A Travellerspoint blog

The BVIs, Part 6: Of Hot Dogs and Hooch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The end result might just be worth it, though.

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

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

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

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At the Bomba Shack, that is.

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

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Then again, who could tell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Or it could have just been all those hot dogs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some of which were more unusual than others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After all, it had been 24 hours since I'd last had some meatballs.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
Fall is houseguest season in New York, but we'll be back on the road for a 10-day trip to the British Virgin Islands in December. Can it get any more exciting than boating around the Abacos?
We sure hope not.

Posted by TraceyG 06:18 Archived in USA Comments (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, dear.

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

Oh, dear.

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

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

You thought I was kidding, didn't you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there were the house's doors.

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

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

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

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

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That’s a lot of points of entry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happily, the food at Nippers was fantastic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It did not.

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

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

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

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

It is not.

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

Literally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the engine died.

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

The engine was dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We went with the sex traffickers.

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Posted by TraceyG 05:23 Archived in Bahamas Tagged boat man war o treasure elbow nippers abaco guana cay grabbers Comments (19)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I did it!!!

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

Or that spider got to us first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We loved it.

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

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

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Pampered loons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As we approached the restaurant, I noticed this sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We could relate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then it began to lose altitude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You smell what I'm cookin', right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Plus you can get ramps without getting into a fistfight, which is almost never the case in New York.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And perfect it was: Juicy pork, bitter greens, and squishy bread, plus a fork "just in case."

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

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

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

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

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

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Hypocritical? Yes. But when the chicken is this good, the folks at Chick-fil-A could be clubbing baby seals in their spare time, and I'd still be forced to look away. I mean, it's not like I wear sneakers made with child labor or anythi . . . oh, wait. Maybe I am going to hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As was the surrounding neighborhood. And to think he lured me in with that "starving artist" shtick.

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

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

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

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For my entree, I decided to try the cacio e pepe, a simple peasant dish made by combining hot pasta with butter, Parmigiano-Reggiano, cracked black pepper, and some starchy pasta water to thicken it. How anyone ever manages to make this dish without it becoming a watery mess of floating cheese is beyond me, but I guess that's why my oven is used to store books.

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

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

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

Posted by TraceyG 04:42 Archived in USA Comments (8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Have I mentioned that Philly is my kind of town?

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

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

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

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So, which one was the winner of our Cheese Steak Throwdown, Spring 2013 Edition? That would be the Frankensteak, which, if it existed, would consist of the airy Amoroso rolls from Jim's, the generous slather of Whiz from Jim's, the perfectly seasoned meat from Steaks on South, and the hole-in-the-wall atmosphere of Ishkabibble's. (If you know of someone already serving these Frankensteaks, please let me know in the comments, since a Fall 2013 Rematch is already in the works. And remember, no stinginess wit the Whiz!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It paired beautifully with that Sunday's cheese, a Podda Classico from Sardinia, which is similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano but differs from the classic parm in that it's made from a blend of cow and sheep milk (parm is all cow), giving it a rich, creamy, almost toffee-like flavor.

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After the Rosé Txakolina disappeared with alarming speed, I moved on to the white Txakolina for comparison's sake. The white was very similar to its pink cousin, with the same fizz and mineral, almost salty flavor, but minus the strawberry and watermelon notes of the rosé. Either way, I've found my new "sip by the pool" wines for this summer.

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

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

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

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Nearby Independence Park is the pillar of the neighborhood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by TraceyG 04:40 Archived in USA Tagged philadelphia philly tria continental_martini_bar jim's_steaks steaks_on_south amada del_frisco's Comments (8)

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

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

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

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Photos courtesy of KWFWF/Sheel Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This, of course, would not do.

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

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

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

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Photo courtesy of KWFWF/Sheel Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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They didn't have the soup.

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

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

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

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

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Oh, and rubbers. Of course.

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

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

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

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It was therefore quite important to be memorable.

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

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

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

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

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Posted by TraceyG 06:18 Archived in USA Comments (6)

Key West: Walking in a Wiener Wonderland, Part 1

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

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Not too warm, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And everyone loves the bananas Foster.

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

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

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Although there were lots of tempting choices, I settled on the Eggs Sardou, which was basically eggs Benedict topped with creamed spinach and with mini artichokes standing in for the English muffins. Normally vegetables should never be permitted to muscle out stuff like bread, but those little artichokes were pretty good, not to mention cute. I also had the Sauvignon Blanc with lemonade, which only sounds white trash-y.

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In addition to the egg dishes that Frances, Todd, and Angel selected, the four of us also shared two sides of bacon and two orders of silver-dollar pancakes with raspberries and, yes, more bacon.

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That afternoon we biked around a bit and took in some holiday cheer.

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Oh, and looked at decorations, too.

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That evening we headed over to Colombian Grace, a spot I'd been wanting to try ever since I heard about a dish there called the Cartagena, which immediately makes me go, "Joan Wiiilder? Zee Joan Wiiilder???" in my head.

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Made with shrimp and calamari sautéed in basil, garlic, and fresh tomato broth, the Cartagena is offered only as an appetizer, which was surprisingly large enough even for me.

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Just to be safe, though, I "shared" the arepas -- grilled white corn cakes with melted cheese -- with Angel, and had a side of empanadas, too, just in case he was serious about that whole sharing thing.

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Angel had the shrimp with white wine, butter, lime juice, garlic, mushrooms and tomato, while Todd had the Bandeja Paisa (red beans, rice, chorizo, skirt steak, bacon, sweet plantain, green plantain, and two fried eggs), which I believe roughly translates as the "Paul Bunyan Special." For her part, Frances went with the Petronia Chicken glazed in orange juice, rosemary, brandy, and a little spicy sugarcane sauce. If your mouth is not watering by now, you need to stop looking at this on your iPhone and get to a real monitor.

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On Christmas Eve we headed over to Louie's to catch up with Donna and Greg, two local friends whom you might remember recently threw a fabulous, Champagne-and-sweat-soaked wedding on a sailboat, and who are to be commended for guiding us through last year's Key West Food and Wine Festival without once passing out (that we know of).

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This time around, though, Donna and Greg were knee-deep in moving boxes, as their cottage on Big Coppitt Key was set to be demolished so that a roomy new two-story house can be built in its place, which will have sweeping water views and a bedroom just for me (I guess Angel can sleep there, too). While the new house is being built, however, they will be living in a camper on a friend's property, which Donna has eloquently named the Redneck Ranch. The idea of the lovely, perfectly polished Donna -- she of the little black dresses and sky-high stilettos and perfect manicures -- ruling the roost at the Redneck Ranch is so ridiculous that I can't believe people spend their time watching Honey Boo-Boo when this kind of entertainment is available in person for the price of a plane ticket.

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After lunch, Donna and Greg met us back at the house with a few bottles of wine. Soon we were joined by Frances and Todd and, as is usually the case, where Frances goes, trouble follows. This time, the trouble started with Donna needing to make a Christmas ornament for a friend's Naughty Ornament Party that evening; Frances making like a pervy MacGyver and dropping fifty bucks at Walgreen's to buy supplies that included condoms, an assortment of rubber balls, and some paper clips; the three of us sending Todd out on an emergency vodka run while Angel and Greg pretended not to know us; Frances concentrating like she was making the next atom bomb in order to send Donna off with the perfect dirty ornament . . . and Tracey and Angel deciding to crash said house party.

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It ended with Angel having to drag me out of the party (it is apparently bad form to refuse to leave if you were never invited to begin with) and me being angry because (1) Did I mention they had a buffet? and (2) I was right in the middle of a conversation with the deputy at the jail about that giant pig who died at the petting zoo there. Yes, a petting zoo. At the jail. Where else would you expect kids in Key West to have their field trips?

It really didn't feel like Christmas when we woke up the next morning: The sky was bright blue, the sun was hot, and nobody had spent the night on a guest futon covered in cat hair. And somehow we'd managed to rent the only house in Key West without a single Champagne glass, so our traditional Christmas morning mimosas were sipped from mismatched martini glasses.

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Nor was there a towering Christmas tree surrounded by presents, but both Frances and Angel came through nonetheless, the former getting me a flip-flop bottle opener and matching coasters and wrapping it all up in the world's cutest gift bag, and the latter finally admitting that he married a 13-year-old boy and getting me a "best of" DVD of Beavis & Butthead.

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Even Ellen, who arrived later that day, brought me a fabulous gift: A huge, round, hot-tub-sized raft that looks like a lime and that I cannot wait to hog the whole pool in the Hamptons with. That I repay all of these people by picking off their plates at dinner just goes to show you what good friends they really are.

On top of all that, Frances and Todd had breakfast at their usual spot, Pepe's, and kindly brought me back a to-go order of their fantastic grilled mashed potatoes.

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I turned my back on those potatoes for one second to grab a fork, only to see this when I returned:

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Like he ever had a chance.

Later that morning we biked over to the elegant Casa Marina for their Christmas Day brunch buffet.

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Tapeworms and buffets go together like Frances and raunchy ornaments, so I was obviously in my milieu, and I didn't waste any time. After an eggnog shooter and my second mimosa of the day, it was time to dig in.

That is au gratin potatoes, rice pilaf, a block of chestnut stuffing with cream sauce (why hasn't anyone thought of that sooner?), and, off to the left there, a mound of pepperoni and hard salami. The Caesar salad is there in order to create a well-balanced meal with vegetables.

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Next up, more potatoes, more stuffing, and some pizza. You've heard of the Atkins diet? I'm on the Fatkins.

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Ellen and Brian arrived that afternoon, and we'd chosen A&B Lobster House as the perfect spot for a celebratory Christmas dinner.

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From the outstanding lobster bisque to the moist, meaty crab cake, to the sweet-and-tart Tropical Martini, everything I tasted was delicious . . . and my own meal wasn't bad either. And because it was Christmas, I only got stabbed in the hand with a fork once.

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The next day, Frances and Todd went on a fishing charter, leaving me, Angel, Ellen, and Brian to fend for ourselves for lunch. We decided to try Caroline's Cafe since none of us had ever been there.

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There, we started with an assortment of rum drinks and the kind of salads that allow you to tell people you had a salad for lunch, when in fact you had a plate of fried chicken garnished with some lettuce.

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And oh, what fantastic fried chicken it was. They really ought to sell these tasty little nuggets in go-bags so you can walk around and snack on them without getting the insides of your pockets all greasy.

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As we were finishing lunch, I noticed a small white chicken under our table, so naturally I wanted a picture of it.

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Our waitress then helpfully informed us that there was a much larger, friendlier rooster around named Abby . . . and that we could pick him up. Never being ones to turn down a dare, Ellen and I immediately shot out of our seats and began searching the restaurant for Abby. Finally, another waitress tipped us off to his location: They'd chased him out back because the health inspector had shown up. (Note to potential restaurateurs: Numerous small chickens on the premises are acceptable, but one large rooster is a no-go.) Round the back we went, where we were greeted by a small turtle named Shelby, a Yoda-topped Christmas tree, and a little Asian man who realized he'd hit the photography jackpot when Ellen burst onto the scene chasing a giant rooster. Weird, it was.

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We had to approach Abby carefully, of course, since everyone knows what happens when a chicken in this neighborhood gets angry.

Plus, there's always the danger that if you can't fool the chicken, it will gleefully peck your eyes out at the first opportunity. Luckily Ellen was more than up to the task.

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Finally: success! Ellen grabbed hold of Abby, hoisted him up light as a feather, and even gave him a peck on the head for good measure. All puns intended, of course.

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That evening the six of us headed over to Rooftop Cafe to celebrate Todd's birthday (and Ellen's brave handling of Abby).

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Several of us were excited to try Rooftop's version of one of my favorite frozen concoctions, the key lime pina colada, but the frozen drink machine was down . . . which is the Key West equivalent of McDonald's running out of buns. No matter. Brian went with the second runner-up, the key lime pie martini, while Angel, Todd, and I used a few of those ubiquitous "free glass of wine" coupons to score some free hooch. There was also a pineapple-y rum punch for Ellen, and a ginger-pear martini for Frances that can best be described as having your mouth washed out with soap. (We know this because the first thing one says after tasting something awful is, "Ewww, gross. You have to try this!").

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An assortment of crab cakes, fish, pasta, and risotto later . . .

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And it was time for dessert, delivered by the mischievous Christopher, whose hilarious sendup of Frances politely ordering a cup of coffee sent booze flying out of noses all around the table. Only in Key West does use of the word "Sir" sound so formal that you might as well take up residence at Downton Abbey.

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The next morning Frances and Todd had another fishing trip scheduled, so Angel and I took advantage of having the house to ourselves and ordered lunch in. I'd heard good things about a new sandwich shop, Paseo, and the crowds gathered outside every time we rode by seemed to confirm the good reviews, so Paseo it was. In particular, I'd heard about their fantastic grilled corn on the cob, and today was the perfect day to order it, since, like Oreos, corn on the cob is one of those things best eaten at home with your toothbrush at the ready.

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The food from Paseo -- the Caribbean roast pork sandwich for Angel, and the marinated pork loin for me -- was delicious, even though that pork loin did look suspiciously like the cube steaks my mom used to beat into chewy submission when I was growing up.

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But the grilled corn on the cob? Let's just say that while I generally don't make a habit of licking aluminum foil, sometimes exceptions must be made.

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Half an hour after demolishing a pork loin, a plate full of rice and beans, and the best grilled corn this side of Mexico, it was time for a little palate cleanser. So off we went to our appointment at Lush bar for a wine and chocolate tasting.

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When he isn't busy dreaming up new ways to give folks the gout, our friend Mark, the cirrhosis-courting mastermind behind the Key West Food & Wine Festival, also runs the adorable Lush bar inside the Green Pineapple store on Duval Street.

Yes, those dimples are real, and, no, you can't stick your fingers in them. That's my domain.

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After I took this photo, I teased Mark about being just like Angel, whose random limbs are always showing up in my photos.

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"Can't you get your damn elbow out of my picture?" I asked. Sure, he responded.

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No wonder those two get along.

At Lush, Mark specializes in wine pairings with chocolate, honey, and, if you tell him ahead of time that you don't much care for chocolate, generous cheese plates with this cool goat cheese/brain.

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The pairing began with some historical background on chocolate, which is made from the fermented, roasted, and ground beans of the cocoa tree. The raw beans are crunchy and somewhat bitter, and therefore more to my liking than actual chocolate.

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And what better place to store them than in a redneck wine glass? I bet Donna has a whole cabinet full of these over at the Ranch.

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Each of the subsequent pairings was designed to match the wine to the chocolate both in terms of geographic origin and flavor notes -- in other words, if it grows together, it goes together. Our first pairing was a glass of sparkling wine from Washington's Willamette Valley, which was paired with a dark salted-almond chocolate from Seattle.

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A succession of red wines followed: An Argentinian Malbec paired with an Ecuadorean chocolate; a French blend paired with a Trinitario chocolate, which is one of only three types of cacao trees in the world; a South African Cabernet paired with a spicy cinnamon-and-Sakay- pepper chocolate from Madagascar that almost melted my face off (in a good way); and a Portuguese porto with an Askinosie "El Rustico," which was my favorite of the chocolates I tried because it was laced with vanilla bean and had an appealingly gritty texture.

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For each pairing, the idea was to sip the wine, taste the chocolate, and then sip the wine again to note the differences between the first sip and the second. For me, however, it went something like, sip the wine, take another sip, harass Mark a little bit, eat a hunk of cheese, take another sip of wine, nibble on the chocolate, take another sip of wine, harass Mark some more, and then eat another hunk of cheese.

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We were joined during our tasting by this woman, Megan, who left her kid back at the hotel with her husband so she could hang out and drink wine and eat chocolate undisturbed . . . and who should never, ever get divorced.

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Also during our tasting, we were approached by a lovely woman named Donna from West Palm Beach, who recognized me from this blog. I am always amazed when people recognize me, but I guess I shouldn't be. A few weeks ago I walked into the H20+ store on Madison & 53rd, a shop I usually visit every six weeks or so but hadn't been to in a while, as they'd been closed for several months due to a fire. As soon as I walked in, the saleswoman greeted me in very heavy Russian accent, "Oh, you are back! I remember you. Your face, it is not so popular." Indeed.

Our tasting wrapped up with a glass of Mt. Difficulty's "Roaring Meg" riesling, served with milk chocolate drizzled with honey and dusted with sea salt. Which I'd think is what heaven tastes like . . . if I didn't already know that it tastes like bacon double cheeseburgers.

Also, did you notice how Mark ended the tasting with a wine from Mt. Difficulty? Obviously it would be paranoia to take that as some kind of hint. Right? Right?

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Afterwards I decided to do a little shopping at the Green Pineapple, which sells everything from jewelry to tunics to chocolates to stemware.

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That night Mark was stuck with me again, as was his partner Steven, plus Donna and Greg and two friends from Key Largo, Claudia and Alden.

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I'd reserved a table for 8 at Santiago's Bodega and made sure to let them know ahead of time that we expected flaming cheese, and lots of it, and they'd better not run out. That's because Donna, Claudia, and I might flame you on our blogs if the food isn't good . . . and at least one of us might have a meltdown if there isn't enough of it. (As it was, there was so much flaming cheese that we set off the smoke alarms.) Luckily the army of servers assigned to our table, including this cutie named Ivan (who is, by coincidence, our Key West tenant), came through with nary a singed eyebrow.

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Before the saganaki, however, our evening started with a gratis pitcher of sangria (thanks, Ivan!), a bottle of white wine (thanks, Alden!), a bottle of red wine (thanks, Mark!), then devolved into a melee of saganaki and meatballs and more sangria, and ended, finally, with Steven and I mock-heckling a lounge singer at La Te Da while plotting to pick up frat boys together at Irish Kevin's and, once again, Angel dragging me away before things could get interesting.

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The next day we met up with Ellen and Brian for lunch at Southernmost Beach Cafe.

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I decided to eat light in preparation for the pizza party we planned for that night, which was our last night in the house, and for which Angel and I had whipped up the aforementioned batch of rum punch. So I had a turkey burger, some pasta salad, and one of my beloved key lime pina coladas, which is like a boozy Shamrock Shake with a better straw.

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Our go-to rum punch recipe calls for orange juice, pineapple juice, guava nectar, grenadine, amaretto, nutmeg, a whopping 64 ounces of rum, and Angostura bitters, this last of which actually took some effort to find. The kids these days must be huffing them, seeing as how they are stashed away behind the counter like they're the good Sudafed.

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Little did we know that by the end of the night, we'd be wishing we'd kept that rum punch hidden away, too.

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CLICK HERE to read Part 2!

Posted by TraceyG 16:00 Archived in USA Comments (3)

Key West: Walking in a Wiener Wonderland, Part 2

That evening, while I made the final preparations for the pizza party, Angel went to the turtle races with the rest of the gang to try to redeem us after that time I was thisclose to winning the entire jackpot, but got distracted by what was behind door #3 (a bottle of Heinz ketchup) and blew my chance.

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As Angel well knows, you can take the girl out of Pittsburgh, but you can never destroy her abiding love for ketchup. So if we were ever going to win some Turtle Bucks, it was all on him. Luckily he's pretty good under pressure.

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Back at the house, we killed the rum punch, made a sizable dent in the vodka that we'd goaded Todd into buying on Raunchy Ornament Night, devoured three large pizzas, and participated in a rousing game of "Guess The Definition" of a number of unmentionable slang terms on Urban Dictionary, which is how people used to entertain themselves in the olden days before TV.

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Ellen had been plotting for months to bring one of those "Adults Only" cakes from Croissants de France to the party for dessert, but as soon as arguments broke out as to how each of us would be depicted, anatomically speaking, she went with the world's prettiest edible Yule log instead.

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After all this, there was only one place left to go: The Green Parrot.

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Now, sometimes I'm in the mood for a nice glass of Cabernet and quiet conversation. Sometimes I'd like a frosty pina colada and a water view. And sometimes, I can even be dragged out to Sloppy Ho's or one of the other bars on lower Duval for free music and cheap beer. But when I'm in the mood to act like a dancin' fool, only one place will do: The Green Parrot. That night the band was bringing Friends, Funk & Fortitude from New Orleans, and we were more than ready to laissez les bons temps rouler. And unlike most nights when I just stumble on in to the Parrot, this time I was prepared. See, back in early December, Angel, Brian, and I had celebrated Ellen's birthday at NYC's Hurricane Club, a so-tacky-it's-chic tiki spot that specializes in group drinks that are consumed with absurdly long red straws.

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Those straws allow you to suck up much more than you normally might drink in one sitting, which prompted Ellen to remark to me, in complete and utter seriousness, "Your eyes look beautiful in those glasses." Yes. Like space crystals.

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Sensing an opportunity, I gathered up as many of those straws as I could that night, smuggled them home, cleaned them up, and promptly stowed them away in my luggage for this trip. (I can't remember to pack things like toothpaste, but I can remember to pack a slew of two-foot-long straws.)

Thus armed with my super-straws, it was time to head over to the Green Parrot. Fragile Frances had been felled by a bad case of too much rum punch (or, more likely, the volcano-sized pile of nachos she'd inhaled at the turtle races), so only six of us made the pilgrimage. While the guys staked out a good spot near the popcorn machine, kept an eye on our purses, and wisely kept the cameras hidden away, I busted out my mega-straw and began to make my rounds of likely marks. "Helllllloooooooooo!!!" I trilled in my best Mrs. Doubtfire voice, aiming my straw at whatever libation my next victim happened to be holding. "And what have we heeeere???" I am happy to report that my super-straw and I sampled everything from Jack & Gingers (eh) to a few warm Coronas (ick) to a diet Coke (quel disappointment!), all without a single refusal or communicable disease (so far). The night ended with Donna getting down like one of the Solid Gold Dancers up on stage with the band; me twirling a stranger's handlebar mustache (with permission) the wrong way (by mistake); Ellen slipping on the stairs and landing on said stranger; and Angel once again dragging me away just when things were getting good. And I know exactly what you're thinking: What a shame that Frances couldn't be there, what with us behaving like the cast from her beloved stomping grounds, Jersey Shore.

The next day we dropped off the keys to the house and checked in at the Chelsea House, an historic inn where we would spend our last three nights.

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Although the Chelsea House and its sister properties, including the adorable Key Lime Inn cottages, are all perfectly nice (and the staff extremely accommodating), poor Chelsea House, having followed seven days at the most private house we've ever rented, suffered the same fate as whatever you happen to order after the free bacon at 2 Cents: It's nice, but it just can't compare.

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Which is not to say that it was boring, by any stretch.

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After dropping off our bags, we made like a couple of sailors on payday and headed down to the Bight to spend Angel's hard-won Turtle Bucks.

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One of the newest and most beautiful sailboats at the Bight is the Hindu, which was built in 1925 in Maine and has been lovingly restored by the Rowan family.

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Me, I'd be happy with this little boat, so long as the puppy came with it.

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By the time we reached Turtle Kraals, it was 11:45, and therefore almost noon, and therefore time for cocktails.

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Then it was on to the crab and spinach dip with Townhouse crackers, followed by the shrimp Po Boy for Angel and the fried shrimp and a pathetic, naked, boiled corn cob for me . That cheesy grilled corn at Paseo has ruined me, I tell you.

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Frances and Todd showed up just as we were digging in, ostensibly so they could eat lunch, but really so Frances could force me to look at her new Velcro sandals. Yes, Velcro. You know how people always say they'd rather be comfortable than fashionable? God help her, but Frances actually means it.

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If you don't have anything nice to say . . . turn your head and try not to laugh.

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That evening Ellen and Brian treated us to the Commotion on the Ocean sunset cruise on the Fury boat.

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As if that wasn't nice enough, Ellen picked this cruise specifically because they serve meatballs at the small buffet and unlimited margaritas during the cruise, and that is why we are convinced that she and I would clean up at that Friday afternoon Newlywed Game at Southernmost on the Beach.

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The next day we met up with Ellen and Brian at Le Bistro, since Brian wanted a crepe. (Frances and Todd ended up back at their usual spot, Pepe's, due to her powerful addiction to their strawberry eggnog.)

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The food was great: A turkey croissant for Ellen, a chicken pesto panini and some spicy gazpacho for me, and the lobster-and-chorizo Benedict for Angel.

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Oh, and Brian had the scrambled eggs. I guess he pulled a crepe-and-switch.

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Later that evening we decided to revisit some of the inns and houses we'd seen on earlier bike rides to get some photos of their Christmas lights.

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We also came upon the horror of this terrible massacre. God only knows what kind of animal would slaughter Santa, and Tigger, too.

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After spying one particularly decked-out house, we pulled our bikes over and I walked across the street to get my shot. Or, rather, I walked across the street and, distracted by all the sparkly tinsel, didn't notice that big ditch in the street and promptly fell headfirst into it. As I lay on the ground wondering what the hell had just happened, my first thoughts were, in this order: (1) Thank god this fall didn't chip my pedicure; (2) Thank god this fall didn't rip my favorite jeans; (3) Thank god I brought my cute ambulance band-aids; and (4) Did I just break my kneecap . . . AGAIN? Priorities, people.

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The fall left part of my big toe a bloody mess with a sizable flap of skin hanging off of it, and my knee looking like a grapefruit covered in angry red brush burns. (I blew out my flip-flop, too, and I wasn't even wasted away again.) I patched my toe up with a band-aid -- being distracted by sparkly stuff is reason #1 why I carry band-aids on my person at all times -- and tried to get back to taking photos, but soon I could feel my knee stiffening up and, worried that pedaling my bike might soon become impossible, we headed back to the suite to clean my wounds and ice my knee.

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As Angel set me up with a chair to elevate my leg and fashioned an ice pack out of some ice cubes and a washcloth and forced me into a series of excruciating knee stretches every ten minutes, I realized that we were probably going to have to order in for dinner, because both walking and pedaling seemed out of the question.

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But tonight we had plans. Big plans. Plans that were so important that I somehow managed to pedal my bike with one leg and brake Fred Flintstone-style in order to get there.

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One gigantic veal parm, a glass of Pinot Noir, two meatballs, and a handful of Advil later, all was right with the world.

On New Year's Eve we decided to check out the Key West Dachshund Walk, otherwise known as the Wiener Dog Parade.

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I'd been expecting maybe a dozen or so weenies and their owners and a smattering of gawkers, so I was completely unprepared for the throngs that greeted us (along with a blaring loudspeaker playing "Who Let the Dogs Out?").

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I immediately realized that, like a politician with a camera phone, if I wanted to get some good wiener shots, I was going to have to get closer to the action. Still pretty banged up from my unfortunate meeting with that roadside ditch, I limped my way through the crowd, carefully sidestepping holes and uneven pavement and, you know, air, until I found a small opening in the crowd and weasled my way in. At first I tried shooting the weenies from on high because squatting was difficult with my knee, but I soon realized that if you really want to capture the beauty of a wiener, you've got to get up close and personal with it.

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So I sat down on the pavement, with my good leg tucked under me and the bad one sticking out since it wasn't willing to bend. Which wouldn't have been so bad, except that I was wearing a dress. Once you've flashed your undies to the spectators at a wiener dog parade, you know you're close to hitting rock bottom.

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Of course, the parade mostly featured wiener dogs, though I did spot a few impostors.

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See that lady in the red shirt?

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That wiener-dog-hog brought a container full of bacon in order to lure the dogs over to her side of the street, so that folks on my side couldn't get any pictures. Why didn't I do the same, you ask? Because no matter how badly I want to get the perfect shot, no way am I wasting good bacon on a wiener dog. I mean, I might let him sniff it, but I'm the one who does the eating around here.

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Thankfully, the guy next to me was a talented Weenie Whisperer, enabling me to get some decent shots as well as keep those pesky zombies at bay.

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Obviously this dog can't tell us how he feels about that Hawaiian shirt, but that look, and his extended middle paw, really say it all.

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After the parade it was time for some lunch. With no set plans, I suddenly remembered that the Westin's Bistro 245 serves its own version of that fabulous blackened grouper sandwich on griddled luau bread that we first discovered in Delray Beach and most recently devoured on Lido Key. We arrived and were greeted by this:

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That marvelous feat of engineering is a Disney cruise ship, which presumably holds something on the order of 45,000 children. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I would rather spend eternity tied to a stake while the devil gleefully dangles pizzas and cheeseburgers just out of my reach than spend 10 minutes on that ship. Though the all-meals-included thing is appealing.

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Just looking it started giving us the shakes, so we immediately ordered some drinks (a lemon-lime daiquiri for me; Planter's punch for Angel), followed by the gazpacho, which came topped with crispy toast and tangy cream cheese.

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Although the blackened grouper was tempting, I decided to go with the salad with feta, hearts of palm, pine nuts, and red and yellow tomatoes.

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The afternoon was a flurry of activity -- a quick stop at Kermit's for some key lime cookies; a little pool time; and happy hour with Ellen at Southernmost Beach Cafe, where we enjoyed yet another round of key lime pina coladas -- and soon it was time for New Year's Eve to begin in earnest. We'd originally planned to have dinner at Latitudes at Sunset Key, and called in early October to make sure we'd be among the lucky few to get a reservation. Despite my repeated calls, however, Attitudes at Suckit Key refused to confirm our reservation until the day before New Year's Eve, since they'd been waiting to see if any of their owners or guests wanted our table instead. We turned them down, of course (Donna had already pulled some strings and landed us the best seats in the house over at Hot Tin Roof), making sure to let them know that we'd have been a party of five plus one tapeworm, which was clearly their loss.

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Over at the lovely Hot Tin Roof, we started with some mango martinis, then moved on to a luxurious four-course dinner that included oysters with caviar, foie gras, crab cakes, lobster, and filet mignon.

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Adjacent to Hot Tin Roof, Sunset Pier was trying out a new countdown-to-midnight "drop" this year, a lime wedge in a margarita glass.

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And although Donna and Greg planned to be home by midnight for their puppies (who are frightened by the fireworks) and Angel, Ellen, Brian, and I planned to spend midnight watching the pirate wench drop at Schooner Wharf Bar, Hot Tin Roof had other plans: We hadn't even had dessert yet when the countdown to midnight began. "You're gonna watch our lime wedge, dammit, even if we have to hold your cheesecake hostage to make it happen!"

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But considering that the food was fantastic, and the generous manager gave us a locals' discount on the bill and bought our first round of drinks, we really had no cause for complaint. Plus, we'd spent the evening with great friends, and there was a burlesque show, and I think I might have even seen some boobs, and isn't that what New Year's Eve is really all about?

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After saying our thanks and good-byes to Donna and Greg, and with the crowds thinning out, we figured it was safe to brave Duval Street on our walk home.

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We even stopped at Angel's beloved Willie T's for our first drinks of the New Year.

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Finally, we stopped at Bourbon Street to see the aftermath of Sushi's midnight shoe drop.

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Was it the most debauched New Year's Eve on record? No, but when you have to check out of your hotel by 11:00am on New Year's Day and your friends are scheduled for an early morning jet-ski tour, it's probably best not to wake up with your pants on backwards . . . or missing altogether.

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As is always the case, our last day on the island was a beauty: Vibrant blue skies, plentiful sunshine, just a whisper of a breeze, and my knee had returned to close to its normal size.

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With Ellen and Brian on their jet-skis and Donna and Greg busy back at the Ranch, Angel and I decided to enjoy a leisurely lunch on the water and then spend the day at the pool at our condo soaking up some final rays of sunshine. We made a beeline for Louie's, where we luxuriated in the hot sun and sipped our fruity cocktails and had an excellent burger topped with melty Provolone and roasted tomato chutney.

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Over at the condo, we spent three blissful hours lounging, reading, swimming, and asking ourselves for the hundredth time why we don't just move here already.

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Sure, it sounds like a great idea, but we'd better stay put for now.

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I hear that too many key lime pina coladas can kill yer brane cellz.

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Up next, more liver damage at the 2013 Key West Food & Wine Festival, a Cheesesteak Throwdown in Philly, and a boating trip around the Abacos. Did I mention that we're operating the boat ourselves? Subscribe here and you'll be the first to know how many docks we end up having to rebuild.

Posted by TraceyG 06:24 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys louie's_backyard hot_tin_roof turtle_kraals green_parrot chelsea_house Comments (2)

A Blaze of Glory in the Hudson Valley

What's not to love about fall? Autumn is the season of crisp apples and warm cider; of roasted chestnuts and glowing jack o'lanterns; of the incomparable smells of evening hayrides and fallen leaves.

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And so, when I came across an article in Food & Wine magazine announcing that a number New York City's best chefs had decamped to Hudson, New York, a quaint little town 2.5 hours north of Manhattan, I knew exactly how I wanted to spend my birthday weekend: Taking in the fall foliage, picking apples and pumpkins, and eating everything these chefs could, er, dish out.

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The Hudson River runs more or less north to south down the eastern edge of New York state, beginning at the confluence of Indian Pass Brook and Calamity Brook (yee-haw!) and flowing south to New York City, where it serves the vital function of protecting separating New York from New Jersey. The Hudson River Valley, nestled between the Catskills and the Berkshires, is renowned for its rolling hills, breathtaking vistas, and grand riverfront estates built by early industrialists like the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.

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Our first stop on the drive up to Hudson was in Hyde Park, home to the famed Culinary Institute of America. Getting into one of the restaurants at the CIA is only somewhat easier than getting into the building at that other CIA, in that they required my birth certificate, first pet's name, and a promise written in blood that I would dress appropriately, all before I was instructed to turn over my credit card, which was then charged ahead of time just in case I didn't show up. Like I would ever skip a meal.

Of the CIA's four restaurants, we chose American Bounty for its dedication to traditional American ingredients. Well, that and I saw Minnesota wild rice soup on the menu.

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Years ago the federal judge I was interning for in Manhattan brought me along to a circuit sitting in St. Paul, MN. I couldn't tell you what the cases were about, or where we stayed, or whether the temperature ever got above freezing . . . but I can tell you anything you care to know about the pride of Minnesota, wild rice soup.

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The recipe for wild rice soup is deceptively simple: Start with diced onions sauteed in butter and flour, then add cooked wild rice, carrots, almonds, ham, and chicken stock.

Oh, and as much heavy cream as you can fit into the pot without overflowing it.

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Although ham (or sometimes chicken) is the traditional protein in wild rice soup, American Bounty did that one better by using bacon instead. You know how bacon is always upstaging all the other meats.

Angel went with the mussels in a creamy coconut-curry broth, which was so good that I slurped up the leftovers with a spoon. You can dress me up, but you can't take me out.

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All of the food is prepared by CIA students, who spend 3 weeks in the kitchen and 3 weeks in the front-of-house right before graduation. But if any of these students had Senioritis, you'd never know it: This was high-end gourmet cuisine that left us wishing these kids would hurry up and open their own restaurants already. Preferably in our neighborhood.

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In an odd turn of events, Angel ordered one of my go-to dishes, short ribs braised in red wine sauce. I'd just had short ribs the previous Saturday, though, so I decided to go with the seared scallops with peas, artichokes, mushrooms, and baby arugula in a citrus vinaigrette instead.

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I'm so glad Angel ordered those short ribs, because they turned out to be not only the best thing we ate during our lunch (which is saying a lot when there's wild rice soup to be had), but they were also better than the version I'd had at the trendy downtown restaurant the week before.

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We'd originally planned to have dessert at the Apple Pie Bakery Cafe at the CIA, but it happened to be graduation day (which occurs every 3 weeks), so the halls were crowded with graduates and their families. The line at the bakery was out the door as a result, so we stayed put at American Bounty, where we had the passionfruit, raspberry, and coconut sorbets in an almond-brittle basket.

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I love a dessert where I can eat the bowl when I'm done, instead of just licking it.

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It had rained most of the way up to Hyde Park, and the rain hadn't let up by the time we finished lunch, so I snapped a few quick photos, then cleaned out the campus bookstore of all its CIA gear and admired the world's fanciest student dining hall.

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Back on the road, we soon found ourselves in downtown Hudson, whose main drag, Warren Street, is lined with home design stores, antique shops, restaurants, and still more home design stores. If we ever manage to own more than 650 square feet of real estate in this lifetime, I'll know just where to go for my decorating needs.

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We decided to stay at the Country Squire Bed and Breakfast, which was built in 1900 as a rectory and later served as a convent for the sisters of nearby St. Mary's Academy. Despite the risk that the spirits of these prior residents might not appreciate a heathen like me bedding down under their roof, the Country Squire sold me with a line from their web site, which stated that the inn was designed to "eliminate the clutter and visual excessiveness expected of museum-like Victorian interiors." In other words, we might have ghosts, but we most definitely do not have doilies . . . and the latter is way scarier.

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In addition, nearly all of the original detail that had been removed from the home over the years had been stored away in the basement, including the doors, woodwork, moldings, and leaded glass panels, allowing the current innkeeper to restore the house, piece-by-piece, to its original tchotchke-free grandeur.

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Our room was done up in black and white toile and featured this fantastic cowhide rug, which had no business being anywhere near a toile pattern, yet still somehow worked. And that is why we should leave the interior design to fabulous gay men people with taste.

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Eventually the weather cleared up and we had a couple of hours to kill before dinner, so we decided to walk over to Warren Street to do some exploring, which is code for "Angel needs a beer." American Glory BBQ looked like just the place to find a seasonal brew on tap, so we settled in at the bar.

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Tempting as it was, we decided to pass on the pickle-flavored tequila. I suspect that ironically, the only people who might appreciate this aren't supposed to drink for nine months.

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While I figured that a BBQ joint would have a decent beer selection, I did not expect that they'd have over a dozen autumn-inspired cocktails, too, including a S'mores martini, Pumpkin Pie martini, Spiced Cinnamon Cider, a Maple-tini, and a Candy Corn-tini. I decided on an off-the-menu special, the Angry Caramel Apple, which is carefully constructed by drizzling American Glory's homemade caramel sauce inside the glass, adding butterscotch schnapps, Angry Orchard hard cider, and apple vodka that's been steeped with that same house caramel sauce, then topping the whole thing with a generous dusting of cinnamon.

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Despite the name, however, the only thing angry about it was me . . . because something that good should be served in a much larger glass.

Later that evening, we walked the short distance over to Swoon Kitchenbar, a hip new Warren Street spot where the chef cooked in Newport, RI; the South of France; and Nantucket before setting up shop in Hudson. Poor guy's really been roughing it.

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The menu at Swoon changes daily, and they must have known I was coming, because not only was there bacon . . . there was house-made bacon. I went with the creamy leek tart with goat cheese and the aforementioned bacon, while Angel tried to compete with a fig & herb salad with pickled fennel, candied pecans, and the close runner-up for Best Food Ever, crispy speck.

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I'd call it a draw.

Next up, Point Judith weakfish with new potatoes, green beans, and a balsamic glaze for Angel, and dayboat blackfish with spiced carrot puree, local chard, and citrus vinaigrette for me.

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I'm picky about fish and don't often order it, but the blackfish, with its crackly skin and moist flesh, was terrific, and it allowed me to save some room for dessert: Crispy shoestring fries with spicy dijon aoili.

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The next day we decided to make the scenic drive over to Copake Lake to have lunch at Greens, the restaurant at the Copake Country Club.

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Although a country club probably isn't the first place that comes to mind when you think of great food, we chose Greens because their menu lists more than a dozen local farms where they source their ingredients, and why not? They're surrounded by 'em.

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The country club sits on Copake Lake, which is surrounded by expensive weekend homes, each with its own small dock.

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Inside, Greens restaurant is a model of good interior design: Evocative of a chic mountain lodge, the warms space is done up in crisp whites and luscious chocolate shades, with nary a stuffed jackalope or mounted deer head in sight.

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The outside ain't bad, either.

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The waitress told us they had cream of mushroom soup on special, which sounded perfect on a fall day, so Angel and I both ordered a bowl. When it came, however, the mushrooms seemed oddly chewy, so I decided to take a closer look.

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That is a mussel. Which sounds a little like mushroom, and looks somewhat like a mushroom, and can also kill you like a mushroom if you happen to be allergic. Thankfully neither of us is, but we quietly alerted the waitress to the mix-up to avoid marring Greens' stylish decor with an incident of anaphylactic shock.

Next up, we decided to share two entrees, the pesto pizza with shrimp and asiago, and the slow-braised pulled pork sandwich with Chef Glenn's homemade BBQ sauce.

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The pizza was good, but that BBQ sauce was such a perfect combination of sticky, sweet, and heat that I am hereby appealing to Chef Glenn to start bottling it . . . and shipping it directly to my house.

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After lunch we made the short drive over to Taconic State Park in order to check out the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, a 15-mile-long walking and biking trail on an abandoned portion of the New York and Harlem Railroad. The railroad opened for business in 1832, making it one of the oldest railroads in the country. Or at least it was, until they paved over it.

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The section of the trail that we had access to was 8 miles roundtrip, so we decided to bike it rather than walk. Bash Bish Bikes is the only game in town, and they call the shots . . .

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. . . which includes forcing all of their renters to wear helmets. Oh, how I hated that helmet. It squashed my ears. It was too tight under my chin. It looked ridiculous. And it was completely unnecessary.

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You see, over the years, Angel and I have spent many a long weekend biking the crowded streets of Cape May. We have spent countless days biking the narrow streets of Key West. And not once have we ever worn helmets, or seen anyone who wasn't on training wheels wearing one.

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On the Rail Trail, however -- where cars are not permitted, and we saw maybe a dozen other people over the 8-mile stretch -- we had to wear helmets. The end result? My head was still intact, but my hair looked like a mushroom cloud. Mushroom.

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Just past the Depot Deli was the entrance to the trail.

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The deeper in we rode, the more postcard-y the scenery became.

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Every so often the trail opened up and was surrounded by local farmland. The farms were beautiful but miles from civilization, and all I could think was, Good thing they can grow their own food. Priorities!

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At the end of the trail we were high-fiving each other for successfully biking 4 miles without collapsing when we saw these people, who were following state route 22 . . . which is 340 miles long.

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Like I always say: Nobody likes a show-off.

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On our way up to Hudson the previous day, we'd passed through the tiny town of Red Hook (population: 1,964), where we had dinner reservations at Mercato Osteria & Enoteca for the following evening. We drove through the town, such as it was, passing a dozen or so Colonial homes in various states of haunting/hoarding, before coming upon Mercato.

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"Whoa," said citified Tracey.

"Whoa," echoed urban Angel.

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And we might not have returned, except for the fact that the chef at Mercato is Francesco Buitoni, a seventh-generation member of the Buitoni pasta-making (and Perugina Chocolate) family. Francesco learned to cook from his grandmother in Italy, and was a sommelier for Mario Batali for a number of years, all of which means exactly one thing: I married the wrong guy.

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The best way to sum up the food at Mercato is with the exchange we had with the folks seated behind us. I'd spent a good part of our meal photographing the food, and in the small dining room that didn't go unnoticed. Finally, the woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked hopefully, "Are you taking photos so you can try and recreate the recipes?" As soon as I stopped laughing, I explained that I was actually taking the photos for a travel blog, at which point she leaned in and confided, "Well, we're from Manhattan, and I have to tell you: This is Manhattan-quality food!"

"Manhattan quality," agreed her city-slicker husband. "In this tiny little town!" he marveled.

But was this just a bunch of NYC food snobs amazed that someone outside of the city could actually cook, or was the food really that good? Judge for yourself. We had . . .

Coach Farm goat cheese gnudi with a vibrant green lacinata kale pesto . . .

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Crispy prosciutto-wrapped figs and arugula dressed with a five-year-old balsamic and topped with a fist-sized hunk of fresh mozzarella . . .

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Homemade tagliatelle with authentic Bolognese sauce, meaning heavy on the veal, pork, and beef, and light on the tomatoes . . .

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And the homemake squid-ink pasta fra diavolo with fresh mussels, clams, shrimp, and scallops.

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Oh, and the apple crisp made with local apples.

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And photos don't lie, particularly this one: That's the near-empty bowl my gnudi came in. Which I refused to give up until I got some bread to mop up that remaining blob of pesto.

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On our last morning we took one final walk over to Warren Street, where the gorgeous architecture and unique doors almost distracted me from my main goal: More food.

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We decided on brunch at the Crimson Sparrow, where the chefs hail from New York's temple of molecular gastronomy, WD-50, which is known for such far-out menu items as deep-fried Hollandaise sauce, onion "soil," and bagel-flavored ice cream.

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At brunch, however, the only nod to the offbeat is the menu organization, which allows you to choose four small brunch components for a set price.

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Cutting-edge or no, mimosas at brunch are mandatory.

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Outside, Crimson Sparrow has a gorgeous garden. Unfortunately it was too chilly to sit outside on this morning, though unlimited mimosas might have helped with that.

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For my four brunch items, I settled on (creamy, just-loose-enough) scrambled eggs; (cheesy, just-thick-enough) polenta with oregano and asiago cheese; (adorable) mini-biscuits with (thick, rich, over-the-top delicious) sausage, sage, and pepper gravy; and the (tangy, thick) Greek yogurt with granola and fresh berries.

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Angel ordered much the same, swapping (crisp, salty) potatoes for polenta and French toast with a (foamy, tart) apple cider dipping sauce.

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Everything was delicious, but next time I'd just ask for 4 orders of those biscuits with the sausage gravy, and then I'd make Angel do the same, and then I'd eat all of mine . . . and half of his, too.

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After brunch, a little more exploring on Warren Street was in order to loosen up the ol' arteries.

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Next time, we'll work in visits to Hudson's taco trucks and pizza joints. I mean, we'll have to eat breakfast somewhere on the days we're not scarfing down biscuits and gravy.

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We'll also spend more time in Hudson's unique shops. I hear that they've got the goods.

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Later that afternoon we paid a visit to Golden Harvest Farms in Valatie, NY (population: 1,805), a short drive from Hudson.

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I chose Golden Harvest because they make their own apple cider, fruit pies, cider donuts, and packaged goods such as honey and maple syrup.

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And they have their own distillery. That's moonshine, y'all!

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That Pillsbury Doughboy is there as a reminder of owner Derek Grout's former life as a designer, whose claim to fame was the viral Internet game in which poking the Doughboy's belly resulted not in his signature giggle . . . but in a fart. Hey, we can't all be Rhodes scholars.

Using fruit from the orchards that Derek's grandfather bought from a descendant of Martin Van Buren, Harvest Spirits Farm Distillery makes regular and black raspberry Core vodkas, along with several interesting brandies (Applejack, Peach, Rare Pear) and flavored grappa, all of which are available for tasting.

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Derek experiments with all sorts of flavors and spirits, including apple bitters, green herbs, and fennel seed.

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Oh, and eye of newt and wing of bat.

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We happened to arrive right as the tasting-room crowd thinned out and Derek was working on his latest batch o' bootleg.

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We got to talking, and Derek kindly offered us a taste of his latest concoction: Pear brandy mixed with a not-yet-on-the-market rosemary hooch, which resulted in a subtly fruity, herbaceous gin-like flavor.

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After stocking up on Northern Spy and Honeycrisp apples, a few big carving pumpkins, and a box of pumpkin spice pancake mix, we headed back to Hudson and the punctuation-happy (p.m.) Wine Bar for a glass of wine and some snacks before heading back to the city.

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It wasn't quite 5:00, but it was p.m., so we figured it was o.k.

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Soon it was time to leave, and we departed Hudson with fond memories, but also with hopes of ending our Hudson Valley weekend in a blaze of glory. The Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze, that is.

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The Great Jack O' Lantern Blaze is a pyromaniacal spectacle of over 5,000 jack o’lanterns hand-carved by staff, volunteers, and local artisans — everything from your standard triangle-eyed, gap-toothed pumpkins to elaborate Spirograph-worthy designs — lit up throughout the nine acres of Van Cortlandt Manor in the village of Croton-on-Hudson. We'd purchased tickets ahead of time and arrived right on time for our 7pm pumpkin promenade.

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Blaze uses a combination of real and "art" pumpkins, which are said to be harder to carve than the real thing because they are less pliable. Carving begins in June and real pumpkins -- 100,000 pounds' worth -- continue to be carved throughout the event's run into early November.

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Blaze also features theme areas, which this year included Jurassic Park, Undersea Aquarium, and Buzzing Beehive.

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Scarier motifs include witches, scarecrows, skulls, and Angel's personal nightmare . . . sunflowers. You know how terrifying they can be.

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Each area is set to an eerie soundtrack, the best being the plaintive cries of "MEOW! MEOOOOW!" punctuating the spooky Halloween music at the cat-themed area.

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Near the end of the Blaze, people-sized jack-in-the-boxes made of pumpkins scared the living crap out of surprised visitors when an extra-large jack o'lantern unexpectedly popped out of the top.

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Every time we thought we'd reached the end, there were more pumpkins just around the bend, each display more creative and whimsical than the next. Yet somehow Blaze still managed to save the best for last: A display of intricately carved, impossibly beautiful pumpkins whose gorgeous patterns cast glowing light and soft shadows in all directions.

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By the end of the Blaze, the air had grown chilly and our feet weary, and our weekend masquerading as country mice had finally come to an end.

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As the Manhattan skyline came into view and rolling fields and quaint villages gave way to blaring horns and snarled traffic, our nerves began to fray, and suddenly I realized: We city dwellers need Angry Caramel Apples and vodka distilleries way more than those country folk do.

Some biscuits 'n' gravy wouldn't hurt, either.
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Next up, we're off to Key West for turtle races, drag queen bingo, six-toed cats, and all the beer, bacon, burgers, and bourbon we can consume in ten days. Click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know if we end up exiled to Cuba!

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Posted by TraceyG 06:18 Archived in USA Comments (11)

A Girls Weekend In The City of Magnificent Intentions

My younger sister Trina is a 4-foot, 11-inch wedge of spite with spiky platinum hair, a killer wardrobe, and a tiny body sporting numerous tattoos depicting everything from a pin-up girl wielding a hair dryer to a slyly grinning cat sporting a ladylike set of pearls. The owner of a retro-style salon in Pittsburgh called Pompadour (hence the hair dryer), she is short-tempered, quick-witted, foul-mouthed . . . and hands-down the funniest person I've ever met.

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And for that reason alone, there's no one I'd rather spend a Girls Weekend with.

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We decided to meet up in Washington, D.C., partly because it's roughly equidistant to both our homes, and partly because when I discovered that there's a Mellow Mushroom there, I would brook no argument (a risky move, given that ticking Trina off is akin to repeatedly poking a hornet's nest with your face). Having made this same trip a few years back, this time around we decided to try a variety of new spots . . . which turned out to be exactly the wrong thing to do.

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You see, thanks to the disconnect between the city's grand aspirations and its swampy reality, Washington, D.C. is sometimes referred to as the City of Magnificent Intentions, which also happens to accurately describe a weekend in which all of my carefully laid plans went to hell before my very eyes. Notwithstanding my magnificent intentions, we still had a great time, even though traffic, the weather, and my own stupidity all attempted to conspire against us.

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I decided to take the train to D.C. since the times were more convenient than flying, and in doing so I was reminded of the first time my mother ever came to NYC to visit me. An infrequent traveller, she'd insisted on taking Amtrak, even though it entailed a grueling 10-hour train ride as opposed to a short 50-minute flight. I therefore expected her to arrive exhausted, irritable, and ready to die of boredom, but she'd actually had a great time: She became friendly with some of the other passengers on the train, and they'd passed the time playing cards. Eventually, however, as passengers disembarked, she found herself playing one-on-one with a young man in his late 20s. "Hey Mel," he'd whispered conspiratorially, "Now that it's just you and me, you wanna play for clothes?" Confused, my mother looked him up and down and finally responded, "But I don't even like your clothes!"

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After I successfully wrangled enough luggage for a 3-month stay off the train, Trina picked me up at Union Station and we made a quick stop at the hotel to drop off said luggage before the weight of it caused her car to suffer a flat tire. Our next stop was at La Tasca, a sprawling Spanish spot in D.C.'s Chinatown neighborhood that we like because they offer 10 different sangrias plus a virgin one ("What the hell?" Trina asked, offended at the very thought), as well as an enormous selection of cured meats and cheeses, paellas, and meat, seafood, and vegetarian tapas.

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La Tasca was also offering a $20 all-you-can-eat tapas menu when we arrived, which was right around the time that they began to lose money on this deal.

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The word tapa means "lid" in Spanish, and it's believed that centuries ago laborers and farmers would visit their local tasca, or pub, for a well-earned glass of sherry, on top of which they'd place a slice of bread to protect it from pesky fruit flies. Over time the barkeeps gradually began placing small snacks, such as cured meat or sausage, on top of the bread, and these edible lids evolved into the tapas of today.

This sangria was well-earned, too, but if you think I'm putting some snacks on top of my glass instead of in my mouth, you're loco.

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After much haggling and a little hair-pulling, Trina and I started off with two red and green tomato salads with honey-herb dressing and goat cheese (in order to keep the peace, goat cheese cannot be shared), bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with bleu cheese, patatas bravas (fried potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce), wild mushrooms sauteed in olive oil and garlic, and a mini seafood paella.

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Next up, grilled steak in a sherry-mushroom sauce with roasted potatoes, and two orders of chicken and beef empanadas.

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Still stubbornly sober, we also decided to order more sangria. This time we went straight for the "Cadillac" version, which is La Tasca's traditional sangria with the addition of a bottle or two of brandy. That'll do it.

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The day was warm and sunny, so after lunch we decided to take a walk, heading for the general direction of the Tidal Basin but having no real route or destination in mind, which worked out nicely since neither of us was capable of reading a map after that sangria . . . or at any time, really.

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Another day in D.C., another politician with a big head.

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We found ourselves first at the neck-craning Washington Monument, then later at the tear-jerking World War II memorial.

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After a few hours our ballet-flat-clad feet began to ache, a signal that the sangria had worn off and it was time to head back to the hotel.

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That evening we had reservations at Barcode, a nightspot that's about as hip as it gets in a political town where old white men outnumber people with sense by about 20 to 1. We were completely exhausted from a long day of traveling, walking, and stuffing ourselves silly, so we called to see if we could push our reservation back by an hour or so to allow time for a nap, but were told that they were fully booked and could not accommodate any time changes. So we got ready in record time and cabbed it over, only to see this.

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That's right: All of their patrons were invisible.

Partly irritated that we'd raced around and gotten all dressed up for nothing, and partly relieved that we were now free to eat as much as we wanted without the disapproving stares of skinny strangers (or anyone else, for that matter), we started off with a couple of cocktails . . . and some gazpacho . . . and the tuna ceviche . . . and a trio of meatball sliders.

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And a side of fries with "assorted dipping sauces." When I saw that on the menu, naturally my imagination went wild. What kind of dipping sauces could oh-so-trendy Barcode possibly come up with? Creamy Parmesan and truffle? Garlic and rosemary aioli? The hipster irony of a vat of melted Velveeta?

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Nope. The "assorted dipping sauces" turned out to be . . . ketchup and mayo. Which might explain why this place was empty on a Saturday night.

On Sunday we realized that, despite our walk around the Washington Monument and the World War II memorial, we hadn't really scratched the surface of Washington, D.C.'s incomparable cultural and historical offerings, and not to do so would be almost un-American. And so we made the short drive over to Alexandria, VA, in search of a dessert called "Birthday Cake . . . Just Because." Because, really, what could be more American than devouring an entire birthday cake when it's not even your birthday?

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We'd decided to eat a light lunch so that we'd be good and hungry for the Birthday Cakes, plural, and Columbia Firehouse's menu of soups, salads, and other light brunch fare was just the ticket.

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As were the classic Cuban daiquiris (circa 1898) with crushed ice.

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The wait for brunch in the soaring atrium was about an hour, so we happily snagged two seats at the old-fashioned bar instead.

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We both decided on the butter lettuce wedge salad with dried cranberries, toasted almonds, and buttermilk goat cheese dressing, an ingenious concoction that looked like sour cream and tasted like heaven.

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The day was cool and overcast but the rain held off, so after lunch we decided to do a little exploring, completely taken with the colonial charm of Alexandria's main drag, King Street.

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This is the Alexandria Cupcake shop. Although I love cupcakes, no way was I going to eat one when I was just minutes from devouring an entire birthday cake by myself. That would be gluttonous.

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Plus, a vegan cupcake made without eggs, butter, and milk would be like making a cheeseburger without the cheese . . . and the burger.

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Up and down King Street we walked, browsing in the stores, stopping to take photos, and biding our time until Birthday Cake bliss.

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It's not every day that you see a dog that's as big as your sister. Well, unless your sister is Trina.

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Later on our stroll we came across a another dog, Bella, a pit bull whose sweet demeanor and wagging tail were clearly intended to distract from her real agenda of ripping us apart with her killer jaws.

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Onward we walked, our cakey cravings growing stronger with each passing step.

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Finally we reached the gorgeous Restaurant Eve, home of the hallowed "Birthday Cake . . . Just Because."

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After a quick glance at the menu posted outside, we passed under the brick archway and found the door.

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Trina pushed, and . . . nothing. Then she pulled it. Still nothing. Growing panicky, I shouted, "For god's sake, man, turn the #$%@ knob!" She turned it, and still . . . nothing.

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THEY WERE CLOSED.

The home of the "Birthday Cake . . . Just Because" was closed . . . just because. Because it was Sunday? Because the tapas place had called ahead and warned them about us? We may never know.

Dejected, we headed off into the gloom in search of someplace to drown our sorrows. On the way we passed Captain's Row, a cobblestone street closed to through traffic and lined with the kind of houses that make you wish it could be October all year round . . . and that you could be a gazillionaire.

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Our salvation turned out to be the Union Street Public House, which, true to its name, takes all comers, including those yearning to be free from the tyranny of Birthday Cake(s) Bait-and-Switch.

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By then it had started to drizzle, and the Union Street Public House, with its flickering gas lamps, well-worn booths, and menu of comfort food classics, enveloped us like a warm blanket.

And the lobster-and-crab bisque, creamy grits, macaroni and cheese, and individual buckets of tater tots served with two, er, dipping sauces --ketchup and Ranch dressing -- lulled us into a sweet stupor.

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Or maybe that was the wine.

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By the time we returned to the hotel, it had begun to rain in earnest, and neither of us was feeling particularly energetic. We also couldn't bear to eat another bite of anything covered in cheese, and so we decided to get into our jammies and then order some fruit from room service.

With whipped cream.

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Oh, and two bottles of the Rodney Dangerfield of booze, Smirnoff Ice. Because they were out of Zima, obviously.

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We immediately noticed that the blackberries in our fruit bowls were roughly the size of golf balls, which made us wonder what kind of hormones they're putting in our food . . . and why they couldn't have done that back in the 70s to save Trina from a lifetime of shopping in the kids' department.

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Later that evening I took shameless advantage of the fact that Trina is a hair stylist and asked her to help me add some loose curls to my straightened hair. We set the hot curling iron on the nightstand and Trina went to work. Afterwards, she reminded me to move the curling iron away from the assorted odds and ends on the nightstand to prevent the hot iron from damaging them. As I approached the curling iron, I had a temporary brain freeze and, for some inexplicable reason, could not determine which end was the handle and which was the hot barrel -- they looked so very much alike. So I reached for the handle, hesitated, reached for the barrel, hesitated again, and then repeated the same sequence in a bizarre, split-second dance of indecision: Heat-handle; handle-heat. Finally, I made my decision . . . and idiotically grabbed the hot end of the curling iron.

Yelping in pain, I dropped the hot iron and bolted for the bathroom to run my burned hand under some cool water, leaving Trina utterly speechless for the first time in her entire life. When I emerged from the bathroom, her face was a mix of curiosity, concern, and that tight-lipped face she makes when she's trying desperately not to laugh.

"Um . . . so . . . what the hell just happened?" she asked, lips pressed together to force down a giggle.
"I don't know," I responded sheepishly. "I got confused."
"But I saw you deciding which end to grab," she answered. "How on earth could you have picked the wrong end?"
"Like I said, I was confused."

"Oh, confused. Of course." Unable to contain herself any longer, Trina finally doubled over laughing. "Confused!" she hooted. Tears of laughter streamed down her face. "Well, I sure hope nobody ever drops a flaming torch in front of you!"

Ha, ha. Didn't mom ever teach you not to make fun of the mentally challenged?

Monday dawned chilly but sunny, and our options were almost limitless: Should we visit the National Gallery of Art? Spend the day at the National Archives? Tour one of D.C.'s more than 30 museums? Nah. We headed over to Georgetown to drool over the houses and drink some mimosas.

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But first, some lunch was in order, which meant a trip to the aforementioned Mellow Mushroom in Adams Morgan, an eclectic neighborhood of funky boutiques and restaurants.

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The building that houses the Mellow Mushroom appears to have once been part of a theater, as the entrance is outfitted with a now-defunct ticket booth. As a result, instead of usual hippie-dippy 1960s decor that prevails at most Mellow Mushrooms, this 'Shroom is decked out like a circus. And, like most circuses, the sheer creepiness of the thing is outweighed only by the presence of your favorite fattening foods.

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The silent film star Lon Chaney once said, "There is nothing laughable about a clown in the moonlight," and I am here to tell you that there's nothing all that funny about one in the daylight, either.

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Hell, even I wouldn't be able to eat with that thing staring down at me.

Trina couldn't decide on a single pie, so she ordered half of a Thai Dye (curry chicken with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, basil, and sweet Thai chili sauce) and half of a Redskin Potato pie (potatoes, applewood-smoked bacon, caramelized onions, sour cream, and spicy Ranch), while I went with my usual, a classic pepperoni with extra sauce.

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Oh, and two glasses of sangria. Tapeworms, they must be genetic.

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When our waiter came to clear the table, he let out a low whistle. "You chicks really cleaned up!" he exclaimed. Then, nodding knowingly, he leaned in and asked sympathetically, "So, are you really tired now?"

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Indeed we were, but Georgetown awaited, and soon we were strolling the tree-lined streets and ogling the picture-perfect row houses with their picture-perfect pumpkins.

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It soothes my OCD soul when things match so nicely. Ahhh.

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One of the things I love about Georgetown are the unique doors, everything from gleaming old carriage-house "garage" doors to those with transoms sporting their original moldings and stained glass.

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Further north, the houses grow larger; the ivy, more insistent.

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I'd spied tiny Cafe Bonaparte online before our visit and decided that an elegant French bistro would be the ideal spot for a final cocktail before our departure.

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We arrived, however, to discover that the location was on a less-than-charming block, and the restaurant itself was cramped and crowded.

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Luckily they had an assortment of Champagne cocktails, including a Pom-Grand with pomegranate juice for Trina, and a Penchant de Mango with mango, lime, and a sugared rim pour moi.

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The drinks were just okay and our seats at the bar were treated to occasional blasts of cold air from the front door, and as we sipped I lamented that once again on this trip, my magnificent intentions had not turned out as planned.

No matter. It was wonderful to spend time with my sister, and the weekend certainly could have been worse.

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I mean, somebody could have dropped a flaming torch in my vicinity.

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UPDATE: Two weeks later, Angel surprised me by baking a replica of the "Birthday Cake . . . Just Because" for my actual birthday. Sure, he used a plastic CD holder to cut the sheet cake into rounds, and he discovered that sprinkles actually bounce back when you try to fling them at the sides of a cake, but all in all, I think he nailed it. We both wished Trina could have been there to have some, too, but let's be honest: This cake ain't big enough for the both of us.

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Posted by TraceyG 16:45 Archived in USA Tagged washington_dc la_tasca columbia_firehouse barcode union_street_public_house mellow_mushroom Comments (5)

Key West: Hotter Than a Summer Bride In a Feather Bed, Pt. 1

When our friends Donna and Greg announced that they would be getting married on a sailboat in Key West over Labor Day weekend, they didn't have to ask us twice (or really even once - we aren't too proud to beg). Angel and I immediately said yes, then set about making our travel plans. I mean, who wouldn't want to spend a long weekend in a town where you can get a drink before you even claim your luggage?

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And when Angel told me that he wouldn't be able to depart until the day before the wedding due to some prior work commitments, I did what anyone living in a city of 8 million people in an apartment only slightly bigger than a tool shed would do: I planned to arrive early in order to spend 60 blissful hours . . . completely alone.

After careful consideration, I decided to stay at Simonton Court because 4 pools + 0 children = happiness x 1,000.

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Shady nooks for reading or emailing gloating photos to Angel were tucked about the property.

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Plus, they have cats. And because there were no children to follow me around, the cats picked up the slack.

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I stayed in the Royal Palm townhouse, which was bright and spacious and had a lovely view from the balcony.

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With its numerous pools and abundant shade, Simonton Court turned out to be the perfect choice because oh, it was hot. Scorchingly, searingly, eyeball-meltingly hot. It was so hot that I contemplated buying one of those Uzi-style squirt guns and shooting myself in the face whenever I felt that I might pass out. It was so hot that everywhere I went, I could feel the sweat pooling between my boobs . . . and I don't even have boobs.

Oh, you think I'm exaggerating? It was so hot that I could barely eat.

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And it was most definitely too hot to go out alone for a meal - I couldn't risk that some friendly Key West local might try to chat me up, then recoil in horror when they noticed the rivulets of sweat sliding off my chin and plopping into my food. Which explains how I came to subsist on personal pan pizzas and fast-food cheeseburgers for two days, with a round of mimosas thrown in to prevent scurvy.

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Not that I'm complaining.

Donna and I met up at Banana Cafe on Friday for a quick lunch in the midst of her final preparations for the wedding.

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She arrived by car, looking cool and crisp, while I arrived by bicycle, looking on the verge of sunstroke. Is it an unwritten rule, I wondered, that when two friends in Key West meet up between the months of May and September, that each is to pretend that the other smells fine and doesn't look like she has just completed a marathon? If not, I'm going to start attaching a number to my back to discourage any untoward comments.

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After the aforementioned round of mimosas, we both decided on the turkey and swiss salad, Donna because she was no doubt watching her weight for the wedding, and me because I knew I'd never have the energy to pedal that bike and a stomach full of food back to my hotel in that sweltering Easy Bake Oven known as Old Town.

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That evening I met up with Donna again, along with Greg and a few of their local friends, at Grand Vin on Duval Street. As Donna reintroduced me to the group and we shook hands, each person greeted me warmly with nearly the same words: "So nice to see you again. WHERE'S ANGEL?" And you wonder why I spend all his money and eat all his food.

A large cloud had settled over the island by the time Angel made his apparently much-anticipated arrival the next day, bringing the temperature down to something less bubbling cauldron-y, and Angel was lulled into thinking that it might actually be safe to leave the house. Ignoring my warnings about the risk of immediate spontaneous combustion should the sun peek out from behind that cloud, he suggested that we bike the few blocks over to Amigos for some lunch.

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Amigos makes its own corn tortillas, plus a killer salsa that comes in both hot and mild versions and is mashed up in a giant mortar called a molcajete.

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As soon as the smells of carne asada and roast pork hit my nose, I suddenly realized that, thanks to the heat, I hadn't been eating nearly enough, and I decided to make up for lost time. So I ordered three tacos -- the pulled pork with adobo sauce, the shredded beef in traditional rojo marinade, and the beef short ribs with Mexican barbeque sauce -- plus an order of chips and salsa, a side of rice and beans, and a basket of tater tots -- and told Angel to stand back. And maybe don a beekeeper's suit, just to be safe.

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The quality of the food at Amigos has gone downhill a bit since our last visit -- the amazing caramelized onion salsa that I raved about last time is now a mushy puree of barely-cooked onions, and the tacos were unfortunately quite soggy -- but they surely weren't the only things damp and soggy around these parts, so I will give them a pass for now.

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The sun stayed thankfully hidden for the next hour or so, allowing us some time to take in the island's quirky charms.

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Although I have my heart set on a VW Thing, any of these would work, too.

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You gotta love a town that can support a business that sells nothing but pirate costumes . . . all year round.

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Well, this can only mean one thing: The lawyers have discovered Key West.

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As soon as we saw that, we beat feet outta there and headed for the more civilized part of town.

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As soon as the sun returned, Angel basked at another of Simonton Court's pools while I slathered myself in sunscreen and tallied up all my new moles.

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That evening we attended Donna and Greg's rehearsal party at Vino's on Duval, where Donna had arranged for Blackfin Bistro to provide a generous spread of hors d'oeuvres including fruit, cheese, pâté, and sliders. Everything was delicious, but it would have been impolite to eat every single slider on the table, so we spent a few hours chatting it up with new friends and old, then ducked out for some dinner at Seven Fish. We'd made reservations to sit at the bar despite the fact that, after sharing a bottle of wine at Vino's, we certainly didn't need anything more to drink.

Not that that ever stops us.

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Would that all glasses of Champagne could actually be this big in relation to their bottles.

Now, I know that some folks find Seven Fish too loud, too crowded, and too rushed, but that is precisely why we like it: In the same warped way that New Yorkers have convinced themselves that unfinished brick walls are cool and bathrooms bigger than broom closets are for suckers, most of us wouldn't be caught dead in an empty restaurant where we're not sitting in our neighbor's lap and screaming ourselves hoarse over the din.

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More importantly, in all the years we've been coming to Seven Fish, we've never had a single dish that was less than excellent. Indeed, there is only one dish on the entire menu that I haven't tried, and what with the heat sapping my will to live appetite, I finally decided to tackle what will henceforth be referred to as the Mother of All Meatloaves.

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Yes, I know that ordering a meatloaf in a place called Seven Fish is akin to ordering the food at a Hard Rock Cafe, and I relayed my hesitation to our server, Fred. But when he asked pointedly, "Of everything you've ever had here, was there anything you didn't like?" I took that as a reminder that the food at Seven Fish is really, really good . . . and that I might have more in common than previously thought with that one species of shark that eats beer cans, old tires, and anvils.

For his part, Angel went with the snapper in a Thai curry and ginger sauce over rice, which was so good that it almost made me wish I'd ordered that instead. Just kidding!

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It was difficult finishing that meatloaf, after what I had for lunch earlier that day. Gotcha again!

Naturally, the meatloaf could only be followed by one thing: the strawberry-whipped cream pie.

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Consisting of a gigantic cloud of whipped cream studded with sliced strawberries sitting on a crust of graham crackers topped with a thin layer of chocolate sauce, this pie makes it socially acceptable to eat an entire tub of whipped cream with a spoon in public. Which Angel proceeded to do, with a little help from me. You know what a glutton he is.

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The next day we decided to bike over to Santiago's Bodega for lunch. By this time the ungodly heat had returned, so I spent the bike ride over daydreaming of swimming pools and air conditioners and Siberian gulags in an effort to stay cool. But it didn't work: I still arrived looking like an escapee from a dunk tank.

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Smile though your face is melting . . .

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Well, at least this helped.

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The Spanish-influenced decor at Santiago's leans toward colorful tile, ornate chandeliers, and inspiring artwork gracing the warm sage and ochre walls.

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Normally I am not a big fan of tapas because (1) I hate sharing, and (2) I hate sharing. But everything at Santiago's is so delicious, and in such generous portions, that I agreed to split everything with Angel . . . at least while the waiter was watching.

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We started with the shrimp bisque, which was fantastically rich and spicy, followed by the portobello soup, which had a surprising amount of flavor considering that, for some inexplicable reason, it hadn't been thickened with cream.

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Next it was on to the patatas bravas, which I liked because they blended the sour cream into the tomato sauce instead of just throwing a dollop on top, and the saganaki, which I liked because it's broiled cheese floating in oil.

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That was followed by the proscuitto- and provolone-stuffed croquettas, which reminded me of Angel's mother's rellenas de papas, the only thing she knew how to cook without burning it to the bottom of the pan. Ah, memories!

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Finally, we shared the pork skewers with apple and mango chutney, which Angel liked because there were two of them, so he had a fighting chance.

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After lunch we passed a few more hours at the pool before it was time to get ready for Donna and Greg's wedding.

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While I am happy to report that nothing so dramatic as forced evacuations and almost setting my own head on fire occurred at this wedding, that doesn't mean it was without its, er, more interesting moments. Click here to read Part 2!

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Posted by TraceyG 08:09 Archived in USA Tagged key_west western_union grand_vin Comments (2)

Key West: Hotter Than a Summer Bride In a Feather Bed, Pt. 2

Donna and Greg's wedding took place on the historic Schooner Western Union, which is appropriately moored right outside the Schooner Wharf Bar. We set sail on a perfect evening with just enough clouds to ensure a fantastic sunset.

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Although I normally take all of the photos on this blog, once on board I asked Angel to share in the camera duties because there was both food and Champagne, and I have my priorities straight.

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The beautiful bride wore a traditional gown that she'd had tailored into a high-low style in order to show off her gorgeous shoes . . .

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. . . and her New York Yankees garter.

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Donna's friend Robin, a Culinary Institute-trained chef, had prepared a delicious seven-course tasting menu, which included inventive appetizers like chilled melon soup with mint and the crowd favorite, deconstructed French onion soup on crostini.

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And Robin's sister Kellee exhibited great restraint by not gobbling up every delicious morsel before serving the rest of us.

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Soon we'd dropped anchor for the ceremony, as Donna's best friend Wayne walked her down the aisle and gave her away.

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At the end, Donna and Greg released a pair of lovebirds, which went as well as can be expected when wild animals are involved.

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But the highlight of the evening was the best man's toast. Greg's best man, Craig, also happens to be his partner in a sailfishing charter boat business, and over the years the two men have caught countless fish, many of which have served as trophies to be mounted on their walls. You know where this is going, don't you? That's right: The best man compared Donna to a trophy fish . . . that Greg can mount over and over.

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Also in attendance was Mark Certonio, the liver-loathing genius behind the Key West Food and Wine Festival, where you might recall that Angel was crowned the winner of the prestigious Silver Platinum Coconut at Coconut Bowling, and I was crowned Most Likely to End Up at Betty Ford.

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Mark graciously invited me back to blog about the upcoming festival, and piqued my curiosity by mentioning that one of the new events for 2013 is a masquerade Champagne-and-cake dance party called "Let Them Eat Cake." Can you imagine how many more trips I can make to the buffet if I'm wearing a mask? That sealed the deal.

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The evening was so humid and still that Donna's idea to hand out fans, along with her foresight to keep the chilled Champagne flowing like water, were the only things keeping me from jumping overboard.

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That, and I didn't want to ruin my dress.

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I couldn't wait to wear this gown thanks to the delicious melon color and floaty layer of sheer chiffon, but I also knew that it was just a matter of time before somebody or something snagged it or stepped on it. Which doesn't explain why I was still surprised when I got in the taxi, only to find that my leather seat had been torn to shreds and haphazardly taped back together with duct tape, emperiling the back of my dress, and that the bows on my sandals threatened the hem with every step I took. Tipsy wedding guests holding glasses of red wine on an even tipsier boat spelled disaster at every turn.

But nothing could have prepared me for how my dress eventually met its doom.

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It was the end of the evening, and the boat was on its way back to the marina. After spending the past few hours on my feet chatting with the various wedding guests, I decided to sit down for a few minutes with a chilled glass of Champagne, which was served in a plastic flute. I had just set the flute down beside me when, suddenly, a rather rotund wedding guest approached and, like a circus elephant lowering itself onto a little stool, began to sit down . . . right on top of the Champagne. "NOOOOOOO!!!!" I screamed. "Don't sit down!" When it became clear that he wasn't paying attention, I did the only thing I could: I yelled, "Fire in the hole!" and ducked for cover.

But not before he sat down squarely on top of that flute, crushing it under his rear end like a booze-filled water balloon, sending plastic shrapnel flying in all directions and drenching the entire side of my dress with Champagne. And you know what? Sure, my dress was ruined, but I'm not going to lie: That cold Champagne on my sweaty legs didn't feel half bad.

As soon as we disembarked from the sailboat, the open-air CityView Trolley was waiting to transport us to the reception. Naturally, after three hours on a boat with an open bar and nary a whisper of a breeze, we boarded the trolley looking like a pack of clammy, giggly, well-dressed hyenas. Much to the trolley driver's relief, just a short ride later we found ourselves at Grand Vin for the outdoor reception.

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There we spent most of the evening catching up with our friends Claudia and Alden, who live up north, meaning Key Largo. Alden is in the liquor business and Claudia is a writer, so together they equal one Ernest Hemingway.

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One of the best things about this reception, besides the fantastic company and excellent food and seemingly endless supply of wine, was the cake made of cupcakes.

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There are worse ways to spend an evening than chatting and laughing and indulging in Champagne and a cupcake or three.

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The next day Donna and Greg had arranged to take a group of about 25 of us out to Snipes Point, a short boat ride away from Big Coppitt Key, where the bride and groom live in this adorable little cottage. Or, as Donna put it, where two hillbillies live in a dilapidated mobile home. Either way, it beats the hell out of living in a shoebox in Manhattan.

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Three boats were lined up and ready to go on the canal outside of Donna's neighbor's house, so off we went, 25 of us trudging through the neighbor's yard carrying enough beer for the entire British Navy and enough food for about ten people plus one Tracey.

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Our little procession made its way through the canal, then fanned out into the open sea, which was like glass on this particularly calm day.

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All boat captains should look so salty . . . and give such great best-man toasts.

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This is our friend Paul. Originally from Ireland and now living in Bulgaria, Paul and his lovely wife Sinead are interesting, well-traveled, and lots of fun, but the last time we went out for drinks with them, we woke up the next day just in time for breakfast . . . at 4:30pm. That's what we get for trying to keep up with the Irish.

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I didn't actually see a sandbar at the sandbar, but there was sand, and we treated it like a bar, so close enough.

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At lunchtime we feasted on Dion's fried chicken (which in true Key West style can only be purchased at gas stations), as well as Cuban sliders, chips, salsa, potato chips, and every kind of beer, wine, and Champagne that could fit into the boats' massive, ice-filled coolers.

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About an hour or so into our visit, it began to rain, just briefly at first, and then a full-on downpour that lasted more than an hour. Not that we weren't warned, as it got dark . . .

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And darker . . .

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And Apocalypse.

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And during it all, nobody moved. Well, that's not true - almost everyone made a move to cover their drink. But planted in the water we remained, still wearing our straw hats and baseball caps and sunglasses, chatting it up while the rain pelted our heads and the booze and conversation continued to flow.

During this marathon bull session we met two friends of Donna's named Lisa and Pete. I once accidentally mistook Pete for a dog (I'm sorry, but in this age of interconnectedness, if you don't have a Facebook page and no one knows your last name, obviously I have no choice but to assume that you are someone's pet), so he probably wasn't too excited to meet me, but Lisa certainly was (wine will do that). Which is how we ended up at dinner at La Trattoria with two people we'd just met that afternoon, plus Pete's former military buddy Rich and his wife Elvie, whom Rich picked up in the Philippines at a shoe store, and both of whom are now living in the land that time forgot, otherwise known as Gulfport, Mississippi. Got all that?

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Much laughing, teasing, and imbibing ensued, and Elvie didn't even blink when I finished off her leftover pasta, so all in all a lovely dinner was had by all.

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Of course, this mile-long martini list probably helped.

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I ordered the Pick-Up, which was appropriate considering how we'd come upon our dining companions.

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For my entree, I went with the lasagna, while Angel had the seafood ravioli. Both were delicious, and the lasagna had the added advantage of being the only thing I'd consumed that day besides a half-bottle of Sancerre, some fried chicken skin, and an entire bag of potato chips. It's a good thing New York City just banned big-gulp sodas, or my diet might really be in trouble.

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The next day we biked over to Salute on the Beach for lunch. By now I had grown so accustomed to feeling like I might die from heatstroke that I actually agreed to sit outside . . . on the ocean, under a fan.

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Salute is known for its spaghetti and meatballs, but I didn't order it. Too hot to eat, I tell you!

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Instead, we started off with some frozen drinks, and then I had the gazpacho, which was thick and spicy and delicious.

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That was followed by the blackened mahi-mahi sandwich for Angel, and the caprese salad for me.

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You might be wondering why I had nothing more than a bowl of gazpacho and a small salad for lunch, but that's because I wanted to be good and hungry for what was to come. And so, after picking up some souvenirs and spending some time at the pool, at precisely 4:30 we made a beeline for 2 Cents Gastropub on Applerouth Lane.

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2 Cents offers a unique selection of cocktails and beer, including beer shakes, which should obviously be served with French fry-stuffed cheeseburgers.

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Lots of places in Key West offer specials at Happy Hour, of course, but 2 Cents offers something so awesomely fantastic that I can only compare it to finding a magical land where unicorns fart rainbows and the sky rains $1,000 bills and meatballs grow on trees.

What could possibly be that amazing?

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That, my friends, is free bacon. FREE. BACON. Holy crispy, greasy, porkaliciousness, but I love me some bacon.

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Now, I admit that when I first heard about Bacon Happy Hour, I was picturing a long table laden with a bunch of those big silver chafing dishes you see at breakfast buffets, perhaps with some tongs to make it a bit more civilized, where I could load my plate with mounds and mounds of bacon and then go back for more, so these tiny bacon votives were something of a disappointment. Even more disappointing was the fact that once the bartender saw that I was an insatiable bacon-eating machine, she stopped refilling our little votives and forced us to actually order our own snacks.

I'd hate to be the menu item that has to follow the free bacon, but the cheesy, bubbly artichoke dip put on a fine show.

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We also had a few cocktails and got to talking with the locals seated next to Angel, Michelle and Alan, whom you are allowed to hate because they were sitting at a bar eating free bacon on a random Tuesday afternoon instead of slogging away at work like normal people. In her spare time, Michelle runs the Crazy Shirts store, where you should definitely go because they dye the shirts with cool stuff like chocolate and wine, and Alan works at the Rum Barrel, where you should definitely go because there is rum there.

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As soon as we told Alan how many times a year we visit Key West, he threw up his arms and said, exasperatedly, "For god's sake, just $#@%ing move here already!" Cheers to that, Alan.

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Soon it was time to go, and as usual we skidded into the airport a little tipsy, drenched in sweat, and with approximately 10 seconds to spare. As the plane began its ascent and the Conch Republic grew smaller and smaller in the window, I reflected on what another fantastic trip it had been and how lucky we were to have been invited to share in Donna and Greg's special day.

But mostly I thought, Thank god it's air conditioned in here.

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Can't get enough Key West? We're headed back in December with a bunch of friends, so click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know if we need you to post bail!

Can't wait that long? Check out our other Conch Republic adventures here and here!

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Posted by TraceyG 08:08 Archived in USA Tagged key_west salute la_trattoria two_cents Comments (7)

Summer in the Hamptons: Stick a Fork In It

So, you've probably heard all about how the North Fork of Long Island is this picturesque vineyard- and farm-dotted peninsula, awash in quaint farm stands and vibrant sunflower fields and expansive bay views.

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You may have even heard that the North Fork boasts several charming villages, over three dozen wineries, and a burgeoning Slow Food scene, and is home to celebrity chefs like Gerry Hayden, formerly of New York's famed Aureole, and Tom Colicchio, the Cueball-in-Chief on "Top Chef."

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But what you may not know is that, beautiful as it may be, the North Fork of Long Island is also one of the most maddening places on Earth. Do you even know how annoying it is to be delayed on your way to a winery by some guy on a tractor? Have you any idea what it's like to listen to some chef brag about how the tomatoes and corn on your plate were picked just that morning from his own garden? Can you imagine the difficulty of deciding who's going to be the designated sucker driver for your day of wine tastings? I didn't think so.

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Despite these annoyances, we love the North Fork precisely for what it doesn't have: Hamptons people.

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That's why, at least a few times every summer and well into the fall, we make the 30-minute drive north from our cottage to Route 25, a two-lane country road that begins in Aquebogue and ends in our favorite village, Greenport, a former whaling and shipbuilding port that still retains its fishy, small-town charm.

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Founded in 1640 as the town of Winter Harbor, Greenport was also a commercial fishing hub for the small, oily bunker fish prevalent in the surrounding waters, which were used to make fertilizer. Because regular fertilizer doesn't smell bad enough.

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More recently, Greenport has welcomed a slew of new shops and restaurants, where you can slurp some oysters or buy a new pair of fancy shoes.

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Or you could just stick with horse shoes.

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Greenport is also a favorite of the boating set, given its proximity to both Sag Harbor and Shelter Island.

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I've seen more sophisticated instrument panels on remote-controlled boats. "No promises" you'll actually be able to find your destination.

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This little red schoolhouse was built in 1818 and once housed Greenport's kindergarteners.

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You'd look grumpy, too, if your teacher made you dress up like The Flying Nun.

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One of our favorite places to eat in Greenport is at Claudio's, which bills itself as the oldest, same-family run restaurant in the U.S.

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Claudio's traces its history to 1854, when a Portuguese whaling ship called the Neva set sail from the Azores and docked in Greenport with a whaler on board named Manuel Claudio. For the next 16 years Manuel Claudio sailed the world on the Neva. Finally, in 1870, he'd saved up enough money to never have to sail again, and he did what any man who hadn't set foot on dry land in 16 years would do: He opened a brothel tavern.

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Claudio's often adds an ethnic twist to its classic seafood, like this Cajun calamari with spicy banana peppers and chipotle aioli.

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Or this, their flounder bruschetta.

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I like to stick with a classic artery-clogger: Baked, stuffed jumbo shrimp with creamy lobster sauce.

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No matter what you order, you'll be eating it off of a tiny pitchfork.

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Although Claudio's clam chowder has had no fewer than 8 first-place finishes in the Maritime Festival Chowder Contest, it is still no match for the Louisiana corn-and-crab chowder that has inexplicably disappeared from the menu. See how this pales in comparison?

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Because of its location at the very end of the North Fork, Greenport is a huge draw for bikers.

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I imagine they start their day with spot of tea at the Greenport Tea Company, linger over oysters and Champagne at the Frisky Oyster, take a harbor tour on one of the town's tall ships, then lick the frosting off a few cupcakes from Butta Cakes before jumping on their hogs and riding off into the sunset.

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After photographing the motorcycles, I asked one of the bikers if he'd be willing to pose for me. After he agreed, I teasingly warned him, "You know you're going to end up on the Internet, right?" "It wouldn't be the first time!" one of his buddies chortled. "Yeah, but at least this time, nobody will be looking for him," another chimed in.

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I'm sure he was just referring to this guy's Facebook friends . . . right???

The North Fork's main road, Route 25, is dotted with farm stands large and small . . .

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. . . and "Deliverance."

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Route 25 and its northern parallel, Route 48, are also home to over 40 wineries. People often ask me which ones are my favorites, and the answer to that question is directly related to whether the winery's parking lot is filled with buses and limousines at the time I'd like to visit. No limos = great wine! Tour bus = probably swill.

There isn't actually a creek at Corey Creek, but there is good wine and a lovely, if creek-less, view.

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As I always say, Why sip when you can chug?

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Other wineries on Rt. 25 include Pellegrini, Peconic Bay, and Macari.

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I guess this is one way to pay for college. If stripping isn't your thing, that is.

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This bite-sized sandwich cost Angel $4, but it cost me twenty minutes of my life, spent listening to him rant about what a ripoff it was.

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Yes, you.

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Although the wineries may look fancy, ya'll can also just relax with some sparklin' wine and locally-made potato chips.

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Or you can grab a pizza, but not just any pizza. One of the newest players on the North Fork's Slow Food scene is Grana, which is already being touted as some of the best pizza in New York City . . . even though it's 75 miles away. New Yorkers, we're all about understatement.

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The owner, David Plath, a native of Hampton Bays, took no chances before opening Grana: He took pizza-baking classes in Italy, studied dough and yeast making at the French Culinary Institute, and attended bread making classes at the King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center in Vermont before opening shop. You know how those Plaths love their ovens.

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Grana uses only organic unbleached flour, house-made fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce, Duroc heritage breed pork sausage, and local North Fork vegetables in season.

But are the pies any good? Do I like meatballs?

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Although the margherita pie was delicious, Angel and I are both still dreaming about the Rosa Bianca, a white pizza topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano, red onion, olive oil, rosemary, and a slew of skin-on Long Island potatoes, sliced paper-thin and left in the oven just long enough to take the bite out of them.

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After devouring a few heavenly slices of the Rosa Bianca, one thing is for sure: Next time I find myself stuck behind a potato farmer on a tractor, I'll be sure to give a little wave . . . instead of that other hand gesture.

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Posted by TraceyG 16:04 Archived in USA Tagged grana hamptons north_fork claudios Comments (5)

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