A Travellerspoint blog

A Sweet Return to Anguilla, Pt. 1: My Cheatin' Heart

Do you remember when golfer Tiger Woods was married to the gorgeous Nordic goddess Elin Nordegren? She was stunning in her perfection, all tawny skin and baby-blonde hair and centerfold-worthy beach body. She bore him two equally stunning children, and even feigned interest in a sport so boring the players hire caddies to walk around with them and keep them awake. And then Woods cheated on her with a troupe of tramps sporting too little clothing and too much silicone, and everyone was left scratching their heads. What on earth was he thinking???

That's the best analogy I can come up with to explain why, after first discovering the island paradise of Anguilla back in 1997, we didn't just quit while we were ahead. We didn't accept perfection when it landed in our laps and, instead, like a fool who trades in a Rolls-Royce for a Ford Pinto, we flitted off to other islands, sure that something even better must be just another flight or ferry ride away.

It wasn't.

What we found instead were islands with so-so food, spotty electricity, and plastic wine glasses. What they lacked in modern conveniences, they made up for in spiders.

Some of them didn't even have ironing boards, for God's sake.

Anguilla, I'm sorry I cheated on you. You are Armani couture in a sea of saggy sweatpants; Dame Helen Mirren in a crowd of Kardashians. You are a Ferryboat cheeseburger in a passel of pink slimes. You are my everything.

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Our long-awaited reunion began during the 10-minute flight from St. Maarten. We cleared the island's lush green hills, then spent a few jumpy minutes over open water before Anguilla came into view. Flat, scrubby, and brown in spots . . . it was as breathtakingly beautiful as we remembered.

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Anguilla is known for its luxury hotels, and on past visits we've stayed everywhere from the oceanfront suites at Cap Juluca and Frangipani to the villas at Arawak and Rendezvous Bay Hotel, with stops at Ferryboat and Carimar in between. On this visit, though, we decided to forego the hotel altogether and rent a villa.

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Our first indication that we were going to love Sweet Return was the road leading up to it: An old-school dirt path so rocky and rut-filled that it prompted Ronnie Bryan to ask if perhaps there was another way up to the house, since the car we'd rented from him had just been painted.

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There was, but that path was even worse. And so the car rattled, our heads bobbled as if on springs, and our luggage took a beating . . . but there was no wiping the silly grins off our faces as we bounced along through the underbrush.

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Perched high on Isaac's Hill, Sweet Return was bright and open, with a gentle breeze flowing through the numerous windows positioned to catch the cooling trade winds. The stylish main house consisted of a combined living and dining area overlooking the pool, bookended by two spacious master suites with enormous stone baths. (I am not even going to mention the fact that those bathrooms were bigger than our kitchen in NYC. Then again, I use my oven for shoe storage, so who am I to complain?)

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You noticed that ultra-luxurious household appliance on the right, yes? That's how we knew we were back where we belonged.

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In fact, that kind of attention to detail turned out to be our favorite thing about Sweet Return. Umbrellas conveniently lined up right next to the front door. Baskets filled with towels handily placed right next to the pool. Bins full of sunscreen, bug spray, and first aid items all neatly organized and labeled. (With typed labels. Swoon.) They even labeled the light switches. Light switches! Forget the pool and the view: You had me at the dimmer switch.

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How to top all of these thoughtful touches? With a kitchen map, that's how. Sure, it was nice not having to haul my own iron and ironing board to Anguilla, but knowing that someone took the time to make a map of the kitchen so I didn't have to open five different cabinets to find a drinking glass? That is the stuff OCDreams are made of.

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The house even had a small, detached studio apartment, which would provide the perfect escape if you happen to be traveling with the kind of people who do not appreciate a good kitchen map.

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Best of all, the property manager at Sweet Return, a lovely woman named Catherine, confessed to being a longtime reader of this blog, and as a welcome gift she went out of her way to track down a favorite wine that I'd previously written about.

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Oh, and a cheese platter so generously Tracey-sized that we knew the wine couldn't have been just a lucky guess.

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It had been a long morning of travel, and the beach was just a stone's throw away. The sparkling pool beckoned. We'd traveled in our swimsuits to avoid missing a single minute of sunshine. But that cheese plate wasn't going to eat itself, so we slid into chairs at the dining table and gobbled up half a pound of goat cheese instead.

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Soon we were thirsty, and it was no accident that the villa was just across the street from CuisinArt. Nothing beats makeup sex when you patch things up with a lost love, but makeup mojitos run a close second.

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The afternoon slipped into that golden hour when the beach has emptied but the sun still lingers, and we embraced it like a friend we hadn't seen in a long while.

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Okay, fine, we almost squeezed it to death. Like I said, it had been waayyy too long.

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We were scheduled to spend nine nights on the island, but had approximately 42 restaurants on our list. If we were to make any headway, we were obviously going to have to double up. And so that evening, we set off for SandBar . . . and Dolce Vita. You know, in the interest of economy.

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We arrived at SandBar just in time for sunset, settled in at a waterside table, and kicked things off with a round of SandBar's eponymous mango and rum concoctions.

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We knew we'd be indulging in the divine pastas at Dolce Vita, so we stuck to the protein offerings at SandBar, sharing an order of the chicken satay with peanut sauce, along with the spicy pork tenderloin with chili-tamarind sauce.

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Once the sun had set, we walked the short distance down the beach to Dolce Vita.

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Dolce Vita, however, is not the kind of place where you can just show up. Preparations must be made. First, menus must be studied, past meals analyzed, and stomach capacity evaluated. Proper attire must be carefully chosen; billowy dresses for women and elastic-waist pants for men are preferred (potato sacks may be substituted in cooler weather). On the big day, breakfast is skipped and lunch entrees are kept on the light side to avoid spoiling dinner. (Hence, only half a pound of that goat cheese back at the villa.) You may whet the appetite with, say, some chicken skewers or spicy pork tenderloin, but anything more and you run the risk of having to leave behind an errant gnocchi or bite of lasagna.

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And you know Abbi checks.

We settled in to our "usual" corner table near the sand and ordered up two glasses of wine and Dolce Vita's heavenly tuna tartare.

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Then it was on to the melty, light-as-air homemade lasagna for me, and the evening's pasta special -- Anguillian lobster and shimp in a fragrant, garlicky white wine, butter, and lemon sauce -- for Angel.

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Abbi was his usual charming self, and after a few glasses of wine it seemed like a good idea to pose for a silly photo, sticking our bellies out in homage to the incredible meal we'd just enjoyed.

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Well, at least Abbi stuck his out. Ours just look like that.

After dinner, we bumped along the road back to Sweet Return, a star-scattered sky lighting our way.

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The hour was late, and it had been a long day of travel, but we somehow found the energy for a quick dip in the secluded pool before bed.

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We'd been back on island less than 12 hours, and already we'd enjoyed frosty drinks, delicious tapas, and a log of goat cheese. We'd been welcomed like old friends at Sweet Return and Dolce Vita, and stuffed ourselves silly with lasagna and lobster. Now, as we sunk our travel-weary bodies into the water, we plotted the next day's adventures: Lunch at Ferryboat Inn, an afternoon swim at Rendezous Bay, and tacos and tequila at Picante.

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And then, at long last, we fell into bed, as visions of cheeseburgers danced in our heads.

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Click here to read Part 2!

Posted by TraceyG 10:49 Archived in Anguilla Tagged sandbar anguilla cuisinart dolce_vita sweet_return_villa Comments (17)

A Sweet Return to Anguilla, Pt. 2: And So We Meat Again

The next morning was the Happiest Day of the Year. No, not the day the kids go back to school -- the day we go to Ferryboat Inn for cheeseburgers.

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In order to give such a momentous occasion its due, I have begun petitioning the Government of Anguilla to do away with Whit Monday, which celebrates the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples of Jesus, and replace it with FBI Monday, which would celebrate the descent of hungry hordes upon Marjorie and Christian. Obviously it could be celebrated on any day of your choosing, except on Sundays when FBI is closed.

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Regular readers of this blog know that my love affair with the FBI cheeseburger is a long and passionate one, as I've spent many years swooning over its meaty magnificence both here and in numerous online forums. But for the newbies among us, I thought a little "how-to" guide for celebrating FBI Monday (as it shall henceforth be known) might come in handy.

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1. Prepare Accordingly

This one should be obvious: Do not plan to eat for two or three days prior to your visit. Getting too full to finish your burger is widely regarded as the second-worst possible outcome on FBI Monday. (The first would be waking up dead.) Tips for avoiding other unfavorable outcomes are described in sections 2 and 3 below.

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2. Plan a Diversion

The delightful and charming owners of Ferryboat Inn, Marjorie and her son Christian, have an equally delightful and charming dog named Angie. She also happens to be quite clever, because instead of begging at your table while you eat your burger, she simply hangs around nonchalantly near the steps and does this:

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It's almost impossible to say no to that face, but it's even harder to live with the guilt and regret of not hoarding every bite of that burger for yourself while you had the chance. I therefore recommend that you plan a diversion to keep Angie busy until you've finished eating.

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3. Take Extra Precautions

Obviously falling into a deep well or an open manhole is never exactly desirable, but falling into a deep well or open manhole on FBI Monday would be an absolute @#$%*& nightmare. Look alive, people!

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4. Dress Appropriately

As for clothing, you'll want to wear dark colors to avoid any potential grease, cheese, and/or drool stains, as well as something extra-forgiving to avoid public ridicule. (If you can arrange to spend the rest of the day in your pajamas, all the better.) Afterwards, under no circumstances should you consent to be seen in the nude by anyone other than your spouse, and even that is iffy unless his or her eyesight is as bad as Angel's.

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Appropriate footwear is also recommended.

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5. Patience is a Virtue

Most restaurants in Anguilla operate on island time, and Ferryboat is no exception. Luckily FBI has the island's best rum punches to keep you occupied while you wait patiently for your burger to arrive, along with a fantastic French onion soup to grease the skids.

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6. Assume the Position

Chances are good that once you start in on that burger, your dining companion, and possibly even other patrons, may start to get some ideas. It is therefore advisable to look as threatening as possible to avoid beggars, thieves, and those dreaded food-sharers who needle you for "just a bite" until the whole damn thing is gone. Not that I would ever do that, of course.

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In the event that you do not look tough enough to ward off the aforementioned cast of unsavory characters, sharp elbows will have to suffice.

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If, however, your bony elbows do not double as miniature harpoons the way mine do, a bodyguard may be necessary. If he happens to have a distracting set of dimples, consider it a bonus.

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7. Rebuff All Attempts at Interruption

Attempting to engage someone in conversation while they are eating a Ferryboat Inn cheeseburger is like calling the biggest football fan you know during the final minutes of a tied Super Bowl while his team is on the one-yard line: You just don't do it. Emergencies are no exception, though apologies may be offered: "I'm very sorry that alligator just amputated your foot; we can work on a tourniquet as soon as I'm done with this cheeseburger."

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Depending on your priorities, this advice also applies to consumption of rum punches.

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8. Safety First

A burger this good is bound to get messy (see #4, above). Extra protection, including safety goggles, beekeeper suits, and shower caps are recommended, but not required.

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9. Postpone the Inevitable

They cut pizzas into slices for a reason -- so people like me don't eat the whole thing in three bites. Consider applying this same logic to your burger to prolong your eating enjoyment.

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10. Declare Victory

Did you finish your burger without (1) ending up covered in a large Anguilla-shaped grease stain, (2) grudgingly sharing half of it with a sad-eyed dog, (3) stabbing your spouse in the hand with a fork, or (4) being hauled off by ambulance to the nearest cardiology center? Then congratulations, you've successfully celebrated Anguilla's newest holiday, FBI Monday!

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Even Angie was happy. Look at that smile!

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Having snatched victory from the jaws of Angie Angel defeat, we hung around for a bit to chat with Marjorie and Christian and our sweet waitress Rhona, which provided the perfect excuse to have another rum punch.

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Or two.

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Although conventional wisdom states that you should never go swimming after a large meal, I find that the benefits of submerging myself in water after FBI Monday are twofold: I am able to feel somewhat weightless (or at least as weightless as one can feel after consuming the equivalent of a week's worth of beef), and the general public is spared the terrifying sight of a 100-lb. woman who looks like she swallowed a hippopotamus.

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It had been a busy day at FBI -- you know how hectic the holidays can be -- so we decided to pick up dinner instead of going out. And so we set off for B&D BBQ for, well, more meat.

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We couldn't decide between the ribs and the chicken, so we ordered both, which come with rice 'n' peas, coleslaw, French fries, an enormous, pillowy Johnny cake, and a fight with your spouse over who gets the last rib.

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After all that, there was only one thing left to do.

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How else to cure a case of the meat sweats?
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Click here to read Part 3!

Posted by TraceyG 04:43 Archived in Anguilla Tagged ferryboat_inn feb_19 Comments (12)

A Sweet Return to Anguilla, Pt. 3: To Beet or Not to Beet

We awoke to another gorgeous day, with blue skies and warm breezes. Angel had inexplicably brought along a series of workout videos on his iPad, so we quickly settled into a morning routine: He cranked up the air conditioning and did his workout, while I lounged on the couch with a bowl of potato chips and shouted encouragements like, "Pick up those knees!" and "Move, maggot, move!"

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As for me, I descended the few steps into the pool, took a quick dip, got back out of the pool, and counted it as stair-climbing.

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We decided to head over to Smokey's for lunch because Cove Bay is usually calm and crystal-clear, and that cornhole game keeps everyone occupied at the west end of the beach, while we enjoy the peace and quiet at the east end.

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A friend once told me that the drunkest she'd ever been was not at a frat party, or on her 21st birthday, or when George Clooney announced that he would be marrying someone else. It was at Smokey's, and from the looks of this drink menu, you can understand why.

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We kicked things off with a tall, frosty pina colada topped with freshly-grated nutmeg, along with Smokey's "special" rum punch, which is exactly the same as their regular rum punch, except that you will need fewer of them before ending up face-first in the cornhole.

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We decided to share an order of the melt-in-your-mouth tuna tartare garnished with citrus, then wrapped things up (heh-heh) with a couple of savory chicken rotis, which were fragrant with yellow curry and loaded with tender chicken, potatoes, and carrots.

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Those roti had two vegetables in them, which is at least two too many for a vacation, so we ended up sharing some with our dining companion.

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The day was shaping up to be somewhat cloudy, leaving Cove Bay an otherworldly shade of green, and leaving us blissfully alone for the entire afternoon.

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Well, just us and Captain Morgan.

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Back at Sweet Return, we took a late afternoon swim before cleaning up for dinner.

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That evening, we had reservations at the lovely Jacala for dinner.

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Yes, we have heard the occasional rumblings about Jacala's host, Jacques, being somewhat brusque. (Someone recently asked what came with the hamburger and he responded, "Bread.") But just as Mango Dave wasn't really a jerk, he was just from New Jersey, Jacques isn't actually brusque . . . he's just from France. And in our experience, the French aren't gruff or snobby; they just appreciate politeness, succinctness, and good manners. And so we return here again and again, knowing that as long as we keep our elbows off the table, our napkins in our laps, and Freedom Fries, Napoleon, and Gerard Depardieu out of the conversation, we will not be tossed out like yesterday's poisson.

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With all of this in mind, we had just settled in at our candlelit waterside table and were expertly swirling and sniffing our glasses of Sancerre and congratulating ourselves on our impeccable table manners when the unthinkable happened.

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An amuse-bouche arrived, two small shot glasses filled to the brim . . . with the vilest substance known to man. No, not Mountain Dew. It was my bête noire . . . BEETS! Beet soup, to be exact, not that the form mattered: Those tiny shot glasses might as well have been oil tankers, such were my chances of actually being able to choke one down.

I stole a desperate glance at Angel, who looked as though Jacques had set a very large tarantula in front of him and asked him to eat that instead. He bravely took the tiniest of sips, then winced and forced down a gag. So much for my plans to pawn my shot glass off on him.

We knew that we were probably on shaky ground at this most Francophile of restaurants already, being both American and fat, the latter thanks to yesterday's cheeseburger and rum punch-a-palooza. But both of us absolutely détestons les beets. So there we sat, frozen by fear, smiling uneasily as we frantically racked our brains for ideas on how to politely dispose of the beet soup without offending Jacques or, worse, actually having to eat it.

And so we did the only thing we could do. We waited until the coast was clear, then I pretended to fiddle with the strap on my sandal, while discreetly returning the beets to the sandy soil from whence they came. Just like it says in the Bible.

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I'm sorry, Jacques. My apologies, Alain. Everything else you served us was absolutely delicious, and gloriously beet-free. That includes this beautiful timbale of tuna tartare with wakame, olive oil, and ginger . . .

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. . . and the cool, refreshing cucumber gazpacho topped with a perfect little scoop of spicy tomato sorbet, which I maintain should be sold by the half-gallon and come with a spoon so you can get started right away.

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On this visit, however, I think I may have found something even better than the justly-famous tomato sorbet: A massive pile of succulent grilled crayfish, served with a tiny seafood fork for picking the little suckers clean.

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And, finally, two complimentary shot glasses full of Jacala's sweet, smooth vanilla-bean vodka.

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Which sure beats beets.
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Suddenly have the urge for a trip to France now? Click here! Just want more Anguilla? Click here for Part 4!

Posted by TraceyG 05:43 Archived in Anguilla Tagged anguilla jacala smokey's cove_bay feb_22 Comments (10)

A Sweet Return to Anguilla, Pt 4: Cast Away on Sandy Island

Of course, there are worse places to be stranded. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

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Our plan for the day was to have lunch at Roy's, then hop aboard "Happiness" for the short ride over to Sandy Island for an afternoon of rest, relaxation, and rum, though obviously not in that order.

We hadn't been to Roy's since they moved from Crocus Bay, so we were excited to check out their new digs on Sandy Ground.

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It didn't take long to peruse the short menu, and we ordered up a couple of tasty fish dishes -- the fish 'n' chips for me, and the mahi-mahi Creole for my spicy counterpart.

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We finished our lunch just in time for the next departure on "Happiness" and were soon on our way.

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We were then informed that the cost for the ride would be $20 per person, which is not expensive but is nevertheless a significant jump in price since our last visit to Sandy Island, which was free. (It also happened to be double the published price, which is $10 per person.) No matter. We were already under way, and I certainly wasn't going to walk the plank over a lousy $40, so we anted up.

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Unfortunately, the day was a bit too windy to fully enjoy the water, so after disembarking we headed up the beach to a scattering of sunbeds. Delighted to find all but one unoccupied, we picked the shadiest of the bunch and sat down, discussing what we should order from the bar. However, before our behinds could even warm the cushions, a Sandy Island employee was upon us, requesting yet another $25 for the privilege of sharing a sunbed (which I suppose explains the occupancy rate). We stared dumbly at him, as it slowly sunk in that we were about to be $65 in the hole, and Mama hadn't even had a drink yet.

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Of course, back home we're lucky if $65 is enough to buy breakfast, so the price wasn't really the issue. And between living in NYC and spending weekends in the Hamptons, we are used to having our pockets unmercifully picked all day, every day, by everyone from our local dry cleaner to the mercenaries who run our parking garage. (Only in New York can you leave the house in the morning with $100 in your wallet, and by lunchtime be down to your last $3. "All I did was walk to work!" is the phrase Angel and I most often text to each other, followed closely by, "I'm hungry. What's for dinner?") Still, I was galled, since what used to be "free" (if you don't count the couple hundred bucks you'll drop on food and drink here) was now starting to feel like a tourist-trappy shakedown.

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And so, before they could levy a sand tax on us or require a credit card to use the restrooms, we asked to return to Sandy Ground, figuring we could spend the remainder of the afternoon there instead. Only . . . they wouldn't take us back. "Next boat 3:30," we were told. When we asked someone else, the time was pushed back another half hour. We asked a third person, and now the boat wasn't departing until 4:30. Stranded and broke, we did the only thing we could do.

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I don't know, maybe we look like easy marks. It wouldn't be the first time we've been mistaken for people with money. Or, you know, people marooned on an island with nothing to do but drown their sorrows.

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Finally, the boat was ready to depart, and you can bet whatever's left in your wallet after an afternoon at Sandy Island that I was the first one on it.

Back at Roy's, we were treated like returning royalty, and at least half of that statement is true. And so we nabbed a couple of (free!) loungers and dug our toes into the (free!) sand and even used the (free!) rest room.

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The enjoyable afternoon melted into early evening, and we walked the beach one last time before heading back to Sweet Return.

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After cleaning up for dinner, I forced Angel to pose for a few pictures with me, which is his very favorite thing right after root canals.

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I, of course, am always a model subject.

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We then headed off to the one place on Anguilla where you're almost sure to get some bang for your buck: Picante.

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And if not, you'd never know it after a few of their potent margaritas anyway. We perused the various offerings, ultimately settling on a couple of local passion fruit margaritas. Although this thing is pulpier and seedier than an issue of the National Enquirer with a blurry photo of Sasquatch on the front, do not be put off. It's actually quite delicious.

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Naturally, I ordered the one dish that you should never leave Picante (or even Anguilla) without having: The seafood enchiladas with crab, prawn, and lobster in a creamy seafood bisque, topped with a blanket of melted cheese.

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I'm sure Angel had some food, too -- the grilled chipotle prawn burrito? -- but who can focus when there's that much cheese on those enchiladas?

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For dessert, our waiter convinced Angel to try to the flan, while I stuck with the classic Mexican chocolate pudding, accompanied by a tiny shaker of cayenne to add some heat.

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The flan and pudding may have been dessert, but in true Caribbean style, the real finale to the meal was a couple of boxes of Chiclets.

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Back at Sweet Return, we enjoyed a languid night swim before heading to bed.

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And if we happened to need some swimmies to keep us afloat after those passion fruit margaritas, well, that'll be just between us.
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Not tired of food, drink, sand, and sun yet? Click here to read Part 5!

Posted by TraceyG 05:17 Archived in Anguilla Tagged sandy_island roy's picante sweet_return feb_26 Comments (6)

A Sweet Return to Anguilla, Pt. 5: Revenge of the Herds

After a quick morning dip in the pool, it was off to Maunday's Bay for lunch at Cap Juluca.

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One of the island's oldest and most beloved resorts, Cap greets visitors with simple Mexican-tiled paths and spare white Moorish architecture, offering little hint of the stunning beach just beyond.

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Lunch at Cap's beachfront restaurant, Blue, is an elegant affair, with cobalt stemware, turquoise chairs, sapphire vases, and a view of the sea in all those shades and more.

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The food ain't too shabby, either.

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The sandwich above is lobster salad on a Johnny cake. Which is to say, the only way to improve upon it is to serve it with a side of cheeseburger.

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You can even get your daily serving of fruit here.

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Although Cap's beach is technically public, the cushy chaises are for hotel guests only (in past years, Angel's smile -- or a crisp $50 bill if the beach attendant wasn't female -- was enough to secure two loungers and an umbrella, but sadly not anymore). So we headed off to Mead's Bay for piña coladas and some shade at Blanchard's Beach Shack.

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And, as it turned out, hordes of people.

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Just look at them all!

Now, I live in New York City, and I know a crowd when I see one. And that day on Mead's, there was a crowd. We tried to enter the water, and there she was: A lady with the audacity to be floating almost within shouting distance on a noodle. We immediately made a break for the beach, but at that same moment, an older couple had the gall to pass by hand-in-hand. Practically close enough to say hello to us! What was this, Grand Central Station at rush hour?

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Oh, the humanity!

Exasperated, we retreated to our loungers, only to find that someone had parked themselves on the lounger next to ours. Right beside! I'm telling you, it was like Times Square up in there.

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The noise was deafening.

And so, we made a beeline for the bar at Blanchard's Beach Shack to order some frozen drinks . . .

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. . . only to find that there was a line.

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Sure, back home there's a waiting list for everything from delivery rooms to burial plots, but in Anguilla? It was just too much.

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I've seen shorter lines at the post office on tax day!

We grabbed our drinks, left our stuff to the mercy of the multitudes on the beach, and sprinted away, down the beach to the little cove at Malliouhana.

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There, we delighted in the tiny fish nipping at our ankles and reminisced about the Mead's Bay of yore.

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Circa 1999

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Finally, as the day wound to a close, we were left in peace at long last.

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That evening, we set off for the Viceroy's Sunset Lounge for you-know-what.

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Okay, fine, there was a sunset, too.

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Can you believe this was our first visit to Viceroy? Well, except for a little stalking when they first opened.

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We'd of course heard that the Viceroy vibe was more Miami than Mead's, and that the crowd could be a little New York-y (which ranks just behind sun poisoning and shark bite as the last thing we want to deal with on vacation). But we found that the Viceroy struck a sophisticated, elegant tone, and though we'd probably never choose it over the privacy of a villa or smaller resort, it was the perfect spot for a tasty pre-dinner cocktail.

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Though some of the interior décor seems a little dark (both literally and figuratively) given the surroundings, overall we loved the inventive use and rich textures of the wood, marble, granite, and other natural materials.

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Though I have to draw the line at these creepy chairs.

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One of several restaurants on the property, Cobà is perched on a bluff with views of both Meads and Barnes Bays.

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Though the Viceroy is known for its sunsets, it's an even better spot for a Sunrise, which I ordered specifically because the menu said it came with "grapefruit cubes." As soon as I saw that, I immediately began pondering all the different ways molecular gastronomy could convert a grapefruit segment into a cube. Did they vaporize it? Anti-griddle it? Emulsify and then gelify it? My mind ran wild with the possibilities.

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Regrettably they did none of the above, though for $18, I think they should have at least attempted it. (Perhaps there'd been an unfortunate incident with a sous-vide machine?) But, cubes or no cubes, this was hands-down one of the best cocktails I've ever had, in Anguilla or anywhere else, and I'd happily fork over the dough for another Sunrise next time we are on island. (I won't pay $25 to rent a sunbed for the day, but I will happily spend that same amount for a single cocktail. Priorities!!)

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When the sun finally dipped below the horizon, we headed off, once again, to the only place we deem worthy of a repeat dinner: Dolce Vita.

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It was to be our last visit to DV on this trip, so we doubled up on the pastas to carry us through until next time.

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Sadly, however, one thing was missing: Abbi was not there, which meant we wouldn't get a chance to say a proper good-bye.

But about halfway through dinner our beloved Pastafarian finally appeared, looking exhausted but nevertheless happy to see us. He later confided that he hadn't planned to come in at all that evening, but changed his mind when he saw our names on the reservations list.

I'll bet he says that to all the gluttons.

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Click here to read Part 6!

Posted by TraceyG 09:35 Archived in Anguilla Tagged viceroy meads_bay dolce_vita cap_juluca march_1 blanchards_beach_shack Comments (3)

A Sweet Return to Anguilla, Pt. 6: Little Bit O' Sweet Love

The next day we decided to do a little sightseeing on our way to Shoal Bay East.

Translation: I'm going to chase around a bunch of goats and buy $300 worth of Anguilla magnets on our way to Shoal Bay East.

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Raise your hand if you thought it was the goat...

Our first stop was at Irie Life, a brightly-colored shop overlooking Sandy Ground.

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Here, we loaded up on t-shirts, key chains, license plates, bumper stickers, magnets, and baseball caps. I get the feeling that if Irie Life sold used gum wrappers with the letters "AXA" stamped on them, we'd probably buy them, too.

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Then it was off to the Sandy Ground roundabout for a combination rodeo/episode of "When Animals Attack."

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At least they smiled pretty for the camera.

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We passed through The Valley, then headed north toward Shoal Bay Village.

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Only in Anguilla would we pull off to the side of the road in order to admire a chain-link fence studded with old license plates.

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Our journey took us past Wallblake House, a former plantation whose sad history includes the use of slave labor to harvest sugar and cotton.

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We also passed a few local churches, whose sad history includes keeping people from sleeping in on Sundays.

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We decided on lunch at Elodia's, a colorful spot at the end of Shoal Bay near "the point."

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The day was hot and humid, so we stuck to a quick lunch of turkey sandwiches at Elodia's, allowing us to maximize our soak time.

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Of course, there are other ways to cool off, too.

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Elodia's rum punches are quite tasty, and while ordering a second round Angel said as much to the bartender and asked what was in it. Her brown eyes sparkled and she smiled. "Oh, just a little bit o' sweet love!" she chuckled.

We hung around as the beach emptied, enjoying a last rum punch before Elodia's closed up shop.

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If we'd had a little bit o' sweet love at Elodia's, we were in for a whole lot o' sweet love that evening for dinner.

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Though I'm not sure "love" is a strong enough word to convey my feelings for the FBI cheeseburger.

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It was Wing Night, but because I hate the smell of Tobasco, Angel is always kind enough to order his wings for dessert, so the smell won't interfere with my celebration of FBI Monday.

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He even eats them at the bar so I can bask in the burger after-glow.

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Not that he has any ulterior motives, of course.

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Click here for Part 7!

Posted by TraceyG 05:51 Archived in Anguilla Tagged goats ferryboat_inn irie_life elodias march_4 sandy_ground Comments (8)

A Sweet Return to Anguilla, Pt. 7: It's Like an Oven in Here

The first time we ever visited Anguilla's Little Bay, the ride was short and the boat was small, but the leap of faith was huge.

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1997

Based on an early, primitive version of TripAdvisor called "word of mouth," we'd managed to find a man identifying himself as Calvin (last name unknown, but Gumbs or Hodge is always a good bet) hanging out under a big tree near Crocus Bay. After a short discussion, he agreed to drop us off at Little Bay and pick us up three hours later. It sounded simple, but in ye olden times, before the internet, cell phones, and instant background checks, it was akin to accepting a ride from a stranger in a rusted-out van with the windows blacked out. And so it wasn't until we watched this Calvin Gumbs-Hodge motor away, his boat getting smaller and smaller and our sense of dread looming larger and larger, that the thought occurred to us: No one else on the planet knows where we are. If Calvin should get drunk with his buddies under "de big tree," spring a leak in his boat, end up in the doghouse with his wife, or develop a sudden case of amnesia . . . not a living soul in the world would have any idea what had happened to the two of us, except that the little one had tried to eat the big one before both of their skeletons were found.

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Now, of course, Little Bay has been discovered by every private yacht, catamaran, and party boat from here to St. Martin, and you have a better chance of being marooned on Sandy Island than at Little Bay. The only saving grace is that most people like to sleep in when they're on vacation, and so we dragged ourselves out of bed as early as possible to beat the crowds.

We stepped outside and were greeted by this eight-legged leaf? flying snow pea? on the front porch steps, which is reason #1,642 why you should never, ever get up early.

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After I climbed out a window to avoid exiting via the porch, we headed over to Crocus Bay and waited for Calvin to arrive.

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I'm no Navy Seal, but even I know that it is never a good sign when your boat driver shows up armed with a roll of duct tape.

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Apparently the canoe Calvin uses to access his "real" boat had sprung a leak, and so we watched as he nonchalantly duct-taped it back together. Then, trying not to think about the spit, glue, and wadded-up Kleenex that might be holding the real boat together, we went ahead and climbed aboard.

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Calvin immediately recognized Angel's "Little Bay Boat Service" shirt, which has held up surprisingly well over the years, especially considering that Calvin admitted to giving them away to his friends once he discovered that all the lettering kept peeling off. (Ah - yet another use for duct tape.)

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Soon we rounded the bend into Little Bay, which was just as stunning as we remembered.

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We spent the better part of the morning blissfully alone, exploring the rock formations and snorkeling just offshore.

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Well, mostly alone.

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There is an old episode of "Seinfeld" where George Costanza's boss accuses him of having advance knowledge of a bomb threat called in to the office. "You know what I think?" the boss asks. "I think you knew about that bomb ahead of time, George. You climbed under that desk because you have E.S.P. What am I thinking right now? MMMEATBALLS!!!"

You may not have E.S.P., but I'm pretty sure you already know that we didn't drive all the way to the east end just to spend a few hours at Little Bay.

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Located just above Crocus Bay, CeBlue is a small complex of just eight villas carved into the mountainside, each topped with a pale blue roof to mirror the crystalline waters of Crocus Bay below.

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The Blue Bar is bright and airy, with a bird's-eye view of Crocus Bay and beyond.

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We snagged a cliffside table and a couple of Coconut Mamas, which came topped with a floater of dark rum and a dusting of freshly-grated nutmeg.

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They were like piña coladas . . . sans piña.

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Then it was on to the main event: A baking dish filled with MMMEATBALLS!, then topped with Neapolitan-style tomato sauce, ricotta cheese, fresh mozzarella, and baked to bubbly perfection in CeBlue's brick oven.

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Of course, you can't just have meatballs for lunch, so we ordered a couple of pizzas to go with them.

Angel decided on the Romana, topped with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, chicken, roasted peppers, and caramelized onions, while I stuck with a classic pepperoni.

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And the remaining meatball sauce made the perfect dipping sauce for our pizza crust.

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During my junior year of college, some friends and I decided to stay at school over Thanksgiving break and prepare our own turkey dinner. The guys next door decided to stay over break as well, so we offered to cook dinner for them, too. (We were no dummies -- they were old enough to buy booze.) And to add to the festivities, we included a Secret Santa gift exchange. As something of a joke, the person who drew my name got me a foot-long submarine sandwich, just to see if I'd actually eat it after our enormous Thanksgiving feast.

All of this is a long way of saying, if you were sure that I couldn't possibly have finished an entire pizza after those meatballs, you wouldn't be the first one to lose money on that bet.

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After lunch, we took a drive over to Shoal Bay East.

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We were already in the neighborhood, so we stopped by Serenity for some rum punch and a quick swim.

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Serenity has a lovely open-air restaurant overlooking the water, along with a funky little beach bar right on the sand.

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We spent a lazy afternoon alternating dips in the sea with sips of rum.

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Later we took yet another dip -- this one in the pool back at Sweet Return -- before cleaning up for dinner at E's Oven.

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E's is one of the unsung heroes of Anguilla's restaurant scene: Warm and friendly, with a cozy dining room, gentle prices, and food to rival some of the best restaurants on the island.

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On this night, we started with an amuse bouche of tuna crostini, followed by E's smooth, velvety pumpkin soup.

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Then it was on to the real stars of the show: E's sweet-and-spicy coconut-crusted grouper over white bean ragout for Angel, and tender chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce for me, ordered up with a side of E's cheesy potato gratin.

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We finished the meal by candlelight, sipping our wine and reflecting on what we both agreed was one of our favorite meals of the trip.

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Which is saying a lot, considering there weren't any meatballs.
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Click here to read Part 8!

Posted by TraceyG 05:52 Archived in Anguilla Tagged serenity sweet_return e's_oven little_bay ceblue crocus_bay march_10 Comments (3)

A Sweet Return to Anguilla, Pt. 8: Sunset at the Shack

The next morning we took a leisurely ride up to Shoal Bay for a morning swim before the day got too busy.

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The local sights along the way seemed color-coordinated to match the Shoal Bay's ethereal blues.

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We continued along until the stunning bay came into view.

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As is our custom, we dropped our beach bag in the sand without breaking stride, shedding shoes and clothes as we dashed headlong into the crystal-clear water.

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When our fingertips became pruney, we dragged ourselves to shore, then made a quick pit stop back at Sweet Return to rinse the salt off.

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We then popped across the street for lunch at Café Med at CuisinArt.

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We love many things about CuisinArt, including the elegant open-air lobby, the tropical blue-and-yellow color scheme, and the large, sunny pool.

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But we really love the frozen mojitos.

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Some of us, a little too much.

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We chose a table near the pool, sipping our minty concoctions as we perused the menu.

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CuisinArt grows its own vegetables in its hydroponic garden, so crisp greens were the way to go. I decided on the Greek salad with Little Gem lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, and tangy feta cheese, all dressed with a house-made red wine vinaigrette.

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CuisinArt grows its own herbs, too, so Angel went with the grilled skirt steak topped with a fresh, flavorful chimichurri, served alongside a roasted half tomato and some charred asparagus.

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As we were finishing our lunch, we were lucky enough to bump into Peter and his lovely wife Anne from Straw Hat, who recognized me from this blog. I was just happy they saw me after that dainty salad had been cleared. I have a reputation to uphold, you know.

We were already at Rendezvous Bay, so we spent the afternoon floating in the warm sea and enjoying a sneak preview of the upcoming boat races.

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When we'd had our fill of sun, we cooled down with a couple of the best piña coladas on the island at Anguilla Great House.

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That evening, I'd planned an early anniversary surprise for Angel -- a private sunset dinner at the Sunshine Shack. With the help of some folks on the travel forums, I learned that Garvey had arranged a private dinner for a large group in the past, and it looked absolutely beautiful:

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And so, a few months before our arrival on island, I began an online correspondence with Garvey to lock down the day, the time, details about the menu, and, most importantly, the table setup shown in the photo. Attempting to project a laid-back, easygoing island vibe, I casually noted that if pineapples weren't available, conch shells, starfish, or other beachy decorations would do. (But you know I really wanted those little pineapples.)

Finally, the big night arrived. As we made our way down the deserted beach, I smiled to myself as Angel, unaware that anything was amiss, asked me if I was sure if Sunshine Shack was actually open.

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Based on the photo I'd sent Garvey, I could barely contain my excitement as we approached the Shack, picturing a rustic wooden table draped with a linen cloth and ringed by tiki torches in the sand. I envisioned flickering lanterns and decorative pineapples, or conch shells, or even starfish. (But hopefully those little pineapples.)

Unfortunately, we did not get pineapples, or conch shells, or starfish. We did not get tiki torches. We did not even get a table cloth.

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I was disappointed, but not for long. That's because while Garvey may not be the next Martha Stewart, he just might be the next Top Chef, or so it will seem when you get an eyeful -- and mouthful -- of the gargantuan 4 lb. lobster he serves for dinner.

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And not only was this lobster so big that it didn't even fit on our plates, but it was so perfectly marinated and grilled that we scarcely needed the melted butter it came with . . . but scarfed it down anyway, along with the rice n' peas, carroty slaw, and fresh green salad that accompanied this massive sea beast.

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And of course, because Angel had no idea what I'd been expecting, he was thrilled with the setup: A private table in the sand! A ginormous lobster! Someone else paying the bill!

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As the sun began to set, we reveled in the romantic solitude.

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By the time our plates were cleared and the bill was settled, it still wasn't much past 8pm. Not quite ready to call it a night, we decided on a whim to stop by CuisinArt for a bottle of rosé.

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After we'd each enjoyed a glass, we brought the rest of the bottle back to Sweet Return. There, we dangled our feet in the pool, basked in the warm evening breeze, and tilted our faces skyward, contemplating a vast, dark universe decorated with tiny glowing stars.

It wasn't exactly the anniversary night I had planned, but sometimes, the best-laid plans are none at all.
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There's only one Anguilla post left to come, but don't despair: There is still lots of fun to be had as we sample fritas in Key West, funnel-cake French toast in Philadelphia, a most famous meatloaf in East Hampton, mojitos in Miami, a cocktail named for you-know-who in the Hudson Valley, and more stone crab than you can shake a stick at on Anna Maria Island. And did I mention not one but TWO more trips to Anguilla??? Subscribe here to follow along!

Posted by TraceyG 05:24 Archived in Anguilla Tagged cuisinart sunshine_shack rendezvous_bay shoal_bay march_23 Comments (7)

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: Like Hiking, Only Fun

New York is a city of superlatives: We have the tallest apartment building in the Western hemisphere (104 stories); the most professional sports teams of any U.S. city (8); more people than any other metropolitan area in the country (8.25 million); more billionaires than anywhere else in the world (103); and our restaurants have earned more Michelin stars than any other city in the country (85). (We also have more 2 a.m. traffic jams, adults dressed as Elmo, dirty-water-dogs, and overflowing trash cans than any other city, but this list can only be so long.)

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And, of course, we have what is surely the biggest parade in the world: The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, watched by 3.5 million spectators along the 3-mile route and another 50 million people at home. Over 8,000 volunteers participate in the parade itself, along with countless more behind the scenes. Then there are the Macy's employees, including painters, carpenters, sculptors, welders, and engineers, who handle everything from dreaming up the fanciful costumes to designing and building the dozens of floats, balloons, and props. All in all, close to 10,000 people participate in the parade, and each and every one of them shows up no matter what, since the parade takes place no matter what. Raining, snowing, sleeting, freezing? Throw on an extra-thick trash bag and some hip waders; the show must go on.

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Which explains why, even though my weatherproof husband has been participating in the parade for over a dozen years, I have steadfastly declined to join him. I don't do the parade for the same reason that I don't ski, camp, hike, or leave the house without a snowsuit from November through March: I hate being cold.

Plus, I was harboring the most un-American of secrets: I don't like parades. I don't like the banners. I don't like the marching bands. I don't like the announcers, all smug and cozy in their press box while everyone else freezes their extremities off. And I really don't like clowns. Throw in that draconian all-weather policy, and you can see why I'd choose to cheer Angel on from the comfort of my living room with a hot toddy in hand.

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But over the course of 13 years, Angel has worked his way up from balloon handler to head pilot ("One of only 16 large-balloon pilots in the WORLD!" he likes to remind me). And every year more and more friends and family -- including one friend who drives through the night from Portland, Maine to arrive on time -- get involved with the parade, and then sign up to do it again the following year.

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Now, Angel is a naturally charismatic leader, but he's no Jim Jones. And so, as more and more people I knew drank the Kool-Aid and became parade converts, I knew there had to be something to this thing.

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I mean, who foregoes a few extra hours of sleep in a nice, warm bed for a 5 a.m. wake-up call and hours standing around in the cold, rain, snow, or a hellish combination thereof?

Apparently, me.

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Worn down by everyone from my husband to my sister-in-law to one of my best friends, I finally decided that 2014 would be my year. I'd set my alarm for the crack of dawn, trudge to 34th Street before dawn in order to suit up, then board the bus to Central Park & 81st, where I'd wait, and then wait some more, for the parade to finally get under way.

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But first I had to survive basic training.

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Training for balloon handlers begins in early fall in a parking lot at MetLife stadium in New Jersey, which is bad enough right there. Throw in chilly temps and the threat of rain, and I was already starting to rethink my decision.

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Around and around and around we went, learning to handle curves and corners and to operate the "bone," a plastic spool that the rope attached to the balloon is wound around, allowing the handlers below to raise and lower the balloon as needed. In light winds, the balloons can fly higher; in high winds, and at intersections where Manhattan's canyons of buildings create powerful cross-winds, the balloons must fly a little lower.

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Afterwards, each balloon is deflated much as you might expect: After running around in circles in a parking lot for a few hours, we all collapse on top of it. But not before inhaling a little helium on the sly.

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The balloons are then rolled, jelly-roll-style, back into their crates to await the big day.

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Although Sixth Avenue (which comprises the bulk of the parade route) is six lanes across, the large balloons, plus the 60 to 90 handlers and two anchor vehicles under each one, take up the bulk of those lanes. Angel's job is to manage his team of handlers to ensure that the balloon is flying straight -- not too close to any trees, lightposts, flagpoles, spectators, or other obstacles along the route -- and to ensure, through constant communication with NYPD, that its height is appropriate for the day's winds.

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And, as he will not miss an opportunity to remind us weaklings who have the luxury of walking forward, the only way to do all that is by getting far out ahead of the balloon as it makes its way down the avenue and, in order to keep an eye on it at all times, walking the entire 3-mile route backwards.

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In the weeks leading up to the parade, I began praying nightly. I knew better than to ask for good weather, so instead I just begged for not-hellish weather. I laid out a series of negotiations in my nightly chats with the big guy, noting that I'd take snow over rain, chilly over windy, cloudy and warm over sunny but cold. I slept with Angel's photos of past parades, with their vibrant blue skies and light winds, under my pillow.

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As it turns out, however, the Wrath of God is real, and my years of behaving like a heathen came back to bite me: It was cloudy, cold, and drizzly, with a few snow flurries thrown in for good measure.

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The day begins at 5 a.m. in the basement of the New Yorker Hotel near Macy's on 34th Street, where participants gather to don their costumes, guzzle some coffee, and shake each other awake.

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For those of us handling the balloons, those costumes consist of a pair of overalls, a bib, and, thankfully, a warm hat and gloves.

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Everyone is then bussed to the parade lineup, which begins uptown near Central Park.

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To start the parade, the balloons line up along 77th and 81st Streets, while the floats, marching bands, dancers, and other entertainment line up along Central Park West. Once the parade kicks off, the two merge at Central Park West and 77th, resulting in an assorted lineup of floats, balloons, and bands.

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The balloons are kept low to the ground under their nets until launch time, when the parade announcer calls out over the loudspeaker for the balloon to "Join the Parade!"

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Angel has piloted various balloons over the years, from Big Bird and Kermit the Frog to the Pillsbury Doughboy and Pikachu. This year it was Papa Smurf. Do you know how many people know and love Papa Smurf, who will chant his name ("When I say Papa, you say SMURF!") and even paint themselves blue in his honor?

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Approximately 3.5 million.

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And that was the point at which I took a big ol' glug of the Kool-Aid. Because as much as I wanted to complain about being cold and wet, it finally dawned on me that those 3.5 million spectators were cold and wet too, yet they'd gotten up just as early as we had to stake out their spot on the sidewalk, and then they waited hours . . . just to see us. The parade brought together folks of every race, color, and creed, both young and old, and each and every one of them smiled and clapped and chanted for each and every float, balloon, dance troupe, and band that passed by.

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They crammed into windows and onto balconies. They used their gym memberships to get a bird's eye view. They crowded onto church steps and into delis and 24-hour pharmacies and stood hundreds deep at every intersection.

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They screamed themselves hoarse to wish us a Happy Thanksgiving, and it was all so overwhelming that the Grinch who hates parades found that her small heart grew three sizes that day.

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As we neared the end of the parade route, I spied one little girl, whose face lit up as she tilted it skyward to take in the immensity of Papa Smurf. Then she caught my eye and called, "I love you, Papa Smurf! Don't forget me!!!"

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As if I ever could.

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Look for Angel in this year's parade! He'll be piloting the Diary of a Wimpy Kid balloon . . . backwards.

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Posted by TraceyG 08:00 Archived in USA Tagged new_york_city parade thanksgiving macy's macy's_parade Comments (2)

Paris: The City of Light Gets Everything Right

The list of things that are better in Paris is almost infinite. The food is fantastic, the wines are world-class, the clothes are cutting-edge, and the macarons are magnifique. But what you might not know is that all sorts of other things are better in Paris, too. Such as . . .

1. Cars

Americans like everything bigger, especially their cars. Who doesn't like to take their enormous gas-guzzling SUV to the McDonald's drive-through for a triple-bacon-cheeseburger and a diet Coke? But in Paris, economy is a virtue, and the cars are rightly sized for the tiny alleyways and limited parking spots inherent to a 2,000-year-old city.

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They also happen to be really cute.

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Best of all, when your car doesn't take up much room, you can park it wherever you want.

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2. Public Art

Paris is chock-full of great museums, but you don't have to spend the day indoors to get some cul-chah.

That's because the City of Light is also a city of artists, and their pieces are on public view virtually everywhere. They work in various media, including stone, marble, wood, paper, and glass.

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But only the true masters work in bubble.

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Hey, don't knock it. It beats a mime any day.

3. Wine Bars and Cafes

This visit to Paris was a work trip, and I was thrilled to be returning, particularly on someone else's Euro. I arrived a day ahead of a colleague who was coming from Italy, where he'd been meeting with another of our clients. Due to what I presume was his hectic schedule of eating mounds of pasta and guzzling bottles of Brunello, he didn't have time to make any dinner reservations in Paris, and instead left them all to me (and all the bills to our corporate AmEx). Which was exactly like winning the lottery, minus all those annoying relatives coming out of the woodwork.

Luckily my colleague is a smart man who enjoys a glass or two of wine before dinner, and so on most evenings we popped into a wine bar for a pre-dinner aperitif.

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When I wasn't at work, I was busy running the Paris Marathon, which is that mad dash around the city to sample everything you can possibly sip, slurp, scarf, and snarf in the time you have before your flight departs.

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Still, no matter how many logs of goat cheese I gobbled, or how many bottles of Sancerre I guzzled, I somehow managed to still feel at home.

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4. Public Restrooms

If you're out and about for the day in most U.S. cities and need to use the restroom, your choices are pretty limited. You can go into a store and ask, at which point you will be informed (by an employee with an apparently watermelon-sized bladder) that they don't have a restroom, or you can stop at a fast-food place and access their restroom by purchasing a water or soda, thereby creating a never-ending cycle of drinking so you can pee and then having to pee because you had that drink.

Or, you know, you can just pee on the street like we do here in New York City.

Paris, however, has decided to go ahead and acknowledge that people have bodily functions. And so, on the main thoroughfare in many neighborhoods, you will find one of these:

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For a few Euros, and in some cases even for free, you can pop into this little self-cleaning pee pod, close the door, and relieve yourself in peace.

Or so I thought.

I'd taken the Metro from the Right Bank and, after several transfers, arrived at the Maubert-Mutualité stop in the Fifth. My plan was to visit the Marché Maubert (the oldest market in Paris, having started in 1547), then wander around Saint-Germain-des-Pres until my feet fell off. But first, I had to take care of business, so I stopped at the first sanisette I found. Operation is simple: You press a button (or, in some cases, insert a coin) to open the door; when you step inside, a sensor in the floor causes the door to close and lock. You do your business, wash up, then open the door and exit. The door then closes again while the toilet is automatically cleaned and disinfected by a motorized mechanism, then a green light signals that the lavatory is ready for the next user. Simple, right?

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And it was, the first time around. But perhaps I was more desperate later in the afternoon, or just exhausted. I stepped into the pee pod and, after an unusually long pause, the door closed. But then . . . a robotic woman's voice was permeating the pod, offering a greeting? well wishes? bon voyage? in French. Now, my French is decent, but I am by no means fluent. So I waited, and the message was repeated, but still, all I could make out was that it had something to do with the restroom I was currently occupying. But the door was still closed, so I decided to ignore the disembodied voice and approach the toilet, but then the robot-woman spoke again, this time with more urgency.

I was feeling some urgency of my own, so I again decided to ignore her. But before I could tend to my business, the message was repeated yet again, and this time I detected a soupçon of panic in the robot-woman's voice. I listened as intently as I could -- the messages were coming faster now, and by this time the robot-woman's tone now in full-on Def Con 5 mode -- but for the life of me, I could not understand what on earth she was saying.

That's because my French vocabulary apparently does not include phrases like, "Danger! Abort! Get the hell out of here before you are sprayed to death with non-FDA-approved toilet chemicals, imbecile!" Ohhh.

Later, after having vacated the pod for fear that the door would suddenly fling open, catching me sans culottes, I checked the Internet and found this tidbit: "There have been reports of sanisettes beginning the cleaning cycle with small, lightweight children trapped inside."

Apparently the pee pods think I am a small, lightweight child. Who also happens to be illiterate.

Hmph.

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5. Pastries.

The chocolates, pastries, and other sweets in Paris are almost too beautiful eat, and almost too difficult to describe.

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Luckily, a picture is worth a thousand words, which is helpful when your mouth is always full of lemon tarts.

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6. Churches

The French are a religious people, and you would be too if you spent your days consuming things like foie gras, sole meunière, duck confit, and tartiflette. And so their churches are big, beautiful, and bountiful enough that no matter where you decide to eat and drink in Paris, there will be a church nearby where you can pop in and pray for a few more good years before your heart gives out and your liver gives up.

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The most famous of these is Notre Dame, on Île de la Cité. Or, as a couple I met from Texas called it, "The Ill."

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No, I didn't wait in line to get inside. That would have taken up valuable time that could have been spent on #7 on this list.

7. Cheese

Of course, the cheese itself is better in Paris. Cheese is to France what bloomin' onions are to 'Murica. But what's truly notable is that instead of hoarding the stuff like the prized possession it is, Parisians dole out their precious fromage in portions so generously over-the-top that you might not need a pee poop pod ever again.

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Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

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8. Doors

Okay, so doors might not be the first thing to come to mind when thinking of things that are better in Paris. But the doors in Paris, like almost everything else in this stunning city, are works of art.

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Plus, 10 Euros says your city doesn't have any solid-gold doors made for giants.

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9. Hippos

If you can find any place with better leather hippos, I'm all ears.

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Tiny, adorable hippo ears.

10. Architecture

Paris is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world, largely thanks to the efforts of one man: Georges-Eugène Haussmann.

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Neither architect nor engineer, Haussmann was nevertheless hired by Emperor Napoléon III in 1853 to gentrify the city by opening a Starbucks on every corner undertaking a vast public works project to address the overcrowding, disease, traffic, and crime endemic to nineteenth-century Paris. Haussmann's plan included the demolition of crowded and unhealthy medieval neighborhoods, construction of wide avenues to improve traffic circulation, parks and squares to improve the city's light and air quality, and the construction of new sewers, fountains, and aqueducts to improve the water supply.

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All of that sounds fantastic, of course, which is why Haussmann's plan was met with fierce opposition by members of the French parliament, and he was finally dismissed by Napoleon III in 1870. At least it's nice to know that the U.S. isn't the only country with a government run by idiots.

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A key feature of Haussmann's plan were wide boulevards lined by buildings that were all required to be the same height and same basic facade design, and all faced with cream-colored stone, giving the city center its distinctive harmony.

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Away from the city's leafy boulevards, the architecture is less uniform, but even more grand and imposing.

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At the other end of the spectrum, many of Paris's medieval alleyways and cobblestone streets still remain.

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Elsewhere, small but bright side streets invite flowers and greenery.

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Even the office building where I spent a few days working managed to feel airy and open instead of like the prison cell it actually was, standing between me and freedom...to eat more cheese.

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But beautiful as Paris's buildings may be, I suppose none of them can compete with that big metal tower of theirs.

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11. Farmer's Markets

Ever wonder why the produce tastes so much better in Europe?

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Sure, it could be your surroundings -- what wouldn't taste better on Boulevard St. Germain? -- or it could be because in America, we prefer our fruits and vegetables to be uniformly sized, perfectly shaped, and coated in a fine mist of poison designed to kill anything with more legs than we have.

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Then again, who needs good produce when there's pies and pâté?

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And gigantic wedges of cheese. Vegetables, schmgetables.

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12. Selfies

In general, I'm not a big fan of the selfie, which is surprising since I'm really good at pouting.

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But I was alone in Paris, and even though I could have asked a stranger to take my photo, it just didn't seem worth the linguistic effort. And so I snapped a few myself, and in reviewing them I was thrilled to discover that the less makeup I wore, and the frizzier my hair got, the more Parisian I looked.

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Which might just be the very best thing that's better in Paris.

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What's up next? Fritas Cubanas in Key West, a fancy-pants weekend in East Hampton, fall foliage in the Hudson Valley, and fun in the sun in Anguilla. Check back soon or click here to subscribe and you'll receive an email when a new post goes up!

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Posted by TraceyG 08:50 Archived in France Tagged churches paris notre_dame pastries st_germain marche_maubert Comments (9)

Falling Off the Wagon on Fire Island

If you could set sail for a place that combines the windswept beauty of the Hamptons . . . with the funky, come-as-you-are charm of Key West . . . then throw in the laid-back vibe of a barefoot Caribbean island . . . and finally, swap out modern conveniences like cars for little red wagons, paved roads for a patchwork of narrow boardwalks, and cell phones and iPads for messages etched in driftwood and painted on sea shells . . . you'd surely wash ashore on Fire Island.

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Just 40 miles from New York City, Fire Island feels both miles and years away, like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting of an idyllic, 1950s-era beach haven. Thirty-two miles long but less than a half-mile wide, Fire Island consists of just over a dozen small, seaside communities with fanciful names like Saltaire, Atlantique, Summer Club, Kismet, and Lonelyville, all connected not by roads, but by narrow wooden boardwalks and sandy paved paths.

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Cars aren't permitted on the island; neither are taxis. Luggage, groceries, children, and beer are hauled by old-school Radio Flyer wagons. Eighty percent of the island is public park land and can never be developed; the remaining 20 percent is occupied by less than 500 people year-round.

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Children enjoy a carefree existence here, liberated from the ever-watchful eyes of their parents. Their days are spent riding bikes or learning to surf; the more entrepreneurial among them run lemonade stands or sell hand-painted beach stones. When the first fireflies of the evening appear they return, smelling of salt and sunscreen, to lived-in beach houses that haven't been locked all day (if they have locks at all), for charcoal-grilled burgers on the deck or a clam bake on the beach. Cozied up in oversized sweatshirts against the evening's ocean breeze, they wave sparklers in the air and are lulled to sleep by the sound of the crashing surf.

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All of this sounded so delightful that we didn't hesitate when our friends Mika and Cliff rented a beach house for a week over the Fourth of July and invited us to spend part of it with them. And after a little more research, I learned that in addition to old-time charm and unspoiled natural beauty, I should also be prepared for lots of tiny, tame deer in the woods, and lots of raucous, ready-to-party gay guys in certain Fire Island villages. And so I responded to Mika's invitation with a text that read, "All I really want is to pet some deer and see some hot gay guys. And maybe pet them, too. Also, I pulled my hamstring at the gym so if there is a lot of walking, there must also be a lot of vodka."

She could only promise one of the three, but luckily it was the one I was most concerned about. And so we left Manhattan on a glorious Friday morning bound for Bay Shore, Long Island, then hopped the ferry over to the town they apparently named after they used up all the good names: Ocean Beach.

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Mika and Cliff met us at the dock with their adorable daughter Maddy in tow, then loaded our bags onto their wagon and led us back to the house.

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The short walk from Ocean Beach to Corneille took us past woods, dunes, and houses tucked away into both.

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Typical of most Fire Island summer houses, Sand Off was beachy and lived-in, with floral bedspreads, 1970s-era electronics, a rustic outdoor shower, and easy décor meant to withstand myriad renters and house guests.

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It was also just a stone's throw from the beach.

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Best of all, there was a beach ball for Maddy - the Fire Island equivalent of an empty cardboard box.

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The weekend's guests included Cliff's friend Neal, who was celebrating a birthday. It's just a shame that Maddy doesn't like him.

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After settling in at the house, Cliff and Neal took Maddy to the beach, while Angel, Mika, and I picked up a couple of bikes before heading to lunch at one of the handful of bayfront restaurants in town, The Hideaway.

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Not that we really needed the bikes to travel 23 feet and 103/4 inches.

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After lunch Mika showed us around Ocean Beach, along with neighboring Seaview and Ocean Bay Park.

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One of the many charms of Fire Island are the houses, most of them featuring weathered wood or salt-worn shingles, and stubbornly left un-renovated since their heyday in the 1960s. This gives the island a lived-in, beach-weathered look that defies time, trends, and, presumably, termites.

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Like the owners of grand estates everywhere, Fire Islanders take great care in selecting the perfect names for their abodes.

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I think you know which one I would pick.

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After a few hours spent doing exactly that, it was time for refreshments. And so we ended our bike ride with drinks at another of the town's salty haunts, Maguire's.

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The day's gorgeous weather found everyone outside on the waterfront deck.

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There, we were introduced to Fire Island's unofficial beverage of choice: Rocket Fuel, an amped-up piña colada with amaretto and Bacardi 151 that's served at virtually all of the island's bars and restaurants.

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Mika headed back to the house to check on Maddy, while Angel and I stayed in town to do a little shopping.

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The kid drove a hard bargain, but I still had a few dollars left to explore Ocean Beach's other offerings.

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Beware trying anything on, though: Some of these places will really soak you.

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Eventually I ran out of money and Angel ran out of patience, and we made it back to the house just in time for Neal to serve up some Fourth of July-themed cocktails.

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Maddy got a snack, but it seemed that she would have preferred a cocktail, too.

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Or at least a new iPhone.

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On second thought . . . she'll take that cocktail after all.

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A round of quick showers, and soon it was time for a sunset dinner at the Island Mermaid.

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We skipped the stroller and loaded Maddy into the wagon, figuring that anyone who got too tipsy at dinner could ride back in it.

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The Island Mermaid summed up the Fire Island dichotomy pretty well: It is welcoming, beachy, and one of the island's best spots to take in the sunset, but it also serves Rocket Fuels to anyone who can still prop themselves up and slur the words, "Rickets Full."

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We were joined by Neal and his buddy Pete, and during dinner I made the mistake of relating to them a story from Mika's last visit to the Hamptons. We'd been at a nice waterfront restaurant, and after a few rum punches, it was time to use the ladies room. Only, the person who used the stall before me had clearly had more than just a few, since they'd managed to break the toilet seat completely off, leaving it discarded on the floor next to the toilet. I couldn't stop laughing at the mental picture of someone being so ripped as to literally rip the thing clean off its hinges, and thus a new standard was born: Did you have fun, or did you have break-a-toilet-seat fun? The guys were clearly in a break-a-toilet-seat (and maybe even a rip-a-hand-dryer-off-the-wall) kind of mood, because I'm pretty sure our dinner consisted of fresh seafood, frosty Rocket Fuels, and hours of spirited debate about whether something was just regular fun, or break-a-toilet-seat fun.

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The next day was July 4, and the entire house (except for Pete, who was presumably still out destroying restrooms) awoke bright and early to make our preparations. Outfits were carefully chosen, as were coordinating headgear and eyewear. Out came the streamers, balloons, banners, bunting, glitter, and flags. Were we preparing for the RuPaul Drag Race? A Mariah Carey concert?

No. We were entering an 18-month-old in the Fourth of July Kids Parade.

And she could not have been less interested.

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Mika and Cliff lined up at the parade's start . . .

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. . . while Angel and I staked out our seats along the route.

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Soon the parade was under way, kicked off by animated marching bands and antique fire trucks.

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Next up, the wagon-floats, most of which stuck with the "Independence Day" theme . . .

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While others went with "Star Wars" instead.

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Naturally, there was an abundance of mermaids, both large and small.

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And then there were the killer sharks . . .

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And the deadly serious killer sharks. Complete with limping, bleeding "survivors."

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The kids generally fell into one of three camps. There were those who were happy to be there:

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Those who were distracted by more pressing concerns:

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And those who looked like they'd have preferred being attacked by one of the killer sharks to being in the parade.

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Finally we spied Maddy's wagon and got ready to cheer her on. Unfortunately, however, if Maddy was uninterested in the parade before, by now she thought it was a real snooze-fest.

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Of course, that just made her the sleeper hit of 2015.

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After the parade we made a quick stop at Maguire's for a couple of drinks.

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Then, as if the parade hadn't been small-town-charming enough, we headed to the local ball field for lunch. That's where the entire island gathers every year for an old-fashioned Fourth of July cookout, complete with hamburgers, hot dogs, and watermelon, all for $1 each.

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Back at the house, we lolled around for a bit, finally willing ourselves to check the ferry schedule and get ready to depart.

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We hopped the ferry back to the mainland, picked up our car, and headed to our cottage out east. Back amid the hustle and bustle of the Hamptons, that evening we got dressed up for dinner at one of the area's many chi-chi restaurants, where we enjoyed local duck pâté, coquilles St.-Jacques, and a good bottle of crisp Sancerre.

But only because they didn't have Rocket Fuels on the cocktail menu.
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Posted by TraceyG 15:02 Archived in USA Comments (7)

Riviera Maya, Mexico: Five Days of Peace and Plenty, Part 1

As you've probably noticed from our adventures wrangling a boat in the Abacos, sliding down mountains in the British Virgin Islands, and bowling with coconuts in Key West, we aren't your typical vacationers. All-inclusive resorts, cruises, and organized tours aren't our speed. Sure, we like real wine glasses and fine china, but we also like getting off the beaten path, seeking out new experiences, and, most of all, getting away from other people. In other words, we're just not the "hang-around-the-hotel" types.

We are, however, the "all-you-can-eat" types. Which explains how we ended up spending five days at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico's Riviera Maya.

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It was the perfect vacation at the perfect time. First of all, it was March, the longest month of the year. March is the month that's supposed to pack up winter and all its miseries and hit the road already. But it doesn't. Instead, March settles in, hunkers down, puts its muddy feet up on your couch, wipes its dirty hands on your clean guest towels, and drinks all your beer. The damn thing just won't leave.

And second of all, the Blue Diamond Riviera Maya isn't just any all-inclusive. One of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Blue Diamond was featured in an article in Food & Wine magazine entitled, "The Riviera Maya for Foodies," which praised both the resort's fantastic food and the fact that there was lots of it. And that sealed the deal: There would be no driving for hours, only to find a closed restaurant. No wrong turns making us late for our next meal. No arguing about which one of us gets the last bite of dessert. There would be peace, and there would be plenty.

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There would also be, as it turned out, rest, relaxation, seclusion, and luxury. Or maybe that was just the unlimited cocktails talking.

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As luck would have it, we arrived in Mexico the day before three inches of snow arrived in New York City. In late March. It's always nice to have good timing, but it was downright sanity-saving to have gotten out of town right before winter could give us one last, frozen middle finger.

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The flight was short, the transfer to the hotel was speedy, and by noon we found ourselves in the stunning, open-air lobby at Blue Diamond.

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There, we were greeted with chilled towels, two Champagne glasses filled with fresh guava and pear mimosas, and an assortment of Mexican chocolate truffles. As the reservationist checked us in, she asked if it was our first time at Blue Diamond. We responded that it was. "Well, welcome home, then," she smiled.

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It would be the first of many times that we would be welcomed, heart-warmed, and outright spoiled by the kind, generous staff at Blue Diamond. Covering 36 acres of mangrove, lagoon, and beachfront, the adults-only Blue Diamond has a sophistication that belies its proximity to Cancún and Playa del Carmen, and an intimacy at odds with what you might expect, given the prevalence of mega-resorts in the area. It was chic without being snooty, warm without being rehearsed, and small without being claustrophobic.

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The property is long and narrow and, unlike most beach resorts, runs perpendicular to the beach instead of along it. As a result, the property "begins" at the palapa-topped lobby and meanders, via a wide flagstone pathway, past natural limestone pools called cenotes, dense jungle, and exquisite tropical landscaping, ending up at the small but pretty beach.

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Transportation is via chauffeured golf cart, bicycle, or these rarely-used things called feet.

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Formerly a Mandarin Oriental hotel, the Blue Diamond retains much of the Mandarin's minimalist zen vibe, seamlessly incorporating the discreet villas with the natural surroundings for a sense of peace and privacy.

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We chose one of the Villas Ribero, named for their location along the narrow river than wends it way through the property.

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Sure, there was a good chance Angel the Mosquito Magnet would contract malaria, chikungunya, or both, but it's not every day you get to reenact the Jungle Book in person. So I got him some of that Repel spray that comes with warnings about how it will eat your watch, your shoes, and your innards, figuring that having to buy him a whole new wardrobe and a kidney when we got home was a small price to pay for such scenic views.

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I myself was a little afraid that a crocodile or alligator or T-Rex was going to come lumbering out of that river, but the loungers were just too comfy to resist . . . and at least I'd get to go in my sleep.

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To show off the wild surroundings to their best advantage, the villas are clean-lined and simple, featuring natural materials like marble, stained hardwood, and polished bamboo.

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And, in our case, an enormous rainfall-style indoor-outdoor shower, a customized minibar restocked daily with full-sized bottles of top-shelf liquor (no measly pocket-sized bottles at this place), powder-scented TP (you read that right), a welcome bottle of Champagne . . .

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. . . and a wildly romantic outdoor bathtub.

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We even had our own pair of turtles.

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In fact, the names of the various birds and insects we discovered on the property read like a Dr. Seuss poem: There were great-tailed grackles and magnolia warblers; social flycatchers and leaf-footed bugs. Oh, and Rikki Tikki-Tavi.

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After dropping our things at the villa, we decided to forego the proffered golf cart ride, and instead ambled along the pathway toward the beach, where two of Blue Diamond's three restaurants, Ceviche and Aguamarina, offer sweeping views of the beach and the turquoise water beyond.

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We chose the more casual Ceviche and were promptly shown to a beachfront table for two.

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We decided to share the Peruvian ceviche with fresh-caught grouper, red onion, coriander, lemon, and garlic to start, which we quickly realized was the most unusual request our waiter had ever heard: We wanted to share an appetizer at an all-inclusive resort? Why not order two, or even three? In fact, why not order everything on the menu? It took a bit of getting used to, but if anyone is up to the task of getting their money's worth at an all-inclusive resort, I think the smart money's on you-know-who.

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The drink list was epic, spanning roughly a dozen pages and featuring everything from coladas and daiquiris to mojitos and margaritas, all made with top-shelf liquors.

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After lunch, we had a few tough decisions to make: Main pool, lap pool, or spa pool? Margaritas, mojitos, or pina coladas? Not feeling up to venturing too far after our 17-course lunch, we lowered ourselves into two chaises at the main pool, ordered up a round of margaritas, and took in the view.

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After a sufficient amount of tequila, I decided it would be a good time to explain my "new math" to Angel: Just as I am convinced that I'm actually making money every time I buy something, then change my mind and return it, I decided that absolutely everything on this trip was a fantastic deal because it was free. Never mind that the nightly rate was more than our mortgage. The money was already paid, which meant that absolutely everything we ate, drank, gobbled, or guzzled was now . . . free.

Back at our villa, we cleaned up for dinner at Ambar, one of two elegant restaurants serving dinner.

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Overlooking the property's central lagoon, Ambar is chic and sophisticated, even if it does serve beet sponges.

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It was our first-ever dinner at an all-inclusive, and any preconceptions we had about long lines and crappy buffets were quickly dispelled.

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Particularly when we ordered two glasses of wine and the waiter left the entire bottle on the table.

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I mean, they even had little stools for the ladies' handbags. If that isn't fancy, I don't know what is.

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One of the things that drew us to Blue Diamond was that the evening "entertainment" consists of moonlit strolls along the beach, cocktails near the pool, a Cuban cigar at the rooftop lounge, or a soak in the outdoor tub. Sure, I missed the 80s disco and the female impersonators, but I've got all my life to live, I've got all my love to give, and I will survive, hey, hey.

We chose the dark and sexy rooftop Cigar Lounge, which was conveniently located just above Ambar, so we didn't have far to stumble. There, we settled into what was soon to become "our" couch, then enjoyed some Mexican-style whiskey sours, a Cuban cigar for Angel, and a cloudless sky dotted with infinite stars.

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The next morning, determined not to miss a meal, snack, or anything in between, we headed over to the poolside restaurant, Aguamarina, for breakfast. We decided to walk from our villa, passing the lagoon . . .

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. . . as quickly as we could.

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(Confession: When I booked Blue Diamond, I debated between the Villas Ribero and one of these lagoon villas. But the thought of being eaten by a crocodile, before I could eat everything at the resort, was just too much to bear.)

Although I'm not generally a breakfast person, we quickly decided it was the best meal of the day, presumably because it was the only one featuring authentic Mexican dishes. Or at least as authentic as eggs Benedict with chipotle hollandaise over a corn muffin and crêpes stuffed with zucchini blossoms and huitlacoche and topped with poblano chile sauce can be.

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Plus, there was a varied selection of smoothies featuring local fruits, and even cactus, from the resort's "liquid chefs." I decided to try the Tulum with pineapple nectar, pear, and guava, while Angel needed some Soothing, with ginger, lemon, and mint. Of course we have smoothies in New York, but they are either full of fatty things like ice cream or scary things like kale, so we never drink them. But the smoothies at Blue Diamond were clean, fresh, and delicious, which is saying a lot for the only drinks at the entire resort that aren't spiked with alcohol.

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We lingered over coffee, enjoying the warm sun and endless view, then took a walk along the pier.

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We'd been at Blue Diamond less than 24 hours and were already so relaxed as to be nearly comatose . . . and we still had four more days. What else could we eat? How much more could we drink? Could we spend the better part of a week in a semi-conscious haze of sun, sand, tequila, and the resort's addictive French fries?

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You already know the answer, but you might as well read Part 2 anyway: Like everything else on this trip, it's FREE!
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Posted by TraceyG 10:21 Archived in Mexico Tagged riviera_maya blue_diamond Comments (8)

Riviera Maya, Mexico: Five Days of Peace and Plenty, Part 2

By now we'd been at Blue Diamond almost 24 hours, and the combination of sunshine, salt air, good food, and frozen drinks had left us pleasantly sedated. Combined with the utter lack of urgency -- no place to drive to, no restaurants to research, no reservations to make, no sights to see -- and we were a little unsure of what to do next.

So we suited up for a workout at the gym.

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Just kidding! I said "sedated," not stupid. We just needed appropriate footwear for exploring the Temazcal area and the surrounding cenotes.

For the uninitiated, a traditional Temazcal ceremony is where they squish you into this little stone oven and then try to bake your insides. Last one out is a fried egg! Or something like that.

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Actually, the Temazcal hut is supposed to be symbolic of Mother Nature's womb, and the ceremony uses steam and healing herbs to purify the body and the spirit. All I know is, it's going to take a lot more than steam and some herbs to purify my body after this vacation.

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While exploring the Temazcal area, we came upon a small outdoor spa, which -- like everything at Blue Diamond -- blended seamlessly with the natural surroundings.

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Then we checked out a few of the cenotes, which are natural swimming holes formed by the collapse of porous limestone bedrock, revealing the green-blue groundwater beneath. The cenotes at Blue Diamond are unfortunately not suitable for swimming (though some in the Riviera Maya are), but they are beautiful just the same.

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The rest of the day was easy: Pre-lunch snack, lunch, post-lunch snack, later afternoon snack, and dinner, interspersed with cocktails, frozen drinks, and weighty decisions about whether to sun ourselves at the poolside day beds, on the pier, at the spa pool, or at the beach.

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After the fried cheese, pizza, and pina coladas, we made the only sensible choice: The deserted spa, where no one could see us waddle or hear us burp.

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There, we spent the afternoon alternating between the pool and the enormous hot tub.

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Eventually, the sun began to set, and the spa looked even more inviting in the waning light.

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That evening we decided on dinner at Aguamarina, just in time for a lovely sunset.

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The evening's menu featured dishes from the Côte d'Azur, so we started with a Champagne toast, then moved on to a chilled cucumber gazpacho with yogurt, mint, and ginger for me, and a pizzette topped with melted Brie and fresh figs for Angel.

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In between courses, I excused myself to take a few photos of the pool area and somehow stumbled upon a specialty drink stand set up next to the bar. I was the evening's first customer, so naturally I had to try the drink, a muddled lime and orange rum punch.

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Eventually I wandered back to the table, where I was greeted by the creamy lobster pasta finished with white wine and Grana Padano that I'd ordered, along with a perfectly cooked filet in red wine sauce with carrot puree and a potato gratin that I did not order, but would help myself to anyway.

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Then -- surprise! -- it was back to the Cigar Lounge, where we'd figured out that we were the only people at the resort who ever visit this place, which suited us just fine. So we snuggled up on "our" sofa and sipped our whiskeys to a playlist of super-slowed-down, oddly groovy versions of 80s classics from the Cure and Nirvana.

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If you can stop yourself from lip-synching to a whispery, so-slow-it's-almost-playing-backwards version of "Hungry Like the Wolf" using your drink stirrer as a microphone, you are a better woman than I.

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The next day we decided to try something different: The sexy day beds at the oceanfront lap pool. I was surprised that Angel agreed to this since he does not like pools, mostly because he does not like people and that is where they can often be found.

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He loved the day beds.

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We chose the one closest to the water, which was the most private and also afforded a light ocean breeze. We lowered the shades, fluffed up the pillows, buried ourselves in our books, and only looked up long enough to order more drinks. It was like having our own private pool . . . with waiter service and free everything.

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Soon it was time for lunch? pre-lunch? post-lunch? I lost track? but by now we had so embraced our inner sloths that we could not be bothered to walk the 200 yards to the restaurant. So we had the lunch brought to us.

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Then we disobeyed mothers everywhere and went swimming right after lunch.

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It didn't take us long to notice what turned out to be one of our favorite things about Blue Diamond: Everywhere we went, everyone we encountered -- from the cleaning staff and groundskeepers to the lifeguards and waiters -- greeted us not with "Hola," but with a nod and a hand over the heart. We quickly began returning the sweet gesture, which translates roughly as, "Welcome, truly, from the heart."

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Soon it was time for dinner, so we headed back to the villa to get ready.

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Before dinner, we decided to stop by the gorgeous lobby lit for evening.

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We'd visited Aguamarina the night before, so tonight it was back to Ambar.

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Although we thought we might get bored with only two restaurant choices for dinner, there were always tempting specials (and the menu at Aguamarina changes nightly); plus, we could walk from our villa, show up whenever we felt like it, and still get whatever table we chose. Best of all, we could hitch a ride back on one of the ubiquitous golf carts, on the off-chance that someone would keep us bringing drinks, and someone else would keep having to drink them.

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Again, our meal was fantastic: Grilled garlic bread, asparagus flan, and two orders of the delicious filet in red wine sauce.

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I guess you could say we liked it. Or licked it. Whatever.

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The next day we packed up our books and sunscreen and headed back to the poolside day beds. Not wanting to be repetitive, this time we chose the bed closest to the hot tub.

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Which, just coincidentally, was also closest to the bar.

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Before we knew it, our last night in Riviera Maya had arrived. And so we headed back to Aguamarina, for what turned out to be yet another perfect evening.

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The weather was glorious, so we lingered by the pool over cocktails first.

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As the sun began to sink below the horizon, we settled in for dinner.

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We were thrilled to see that the evening's menu featured a number of Mexican dishes which, if the breakfastsesss were any indication, would be delicious. And so we feasted on shrimp ceviche, a spicy chicken mole, succulent braised ribs, and churros with cinnamon ice cream and a tart berry sauce for dessert.

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Oh, and Mexican-spiced shrimp chowder, served in a bowl with a cute little divot just for the lime.

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After dinner, we enjoyed a poolside nightcap before heading back to the villa to pack.

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On our last day, we had time for one last meal before heading to the airport, so we opted for a late breakfast at Aguamarina.

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But not before a couple of Bailey's Banana Coladas. You know, as an appetizer.

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Then it was on to breakfast. As usual, we went a bit overboard, but I knew I couldn't leave without having the grilled grapefruit with brown sugar and honey one last time. Or the zucchini blossom crepes, eggs Benedict with chipotle hollandaise, "green eggs and ham," crispy bacon, a buttery croissant . . . did I mention it was all free? If only it had been calorie-free, too.

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Our time at Blue Diamond had finally come to an end, and even the check-out managed to impress us: When is the last time your limo driver asked you if you remembered to clean out the room safe, checked all the drawers, had your boarding passes, and remembered your passports? Of course, by then we realized it was just par for the course at Blue Diamond, and we both admitted that our preconceptions about all-inclusive resorts meant that we'd almost missed out on what turned out to be one of the best vacations we've ever taken.

And this time, it wasn't just those unlimited cocktails talking again.
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Where to next? Just a bunch of boring places like Paris, East Hampton, Key West, and Anguilla. Check back soon or, if you're feeling lazier than a couple of overfed sloths on a daybed, click here to subscribe and you'll be automatically notified when a new post goes up.

Posted by TraceyG 05:11 Archived in Mexico Comments (8)

A Weekend in Charleston: I've Got Friends in Low Places

"Wow, that's, um, er, . . . adventurous. You'll enable the GPS on your phone just in case, though, right?"

That was the general consensus when I told some friends that I was planning to spend President's Day weekend in Charleston's Low Country with a woman named Sue, whom I'd never met.

And that our accommodations for the weekend would be provided by Sue's friend Missy, whom I'd never met, either.

Of course, I don't usually recommend jumping on a plane to meet up with strangers you find on the Internet, but when the offer includes a free beach house and a three-day binge on pig parts and punch bowls, you'd be crazy to say no.

Or at least just crazy.

Sue and I became acquainted online a few years ago after I wrote a three-part blog post about my food-filled weekend in Charleston, where she lived for nearly 20 years before moving to North Carolina in 2013 to care for her aging mother. We bonded over a mutual love of everything from fried chicken skins to watermelon martinis, communicating online about food, travel, and where we might travel next for some food.

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That turned out to be Charleston, thanks to Sue's friend Missy, who generously offered us the use of her beach house on Sullivan's Island for a long weekend. Weeks of obsessive planning about where and what to eat and drink ensued, with menus and cocktail lists whizzing through cyberspace while Sue and I bombarded each other's inboxes with photos of pork chops, cheese grits, and bourbon drinks. Which sure beats the usual contents of my inbox, which usually consists of the secrets to enlarging certain parts of my body and shrinking others.

Finally, the appointed weekend arrived. Sue drove down from Greensboro and I flew down from New York, and in the 20 minutes it took to drive from the airport into downtown Charleston, Sue and I had already decided to pace ourselves for not one but two lunches and were debating about a snack in between. How could I not like her?

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We parked the car and ambled in the sunshine over to Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar, which was one of the spots I ran out of time for on my last visit. (Hence the two-lunches-a-day schedule this time around. Live and learn.)

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Famed for its gorgeous oyster-shell chandeliers, Amen Street is bustling and bright, and we were happy to discover that we'd arrived just in time to avoid the one-lunch crowd.

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I knew had to try the "Owner's Famous Frozen Peach Bellini," which is made with both Champagne and rum. If one lunch would not suffice, you can bet only one booze wouldn't.

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Sue went with the Bloody Mary, which she loved. Me, I don't like a lot of random vegetables coming between me and my liquor.

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You know what's better than a corn dog?

That's a trick question: Nothing is better than a corn dog. But a shrimp corn dog comes pretty close.

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We also split an order of shrimp ceviche and a third drink, the Chef's Old Fashioned, with bourbon, muddled orange, and brandied cherries. Of course, we didn't really need a third drink, but I'm pretty sure all the rules go out the window when you find yourself eating corn dogs at 11am with someone you just met an hour ago.

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After lunch we milled around for a bit, taking in the sights and enjoying the warm sun on our faces.

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Soon, however, it was time for lunch. Again. And so off we went to the Obstinate Daughter on Sullivan's Island.

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The restaurant's unusual name is an homage to the Battle of Sullivan's Island during the Revolutionary War, in which the defenders of Fort Sullivan foiled the British fleet’s attempt to capture the city of Charleston. This first American Patriots victory inspired a London political cartoon of Miss Carolina Sullivan, one of the "obstinate daughters of America," whose large hairdo concealed fortifications, cannons, and battle flags.

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The restaurant's web site notes, "To us, the Obstinate Daughter is a beautiful reminder that the stubborn refusal to change one’s course of action can change the course of history."

That is true. Because, although we were still plenty full from our corn dogs and cocktails at Amen Street, we forged ahead with our planned course of action. Onward, soldiers! The mighty cannot be felled, neither by gluttony nor by gout!

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The O/D, as it's called, was until recently a beloved Sullivan's Island institution called Atlanticville, which was one of Sue's favorite haunts. So she was understandably a bit leery about giving the O/D a try. But I don't think she had anything to worry about.

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Although it was mid-afternoon, the place was pretty busy, so instead of waiting for a table, we decided to grab two seats at the bar.

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After a short bout of indecision, Sue settled on the Low Country shrimp roll with tasty little fried polenta sticks called "geechie fries," which she paired with the Swamp Fox cocktail. Made with bourbon, maple syrup, Luxardo cherry liqueur, Fresno chilies, and bitters, the Swamp Fox probably should have tasted like that vile cayenne-pepper lemonade people drink to lose weight, but instead tasted like the kind of well-made, sophisticated cocktail people drink to wash down their second lunch of the day.

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After finding myself unable to tear my eyes (and just barely my fork) away from my neighbor's delicious-looking entrée, I ordered the same thing: Homemade gnocchi with short rib ragu, horseradish, and pine nut gremolata.

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Although nearly everything on the O/D's cocktail list sounded amazing, I went with the Palmetto Log Colada, which started off traditional with rum, pineapple, and coconut milk, then veered into interesting with the addition of crushed ice and a sweet surprise: blueberry honey.

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We'd just finished eating when another patron ordered this:

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That is a sticky bun with caramel and pecans. Have you ever seen anyone actually make a sticky bun? It's like spreading an oil tanker full of butter onto half a slice of toast. But after shrimp corn dogs and short rib gnocchi, what's 10,000 more calories? The bartender told us it was too late in the day to order one, but I think the look on my face made it clear that he had two choices: Get the kitchen to make me a sticky bun, or get the manager to come and break up the fistfight I was going to start with the person who ordered the day's last sticky bun.

He got me the sticky bun.

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That afternoon we explored Sullivan's Island a bit.

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Finally, it was time to head back to what Sue referred to as "the beachiest beach house ever." And it was. Spacious, airy, and unfussy, the house radiated the simple charm of a lived-in beach cottage, the kind where everyone is having too good a time to fret much over sandy feet on the floors.

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My room was bright and cheery, with lots of fluffy towels and a warm, soft quilt on the bed.

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By the end of the day we were both too tired and too full to follow through on our original dinner plans, so Sue suggested the appropriately-named Stack's Evening Eats in nearby Mt. Pleasant for snacks and wine instead.

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There, we sat at the bar with a couple glasses of crisp white wine, a plate of fried oysters, and the best Brussels sprouts I've ever had.

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The Brussels sprouts were fried till crispy, then served with a creamy, savory smoked tomato and herb dipping sauce. That might sound fancy, but in the South, "dipping sauce" is just a euphemism for "mayonnaise," much like "I'll have a side of bacon" really means, "Just bring me the whole hog, and be quick about it."

Or, maybe they just call it dipping sauce because they know that's what you'll be doing with your fingers as soon as those Brussels sprouts are gone.

The next day dawned cloudless and sunny, but also freezing. And I don't mean southern-style, it's-65-degrees-where's-my-parka freezing. I mean freezing-freezing: Accounting for the wind chill, the day's high was roughly 40 degrees. Luckily I came prepared.

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Sue steered us to the Boulevard Diner, where we could wait for a table in the small vestibule instead of out in the cold. After a bit of exercise to warm up, that is.

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That gave us time to peruse the menu and take in the old-school diner décor.

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I really wanted fried pork chops, but Boulevard Diner was serving brunch. Luckily, though, this is South Carolina, where fried pork chops at Sunday brunch are as commonplace as pacemakers at Sunday dinner. And so I had the fried pork chops with scrambled eggs, cheese grits, and toast.

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Sue went with a classic: shrimp and grits.

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If you're going to start the day with things like fried pork chops and cheese grits, there's no guarantee you'll make it to the end of the day. So you might as well go for broke with some creamy coconut cake and a rich chocolate mocha pecan torte for dessert.

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After brunch we continued our exploration of Sullivan's Island, along with neighboring John's Island.

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It's not the $1,000 that gets me. It's that extra $40, tacked on like a bad toupée.

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And forget looking out for jellyfish. Here, the hazards include things like deep holes and marauding coyotes, which make the deadly currents seem somewhat redundant.

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Worried about the land mines they probably forgot to mention, we headed inland a bit so Sue could show me the local neighborhoods.

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Just when I started to think the houses all looked the same, a spaceship landed on this guy's lawn.

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His neighbors, however, refused to be outdone by some lousy flying saucer.

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After a little more driving around, we ended up at Vickery's on Shem Creek for an afternoon pick-me-up (and drink-me-down).

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With its wraparound decks and outdoor bars, Vickery's is the perfect place to take in the view with a cocktail in hand.

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That evening we had plans to meet Missy downtown at the Cocktail Club to share a party-sized punch bowl before grabbing dinner downstairs at one of Charleston's hottest new restaurants, the Macintosh.

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Sure, a giant punch bowl might sound like a bit much for just three people, but that's why Missy brought her friend Jill . . . and Sue brought me.

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On Sunday nights, the punch bowls at the Cocktail Club are only $20, which is just $5/person for a really good buzz, or $10/person for a really good coma.

Of course, you could probably get a punch bowl for $20 in NYC, too. At a flea market, where it will come with a big crack down the middle and two used Dixie cups.

We chose to fill our punch bowl with the Beachcomber No. 2, which contained white rum, brandy, pineapple and lemon juices, cinnamon syrup, ginger beer, nutmeg, and the fantastically named "Velvet Falernum," which sounds like something a natty gentleman might wear but in fact is similar to a low-proof rum infused with lime zest, ginger root, cloves, and almonds.

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After recounting our weekend adventures for Missy and Jill, Sue asked if Missy would mind if I stored my luggage at the house the next day while exploring Charleston solo, since Sue planned to depart early to beat some impending bad weather. Of course, this being the South, not only did both Missy and Jill offer to stow my luggage at their respective houses, but both of them offered me a ride to the airport to boot. If two strangers in New York City ever make you this same offer, it is very likely that (1) you will never see your luggage again, and (2) no one will ever see you again.

Soon it was time for our dinner at the Macintosh, where, in a textbook case of nominative determinism, a chef named Jeremiah Bacon is turning out bacon burgers and other divine swine in a chic TriBeCa-meets-Charleston space complete with exposed brick walls, reclaimed floors, and caged pendant lights.

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The room was too dark for photos, but I did manage a few of the pork shoulder ravioli, which are blurry not because of the dim light, but because your head is likely swimming at the sight of this puffy pocket of porkalicious perfection. For while pork on its own is good, pork that has been submerged in fat and cooked for eight hours is even better, particularly when whatever has fallen off the bone is stuffed inside a giant ravioli, along with some pork stock and crème fraiche.

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Sue wanted to get an early start on the drive back to Greensboro the next day, so we woke early and made a beeline for one of her old favorites, Page's Okra Grill, a Low Country legend that offers "Local Food for Local Folks."

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As well as, "Giant Rocking Chairs for Porch-Deprived New Yorkers."

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After breakfast, I texted my new friend Jill to find out whether her offer to let me store my luggage at her place still stood, or if that was just the previous night's punch bowl talking. She responded with the most fantastic text I've ever received from a complete stranger: "I won't be home till 1 but have left a key for you. Two overly friendly cavalier spaniels will greet you. If you go out, just lock up and put key back in place. Make yourself at home. What time do we need to head to the airport?"

I was gobsmacked. Oh, sure, stranger from New York City who could be an axe-murderer. Just take my key and let yourself in and make yourself at home. And if you haven't robbed me blind and kidnapped my dogs by the time I get home, I'll even take you to the airport!

And so I dropped my luggage at Jill's house, which turned out to be a manse in the heart of downtown Charleston, complete with two adorable spaniels.

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After saying my good-byes and thank-yous to Sue, I had about two hours to kill in Charleston before my flight. Naturally, I spent them eating.

I didn't have a ton of time, so I headed over to Gaulart & Maliclet, a tiny café also known as "Fast & French."

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The space was tight and the seating communal, so it wasn't long before I got to chatting with a lovely woman named Kimberly Glenn, an interior designer whose firm you should definitely patronize because she is warm and friendly and has excellent taste . . . in dining companions.

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We both ordered the lunch special: French onion soup, cheese and bread, and a glass of house wine.

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Fast & French lived up to its name, leaving me with just enough time to take in some sights before heading back to the airport.

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One of Charleston's many hidden treasures are the tiny gardens, alleys, and nooks tucked among the city streets.

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As promised, Jill gave me a ride to the airport, and we chatted along the way about the pleasures of meeting strangers and offering hospitality and trusting that your new friend isn't a serial killer.

And when I got out of the car, she didn't even drive off before I could grab my luggage.

Southern hospitality indeed.
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Posted by TraceyG 15:21 Archived in USA Tagged charleston stacks low_country sullivans_island obstinate_daughter amen_street page's_okra_grill the_macintosh cocktail_club boulevard_diner Comments (9)

New York, New York: It's a Helluva Town

This month marks twenty-one years that I have lived in New York City -- nearly half my life. It's quite an accomplishment, really, when you consider that New York is excessively noisy, grossly overcrowded, ridiculously inconvenient, and monstrously expensive.

It also happens to be the greatest city in the world.

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Arriving home

I showed up in a rented U-Haul on a blustery day in March of 1994 to the sound of blaring horns, hollering cabbies, and a cacophony of foreign tongues, all of which I am sure were cursing me out for double-parking on a busy downtown street. I was overwhelmed and exhilarated and completely unprepared for the unrelenting pace. Just ordering a sandwich in a deli -- the crowding, the yelling, the line moving at the speed of light and the deli guys all barking "NEXT!" at the exact same time -- was enough to send me fleeing without my food. Well, almost.

I didn't know a soul. I had never taken a subway before. I didn't know which neighborhoods were safe, or where to get a decent bagel, or how to negotiate the city's mangled sidewalks in heels. "Evens go east, odds go west," I'd mumble to myself as I attempted to navigate the bustling canyons. I didn't dare look up or stop to consult a map, lest all of my NYC nightmares come true at once: I'd tumble into an open manhole, get hit in the head by a falling air conditioner, be mowed down by the passing crowd, and have my purse stolen . . . but not before the thug beat me with it for good measure.

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My first New York apartment, on 26th Street

I was young and brave and stupid all at the same time. I'd never been jostled by so many people, bombarded by so much noise, or exposed to so many casual and creative uses of the F-word in my entire life. (Once, in SoHo, I saw a young father carrying his toddler on his shoulders. When I passed by, I heard him mutter, "Goo-goo, ga-ga . . . what the f*ck does that mean?") Worst of all, I was not at all sure that I'd made the right decision in uprooting my comfortable life in Pennsylvania for one that seemed to promise nothing but hassles.

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P.J. Clarke's, on 55th Street

In fact, the only thing I was sure of . . . is that I was in love.

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Rockefeller Center

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Times Square

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Empire State Building

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SoHo

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East Village

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Central Park

And much like love itself, the energy here is a drug (and the only legal one you're likely to encounter): It draws you in, gets you hooked, and keeps you coming back for more. Living in this city has changed me in more ways than I can count: I talk faster, walk faster, am faster to offer, er, opinions, and have been exposed to more wealth, poverty, diversity, art, culture, architecture, and amazing food than I ever dreamed.

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Capital Grille in the Chrysler Building

Waaayyyy more amazing food.

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Coca-cola carnitas at El Camion

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Paella at Soccarat

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Cheesesteak at Bobby Van's

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Skillet sticky-toffee pudding with medjool dates at The Smith

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Coconut sponge cake with passion fruit pudding at Buddakan

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Fish gyro with lobster ragout at Anassa Taverna

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Sparkling blood orange mojitos at Cafeteria

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Steamed eggs with chèvre and sundried cherry tomatoes at Buvette

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Wild mushroom dumplings with truffle foam at Breeze

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French onion soup burger at Little Prince

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Cocoa-pumpkin ravioli at Becco

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Chicken pot pies at Parnell's

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Tilapia with cherry tomatoes and shrimp at La Gioconda

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Ground chuck and brisket burger at Hillstone

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Veal parmigiana at Giorgio's of Gramercy

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The Generous Pour event at Capital Grille

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Birthday dinner at Maloney & Porcelli

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Birthday milk and cookies at Jane

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Birthday dinner at Le Bernadin

Of course, into the life of every food-lover, the occasional crapcake must fall.

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My entire identity as an adult has been shaped by the grit and grind of this city, imbuing me with a sense of determination, confidence, sophistication, and good old-fashioned gumption that I might never have acquired if I'd stayed in Pennsylvania, or moved somewhere like Cleveland or Charlotte.

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View from our bedroom

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View from our living room

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The city's skyline is always changing, and our view now includes the tallest residential tower in the western hemisphere: 104 stories.

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Our favorite local park, Greenacre Park

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Lining up for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

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The famous tree arriving at Rock Center

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It's almost ready...

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Crowds gathered for the tree lighting, as seen from Angel's office

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Cocktails at the Rock Center Rink Bar

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Central Park in springtime

Macy's Fourth of July fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge

In fact, New York has turned me into a walking contradiction: I swear like a sailor and argue like a lawyer, but I also know my Prabal Gurung from my Proenza Schouler, and could pick David Chang or Andrew Carmellini out of a lineup. I speak fluent "restaurant-menu" Italian and have a small vocabulary in both Spanish and Yiddish. (It's mostly curse words, but whatever.) I can talk with some authority about the latest exhibit at the Met, or we can debate whether the dirty-water dogs are better at Yankee Stadium or CitiField. And I completely agree that New York pizza is the best you will ever have (Lombardi's) . . . and the worst you will ever have (all variations of the "Original" Ray's).

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Lombardi's coal-oven pizza

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SoHo

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Restaurants along Second Avenue

Geographically speaking, New York City is an embarrassment of riches. Within a two-hour drive in any direction, we can be leaf-peeping in the Adirondacks, lounging on the beach in the Hamptons, sipping wine at a vineyard on the North Fork, relaxing in rocking chair at one of Cape May's Victorian-era "painted ladies," or biking the oceanfront bluffs on Block Island. Or, you know, watching people pee in the sand in the Rockaways.

And if we ever tire of road trips, there's everything from Broadway musicals and world-class museums to dive bars in the East Village and designer boutiques in SoHo.

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SoHo

Oh, and roughly 24,000 restaurants, which means I could eat at a different one every night for the next 65 years, and still never hit them all. Not for lacking of trying, of course.

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Our summer lunch spot, Dos Caminos

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Our Friday-night date spot, China Grill

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The Saigon-tini at Le Colonial

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Dinner at Tao

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Our Sunday morning brunch spot, Le Bateau Ivre

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Our favorite snowy-evening spot, Café Joul

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View down our block

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TriBeCa

There are so many "only in New York" things to love about this city that it's hard to even name them all, and everyone's list would be different anyway. Mine would include everything from bodega cats and the Comedy Cellar to chocolate-chip-cookie delivery until 3am and nail salons open 24 hours a day. It would include the fact that there are nearly 200 bars in the East Village alone, and the fact that you can eat anything here from roasted crickets to ant caviar to goat-eyeball tacos (not that you would. It was hard enough just typing that). It would include a local moving company called Schleppers and a Chinese takeout place called Wok to Walk.

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Views from my office (with a cameo by my desk lamp)
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Outside my office building

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On my way to work
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Views from Angel's office
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My list would also include the Manhattan Mini Storage ads for space-challenged New Yorkers. At least we can laugh at our shared misery.

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Also making the list would be the inside-baseball references on Seinfeld and Law and Order, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, living within walking distance of Bloomingdale's/Bergdorf's/Bendel, spring in Central Park, sending our laundry out for fluff-and-fold, the bacon burgers at Corner Bistro, and dressing extra-fashionably when I know they're filming on my block. It would include the free(!) ferry ride to a Staten Island Yankees game on a balmy June evening, as the boat glides by the Statue of Liberty, and even the most jaded among us whip out our camera phones and snap away.

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Lower Manhattan

It would include being surrounded by art, culture, fashion, law, publishing, real estate, finance, and all the other industries that make this city pulse with bright, interesting, creative people. And people like me and Angel.

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Sunset from our apartment

Indeed, the only downside to living in New York City is that I'm turning into one of those entrenched New Yorkers who won't ever be able to live anywhere else.

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Park Avenue, midtown

Not that I'd ever want to.

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It's always hard to tear ourselves away from the Big Apple, but this is still a travel blog. Up next, time with friends in Charleston, time alone in Paris, and time with tequila in Mexico. Click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know how it's possible for a savvy New Yorker to become trapped in a public restroom on the swankiest street in Paris.

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Posted by TraceyG 10:36 Comments (10)

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