiest expensive meal in the country.
-- Robert C. Weaver

Our last morning was shaping up to be warm and sunny yet again, so we headed down to Alphabet City, an edgy, bohemian enclave in the East Village, to celebrate Columbus' discovery of America . . . with Mexican food.

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El Camion, which means "the bus," serves up inexpensive, authentic Mexican fare and Herradura margaritas in fun flavors like hibiscus, tamarind, ginger (for Trina), and blood orange (for me), along with grilled corn on the cob with chipotle-lime mayo and cotija cheese (for everyone who brought dental floss).

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The restaurant was serving brunch instead of lunch since Monday was a holiday, so Trina went with the organic poached eggs served on a habanero-corn muffin with carnitas and served with a umami-rific chipotle hollandaise, while Scott kept it simple with scrambled eggs and bacon. Angel had the steak & egg dobladas, which were served enchilada style with red rice, black beans, guacamole, and salsa fresca, while I went straight for lunch, settling on the messy-but-delicious Coca-Cola carnitas with onion-cilantro salsa and the aforementioned grilled corn.

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After lunch we wandered around the East Village, soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the funky vibe.

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Of course, this is the East Village, so we did run into some weirdos along the way.

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Soon we found ourselves in Tompkins Square Park. Once a haven for drug dealers and the homeless known as "Needle Park" in the late 80s and early 90s, Tompkins Square has since been cleaned up.

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Today, the park even has a dog run, which is the surest sign of gentrification short of a Starbucks . . . and guys wearing snap shirts.

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Since we were in the neighborhood, I wanted to show Trina one of my favorite wine bars in the city, Il Posto Accanto, and by "show" I of course mean settle in with a bottle of wine (in this case, a Supertuscan from the Maremma region).

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Il Posto holds a special place in my heart because Angel and I spent many hours there while I was studying for the bar exam, sipping wine and running through flash cards. Oh, you're not supposed to study for the bar at a bar? I object.

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We walked a bit more, exhorted at every turn to get drunk, get cozy, or get lost.

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But just when you start to think that New Yorkers are hard-hearted and soulless, a cooing crowd will form around a couple of sparrows happily splashing about in a tiny makeshift birdbath on the sidewalk. Awwww.

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Too soon, it was time to take Trina and Scott back to the airport for their flight home. We said our goodbyes, then sped away toward Hoboken and Leo's Grandevous, a legendary Frank Sinatra hangout and red-sauce pasta joint that has served Hoboken for the last 72 years.

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After all, it had been 24 hours since I'd last had some meatballs.
------------------------------------------------------------------------

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Fall is houseguest season in New York, but we'll be back on the road for a 10-day trip to the British Virgin Islands in December. Can it get any more exciting than boating around the Abacos?
We sure hope not.

Posted by TTG 06:18 Comments (15)

Abaco Ain't For Sissies . . . But We Went Anyway (Part 1)

Abaco. The very name strikes fear into the hearts of sissies everywhere. Abaco, with its snakes and its spiders and its sneaky shallow waters. Abaco, where the men are men and the women are doomed to a lifetime of bad hair days.

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Abaco. A beautiful but terrifying place where water is scarce, electricity is iffy, and ironing boards are nonexistent.

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Indeed, longtime visitors to Abaco are fond of reciting the motto, "Abaco Ain't For Sissies," which is also Understatement of the Year. (Other lesser-known Abaconian mottos include, “Don’t Worry, That Probably Isn’t Poisonous,” and “You Know How to Tie a Tourniquet, Right?”)

In the end, our visit read like the clichéd plot of one of those fish-out-of-water movies: A couple of hard-charging, Type-A city dwellers are dropped into a completely unfamiliar environment -- a dude ranch, an Amish village, the Abaco Islands of the Bahamas -- and hilarity ensues. Laugh as the couple attempts to shower using half a tablespoon of water! Giggle as they chase a spider the size of a dinner plate around with a flimsy flyswatter! Snicker as they wrap their boat’s anchor line around the propeller!

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That's right, we rented a boat. No, we don't know how to operate one. No, it didn't have a GPS or a depth finder or even a fuel gauge. And no, it wasn't a good idea. But we did it anyway, because we don't surf or skydive or rock climb, and death by capsize is much more glamorous anyway.

We'd gotten this cockamamie idea into our skulls after deciding that our usual haunt, Anguilla, had become too crowded for us. See?

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And when honorary Abaconian Vicki H let slip that the Abacos made Anguilla look like Daytona Beach at spring break, we knew what we had to do. After careful research, we decided to stay on Great Guana Cay, an island of less than 200 souls with no hospital, no police station, and no ATMs; where emergencies are called in on a VHF radio and the guy from the dive shop shows up to help . . . or not, if he happens to be out on the reef.

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Given all this, you'd think there'd at least be more than one liquor store, no?

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I'd been reading up on the Abacos on an online forum before we visited, and one sentiment in particular stuck out. The poster wrote: "Abaco really teaches you to make the best of things; I think that's why I love the place so much."

Oh, dear.

Have I mentioned that we're from New York? "Making the best of things" isn't in our vocabulary. We want what we want, exactly when and where and how we want it, and, most importantly, we want someone else to do it for us. (My apartment building employs someone just to open doors for us, for Pete's sake.) What few do-it-yourself skills we do possess are uniquely honed for the urban jungle: We can stare down a would-be taxicab usurper with one steely glance; casually descend into a narrow, crowded tube three stories underground without a second thought; and run the equivalent of an 8-minute mile for the right food truck or sample sale. So we're not complete sissies. . . unless you take away our cell phones, our internet connections, our unlimited supply of hot water, and our gourmet restaurants.

Oh, dear.

Our introduction to what I will henceforth call Operation Outward Bound began in Marsh Harbour, where we arrived for a seven day visit with a mere five pieces of luggage, which is at least 3 fewer than I would pack for a weekend trip to the Hamptons.

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This feat is all the more impressive when you consider that one of those bags contained an iron, a portable ironing board, 8 pairs of sandals, and almost a dozen hair products.

You thought I was kidding, didn't you?

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We headed over to Curly Tails, a breezy spot on the water adjacent to the ferry dock, to grab some lunch and settle into island time. We had about two hours to kill, and Curly Tails took about two hours to prepare our food, so everybody was happy.

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After lunch we checked out the area surrounding the ferry dock, which included a few species with which we were largely unfamiliar, such as octopi, and children.

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As we looked around, we noticed that most people simply left their luggage in a neat pile and went about their business, seemingly unconcerned that someone might try to walk off with it.

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As for our luggage, I made Angel sit on the largest bag, sprawl his arms and legs over the smaller ones, and put on his gangsta face to deter would-be thieves while I took a photo two feet away . . . just in case.

Soon it was time for the ferry to depart. We clambered aboard, slid into puddles of our own sweat, and we were off. Forty minutes later, we arrived on Guana and were greeted by a fleet of golf carts, one of which contained the caretaker for the house we'd rented.

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We had decided to stay on the deserted, hard-to-reach southern end of the island on the theory that if you're going to go all Robinson Crusoe on your vacation, you might as well go all the way. Our first stop, then, was to pick up our big-wheeled golf cart, which we were told would be necessary since the road to the house was a bit rocky. As it turns out, though, that was a little white lie . . . since I'm not sure this qualifies as a road.

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Still, that big-wheeled golf cart was my very favorite part of the trip. I loved bouncing around the "road" in it, hanging on for dear life. I loved gunning it on the paved areas in town. (Sure, its top speed is about 25 miles per hour, but still.) I loved not having to check my rear-view mirror, since it doesn't have one.

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Most of all, I loved that there was no annoying seat belt to wrinkle my dress. Not for nothing did I haul an ironing board all the way to Abaco, people.

For all its charms, however, we quickly learned that a golf cart is less than ideal for transporting water and groceries.

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The house we rented was situated on a small promontory and positioned to take advantage of the cross-breezes. An enormous wraparound deck encircled the entire house, which was open on the ocean side; on the Sea of Abaco side, a screened-in porch afforded a perfect view of Foots Cay. Dining tables, cushy chaise lounges, a BBQ grill, and an outdoor shower completed the spacious outdoor living area.

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The house had received rave reviews online for its interiors, too, with many folks comparing it to a luxury yacht thanks to all of the fine woodwork inside. And it was, if the things you like about yachts are hitting your head on a bulkhead every 30 seconds and a shower that’s only slightly better than having an uncoordinated child chase you around with a squirt gun.

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Oh, how I hated that shower. I hated it more than when you open a pizza box and all the cheese and pepperoni sticks to the lid. I hated it more than when you squirt some ketchup onto your plate and a bunch of that clear liquid oozes out first.

The shower consisted of a fixed shower head conveniently aimed directly at the face of anyone who tried to enter. It also had the unique distinction of emitting a mist of water droplets so fine that you might as well try to wash your face using only the power of humidity. And yet, once you stepped into the shower, you couldn't get away from that mist. It hit you while you tried to shave your armpits. It hit you while you tried to lather your hair. But try to rinse out that lather, and 20 minutes later you're standing there with a head still full of lather and a pair of razor-burned armpits. (Eventually we discovered that we'd been at the bottom of the cistern and no one had switched us over to the full water tank. After four days of showering using bottles of Poland Spring and our own spit, that full tank was the best thing to happen to me since McDonald's brought back the original Shamrock Shake. But I digress.)

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One of the reasons we chose this particular house was because it had a generator and, more importantly, a caretaker to show us how to use it. At home, of course, the city's power lines are buried underground and our high-rise building has an automatic generator and two superintendents, so operating anything more complicated than a hand-held can opener is really outside our comfort zone. Plus, even for the experienced do-it-yourselfer, a generator is a terrifying contraption. What else at your house comes with a 3-page User's Manual and a 100-page "Don't Do This or You Will Set Yourself and Everyone In Your Town On Fire" Manual?

Of course, what we didn't know at the time is that this improvised explosive device/generator actually only conjures up enough juice to power exactly one lamp or one hair dryer, but not both at the same time. (Tip: Pick the hair dryer. All the lamp can do is show you exactly how bad you look without the hair dryer.)

And then there were the house's doors.

A few months ago, the husband of a friend was interviewing for a job in Alabama. They flew down for the interviews and checked out some houses there, many of them quadruple the size of their Manhattan studio. My friend, however, was less than thrilled about the possibility of a move, but not for the reasons you’d think. “I just don’t think I can live in a house,” she began. “There’s just so many . . . ” She trailed off, searching for the right words. But I knew immediately. “Points of entry?” I finished for her. “EXACTLY!” she smiled. “Points of entry! Front doors, back doors, garage doors, basement doors . . .I just can’t do it,” she admitted. I knew exactly what she meant.

You see, although “Law and Order” might have you believe that breaking into a city apartment is as easy as climbing up a fire escape and crawling in through an open window, most city apartments are virtually intruder-proof. First of all, city apartments only have one door, and that door is typically made of steel and outfitted with a Medeco lock or three. And gaining access to that single apartment door requires some Ocean's Eleven-style plotting. At our high-rise, for example, the front door to the building remains open during the day but is locked after midnight. Inside that door is a small vestibule leading to another door, which remains locked at all times, unless the doorman is there. Visitors must be announced by the doorman and approved by the resident before being allowed to enter the elevators, which are outfitted with security cameras. Only then does the would-be burglar have access to the aforementioned triple-locked steel apartment door, and one floor might have dozens of them for him to choose from.

But a house is different. A house is so . . . vulnerable. And a house like the one we’d rented, in the middle of nowhere . . . accessible by a dirt path and surrounded by jungle, in which lurked god only knows who or what . . .

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Our first night in the house, I woke up around 4:30 a.m. and had to pee. But I couldn’t just feel my way around the darkened room or dash across the hallway. Oh, no. On the good old SS Minnow, the bathroom is downstairs. And I really, really didn’t want to go down there alone in the pitch dark. I first tried to wake Angel, but over the years he has learned to differentiate between “Wake up and have some fun with me” and “Wake up and kill this ant for me.” Finally, unable to hold out any longer, I screwed up my courage and amassed some weapons. Armed with a bottle of hairspray and a pair of tweezers, I felt my way down the dark, slippery stairs and even managed to evade all 14 bulkheads. I made it all the way to the ground floor in one piece, only to be confronted with this:

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That’s a lot of points of entry.

Earlier that night we’d set booby traps in front of each of the doors and headed off to dinner at Orchid Bay.

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We settled in at table near the window, and our waitress soon delivered two brightly colored tropical drinks. “Oh, they’re so pretty!” I exclaimed. But before I could even take a sip, she’d snatched them back and returned them to the bar. Thinking she’d brought us the wrong ones, we were delighted when she returned with the same drinks, this time festooned with little matching umbrellas. “Now they’re pretty!” she grinned. I like the way you think, lady.

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The next day was Sunday, and that could only mean one thing: Nippers Pig Roast.

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I'd worn a bikini top and hip-slung beach skirt . . .

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and realized too late that I was way underdressed. Or is it overdressed?

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I hadn't seen that many muscle shirts and lower-back butterfly tattoos since the series finale of Jersey Shore. I knew it was just a matter of time before the Frozen Nippers took hold and people started fist-pumping and stranger-humping, so we made a beeline for the buffet in order to beat a hasty retreat before things got too out of hand.

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Happily, the food at Nippers was fantastic.

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For the first go-round, I loaded my plate with everything on offer.

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For the second go-round, however, I dispensed with the formalities and made up a plate that more accurately reflected the four food groups: Pasta, potatoes, cheese, and mayonnaise.

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Of course, the Bahamian mac & cheese was the best part. Unlike regular mac & cheese that's loose and creamy and held together with béchamel sauce, Bahamian M&C is shaped like a brick and held together with nothing more than melted Cheddar cheese. That might not sound as appetizing as regular M&C, but consider the advantages: You can eat it without silverware. You can stack it to make room for other stuff on your plate. You can put some in your pocket or beach bag for later. I spent the whole rest of the week with a block of mac & cheese bulging out of the pocket of whatever outfit I happened to be wearing.

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The Frozen Nippers, unfortunately, were not our cup of tea. Way too sweet and so brightly colored that I could already picture how my skirt was going to look with a big, red Rorschach stain on it, we quickly switched to Kalik and left the Nippers for those who didn't have to worry about stains, since they weren't wearing any clothes.

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Speaking of being nekkid, our visit to Nippers would mark the first of many times during this trip that someone would ask us if we were on our honeymoon and insist upon taking our picture. (We tried to put on a good show, though admittedly this is about as G-rated as it gets on a Sunday at Nippers.)

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We later noticed that most Abaco visitors travel in large family groups and, as a couple traveling alone, we stuck out like a sore thumb, though you might be forgiven for thinking it was because we looked romantic and lovey-dovey. But trust me: After we got that boat, otherwise known as The Divorcinator, the only romantic notions we were entertaining involved throwing the other one overboard and watching them slowly drift out to sea. Ta-ta!

Later that day we decided to check out the Orchid Bay area and find the "Secret Beach" located near the house.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon at the house exploring the small garden surrounding the property.

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We admired the vibrant tropical flowers. We spied little hermit crabs lounging in the shade. We were fascinated by tiny crab spiders and their delicate, dew-dotted webs.

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Then one of us walked face-first into a gigantic spider web and our attempts at becoming one with nature came to an abrupt and sticky end.

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The next day we awoke bright and early for what in hindsight is referred to as Day 1 of Hell Week. We packed our boat bag/survival kit (sunscreen, water, and a jar of peanut butter), and although I am not usually itching to have my photo taken in a bikini, I had Angel snap a quick photo of me so the Bahamian Coast Guard would know what to look for in the water, should it come to that.

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Jay Sands of Water Ways boat rentals on Man-O-War Cay picked us up at the Guana Hideaways dock and we headed over to Man-O-War to fill out the paperwork. Although we'd planned to play it cool regarding our lack of boating experience, we soon confessed that we’d never really operated a boat before, unless you count one of our friends saying, “Here, hold the wheel for a sec while I pop open this beer.” But Jay wasn't fazed. “Oh, you’ll be fine,” he replied nonchalantly. A beat, and then he spoke again. “You should be fine.” Another beat. “Yeah, fine. Probably.”

Well, between that ringing endorsement and the books I found lying around the house, our confidence was growing by the minute.

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Plus, the boat was called Soleado, which you might think is Spanish, but is actually an old Indian name meaning, "He who is flung from bucking bronco."

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We decided to buy some time and gird our loins check out Man-O-War and get some lunch before making our way back to Guana.

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The Albury family has been building boats on Man-O-War since the 1800s, and it was a real treat to see some of their brightly colored beauties.

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The rest of the settlement was adorable, which is what people always say when they come to New York for the first time, too.

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Oh, and there was cotton! Growing on the side of the road, in the wild!

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Soon it was time for lunch. I was excited to visit the Dock & Dine because I had seen photos of their cheeseburgers online.

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Everyone loves cheeseburgers, of course, but I am somewhat obsessed. Even as a kid, I had cheeseburgers on the brain. Like most kids, I couldn't wait to grow up so I could do whatever I wanted. Despite a world full of possibilities, however, my plans were modest: I was going to run away with Van Halen (the group, not just Eddie); I was going to sleep until noon every day without interruption; I was never, ever going to mow a lawn again; and, most importantly, I was going to eat cheeseburgers every. single. day. of my life.

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That's right: I wanted to grow up to be your teenage son.

Unfortunately, however, these goals (save for the lawn-mowing) have thusfar managed to elude me.

Until Abaco. Dear, sweet, cheeseburger-loving Abaco.

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Damn but that burger was good. But eventually, the eyes that had rolled back in my head with pleasure had returned to their normal position and lunch was over. We had finally run out of delay tactics. It was time to get back on the boat.

Our apprehension stemmed in large part from the fact that we had pictured the Sea of Abaco as a sort of tranquil bay, ringed by islands that were tiny, close together, and easily identifiable.

But what we got was a roiling ocean with just enough shallows to make things interesting; islands so large and yet so far apart that they appeared like shimmering heat mirages on the horizon; and navigation tools consisting of a wet map, a compass, and two landlubbers with bad eyesight.

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Still, part of the reason that I'd rented the boat on Man-O-War was to force us to take the boat out at least once -- back to Guana, where our rental house was. If we chickened out and never took the boat out again after that, fine. But we were going to accomplish as least one solo voyage on this trip, and the hour of reckoning was finally upon us.

I am happy to report that we boarded the boat without falling into the water. We un-docked the boat without killing anyone. We even exited out of the Man-O-War harbor in the opposite direction from how we'd come in (at Jay's suggestion) without getting lost.

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Our confidence was building, so we decided to make a stop at Baker's Bay before docking the boat back at Guana for the evening.

Or, rather, we tried to make a stop at Baker's Bay.

Probably the most challenging aspect of boating in the Abacos for the first time is that every island, every beach, every cove looks exactly the same from the water. We'd picked out a red market umbrella on someone's patio as our marker to the entrance to Guana's harbor, but for Baker's Bay, we had no such markers. So we motored along until we saw a rocky outcropping of land that we surmised must be the northernmost tip of Guana. Terrified of accidentally drifting into the ocean -- we were convinced that allowing the boat's bow to even glance in the direction of the ocean would suddenly short out the motor and pull us into a swirling Vortex of Doom -- we figured that the beach right before the outcropping had to be Baker's Bay . . . didn't it?

It did not.

Still, it was a pretty enough beach, and the water wasn't too deep, so we dropped the anchor and decided to stay awhile.

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Or a long, long, long while, which is how long you will stay when you accidentally ground your boat. I wanted to wait until the tide came in or until Water Ways noticed that we never returned with the boat at the end of the week and came to get us, but Angel decided that he'd just lift us off the sand. We hoisted the anchor (luckily we'd already raised the propeller) and I moved to the front of the boat to lessen the weight on the grounded stern. Angel heaved. He ho'd. (Neither of those is as bad as it sounds.) He was sweating like a stuck pig and grunting like one, too, but inch by inch, the boat began to get some water under it, and finally, eventually, we were free.

The only downside was that Angel set for himself a new level of expectation: If I ever get trapped under our SUV (not as unlikely as you might think given my propensity for freak accidents), I will fully expect him to lift it off of me, quickly, and perhaps even using just one arm.

Wearily we made our way back to the settlement to dock the boat for the night. This would be our first attempt at docking, but how hard could it be? Sure, it was pretty windy, but it's just like parking a car in a parking spot, isn't it?

It is not.

I steered the boat while Angel shouted out commands. I gripped the wheel like it was the last of my size at a shoe sale and shifted the gears. I am not going to go into the gory details here, but suffice it to say that after a lot of screaming and yelling and shifting and steering, everything went sideways.

Literally.

I'd managed to wedge the boat in parallel to the dock, not perpendicular to it, straddling both the slip we were trying to dock in and the adjacent slip. Luckily someone heard our panicked cries, and that someone happened to be Dervin, Jay of Water Ways' brother-in-law. Which was lucky for us, he explained, because otherwise he'd have left us there. At least while he went home to get his camera.

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The next day we decided to try again to find Baker's Bay. No, we weren't trying to prove a point. We were just hungry.

Baker's Bay is a spectacular stretch of white sand framed by crystal-clear water and mangroves. Sadly, however, this area of the island has been taken over by a developer called the Disgraceful Despicable Discovery Land Group, an organization whose mission is to ensure that every last pristine place in the world is razed to make way for one of its hideously outsized luxury communities, which will then be charmingly named after whatever was decimated in order to make room for it.

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However . . . when faced with the Sophie's Choice of contributing in some small way to the Destructive Land Group or stuffing down one more fried grouper/fried chicken/fried conch/fried anything sandwich, well . . . I am ashamed to admit that the Detestable Land Group and its fancy-by-Guana-standards restaurant won out.

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We made our way into the marina at the Baker's Bay resort and found a place to dock. Angel slid the boat in perfectly parallel. That was easy, we thought delightedly. That is, until one of the Baker's Bay employees kindly explained that we'd have to dock over there and use one of the mooring balls instead. We had never used a mooring ball. We had an audience. And I had become so fearful of the reverse gear after our sideways docking experience that I had taken to shifting into neutral and frantically paddling with my hands to move in reverse. And so, like the sissies that we are, we threw up our hands and allowed another BB employee -- this one a teenage girl, from the looks of her -- to board the boat and put us into position.

That's two boardings in two days for those of you keeping track. Sure, a few skills are nice when you go boating, but a complete lack of dignity is absolutely essential.

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It pains me to admit that the Baker's Bay property is gorgeous. And if I didn't know what they had done to the environment to get it that way, I am sure this would be a place that we'd return to again and again.

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For now, though, I just wanted some unfried food and a frozen drink that didn't contain an entire bag of sugar, and the Conch Shack at Baker's Bay delivered on both counts.

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After a frozen banana colada and a delicious cranberry/banana concoction, we moved on to chips and fresh tomato salsa, a BBQ chicken pizza, and the best tacos this side of Mexico.

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After lunch we decided to check out the property and admire their freakishly green lawn before setting off for the beach.

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After a short shade break and a little jewelry shopping at the Market, we boarded the boat and set off again for the northern tip of Guana, to the beach that Vicki H had told us so much about.

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On the way, we decided make a stop at Spoil Bank Cay, which was easily recognizable thanks to the island pines that dot its landscape. It looked lovely from the water, so we made our approach, dropped the anchor, and headed for the shore.

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Apparently the side of the island where we anchored, however, is also the side that gives Spoil Bank its nickname, Shell Island. Which is really being kind, since Spoil Bank Cay is more appropriately nicknamed I Just Got Jabbed in the Foot By Another @#$%& Rock Island. Still, we didn’t really notice the rocks until we were halfway between the boat and the shore, and being the stubborn mule that I am, I refused to head back to the boat until I either made it to the shore or bled to death from the puncture wounds to my feet, whichever came first.

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Finally, after an hour or so of using the soles of our feet as pin cushions, we decided to make one more attempt at finding Baker’s Bay. We brought the boat around toward the ocean side and steeled ourselves for the Vortex. When it didn't materialize, we continued to inch our way around the tip until suddenly, the spectacular beach came into view.

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We were right in the middle of patting ourselves on the back for a job well done when this Jet-Ski went by. With a toddler at the wheel.

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We dropped the anchor, lowered the swim ladder, and enjoyed three blissful hours floating in the clear water and soaking up the brilliant sunshine.

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We splashed in the shallow pools carved out by the rock formations. We delighted in the tiny fish. We cursed that little kid on the Jet-Ski.

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That evening we headed over to Grabbers for a much-deserved sunset dinner.

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The sunset was perfect, the shrimp was fantastic, the pizza was frozen, but so were the drinks, so we'll go ahead and call that a win.

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The next day we decided to visit Elbow Cay. We loaded the boat and checked our fuel gauge: a notched wooden dipstick.

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We figured Elbow Cay would be easy to find due to the lighthouse.

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Oh, you don't see it there on the horizon? You don't even see land? Welcome to our world.

We actually found Elbow without any trouble, and once we got close enough, the lighthouse guided us into the charming harbor.

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We entered the harbor and looked for the public dock. Soon we spotted a sign for it, which also contained an ominous warning:

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We would have to use the stern anchor. For the uninitiated, this means that while one person moves the boat forward towards a head-on collision with the dock, the other person waits until the boat is approximately two boat lengths away from said collision and then drops the anchor. The forward motion sets the anchor; then, a quick shift into reverse prevents the impending crash. Supposedly.

But already it did not look promising: Half a dozen boats of varying sizes were tied to the dock at various angles, their stern anchor lines just daring us to get tangled up in them.

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Plus, as I mentioned above, this was a two-man operation, and only one of us (I will leave you to your own assumptions here) has any common sense and upper body strength and knows right from left. Angel let me pick: I could steer the boat and shift into the dreaded reverse gear as we neared the dock, or I could heave the anchor off the stern once we were the appropriate distance from the dock. I chose the anchor, and at Angel's command I flung it off the stern of the boat with all my might.

And then the engine died.

Angel checked the ignition. He shifted into forward, then reverse. The boat didn't move.

The engine was dead.

Which is how we came to be boarded for the third time in three days, as a kind bystander diagnosed the problems as follows: (1) This boat is being operated by idiots, and (2) One of those idiots has managed to wrap the anchor line around the propeller about a dozen times.

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Obviously it was time for lunch by now and, more importantly, it was time for cocktails. We walked the short distance to the Hope Town Harbour Lodge in search of both.

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We cooled off with a round of frozen drinks while enjoying the view.

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Eventually our food arrived, and along with it a swarm of flies that reminded me of that time that, unbeknownst to us, a raccoon had died in the soffit of our summer cottage, and we didn't find out until about a week later. But the waiter kindly brought us this neat Bunsen burner? Butane lighter? Heated fly remover? and we were able to finish our meal in peace.

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After lunch we had planned to rent a golf cart to explore the island. Our waiter made some calls for us, but when he informed us that there weren't any carts available, we walked around a bit instead, then waited for the local bike shop to open so we could rent a couple of bikes.

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I could already tell from our short walk that it was way too hot to be biking around with the sun burning a hole into my scalp, but I played along for the time being. As it was, the hot sun was already starting to take its toll on me, so Angel found me a shady spot outside the liquor store where I could sit down. It was in uncomfortably close proximity to a large bag full of trash, but those on the verge of heatstroke cannot be choosers.

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While we waited for the bike shop to open, we got to chatting with a woman whose husband was inside the liquor store shooting the breeze with some buddies. We told her that we'd tried to rent a cart but had to settle for bikes instead, and she in turn made an extraordinarily generous offer that would have delighted normal people. But to suspicious, cynical people from New York City, it sounded like an elaborate plan to kidnap us and hold us as sex slaves (as opposed to holding us for ransom, which would be stupid because nobody we know would pay good money to have to see us again): She and her husband were headed home to the south end of the island, and they would be happy to give us a ride and drop us off at one of the beaches. Afterwards, we could just take their cart back to the dock and they'd pick it up later.

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Oh, sure. Just take our cart. What did these two really want, we wondered? Money? Jewelry? Our kidneys? We had no idea, but in New York City, if anyone without a taxi medallion offers to give you a ride, you would do well to smile and then beat feet the hell out of there.

But those suffering from heatstroke cannot be choosers. We could bike around in the broiling sun, or we could hitch a ride with a couple of suspected organ harvesters/sex traffickers and see where the day took us.

We went with the sex traffickers.

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Posted by TTG 05:23 Archived in Bahamas Tagged boat man war o treasure elbow nippers abaco guana cay grabbers Comments (18)

Abaco Ain't For Sissies . . . But We Went Anyway (Part 2)

Back on Elbow Cay, we'd chugged a few beers for courage, then boarded the back of a fancy red golf cart driven by a suspiciously friendly couple named Gigi and Greg, who ostensibly planned to drop us off at the beach, but whom we secretly suspected planned to drop us off at the morgue.

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When they aren't out picking up hitchhikers, Gigi and Greg are real estate agents, and if you have spent any time whatsoever reading this blog, you know that one of my favorite pastimes is to walk or bike around and photograph houses. I love architecture, I love interior design, I love landscaping, and I especially love peeping, so cruising around the cutest island we'd seen thusfar with two people who knew everything there was to know about every house, every plot of land, and every resort on the island was nothing short of a little slice of heaven three days into Hell Week.

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In addition, Greg spent most of his working life as a pilot for Bahamas Air and, even more interestingly, as a test pilot. The test pilot is that crazy SOB who gets in a brand-new plane that no one has ever flown before -- because they're not sure it actually can fly -- and tests it out. The fact that Greg is still alive and living it up in the Bahamas just goes to show you that he is either very, very lucky . . . or very, very quick with the Eject button.

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Our first stop was at what Gigi called Stonehenge, a fantastic rock formation overlooking the wild surf below.

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Next, we stopped at the Abaco Inn for more beer and to take in the view. It was easier to chat here than on the golf cart, and we quickly discovered that if we couldn't actually be Gigi and Greg, then we would have to settle for being their new best friends.

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As we were departing Abaco Inn, Gigi and I both stopped at the exact same moment to admire this woman's cute little anchor-print cover up. "Quick, get a back shot!" Gigi stage-whispered. Best friends, I tell you.

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Next it was off to Tilloo, where we took in the view . . .

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. . . and ogled some of the island's impressive waterfront homes.

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Plus this little guy, which Gigi and I both agreed was preferable to any mansion because it would be easier to clean. Lazy minds think alike.

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But perhaps the most impressive home of all was the one that Gigi and Greg designed and built for themselves a few years back.

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They invited us in, and if we both hadn't had to use the bathroom pretty desperately after downing all those beers, we would never have come inside, because everyone knows that once you accept a ride from a stranger, it's just one small step over the threshold before they are sewing themselves a nice new suit made out of your skin.

We were greeted by their beautiful dog Shadow, he of the stunning eyes and delightfully velvety ears.

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The house was gorgeous, with double-height ceilings, a commanding view over the ocean, and a large backyard pool.

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The eclectic decor included the World's Largest Onion and a plant Greg received from one of his real estate clients, ballad singer Burl Ives. If you can read the rest of this without "Silver and Gold" playing in your head, you have much more control over your subconscious mind than I do.

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(Seriously, though: What's up with that onion?)

Gigi wanted to show me her other pets, so we went outside to the yard and she began calling for them. "Hawkeye! Laverne! Squigmund!" I expected a few cats, or maybe more dogs, but I should have known by now that this afternoon was defying all expectations.

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We got back to the boat later than we'd planned, but spending the afternoon with Gigi and Greg had been so thoroughly enjoyable that we didn't really want it to end. (We of course invited them over to Guana so we could treat them to dinner at the spot of their choosing, to which Greg replied with an emphatic, "Um, no." I guess Guana is the armpit of the Abacos?) Our magical day continued on the boat ride home, where we finally got a tiny glimpse of how wonderful boating in the Sea of Abaco could be.

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That evening we grabbed a quick dinner at Nippers . . .

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. . . then decided to stop at Pirate's Cove for a beer and a glass of wine. Or some semi-chilled Chardonnay in a plastic cup, as the case may be.

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Sure, I knew better than to order wine at a roadside shack. But we'd just come from dinner at a place that looked like my parents' basement circa 1974, for which I'd gotten ready in the dark and without a hair dryer since the power had gone out, and for god's sakes, man, I'm from New York. I had made it five days on an island without 24-7 access to organic smoothies and hot-stone massages and arugula, but enough was enough. If there was any chance, no matter how infinitesimal, of getting a nice glass of wine in a real wine glass, I was going to take it.

I was also not going to give up on that ring toss until I did it.

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I did it!!!

At Pirate's Cove we got to chatting with Ricky Sands and his lovely fiancee Katie, and soon our tales of woe came tumbling out: We can't dock the boat! We can't navigate the boat! We HATE the boat! There is a spider the size of my palm in the Spider Room (formerly known as the Ironing Board Room) and we can't go in there anymore! How do you get your hair so clean? There's a SPARE WATER TANK?!?!? At one point Katie gently suggested that perhaps we should hire a guide -- not necessarily Ricky, just someone who could save us from having to buy Water Ways a new boat at the end of our trip. Angel grabbed onto the idea like it was an actual life preserver, but I steadfastly refused: We'd come down here to go boating, dammit, and we were going to accomplish that goal, even if we died trying.

Or that spider got to us first.

The next day, Thursday, the wind finally died down. We knew this might be our only chance to shoot over to Treasure Cay, so we loaded our emergency peanut butter onto the boat and set off for parts unknown.

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We first headed north, past Spoil Bank Cay and the north end of Guana, and then we spotted two islands. One was Whale Cay, and the other was Treasure Cay. But which one was which? We must have gotten turned around a bit, because we had no idea. After much debate we decided to head for the island that was further away since that route seemed more dangerous; plus, from that distance we couldn't even confirm whether it was land or just some haze on the horizon. This was the lesson Abaco had taught us: Never take the easy way when you can take the difficult, dangerous, or foolhardy way.

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Sometimes a fool's gambit pays off, though, and soon we found ourselves at Treasure Cay. After a little trouble finding the harbor entrance (apparently those poles with the red triangles mean "stay away," not "enter here"), we made our way in. We'd been told that the Treasure Cay resort made guest dockage available for those visiting for lunch, so we entered the marina . . . and were confronted by docks in every direction, dozens of docks, all of them unmarked.

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That's another thing about boating in the Abacos. Nobody tells you where to dock until you've already docked, and then they are happy to point out that you cannot dock there and must dock somewhere else. But perhaps there is some room for compromise here: If the dockmasters would be willing to invest in some signage, we would be willing to stop docking in spots meant for 40-foot yachts.

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We docked smoothly, tied up, grabbed a golf cart, and made a beeline for that day's destination: Treasure Sands.

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Ah, Treasure Sands. It was chi-chi. It was snobby. It was overpriced.

We loved it.

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We luxuriated in the hushed atmosphere devoid of whooping adults and sugar-addled children. We delighted in the cloth napkins and real silverware. We indulged in the best pina coladas we'd had all week. We gazed at the pristine beach and pined for a dip in the sparkling pool.

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We lunched on gazpacho and lobster and fresh fish and more pina coladas, and when a fellow diner saw the glee on our faces and offered to take our picture, we couldn't help but laugh like loons.

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Pampered loons.

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We whiled away the afternoon by alternating between floating in the warm sea and lounging by the refreshing pool.

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When it was time to leave, I dug my nails into that nice, cushy chaise lounge and held on for dear life, but eventually Angel pried me loose and loaded me and my buckets of tears back into the golf cart.

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Hoping to repeat the upscale experience we had at Treasure Sands, that evening we headed over to Grabbers for Italian Night, lured by this boast from their web site: "How about ravioli or veal picatta, of course spaghetti and yes, even pizza....all served with a new selection of fine wines in a real wine glass!" That's right . . . fine wines, in a real wine glass. I was so excited that I got gussied up in one of the sundresses I'd managed to iron before the Spider Room had to be sealed off and scrunched my unruly hair into curls and even put on shoes.

There was no Italian Night. There were no Real Wine Glasses. There was, however, a grouper special topped with a tomato-based sauce and the same pizza that is on the menu all the time, and this is probably what people mean when they say that Abaco teaches you to make the best of things.

On our way over to Grabbers, we'd stopped in the settlement to take some pictures of the sunset over the harbor.

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I walked out onto the dock, holding my camera and the lens cap and my little tiki purse, which is three things, while I have only two hands and zero coordination. Which explains how the lens cap ended up slipping out of my hand and landing exactly between the wooden slats of the dock and plopping into the water below.

"This is not how I wanted to learn to play water polo," Angel muttered as I handed him a long wooden stick studded with rusty nails that I found lying about and cheered him on as he slowly pushed the lens cap toward the shore.

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Lens cap back in hand, we drove the short distance over to Grabbers for "Italian Night" and settled in with a couple of drinks, served in plastic cups. Abaco: Teaching spoiled brats everywhere to make the best of things.

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We were nearing the end of the week, and I still hadn't had a proper lobster tail, so I decided to get one at Grabbers. That turned out to be the best decision I'd made all week. The broiled lobster was tender, juicy, and caramelized on the top thanks to having been run through the kitchen's Salamander, and the butter was browned and laced with lemon or crack or whatever.

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It was so good I even ate the shell. Kidding!

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Angel ordered the coconut-fried lobster, and although fried trumps broiled in almost all instances, I think we both agreed that broiled was the way to go, if only just this once.

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Our meal ended, as so many do, with a bout of thumb-wrestling over who would get "the point" on this decadent piece of key lime pie.

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The next morning we stopped in the settlement on the way to the dock to do a little shopping and take in some of the sights.

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The cute little dog in the photo above chased and barked at every golf cart that went by. The first time he chased our cart, I didn't see him at first, and he scared the bejeezus of me when suddenly there was a chihuahua trying to attach itself to my arm. Which normally wouldn't be so scary, except for that time a few summers ago when I was at a fancy gelato shop in the Hamptons and bent down to pet a little chihuahua and he suddenly went nuts and tried to bite my thumb off. "Oh, did you pet him?" his owner asked nonchalantly as I tried to stanch the bleeding with my gelato cone. "He doesn't really like that." Oh, really? Because I don't like having my thumb amputated by a dog who's dressed better than I am. (For the record, Cujo was wearing a Burberry jacket that probably cost more than that tetanus shot I needed afterwards.)

After a quick stop at the drug store, I went ahead and maxed out my credit card at a beachy little shop called Gone Conchin'. I figured that if the Abacos ended up being the death of me, I'd never have to pay the bill.

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We'd decided to head back to Treasure Cay so we could spend the day at our new favorite place, Treasure Sands, and so we could have at least one trip to an island where we didn't stop in the middle of the ocean, consult the map, throw up our hands, and flip a coin. We docked easily without any incidents and headed over to the cart rental to get the day under way.

Alas, no carts were available, but the beach at Treasure Cay Resort beckoned, as did the mile-high banana coladas at the CoCo Beach Bar.

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As we approached the restaurant, I noticed this sign.

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Now, perhaps they meant to say "anybody," and not "any body." Still, wouldn't you love to be in charge of determining exactly which bodies are undesirable? "Excuse me, sir, but you and your beer belly will have to imbibe elsewhere." "I don't care how much you paid for those boobs, ma'am, we still can't let you in." "I'm sorry, sir, but that much hair is offensive . . . and unsanitary."

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Feeling pretty good that we hadn't been turned away by the Physique Police, we snagged two chairs and an umbrella on the beach, ordered another round of drinks, and luxuriated in the sun until it was time for lunch.

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A chef's salad, some grouper fingers, and a fish sammie later . . .

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And it was back to the beach for some soak time, followed by a walk over to Windward Point.

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You know how Moses spent 40 years wandering in the desert? That was the walk over to Windward Point.

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The sand along that never-ending stretch of beach was exactly like the quicksand in that old episode of "Gilligan's Island": No matter how close to or far from the water's edge we walked, it sucked us in with a sickening thuuuup and refused to let go. Every step was agony: I'd put my foot down, the sand would ooze up from in between my toes, and then I'd sink ever downward into the grainy abyss until I could barely see my knees. Trying to remove the lower portion of my leg from that sand was like trying to remove your foot from a pair of Wellies: You just know that if you pull too hard, you'll end up knocking your front teeth out with your own knee. And so we slogged on like that for 26.2 miles . . . uphill, both ways.

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Forty years later we made it back to Treasure Cay resort, at which point I collapsed in the sand like those people who decide to climb Mount Everest, realize halfway up that it was a bad idea, and then lay down in the snow to die.

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Indeed, that walk took so long that by the time we made it back to our beach chairs, it was just about time to head to the dock and depart for Guana. It was good timing, too, as a large rain cloud was forming on the horizon, and by now we already knew that if it was going to settle over any one particular boat and then swallow it whole, it would be ours.

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We ran the boat faster than we'd ever dared before, successfully outrunning the storm and arriving safely back on Guana. Our last full day on the boat had come to an end with us still alive and the boat’s hull still intact, so we decided to celebrate with a bottle of wine before leaving the boat for the night. Angel popped the cork and poured us each a glass, and we made a heartfelt toast to the guy who invented life jackets.

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And we couldn’t help but shake our heads and laugh as the first rumble of thunder rocked the boat and the rain swept in, dripping down through the Bimini top and plopping into our wine glasses.

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The storm didn't last long, so that evening we headed out for one last dinner, back over at Baker's Bay. We figured that if you're going to single-handedly destroy an entire ecosystem, the least you could do is provide the hypocrites who come by for dinner with real wine glasses and cloth napkins and candlelight.

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Then again, maybe it was wrong to expect too much from a restaurant housed in a deli.

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Still, the food was good, and they did put these fancy sauce swirls on our plates. Real plates.

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Afterwards, I savored the long, bumpy ride back to the house, knowing that it would be our last.

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On our last morning, I awoke earlier than usual and decided to take a quick ride over to Secret Beach to catch the sunrise.

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As I took my last mist-shower back at the house, I allowed my mind to drift to the simple pleasures of the Abacos that we'd come to enjoy over the past week: bumping along the rocky road in our little cart, gazing at the dozens of shades of turquoise water in every direction, marveling at a night sky blanketed with more stars than I ever dreamed existed.

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But like a pet chimpanzee who seems all friendly at first, then suddenly goes berserk and rips your face off, those lovely last two days were just Abaco lulling us into a false sense of security, while it was actually gearing up for its big "I Told You This Place Ain't For Sissies" Grand Finale. We still had to depart from Guana, make a stop at Man-O-War, and head over to the airport on Marsh Harbour, and if you're already thinking that 3 islands + 2 les incompetents + 1 boat = an infinite number of chances for things to go wrong, then I think you are adequately prepared for Part 3.

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Posted by TTG 06:27 Archived in Bahamas Comments (8)

Abaco Ain't For Sissies . . . But We Went Anyway (Part 3)

On our last day, we awoke early and pinched ourselves: Yes! We'd survived an entire week, and by the end of the day, we'd be home. We gathered up our belongings like the house was on fire, left skid marks returning the golf cart, and bolted over to the boat for one final voyage, as visions of hot showers and hoity-toity wine bars and kale on demand danced in our heads.

The plan was to return the boat to Water Ways on Man-O-War Cay, grab some lunch there, and then meet up with Jay back at Water Ways so he could take us over to Marsh Harbour to catch our flight. We'd heard rumblings that Saturday would be windier and choppier than the two previous days, but we'd already been through windy conditions earlier in the week, so we weren't too worried. That morning Angel listened to the Cruisers Net for the last time. "It's a beautiful day in the Abacos!" the announcer chirped. "Seas are doable."

Ah, yes, "doable." Allow me to explain, in hindsight, what doable actually means. Doable means, "Don your wet suit if you have one; fashion one out of a large trash bag if you don't." Doable means, "Do not go out there in anything smaller than a cruise ship if you want to live." Ever seen one of those skydiving videos where the guy's parachute malfunctions and he lands in a tree? That would be "doable," too . . . if the tree were a large cactus.

Still, we said we'd return the boat, and if we hadn't chickened out after docking the boat sideways, or grounding it, or wrapping the anchor line around the prop, or getting lost for the nth time in it, we certainly weren't going to do so now.

Plus, earlier in the week we'd come across this fantastic Bobber Tree, where you can leave a dream or wish on the tree in hopes that it will come true.

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I am pretty sure that mine was the only one that read, "I wish that I could get off this island without capsizing my boat, contracting malaria, being bitten by a(nother) chihuahua, requiring a syringe full of anti-venom, or ending up on an Abaconian milk carton."

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I threw on a bikini and coverup and urged Angel to wear his swim trunks, but he was loath to wear them on the plane and instead wore his usual cargo shorts, which he likes for travel because they have lots of pockets for travel documents. And now you're thinking, "Oh, I see where this is going. I bet their passports and planet tickets get all wet!" And while that might be the punch line on a normal vacation, need I remind you that this is Abaco? Worrying about your passport in the Abacos is like worrying about your nice white pants getting dirty during a bullfight.

The boat was already rocking back and forth like a carnival ride when we boarded it. We tied the bow line around ourselves to keep us in the boat, said a quick prayer to the patron saint of castaways, and set off for Man-O-War.

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We were maybe five minutes outside of Guana's harbor when the first wave hit. A splash the size of the one Shamu makes when he hits the water sprayed up and doused us both right in the face. (Admittedly, it was better than any shower I'd had thusfar, but the timing was a little off.) Then another wave hit, and another, and another . . . one roughly every 30 seconds -- or until I'd just wiped my sunglasses off again -- all the way to Man-O-War.

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We arrived looking like a couple of Cuban refugees whose life raft deflated halfway across the Florida Straits. My hair was soaking wet. My coverup was soaking wet. My bathing suit underneath was soaking wet . . . as were Angel's boxer shorts under his cargo shorts. Mascara ran down my face and smeared the inside of my sunglasses. My lips were swelled up like two overfed slugs from all the salt water.

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And all of this might have been fine, relatively speaking . . . if we hadn't been headed to the airport.

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Knowing that the flights home would be unbearable if we had to sit in a freezing plane wearing wet clothing, we asked Jay at Water Ways if we were taking Soleado back to Marsh Harbour, or if perhaps a bigger boat (read: container ship) would be available. No, the 18.5-footer was it, he explained, and taking the ferry to Marsh Harbour instead would mean that we might not make it to the airport in time for our flight. We headed off to lunch to weigh our options: Another drenching ride on the boat, or a ferry ride that might result in us being stranded in the Abacos one more night -- something that neither of us felt confident we would survive.

We oozed into the Dock & Dine, ordered up two cheeseburgers, and tried to decide what to do.

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In the end, however, the decision was made for us. As we dug into those heavenly burgers, suddenly Angel looked to the sky. His face contorted into that look I knew from back home as, "Whaddya mean, you're out of bagels???" but that in Abaco I'd come to recognize as his "I can only stretch this much further between the dock and the boat before I fall overboard" face.

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I turned and was confronted with a black cloud so large and so dark that for a minute I thought it was a plague of locusts. Which at this point would not even have surprised me.

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Within minutes the cloud descended and all hell broke loose: Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, the power went out, and a deluge of Biblical proportions soaked everything in its path in mere seconds.

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I had tried to "make the best of things." I had tried to roll with the punches. But this? This was the final straw. Sitting there in the sticky, airless incubator created when Dock & Dine battened down the clear vinyl curtains, I knew that I couldn't get back on that little boat.

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I mean, getting drenched again was one thing, but being struck by lightning for good measure was just too much. I had to draw the line somewhere with these Abacos, and apparently that line was death.

We quickly paid the check, then Angel ran back to Water Ways through the torrential downpour to pick up our luggage and inform Jay that Abaco ain't for sissies, and that's why we would be taking the next ferry back to Marsh Harbour. We weren't even worried about the close timing, since surely the flight would be delayed thanks to the weather . . . wouldn't it?

It would not.

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But first, we had to get to the airport. I had waited under the overhang near the Dock & Dine while Angel made a run for the luggage, and through the sheets of rain I spotted the Albury ferry, docked right outside. I couldn't believe my luck! The captain disembarked and I called to him through the downpour. Worried that he might lose patience if I didn't explain myself quickly enough, the words came tumbling out in a psychotic jumble: We go on ferry! Husband running, many luggages! Piso mojado! Thunder! Big waves! Wet undies! Help!

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"Sure, you can get on this ferry," the captain said. "But this isn't where we board. The boarding dock is over there." He pointed, but it was raining so hard that I couldn't see the end of his arm. "I'm just here for lunch." He must have seen my salt-swollen lower lip start to tremble then, because he quickly added, "But you can board here if you'd like."

God bless you, kind sir. If you had made me slog through the downpour with all of my bags to the other dock, I might have had to stab you.

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Just then, Angel returned, but without our many luggages. He was panting and probably sweating, too, but I couldn't tell because he looked like he'd just jumped into a swimming pool fully clothed. (I did not even bother to point out that he'd ignored my earlier suggestion about wearing his swim trunks, and maybe that was why he'd already been soaked to the bone three times today -- and it was barely noon.) He quickly explained that Jay had radioed ahead to the ferry and would be bringing our luggage over by boat.

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Meanwhile, Jay's wife Samantha pre-paid for our ferry tickets, then called ahead to her father over in Marsh Harbour to await us at the ferry dock and shuttle us over to the airport. Jay and Samantha Sands of Water Ways, you are not sissies. You are not afraid of waves or lightning or Old Testament-style floods or tough New Yorkers being reduced to blubbering piles of wet mush. You went so far above and beyond good service that I don't even know how to thank you. You two are my heroes.

Finally, our clothes clinging to us like wet rags, we hauled ourselves onto the ferry.

Have you ever seen those black & white photos of the poor families who lived through the misery of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s? Completely beaten down by the awesome and destructive power of nature, they stare blankly into the camera, their eyes deadened, their mouths drawn in a tight line across their weary faces.

We could relate.

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Once on the ferry, I immediately collapsed onto the vinyl bench with an audible squish, but Angel remained standing, contemplatively eyeing the life jackets lining the ceiling.

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Finally he spoke. "Well, at the rate this day is going, maybe we should just put these on now and avoid the rush?"

Little did we know that he wasn't far off.

We arrived at the airport, checked in, and decided that just this once it would be okay to go out in public un-ironed, since wrinkly is better than soaked, at least on an airplane.

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And so, after changing clothes and fixing myself up in the vestibule of the men's room (don't ask), there was nothing to do but wait for them to announce over the loudspeaker that our flight would be delayed thanks to the electrical storm raging outside.

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Of course, that announcement never came. I'd like to think it was because the Marsh Harbour airport doesn't even have a loudspeaker, but we both know that isn't why. The reason was Abaco. You think we're afraid of a little lightning storm? it mocked. Girl, please.

We'd just begun our ascent into the clouds in a plane that seated maybe 25 people when I looked out my window and saw a jagged bolt of lightning stretching from a roiling black cloud all the way to the ground. Terrified, I looked away, only to be treated to an identical sight out the window on the other side of the aisle. The turbulent air jostled the plane like a toy.

And then it began to lose altitude.

I flew up out of my seat like it was that first steep dip on a roller coaster. The overhead compartments sprang open and luggage spilled into the aisle. People began to scream; others cried or prayed. The woman across from us somehow managed to retrieve a pill bottle from her purse, but her hands -- and the plane -- were shaking so badly that she couldn't aim the pill at her mouth. (I was hoping it might go airborne and land in my mouth, but no such luck.) The flight attendant, her eyes round as saucers, crouched in the aisle trying to reassure the most petrified among us as the plane continued to plummet, while I kissed Angel good-bye, assumed the crash position, cursed Vicki H one last time, and thanked god that at least my last meal had been a cheeseburger.

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Obviously, and thankfully, we didn't crash. But when your plane repeatedly loses altitude in a lightning storm, the number of years shaved off your life due to sheer terror means that you will be dead sooner than you thought anyway.

Which is why the first thing I did when we got to the airport was scarf down two more cheeseburgers, just in case.

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Of course, we were relieved to have landed at all, even though we didn't actually find out where we'd landed -- Palm Beach? Fort Lauderdale? corn field? -- until we entered the airport. But there was no denying that that flight -- indeed, our entire trip to the Abacos -- had really shown us what we were made of.

Fine. We are sissies. We surrender. You win this round, Abaco. You win.

But someday, when our hearts stop pounding and our legs stop shaking, we'll be back for more.
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The Abacos were great doable, but man cannot live on adrenaline alone. Subscribe here to come along with us to the Hamptons this summer, where the food will be fancy, the drinks will be fruity, and the water pressure darn well better be fire-hosey.

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Posted by TTG 05:57 Archived in Bahamas Tagged abaco guana Comments (16)

A Weekend in Philly: This Little Piggy Went to Market, Pt. 1

Philadelphia is my kind of town. Just across the river from New Jersey and only 75 minutes from New York City, Philly is the defiant middle child of the mid-Atlantic. Keenly aware that it'll never be as dazzling and fast-paced as its older sibling, nor as tanned and tattooed as its younger one, Philly just shrugs its shoulders and barks in its inimitable accent, "Eh, who needs 'em? We got hoagies big as beach balls here!"

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Indeed, Philadelphia is renowned for its doughy delectables, most notably soft pretzels, hoagies, pork rolls, tomato pies, and cheese steaks, also known collectively in some circles as "Tracey's Christmas List." In recent years, however, Philadelphia has expanded its culinary repertoire to include the likes of Jose Garces, an Iron Chef and James Beard Award winner who presides over a mini-empire of eight Philadelphia restaurants, and Marc Vetri, whose namesake eatery was called "probably the best Italian restaurant in America" by no less than Bon Appetit magazine.

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You smell what I'm cookin', right?

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But first things first. Angel and I decided to take the train down, partly because it was faster than driving, and partly because the idea of a taking a train trip together sounded old-fashioned and romantic.

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And it might have been, if we hadn't accidentally ended up in two seats that faced backwards for the duration of the ride, and if somebody hadn't decided that it would be a good idea to bring their three-year-old onto the quiet car. Still, I'm happy to report that after asking for the 800th time, "Mommy, is that a bridge?" the kid finally fell asleep. Either that or she drugged him to keep the other passengers from flinging him off said bridge.

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We decided to stay in the heart of Center City for easy access to all the neighborhoods we planned to visit. Angel, who went to school in Philadelphia and hadn't been back since, tried to warn me that the area was pretty rough around the edges, and that some of the other neighborhoods we'd be venturing into were even grittier. But a lot has changed since dinosaurs roamed the earth, and Angel was as pleasantly surprised as I was to find the city safe, clean, and welcoming.

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And full of public art interesting enough to make you wonder if the pot is better in Philly than elsewhere.

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Our first stop was the Reading Terminal Market, also known as The Happiest Place on Earth. Founded in 1892 and featuring more than 80 vendors spread over 1.7 acres of gastonomic paradise, the market is an enormous Willy Wonka-style wonderland, with Italian hoagies and cheese steaks standing in for lickable wallpaper and Everlasting Gobstoppers. Who needs a river of chocolate when there are deli cases overflowing with bacon?

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I knew as soon as I saw this sign that I was among my people: Cheese steaks and fries for breakfast!

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Also, a lunch called the Train Wreck? It's like they knew I was coming.

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The epicurean delights at Reading Terminal Market aren't just limited to bacon, of course. There's everything from peppermint daisies and pork rolls to peach cobbler and Peking duck.

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And lest you think there aren't any chi-chi gourmet foods here, not only can you find Gadzooks ice cream, but Gadzooks Blanc. It doesn't get much fancier than that, oui?

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Plus you can get ramps without getting into a fistfight, which isn't always true in New York.

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And some more interesting delicacies, like jujubes and angel dust.

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If that doesn't interest you, perhaps rainbow-hued veggies, eggs, donuts, or cream cheese might.

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Or this, Lemon Delight, which I am still kicking myself for not ordering, because who in their right mind passes up a plateful of lemon meringue pie guts???

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This is a deliciously sticky-looking accumulation of pastry glaze and some crullers? bear claws? blintzes? I have no idea. They could cover tree limbs in this glaze and I'd gnaw my way through 'em.

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Just when I thought my heart might burst from a clogged artery happiness, I spied case upon case of burgers, salami, pepperoni, and cheese. Sweet Baby Jesus.

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Not to mention oil, vinegar, spices, olives, and my new favorite cookbook.

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This is the Valley Shepherd Creamery, where I learned that apparently I have been making grilled cheese sandwiches completely wrong all these years.

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I had suspected that the sheer volume of food would be overwhelming, and of course it was, so I was glad that I'd decided to pick and choose what we'd eat ahead of time, lest it turn into a sharks-at-feeding-time type frenzy. We decided to start with the tomato pie at By George.

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Oh, how I love thee, sweet, tangy, crunchy Tomato Pie. Indeed, I was thisclose to ordering an entire pie for myself and skipping our other scheduled stops, but pound cake and pork rolls beckoned. And so it was on to Termini Bros. for their raspberry pound cake.

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Unfortunately the pound cake was more like a dense birthday cake, and there wasn't as much raspberry goo as I'd hoped for. I knew I should have held out for the Cozumel I saw near the market entrance.

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With our appetizers out of the way, we decided to explore the market a bit to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of what had quickly surpassed "any place that serves cheeseburgers" as my new favorite spot on the planet.

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Soon it was time for the main course: The famous pork roll at DiNic's. Originally opened in 1918 as a South Philly butcher shop run by Gaetano Nicolosi, today DiNic's is run by one of Gaetano's sons, Tommy, and his cousin Franky DiClaudio, resulting in the blended name.

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The orders come in fast and furious, but DiNic's employees take their time to make each sandwich perfect.

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And it was: juicy pork, bitter greens, and soft bread. And a fork, in case for when things got messy.

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Because we hadn't eaten enough carbs yet, our next stop was a soft, buttery, salty pretzel at Miller's Twist. With cheese, for some protein.

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Finally, having spent nearly three hours in the market, we started to make our way toward the exit. And I almost made it out . . . until I saw the raspberry ice cream.

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It was truly heartbreaking to not be able to eat every. single. thing. in the market during our visit, and even more heartbreaking to have run out of time to return on a subsequent day. Obviously I have a plan for next time, however, and without giving away all the details, let's just say that it involves some rented warehouse space with a walk-in freezer and a refrigerated 18-wheeler.

You might think that we were stuffed to the gills after all this, and you would be right. But the same law of physics which states that no matter how full you are, the smell of movie-theater popcorn will still make your mouth water, also applies to the holy grail of fast-food fried chicken: Chick-fil-A.

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Now, I know that refusing to patronize a Chick-fil-A has become something of a political statement lately. And although Angel and I are both staunchly opposed to Chick-fil-A's particular viewpoint and should have voted with our feet, we instead voted with our taste buds and settled in with an 8-pack of crispy, juicy chicken nuggets and this new Tracey-sized ketchup packet.

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Hypocritical? Yes. But when the chicken is this good, the Chick-fil-A people could be clubbing baby seals in their spare time and I'd still be forced to look the other way. At least I don't buy Nike sneakers made with child la . . . oh, wait. I guess I really am going to hell.

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The day was sunny and warm, so we took a leisurely walk over to Rittenhouse Square Park.

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The park is a great place to practice your art, whether that's cello-playing, guitar-strumming, or goat-racing.

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This is my new building. Or, rather, it will be, just as soon as the world's factory workers stop hogging all the winning lottery tickets.

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After relaxing on a bench and taking in the sunshine, we explored the surrounding neighborhood.

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Oh, and made a list of all the restaurants we'd need to visit next time.

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If the Reading Terminal Market and Chick-fil-A and the gorgeous homes near Rittenhouse Square weren't reason enough for me to consider a move to Philly, our restaurant experiences certainly were. That's because here in New York City, you get so used to dinner and drinks being a gigantic hassle that you just assume that every other city is like that, too. Everything from enjoying a margarita after work on a warm, sunny Friday afternoon (along with 5,000 of a your closest friends) to snagging a table outside for an al fresco dinner (after a wait of upwards of an hour or two) to the old "wait at the bar even though you have a reservation" trick (during which you are jostled and bumped for the next 45 minutes while dropping 50 bucks on drinks waiting for the table that you already reserved) is so commonplace here that when all of these irritations failed to materialize in Philly, we thought we'd died and gone to heaven. Or at least to one of the 8,359,246 places less annoying than New York.

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Case in point: Around 5:30pm that afternoon, we decided to walk over to Tinto, chef Jose Garces' Basque-style wine bar that earns consistently rave reviews. As we strolled in the warm sunshine, it suddenly hit me: It's Friday afternoon. It's gorgeous out. This place is popular. Translation: We're not getting anywhere near it.

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But this is Philadelphia, not the Big Hassle, er, Apple. Right in to Tinto we sailed, with seats to spare at the bar and huge front windows flung open to let in the warm breeze. This is why they call Philadelphia the City of Brotherly Love, I thought dreamily, as absolutely no one elbowed me in the ribs or shoved their way past me. Ahhhh.

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Already high on amor fraternal, I nevertheless settled on one of the stronger drinks on the menu, the Mairritze, made with cachaça, muddled mint, lime, and blood orange, while Angel went with the non-traditional house red sangria with Applejack and a hint of spicy-sweet guindilla peppers.

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Afterwards we decided to check out the buildings Angel had lived in when he was a student. Based on his descriptions over the years, I was kicking myself for not bringing my bulletproof vest, but both buildings were perfectly lovely.

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As was the surrounding neighborhood. And to think he lured me in with that "starving artist" line of b.s.

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By this time it had been about an hour since my last cocktail, so we beat feet back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner.

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That night we had reservations at Amis, one of the restaurants owned by Marc Vetri, whose first Philadelphia restaurant, Vetri, was hailed as one of America's 50 best restaurants by Gourmet magazine.

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But we chose one of his newer spots, Amis, instead of Vetri for two reasons: bruschetta with whipped fava beans, spring peas, and pecorino, and Sal's old-school meatballs. Which were the first two things we ordered, right after two glasses of Prosecco and some fried cauliflower with still more pecorino and a spicy, creamy tomato sauce.

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For my entree, I decided to try the cacio e pepe, a simple peasant dish made by combining hot pasta with butter, Parmigiano-Reggiano, cracked black pepper, and some starchy pasta water to thicken it. How anyone, even a professional chef, manages to make this dish without it becoming a watery mess of floating cheese is beyond me, but I guess that's why my oven is used to store books, not cook food.

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For his part, Angel went with the Beast of the Night, duck, which for the entree choice was made into a thick ragu over whole wheat rigatoni.

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After we'd eaten everything put in front of us save for a few uncracked peppercorns at the bottom of my dish, our waiter correctly surmised that we wouldn't be interested in dessert, and suggested that we split a final glass of wine instead. More alcohol, you say? It was the perfect end to a perfect night.

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We still have two more days left, and they're filled with food, wine, cocktails . . . and the occasional corn dog. Click here to read Part 2!

Posted by TTG 04:42 Comments (8)

A Weekend in Philly: This Little Piggy Went to Market, Pt. 2

The next day we awoke bright and early, ready for the piece de Whizistance of our visit: a Cheese Steak Throwdown. We decided to walk from Center City down to South Street to build up an appetite and see the sights along the way. We started at the small pocket park near Reading Terminal Market, then made our way down to Washington Square Park in the historic area.

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This is the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier memorial, which honors the thousands of soldiers who died during the American Revolution, many of whom were buried in mass graves in this very park. The unattributed quote along the top reads, "Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness." Thank you, anonymous quote writer, for making me sob in public.

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Angel had warned me that the South Street area was somewhat gritty, and it was . . . but in the same way that a 1973 Lincoln Continental is both cool and pimpy at the same time.

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Old Italian man + horse's heads = only the greatest movie ever made.

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Our first stop for the Throwdown was Jim's Steaks, which opened in 1939 at its original location in West Philadelphia, where it still operates. Jim's gets its bread from Amoroso's, which has been around since 1904 and survived the Great Depression by making home deliveries twice a day. You'd think that would have been one of the first luxuries to go during the Depression, but I can't fault anyone who would rather give up cable TV than good bread.

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Angel got in line to order, while I went upstairs to stake out some seats.

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After waiting about 15 minutes or so, one of Jim's employees told me that I wasn't allowed to reserve a table -- I'd have to wait until I actually had my food to sit down. As I stalled for time by calling Angel to see if he'd made it to the front of the line yet, the couple seated at the table next to mine offered to let me sit with them. "Just pretend you're friends with us!" they urged, and I gratefully took them up on the offer. What I didn't realize is that they'd turn out to be exactly the kind of people I'd love to be friends with: Paul, who's originally from New Zealand, has spent the last 30 years as the executive director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a huge, Tony award-winning company with more than 500 members. Newly retired, he is often called upon to teach and give talks regarding theater, and his wife Cathy comes along for the ride, exploring the area and making pit stops for cheese steaks along the way. I know: tough life.

Finally, Angel appeared with our cheese steaks, and we dug right in. We'd ordered the classic cheese steak "wit Whiz" but decided to forego the sauteed onions on this first go-round, which was fortuitous since nobody, including Cathy and Paul, wants to be friends with an onion-breathed blogger.

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Our verdict? Jim's cheese steak was salty (a plus in my book), pillowy, with lots of Cheez Whiz and fantastic bread. The meat, however, was content to let the bread and Whiz do all the heavy lifting, seeing as how it clearly hadn't been seasoned in any way. Overall a pretty good cheese steak, and I finished every bite, but the steak itself was something of a letdown. (This picture lies, I tell you.)

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After parting ways with our new friends (but not before making plans to meet up in Oregon one of these days), we decided to try a newcomer on the steak scene, Steaks on South, which won a local news contest for Best Cheese Steak in Philadelphia. SOS, as it's called, took longer to grill our order than Jim's, and was pricier, both of which might explain why there was no line when we arrived.

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The steak, however, should have had folks lining up around the block and happily waiting as long as it takes: It was fantastic. Peppery and garlicky and juicy, I could have eaten it all by itself. And I almost had to, since SOS is pretty stingy with the Whiz. Still, the steak here was so good that it definitely made up for the so-so bread and Whiz-hoarding.

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By now we were two cheese steaks in, so it was time to walk around for a bit to gear up for Round 3. You can cue the "Rocky" music here.

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Have I mentioned that Philly is my kind of town?

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Round 3 was at Ishkabibble's, a place I chose more for its fun-to-say name than for anything I'd heard about its cheese steaks, which I guess tells you everything you need to know.

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As Vanity looked on, we ordered two non-traditional steaks, with provolone and sauteed onions for Angel and mozzarella and pizza sauce for me.

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But who could tell the difference? Mine and Angel's tasted nearly identical -- the meat wasn't seasoned, the sauce wasn't seasoned, and the bread was too doughy. In fact, I didn't even finish mine, and before you chalk that up to having eaten two other cheese steaks only an hour earlier, you will recall that I ate a slice of tomato pie, a hunk of pound cake, a pork sandwich, a soft pretzel with cheese, and raspberry ice cream for lunch the day before . . . and then went out for some fried chicken afterwards. Sure, I have a tapeworm, but that doesn't mean I'll eat just anything. Well, I mean, I will, but I might not finish it. I mean . . . hey, look! Cute kids!

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So, which one was the winner of our Cheese Steak Throwdown, Spring 2013 Edition? That would be the Frankensteak, which, if it existed, would consist of the pillowy Amoroso rolls from Jim's, the generous slather of Whiz from Jim's, the perfectly seasoned meat from Steaks on South, and the hole-in-the-wall atmosphere of Ishkabibble's. (If you know of someone already serving these Frankensteaks, please let me know in the comments, since a Fall 2013 Rematch is already in the works. And remember, I simply won't abide any stinginess with the cheese.)

That afternoon we decided to take in the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, which stretched about ten blocks down Broad Street and featured the theme, "If You Had a Time Machine..." If I had a time machine, I'd go back and skip that pizza steak to make room for meatballs and fried cheese curds.

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Oh well. I did find some room for a foot-long corn dog.

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Luckily after that I was able to lie down for a bit, in one of these cute little insta-parks that had been set down in the middle of the street.

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Unfortunately we didn't actually see any art at the art fair, but we did see dinosaurs, the DeLorean from "Back to the Future," these cool stilt/horse things that require way more coordination than I was born with, and much more.

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And some really scary stuff, too, like Ferris wheels and The Bravest Mother in the World.

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After the street fair it was time for a glass of wine, so we headed back over to the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood to check out two cute French places I'd spied the day before, Rouge and Parc. Both were both pretty crowded, however, and since we'd thusfar managed to spend almost two full days without wanting to Taser anyone -- score another one for Philly! -- we headed over to Cicheterria 19, a quiet Venetian wine bar and restaurant that just happened to have a table for two right in the second-floor window overlooking the street and the Parisian-style bakery across the way.

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At C19 I discovered my new favorite drink, the Rossini, which is fresh strawberries, sugar, Prosecco, and impossible to put down.

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Angel started with a glass of Cabernet, then moved on to the gorgeous Catching Fire cocktail, a spicy-sweet mix of jalapeno-infused tequila, passion fruit, fresh lime, and orange liqueur, finished with a vibrant purple hibiscus salt rim. Though it wasn't my cup of tea, Angel thought it was one of the most interesting -- and delicious -- cocktails he'd had in a while.

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After two cocktails apiece, it was time to order some munchies, so we went with this tasty platter of cannellini bean hummus with smoked paprika, rosemary flatbread, and veggies, along with some bread grilled with olive oil.

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For those keeping track, that's 3 cheese steaks, a corn dog, two Rossinis, a bread bowl, and some hummus. I had to save room for dinner, you know.

On our way over to C19, we'd passed these people hanging out on the sidewalk on a random Sunday afternoon chatting and sipping Champagne.

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You can do that in New York, too, of course. While playing a fun guessing game called, "Which Citation Will the Cops Issue First?"

That night's reservation was at Amada, where we planned to enjoy a light meal of tapas and wine.

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We started off with this gratis little plate of garlic crisps and a dip made from tuna, oil, and capers, which was salty and crunchy and therefore addictive.

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Next up, baked goat cheese in romesco (delicious, though how could it not be?), patatas bravas (cute but sadly tasteless), and wild mushroom rice with English peas and manchego (two words: English peas).

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That was followed by baby artichokes with parmesan, which were salty and sharp and delicious, and lamb meatballs with shaved manchego, which were so tender and juicy and flavorful that we nearly came to blows over who'd get the last one. (I won, of course.)

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It was a warm night and the French doors had been flung open, and these seats in the gravel pit completed the indoor-outdoor vibe.

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After dinner we weren't quite ready to call it a night, and the soaring windows of Del Frisco's, housed in the 1920s-era First Pennsylvania Bank building on Chestnut Street, had caught my eye earlier in the day, so we popped in for a nightcap.

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Once seated at the expansive bar, Angel decided on a delicious-sounding cocktail made with blackberries and bourbon. I'd actually wanted that one, too, but Tracey + bourbon = laughing hyena, so I stuck to the basics with a pomegranate martini.

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We had barely begun sipping our drinks when we looked around and realized that the after-dinner crowd at Del Frisco's leaned toward what I like to call halfway-hookers: Girls that aren't exactly hookers, but aren't exactly . . . not. Feeling downright Amish in my skinny jeans, heels, silk halter, and real boobs, we quickly downed our cocktails and headed back to our room. Which we'd rented by the night, not the hour. Ahem.

Sunday morning means Sunday brunch, and where better to brunch . . . than at a martini bar?

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And so we took a leisurely walk down to the Continental Restaurant & Martini Bar, a retro-hip spot in Old City where we could enjoy my kind of breakfast: mac & cheese and martinis.

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As soon as we sat down, I spied a waitress bearing a tray of candy-colored strawberry-watermelon sorbets in mini Champagne glasses. "Ooooh! So pretty! Cute glasses! Must have!" I thought to myself. I immediately began scanning the menu so I could order some, but before I could, the waitress came by . . . and dropped them off at my table! For ME! For free! This E.S.P. thing is really working out.

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Post-sorbet, I decided to go with the "Saturday Morning Cartoon" starring banana-infused gold rum and Lucky Charms horchata, a milky libation made from rice (in Mexico) or tigernuts (in Spain) and served over ice as a refresher in those hot climates. Obviously anything made with Lucky Charms (and rum) is magically delicious, and this was no exception.

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For his part, Angel went with the Market Street Mocha, which was made with double espresso vodka, chocolate milk, and this cute little chocolate candy "swizzle stick" that we fought over like it was the wishbone from a Thanksgiving turkey.

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The food menu was equally inventive, but I had already made plans to snarf up an entire tomato pie before I left town that evening, so we decided to order a few small plates to tide us over. After some intense horse-trading, we went with the cheese steak eggrolls with Sriracha ketchup, the lobster mac n’ cheese with orzo, gruyère, and fontina cheese, and the Korean BBQ pork tacos made with Berkshire Farms pork and pickled cucumbers. Giddy up!

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Of course one should repent after spending a boozy Sunday morning at a martini bar instead of church, so off we went to Sunday School.

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Sunday School at Tria Cafe consists of a featured, not-so-common wine, beer, and cheese every Sunday at a discounted price. Naturally we figured it would be mobbed, but were pleasantly surprised when an outdoor table opened up within minutes of our arrival . . . and we were the only ones waiting. I know this doesn't sound like your typical miracle, but the Lord works in mysterious ways.

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On this particular Sunday, Angel and I lucked out with the featured wine being a Rosé Txakolina from the Basque region of Spain, which was enticingly described as "springtime in a glass." And it was: The Txakolina (pronounced "choc-o-lina") was dry, fresh, fruity, and crisp, and I immediately noticed what turned out to be its trademark fizzy taste (though it contains no bubbles).

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It paired beautifully with that Sunday's cheese, a Podda Classico from Sardinia, which is similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano but differs from the classic parm in that it's made from a blend of cow and sheep milk (parm is all cow), giving it a rich, creamy, almost toffee-like flavor.
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After the Rosé Txakolina disappeared with alarming speed, I moved on to the white Txakolina for comparison's sake. The white was very similar to its pink cousin, with the same fizz and mineral, almost salty flavor, but minus the strawberry and watermelon notes of the rosé. Either way, I've found my new "sip by the pool" wines for this summer.

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After a few hours of wine-tasting, cheese-nibbling, and outfit-critiquing of the various passers-by, it was time for some tomato pie. We decided to take the scenic route. We started in this beautiful little park in Society Hill . . .

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Then looped back to the area near the Continental Martini Bar.

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The more we wandered around, the more tiny alleyways and historic homes I fell in love with.

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Nearby Independence Park is the pillar of the neighborhood.

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Finally, it was time for Tomato Pie. I was hoping for some thick Sicilian-style T.P. like By George's, but a quick scan of online reviews all pointed to Gianfranco's, and as luck would have it, it was just a short walk away.

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Sure, this place is pretty fancy, but was the tomato pie any good? Judge for yourself:

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Of course, we finished it. I'd sooner leave a man behind than a slice of pizza.

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Before long it was time to retrieve our luggage and head over to the train station for the short ride home. Once on the train, we settled into our (forward-facing) seats and pulled out our reading material, but as the train began to chug along, I found that I just couldn't focus on my book. Instead, I spent half the train ride reflecting on what a fantastic weekend full of great food, inventive drinks, and perfect weather it had been.

And the other half researching that refrigerated truck rental for next time.

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Next up, we're exploring the Abacos by boat. So what if neither of us knows how to operate one? Subscribe here and you'll be the first to know whether the adage, "If you don't know the knot, tie a lot," holds any, um, water.

Posted by TTG 04:40 Comments (8)

The Key West Food & Wine Fest 2013: This One's a Real Corker

So, you might remember our last trip to the Key West Food & Wine Festival, at which I almost poked my eye out with a long stick and set my own eyebrows on fire, agreed to mud-wrestle my friend Donna for the last of some coconut vodka, tried to strangle Angel over a wine-filled cheesecake pop, and forgave him only after he brought home the coveted Silver Platinum Coconut at Coconut Bowling.

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I am happy to report that this time around I behaved myself much better. Chugging Champagne straight from the bottle while dressed like a naughty Marie Antoinette doesn't count, does it?

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Photos courtesy of KWFWF/Sheel Photography

Our first order of business upon arrival was to visit the festival's Hospitality Suite to pick up our VIP passes. Our friend Mark, the wine-swilling Svengali who runs the Key West Food & Wine Festival, had read my write-up of the KWFWF last year, in which I called him a sick $%@# and a liver-loathing genius, and then inexplicably proceeded to invite me back this year to once again blog about it. Which just goes to show you: He really is a sick %$#@.

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I already knew it was going to be a good festival when I spotted this classy chicken-pooping-an-egg wine in the hospitality suite. So what if it was 11 a.m.? Mark's friend Deborah, a volunteer at the festival, poured me a generous glass and didn't even blink, and that's when I knew we'd be friends for life.

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Plus, I later learned that the fabulous Deborah went to the University of Pittsburgh, and if yinz can't bond over chipped ham n'at, yinz can always bond over the Stillers.

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That evening we set off for the Barefoot Beach Party, where people dig their toes in the sand, sip fantastic wines, nibble on tasty snacks, and laugh, Dr. Evil-style, at those suckers back home suffering through single-digit temperatures.

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There I ran into Qmitch, the outrageous star of 801 Bourbon's Drag Queen Bingo. A few years ago I did a "Key West Top Ten list" blog post, and Drag Queen Bingo of course made the list. Qmitch then left a comment on the blog that read, "I'm Number Two!!" However, because I am what people pityingly call "book smart," it took me forever to realize that he was referring to being #2 on the list and not just to suffering from low self-esteem. Don't worry, Qmitch: Anyone who can rock a Chiquita Bananalily hat like you is #1 in my book.

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Indeed, elaborate headgear was de rigueur at this shindig, and I sure wish I'd have known that ahead of time. God knows I'm not above duct-taping a pineapple to my head for the sake of fashion.

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This year's beach party featured a slew of different wines, a roast beast carving station, and some lady making what I thought were mini crab cakes, but turned out to be tuna sliders. I don't mind the old switcheroo if you replace my cheeseburger with a double cheeseburger, but fooling me into a eating a tuna slider by shaping it like a mini crab cake is just . . . fishy.

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Indeed, everywhere you turned, someone was offering food or wine or bendy straws.

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When we weren't eating, we were drinking, and when we weren't drinking . . . well, whatever. Let's just say that in between sips, we managed to chat with friends Donna, Greg, Claudia, Alden, and some guy who slyly inquired as to the whereabouts of my red super-straw. I'll bet he says that to all the girls.

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As soon as the sun went down, it was time to board the trolley for our Wine Around the Neighborhood Stroll. This guy was filling wine glasses as we waited for everyone to board, a move that could go a long way toward making the subways bearable if adopted here in NYC. I'd recommend serving a wine called something other than "New Age," though, to avoid getting stabbed.

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This year our group voted to do the "Quieter Side of Duval" stroll, which I knew right away was a mistake since nobody in our group is ever quiet about anything. We started at Croissants de France, where we were served a little skewer of lemongrass beef paired with a Lichine Le Coq Rouge from France, which I believe translates to There's a Red Chicken in my Pool, n'est pas?

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I'm not sure what has so frightened Angel and Greg, but whatever it is . . .

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It's probably under the table (though Greg is clearly skeptical). Maybe Angel's skewer fell on the floor? Maybe I'm already under there scrounging around for scraps?

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Our next stop was Le Petit Paris, a cute new cafe that served us a plump, perfectly cooked black pepper and lavender dusted sea scallop, which was paired with Napa's Caymus Conundrum. The only conundrum here, however, was how to stuff a half-dozen more scallops into my purse without arousing suspicion.

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Next up, nine one five, where we were herded upstairs to Point Five, the restaurant's charming wine bar.

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Unfortunately the bottleneck at this spot meant that we were left waiting right in front of the open kitchen, where this guy cruelly prepared pizzas and homemade potato chips right in front of me.

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I guess he didn't realize that I carry my own Freeloader Fork.

After a few minutes spent sampling the Justin Sauvignon Blanc from Paso Robles, it was time to move on to Blackfin Bistro. Blackfin is notable for being the only restaurant on the Stroll that actually allowed us inside: The rest learned from last year that it's best to keep the drunken hordes far away from the paying customers.

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At Blackfin we sampled a conch cake with dijon remoulade and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, then moved on to Better Than Sex for the, er, climax of our evening: The Popcorn Pimp.

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Better Than Sex described the Popcorn Pimp as follows: "This cheesecake manages to expose itself freely while allured to rest on top of a sweet sugar cookie dough crust. His velvet creamy filling remains protected with a robe of soft caramel and eventually gets dressed smartly with a white chocolate bark poked with salted popcorn, and a dark chocolate dribble!" No, none of that makes any sense, but I'll still have what she's having.

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As the stroll was winding down, a few of us were still hungry and began making plans to get some dinner. Part-time Key Westers Stephanie and Ari have a townhouse not far from the last stop on the stroll, so they invited us to continue our revelry there with more wine and some food delivery. Yes, invited. Though by the end of the night it was clear why I usually have to crash house parties rather than wait for an invitation.

But first things first. We arrived, and were greeted by this:

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You know it's going to be a good night when someone's kitchen counter is strewn with half-empty wine bottles as soon as you walk in the door.

Once we'd all settled in with some wine, it was time to order food. Stephanie suggested we order from The Flaming Buoy, a well-regarded seafood restaurant nearby, and everyone agreed . . . except me. Isn't it common knowledge that that after a long night of drinking, the body requires pizza and Death Dogs, not tuna ceviche and grilled shrimp? It's like they were trying to give me a hangover.

After much haggling, we decided on three large pizzas -- one for me, and two for everyone else to share.

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I ordered my usual with pepperoni and extra sauce, and as I was scarfing it down . . . plop. A blob of sauce landed right on poor Stephanie's couch.

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When you are as clumsy as I am, however, you become pretty good at on-the-go stain removal, emergency toe repair, and the like, and you understand that time is of the essence. I therefore immediately shifted into crisis mode.

"Quick!" I hollered to Stephanie. "Get me a Tide stick, stat!"
"Oh, we don't have one," she replied casually.
"No Tide?!? Ok, how about some Shout?"
"Nope, no Shout, either," she said, reclining on the couch like there wasn't a dime-sized orange stain on it, beginning to set.
"For god's sake, man, don't you people eat around here?!?" I asked, incredulous.
"Of course we eat," Stephanie replied, "We just don't wear it."

Oh. Well. I guess we know which one of us is the Tasmanian devil in this scenario.

"I do have some hydrogen peroxide, though," Stephanie finally offered, seemingly unconcerned that her household's lack of stain removers was costing us valuable time.
"But that's bleach!" I responded, horrified. "You can't put that on your couch!"
"Wait, peroxide is bleach?" she asked.

Really? I'm the only one who ever turned her entire head orange with a bottle of Sun-In back in the 80s? I'm no Bill Nye, but you don't soon forget the active ingredient that turned your hair from "sun-kissed blonde" to "carrot-tinged tangerine" in the space of one ill-fated summer afternoon.

I am happy to report that we were able to eradicate the stain with some homemade club soda, saving me from having to buy a brand-new couch and earning Stephanie the coveted title of Most Nonchalant About Stains. Me, I'm Most Likely to Obsess Over and Finally Burn Said Couch.

Besides Stephanie's admirable laissez-faire attitude toward Scotchguard, the other reason to visit is her adorable puppy, Babka, who is sweet and soft and snuggly and unfortunately did not fit in my purse. Must've been all those scallops in there.

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The next day we were scheduled to attend one of the festival's many seminars, Tacos and Tequila, at Agave 308. Last year's seminar was a little heavy on the talking and light on the eating, but I knew this one would be more interesting, since everything is more interesting after a few shots of tequila.

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We started with a silver, or "pure" tequila, then moved on to the "reposado" (rested) and "anejo" (aged) tequilas, an order which also describes how you will feel as the tasting progresses. Luckily we stopped before they could get to the "muerto."

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Heck, for a while I even thought that lovely cannibis sculpture behind the bar was actually changing colors, but that was just the tequila talking.

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The tasting ended with a roasted pork taco with spicy slaw. That's right, just one.

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It was delicious, to be sure, but I don't know what kind of stunt these Key West people are trying to pull here. I repeat: A single taco, a small bowl of tuna ceviche, or a skewer of grilled shrimp are simply not acceptable apres-drinking foods. The bread-to-cheese ratio is way too low, and the lack of grease is downright appalling.

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Afterwards we caught up with two new local friends, Sue and Jack, at Agave's bar, where I sampled the fantastic Paloma de la Fresa, a sweet-tart cocktail made with strawberry-infused tequila, agave, strawberries, and fresh grapefruit, and Angel was the lucky recipient of a serious over-pour. Sure, tequila can make you love almost anything, but Agave 308 doesn't need much help.

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A mere two hours and one pepperoni pizza later . . .

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. . . and we were off to the highlight of the festival, the "Bottles and Busts" Grand Tasting at the Mallory Square Sculpture Garden.

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You might remember that last year's Grand Tasting was held at the Key West Aquarium, where the temperature hovered somewhere around Turkish Baths. This year's outdoor tasting was much more comfortable, though a little harder to navigate since the wine vendors were scattered about the sculpture garden, instead of lined up all in a row like they'd been at the aquarium. No matter: I just kept visiting my same three favorites while pretending to be disoriented.

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Toward the end of the tasting two guys sidled up to me and Donna and began chatting us up. Without missing a beat, Donna stuck out her hand and said, "Hi, I'm Diane." Diane, eh? "And I'm Trina," I added. Later we clarified that that's Dianne with two Ns, which is much more exotic. And fitting for a woman who works at a strip club and hangs out with the likes of Trina.

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I know what this looks like, and it's terrible. Who wastes good wine on a dog??

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Just kidding! Of course no animals were harmed at the Grand Tasting. Dimples, however, were brutally violated.

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After two hours of tequila tasting and two more hours of wine guzzling, you might think that we'd finally head back to our hotel, and indeed we did. Where else could we change into our Marie Antoinette attire for the "Let Them Eat Cake" masquerade party?

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Now, the Let Them Eat Cake party was probably originally intended to be elegant: There was a delightful assortment of miniature cupcakes and petit fours, fluted glasses of Champagne, charmingly mismatched silver forks engraved with the words "Eat Cake," and a DJ playing subdued music in one corner.

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This, of course, would not do.

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With Mark's blessing, I grabbed a bottle of Champagne and began filling friends' and strangers' empty, and not-so-empty, glasses, adopting a "one glug for you, two glugs for me policy" that left me and everyone else covered in Champagne, and later found me fluffing up this nice woman's tulle at every opportunity, accepting an invitation to arm-wrestle the policewoman in the purple wig, and flapping my poufy Victorian sleeves on the dance floor like an injured seagull. Not for nothing was this time period called the Reign of Terror, people.

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Also at the Let Them Eat Cake party, I finally had the pleasure of meeting in person an online friend from Tennessee, the fabulous Vicki H, who, like me, blogs about her traveling and eating adventures and, unlike me, is a proper Southern lady whose ears were likely scandalized a dozen times over by me and Dirty Dianne (two Ns). Vicki is also to be commended for donning a costume -- and a tres magnifique one at that -- when no one else in her party did. Let them eat . . . their hearts out.

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Not counting the slutty costumes and Champagne-chugging and tulle-fluffing and arm wrestling, the most interesting thing at the cake party was apparently . . . Angel. Despite numerous trips to NYC's famous costume stores and a significant outlay of cash, we'd still had a hard time nailing down the appropriate period menswear, leaving Angel dressed less like a member of Marie Antoinette's court and more like an artist/mime (look it up, millennials), decked out in a pair of my knee-highs and a fur-trimmed beret.

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Photo courtesy of KWFWF/Sheel Photography

Still, once he got to shaking his ascot, women started crawling out of the woodwork to bump and grind with the Count de Cayo Hueso. Indeed, at one point someone noticed that a very well-endowed woman was gyrating against dancing with my husband out there on the dance floor, and wasn't I upset? Of course not. That's as close as the poor guy's gonna get to some big ta-tas, having married the honorary president of the IBTC.

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After I'd gone through about a half-dozen bottles of Champagne and Angel had gone through about a half-dozen dance partners, we decided to head home . . . to Grand Vin Wine Bar. Donna and Greg do live there, you know.

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There we discussed a very urgent matter: Where could I get a cheeseburger at this hour? When the consensus was that Denny's was probably the only place still open, I realized that as much I love Key West, l will obviously never be able to live in a town where I can't get a decent burger after midnight.

Luckily, however, I had some provisions back at the hotel. These were supposed to be for breakfast, but an emergency is an emergency.

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The next day we were scheduled to go Coconut Bowling so Angel could try to win me the coveted Golden Coconut, but hurling coconuts at plastic pineapples when you feel like hurling yourself is never a good idea, so instead we headed over to Sunset Pier for a quick lunch before Duval Uncorked got under way that afternoon.

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There we had some conch fritters, followed by grilled mahi-mahi for Angel and a grilled chicken Caesar salad for me. Naturally the grilled stuff cancels out the fried stuff.

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Over lunch we perused the photos I'd taken thusfar, and realized that Dianne and Trina's antics had apparently set tongues wagging all over town.

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At 3:30 sharp our group of ten -- me, Angel, Donna, and Greg, plus New Jersey friends Mike and Ann and Tennessee friends Vicki, Matt, Teresa, and John -- gathered at the foot of Duval Street to begin our mile-long wine wandering. Keeping this many people together and on track while they imbibe at almost 40 stops might seem almost as impossible as finding a decent midnight snack in this town, but Greg, our epicurean Drill Sergeant from last year, was promoted to Colonel (Un)Corked, and fearlessly led the way.

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Duval Uncorked started off the way all good parties do, with a couple of hippies and some food wrapped in bacon.

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Next it was on to Cork & Stogie, where we sampled some wine and checked out their wares.

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Then we made a beeline for Key West Cakes' miniature cupcakes. Sadly, they weren't as pretty as last year's peacock-hued extravaganza, but at least that made it easier to gobble them up without feeling bad.

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Our next stop was the Green Pineapple, where the Stoned Crab brought their namesake stone crab bisque. This stuff was so good that Angel got the munchies afterward. Me, I always have the munchies.

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In short order we made our way across the street to the Rum Bar at the Speakeasy Inn, where we took a break from the wine with some Painkillers.

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Because we'd only had bacon, cupcakes, and Painkillers so far, it was obviously time for some chocolate cake and key lime pies over at the Key West Key Lime Pie Co.

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Then it was on to Grand Vin for more wine and a group photo.

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Following Cabernet-and-Champagne sorbet at Flamingo Crossing and the Cubanisimo rose at nine one five, it was on to sauteed calamari at Le Petit Paris.

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As we strolled down Duval past the Tutti Frutti drink stand, I noticed this bright red Batphone. I don't know about you, but I will definitely sleep better knowing that an emergency fish replica is just a phone call away.

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Next up, curried chicken salad at Croissants de France, and samples of T-Vine at Vino's on Duval. Now, there's no denying that the T-Vine wines are both excellent and expensive. Still, given the minuscule pours we experienced at the Grand Tasting, I suspect that Mike and Ann are probably haggling with Mr. T-Vine for a tasting poured from the bottle instead of parceled out with an eyedropper.

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Across the street, 801 Bourbon served up pink Jell-O shots, which provided quite the unexpected, um, pick-me-up.

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One of the most anticipated stops on the crawl was DJ's Clam Shack, which serves a tasty clam chowder and even tastier puppy kisses.

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Speaking of tasty kisses, we then moved on to Leather Master, where all the boys were decked out in their best "My sex dungeon or yours?" attire.

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Indeed, Donna couldn't pull her eyes away from the, uh, back entrance.

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About 15 years ago, a short-lived S&M-themed supper club opened in NYC that was considered quite risqué for the time (this is before the Real Housewives, remember), and I teasingly suggested to my sweet but naive friend Janet that we should check it out. "What do you think they do there?" she asked, all wide-eyed innocence. "Oh, come on, " I said. "Surely you have some idea." Janet hesitated, and then said, "Well . . . I guess they probably shove your dinner plate at you all mean-like, and then they say something really nasty to you." "Really?" I asked, trying not to laugh. "Like what?" "Oh, you know," Janet replied, blushing. "Here's your dinner, you dirty hog!"

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As we were leaving Leather Master, I playfully asked the guy on the left if he'd be willing to paddle his buddy for the camera. Let's just say that I didn't have to ask him twice.

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"Thanks, you dirty hogs!" I called as I walked away. It figured it was the least I could do.

One of our last stops was at the bright and cheery Island Style, where we were treated to some steel-drum music and J. Lohr wines and cheesy lobster pesto pizzas from Cafe Sole.

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There I got to chatting with Cafe Sole's Chef Correa and his adorable wife Judy, the former of whom makes the world's most amazing portobello mushroom soup and then doles it out in little finger bowls just to torture gluttons like me. When I rambled on for the next 20 minutes about mushrooms and heavy cream and bigger bowls, the chef took pity on me and kindly wrote out a coupon for two free bowls of it, redeemable the next day at Cafe Sole.

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The next morning I bolted straight out of bed at 5 a.m. and hollered, "MUSHROOM SOOOOOOUP!!!" by way of an alarm clock for Angel. We quickly showered, dressed, and biked over to Cafe Sole for brunch.

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They didn't have the soup.

The waitress told me some cockamamie story about how it wasn't ready yet. "Just nuke it, man, I don't care!" I implored her, my forehead breaking out in a cold sweat. "I need that mushroom soup!" She went back to the kitchen to see what could be done, but apparently the soup hadn't even been made yet. I thought about offering to help chop the shrooms or stir the pot or whatever, but Angel gently reminded me that we had other plans for the day, so I ordered the Jan Brady of the menu, the French onion soup, plus a crab cake.

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Afterwards, we biked around a little, and I happily came across some additional possibilities for my future Conchmobile, if I can't get my hands on a VW Thing when the time comes.

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Then it was off to the Outdoor Wine Market on Eaton Street. We'd skipped this market last year on the incorrect assumption that they sold nothing but bottles of wine, which we didn't want to carry home, and wine gadgets, of which we have enough to build our own rocket.

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Later, however, we learned that the wine market offers everything from artwork to marinades to puppies (for petting, not purchasing) to . . . still more wines by the glass.

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Oh, and rubbers. Of course.

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Best of all, they had purses with chicken-pattern lining. Go ahead and drool.

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Even with the large crowd, we still managed to bump into the town's resident lushes.

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The highlight of the market was the Seafood Shakedown, a cook-off where the contestants were required to create dishes using Key West pink shrimp. The four competitors squared off face to face across the small parking lot, two on one side and two on the other, and we were given wooden "nickels" to drop in a bucket in order to vote for our favorite.

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It was therefore quite important to be memorable.

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We started with the jambalaya, then moved on to simply grilled shrimp with assorted dipping sauces, a fantastic paella, and a spicy shrimp with collard greens.

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The dishes were all unique, yet equally delicious, and it was difficult to choose our favorites. Actually voting, however, was next to impossible: There they were, all four contestants (each of whom we'd spent a fair amount of time chatting and laughing with), staring us down as we stood in the middle of the square debating which buckets we'd drop our wooden nickels in. Did I mention that the buckets were located at each contestant's stand? I attempted a fake-out by wandering around a bit before stealthily approaching the paella stand to give them my vote, and I thought I'd gotten away with it . . . until they all started whooping and cheering, alerting the other 3 cooks that I certainly hadn't voted for them. Angel was up next, trapped in the square like the unlucky winner in the "The Lottery," trying to avoid being stoned by the three cooks he wasn't voting for.

Despite the awkwardness, I'm actually thinking of entering this thing myself next year. No, I can't cook, and yes, the humiliation of receiving just one wooden nickel -- Angel's -- would be worse than being called a dirty hog, but just look at the crown I could win!

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It's sure to be the talk of the Barefoot Beach Party next year.

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Posted by TTG 06:18 Comments (6)

Key West: Walking in a Wiener Wonderland, Part 1

Christmas with my family in snowy Pittsburgh, PA, can be a bitter, cold affair . . . and the weather usually stinks, too. So this year, we rounded up a bunch of friends, jumped on a plane, and headed to the Conch Republic, where we were all but assured of a warm, if weird, welcome.

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Not too warm, though.

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For the first eight days of our trip, we were joined by our friends Frances and Todd, who live in New Jersey. Aside from that they are very nice people and, unlike the last time we spent a weekend with them, this time they mostly behaved themselves and nobody had to call out the Coast Guard.

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The four of us decided to rent a house instead of staying at a hotel, which especially suited Frances and Todd, seeing as how, "Welcome to Disney World!" are the only four words they might dread hearing more than, "Where are y'all from?"

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The house, Pineapple Cottage, was very large, extremely private, and around the corner from Walgreen's, which was perfect considering that I'd spent $150 to haul 6 pieces of luggage to Key West, only to forget basics like mascara and hair gel.

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Mid-week we were joined by two more friends, Ellen and Brian, who were more than ready for a re-do after their last trip to Key West involved weather so unusual that folks went kayaking . . . down Duval Street. Throw in the fact that Ellen had just quit her job, Brian works enough hours for two jobs, and both of them treat Happy Hour like it's a competitive hot-dog eating contest, and you can see why I put some bail money aside just in case.

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After running a few errands on arrival day (picking up our bikes, making a Fausto's run, and buying a 22-gallon drum to hold the rum punch we planned to make for our last night in the house), our first order of business was to jump on the Conch Train Holiday Lights tour that was departing from N. Roosevelt Blvd. The tour consists of the train's driver cruising up and down the streets of Midtown and Old Town looking for the most ostentatious Christmas lights, blaring Christmas carols from a set of immense speakers, and encouraging his passengers to scream "WOOOO!!!" as the train lingers in front of the most impressive displays.

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After we'd stopped and screamed in front of the third or fourth house, I figured the beleaguered homeowners inside were doing exactly what I'd be doing if I lived there: Flipping that train the bird with one hand while loading my BB gun with the other. But this is Key West, which means that not only did these homeowners not call the cops on us -- they actually welcomed us. At least once on every block the proud occupants came outside to greet us, dressed in festive Santa hats and waving like they were on a float at the Macy's Thankgiving Day Parade. By the end of the night I was half-expecting them to throw candy at us. Or, you know, Mardi Gras beads and beer cans.

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After the tour we met up with Frances and Todd for a late dinner at Cafe Sole.

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Angel and I like this place for their out-of-this-world mushroom soup and free bottles of wine, while Frances and Todd like it for the hogfish, a local fish that feeds on shrimp and other shellfish and therefore comes, as Todd put it, "pre-stuffed."

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And everyone loves the bananas Foster.

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The next day we decided to revisit the home of the fabled Free Bacon Happy Hour, 2 Cents Gastropub, for brunch. If we could get a couple of slices of bacon for free at happy hour, I figured, just imagine how much could we get our hands on if we actually paid up!

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Much like the little brother that I never had (unless you count Trina), Frances delights in grossing me out with tales of things like having the cyst/devil horn sprouting from her head surgically removed (that really happened), knocking her front teeth out on a jet-ski (that really happened), and ingesting drinks like the Herbal High, a concoction of fresh sage, grapefruit juice, and Miller High Life that could give Syrup of Ipecac a run for its money (that really happened).

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Although there were lots of tempting choices, I settled on the Eggs Sardou, which was basically eggs Benedict topped with creamed spinach and with mini artichokes standing in for the English muffins. Normally vegetables should never be permitted to muscle out stuff like bread, but those little artichokes were pretty good, not to mention cute. I also had the Sauvignon Blanc with lemonade, which only sounds white trash-y.

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In addition to the egg dishes that Frances, Todd, and Angel selected, the four of us also shared two sides of bacon and two orders of silver-dollar pancakes with raspberries and, yes, more bacon.

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That afternoon we biked around a bit and took in some holiday cheer.

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Oh, and looked at decorations, too.

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That evening we headed over to Colombian Grace, a spot I'd been wanting to try ever since I heard about a dish there called the Cartagena, which immediately makes me go, "Joan Wiiilder? Zee Joan Wiiilder???" in my head.

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Made with shrimp and calamari sautéed in basil, garlic, and fresh tomato broth, the Cartagena is offered only as an appetizer, which was surprisingly large enough even for me.

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Just to be safe, though, I "shared" the arepas -- grilled white corn cakes with melted cheese -- with Angel, and had a side of empanadas, too, just in case he was serious about that whole sharing thing.

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Angel had the shrimp with white wine, butter, lime juice, garlic, mushrooms and tomato, while Todd had the Bandeja Paisa (red beans, rice, chorizo, skirt steak, bacon, sweet plantain, green plantain, and two fried eggs), which I believe roughly translates as the "Paul Bunyan Special." For her part, Frances went with the Petronia Chicken glazed in orange juice, rosemary, brandy, and a little spicy sugarcane sauce. If your mouth is not watering by now, you need to stop looking at this on your iPhone and get to a real monitor.

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On Christmas Eve we headed over to Louie's to catch up with Donna and Greg, two local friends whom you might remember recently threw a fabulous, Champagne-and-sweat-soaked wedding on a sailboat, and who are to be commended for guiding us through last year's Key West Food and Wine Festival without once passing out (that we know of).

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This time around, though, Donna and Greg were knee-deep in moving boxes, as their cottage on Big Coppitt Key was set to be demolished so that a roomy new two-story house can be built in its place, which will have sweeping water views and a bedroom just for me (I guess Angel can sleep there, too). While the new house is being built, however, they will be living in a camper on a friend's property, which Donna has eloquently named the Redneck Ranch. The idea of the lovely, perfectly polished Donna -- she of the little black dresses and sky-high stilettos and perfect manicures -- ruling the roost at the Redneck Ranch is so ridiculous that I can't believe people spend their time watching Honey Boo-Boo when this kind of entertainment is available in person for the price of a plane ticket.

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After lunch, Donna and Greg met us back at the house with a few bottles of wine. Soon we were joined by Frances and Todd and, as is usually the case, where Frances goes, trouble follows. This time, the trouble started with Donna needing to make a Christmas ornament for a friend's Naughty Ornament Party that evening; Frances making like a pervy MacGyver and dropping fifty bucks at Walgreen's to buy supplies that included condoms, an assortment of rubber balls, and some paper clips; the three of us sending Todd out on an emergency vodka run while Angel and Greg pretended not to know us; Frances concentrating like she was making the next atom bomb in order to send Donna off with the perfect dirty ornament . . . and Tracey and Angel deciding to crash said house party.

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It ended with Angel having to drag me out of the party (it is apparently bad form to refuse to leave if you were never invited to begin with) and me being angry because (1) Did I mention they had a buffet? and (2) I was right in the middle of a conversation with the deputy at the jail about that giant pig who died at the petting zoo there. Yes, a petting zoo. At the jail. Where else would you expect kids in Key West to have their field trips?

It really didn't feel like Christmas when we woke up the next morning: The sky was bright blue, the sun was hot, and nobody had spent the night on a guest futon covered in cat hair. And somehow we'd managed to rent the only house in Key West without a single Champagne glass, so our traditional Christmas morning mimosas were sipped from mismatched martini glasses.

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Nor was there a towering Christmas tree surrounded by presents, but both Frances and Angel came through nonetheless, the former getting me a flip-flop bottle opener and matching coasters and wrapping it all up in the world's cutest gift bag, and the latter finally admitting that he married a 13-year-old boy and getting me a "best of" DVD of Beavis & Butthead.

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Even Ellen, who arrived later that day, brought me a fabulous gift: A huge, round, hot-tub-sized raft that looks like a lime and that I cannot wait to hog the whole pool in the Hamptons with. That I repay all of these people by picking off their plates at dinner just goes to show you what good friends they really are.

On top of all that, Frances and Todd had breakfast at their usual spot, Pepe's, and kindly brought me back a to-go order of their fantastic grilled mashed potatoes.

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I turned my back on those potatoes for one second to grab a fork, only to see this when I returned:

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Like he ever had a chance.

Later that morning we biked over to the elegant Casa Marina for their Christmas Day brunch buffet.

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Tapeworms and buffets go together like Frances and raunchy ornaments, so I was obviously in my milieu, and I didn't waste any time. After an eggnog shooter and my second mimosa of the day, it was time to dig in.

That is au gratin potatoes, rice pilaf, a block of chestnut stuffing with cream sauce (why hasn't anyone thought of that sooner?), and, off to the left there, a mound of pepperoni and hard salami. The Caesar salad is there in order to create a well-balanced meal with vegetables.

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Next up, more potatoes, more stuffing, and some pizza. You've heard of the Atkins diet? I'm on the Fatkins.

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Ellen and Brian arrived that afternoon, and we'd chosen A&B Lobster House as the perfect spot for a celebratory Christmas dinner.

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From the outstanding lobster bisque to the moist, meaty crab cake, to the sweet-and-tart Tropical Martini, everything I tasted was delicious . . . and my own meal wasn't bad either. And because it was Christmas, I only got stabbed in the hand with a fork once.

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The next day, Frances and Todd went on a fishing charter, leaving me, Angel, Ellen, and Brian to fend for ourselves for lunch. We decided to try Caroline's Cafe since none of us had ever been there.

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There, we started with an assortment of rum drinks and the kind of salads that allow you to tell people you had a salad for lunch, when in fact you had a plate of fried chicken garnished with some lettuce.

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And oh, what fantastic fried chicken it was. They really ought to sell these tasty little nuggets in go-bags so you can walk around and snack on them without getting the insides of your pockets all greasy.

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As we were finishing lunch, I noticed a small white chicken under our table, so naturally I wanted a picture of it.

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Our waitress then helpfully informed us that there was a much larger, friendlier rooster around named Abby . . . and that we could pick him up. Never being ones to turn down a dare, Ellen and I immediately shot out of our seats and began searching the restaurant for Abby. Finally, another waitress tipped us off to his location: They'd chased him out back because the health inspector had shown up. (Note to potential restaurateurs: Numerous small chickens on the premises are acceptable, but one large rooster is a no-go.) Round the back we went, where we were greeted by a small turtle named Shelby, a Yoda-topped Christmas tree, and a little Asian man who realized he'd hit the photography jackpot when Ellen burst onto the scene chasing a giant rooster. Weird, it was.

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We had to approach Abby carefully, of course, since everyone knows what happens when a chicken in this neighborhood gets angry.

Plus, there's always the danger that if you can't fool the chicken, it will gleefully peck your eyes out at the first opportunity. Luckily Ellen was more than up to the task.

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Finally: success! Ellen grabbed hold of Abby, hoisted him up light as a feather, and even gave him a peck on the head for good measure. All puns intended, of course.

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That evening the six of us headed over to Rooftop Cafe to celebrate Todd's birthday (and Ellen's brave handling of Abby).

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Several of us were excited to try Rooftop's version of one of my favorite frozen concoctions, the key lime pina colada, but the frozen drink machine was down . . . which is the Key West equivalent of McDonald's running out of buns. No matter. Brian went with the second runner-up, the key lime pie martini, while Angel, Todd, and I used a few of those ubiquitous "free glass of wine" coupons to score some free hooch. There was also a pineapple-y rum punch for Ellen, and a ginger-pear martini for Frances that can best be described as having your mouth washed out with soap. (We know this because the first thing one says after tasting something awful is, "Ewww, gross. You have to try this!").

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An assortment of crab cakes, fish, pasta, and risotto later . . .

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And it was time for dessert, delivered by the mischievous Christopher, whose hilarious sendup of Frances politely ordering a cup of coffee sent booze flying out of noses all around the table. Only in Key West does use of the word "Sir" sound so formal that you might as well take up residence at Downton Abbey.

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The next morning Frances and Todd had another fishing trip scheduled, so Angel and I took advantage of having the house to ourselves and ordered lunch in. I'd heard good things about a new sandwich shop, Paseo, and the crowds gathered outside every time we rode by seemed to confirm the good reviews, so Paseo it was. In particular, I'd heard about their fantastic grilled corn on the cob, and today was the perfect day to order it, since, like Oreos, corn on the cob is one of those things best eaten at home with your toothbrush at the ready.

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The food from Paseo -- the Caribbean roast pork sandwich for Angel, and the marinated pork loin for me -- was delicious, even though that pork loin did look suspiciously like the cube steaks my mom used to beat into chewy submission when I was growing up.

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But the grilled corn on the cob? Let's just say that while I generally don't make a habit of licking aluminum foil, sometimes exceptions must be made.

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Half an hour after demolishing a pork loin, a plate full of rice and beans, and the best grilled corn this side of Mexico, it was time for a little palate cleanser. So off we went to our appointment at Lush bar for a wine and chocolate tasting.

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When he isn't busy dreaming up new ways to give folks the gout, our friend Mark, the cirrhosis-courting mastermind behind the Key West Food & Wine Festival, also runs the adorable Lush bar inside the Green Pineapple store on Duval Street.

Yes, those dimples are real, and, no, you can't stick your fingers in them. That's my domain.

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After I took this photo, I teased Mark about being just like Angel, whose random limbs are always showing up in my photos.

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"Can't you get your damn elbow out of my picture?" I asked. Sure, he responded.

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No wonder those two get along.

At Lush, Mark specializes in wine pairings with chocolate, honey, and, if you tell him ahead of time that you don't much care for chocolate, generous cheese plates with this cool goat cheese/brain.

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The pairing began with some historical background on chocolate, which is made from the fermented, roasted, and ground beans of the cocoa tree. The raw beans are crunchy and somewhat bitter, and therefore more to my liking than actual chocolate.

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And what better place to store them than in a redneck wine glass? I bet Donna has a whole cabinet full of these over at the Ranch.

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Each of the subsequent pairings was designed to match the wine to the chocolate both in terms of geographic origin and flavor notes -- in other words, if it grows together, it goes together. Our first pairing was a glass of sparkling wine from Washington's Willamette Valley, which was paired with a dark salted-almond chocolate from Seattle.

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A succession of red wines followed: An Argentinian Malbec paired with an Ecuadorean chocolate; a French blend paired with a Trinitario chocolate, which is one of only three types of cacao trees in the world; a South African Cabernet paired with a spicy cinnamon-and-Sakay- pepper chocolate from Madagascar that almost melted my face off (in a good way); and a Portuguese porto with an Askinosie "El Rustico," which was my favorite of the chocolates I tried because it was laced with vanilla bean and had an appealingly gritty texture.

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For each pairing, the idea was to sip the wine, taste the chocolate, and then sip the wine again to note the differences between the first sip and the second. For me, however, it went something like, sip the wine, take another sip, harass Mark a little bit, eat a hunk of cheese, take another sip of wine, nibble on the chocolate, take another sip of wine, harass Mark some more, and then eat another hunk of cheese.

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We were joined during our tasting by this woman, Megan, who left her kid back at the hotel with her husband so she could hang out and drink wine and eat chocolate undisturbed . . . and who should never, ever get divorced.

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Also during our tasting, we were approached by a lovely woman named Donna from West Palm Beach, who recognized me from this blog. I am always amazed when people recognize me, but I guess I shouldn't be. A few weeks ago I walked into the H20+ store on Madison & 53rd, a shop I usually visit every six weeks or so but hadn't been to in a while, as they'd been closed for several months due to a fire. As soon as I walked in, the saleswoman greeted me in very heavy Russian accent, "Oh, you are back! I remember you. Your face, it is not so popular." Indeed.

Our tasting wrapped up with a glass of Mt. Difficulty's "Roaring Meg" riesling, served with milk chocolate drizzled with honey and dusted with sea salt. Which I'd think is what heaven tastes like . . . if I didn't already know that it tastes like bacon double cheeseburgers.

Also, did you notice how Mark ended the tasting with a wine from Mt. Difficulty? Obviously it would be paranoia to take that as some kind of hint. Right? Right?

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Afterwards I decided to do a little shopping at the Green Pineapple, which sells everything from jewelry to tunics to chocolates to stemware.

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That night Mark was stuck with me again, as was his partner Steven, plus Donna and Greg and two friends from Key Largo, Claudia and Alden.

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I'd reserved a table for 8 at Santiago's Bodega and made sure to let them know ahead of time that we expected flaming cheese, and lots of it, and they'd better not run out. That's because Donna, Claudia, and I might flame you on our blogs if the food isn't good . . . and at least one of us might have a meltdown if there isn't enough of it. (As it was, there was so much flaming cheese that we set off the smoke alarms.) Luckily the army of servers assigned to our table, including this cutie named Ivan (who is, by coincidence, our Key West tenant), came through with nary a singed eyebrow.

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Before the saganaki, however, our evening started with a gratis pitcher of sangria (thanks, Ivan!), a bottle of white wine (thanks, Alden!), a bottle of red wine (thanks, Mark!), then devolved into a melee of saganaki and meatballs and more sangria, and ended, finally, with Steven and I mock-heckling a lounge singer at La Te Da while plotting to pick up frat boys together at Irish Kevin's and, once again, Angel dragging me away before things could get interesting.

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The next day we met up with Ellen and Brian for lunch at Southernmost Beach Cafe.

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I decided to eat light in preparation for the pizza party we planned for that night, which was our last night in the house, and for which Angel and I had whipped up the aforementioned batch of rum punch. So I had a turkey burger, some pasta salad, and one of my beloved key lime pina coladas, which is like a boozy Shamrock Shake with a better straw.

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Our go-to rum punch recipe calls for orange juice, pineapple juice, guava nectar, grenadine, amaretto, nutmeg, a whopping 64 ounces of rum, and Angostura bitters, this last of which actually took some effort to find. The kids these days must be huffing them, seeing as how they are stashed away behind the counter like they're the good Sudafed.

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Little did we know that by the end of the night, we'd be wishing we'd kept that rum punch hidden away, too.

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