A Travellerspoint blog

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 dirty feet up on your couch, wipes its muddy 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.

Want more NYC? Click here!

Posted by TraceyG 10:36 Comments (10)

Xmas in Key West: Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation, Pt 1

Of course, we didn't really leave on probation. But if eating too much, drinking too many, laughing too loudly, and lazing around too often were crimes, I'm pretty sure we'd be sentenced to life without parole after this trip.

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As it was, we compiled a pretty impressive rap sheet during our ten-day spree.

Count 1: False Advertising

On this visit we were joined by our friends Ellen and Brian, who had just started new jobs in California when we began making our travel plans. And so, by the time the four of us coordinated our schedules and decided on the dates for our visit, most of the rental houses we were interested in were already taken. And it didn't help that we wanted a nightly rental, not a weekly, Saturday to Saturday one, and that the house we originally settled on went to someone else due to a mix-up on the rental agency's part. And so we picked the best of the bunch from what was left, the Bahama House on Amelia Street.

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The outdoor space was fantastic.

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The pool was plenty big enough for four and heated to just-short-of-hot-tub, and was surrounded by comfy loungers, a covered porch with seating for four, and a small gated garden that was perfect for storing our bikes.

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The inside, however, was apparently decorated by vampires. Neither bedroom had a mirror. Neither bedroom had a dresser. All of the hurricane shutters were nailed shut, blocking out all the natural light. And there wasn't a single hook for a bathing suit, wet towel, or black cape in the entire house.

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There was nowhere to unpack anything, so we lived out of our suitcases. We hung our panties from the doorknobs and dangled our bras from the light fixtures. Within days, there was so much lingerie hanging around that folks thought a new bar had opened in Key West.

When we ran out of doorknobs, I fashioned this lovely underwear shelf out of a plastic platter.

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We had a washer and dryer, but no laundry detergent, and even if we had, the dryer didn't work for the entire duration of our stay.

If the planet runs out of fossil fuels in your lifetime, you can just blame the four of us. No dryer, plus no hooks for drying (and all shade outside), meant that we went through approximately 400 towels in 10 days, each used exactly once before it was left for the maid so we could get a dry one.

Heck, we didn't even have plates.

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Okay, I'm kidding about that last one. But we did have only two wine glasses, even though the house sleeps six. Which, if we're counting down crimes, is probably the worst one on this list.

Count 2: Petit Larceny

Tequila and law-breaking go together like Tracey and tacos, which is why we made not one but two trips to Agave 308 on this visit.

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Key West is home to dozens of bars, but you could probably count on just a few fingers those that serve drinks that aren't syrupy-sweet or made from bargain-basement booze. Agave 308, underneath the Rootop Cafe, is one of those few. Sure, the décor consists of sugar skulls and a multicolored marijuana-leaf lamp, but when the food and drinks are this good, you can decorate the place with poison ivy for all I care.

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My favorite drink at Agave is the Paloma de la Fresa, which combines house-made strawberry-infused tequila and muddled strawberries with fresh lime and tart grapefruit to temper the sweetness.

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One Paloma is good, and two Palomas are better. Three Palomas is just asking to be hauled away in handcuffs.

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Angel's favorite, the Mexican Mule, is made with Milagro silver tequila, ginger syrup, fresh lime, ginger beer, and candied ginger, for a hot-sweet treat, served in a traditional Moscow Mule copper mug to keep it perfectly chilled.

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Best of all, Agave serves the best pork tacos north of the border, made with house-roasted shredded pork, spicy slaw, and pico de gallo.

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Okay, so they might be a little greasy.

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But they're also so delicious that at two for just eight bucks, it almost feels like we're stealing them.

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Almost.

Count 3: Aiding and Abetting

To get to Key West, our friends Ellen and Brian drove an hour from San Jose to San Francisco, boarded a red-eye for a 6-hour flight to Miami, changed planes there for yet another flight, then finally landed in Key West nearly 12 hours after they'd left the house the day before. (That's what you get for moving to a place where going on a hike, not nursing a hangover, is the preferred Saturday-morning sport.) They arrived at the house dazed and exhausted, plopping down in a travel-weary pile on the sofa for what surely would have been a nice, long nap.

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If we hadn't dragged them off to brunch, that is.

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I knew Ellen was still upset about missing the all-you-can-eat-and-drink Christmas Day brunch at the Casa Marina on our last trip, and I wasn't going to let her miss it a second time. And so we splashed them with some tonic water, waved some margarita salts under their noses, and dragged them off to the Casa. For their own good, of course.

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The Christmas Day brunch at Casa Marina features carving stations, a mile-long dessert table, and unlimited mimosas that start arriving the minute you sit down.

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The day was glorious, with vibrant blue skies and reggae-tinged versions of our favorite Christmas songs floating on the warm breeze.

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Of course, even on Christmas Day your teenagers will ignore you in favor of their iPhones, but at least they'll look festive while they're doing it.

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Count 4: Identity Theft

Key West might be a tropical paradise, but you certainly wouldn't know it at Christmas. Over the holidays, the island disguises itself as a Christmas-y wonderland, complete with Christmas trees, snowmen, Santas, and Abominables.

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Of course, the island can't shed its beachy identity completely for the holidays. Then again, maybe those are Jesus fish?

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Count 5: Reckless Endangerment

After a week spent shoveling down everything from tacos and meatballs to pot pies and cheesesteaks, even I needed a break. And so we headed off to Banana Café for a much-needed green salad.

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But this is Key West, where healthy hearts and functioning livers go to die. And so the salad I so dutifully ordered came topped with . . . mayonnaise.

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No, I don't mean a mayo-based dressing. I mean actual mayonnaise.

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A few days later I tried again to eat something that wasn't fried in lard, covered in lard, or actually was lard. I remembered that Caroline's Café had a good selection of salads, so off we went again in search of greens.

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I forgot, however, that the best salad at Caroline's comes topped with bacon. And fried chicken. And Ranch dressing.

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My taste buds gave me a round of applause. My arteries gave me the finger.

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Eventually I just gave up on the salads and had some corn. Fresh, healthy corn.

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Slathered in mayonnaise and cheese.

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Count 6: Arson

Is it a crime to set someone's mouth on fire with a toothpick? If so, then Peppers of Key West would be guilty as charged.

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An emporium of all things hot, spicy, saucy, and sweet, Peppers is the perfect place to mosey up to the bar and get your face melted off.

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We started with the milder sauces -- like the fantastic coconut mango, a figgy steak sauce, and a sweet-but-spicy teriyaki -- and then Angel moved on to the ones so hot that they are stored in little coffins and carry warnings about death, diarrhea, and death by diarrhea.

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You are instructed not to let the toothpick touch your lips, or they will shrivel up and fall off, and to wash your hands before using the restroom, or certain other parts may shrivel up and fall off.

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So far Angel is still intact, but I'm keeping an eye on the situation.

Count 7: Harassment

On every visit to Key West, we stop by Eaton Bikes to harass our friend Chris, who with a patient smile attaches accoutrements -- flowers, streamers, and a bell that reads, "Get the %$#@& Out of My Way" -- to my bike, even though he knows that I am a menace on two wheels and that I will spend the next ten days ringing that bell nonstop like a deranged Quasimodo.

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But how else am I supposed to get around? Sure, I've crashed my bike into a mailbox (2010), a truck (2011), a curb (2014), and Angel (1999-present), but if that makes me clumsy on two wheels, you should see me on two feet.

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Count 8: Bootlegging

In the early 1900s, 105 Simonton Street in Key West housed a Coca-Cola bottling facility. Today, it is home to Key West's first legal rum distillery. Next time your grandpa goes on about how great everything was back in his day, you can refer him to this shining example of progress.

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We decided to do the short guided tour of Key West Legal Rum, during which our guide, Mike Ehrmantraut, explained the distilling process and showed us all these cool machines and Angel impatiently tapped his toe waiting for the tasting portion of the program to begin.

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Paul Menta, the chef at Amigos Tortilla Bar, is the brains behind this operation, cranking out homemade hootch infused with natural flavors like vanilla brûlée, key lime, and mojito mint.

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Best of all, next time you crash your bike into a mailbox or feel like eating a bowl of mayonnaise for lunch, you've got a ready-made excuse.

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Count 9: Fraud

About a month before we were scheduled to meet up in Key West, I received a two-word text from Ellen: "Meatball Cruise?" That, of course, is how we refer to the Sunset Sail on the Fury catamaran, which offers crappy margaritas and a decent live band and a great crew and who the hell cares because MEATBALLS! I naturally said yes and then quickly put together one of those "Christmas Countdown" chains, but instead of counting down to Christmas, I was counting down to MEATBALLS!

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They didn't have the meatballs.

I don't know. Maybe people complained last time that the meatballs kept rolling off their plates and some skinny blonde girl kept swooping in and scooping them up? I'm sorry, but the five-second rule applies in international waters, too.

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The sunset that evening was spectacular, a fiery orange that faded to a wisp of pink as we made our way back to Key West.

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Although we were forced to sail along in meatball-less melancholy, they did have fried chicken, which, even when it comes frozen and is reheated in a Soviet-era microwave rusted out from salt spray, still beats not having fried chicken.

It does not, however, beat meatballs.

Count 10: Criminal Impersonation

I am often guilty of judging a restaurant by its nondescript cover, and Deuce's Off-the-Hook is one of them.

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Plus, I like booze as much as the next guy, but happy hour at 8 a.m. is a bit much even for me.

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Still, when friends Mark and Steven told me that Deuce's was one of their favorite new dining spots, I took a peek at the menu. And then I jumped on my bike and pedaled over there faster than you can scoop a rogue meatball off a boat deck.

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That's because Deuce's has lobster pot pie sandwiches. Let's just let that sink in for a moment: Lobster. Pot pie. Sandwiches.

We started off with the smoked fish dip and an order of spanakopita for the table, followed by the fish sammie for Angel, the gyro with sweet potato tots for Steven, and an entire deep-fried sea creature on a bun for Mark.

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And the Lobster. Pot pie. Sandwich. for me.

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Okay, so it's not even remotely a sandwich. But when your lunch entrée arrives and it looks like this, are you really going to split hairs?

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----------------------------------------------------
Next up, PART 2! Hide your kids, hide your wife, hide your food.

Posted by TraceyG 15:13 Archived in USA Tagged key_west Comments (6)

Xmas in Key West: Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation, Pt 2

Our Key West crime spree continues with loitering, breaking and entering, and one cleverly staged home invasion.

Count 11: Loitering

Key West is the world capital of loitering, and one of the best places to do that is at the Southernmost Beach Café.

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Of course, there's a fine line between "loitering" and "I've had so many frozen drinks I can't get out of my chair." You know who you are.

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The weather during our visit was hot and mostly sunny, so we also spent a fair amount of time loitering around the pool.

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When it wasn't already occupied, that is.

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Count 12: Breaking and Entering

On Christmas morning, my friend Mark posted the following message on Facebook: "Look what Santa left this morning: Homemade coconut cream pie. Come over and help me eat it." Didn't he realize that the house we'd rented was less than a block from his own? I threw on a dress and was barreling through his front door less than 3 minutes later, brandishing my weapons: A fork in one hand and an insulated to-go bag in the other.

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As Mark and I wolfed down the best coconut cream pie I've ever had, Mark's partner Steve decided it would be the perfect time to whip up some homemade macaroni and cheese. Look, guys: If you want me to move in with you, all you have to do is ask.

On top of all this, the pair had just returned from Brussels, and surprised us with a box of decadent Belgian pralines for Christmas.

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They bring me good chocolate; I bring them battering rams.

Later that week, Mark made the mistake of telling me that he'd spent three hours making homemade enchiladas for a dinner he'd planned to host for Steve's father and his partner.

I think you know what happened next.

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Count 13: Coercion

A few days into our visit, we noticed a pattern developing: Ellen and Brian would walk down to Southernmost Beach Café, grab lunch, and then spend the day on a couple of loungers at the beach. But when Ellen developed a blister from all the walking and Brian could recite the lunch menu at Southernmost by heart, we knew it was time for a change. And so we convinced them to rent bikes and meet us down at Salute on the Beach for lunch.

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It was something of a disaster.

First, it rained. Have you ever ridden a bike in the rain? The back tire kicks up muddy rain water. Raindrops pelt you in the face. The seat gets uncomfortably slippery. And you arrive at your destination looking like a drowned rat. Or, in my case, Bon Jovi circa 1986.

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Second, the restaurant was packed. And so we waited, and waited, and waited some more, occupying the time by making mitts out of toilet paper to dry ourselves off.

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Finally, parched and starving and covered in stray bits of wet TP, we were seated.

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I decided to try the antipasti sandwich, which looked normal to me but, according to Angel, was freakishly huge. And coming from someone who's lived with me for nearly 20 years, that is not a statement to be taken lightly. So let's just go ahead and assume that my sandwich looked like one of those ones in the Guinness Book that's 200 feet long and feeds an entire town.

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Even though my hair, and my belly, had both puffed up to twice their normal size, I agreed to pose with the empty plate. Angel, and Bon Jovi, would be proud.

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Count 14: Home Invasion

The last time we visited our friends Stephanie and Ari in Key West, I fell in love with their sweet little dog, Babka, and may or may not have attempted to kidnap her by folding her up and stuffing her into my handbag.

That is, until I saw the newest addition to their family. Meet Latke, the most adorably ridiculous-looking animal I have ever seen.

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(No, she's not growling; that's just her face. And yes, that's a mohawk.)

As usual, I managed to finagle a dinner invitation by raving about some dish and having someone who actually knows how to cook take pity on me. When Steph and Ari came to NYC last fall, one of the restaurants they chose is an old favorite mine and Angel's, Osteria Morini. As soon as I found out they would be there for lunch, I implored Steph and Ari to order my favorite dish, the sformato, which is a savory custard made from Parmigiano-Reggiano, butter, and whipping cream, and delivered to Earth on silver platters borne by baby angels.

Osteria Morini didn't have the sformato.

And if I'd known that ahead of time, it would have been one of the most ingenious plans I'd ever hatched, at least since that time I convinced Angel I had Prader-Willi syndrome and had to eat every 30 minutes due to my, er, condition.

Because as it turned out, my obsession with the sformato prompted Stephanie to generously offer to make me one on our last night in Key West. Which explains all those salads on this trip: I was saving up.

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Of course, because Stephanie is a Jewish mother (of two canines named for cakes), serving us a ramekin stuffed with 10,000 calories would not do for dinner. So she also made salad . . .

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. . . and the sformato, topped with wild mushrooms sautéed in butter . . .

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. . . and snapper with pesto, accompanied by grilled vegetables topped with goat cheese . . .

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. . . and chocolate soufflés with fresh strawberries . . .

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. . .and homemade coffee ice cream.

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It was quite a meal, and Stephanie succeeded in making sure that by the end of it, I was way too full to chase her dogs around and stuff them into my purse. I guess I'm not the only one with ingenious plans.

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Count 15: Conspiracy

In criminal law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime at some time in the future. If plotting to consume your own body weight in sangria is a crime, then our group dinners fit the bill.

Our first outing was to A&B for Christmas dinner, since there is no better way to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus than with cocktails and chocolate cake.

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A few days later, we met up with Mark, Steve, Steph, and Ari for dinner at Santiago's. In advance of our reservation, the six of us spent weeks haggling over what we were going to order and arguing about who was going to go hungry if they had to sit next to me.

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After dinner we stopped by the Orchid Bar. I may have a tapeworm, but our Key West friends have hollow legs. And arms.

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Speaking of crimes . . . this many pairs of dimples in one place really should be illegal.

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We returned to Santiago's the very next night with Ellen and Brian for another go-round.

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We probably shouldn't have had the flaming cheese two nights in a row, but you know what they say: A cheese a day keeps the doctor . . . on speed-dial.

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Count 16: Disorderly Conduct

I attended college at a party school in the late 80s, before the age of AIDS and campus assaults and frowning upon binge drinking. It was an idyllic time, filled with hookups, hangovers, frat parties, and the occasional bench warrant.

And not a day goes by that I don't thank God that there was no such thing as the Internet back then.

Which is why we never, ever bring a camera to the Green Parrot, and especially not when we're pre-gaming with my infamous rum punch. I'm pretty sure Ellen walked into the pool fully clothed and Brian started licking the walls last time I made a batch, but like I said: That's why we don't allow cameras.

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Over the years, I have acted quite the fool at the Green Parrot, egged on by my friend Mount Gay and begged to stop by my friend Angel "My Wife is a Train Wreck" Gonzalez. I've dirty-danced with men old enough to be my great-grandpa. I've invited myself to sample strangers' drinks with a two-foot-long super-straw. I've twirled handlebar moustaches unbidden, and impersonated Mrs. Doubtfire, and belted out my own lyrics to various blues songs at the top of my lungs, none of which rhyme and all of which utilize words that cannot be printed on this blog.

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By comparison, I was well-behaved on this visit, sucking (my own) beer out of a flamingo straw and decorating my bottle with ornaments "borrowed" from Green Parrot's Christmas tree, which is why I agreed, just this once, to go ahead and snap a few photos.

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As soon as I tried to climb inside the popcorn machine, however, all bets were off.

Count 17: Public Intoxication

Friends who live in Key West often lament that there are only two things to do here: Get drunk, or fry yourself in the sun. (They're missing the obvious third option: Get drunk and fry yourself in the sun.)

Not being ones to defy local custom, we spent most afternoons at Louie's, soaking up the sunset and sucking down the pina coladas.

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Evenings were whiled away at Kelly's, keeping company with their fantastic key lime margaritas.

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In between it was mojitos at lunch, wine at dinner, and the aforementioned rum punch for breakfast. There's OJ in there, ya know.
-------------------------------------------
Part 3 is now posted! Click here to see if we rang in the New Year by commandeering a big red shoe.

Posted by TraceyG 08:36 Archived in USA Tagged key_west Comments (6)

Xmas in Key West: Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation, Pt 3

And finally, public lewdness, assault, and some open container violations . . . or, you know, just another Saturday night in Key West.

Count 18: Public Lewdness

You don't really need to go anywhere special in Key West to encounter public lewdness, but it can't hurt. And so we set off for Better Than Sex, a dessert-only restaurant where you can have a satisfying one-night stand without worrying about how to get rid of the guy in the morning.

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The space is bordello-chic, with lipstick-red walls, dimly-lit crystal chandeliers, and secluded banquettes made for cozying up to your loved one, distracting him with your feminine wiles, and stealing his heart dessert.

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After perusing the extensive menu, I knew I had to try the Fork-You Fondue, which was described as "liquid vanilla cheesecake fondue." If those aren't the four sexiest words you've ever heard, then you need to get some new porn.

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The others had the "Between My Red Velvet Sheets" cheesecake (which sounds hot but not sexy), the Twist and Stout (which I guess can be sexy if you're into those kind of guys), and the Jungle Fever (which I can assure you is plenty sexy. Ahem.)

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Count 19: Assault with a Deadly Weapon

Angel and I last visited Latitudes on Sunset Key in 1999, where we rang in the new Millennium with Champagne, fireworks over Key West, and a midnight kiss. Well, two out of three, anyway.

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You see, I grew up in Pittsburgh, a city with obsessed with everything from the Stillers and chipped ham to classic rock and mullets. Lesser-known, however, is the city's obsession with fireworks. Although most people like fireworks, a 'Burgher will drop everything -- and I mean everything -- for some fireworks. When I was growing up, it was taken for granted that no matter what you were right in the middle of -- driving a car, giving birth, performing brain surgery -- the minute you heard fireworks, the aforementioned task was immediately abandoned because OOH! LOOK!! FIREWORKS!!! Thus, a typical telephone conversation might go something like, "So I told that jagoff to kiss my OOH! LOOK!! FIREWORKS!!!" CLICK.

And so, as couples everywhere counted down the last seconds of 1999 and prepared to greet the new Millennium, I heard the sound of fireworks down at the beach . . . and promptly jumped out of my seat and ran like a bat out of hell, leaving poor Angel in the dust. I think he might have kissed a waitress in my absence.

Which explains why we haven't returned to Latitudes in 15 years. But at Ellen and Brian's urging we relented, and hopped aboard Lil Princess for the short boat ride over to Sunset Key.

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In the years since our last visit, we'd almost forgotten how lovely the place is.

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Soon we were settled in at a table in the sand, drinking in the idyllic surroundings . . . and some mango martinis.

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I kicked things off with the rich, creamy lobster bisque, followed by the tuna tartare with sweet chili, soy pearls, seaweed salad, and miso-yuzu aioli.

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Ellen, Brian, and Angel all ordered the same entrée, the cumin and coriander crusted snapper. This, I noticed, happened at almost every meal -- the three of them ordered the exact same thing, presumably as part of some pact to spread the pain around a bit: I'd beg a few bites from each of them, instead of just commandeering Angel's entire plate.

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But on this night, I was happy to be the odd man out. That's because we'd just dug into our meals when Angel pulled an inch-long fish bone out of his mouth. A few minutes later, Ellen did the same. (Brian claimed not to have found any, but I did hear a strange crunching noise coming from his end of the table.) Within 15 minutes, each of them had enough tiny fish bones lined up on their plate to make a decent-looking fossil.

Though we hate to complain, especially on vacation, nobody wanted to get stabbed in the gums with a fish bone, so we mentioned it to our waiter, who summoned the manager, who removed all three entrees from our bill. It was a generous and gracious thing to do, and as a result we will definitely return.

Though Angel is still banned from kissing any more waitresses.

Count 20: Stalking

Our friend Randi is an adorable little blonde lady with a fantastic sense of adventure, a wicked sense of humor, and just enough sense to disable the GPS on her phone when she knows I'm in town.

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I guess she wasn't expecting that I'd just stalk her on Facebook.

So when I saw that Randi was at La Te Da one fine afternoon enjoying a strawberry-lemon mimosa with fresh basil, I knew what I had to do. I jumped on my bike, mowed down a few mailboxes, and skidded into La Te Da just in time for happy hour.

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One mimosa turned into two, which turned into key lime pie martinis with a sidecar.

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Which inevitably turned into pizza.

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But as soon as Angel started trying to teach Randi how to change the privacy settings on her phone, I knew it was time to go.

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Plus, I'd only had two cocktails and half a pizza, and I didn't want to risk being late for dinner.

Count 21: Solicitation

The vampire cave/house we rented for this trip was conveniently located next door to the Rum Bar, whose cat typically hangs out at the bar there.

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But because I enjoy having a pet around when I'm on vacay, I naturally decided that the cat should live with me while I was in town. It didn't take long to lure her over.

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And it took even less time for her to make herself right at home.

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Soon she was even making herself useful, chasing chickens off the property for us.

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Of course, she wasn't too happy when I wouldn't let her eat the entire bag of treats as a reward.

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By the way, are you wondering how I'm so sure it's a girl? Because after I spent a week feeding her treats, this happened.

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Story of my life.

Count 22: Escape in the Third Degree

Every once in a while, you find a restaurant that's comfortable, comforting, and feels like "your" place. In Key West, we are lucky enough to have a few such escapes, one of which is Café Sole.

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Then again, it's not hard to feel at home when they are serving bowls of crack masquerading as mushroom soup.

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Plus an addictive chickpea spread that I guess is supposed to be spread onto bread, but is more easily spooned directly into your mouth.

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On this evening, as on most others, we ordered our "usual" dishes: the hogfish for Angel, and the shrimp risotto for me.

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For dessert, Angel had the key lime pie. That sounded good to me . . . but not as good as a bowl of gazpacho.

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Our other "go-to" restaurant is Seven Fish, a cozy spot with just 40 seats tucked away (at least for now) in a residential neighborhood on Olivia Street.

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People often complain that Seven Fish is noisy and the tables are too close together, but we're New Yorkers: Half the fun of going out to dinner is eavesdropping on the couple next to us.

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On this particular night, we started with the wild mushroom quesadilla for Angel, and the Caesar salad with tangy goat cheese and a hunk of Seven Fish's deliciously salty, squishy rosemary focaccia for me.

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That was followed by two orders of the coconut-curry snapper over rice.

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And just a tiny bit more of that fabulous focaccia.

Count 23: Open Container Violations

You might remember that two years ago, we spent New Year's Eve in Key West as hostages, forced to eat cheesecake and watch strippers and cheer for a lime wedge. This year, we were determined to make things more interesting.

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Way more interesting.

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We'd purchased VIP tickets for the shoe drop at Bourbon Street Pub on Duval, which entitled us to an open bar, a buffet of everything from crab cakes and cocktail weenies to key lime tarts decorated with chocolate palm trees . . . and, of course, a bird's-eye view of the craziness on Duval from Bourbon Street's balcony.

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The crowd was filled with folks in wigs, tutus, and all sorts of other get-ups, but nobody looked better than the guy with the disco-ball drink holder.

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Sushi made her grand entrance about an hour before midnight, signing autographs and posing for photos before climbing into her shoemobile.

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Soon it was time for the countdown to midnight.

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We stuck around for a while after midnight, watching a seven-foot-tall drag queen get down with a bunch of male strippers. Which is a sentence I write all the time.

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There was no way I was leaving without getting in that shoe, even if Bourbon Street hadn't given us permission. I figured I'd be long gone before the cops could make it through the mob.

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But 15 long years later, did Angel finally get his midnight kiss?

I'll never tell.

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Up next, pot pies in New York City, pig parts in Charleston, and pastries aplenty in Paris. Click here to subscribe and you'll be notified when a new post goes up!

Posted by TraceyG 06:57 Archived in USA Tagged key_west Comments (7)

Leaf-Peeping and Cocktail-Sipping in the Hudson Valley

Flannel sheets, cashmere socks, crackling fires.

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Turtlenecks, tights, chunky scarves.

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Toasted marshmallows, hot cider, caramel apples.

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Pumpkin patches, piles of leaves.

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Cozy. Crisp. Colorful.

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I love fall.

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And it's hard to think of a better way to spend a fall weekend than being holed up together in a cozy little cottage deep in the woods.

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Well, unless that weekend includes lots of food and wine. Which, you know, my weekends sometimes do.

We decided to return to New York's Hudson Valley, which has been named one of National Geographic Traveler's Top 20 Must-See Places on its "Best of the World" list for its scenic beauty, artsy vibe, and trendy, transplanted-from-NYC restaurant scene. Yes, you might still see folks in flannel and overalls here, but don't panic: They're just hipsters from Brooklyn who've moved to Hudson to make artisanal goat cheese and small-batch pickles.

Our autumnal adventure began, as it did the last time around, at the Culinary Institute of America, which is home to one of this country's best cooking schools, along with several student-run restaurants.

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The most elegant of these is Bocuse, a $3 million classroom where students recreate the quality and ambiance of a Michelin-starred French restaurant, at half the price with twice the nice.

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The restaurant is named after the French gastronomic giant Paul Bocuse, who has held trois étoiles, the highest accolade from the Michelin Guide, continuously since 1965, and in 2011 was honored as “the chef of the century.”

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I was barely inside the front door, and already I knew I was going to like this place.

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We were seated at a comfortable banquette with a view of the spacious, bustling kitchen, which is always fun for us, since our own kitchen in the city has exactly enough room for one stove, one refrigerator, and one fork that we are forced to share.

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While we waited for our drinks -- a glass of Pinot Noir for Angel, and a classic Hemingway daiquiri with bitter orange for me -- we played around with the electronic wine list and cheeky cards left on the table for our amusement.

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Or our embarrassment, as the case may be.

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I started with a classic 1975 recipe from Paul Bocuse himself, a decadent black truffle soup topped with a mound of puff pastry so buttery that it literally melted into the soup when I poked it with my spoon.

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It is of course impossible to top a soup made from the world's most expensive mushrooms and pot-pie crust, but the Arctic char with garlic scapes and shishito-pepper vinaigrette was a good runner-up.

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Angel decided to try the butter-poached lobster with sweet corn puree and chorizo broth, followed by the olive-oil poached halibut with zucchini blossoms.

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Yes, that's two dishes poached in fat. Next time, he'll save the kitchen the trouble and just have a bowl of whale blubber.

While our entrees at Bocuse were classic French preparations, the desserts were anything but. Angel went all molecular with the rum cake with chestnut vermicelli and tangerine ice milk. Oh, and liquid nitrogen, bien sûr.

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I chose the "modernist lemon bar" with lemon curd, coconut ice cream, and tamarind sauce, which was downright boring by comparison. Maybe next time they can light it on fire?

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Finally, out came an assortment of macarons and other miniature delicacies, perfect for tucking away in your pocket for later.

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After lunch we took a look around campus before rolling ourselves out to the car.

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We then headed north to the tiny hamlet of Elizaville, where the house we'd rented for the weekend was hidden in the woods and accessed by a private, unpaved road. That probably sounds great to most people, but to New Yorkers like ourselves, it sounded like a cross between "Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter" and "The Hills Have Eyes."

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But any reservations we had quickly faded away when we stepped inside the front door. The house was bright, airy, chic, and comfortable.

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And, we happily noted, it was rustic without being too rustic. Glass doorknobs and claw-foot tubs, we can do. Mounted moose heads, and we have to check out early.

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Best of all, huge, wrap-around windows allowed us to enjoy the view without having to actually go outside, which greatly reduces one's risk of being mauled by bears or punctured by deer antlers or whatever else happens when you leave the city for a weekend.

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We had a few hours to kill before dinner, so we spent the time acquainting ourselves with the house and unpacking. Angel claimed the second master suite for his own, hoarding all the coat hangers for himself and hanging a sign on the door which read, "NO GIRLS ALLOWED."

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Before dinner we took a short detour to Rhinebeck, a charming little village dating back to 1686. Originally called Kipsbergen by its Dutch settlers, Henry and Jacob Kip, today Rhinebeck boasts interesting shops, upscale restaurants, and an underground -- literally -- wine bar called the Shelter.

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Tucked away below street level underneath the town's former hardware store, the Shelter is a speakeasy-style bar offering "spirits, tapas, and refuge."

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All three sounded good to us, so we cozied up on one of the oversized leather couches near the fireplace and ordered up my new favorite cocktail, the "5-finger" milk punch with applejack, allspice dram, Chinese 5-spice, mole bitters and, of course, milk.

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The drink was perfect for an October evening, with fall spices, bitter chocolate, and apple brandy mingling in the glass and warming our bellies.

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After finishing our milk punch, we headed north to the tiny town of Saugerties for dinner at Miss Lucy's Kitchen.

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Although it was 8:30 on a Saturday night, the town was practically deserted, and as we exited the car I suspiciously eyed a small pack of teenagers coming down the sidewalk.

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As they drew closer, I whispered to Angel, "Do you think it's safe here?" But before he could answer, the group had come upon us, with one of the little urchins calling out to me, "Oh! I love your shoes!" Fine. I guess our hubcaps will be safe for another night.

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As soon as we entered the restaurant, we understood why Saugerties was deserted: The entire town was apparently gathered at Miss Lucy's for dinner. Or at least that's how it felt when 50 pairs of eyes simultaneously turned to look when we walked in. "City slickers," I could tell they were thinking. "You can always tell by their fancy shoes."

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Miss Lucy's might look like a simple country restaurant, but what came out of the kitchen was anything but simple: Everything from a martini made with house-infused persimmon vodka, to pan-seared scallops with butternut squash risotto, to a perfectly roasted pork chop with Sriracha-honey glaze, to a bracingly spicy ginger margarita, was sophisticated, well-thought-out, and, most importantly, absolutely delicious.

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After swooning over every bite of our first two courses, we knew we couldn't pass on dessert. So we decided to share the harvest crisp, which was bubbling over with apples, pears, and quince and topped with a decadent brown-sugar ice cream.

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The next day we planned to bike a section of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail to make up for the crimes against moderation we'd committed at Miss Lucy's. A paved trail reserved for pedestrians and bicyclists, the Rail Trail was built over the New York and Harlem Railroad, which ran from New York City to Chatham, NY in the mid-1800s. Eventually all 46 miles of the railroad track will be paved, but for now it's just 16 miles, accessed at the various abandoned railroad stations that once served the railroad commuters. We'd biked one of the shorter sections on our last visit to the Hudson Valley, and were excited to take on a longer stretch this time around.

But first we had to fuel up . . . and at least one of still had to wake up.

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Although it took us a bit out of our way to the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Milan, I insisted that we fuel up for the ride at Another Fork in the Road. Owned by chef Jamie Parry, who cooked at NYC's Tribeca Grill and Montrachet before heading north, Another Fork is a "finer diner" known for sourcing virtually all of the ingredients for its carefully prepared dishes from the local farms surrounding the restaurant.

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The sun-drenched room is quaint and cozy, with a chalkboard menu, mismatched chairs and pillows, and simple votive candles serving as decor.

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We started with an order of the patatas bravas, which were slathered with a spicy, mayo-based Sriracha sauce. Now Angel's awake!

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Next it was on to the biscuits with mushroom gravy (and a couple of eggs thrown on top for good measure) for me, while Angel kept things spicy with the curry scramble with caramelized onions and cilantro yogurt.

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After breakfast we headed over to Taconic State Park, where we picked up our bikes and took in the glorious day.

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The only thing scarier than a field of sunflowers is a field of dead sunflowers.

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Soon we were ready to tackle the trail, so we wrangled the bikes into the back of our SUV and drove 10 minutes south to the tiny town of Millerton, which serves as one of the trailheads for the Rail Trail.

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Our plan was to start at Millerton Station and bike 10.7 miles south to Wassaic Station, then ride back to Millerton, for a total of just over 21 miles roundtrip.

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The ride started off innocently enough, as we pedaled easily past woods and hills and ponds, the sun warming our faces as we rode.

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It turns out, though, that biking is a lot like exercise, to which I am allergic. And so my narrative of the 21-mile ride went something like this:

Mile 5: This is really fun!
Mile 10: I have to pee.
Mile 15: I can't believe we've biked 25 miles!
Mile 17: I really have to pee.
Mile 18: I can't feel my legs.
Mile 19: I'm going to need a donut cushion for the rest of my life.
Mile 20: I'm just going to lie down in this pile of leaves now.
Mile 21: I can't believe we biked 29 miles!

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That evening we showered, slathered ourselves in Ben-Gay, then headed off to dinner at Mercato, a comfy, candlelit spot in Red Hook.

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After biking 33 miles roundtrip, I'd clearly earned a bowl of gnocchi . . . and a bowl of penne.

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Or, more precisely, goat cheese gnudi with local Lacinata kale pesto and penne with smoked pancetta, spicy tomatoes, and fresh cream from Ronnybrook Farm in nearby Ancramdale. And maybe a few bites of Angel's homemade fettucine Bolognese.

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Mercato is warm and welcoming, which is probably no surprise given that the chef is Francesco Buitoni, a seventh-generation member of the Buitoni pasta-making and Perugina chocolate-making families.

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After three bowls of pasta, it was time for dessert. Someone had to make sure the chocolate was good, too.

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We also ordered the cheese plate. I'm telling you, that 39-mile bike ride really took it out of us.

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As we enjoyed our desserts, the chef came by to say hello and share some amaro on the house.

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As you can imagine, we slept like logs that night. That's what happens when you go on a 44-mile bike ride.

The next day was on the cloudy side and a bit chillier than the warm temps we'd enjoyed the day before, so it was time for snuggly sweaters.

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I am sure Angel intended this photo as an homage to all those times I've belted out, "Wagon wheel, watermelon" in a bar somewhere. It works surprisingly well when you don't know the words.

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With the skies holding the possibility of rain, we scrapped our plans for a walk along the Hudson and instead decided to return to Rhinebeck, since we'd been too busy downing milk punches on Saturday night to do any shopping.

On our way to Rhinebeck we stopped at Migliorelli's picturesque farm stand to buy some pumpkins.

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Along with mini-pears, apples, cider, and a couple of jars of Migliorelli's homemade tomato sauce.

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(Later, after I'd harvested all the seeds for roasting, Angel surprised me by carving up the largest pumpkin of the bunch in honor of Chloe, my beloved kitty who passed away last year. And yes, that's a power drill.)

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After the pumpkin patch it was on to lunch at Terrapin, which is housed in the gorgeous old First Baptist Church, built in 1825.

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Terrapin's bartender is a master mixologist, shaking and stirring ingredients like house-made cherry liqueur, ginger-infused moonshine, and fig-infused cognac into perfect-for-fall creations, like this sour-cherry bourbon Manhattan for Angel and the spiced caramel apple martini for me.

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I started with the beer and cheese soup, made with India pale ale and aged cheddar, while Angel decided on the macadamia nut tempura calamari, which was served with a spicy-sweet pineapple dipping sauce.

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For the main course, I decided on the mizuna salad with teriyaki sockeye salmon, crispy leeks, and a fantastic sweet onion-soy vinaigrette, the recipe for which is probably more closely guarded (and contains just as many addictive substances) as the one for Coca-Cola.

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Angel went with the shredded flank steak quesadillas with huitlacoche, which are delicious little fungi that grow on ears of corn. Think of them as corn truffles.

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After lunch we explored the town a bit.

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By which I mean, "scoped out restaurants to try on our next visit."

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Rhinebeck is home to the Beekman Arms, which is America's oldest continuously operated hotel. The Beekman was built in 1766 and hosted troops during the American Revolution (the 4th Regiment of the Continental Army conducted drills on its front lawn).

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Aside from renovating the rooms in the 1980s, little has changed here since the 1700s. Well, except that guests are no longer required to list the number of horses they brought when they check in.

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Next, we made a scary stop at Oliver Kita Chocolates.

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The hand-made confections here are gorgeous, and come in inventive flavors like lavender and lime, banana and bee pollen, and honeycrisp apple.

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Even the chocolate-covered Oreos were decked out for the season.

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Soon it was Happy Hour, or close enough. Several local spots looked enticing, but the drinks we'd enjoyed over lunch at Terrapin had been so good that we decided to return to the adjacent bar, called Red Bistro.

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This time, though, we each tried something different, which turned out to be the gooseberry mojito for Angel, and the tart-but-sweet pomegranate passion martini for me.

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We'd planned to stay in that evening with a bottle of wine, a couple of pizzas, and a nice, long soak in the hot tub. I wasn't willing to pick up at just any pizza joint, though. Tucked away in a courtyard behind Rhinebeck's main street is Pizzeria Posto, which is known for its Neapolitan-style pizzas baked in a wood-fired oven imported from Modena, Italy.

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We ordered up two pies and got to chatting with the owner. For future reference, it is maybe not the best idea to distract someone whose head is inside a 600-degree oven.

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When we told the owner we had a 25-minute ride back to the house with the pizzas, he wisely recommended that we order a spare to eat on the way home. I'm just going to assume that's because the pies smell so enticing, and not because my reputation precedes me.

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The pizzas were perfect, with a puffy, blistered crust, garden-fresh herbs, and local fennel sausage, then finished with a generous drizzle of olive oil while still hot from the oven.

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We'd brought along one of our favorite bottles from our trip to Napa, the Freemark Abbey Bootleg, a delicious blending "mistake" only available at the winery, and redolent of fall with its black cherry, black currant, and blackberry aromas.

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We devoured the pizzas, then hopped into the tub for a moonlight soak, helped along by an assortment of candles we'd found scattered about the house.

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As we sipped and soaked and chatted, we agreed that it had been a pretty perfect weekend: Good weather, great food, fun cocktails, and fuzzy sweaters.

And no one got mauled by a bear.
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Posted by TraceyG 09:08 Archived in USA Tagged hudson_valley cia mercato rhinebeck red_hook miss_lucy's_kitchen culinary_institute_of_america elizaville harlem_valley_rail_trail Comments (3)

Back to Key West: I'm Sorry I Ate Your Birthday Present

Of course, I didn't mean to eat someone else's birthday present. Especially since it was intended for a man of the cloth.

More precisely, it was intended for the Reverend Gweko W. Phlocker, a delightfully raunchy Key West DJ, who then proceeded to tell the entire island about my transgression on the radio.

But let's start at the beginning.

For this trip we stayed in a charming Conch cottage in the Meadows, which satisfied my four main requirements for a vacation rental: Lots of outlets, lots of towels, lots of privacy, and lots of goodies left behind in the fridge.

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We unpacked our things, plugged in the 17 iPads/Pods/Phones we'd brought along, and inventoried the aforementioned fridge, before jumping on our bikes and making a beeline for the Southernmost Beach Café.

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There, we had a couple of key lime coladas for lunch.

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Oh, and sandwiches.

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We spent the rest of the day in a haze of sun, salt water, and wine, which in Key West is called "Tuesday."

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As is so often in the case in Key West, we were joined by a random cat. We didn't know her name, so we decided to call her Joan Jett. Obviously.

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Soon it was time to get ready for our visit to Big Coppitt. Yes, I know that name sounds vaguely dirty, and it sounds even dirtier when you consider that it's a derivation of an old English word meaning "thicket." But our friends Donna and Greg live on Big Coppitt, and you might remember that last time we saw them, they'd been living in a trailer dubbed the Redneck Ranch while they waited for their new home to be built. The new house was completed last year, but we'd had yet to see it, so Greg kindly drove into Old Town to pick us up, then ferried us back to Big Coppitt to check out the new place and enjoy some wine on the deck for sunset.

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The new house is gorgeous, with spacious rooms, richly stained wood floors, and a fantastic wine cellar.

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But even that wine cellar had a hard time competing with the view.

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After a few bottles of wine, a lovely assortment of cheeses and crackers, and no small amount of drooling over the size of Donna and Greg's closets, we headed back into Key West for dinner at Square One . . . where they tried to kick us out.

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But let's start at the beginning.

After the short walk over to twinkly Duval Square, we arrived at Square One and were led to a private corner table, which I have noticed is always the case when I am out with one of my girlfriends. Between the foul language, the reckless imbibing, and the oinks of laughter, we just aren't fit for public consumption.

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We started with a lovely un-oaked Chardonnay, then moved on to goat cheese ravioli, seafood ceviche, a creamy pasta with seafood, and scallops in a rich balsamic drizzle. I'm not sure what Angel, Donna, and Greg ate.

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We were just enjoying our desserts when the lights went out. Or, rather, Square One not-so-subtly hinted that it was time for us to go home by cutting the lights. Later they claimed that someone had turned them off by accident, but I guess they also "accidentally" forgot to turn them back on again.

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Not fit for public consumption indeed.

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The next morning we had plans for brunch with our friends Mark and Steven at Hot Tin Roof. But what was supposed to be a sedate brunch for four ended up turning into the Prosecco version of the Ice Bucket Challenge for eight.

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But let's start at the beginning.

The Sunday brunch at Hot Tin Roof is one of the best deals on the island, particularly if you like to start drinking before noon and plan to continue straight through to Happy Hour. Service begins at 11:00 a.m., and then it's all the food you can eat, all the Prosecco you can drink, and all the hangover you can handle until 3pm, a cutoff which has to be strictly enforced since they can't just turn the lights out on you at that hour.

I was the first to arrive while Angel secured our bikes, and as the host led me to our table, someone called out, "Oh! You come into town and you don't even call me?" I wasn't sure if it was my parole officer, that guy whose handlebar mustache I twirled the wrong way at Funk Night at the Green Parrot, or one of the poor souls I doused in Champagne at the Let Them Eat Cake party, but thankfully it was only Stephanie, a woman whose dog I tried to stuff in my purse last time I visited her house. Whew.

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And so, joined by Stephanie's friends Darren and Denis, we pushed the tables together and started calling out orders like a bunch of tipsy auctioneers: "Baaaaaacon-cinnamon-rolls-lobster-mac-and-cheese-key-lime-stuffed-French-toast, do I hear short-rib-hash-and-another-mimosa from the young lady in the blue dress?"

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This contraption is a dual salt-and-pepper shaker. I'm sorry, but asking me to operate anything more complicated than a fork at an unlimited-booze brunch is asking way too much . . . and even the fork is really pushing it.

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We continued to order food like drunken sailors on leave, the Prosecco continued to flow like water . . . and then the tongues came out.

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Although no Prosecco ended up being poured over anyone's head, I kind of wished it had. Because have I mentioned how face-meltingly hot it was during our visit? Meteorologically speaking, 95 degrees + 100% humidity x 0 breeze = hot enough to have fried that key lime French toast on my forehead.

After brunch Mark invited us over to see his orchids, so we made a pit stop back at our house to grab our bathing suits. Not because we expected to go swimming, mind you, but because at this point we realized that if you're going to sweat through your clothes anyway, you might as well be prepared.

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And so we showed up at Mark's just in time for . . . more Prosecco.

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Of course, we didn't intend to drink his entire supply. But when it's 122 degrees outside, it's not like you have much choice.

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The orchids were spectacular. Then again, New Yorkers are easily impressed with anything that doesn't grow through cracks in the sidewalk.

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The next day, Mark berated me for being a bad influence. "But we only had three or four bottles of Prosecco at brunch!" I protested. "Right . . . plus the three or four at my house," he reminded me. Oh, right. I can't imagine how I forgot about those.

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That evening we were feeling a little too, um, forgetful to do much, so we ordered a pizza, floated in the pool for a bit, and then called it a night.

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The next day we awoke early to get in a bike ride before the day got too hot.

And by "bike ride" I mean, "raiding the gift shop at the Casa Marina, followed by pina coladas at Louie's Afterdeck."

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Later we swung by Old Town Bakery to pick up some sammiches for lunch.

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We both decided on the Italian, which came with ham, soppressata, basil pesto, fontina, spinach, tomato, and a prescription for Lipitor.

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Angel once read somewhere that drinking a hot beverage on a hot day can help the body stay cool, so he suggested we stop by Cuban Coffee Queen on the way home. I'm pretty sure that I read somewhere that drinking a hot beverage on a hot day can help the body throw up, so I went for cupcakes instead.

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That evening we met up with Mark and his partner, Steven, for dinner at Abbondanza. Mark hates this place, Steven loves it, and I don't care what either of them thinks because meatballs.

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My family is of Irish, German, and eastern European descent, but we have always wished that we were Italian, for the food. And so when I was a kid my father fibbed his way into a membership at the local Italian Social Club, where we'd go for Sunday Gravy most weekends. The little old Italian grandma who cooked at the Club knew her stuff, including gigantic, tender meatballs just like Abondanza's.

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Are these polpette in the same league as, say, Locanda or The Little Owl? Of course not. But they are the closest thing I've ever found to that Italian granny's meatballs, and that's good enough for me.

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The next day we biked over to Santiago's Bodega for lunch.

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Obviously, they understood how hot it was and that one might need to, er, freshen up a bit before entering the restaurant.

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Santiago's is one of our regular haunts in Key West, so this time around we decided to try a few new items, including the burrata with walnut pesto and the beef short ribs with cherry-hoisin glaze and orange-miso slaw.

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Then it was on to some old favorites, like the patatas bravas with aged Gouda, and the croquettes, which are pan-fried potatoes stuffed with ground prosciutto and provolone cheese and served with scallion-studded sour cream.

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Later that afternoon we stopped by Louie's again, this time to meet up with some folks from our condo community.

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The condo contingent had warned us that they might not be able to make it, and after Angel had downed a few of Louie's dark rum mojitos in quick succession while we waited, I was secretly glad they didn't.

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The next day we again set off for an early-morning bike ride to beat the heat.

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Soon we found ourselves sitting outside the 8,000 degree kitchen at Sandy's while Angel nursed a 185 degree coffee. Forget air conditioners and swimming pools for keeping cool, Key West. What you really need are more coffee shops.

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Later we stopped by Bad Boy Burrito for some takeout.

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I went back and forth between waiting in the shop, where it was approximately 115 degrees, and out on the sidewalk, where it was approximately the inside of a clothes dryer. No matter where I stood, though, I couldn't help feeling that I was being watched.

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We devoured our burritos in sweaty silence, then spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between floating in the pool, sunning ourselves on the deck, and arguing over a cat.

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One of my and Angel's long-running disagreements is what to do about cats that we meet on vacation. I, of course, am happy to give them free rein of the place.

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But Angel steadfastly insists that they remain outside, which often results in a sneaky game of cat and Tracey, in which I repeatedly sneak the cat inside and Angel repeatedly deposits it back outside. On this trip, however, because the pool area led directly to our bedroom, Angel put his foot down. Although he claimed to be worried that Joan Jett might get so comfortable that we wouldn't be able to get her to leave when we checked out, I knew that he was really worried about finding a single cat hair on one of his shirts. And so Angel refused to allow her inside at all.

Which is how we ended up with one very disgruntled cat outside our door for the next three days.

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And one very disgruntled wife.

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On our last day, we headed over to Lush Bar so Mark could show us his new toy: Wine on tap.

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Despite my pleas, however, he wouldn't let me stick my head under the tap and pour the wine directly into my mouth. I guess after the Prosecco Incident, he was afraid I'd drain the tap.

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In addition to wine-on-demand, Lush Bar offers carefully selected wine and chocolate pairings, beer tastings, coffee and tea, plus dozens of organic and fair-trade chocolate bars. Get 'em liquored up, then set 'em loose in a room full of sugar. If this place doesn't need rubber walls, no place does.

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Mark closed up shop a few minutes early and we popped across the street to the Speakeasy Rum Bar.

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It wasn't long before I dumped both Mark and Angel and cozied up with this cool cat who'd just walked in and sauntered up to the bar. Not being the jealous type, however, Angel shrugged his shoulders and said, "Canoodle all you want, but you can't take him home."

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The Speakeasy boasts a menu full of yummy rum-based concoctions, including our beloved Painkillers.

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As we sipped and gabbed, Mark suddenly spotted a friend of his. "Oh! You have to meet this guy!" he exclaimed, dragging me by the arm to make the introduction. "Tracey, this is Mozzarella Mike," Mark said. "Um, actually, it's Mark," his friend replied. "Whatever," Mark replied to his namesake. "Listen, Tracey has a tapeworm and a blog. You two should know each other."

After some polite chit-chat, I got right to the point: Do you make mozzarella? If so, where is it? And more importantly, can I have some?

And like a mootza-rell magician, Mozzarella Mark pulled a plastic-wrapped log of fresh mozzarella out of his backpack . . . along with a cutting board and an 8-inch butcher knife.

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Eyeing this spread, my brain was immediately flooded with questions, to which I received the following responses: No, he's (miraculously) never been mugged for his backpack full of mozzarella. No, that knife has never (accidentally) poked through the backpack and stabbed him in the butt. Yes, I could (thankfully) have some mozzarella. No, we (happily) don't have to share it with anyone else.

And yes, he's (definitely) from Jersey.

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And so we drank and chatted and scarfed down pinwheel after delicious pinwheel of fresh, creamy hand-made mozzarella rolled up with salty prosciutto and peppery arugula, while I thanked my lucky stars, and both Marks, for my good fortune.

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When we finally gave up after eating almost three-quarters of the log, Mark distributed the last few bites to the other patrons at the Speakeasy, then started packing up his significantly lighter, but still magical, backpack. "So, yeah . . ." he began, "I guess I'm gonna have to explain this somehow . . ."

Wait, explain what?

Oh, just that the log of mozzarella I'd just devoured was actually intended for the aforementioned Reverend Gweko W. Phlocker's birthday, to which Mark had been en route when he (naturally) had to stop for a drink.

Reverend Phlocker, I'm sorry about that ugly paperweight you probably ended up with for your birthday. I'd like to think that if I'd known that mozzarella was supposed to be your birthday gift, I would have restrained myself.

But who are we kidding???
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Want more Key West? Two more trip reports are on their way, including an 11-day visit over the holidays. Click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know if I manage to eat anyone's Christmas present.

Posted by TraceyG 15:52 Archived in USA Tagged beach key_west abbondanza louie's_backyard bad_boy_burrito santiago's hot_tin_roof Comments (7)

A Fall Food Festival in NYC: Let's Get Grubby

It is not often that I have to be talked into attending a food festival. (Indeed, some longtime readers of this blog have hinted that my entire life is a food festival.) But last month, when Angel suggested that we check out New York City's Grub Street Food Festival, I balked. A food festival in Key West or Charleston, sure. But a food festival in NYC -- home to 8 million people, 7.99 million of whom are obsessed with food -- sounded only slightly more fun than the subway ride we'd have to take to get there.

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But the Grub Street festival is run by the website of the same name that obsessively tracks restaurant openings, closings, chefs-on-the-move, and other restaurant news in New York, and word was that many of the best eateries in the city would be making an appearance. And so we took the plunge, hoping that the out-of-the-way location at the Hester Street Market would keep the hordes at bay, despite the day's beautiful weather.

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Angel mapped out our travel route, which involved taking the 6 train to Bleecker Street, then the F train to East Broadway. "Oh, East Broadway?" I laughed. "What's our stop, the Bermuda Triangle?" You see, many areas of New York City are unique in that they do not have an opposite-direction corollary. So there's a there's a Lower East Side, but there's no Lower West Side. There's a Central Park West, but no Central Park East. And there's Broadway and West Broadway, but there is no such thing as East Broadway.

Is there???

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We exited the subway at Platform 9¾ and were confronted with a criss-cross of street names that sounded like the roster at a fancy preschool -- Henry Street, Jackson Street, Montgomery Street. In 20 years of living in New York, I had never heard of a single one of them. "Where the hell are we -- Brooklyn?" I asked, my eyes darting around nervously. Then I saw a sign for Rutgers Street. "Oh, god," I wailed. "We're in Jersey?!?" The Bermuda Triangle was starting to look inviting.

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In fact, we were in a sliver of neighborhood along the East River, south of the Lower East Side and east of Chinatown, between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. The Even-Lower East Side, maybe? East Chinatown? I didn't know, and apparently neither do the city's map-makers. What I did know was that we had stumbled into a not-quite-gritty, not-quite-gentrified neighborhood with a pretty park, friendly people, dozens of authentic Chinese restaurants, and a food festival with my name on it.

And after surveying the scene of 75 vendors to try in just 7 hours, I started to understand why they held this thing on a running track.

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I mean, they couldn't even all fit in my photo.

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Our first stop was right inside the entrance at Roberta's, a Brooklyn pizza-and-more joint that the stingy-with-the-compliments New York Times has described as "one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States," as well as "magic," "kitchen poetry," and "as pure an expression of new American cuisine as you are likely to find anywhere." But we weren't there for the new American food; we were there for the pizza, on which Roberta's built its considerable reputation. I mean, why else haul your own oven and a cord of wood to a food festival?

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The crust was nicely blistered, the mozzarella beyond fresh. Plus the cashier was wearing this fabulously flamboyant fur, so all in all I am willing to concede that Roberta's was pretty good, though not Lombardi's good.

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With Roberta's out of the way, we took a stroll around the festival to begin compiling a mental list of which stands we'd return to. Banana pudding marshmallows and short rib sliders, yes. Sardine butter sandwiches, no.

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One of the spots we were most excited to check out was the Doughnut Plant, which is known for its delectable doughnuts in flavors like peanut butter & banana cream and vanilla bean & blackberry jam. Today's flavor, made specially for the festival, was coffee cake, which had a delicious crumb topping like a traditional coffee cake, but also contained freshly brewed coffee in both the dough and the filling.

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We continued on our way, looking for sponge-worthy contenders.

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Our next stop was at Empanina's, where Angel got shipwrecked and I threw a kale mary pass.

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After pizza, doughnuts, and empanadas, it was obviously time for some bread. With meat and cheese, that is.

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Because I myself have a number of food obsessions, one of the things I like best about the New York restaurant scene are those spots that specialize in a single dish or ingredient. And so there are restaurants that serve, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, a dozen varieties of macaroni and cheese, or 19 flavors of rice pudding, or nearly two dozen kinds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or 23 different preparations of mussels, or -- god help my already overtaxed arteries -- a spot that serves Southern-style biscuits with 22 different butter and spread options . . . 24 hours a day.

Little Muenster, however, has taken single-dish specialization to its ultimate conclusion, focusing exclusively on grilled cheese sandwiches . . . almost all of which feature the unsung hero of the dairy world, Muenster cheese.

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The one we settled on was called "What's the Beef?" and featured braised beef cheek with cracked pepper mascarpone, pickled fennel, Old Bay, onion paste, and of course Muenster cheese, all griddled up on local peasant bread.

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Eventually Angel decided it was time for a beer break, so we headed to the beer garden next door for some refreshments. Unfortunately, none of the brews appealed to him, so we popped across the street to a bar that could only be found on the Even-Lower East Side: Old Man Hustle.

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Featuring cheap beer, free shots, an old-school cash register, and a XXX-Rated Chalkboard Pictionary night ("You'll never look at chalk the same way again"), Old Man Hustle was made for sketchy day-drinking.

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And so we had a couple of cheap beers and I whooped Angel at three consecutive rounds of Connect Four.

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Energized by my rousing victories, I dragged Angel back to the festival to see what else we could eat. That turned out to be crispy patatas bravas, spicy Thai noodles, sticky Korean fried chicken, pot-pie inspired chicken fingers, and a kimchi-pancake-battered corn dog, since everyone knows that it is against the law to leave a festival without having a corn dog.

Of course, I didn't actually eat all of that. At least not by myself.

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After a few more laps around the track to aid with digestion, it was time to make a spreadsheet so we could decide on a dessert.

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We eventually settled on the maple-bacon cupcakes. The contrast of sweet, moist cake and crispy, salty bacon was almost too much for my heart to bear. Literally.

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Oh, and maple French toast and Mudslide cannolis. Sometimes that spare cow stomach of mine really comes in handy.

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Inexplicably, the hands-down most popular stand at the entire festival was Oconomi, which serves, among other things, okonomiyaki. That unpronounceable delight means "what you like, grilled," and is a Japanese vegetable pancake that looks, deliciously, like fried cole slaw.

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The okonomiyaki were inexpensive, but sadly, love is not.

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Cafe Grumpy is featured prominently on the HBO hit, "Girls," a show I do not watch since I already did the whole, "I make $30,000 a year and my annual rent is $27,000" thing when I first moved to New York.

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Cafe Grumpy's logo reminds me of a diner chain in Pennsylvania called Kings Family Restaurant. Kings' main rival is famous for its cheery Smiley Face cookies. Not to be outdone, however, Kings came up with its own "mean dessert."

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That is a Frownie, a dozen of which is known as an Angry Mob. I think these cranky confections would be a big hit here. The Frownie is already the official facial expression of New York, so why not the official dessert?

On our way toward the exit we came upon La Newyorkina, which was selling mini cones of refreshing lime sorbet.

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We nibbled our cones on the way out, enjoying the interesting cast of characters who'd flooded the festival as the day went on.

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After exiting the festival, we stopped in the lovely park next door to take in the fall color.

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We then made the short walk over to Malt & Mold, taking in the sights along the way.

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Malt & Mold bills itself as "a neighborhood shop for beer and cheese," but in reality sells everything from local craft beers and hard-to-find cheeses to artisinal beef jerky, salsa, charcuterie, homemade ketchup, and small-batch bitters.

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But let's not be coy. We were there for the free beer tasting.

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As if to serve as a living reminder that the neighborhood is still up and coming, a rough-looking man stumbled into the shop during the beer tasting. "Beer? You got beer? Free beer?" he asked excitedly, clearly having had plenty of beer already. The attendant gave him a cup and he darted for the door. "Sir!" she called after him, "you have to drink that in here!" The man dramatically planted a single foot over the threshold, chugged his beer, tossed the cup in the trash, and ducked back out again, all in the blink of an eye.

Still, the place had its charms. Affordable legal help, for one thing.

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We headed back uptown and, spurred on by a day of much food but little booze, dropped off our haul (which included a jar of salted-caramel peanut butter, a growler of Malt & Mold's Oktoberfest brew, and a sour-cherry-crumble pie) at home and set off in search of libations.

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A few blocks from our apartment we found ourselves at La Cava, a cozy Spanish wine bar that's perpetually packed at night but happily uncrowded on a Sunday afternoon.

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One glass of Albarino, one glass of Rioja, and two open seats at the bar, and in a single fleeting moment, a minor miracle occurred: Two New Yorkers couldn't find a single thing to complain about.

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Want more NYC food adventures? Click here for more meatballs than you can shake a stick at (and some other stuff, too!).

Next up, we're off to Key West, where the temperatures were sweltering, the Prosecco was free-flowing, and a stranger's birthday present inexplicably ended up in my belly. Check back soon!

Posted by TraceyG 05:36 Archived in USA Tagged food nyc festival new_york_city grub_street hester_street_market la_cava Comments (5)

A Week in Napa Valley: It's Wine O'Clock Somewhere (Part 1)

California's Napa Valley is famous the world over for its rolling green hills, sun-dappled vineyards, and high-end wines. The Napa lifestyle is a coveted one, featuring exquisite table settings, farm-to-table cuisine, and wine-soaked afternoons.

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But as we found on our visit back in May, this carefully cultivated image is not quite accurate. That's because the mornings are wine-soaked, too.

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Which might explain why it's taken me almost five months to write this blog post: I'm still recovering.

After a whirlwind weekend with friends in San Jose, we arrived in Napa on a sunny Monday afternoon just in time for lunch, which was exactly how I'd planned it. That's because while some people never forget a face, I never forget a cheeseburger, and there was no way I was going to miss Gott's Roadside a second time.

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See, about eight years ago, Angel and I spent a long weekend in San Francisco, and after a fantastic lunch at the famed Slanted Door, we spent the afternoon milling around the Ferry Building, one of this country's biggest and best food markets. Already full to the point of bursting from lunch, I was exercising the kind of willpower usually seen only in monasteries when I spied the holy grail of the Ferry Building: Taylor's Automatic Refresher, an old-school burger joint that is part classic diner and part all-American roadside stand (that has since been appropriately renamed Gott's Roadside). I knew that even if I resorted to what my sister calls my spare "cow stomach," I wouldn't be able to force down a cheeseburger after the multicourse lunch we'd just had. And so I stared longingly through the window as flames licked at the juicy burgers and tears rolled down my face and I vowed to return and stuff myself silly someday.

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"Someday" had finally arrived. I mean, just look at it.

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The burgers at Gott's are served on buttered egg buns, and both patty and bun are grilled to order, then assembled and stuffed into a small paper sack to keep all its juicy goodness intact. (Personally, I could do without the paper sack, since I got so excited when I saw this burger that I almost ate it, too.)

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Gott's serves other stuff, too, of course -- thick, old-fashioned milkshakes and their famous ahi-tuna tacos, among other things -- but all of those will have to wait until I get tired of their cheeseburgers, which is likely to occur right around the time that I get tired of living.

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After lunch we headed next door to the Oxbow Public Market, because if you think a cheeseburger and some fries is going to cut it for lunch, then five months really is too long to go between blog posts.

A 40,000-square-foot ode to all things edible, Oxbow features local food vendors, artisan cafes, an organic produce market, and of course wine. Who needs coffee and donuts when this place is serving up pizza and red wine at 7:30 in the morning?

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I made a beeline for the Olive Press, where I loaded up my arms with olive-and-fig scented soap, artichoke-and-lemon tapenade, and as many of those little specialty vinegars (coconut! fig! black cherry!) as I could hold without stuffing them down my bra.

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Oxbow houses everything from a small-batch distillery to an oyster bar to a VPN Certified Pizzeria Napoletana, and sells everything from steaks to spices to rock candy.

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Don't get too excited, though. This is still California, after all.

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In a textbook case of "the grass is always greener," the Wine of the Month in the Napa Wine Club is a white wine . . . from the North Fork of Long Island. Angel and I thoroughly enjoy Long Island wines, but let's not get crazy here. Offering a Napan? Napa-ite? Napette? a Long Island wine is like offering an Italian some canned Spaghetti-O's.

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Soon it was time for a drink, and the handcrafted Lidia cocktail at Ca' Momi, featuring their own Ca' Secco Frizzante, or sparkling wine, caught my eye.

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And it matched my necklace -- a win-win.

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Afterwards, we took one more pass around the market to ensure that we'd sniffed, scarfed, and swilled everything on offer.

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Satisfied that we had, we then headed north to the town of St. Helena to check in at our hotel, the Wine Country Inn.

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A cross between an upscale inn and a homey B&B, I chose the Wine Country Inn because many of its rooms feature private patios for enjoying a sunset (or, as we were to find out, sunrise) glass of wine.

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However, the real draw at the WCI turned out to be - surprise! - the food.

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Accustomed to B&Bs where the owner doubles as the resident egg-flipper in the mornings, we were thrilled to find that the WCI employs an actual chef for both its fantastic breakfasts and for its over-the-top afternoon "social hour," featuring generous tastings from neighboring wineries and finger foods ranging from crostini with bacon-Pt. Reyes blue cheese spread, sliced pears, and house-made candied pecans to garlicky clam dip to cilantro-pepita pesto.

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That evening at WCI we enjoyed a Champagne tasting from nearby Charles Krug and a platter full of snacks, which I find is the best way to prepare for dinner.

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Later we made the short drive north to Calistoga for dinner at Solbar, at the elegant Solage Resort.

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The chef at Solbar, Brandon Sharp, has a decent resume -- he was Sous Chef at the five-star Gary Danko in San Francisco, Chef de Cuisine at the acclaimed restaurant August in New Orleans, and Chef de Partie alongside Thomas Keller at what is arguably the best restaurant in the country, the French Laundry -- so we figured we'd be in good hands.

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Angel started with the chilled ginger carrot soup with avocado, radish, and spearmint, while I went whole hog (heh-heh) with the Sonoma pork belly, which was served with sticky rice, pickled shiitakes, chili-lemongrass sauce, and a broccoli-stem salad.

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That's right, broccoli stems. Also known as the banana peels of the vegetable world. A great chef really can get you to eat anything.

For our entrees, I went with the decidedly tropical-sounding lemongrass-poached petrale sole with jasmine rice, hearts of palm, coconut milk, charred green onions, pea shoots, and lime, while Angel took the waiter's advice and ordered the one thing that you should never order in a gourmet restaurant: A boneless chicken breast. As anyone who's ever been to a banquet, a wedding, or a dinner at my house knows, coaxing flavor out of an essentially flavorless chicken breast is a damn near impossible feat. But Chef Sharp not only served up a tender, juicy, succulent piece of chicken, he wisely paired it with chicken boudin, a rich, decadent pâté-like sausage made from chicken meat, skins, and livers. If this guy can make broccoli stems enticing, you can just imagine what he can do with the fattiest parts of a chicken.

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The next morning we wandered upstairs around 9:30 to check out Wine Country Inn's breakfast. The place was empty, despite the chef whipping up daybreak delights like crustless artichoke quiche made from 10 eggs and six cups of cheese, which is a ratio roughly akin to serving an Egg McMuffin with 42 slices of cheese on top.

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That's when we realized that, although we had somewhat sheepishly scheduled a few of our winery visits to start at 11:00 a.m., we had nothing on the lushes staying at the Wine Country Inn, who were already three sheets to the wind well before 10:00. I was starting to understand why breakfast at WCI starts at the ungodly hour of 7:30 a.m.: Your stomach's going to need a base coat if you plan to start drinking before most people have even hit the snooze button.

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One of the things we liked best about the Wine Country Inn was its location, tucked away on a side road and nestled in the vineyards between two of our favorite wineries, Duckhorn and Freemark Abbey. Freemark Abbey happens to be our go-to Cabernet at one of our favorite steakhouses in New York, so it was a no-brainer that we'd start at one of our neighbors and work our way further afield.

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Freemark is one of the oldest wineries in the Napa Valley, tracing its roots to 1886, when Josephine Tychson, one of the first female winegrowers on record, established the original winery on the land where Freemark Abbey still stands today. The building's exterior boasts the original stone, while the interior is warm with sepia-toned wood.

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We had booked the Cabernet Comparison tasting, which is an in-depth tasting of Freemark's single-vineyard cabernet releases from the historic Bosche and Sycamore Vineyards on the Rutherford Bench.

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We were guided through the tasting by the lovely Diane, whose electric-blue nails and winning personality added some levity to the very serious business of getting drunk on red wine well before noon.

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Finally it actually was noon, and that meant lunch. After our visit to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York two years ago, we were beyond excited for our reservations at the CIA at Greystone in Napa Valley.

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We started with a warm kale Caesar salad that came wrapped in its own little crouton, and the mussels with fennel sausage and caramelized onion broth.

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For our entrees, Angel chose the 5 Dot Ranch skirt steak flatbread with smoked cheese curd and chimichurri, while I carbed out with the mushroom and Sky Hill goat cheese raviolo with sautéed spinach.

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Oh, and an iced tea with a thoughtful little beaker of simple syrup on the side.

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After lunch, we made our first attempt at getting off the beaten path, with a visit to Gargiulo Vineyards.

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I don't know about you, but driving in an unfamiliar area has become my and Angel's very own version of "The Real Housewives": We yell at each other, we dramatically roll our eyes at each other, and, if Angel had hair, I'd probably pull his weave out. It all started about a dozen years ago, when GPS devices first became popular. Angel jumped on the bandwagon and bought a TomTom device for our car. We'd almost never argued over directions before that, but Angel's blind faith in that GPS -- even when it directed us to go the wrong way down a one-way street, or to make a U-turn in the middle of a 6-lane highway -- drove me insane.

Indeed, words cannot begin to convey how much I hated that TomTom, but this photo of what Angel gave me a few years ago for Valentine's Day probably can.

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Although that TomTom met the violent end it so richly deserved, it was unfortunately replaced by yet another circle of hell: Google Maps on the iPhone. About ten years ago we spent two weeks in Italy, roaming the Tuscan countryside in a rented car. I cannot remember getting lost a single time, even though we had nothing more to go on than some hand-written directions I’d gleaned from travel forums and a bunch of road signs written in a language that neither of us understands.

On this trip, we spent five days in Napa, roaming the countryside in a rented car with Google Maps. I won’t bore you with the details of how many times we got lost thanks to one of us being convinced of Google Maps' omnipotence, but suffice it to say that things aren’t going well when the other one of us starts referring to the disembodied Google Maps voice as “that dumb-ass girlfriend of yours.”

And so, after lunch, we climbed back into the car, plugged in the directions, muted She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and made the short drive over to Gargiulo, an exclusive family winery tucked away on Oakville Cross Road (read: you can barely find this place without Google Maps, let alone with it.)

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Have you seen those Dos Equis commercials featuring The Most Interesting Man in the World? He's played by an actor, of course, but that's because the real Most Interesting Man in the World is busy making wine. That would be Jeff Gargiulo, who started his career as a tomato-picker in Naples, Florida; parlayed that gig into owning one of the largest tomato growing companies in the world; sold the company and became the CEO of Sunkist for a number of years; started a music producing company with some partners in Nashville; and finally, at the point when most of us would have dropped dead from exhaustion, bought a vineyard in Napa and started making world-class wines.

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Which is kind of funny when you consider that his real talent is in interior design.

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The vineyards at Gargiulo, Money Road Ranch and 575 ovx, are spread across a two-mile-wide swath that extends to 600 feet in elevation up the Vaca Mountains to the east and the Mayacamas Mountains to the west. Screaming Eagle, whose wines regularly sell for close to $2,000 a bottle, is their next-door neighbor, and the two share the same soil.

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After a cellar and vineyard tour with Garrett, we settled in with some snacks and, of course, a tasting of Gargiulo's incredible wines.

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That evening we took in St. Helena's charming downtown area, shopping and eating and plotting our next day's adventure.

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As much as we enjoyed our visit to Gargiulo, I was even more excited about the following day. That's because we were headed to Chappellet Winery, which sent us a map, some written directions, and the following message: "Please bring these directions with you, as GPS devices cannot locate us." Finally! Written proof that GPS devices are useless! And so we set off with some good old-fashioned printed directions, which seamlessly directed us up twisty Sage Canyon Road to the tippy-top of Pritchard Hill.

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The winery building at Chappellet is stunning -- a pyramid of gleaming wood and glass woven seamlessly into the surrounding woods.

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We were greeted by Dominic Chappellet, one of six siblings involved in running the winery with their parents, Donn and Molly Chappellet, who founded the winery in 1967.

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After a tour of the storage facilities and tasting rooms, Dominic led us out back to Chappellet's bottling facility, where we had the good fortune to be there on bottling day.

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As the yet-to-be corked, not-yet-labeled bottles chugged by on the conveyor belt, Dominic swiped one from the belt and asked if we'd like to try it.

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That's like asking Angel if he'd like to throw out the first pitch at a Yankees game. During the World Series.

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Soon it was lunchtime, and we had reservations at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch.

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However, we'd had such an enjoyable morning that we were already running a bit late when we left Chappellet, and we knew we'd have to eat light if we were going to make our afternoon plans.

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So we had a couple of clearly intriguing cocktails, then split a cheeseburger with home fries, an order of wood-roasted asparagus topped with lemon ricotta, and a skillet full of cheddar biscuits with honey butter.

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The aforementioned afternoon plans involved shooting over to Sonoma to have a glass of wine with someone I knew only by his online screen name, Manpot, which refers to a Caribbean concoction also known as the "Altoid of Aphrodisiacs."

You know me: If I'm not hitching a ride on a golf cart with a couple of suspected sex traffickers, I'm getting drunk with an amorous stranger I met on the Internet.

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Click here for Part 2 to find out if your mother was right about meeting strangers online!

Posted by TraceyG 06:31 Archived in USA Tagged wine napa cia oxbow napa_valley solbar greystone farmstead gotts gotts_roadside wine_country_inn freemark_abbey gargiulo st_helena chappelet Comments (6)

A Week in Napa Valley: It's Wine O'Clock Somewhere (Part 2)

Back in Sonoma, I'd just run off with a man I met on the Internet. Which isn't nearly as salacious as it sounds, unfortunately, since our spouses were there, too.

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Malcolm, known around the British Virgin Islands as "Manpot," is a veteran entertainment reporter who's interviewed everyone from Cher to Clint Eastwood and now spends his time lounging on the beach in Tortola, sipping wine in Sonoma, and offering to show random travel bloggers a truly local experience when they happen to be in town. Did I mention that he's also the guy who coined the catchphrase, "Champagne wishes and caviar dreams," Robin Leach's classic sign-off on the 1980s television staple "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"? I would expect nothing less.

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Manpot and his lovely wife Candace were already waiting for us on the porch of the Swiss Hotel in Sonoma's historic town square when we arrived.

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And because I was not already jealous enough of his island-hopping, wine-swilling lifestyle, Manpot just had to arrive in this.

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Manpot wanted to show us where the locals hang in Sonoma, so after a round of drinks at the Swiss Hotel, we set off. Our curiosity was piqued as we drove through town and then a residential neighborhood of charming bungalows. Were we headed to a winery? A local bar? A favorite restaurant? Manpot's house? We had no idea, so you can imagine my surprise when we pulled up in front of this.

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That's right: A deli.

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But not just any deli.

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Sonoma's Best is a deli, cheese shop, coffee shop, gift shop, and wine bar, all of which is run by Tom Jenkins, a man of quick wit, bone-dry humor, and great taste in wine. Which he proceeded to pour down our throats at a rate of approximately 1 glass every 15 minutes, or so it seemed when I finally made the mistake of trying to stand up.

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Tucked away behind Sonoma's Best is a sweet garden, along with a handful of adorable cottages for rent. I'd love to stay in one of these someday, but with Tom behind the bar, you might as well just book a room over at the Betty Ford instead.

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Back at the bar, the wine and conversation continued to flow freely, until Manpot and his wife had the good sense to call it an afternoon. Well, either that or they just slid off their barstools and I was too loopy to notice.

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Which explains how Angel and I ended up at a pizza joint for dinner . . . which would normally be the equivalent of eating dinner at a McDonald's in Paris.

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But this is Napa Valley, where even the pizza is artisinal. And so Oenotri, in downtown Napa, turns out authentic pizza Napoletana from a wood-fueled Acino oven imported from Naples, the pie's crust perfectly blistered and topped with local, seasonal ingredients.

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The next morning, we were at it again. By 9 a.m., it was time to shake off the previous night's excess with some hair of the dog.

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And so we headed over to the Cult Wine Tasting Room at the Napa Wine Co., which showcases a number of small, lesser-known "cult" producers, such as Crocker & Starr, Ghost Block, and Eponymous.

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We loaded up the car with our latest finds, and then, because we hadn't had an argument in almost 24 hours, we used Google Maps to make our way to our next stop.

By then it had began to cloud up, conveniently just in time for our lunch at Auberge du Soleil. So much for the "soleil" part.

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But with a view this spectacular, do you really need to rub it in with sunshine?

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After much deliberation over the Auberge's mouthwatering menu, I started with the asparagus soup with dungeness crab, lemon, and creme fraiche, while Angel tried the gnocchi with pea shoots and parmesan.

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Then it was on to the English pea risotto with gulf shrimp, bacon, mint, and yuzu emulsion for me, and the mushroom mille feuille with slow-cooked egg, snap peas, and watercress puree for Angel. All of which was enough to turn even a committed meat-eater like me vegetarian for an afternoon . . . with a non-negotiable exception for the bacon, of course.

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After lunch we retired to the garden, which is Napa-speak for "I'm gonna need some more wine to help digest all this food."

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That afternoon we were scheduled for a private barrel tasting at nearby Cosentino Winery. We'd driven by the gorgeous, ivy-covered building earlier in the week, only to be greeted by this on the day I planned to photograph it.

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But, as we all know, it's what's inside that counts. Especially when what's inside is wine.

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After checking in at reception, we were led into the cavernous barrel room, which had been lit with dozens of shimmering votive candles just for us, giving the room an ethereal, romantic glow.

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As is customary in Napa, we started with a white wine to "warm up" our palates, followed by a succession of Cosentino's best reds, all taken directly from the barrel -- including one that our tasting guide, Erin, confided had never been un-bunged, making us the very first people to ever taste that particular wine.

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Erin expertly guided us through the tasting, which began with some perfectly-paired nibbles and ended with us adding yet a few more bottles to the refrigerator-sized box we were planning to ship home.

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Along with a bunch of stuff from the extensive gift shop.

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For our last evening in Napa, we decided on dinner at Bottega in Yountville, which is owned by chef Michael Chiarello.

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If you've ever seen this paragon of pomposity on Top Chef, Iron Chef, or some other torture device where you get to watch people cook but don't actually get to eat, then you know that his attitude is enough to put you off spending even one hard-earned dollar at one of his establishments. But it was hard to ignore the overwhelmingly positive reviews of Bottega, and luckily we have no integrity whatsoever. And so we booked a table, hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

We were more than pleasantly surprised. We were, frankly, blown away. That jerk.

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The sprawling space is still somehow cozy and warm, with a fireplace and string lights outside, and warm amber tiles and dimmed chandeliers inside.

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We lucked out with a table near the bustling open kitchen.

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We started with two glasses of the Joseph Phelps pinot noir, which cemented our view that Napa should stick to what it knows, which is making excellent cabs and being envious of Sonoma's superior pinot noirs.

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First came the bread, soft and chewy and served with an addictive dipping sauce made with olive oil, parmesan, and Asiago cheese.

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When it came time to order, I went with the "polenta under glass," the recipe for which contains no fewer than 25 ingredients, all of which are expertly combined and then served an adorable little Mason jar topped with caramelized mushrooms, parmesan cheese, and a rich balsamic game sauce.

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Angel decided on the shaved Brussels sprouts salad with Meyer lemon dressing, Marcona almonds, sieved egg (which slivers it up just so), and Pecorino. You know a salad is not just good, but great, when it can distract you from licking the bottom of a Mason jar.

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Next up, it was the tagliarini with veal, pork, rosemary, and porcini mushroom sugo for me, and the waiter-recommended Pollo alla Diavola for Angel, which was roasted under a brick with Shishito peppers, cipollini onions, and cherry tomatoes.

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That chicken has the distinction of being one of the best dishes either of us has ever had, anywhere. Damn that Michael Chiarello and his well-earned arrogance!

Indeed, everything was so fantastic that we had no choice but to order dessert, a delightfully tart grapefruit sorbet.

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On our last day in Napa, our friends Ellen and Brian decided to drive up from San Jose to spend the day with us before the four of us returned to San Jose to finish out the weekend. We planned to meet at Round Pond Estate, which produces its own wines, olive oils, vinegars, and citrus syrups from its expansive vineyards, olive groves, and fruit orchards.

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Unfortunately, however, the universe had other plans.

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Ellen and Brian showed up late due to a work meeting that ran long, and Angel and I showed up even later, due to the fact that every. single. road. between the Wine Country Inn and Round Pond was closed.

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Having been re-routed at least half a dozen times by that disembodied bimbo at Google Maps, we finally skidded into Round Pond, grabbed a glass of rosé at the bar (priorities!), and made haste to catch up with the tour, which began in Round Pond's garden.

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There, we sampled everything from wild thyme and fennel to marjoram and kale. But our favorite were the delicate little alpine strawberries, which you likely have never tried unless you grow them yourself. That's because, our guide explained, they cannot be shipped since they tend to go bad within an hour or so of being picked.

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Of course, it wouldn't be a vacation without some chickens.

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Next, it was on to the wine cellars, which house Round Pond's extensive selection of cabernets.

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Then it was up to the terrace for our "Il Pranzo" tastings and lunch.

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We began with a tasting of Round Pound's two red wine vinegars, the first a traditional cabernet-merlot blend, and the second a more unique blend of sangiovese, nebbiolo, and petite verdot. Vinegars should never be tasted on their own, we learned, since the brain tends to reject bitter tastes by default (probably because many toxic plants taste bitter). Instead, soaking a sugar cube in vinegar, and then sucking on it masks the bitterness while simultaneously promoting the vinegar's other flavors.

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Then we moved on to the estate's olive oils, which were rich and fruity.

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All that sipping and sniffing had been fun, but thankfully it was soon time to stop messing around and get to the food. The lunch was a locavore's dream, with exquisite fruits, vegetables, and greens freshly harvested from Round Pond's gardens, along with local cheeses, meats, and of course Round Pond's wines.

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All topped off with an olive oil cake -- using Round Pond's own olive oil, of course -- with fresh cream and berries.

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As much as we hated to eat and run, I'd booked us for one last wine tasting, this one at Silverado Vineyards in Napa's Stags Leap district.

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The wines were just okay, but we certainly couldn't fault the setting or the view.

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Which just goes to show you: When the road ends in wine, and good friends to share it with, the journey is worth it -- no thanks to that #$%@* Goggle Maps, of course.

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What's up next? A filching in Key West, a food festival in lower Manhattan, a freebie in East Hampton, fall foliage in the Hudson Valley, and faux pas galore in Paris. Check back soon!

Posted by TraceyG 05:22 Archived in USA Tagged silverado napa_valley cosentino bottega round_pond auberge_du_soleil yountville Comments (6)

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