A Travellerspoint blog

Summer in the Hamptons: Hampton Bays, the Gateway Drug

One of the advantages of living in New York City, besides the noise, the garbage, and the occasional terrorist attack, is getting to spend summer weekends in the Hamptons. Located just 75 miles east of New York City, the Hamptons are a string of posh, picture-perfect little villages set along the southern shore of Long Island, also known as the South Fork.

People sometimes assume that all of the Hamptons villages are interchangeable, filled with the same Gatsby-esque mansions and gourmet restaurants and Lilly Pulitzer stores. But that couldn't be further from the truth, so Angel and I created this handy map so you can tell them apart.

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The Hamptons have long been a weekend haven for wealthy investment bankers and celebrities, so of course Angel and I fit right in . . . with their domestic help.

Seriously, though, last summer we saw Julianne Moore at an ice cream shop in Bridgehampton, and a few years ago we saw Jon Stewart sitting on a bench in Sag Harbor. I saw Billy Joel there once, too, and I was just glad that he was on foot and not behind the wheel. In other words, we are constantly rubbing elbows with the A-listers out there.

When we're not sipping Cristal at P. Diddy's place, we are lucky enough to be at our tiny cottage in Hampton Bays, a two-stoplight hamlet in Southampton. In keeping with the grand tradition of Hamptons residents naming their estates, we named our cottage Casa Sombra, which means "shady house."

Because of all the trees, not the occupants. Ahem.

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The cottage is approximately the size of a toll booth, but for two people who spend their weekends in a Hamptons-based mashup of "The Amazing Race" and "Iron Chef," sprinting like maniacs from restaurants to wineries to farmstands, it's just the right size.

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Our cottage is part of a small community of similar cottages that share a pool and tennis courts. Do we play tennis, you ask? No. Well, not since I got my a$$ kicked by our 76-year-old neighbor who'd just had knee surgery, that is.

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The cottages are nestled in a wooded area that visitors often say reminds them of summer camp. To a couple of city slickers like us, these woods are beautiful but also dangerous, being that they are filled with wild animals. God only knows when one of them will decide to attack us!

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Indeed, just a few weeks ago I stumbled upon this beautiful but terrifying beetle while gardening. I of course photographed it so that someone in the online bug community could identify it and let me know how fast its venom will kill me.

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Turns out it's a rare type of moth, not a beetle, making it doubly terrifying . . . because now it can fly after me when I run screaming.

Still, I am practically that guy from "Man vs. Wild" in comparison to Angel, a born-and-bred city boy. Case in point: A few years ago I suggested that we get a birdbath for our garden. Angel wasn't too keen on the idea, but he refused to explain why. Confused as to why someone might be anti-birdbath, I pressed him for a reason. After much hemming and hawing, he finally admitted, "I don't know anything about running one of those. I mean, what all is involved in that?" Complicated contraptions, those birdbaths.

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The village where our cottage is located, Hampton Bays, is sometimes called the "gateway" Hampton, which is intended to convey its easy access to the Long Island Expressway, but instead conjures up images of a seemingly harmless "gateway" drug that leads to much more dangerous and expensive ones. And that pretty much sums up Hampton Bays: It seems like a really nice place, until you get an eyeful of one of the other Hamptons, and before you know it you're trading in your current husband for a 24-year-old with a trust fund and an oceanfront spread in East Hampton.

Hampton Bays juts out from the South Fork on a peninsula bordered by Tiana Bay, Shinnecock Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean to the south, and the Shinnecock Canal and Great Peconic Bay to the north. This location gives the town unparalled access to the water for boaters, fishermen, beachgoers, and those of us who prefer our recreation to include a waterside table and a frozen drink.

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Hampton Bays is also home to one of the last surviving commercial fishing fleets on Long Island. I mean, who wants fresh-off-the-boat seafood when you could have frozen fish sticks from Vietnam?

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In addition, Hampton Bays is located precisely at the point where Long Island's North and South Forks split, giving the town easy access to both the glitzy South Fork and the bucolic, vineyard-dotted North Fork. Which basically means that you can take your choice of getting drunk on $16 martinis or homemade wine.

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Indeed, Hamptons Bays sits on such prime real estate that in 1743, a smallpox outbreak was attributed to the deliberate distribution of infected blankets being handed out by one K. M. Fallo, who then purchased land titles from the widows and orphans left behind. So that's where developers come from!

Although there's lots to do in the Hamptons, on most weekends Angel and I like to keep things simple: He watches baseball and I lay at the pool, until one of us gets hungry and hollers at the other one to hurry up so we can go get something to eat. Often we end up at Rumba, an island-inspired rum bar whose laid back, come-as-you-are vibe is perfect for a couple of sloths like ourselves.

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I take that back. THIS woman is the sloth. Apparently she just lies there all day, critiquing the boulders her kid is forced to bring her.

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Rumba's drinks come in two sizes, "beenie" (small) and "bigga," which also describe the proportionate size of the hangover you will have the next day.

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A big draw at Rumba are the $5 tacos, which are served in warm corn tortillas and filled with your choice of pineapple-soy marinated skirt steak, sage-breaded local fish, Dominican-style BBQ pork, or jerk chicken. Or all four, if you're Angel.

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But my favorite dish here is the Caesar salad with garlic dressing, which I'm pretty sure is made by combining a few cloves of roasted garlic with an entire jar of mayonnaise and a few fistfuls of lard. Which is by no means an insult.

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Our other regular hangout is the Canal Cafe, a casual spot tucked away on the Shinnecock Canal.

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I was initially disinclined to like this place because they don't have a drink list. That's right: In a town where they could charge (and I would make Angel pay) fourteen bucks for virtually any cocktail with a tropical fruit in the name, Canal Cafe is staunchly old-school: beer, wine, or well drinks, take it or leave it. The bartender will, however, make you a quite passable rum punch, which is potent enough to make me forget the fact that I have fancy-fruit-drink taste on a Pabst-Blue-Ribbon budget.

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This menu board shows all of Canal Cafe's lunch specials. As you can see, it's a little expensive, much in the way that I'm a little bit of a glutton. It is the Hamptons, though, so these prices aren't too bad . . . until you realize that your $26 lunch entree is served on a paper plate, and you'll be eating it with plastic utensils.

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Still, for $22, Canal Cafe serves the most gigantic lobster roll I've ever seen. Here is just HALF of it:

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In fact, this thing was so huge that I couldn't finish it all. Let's just chalk that up to the fact that this monstrous mound of lobster salad was served on a hearty baguette instead of the traditional hot dog roll . . . because I think we all know there's no other explanation for ME not being able to finish a meal.

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Another place we like in Hampton Bays is Blue Cactus, a tiny Mexican joint on Montauk Highway.

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Blue Cactus is perpetually packed, partly because the food is good, and partly because nothing on the menu costs more than twenty bucks -- the latter of which is about as easy to find in the Hamptons as El Chupacabra.

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Blue Cactus also has an impressive selection of interesting margaritas, such as Mango-Cilantro, Strawberry-Basil, Blackberry-Thyme, and their signature, Blueberry-Ginger. No matter which one you order, though, there will be so much tequila in it that you might as well just order this thing and hog all the straws.

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Also, kudos to the guy on the right for matching his shirt to the paper used to line the chip baskets. The Hamptons, they're all about fashion.

One of the things we like best about these casual spots is that you don't need a reservation. See, making dinner reservations in the Hamptons is something like a game of Battleship: The first step is to figure out the purported strategy of your desired dining destination. Do they take reservations only one week in advance? Two weeks? Only on Tuesdays between 2 and 3? Get this wrong and you'll find yourself eating dinner at 5pm all summer long.

The second step is to disguise your identity so they don't figure out that you're a Nobody. It's the Hamptons, darling: Nobody wants to dine next to a Nobody! Luckily that part is easy; all you have to do is casually mention that you're bringing a dwarf with you and you're in. Rich folks, they love dwarves.

Thankfully there are still a few spots in the Hamptons where you can be spared the indignity of Reservations Roulette and simply show up. One of our favorite places to endure our plight as dwarfless Nobodies is at Oakland's, a lovely spot on Dune Road with views of both the bay and the ocean.

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With an icy bottle of Sancerre, a view of the sunset, and the strains of a reggae band in the air, you won't even miss not having a midget buddy.

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At brunch, Oakland's has a wide assortment of choices, including seafood pasta, fish tacos, omelets stuffed with shrimp, fried local flounder, and mimosas . . . served in wine glasses with ice. Look, I know it's not ideal, but sometimes you'll take some hair of the dog any way you can get it.

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No, not that dog.

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After all this, you're probably wondering: Why would anyone endure these crowded, overpriced, dwarf-obsessed Hamptons anyway? Luckily, there are a few good arguments to be made.

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Besides, have you been to New York City in August??

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Posted by TraceyG 18:12 Archived in USA Tagged hamptons hampton_bays rumba canal_cafe oakland's Comments (9)

Return to Key West: A Cheesy Clucking Top 10 List (Part 1)

So, I know what you're thinking. You saw the title of this blog post and thought to yourself, Return to Key West? Wasn't Tracey just in Key West a few months ago? But more to the point, you're probably thinking: This better be good. No boring rehash of the last trip, lady.

Well, you're in luck: It just so happens that this trip marks our tenth visit to Key West, and I can't think of a better way to honor the occasion than with . . . a Top Ten list! See, I love making lists. In fact, I am somewhat obsessed with them. I am constantly making lists of very important things, like vacations I want to take, and things I want to eat, and stuff I want to buy, and chores I want Angel to do. And so it makes perfect sense to count down The Top Ten Things I Learned on Our Tenth Visit to Key West.

#10: Twenty Bucks Ain't Gonna Cut It

One of our first stops on this trip was a new spot on Upper Duval that's been getting rave reviews, Sweet Tea's.

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Sweet Tea's menu reads like my list of all the things I'd order for my last meal if I were ever on death row: meatloaf, pot pies, grilled cheese sandwiches, stuffing, macaroni & cheese . . . . Recently, however, thanks to being sucked into one of those "Lockdown" marathons on the Nat Geo channel, I learned that most prisons limit your last meal to just $20. Twenty dollars! How the hell am I supposed to order all of the above, PLUS a large pepperoni pizza, on a measly twenty bucks?! Of all the reasons to avoid ending up on death row, this one might be the most compelling.

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Sadly, none of the things I'd hoped to order at Sweet Tea's were on the lunch menu, so the breakfast I'd skipped in order to save room for the Great Meatloaf & PotpiePalooza was all for naught. I therefore consoled myself by ordering the cauliflower-Colby soup, a grilled ham and cheese sammie, and a side of macaroni and cheese.

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Our waiter, clearly concerned that the restaurant might actually run out of cheese if I ordered anything else, warned me, "Honey, you eat that much cheese and you won't be regular for a week!" Little does he know that if you eat enough fried food, the cheese, it slides right down.

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Later that evening we decided to head down to Mallory Square before dinner. Yeah, sure, they have that sunset celebration and a few tightrope-walking cats, but that's not why I went down there. Don't you know me at all by now?

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Now, this man may look old and, well, he is.

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But enough about Angel. This old codger, known as Mr. Mojito, whips up some of the best mojitos in Key West, which I suspect is because he lets the lime and mint hang out together ahead of time, allowing them to marinate in the sun until a drink is ordered. A great method for making mojitos, but you probably shouldn't try this with shrimp.

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Whatever his secret, these mojitos strike the perfect balance of lime to mint, and are just sweet enough to cut the lime without overpowering it. Bravo, Mr. M! Well muddled.

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#9: Choose Your Mate Carefully

In addition to list-making, Hot Fries, baby turtles, ketchup, flip-flops, miniature piglets, flying saucers, cheeseburgers, and my hair, one of the things that I am obsessed with are bath products. Bath gels, body lotions, body scrubs, perfume . . . if it smells good, I must stockpile it. In general Angel doesn't mind shopping, but he is easily overwhelmed by too many competing fragrances and sometimes tries to set limits on how many things I can force him to smell. "You get three smells!" he'll threaten as I shove yet another candle or shower gel under his nose. "You only have one smell left," he'll warn as I approach with a tub of salt scrub or body butter. "Is this one really worth it?"

No, I don't know why I married him.

Anyway, I naturally made a beeline for this adorable store, chock full of fancy lotions, potions, and other girly stuff. It's called Besame Mucho, which means "give me lots of kisses."

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After shopping here, however, I think it might be better translated as "give me lots of money." Which I happily did, but not before surreptitiously snapping a few photos while Angel distracted the cashier with some questions about their men's products. Teamwork!

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On our past few visits Angel has settled into a routine of biking over to Sandy's Cafe in the mornings for some cafe con leche and Cuban toast.

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I'm not much of a coffee person, but I could eat Sandy's pillowy, buttery Cuban toast every day. And that is yet another reason why I love Key West: Because eating a loaf of buttered bread every morning for breakfast here in NYC, the World Capital of Eating Disorders, would be considered only slightly less shocking than eating a newborn baby. And so I was especially thrilled when Angel brought a loaf back for us to share, and didn't even bat an eye when I gobbled up the entire thing.

I guess that's why I married him.

#8: There's No Such Thing As Too Much Cheese

For lunch on Monday we decided to try Harbourview Cafe at the Pier House resort. Angel started with the conch chowder, which was so rich that he couldn't finish it. At which point I squawked with glee and swooped in like a seagull to scarf down the leftovers.

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And yet I look so inocente.

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Of course, we had some other stuff, too.

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Angel had ordered that chowder because he wanted to try the lobster sliders for lunch and was worried that the portion of tiny sandwiches might not be filling enough.

I don't think he had anything to worry about.

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Answer: Pretty much nothing. Question: What is better than a whole bunch of ketchup bottles?

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I, of course, had the cheeseburger, which was ordered medium-well and arrived somewhere around beef jerky. Still, it had a tasty, charcoal-broiled crust on it and a melty slice of American cheese, and THAT is how you look on the bright side.

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But what impressed me most about this meal is that even the potato salad came topped with cheese. It's like they knew I was coming.

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After lunch we spent a few minutes at Pier House's small beach, where the water was so clear that I was immediately reminded that it's been exactly 8 months, 1 week, and 6 days since I was last in the Caribbean. Not that anyone's counting.

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#7: I Told You I Can't Quit These Damn Chickens

Key West is known for its come-as-you-are, live-and-let-live mentality . . . except when it comes to chickens. Half the island wants to save the little cluckers, and the other half wants to throttle 'em. Where I stand on the issue depends on whether there's one within earshot of my bed on a given morning.

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I also have a certain fondness for the, er, artistic side of Key West.

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In addition, Key West rivals New York City when it comes to being able to buy one-of-a-kind items. Or even two of a kind. Heh-heh.

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You're definitely spending too much time in Key West if the first thing you notice about this picture is that her tag is sticking out.

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Step up and be a man, man.

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Also, maybe it was the unseasonably warm weather, but this trip really brought out the animals.

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But my favorite was this guy, who, despite the presence of wings, decided to walk up the stairs.

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Quite gracefully, too, which is more than I can usually say for myself.

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But the wildest animal of all had to be this guy. Warning: Objects on your monitor appear larger than they actually are.

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#6: I Really Am a Human Garbage Disposal

One of our favorite lunch spots on the island is Kelly's Caribbean Bar & Grill. I know I'm veering dangerously close to Boring Rehash territory here, but Kelly's remains on our must-do list because we like their killer mojitos and lovely garden, in that order.

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The food at Kelly's is really beside the point, but that's never stopped me from eating like I don't know where my next meal is coming from. I decided on the pulled pork sandwich, which is slathered in a mango BBQ sauce and piled so high that you end up looking like a baby who's just eaten his first bowl of spaghetti by the time you've finished this thing.

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Here I am grinning like a loon because I am wearing my palm tree dress and the sun is shining and the waitress is bringing me a daiquiri. In other words, this is as happy as I get without some serious meds.

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Angel ordered the lobster club, which was about 30% lobster to 70% mayo. Depending on how many junked cars are sitting in your front yard, that's either a really bad ratio of lobster to mayo, or a really good one.

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Boring Rehash Alert! Later that night we headed over to Abbondanza, a cute little Italian place on Simonton Street.

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One of the many things I like about Abbondanza is the little salad that comes with your meal. First of all, coming from New York, the idea of so much as a sprig of parsley being included in the price of your meal is pretty exciting. Second, Abbondanza's salad is loaded with tomatoes and cucumbers that have been thoughtfully diced into little cubes, which I appreciate because (1) I am lazy, and (2) tinier is tastier.

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Over the years I have devised a number of different strategies to be able to finish Abbondanza's gargantuan bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. These include the "eat all the meatballs first" strategy, which failed miserably (apparently it is physically impossible to ignore an entire bowl of spaghetti); the "one bite of meatball for every bite of spaghetti" method, which also failed (ratio of spaghetti to meatballs determined to be too high); the "bite of meatball - sip of wine - bite of spaghetti method" (led to both failure and a hangover); and the "TWO bites of meatball for every bite of spaghetti," which started out promising but once again ended in a score of Meatballs, 1; Tracey, 0.

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Still, I made a pretty impressive showing, which might lead you to wonder: Who could eat ANY meatballs, let alone a whole bowl of them, just hours after they've devoured an entire pulled-pork sandwich??

The Human Garbage Disposal, that's who.

The Top Five is next! To continue reading, cluck click here: http://TraceyG.travellerspoint.com/30/

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Posted by TraceyG 18:35 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys paradise_inn besame_mucho Comments (5)

Return to Key West: A Cheesy Clucking Top 10 List (Part 2)

And now, the Top Five Things We Learned on Our Tenth Trip to Key West . . .

#5: Beware of Internet Scammers

On Friday evening we met up for rum punches at Louie's with some new friends on the island, Donna and Greg, with whom we became acquainted online.

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Donna and Greg are generous, funny, charming, and, most importantly, they always use proper punctuation in their online posts. Indeed, their only fault is that they were easily roped into spending an evening with the likes of me and Angel. Suckers!

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As we got to talking, we discovered that Greg grew up in Vermilion, OH, and graduated from Vermilion High School. When I was growing up, my family vacationed every year at a cottage on the beach. No, not in Wildwood, or Hilton Head, or Myrtle Beach, but in . . . Vermilion, OH. Really, now, what are the chances of two people meeting up in Key West who have both spent time in the vacation capital of the Corn Belt? Probably about the same as the chances that I grew up in a normal household.

After the sunset we made our way over to Roof Top Cafe for some dinner, where we ordered an assortment of lovely seafood dishes, of which I do not have a single decent photo thanks to the rum punches at Louie's.

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Then it was on to Orchid Key for cocktails, where Donna's friend Andrew and his Famous Hands tend bar. See, a few months ago the New York Times ran one of their frequent articles about Key West, and they filmed Andrew mixing a drink for a video that was to accompany the article. What ended up in the Times, however, was a video not of Andrew but, rather, of Andrew's disembodied hands. Fame, it can be so fleeting.

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I don't know if it was the proximity to such celebrity or the fact that I'd been drinking since 6:30 pm, but I proceeded to flirt shamelessly with poor Andrew, despite the fact that #1, he's gay, and #2, Angel was standing right there. It is a true testament to the power of rum punch that only #1 seemed to pose any impediment whatsoever to my tawdry plans.

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#4: No, Seriously: Choose Your Mate Carefully

Since I started writing this blog I've received hundreds of wonderful comments from folks all over the world (thank you!), some of whom say how much they enjoy my writing and "Angel's" photographs. Angel of course thinks this is hilarious, since I actually take all the photos (except for the ones of myself), while he takes the misplaced credit. When I complained to him about this, he just shrugged his shoulders. "What do you want me to do?" he asked. "I'm just the eye candy."

No, really: Why did I marry him again??

On Saturday night we decided to return to Hot Tin Roof, a lovely spot on the water at Ocean Key that we hadn't visited in a few years.

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We settled in with some cool drinks and a sunset view and perused the menu, which had changed since our last visit.

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I started with the tomato and mozzarella appetizer, which was loaded with both fresh and oven-dried red and yellow tomatoes, the latter of which were concentrated into incredible juicy sweetness.

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I guess you could say I liked it.

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Angel had the ceviche with local snapper, lime, onion, cilantro, and . . . corn nuts, which I suppose is akin to eating a lobster tail with some pork rinds. But what really made the dish was the glowing blue ice in which the corn nut ceviche was nestled. It's from the future.

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As a main course, I chose the caramelized mahi-mahi with coconut, corn, carrots, and poblano peppers, plus a whole bunch of red and yellow peppers that the sneaky menu writer forgot to mention. I'm not the biggest fan of peppers, but this dish was a real knockout: the mahi was sweet and caramely and perfectly cooked, while the sauce was both sweet from the coconut and spicy from the peppers. AND it was served in a cast-iron skillet. Everyone knows that food served in a cast-iron skillet tastes better than food served on a plate.

Angel decided to go with the paella. As soon as he ordered it, I secretly predicted that he would foolishly fill up on the seafood and chorizo and I'd get to finish the giant skilletful of rice, which, in my book, could be bested only by a skilletful of cheeseburgers.

And then he tasted it. And he gave me a taste. And lo, it was bland. The seafood tasted like it had simply been boiled and placed on top of the rice, which itself had been boiled and placed in the skillet. (That's right, not even a cast-iron skillet could save this dish.) No butter, no oil, no salt, no . . . anything. And the seafood was joined by some chorizo that even a white chick like me could tell was not a good specimen.

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But we were in a lovely setting, and we hate to complain, so Angel pressed on, by which I mean he dumped an entire salt shaker on it and ate all of the seafood (which was portioned quite generously). Our waiter, however, noticed that my skillet had practically been licked clean, whereas Angel's paella was only about half-eaten, and so he graciously removed that entree from our bill (without us asking) and brought Angel a replacement dish, the same excellent mahi that I'd enjoyed.

And so it came to pass that Angel, he of the willpower and self-restraint, crossed over to the dark side and ate not one but two entrees in a single night.

I could not have been prouder.

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#3: There's Only One Thing Better Than Lobster . . .

On Monday it was time for my favorite activity on Key West, biking around and drooling over Conch houses and hoping that one of their owners will take pity on me and write me into their will.

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Could it be any more obvious that I should be living here??

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Later we stopped in at the shops on Lazy Way Lane, a name which makes it doubly obvious that I should be living here.

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We also popped into the Key West Pretzel Co. for a refreshing frozen key limeade with mint, which was quite delicious considering that there wasn't any alcohol in it.

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Then it was off to Kermit's for all things key limey and free sampley.

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If you've ever biked around Key West, you've probably noticed the smell of lobster and drawn butter in the air. Often the smell is so strong that I'm convinced restaurants are pumping it into the air just so you'll get a good whiff and then drop a few hundred bucks on a lobster dinner. Like I would be stupid enough to do that just because I smelled some lobby.

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It was a gorgeous evening, so we splurged on a nice bottle of Chardonnay. Thankfully the fancy monogrammed butter was free.

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I started with the lobster bisque, while Angel had the stone crab claws.

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After that I had the Florida lobster tail.

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You know the only thing better than a lobster tail? A lobster tail topped with a crab cake, which is what Angel ordered. Ever since that two-entrees-in-one-night episode, he's like a new man, I tell you.

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Plus it came with this adorable little pattypan squash, which was too cute to eat. Even for Angel.

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#2: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Drag 'Em

Besides booze with breakfast, the New York Times, and sinking into a deep depression about having to go to work the next day, Sundays can only mean one thing: Drag Queen Bingo!

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I had really been looking forward to this because it's hard to beat being surrounded by a bunch of good-looking men who think I'm fabulous, and they did think I was fabulous . . . but only because I had the sense to bring Angel. That little Hershey's Kiss scored not one but two free rounds of shots from the bartender, a kiss on the cheek from our neighbor on one side, and a goosing on the rear end from our neighbor on the other, who happened to be our waiter from Sweet Tea's who'd been so concerened about my digestive health (I of course let him know that things were moving along quite nicely).

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Angel the Man Magnet certainly didn't mind the attention; I am going to chalk that up to revenge for my shameless flirting with Andrew's Famous Hands at Orchid Key anddon'tyoucontradictme. Still, there was another guy at DQ Bingo who was nothing short of a walking, talking poke in the eye. This guy kept yelling over and over about how he NEVER EVER EVER EVER WINS, after which he proceeded to win the very next round . . .

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. . . and to win the raffle at the end of the night. It's like he was channeling Charlie Sheen. Winning!

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This being our first time to DQ Bingo, I briefly wondered if I was going to stick out like a sore thumb there. So imagine my horror when this guy approached me and announced, "Well, you're not from around here!"

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When I asked how he knew that, he responded, "Oh, honey, that's easy. You have a great hairstyle!"

Have I already mentioned that I should be living here??? If my hair is what passes for a "style" around these parts, call the moving van, stat!

But the highlight of the evening was our bingo caller, who told me that he fashioned his lovely placenta hat and neck wrap? brooch? scarf? out of a dollar-store platter . . . by setting it on fire.

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Still, it is hard to compete in the style department with someone who matches her shirt, her hat, and her beer cozy to the walls.

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Also, there was PIZZA! For free! And it was good pizza to boot. So good that I didn't dare put it down and take a picture of it, lest someone snatch it out from under me. You know how people get around free pizza.

#1: We Survived the Great Shortages of 2011

As you probably remember from my last trip report about Key West, we love the Paradise Inn.

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The suites are large and sunny; the property is landscaped beautifully; and the pool is cool and inviting.

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So WHY OH WHY are they rationing the towels like it's World War II and they're made out of metal?? Granted, it was very hot and humid during our stay, and we were showering approximately fifteen times a day, but still . . . not once did we have enough towels in our room, or enough towels at the pool. Towel-less. Eventually we resorted to staking out the laundry bins and pilfering clean ones when the cleaning staff wasn't looking.

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I know, you think I'm exaggerating. And I might have agreed with you, until one afternoon I saw Angel toweling himself off after a swim. With a bath mat.

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For brunch on Sunday we decided to try Azur, which is a favorite of many locals and visitors but had never made it onto our list, primarily because they tease you with just a little "sampling" of their menu online. How am I supposed to ponder all my options and plan out what I'm going to order and start dreaming about it before I even arrive on the island, if you won't show me the whole menu? I guess they figure, We could tell you about the roast chicken, but then we'd have to kill you.

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Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, we settled in at a comfortable table near a little pond on the patio, where we were nicely shaded from the sun and serenaded by the sound of rushing water from the pond's waterfall. I immediately scanned the menu for the homemade gnocchi that everyone raves about and . . . nothing! No gnocchi! See? This is why you should show people the whole menu. Nothing casts a pall over a Sunday morning faster than a gnocchi bait-and-switch.

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Smile though your heart is breaking . . .

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Instead, I ordered the crab cake BLT, which is served on a ciabatta roll that's been grilled and slathered with enough butter to make Paula Deen blush. It's topped with a perfectly vine-ripened tomato and some deliciously greasy strips of bacon and a tangy salsa verde mayo, and served with an orzo salad studded with tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, and ribbons of basil.

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Angel had the frittata with prosciutto, fontina, and caramelized onions, which looked like a delicious, cheese-covered Frisbee.

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The food was excellent, and we enjoyed every bite. I mean, really enjoyed it. Because there I am, my hands covered in so much butter from that ciabatta roll that I could have birthed a baby calf, and there's Angel, in grease up to his eyeballs from devouring a veritable cornucopia of cholesterol, and each of us has only one napkin, which is of course in our laps. So we flag the waiter down and ask if we could please have more napkins. He obliges and returns with exactly . . . ONE. Yes, just one paper napkin, which (after our giggles subsided) we tore into two ragged halves and shared. Alas, this half-napkin was no match for the greasefest taking place at our table (which is by no means an insult), so a few minutes later I got the attention of a different waiter and asked if I could please have some more napkins. He, too, obliged, and returned with exactly . . . ONE. This time, however, we almost tore each other in half over that one lousy napkin. Perhaps one of the intrepid reporters at The Citizen should investigate why napkins are suddenly so hard to come by. Have the Real Housewives bought up the world's supply of napkins to pad their bras? Is there a spitball war brewing in the Middle East? Are rich people using them to dry off after their showers due to the apparent shortage of towels? Inquiring minds want to know.

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And so, in the end, Azur earned a split decision from the judges. Food: 10, Napkins: 2 (per person). They just couldn't spare a square.

The next day we decided to grab lunch at Southermost Beach Cafe and then spend some time at the beach.

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Things started off well enough, with a mango daiquiri for me and some Planter's punch for Angel.

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Angel decided on the blackened mahi sandwich, while I had the Caesar salad.

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Sadly, however, I was forced to order that salad right after The Universe decided to spit in my eye. It started as soon as were were seated, when I giddily said to Angel, "I don't even need to open the menu - I know exactly what I'm getting!" and he replied, "Of course, your usual," which is the chef's salad with SBC's incredibly delicious and addictive Caribbean vinaigrette dressing. But just to show that I'm not completely anal a creature of habit, I opened the menu anyway, and saw THIS:

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That's right . . . the chef's salad is GONE! MISSING! TAKEN OFF THE MENU! Nobody ever cried harder, or downed a drink faster, after hearing such devastating news.

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Except, perhaps, someone whose hair looks like it could hide a nest full of baby birds.

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But that isn't even the worst part (the salad, not the hair). No, the worst part was when I asked our waitress why they took the chef's salad off the menu, and she answered, "Um, I think it's because they can't get turkey and ham anymore. Yeah . . . there isn't any turkey or ham." This of course caused my head to explode. What is she talking about?? Does this mean there just isn't any turkey or ham here, right now . . . or does this mean that there isn't any turkey or ham anywhere, ever again?

We may never know, but we do know one thing: That's two more items to add to the growing list of worldwide shortages. Start stockpiling your vodka now.

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Posted by TraceyG 18:33 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys azur louie's_backyard hot_tin_roof paradise_inn drag_queen_bingo Comments (7)

Key West Part 1: I Just Can't Quit These Damn Chickens

"Winter sucks -- so let's get the hell outta here!" That was our rallying cry as we boarded a plane bound for Key West on a blizzardy Friday morning in January. Ahhh, Key West. The very words conjure up images of swaying palms and pina coladas, shady gardens and lazy porch fans.

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Long a haven for artists, writers, musicians, and secessionists, this tiny tropical paradise is famous for its Cuban influence, perfectly preserved historic district, and offbeat charm, including a multitude of six-toed cats and feral chickens.

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And yet, below the island's genteel if funky exterior lurks the seedy underbelly of the beast: Duval Street. A cacophony of t-shirt shops, tour operators, street artists, and con artists, Duval Street is best known for its wild, anything-goes bar scene and lax open-container laws, which lend the island a drunken depraved debauched laid-back air.

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I, of course, do not approve of such shenanigans, and neither does Angel.

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On this visit we stayed at the Paradise Inn, a name often applied to accommodations that almost always turns out to be unintentionally ironic. Thankfully in the case of Key West's Paradise Inn it's truthful, if a bit goading to those of us from the Great North.

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Our first order of business after checking in was to rent bikes from Eaton Bikes, the shop we like to use thanks to their friendly service and fair prices. Unfortunately the only bikes they had available were black, which were very obviously not pink or turquoise, so Angel mollified me by prettying mine up a bit.

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Later, after I'd accidentally almost mowed down a few unsuspecting pedestrians, we returned to the shop to see if I could get a bell to warn others of impending doom. The owner, Chris, explained that the shop doesn't like to equip the rental bikes with bells because the constant dinging drives the locals nuts. "Why do you need a bell to warn people anyway?" he asked. "You're from New York. Can't you just scream obscenities at them?" When I explained that I was trying out a new, relaxed, island-y Tracey, he kindly gave me a bell for free.

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In return, I dinged that bell about a million times a day, screaming out "CHRIS AT EATON BIKES SAYS HELLO!!!!" at anyone who would listen. Just kidding! I was actually very restrained with the use of the bell, save for imminent death. Which amounted to just a few hundred times a day.

As has become our tradition, lunch on our first day on the island was in the garden at Kelly's Caribbean, which is housed in the former headquarters of Pan American Airlines. Nothing conjures up visions of delicious food like airplanes!

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Kelly's was once owned by actress Kelly McGillis of "Top Gun" fame. Of course, we'd still frequent this place if it was owned by a toothless ex-con, as long as they still served these:

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This was our ninth visit to the island, so this time we decided to do something new, something different, something wild and crazy that we've never done before in Key West -- no easy feat on an island known for its enlightened stance on alcohol and public nudity.

So we went on a house-and-garden tour. Wait, what were YOU thinking? You really need to get your mind out of the gutter. Heh-heh.

A house tour usually consists of tramping through a stranger's house and snarkily critiquing all of their art, design, and decor choices. In this case, however, the tour of these exquisite homes consisted of several of the five stages of grief: denial ("Seriously, WHO on earth owns such a gorgeous house?!"); anger ("These lucky bastards probably don't even appreciate this house!"); depression ("It's hopeless; I'll never have a house like this!"); and acceptance ("I'll never have a house like this. Ever.").

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This last house is owned by country star Kenny Chesney, who purchased the house but never even moved in before deciding that it wasn't private enough and putting it back on the market. Which proves that what he's really hiding under that ever-present cowboy hat is not baldness, but lack of brains.

Right before we boarded the open-air Conch Train to take us from house to house, a mini-hurricane descended, cold and wet and windy, with the added bonus of turning my hair into something resembling a cross between a wet mop and blonde Silly String. But I soldiered on, and I'm glad I did, because otherwise I'd never have gotten to see The World's Most Awesome Shower.

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By the end of the house tour the temperature had dropped to the low 50s, so we decided to grab dinner at the nearest restaurant and call it a night. That turned out to be El Meson de Pepe, which is generally regarded as the touristy version of one of our favorite restaurants, the excellent Cuban spot El Siboney. Luckily for us, a large pitcher of El Meson's sangria turned what would have been an okay meal into an okay-but-giggly one.

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Angel ordered a sampler plate, with ropa vieja, shredded pork, and picadillo. Unfortunately, the picadillo was studded with raisins -- neither my nor Angel's favorite -- which are very adept at masquerading as black beans to get people to eat them. Sneaky little buggers.

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Despite the lovely homes featured on the house tour, I'm really holding out for one of these. Donations being accepted now at 1-800-FAT-CHANCE.

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For now, though, I really can't complain (not that that ever stops me): Two years ago we took the plunge and bought a small condo in the Casa Marina neighborhood of Old Town, with the intention of renting it out for now and using it ourselves once we can finally afford to retire (projected date: 2098).

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It was either that or pay the college tuition for the kids we don't have, which is how we sold this cockamamie idea to our financial planner.

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One of the things that we like best about the condo is its proximity to the Southermost Beach Cafe, one of our favorite casual lunch spots.

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Situated right on the sand, Southermost has an inexpensive lunch menu and boasts a drink list longer than Angel's . . . arm. This is one of their specialty drinks, the Sunkiss, which contains three different rums as well as pina colada/strawberry/passion fruit/mango mixes. A few of these and you will be drunk/trashed/wasted/blitzed.

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I always order the Chef's salad, partly because green vegetables are a nice shock to the system after several days in Key West, and partly because of the Caribbean vinaigrette dressing, which is sweet, tart, mustardy, and highly addictive.

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Angel decided on the fresh catch of the day, a blackened mahi-mahi sandwich with batter-dipped fries. There's a vegetable in there somewhere . . . I think.

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Finally, we split an order of conch fritters, which are really just an excuse to eat some fried dough. These came with a delicious sweet & spicy chili sauce.

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Near the restrooms is a huge map in which people stick pins indicating where they're visiting from. I wanted to stick a pin in Antarctica just to shake things up, but in the end I'm just a big conformist.

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One thing that we've noticed over the years is that folks in Key West adore their pets, and often go out of their way to make life easier for them. Like this little kitty door/staircase, for example. Because everyone knows that cats are terrible at jumping.

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When a beloved pet occasionally goes missing, an island-wide campaign must be undertaken to find him. Some are fortunately easier to identify than others.

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Hard to believe they got such a clear picture of him, huh?

This is Pickles. He is not currently missing, but when you leave a dog that cute alone in a car with the windows down, don't come crying to me when he ends up in my suitcase.

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Even the strays in Key West are pretty spoiled.

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On Sunday it was a bit chilly, so we scrapped our plans for brunch on the water and instead headed over to Martin's on Duval Street. Okay, I'm lying. It wasn't "a bit chilly." It was cold. Really cold. Practically freezing, by Key West standards.

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Martin's is owned by a couple of Germans (who know a thing or two about cold weather), who are so blond and blue-eyed and chiseled that the rest of us (okay, me) are left feeling like amorphous blobs of dubious national origin.

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Angel and I both ordered the lobster benedict, which is served with steamed spinach and a thick, lemony hollandaise that was so good that we had no choice but to order the German bread to mop it all up.

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And even less choice but to wash it all down with mimosas.

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German or not, Key Westers aren't typically shy about expressing themselves, whether that takes the form of bumper stickers, signs, t-shirts . . .

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. . . or a gigantic replica of the tiki idol in that really scary episode of "The Brady Bunch."

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Or this piece of sh . . . artistic expression. If nothing else, it's sure to keep those annoying trick-or-treaters away at Halloween.

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Now that's alot of pot.

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Later that night we biked over to Abbondanza, a romantic little trattoria that's a bit off the beaten path (that term being relative on an island that's all of 4.2 square miles) and has the best meatballs in town.

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Now, you might think it strange that we went out for meatballs on a tropical island known for its seafood, but that's because you've probably never had the meatballs at Abbondanza. These tender, garlicky little orbs are just the thing to replenish you after a day spent lazing around, and let's face it: Being thin is nice, but stuffing your face full of meatballs is even nicer.

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I fought the meatballs and the meatballs won.

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One of the things that we've always loved about the island is that it is a study in contrasts, the rich rubbing elbows with the poor; the literary-minded mingling with the simple-minded; the type who'd belong to a yacht club . . . being the same type who'd attach gigantic bull horns to his Jeep.

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Me? I'm the type who'd write a trip report but only publish half of it. Part 2 to come is now posted! Find it here: www.traceyg.travellerspoint.com/24/

Posted by TraceyG 10:39 Archived in USA Tagged key_west casa_marina florida_keys southernmost_beach_cafe Comments (18)

Key West Part 2: Wanna See Something REALLY Interesting?

One of the many things we love about Key West is that it is full of relaxed, laid-back watering holes, none more so than the Schooner Wharf Bar, which bills itself as "a last little piece of old Key West." And they're not kidding: There are literally thousands of discarded old pieces of Key West -- everything from alligator-shaped kayaks to statuettes to road signs to Mardi Gras beads -- hanging from every available surface in the place.

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Along with malt vinegar and various hot sauces, there is hand sanitizer on the table here. Which is either a really good sign . . . or a really bad one.

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Luckily the hand sanitizer makes perfect sense, when you consider that there are dogs. At the bar.

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For lunch we had Painkillers.

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Oh, and some vegetables, served American-style.

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Of course, Schooner Wharf isn't the only bar in Key West that serves dogs. Ain't nobody gonna turn away Tuffy, what with that threatening spiked collar and all.

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For dinner that night we biked over to Cafe Sole, a little Provence-style restaurant known for its hogfish.

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A large, flat fish, hogfish is a Key West delicacy, as it feeds almost exclusively on shellfish, giving it a mild, almost lobster-like flavor. I once saw a feature on the hogfish on Keys TV, which explained that hogfish are caught exclusively by divers wielding long spears. Apparently the hogfish, being quite curious, will approach the divers and, being so flat, will turn to the side to get a better look at them. When they do, they create a huge fish-shaped target for the diver to easily spear the hogfish. Sadly, it appears that no friendly deed goes unpunished.

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But the thing you've really got to try at Cafe Sole is their award-winning portobello soup, which is made with portobello mushrooms, onions, white wine, port wine, and "a touch" of cream, according to their web site. Right, and I am "a touch" broke from all this travel. Anyhoo, I have two words for Cafe Sole regarding the portobello soup: BIGGER BOWLS.

The next day we decided to grab lunch at Amigos, a new place on Greene Street that's becoming known for its fresh, authentic rural Mexican food, like this dish:

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Ok, maybe not, but are you really going to turn down a basket of tater tots just for the sake of authenticity? I didn't think so.

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Amigos does, however, serve real Mexican Coca-Cola made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup which, if the recent television ads are to be believed, will kill you faster than a Mexican drug lord who thinks you've stolen his stash.

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The delicious tacos at Amigos are square-shaped, which means that you will end up with more filling in your mouth and less down the front of your shirt. A win-win!

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But the main reason to get yourself to Amigos, STAT, is their caramelized onion salsa. This stuff is incredible. Amazing. Fantastic. Hell, it's better than Mexican coke -- the stuff in the bottle, that is.

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Besides that incredible salsa, you should also go to Amigos for these:

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And for the low tabs . . .

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And the comment cards, which encourage you to describe your experience in pictures instead of words, just in case you've had too many of the aforementioned margaritas, or have completely lost your mind over that caramelized onion salsa.

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Directly across the street from Amigos I spotted this little guy, whose name is Oscar de la Mayer.

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His kind owner allowed me to snuggle him (the dog) and stroke his velvety ears (again, the dog -- minds and gutters, people!), and even trusted me to babysit while he made a quick trip to the restroom. He warned, "Now, don't go lettin' anyone beguile little Oscar while I'm gone!" Little did he know that I was already quite beguiled by Mr. de la Mayer myself, and was secretly trying to figure out if I could get a 19-inch-long wiener dog to fit into my 10-inch-long handbag by folding him in half.

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After lunch we decided to stop by one of our favorite shops, Peppers of Key West. Every time we come in this place I immediately devolve into a 13-year-old boy, snorting and snickering at the double entendres and downright dirty labels on the hundreds of hot sauces and barbeque sauces for sale.

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The hottest sauce that Peppers sells is called 357 Mad Dog, the recommended "dosage" for which, per gallon, is this miniature spoon, apparently too small to even be photographed properly without a macro lens.

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At Peppers they dip the end of a toothpick into the sauce and instruct you to lick it, without getting the sauce on your lips, presumably because they will shrivel up and fall off if exposed to the searing 600,000 scoville units of heat that this sauce packs. (No, I don't know what a scoville unit is. Probably another made-up unit of measure, like that Metric system.)

Angel, for whom no spice or sauce can ever be hot enough, of course decided that he had to try it.

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Sure, he's smiling now . . . but 20 minutes and a bottle of water later and his mouth was still on fire. Crybaby.

We also like Peppers' relaxed stance on business hours. Clearly I'm working in the wrong place.

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Although we are not big fans of Duval Street, that does not mean we aren't big fans of bars. One of our favorites is the Green Parrot.

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It's difficult to get a good shot of the Green Parrot without this "Do Not Enter" sign getting in the way, which actually serves as a pretty good warning: If you're not up for some weird, don't even bother.

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The Green Parrot isn't trendy -- about the fanciest drink they serve is beer in a bottle instead of a can -- but they do have cheap drinks, a machine that cranks out free popcorn, and an assortment of patrons that could give the cantina scene in "Star Wars" a run for its money.

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Back on Duval Street, there is one bar that we have a soft spot for, Willie T's. A few years ago, right after we closed on our condo, we decided to undertake a mini-renovation to get the place ready for tenants. Angel and my brother-in-law, Joe (whose formidable construction skills and work ethic make HGTV's Mike Holmes look like a real slacker), flew down and did the work themselves, purchasing tools and supplies and putting in grueling 18-hour days to get the job done. Back in NYC, I acted as the off-site foreman, which entailed calling every night to harangue them about getting more work done and staying out of the strip clubs.

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Anyway, most nights, dirty and exhausted, Angel and Joe would head out in search of a quick, inexpensive meal, and the only place that was still serving food at such a late hour was Willie T's . . . or so they told me.

After a while, though, I started to suspect that Angel and Joe were hanging out at Willie T's a little more often than they were letting on, and not just for the food. That suspicion was confirmed when I saw this . . .

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And this.

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Yep, that's exactly what you think it is: Every single dollar that we'd budgeted for the condo renovation.

As always, our last night arrived too soon, and to console ourselves it was off to dinner at our favorite restaurant on the island, Seven Fish. A quick aside: No matter where or when I am taking a photo, Angel somehow manages to end up in it -- there he is in the background, or there's his hand, or part of his head, like a family pet who unwittingly manages to wander into every family photograph. And sure enough, the first shot I took of Seven Fish? There was Angel, reflected in the front door. You know what this means, right? That even when he's standing behind me, that sneaky #$% manages to end up in my pictures. I'm just sayin'.

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Anyway, it may not look like much from the outside, but inside this tiny, spare building is some of the best, most imaginative cooking on the island, including an insane banana chicken with caramelized walnuts, which I promise to order and photograph next time. On this visit, however, we branched out a bit from our usual choices, with excellent results.

First up was the three-cheese Caesar with Parmigiano-Reggiano, asiago, and goat cheese, the last of these adding just the right amount of unexpected richness and tang.

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In addition to their regular menu, Seven Fish offers three different fresh fish dishes each night. I decided on the red snapper with Thai curry sauce over sticky rice, which Angel said was the best dish that HE had on the entire trip, after scarfing down two-thirds of it. My, how the tables have turned.

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Angel ordered the gnocchi with sauteed fish, which was drenched in a creamy, mellow bleu cheese sauce with capers and sauteed onions.

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I liked it because it was clearly fat-free.

On the last afternoon before our flight was to depart, we headed over to Alonzo's Oyster Bar, home of the best half-price Happy Hour in town. These are their key lime mojitos, which were tasty but not very boozy, much to Angel's dismay -- mostly for obvious reasons, but also because there's much less kicking and screaming as I'm dragged to the airport if I'm half passed out asleep.

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We proceeded to order an assortment of artery-clogging favorites, like fried calamari with diablo and key lime aioli dipping sauces, sweet corn mashed potatoes, and buffalo shrimp with a side of creamy bleu cheese.

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Double-fisting, New Yorker style.

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After we ate, Angel settled up the bill while I walked around the boardwalk to take a few pictures.

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As I trolled for my next shot, a man approached me and asked, "How would you like to take a picture of something really interesting?" This being Key West, I immediately averted my eyes, lest he drop his pants right then and there, but instead he turned and walked down to the private dock running perpendicular to the boardwalk, and I followed. Again, this being Key West, it suddenly occurred to me that I was probably going to be held hostage on some boat in exchange for reefer and rum, but that fear subsided as soon as I spotted the "really interesting" thing he'd brought me down to the dock to see: A pelican. The man told me that the pelican had been sitting there for days and that many of the boat owners had gotten close enough to pet it. I took one look at that huge beak and immediately started weighing the pros (getting to pet a large but probably disease-ridden pelican) against the cons (being pecked to death by said pelican and not even having it make the top five weirdest events on the Key West evening news) and reluctantly decided against petting him. There's always next time.

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As I continued taking photos, at one point I looked down into the water below and saw a huge, unidentifiable fish.

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Now, if you've read the Anguilla posts on this blog, you already know what I was thinking: TARPON! Later I overheard someone at a neighboring table ask the waitress what that large fish he'd seen earlier was and, without missing a beat, or even seeing the fish, she confidently replied . . . "Oh, that? That's a tarpon."

Sure it was.

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Can't get enough of the Conch Republic? Read more here and here.

Posted by TraceyG 09:32 Archived in USA Tagged key_west peppers amigos florida_keys schooner_wharf_bar cafe_sole seven_fish Comments (7)

Christmas in NYC: My Heart is Full of Unwashed Socks

So it was a pretty crappy fall around our house, though it started off innocently enough. In early October, we decided that it was time to get a new living room rug. But a new rug would highlight just how badly our apartment needs a fresh coat of paint, so we decided to go ahead and paint the living room. Which meant that we'd also have to paint the hallways. And just look at how lumpy that ceiling is, and how wavy those bulkheads are! Might as well do some skim-coating while we're at it. And install some crown molding in the kitchen . . . and then paint that room, too. And so it came to pass that poor Angel found himself knee-deep in paint, plaster, sandpaper, and dust. Because we needed a new living room rug.

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Approximately one week into this brilliant idea, we decided to take a break and head over to a friend's house for a Halloween party. I decided to dress as a 60s flower child, seeing as how I already own a pair of bell-bottoms, clogs, big wooden beaded necklaces, a faux-fur leopard print coat, 70s-style suede handbag, and even a pair of big John-Lennon style sunglasses (prescription, no less). Something tells me there's a "surprise" nomination for What Not To Wear in my future.

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Angel dressed as a cross between a 1970s-era pimp and those guys who stand outside the restaurants in Little Italy hawking $10 spaghetti dinners. After gently nestling his giant, gold man medallion snugly into the chest hair popping out of his unbuttoned-down-to-there shirt, we hailed a taxi and were off.

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Unfortunately, we'd only gone about two blocks before a livery cab ran a red light and -- BOOM! The town car slammed into our taxi, then bounced off and totalled a parked car for good measure. At the moment of impact, Angel flew forward, slamming his knee into the divider, then slid left . . . slamming his (giant) shoulder into my (small) chest. But that's not the worst part. No, the worst part was standing on Park Avenue at the scene of a three-car accident, trying to tell the police exactly what happened, and explain to the EMT that yes, my breast hurts, and no, you don't need to touch it . . . all while dressed like Kate Hudson in Almost Famous and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

The folks at Lenox Hill hospital took great care of us, poking, prodding, and pretending not to notice our ridiculous get-ups. Finally, after being discharged with a knee immobilizer, a nursing-home-issue silver cane, and instructions for treating a Boob Contusion (that's the fancy medical term), we did what anyone who'd just spent the last three hours in an emergency room would do . . . we showed up at the Halloween party. Free booze, ya'll!

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We are thankfully going to be fine, but Angel's knee injury meant that he had to sit out this year's Macy's Thankgiving Day Parade, in which he has served as a balloon pilot for the past 8 years. (The pilot is the guy who walks way out in front of the balloon, directing it down the street, and then complains for days afterwards about the walking! Three miles! Backwards!). A melancholy mood settled over our dirty, dusty, power-tool-strewn apartment. And so it was with more excitement than usual that I have been looking forward to the holiday season. The city that never sleeps -- hence its perpetually cranky mood -- finally throws off its winter gloom and transforms itself into a twinkling, over-the-top winter wonderland. Skaters bundle into wooly scarves and mittens for a spin around Wollman Rink. Shoppers clutch cups of hot chocolate and mill around the festive open-air markets at Union Square and Bryant Park. Tourists flock to the tree at Rockefeller Center, aglow with thousands of lights, and Santas of every size, shape, color, and gender roam the sidewalks. The scent of roasting chestnuts and the tinkle of Salvation Army bells fill the air. And occasionally, a Christmas miracle occurs, and a New Yorker actually smiles.

Of course, photographic proof of this miracle is harder to obtain than a non-blurry shot of Bigfoot, so how about a nice electric snowflake to symbolize it instead?

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My first stop was to my favorite holiday decoration in all of New York City, which I like to call the Tree Clump. The Tree Clump consists of 105 live Christmas trees (not that I counted them) on one side of a skyscraper, and 105 more on the other side, all lit up in Christmasy splendor and pine-scented fabulousness.

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One night Angel was walking home from work when he happened to spot a couple of the guys charged with installing and lighting all 210 of these trees -- no easy feat when you consider that Angel utters more obscenities in one afternoon of putting up our single tree than he does in an entire year. So he stopped and told them how beautiful it was, and what a great job they were doing, and how much his wife appreciates it. And . . . nothing. The first guy apparently didn't speak a word of English, and the second one just glared at Angel and shrugged his shoulders. See? Holiday spirit, alive and well in New York!

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Next I headed over to the New York Palace hotel and its on-site restaurant, Gilt. Which is presumably what you will feel if you spend $16 for an order of French fries . . . said the girl who once paid $79 for two glasses of Champagne.

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The prices aren't the only things oversized in New York City, though. We also have super-sized egos, tempers, mouths . . . and some other stuff, too.

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In case something a little more subdued is more your taste, let us now glide by the vaunted Wadorf-Astoria. Lest you be intimidated by this bastion of taste and class, however, just remember: They once let Paris Hilton live here.

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Am I the only one who's not surprised that the trees outside Rupert Murdoch's office look like devil horns??

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Of course, no posting about Christmas in New York would be complete without a visit to Rockefeller Center.

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After downing a handful of Xanax and Valium, plus a shot of whiskey for courage, I was finally ready to be swept into the massive rushing river of human beings that is Rock Center at Christmas. However, it only took about 5 minutes before I found myself wishing I'd brought my flask . . . and a cattle prod.

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As I inched my way through the crowd, I caught hundreds of snippets of conversations, most including the words "beautiful," "tall," and "amazing" in reference to the tree. But the most common word I overheard, as visitors marveled over the world's most famous Christmas tree? BIEBER. Apparently Bieber Fever is more contagious than we thought.

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Of course, some folks were more impressed by the tree than others.

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As I struggled to leave Rock Center, the crowd holding me back like a spitball in a slingshot, I finally broke free and catapulted out onto Fifth Avenue, just in time to see the aftermath of a minor fender-bender. As the police and the driver of the first car departed, the driver of the second car stomped back to his vehicle, red-faced and fuming. As I drew nearer, I heard him mutter to himself: "What's so #$%^& special about this #$%^& tree, anyway?!?" The man might have a point.

Elsewhere in the city, the crowds are thankfully thinner; the decorations much less glitzy and over-the-top.

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But no matter where you go in New York City, you never know who you might see.

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These folks must be lined up to see some celebrity, right? Or maybe to get into the hottest new nightclub?

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Actually, no. They are lined up to get into . . . an Abercrombie & Fitch. So they can be assaulted by music at decible levels akin to those at a shuttle launch and forced to don a headlamp in order to see the overpriced merchandise. God, I'm old.

Aside from the decorations, New York City is also the ideal place to find the perfect gift for that man or woman on your list who has everything. Who couldn't use a new pair of blue suede shoes?

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Or a stunning dress made from the feathers of the sadly-extinct Dodo bird? I hope that's not his bald little carcass in her hand.

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Or you could surprise someone with this lovely zebras-being-shot-with-arrows-print umbrella . . .

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To match their zebras-being-shot-with-arrows wallpaper, of course.

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And to think we spent all that time and effort repainting our living room. Next time, we'll just get the zebra wallpaper and call it a day.

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Merry Christmas and Happy Hannuka Chanukah Hanukkah Holidays!

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Posted by TraceyG 05:21 Archived in USA Tagged christmas new_york_city rockefeller_center Comments (0)

Delray Beach: Mushrooms, Monkeys, and Chickens, Oh My!

32 °F

Delray Beach, which bills itself as the "Village by the Sea," is a small town on the southeastern coast of Florida. Though not as well-known as its fancy neighbors -- Palm Beach to the north and Boca Raton to the south -- Delray boasts pristine beaches, a funky shopping and arts district, and a vibrant restaurant scene, which is what first drew us there. Because there is nowhere to eat in New York.

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Delray is also on the cutting edge of modern table design, as you can see.

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Most importantly, Delray has a Mellow Mushroom -- and I'm pretty sure you won't find one of those in Palm Beach.

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We like to stay at the Marriott at the beach for three reasons: Adults. Only. Pool.

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Our first stop was dinner at 32 East, whose menu changes daily. Best described as New American, it's my favorite kind of food: interesting ingredients pulled from a variety of other cuisines, then put together in ways I wouldn't have thought of. I started with the pan-seared risotto cakes with artichoke-parmesan puree, pickled treviso and fava beans, and mushroom vinaigrette. It was crispy, creamy, tangy . . . and way too small! See?

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That was followed by house-made ricotta ravioli in a sauce of short ribs, red wine, English peas, and oak-roasted tomatoes, which was like eating a fabulous boeuf bourgignon that just happened to have some big pillowy ravioli in it. Somebody's been reading my mind.

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Angel had some fish dish, but really, who can remember the details when there is a giant bowl of boeuf-bourgignon-ricotta-ravioli to be had?

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Dessert was simple: Four warm, housemade chocolate-chip cookies the size of frisbees. I'm not a huge chocolate fan, but let's just say that if Angel hadn't agreed to share these, he was headed for a beat-down.

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The next day we made a beeline for the Mellow Mushroom. This pizzeria chain, based mostly in the south, was started by three college students in Georgia back in the early 70s, which means that it is both inexpensive and totally psychedelic, man.

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The Shroom's pizza dough is made with spring water, which makes it a bit chewy, but also thin and floppy, which is how I like it. (Then again, I also like crispy pizza, coal-oven pizza, hand-tossed pizza, pan pizza, Sicilian pizza, grandma pizza, frozen pizza, English-muffin pizza, Chef Boyardee pizza, Domino's pizza, Pizza Hut pizza, Papa John's pizza . . . I am the Bubba Blue of pizza.)

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The best part, though, is that Mellow Mushroom offers 50 different beers, most of which are microbrews, and all of which are half-off on Monday nights. Two Sam Adams' Oktoberfest pints ($1.50 each) + one Funky Q pizza ($8.50) = Can I get some of that beer to go??

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Given that I am something of a human trash compactor when it comes to food, it will come as no surprise that the entire pizza I had for lunch was followed by dinner that night at Cut 432 . . . for a steak. We were undecided among three wines, so the bartender kindly brought us a small pour of each for a blind taste test to determine which was our favorite (winner: the 2006 Duckhorn cab). He also recommended the New York strip, which we both ordered (with house-made steak sauce for Angel and toasted peppercorn for me).

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I will totally cut you.

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After dinner we walked a few blocks down to Johnnie Brown's, a bar and restaurant named for famed Florida architect Addison Mizner's pet spider monkey, who once ran for mayor of Palm Beach (the monkey, not the architect). Mizner reportedly had two other monkeys, Ethel and Deuteronomy, but neither of them ever had a restaurant named for it OR ever ran for public office. Slackers.

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As we skirted the outside for a table on the sidewalk, we ran into this lady.

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This is Robin Fox, who had a trance hit a few years back called "I See Stars," which made it to #13 on the Billboard dance music charts. However, it is hard for me to care about that when you are doing something so fabulous as walking a chicken! On a leash!

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Robin apparently had some socializing to do, so I ended up minding the chicken, Jeb-Jeb, for a while. Go out for a nice steak dinner . . . end up babysitting a pet chicken named Jeb-Jeb. Is Delray a great town or what?!

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A band called Johnny B and the Road Dogs was playing classic rock covers, so the bikers had come out in force that night. While I made friends with this guy by buying him a beer, sharing my pack of candy cigarettes, and belting out the lyrics to some Skynyrd songs with him, Angel took a few photos of the band.

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Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man . . . you're being stalked by a zombie! RUN!!!!

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This move looked suspiciously like Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance, which I then proceeded to do, to the tune of "Sweet Home Alabama," after half a bottle of wine and two bottles of beer. Which was right about the time Angel decided to go hide in the bathroom.

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Oddly enough, though, I just couldn't persuade anyone else to join in. This guy, he probably prefers the Macarena.

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Also, among others, Johnnie Brown's flies the ANGUILLIAN flag! We took it as a sign . . . that we are spending way too much money on vacations lately.

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The next day we decided on brunch at the Old Calypso before taking a boat cruise down to Boca Raton along the Intracoastal on the Lady Atlantic.

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Had my stomach not still been punishing me for the New York strip, au gratin potatoes, creamed corn, 1/2 bottle of wine, 3 Corona lights, and 1/2 pack of candy cigarettes I'd sent down the night before, I definitely would have ordered Angel's dish, the blackened mahi topped with crawfish etouffe.

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Instead, I went a little lighter.

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The boat cruise we took was custom-made for me, since the captain spends the entire ride down to Boca telling you about all the fancy houses we pass along the way. See that infinity pool? It cost $450,000! This house? It has 5 stoves! That house? The bathroom is bigger than your entire NYC apartment! It's like an expensive, floating version of House Hunters.

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I hate these people.

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Dinner that night was at Vic & Angelo's, which is proudly committed to ensuring that you leave their restaurant unable to button your pants. This place is boisterous and buzzing, decorated in fire-engine red. Light fixtures consist of clusters of glass bottles filled with what appears to be cherry-red Campari, and the bartenders wear red bustiers with black bras peeking out the top. Bordello-chic, you might say.

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And they run old episodes of Miami Vice on a continuous loop! Just look at that lovely feathered mane.

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But the best part about Vic & Angelo's is that not only is the food fantastic, but there's plenty of it. This is their veal parmigiana, which they call "Veal Telephono." I suspect this is because you will need to telephono your cardiologist shortly after finishing this thing.

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Even the garlic is super-sized.

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And this?

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THIS is what happens at Vic & Angelo's if you ask for some ice for your water.

Yeah, I love this place.

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Posted by TraceyG 19:45 Archived in USA Tagged florida mellow_mushroom 32_east cut_432 delray_beach johnnie_brown's vic_&_angelo's Comments (1)

Anguilla Part 6: The Best 8,000 Calories I Ever Ate

32 °F

Today was the Happiest Day of the Year: The day we go to Ferryboat Inn for cheeseburgers.

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It was about 700 degrees in the shade, and I was planning to carry my burger out to the car to eat in air-conditioned peace if necessary, but at the last minute, the Ground Beef Gods smiled on me, delivering a slight breeze.

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I've spent alot of time thinking about how to adequately describe the incredibly delicious feat of awesomeness that is the Ferryboat Inn burger. There really are no words, but luckily I have pictures.

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Ferryboat's burger is incredibly juicy, sloppy even, and yet somehow all of the juice stays inside the burger, not dripping all over your plate. It is huge and charred on the outside and marinated in something so delicious that it must be illegal. The soft, pillowy bun is slathered with some orange stuff - Thousand Island dressing? A ketchup and mayo mix? – that I fear would disgust me if I knew its true identity, so I never ask (and please don’t tell me if you know).

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It puts all the other players in the “best burger” wars - In-N-Out, Shake Shack, Corner Bistro, Five Guys, you name it – to utter shame. It costs $10, but it could cost $100 and still be worth every penny. It needs absolutely nothing. Ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomatoes - all are just distractions from its marvelous meaty goodness. It is, quite simply, perfection on a plate.

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I once asked Marjorie, Ferryboat's charming English owner, what her secret was to making the burgers so delicious. Was she adding special spices to the ground meat mix, or marinating the burgers in something unusual? Oh no, dear, she assured me. We just use top-quality beef, that’s all.

Which I think is British for, Piss off, you bloody wanker, if you think I’m telling you how I make the world’s best hamburger. Cheerio!

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Obviously I couldn't be seen in a bikini for a few hours after this, so it was time for some shopping.

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Too quickly, our last night on the island arrived. Our last meal was at Oliver’s, where we decided to branch out and order something other than the Seafood Compote, a dish known to make grown men (okay, Angel) cry.

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We also decided that perhaps we should try to get a photograph of us together, before those "Michael and Janet are the same person" type rumors get started.

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For dinner I started with a simple green salad, while Angel decided to try the stingray. Given that I’d swum less than 3 feet away from not one but two different stringrays over the past 10 days, I decided not to disturb our tacit agreement, which is that I won’t eat them if they don’t eat me.

Angel then had the grouper in a lime and balsamic sauce, which was savory and sweet and tart all at the same time - not that I ate half of it or anything.

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I had two grilled Anguillian lobster tails, and I know what you’re thinking: Only two?

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Finally, sadly, it was time to leave -- but not before one last swim at Shoal Bay. Being on time for your flight is so overrated.

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As our plane took off and the island became smaller and smaller in the distance, I began thinking about how much this little rock in the middle of the ocean has meant to me over the years, how it has changed my perceptions of beauty, tranquillity, and happiness. (You didn't think I could do sappy, eh? Read on.)

Anguilla, when we first met twelve years ago, I fell instantly in love with you. You were drop-dead gorgeous, yet unassuming and charming. You were simple yet luxurious; friendly but private. You were sleepy and slow-moving, but with an energy all your own, and you smelled like nowhere else in the world. You were, in a word, perfection, and I desperately hoped that you would never change.

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When I am in your presence, a transformation takes place. Gone is the grown-up with a job, a mortgage, and countless responsibilities. Gone, too, is the woman who wears boots eight months out of the year and owns more winter coats than she has space for in her tiny New York City apartment; the woman who dreads the endless weeks of grey skies and rain. In her place is a happy young girl who fearlessly jumps off boats into crystal-clear water, whose hair is a salty tangle about her suntanned shoulders, who kicks the flip-flops off her browned feet and buries them in soft, sugar-white sand. I am changed because of you.

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Over the past 12 years you have provided me with more happy memories than anyone probably deserves in a lifetime: Bumping along a rocky, unpaved road, nothing but our headlights and a handful of stars in the ink-black sky to guide the way . . . only to stumble upon tiny, candlelit Straw Hat restaurant, balanced on stilts above crystal-clear water, serving 5-star cuisine by the sweetest folks on the island. Making our way down a shady path at La Sirena, passing a tiny, sparkling, secret pool as we go. Pushing aside giant sea grape leaves at the path’s end to reveal a wide expanse of sugar-white sand, vivid blue water, a few wooden umbrellas . . . and not another living soul. Drawing in my breath and shaking my head in amazement at the overwhelming beauty of Shoal Bay, each and every time I see it. Having tiny, gorgeous Little Bay all to ourselves for an afternoon; our boat driver, Calvin, the only person in the world who knows where to find us. Seeing Rendezvous Bay for the first time: Barely registering the rocky yard and spare, squat buildings of Rendezvous Bay Hotel; seeing only brilliant blue water and blinding white sand. Picking up hitchhikers: maids in their white aprons, shy schoolchildren in their pressed uniforms. Breathing in your inimitable scent.

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Indeed, you are so beautiful that I suppose it was inevitable that others, too, would eventually fall under your spell. You’ve been discovered, and over the years you have been changed by all the attention, by the press and praise. Road signs dot your landscape, eliminating the singular pleasure of getting lost on one of your formerly bumpy roads. New hotels and villas squeeze onto your beaches, even as many of us fear that you are becoming too crowded. Diamond stores and duty-free shops – will they edge out our local favorites? Everyone wants a piece of you now, and it’s hard to blame them.

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And yet . . .

And yet, glimmers of the island I first fell in love with still remain. Sand so powdery that I find it clinging to my calves even after I’ve taken a shower. A huge smile and a warm “Welcome back!” at your shops and restaurants – more than two years after our last visit. Wading into one of your pristine bays and looking down to see a handful of curious little fish circling my feet. Water so clear that a snorkeling mask is merely optional.

The obvious pride on the faces of your gracious citizens when we respond that, No, it’s not our first time on the island.

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And it won’t be our last.

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Need more Anguilla? Click here for our Thanksgiving trip report!

Posted by TraceyG 05:37 Archived in Anguilla Comments (7)

Anguilla Part 5: Oops, I Did It Again

32 °F

This trip to Anguilla marked ten years since Angel and I said our wedding vows on the dunes overlooking the ocean in Westhampton Beach. It was a small, elegant affair on a picture-perfect summer evening. Tuxedoed waiters passed h’ors doeuvres on shiny silver trays during cocktail hour on the deck at sunset, and served fresh lobsters for dinner under twinkling lanterns. Friends and family wished us well. All in all, a pretty good start.

And then we took our honeymoon.

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We’d been married less than a week when we set off for Anguilla. On our first full day, we headed over to Shoal Bay and decided to take a swim before lunch.

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Terrified of losing one of our brand-new wedding rings, we'd brought along a small velvet ring box and deposited them there for safekeeping while we were in the water. After our swim, we took one of the tables closest to the water on the deck at (sadly departed) Le Beach. As we settled in for lunch, I asked Angel to give me my ring so I could show it off put it back on. He demurred, saying that he didn’t want to dig through his backpack to find the ring box.

I insisted.

He said to wait.

I pouted.

He finally relented.

(Newlyweds, take note: THIS is the secret to a successful marriage.)

Defeated, Angel fished around in his bag and finally came up with the ring box. He popped open the spring-loaded lid. At that moment, everything melted into slow-motion: When the lid popped open, the ring inside flew straight up into the air . . .

. . . and landed smack between the floorboards of Le Beach’s deck.

My ring – my not-even-one-week-old wedding ring – was now underneath the deck at Le Beach, buried in the sand below.

I screamed. Angel muttered something like, “I told you I didn’t want to get those rings.” Before I could strangle him, though, he ran around to the other side of deck and, kneeling in the scorching sand with the sun beating on his back, began to dig furiously with his hands to get to my ring. A few other folks on the beach noticed the crazed, sweaty man digging up the sand underneath Le Beach’s deck and came to watch. Word spread, and soon there were 5 or 6 men digging in the sand for my ring. Finally, they spotted it . . . but it was too far under the deck to be reached, and the deck was too low for anyone to crawl under it. There didn't seem to be any way to reach it.

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Get a good look at it while you can, buddy . . .

Angel wiped the sweat from his brow.

I threatened his life.

Finally, someone had an ingenious idea: a clothes hanger! The proprietor of the shop at Le Beach donated one of her metal hangers, which was then untwisted so it could be used a hook. My ring, and Angel’s life, were saved!

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And here we are, ten years later. Ten years. Imagine hundreds of more incidents like the Great Ring Debacle and you can see what an amazing accomplishment this is. We knew we had to celebrate, and what better way to do so than by agreeing to annoy each other for another ten years, with a vow renewal ceremony?

Only Angel didn’t exactly agree . . . which is why I had to spring it on him. SURPRISE!!!

He's starting to get suspicious . . .

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Don't worry, he only looks like he's going to throw up.

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  • Special thanks go to Anguilla photographer Susan Croft (www.anguillaescape.com), whose lovely photos of our vow renewal ceremony appear above, and who was probably more exicted than I was that we managed to surprise Angel! Susan's energy, enthusiasm, and generosity made our ceremony absolutely perfect.

Later in the week it occurred to Angel that he'd been lured out to the beach that night with the promise of sunset drinks at Malliouhana, but instead of a drink he got another 10-year sentence. So tonight it was off to Malli for two glasses of Champagne, which Angel said would be his treat.

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Sadly, though, the poor guy got the short end of the stick again: This is what $79 worth of Champagne looks like . . . before the tip:

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You didn't really think there'd only be one picture of those $79 glasses of Champagne, did you?

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Freed from the burden of a full wallet, we went on to enjoy a gorgeous sunset.

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Happy Anniversary, Baby.

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Posted by TraceyG 19:38 Archived in Anguilla Comments (4)

Anguilla Part 4: Make Beer, Not Bombs

32 °F

During our visit we got to chatting with a new friend on the island, photographer Susan Croft, who mentioned that her friend Karen owns a villa called La Petite Maison D’Amour, and that it might be a nice place for us to stay next time we are on island. The housekeeper, Pam, should be there, and she will let us in.

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So Susan emails us directions, and they are excellent . . . except that we are directionally challenged and still can’t find the house. As we bump along, we spy a man outside doing some gardening, dripping sweat in the mid-morning heat. He is wearing a soaked-through Chocolat t-shirt, and I recognize that he is the beloved Captain Rollins.

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I wait in the passenger seat while Angel gets out of the car to see if Rollins might be able to help us with directions. Mangling the pronunciation of the villa name beyond nearly all recognition, we ask Rollins if he knows where La Petite Maison d’Amour is. Never heard of it, he says.

We try pronouncing it again, this time with a little more, er, je ne sais quoi. Still nothing. We recite the directions we’ve been given and Rollins ponders for a moment.

Peering down the road, Rollins points and asks, “See that road down there, to the left?” Yes, we respond excitedly, thinking we're finally about to be directed to the house. “Ain’t a goddamn thing down there!” he laughs heartily. “You got a map?” Again we respond yes, and Angel hands it over for Rollins’ inspection. Rollins unfolds it and starts chuckling. “A friend of mine made this map,” he says. That’s great, we respond. “Not really,” he laughs. “It’s all bullshit!” He threatens to have a few beers one day and tell the map-maker how he really feels.

“What’s the name of the house again?” he asks, studying the apparently useless map. La Petite Maison d’Amour, we respond in an accent that sounds more like Pepe LePew every time we attempt it. “Ain’t never heard of that,” he says. “Maybe it’s down near Karen’s house?” Karen! That’s it! That’s the owner of the house, I explain.

Rollins peers into the car at me for a long moment. “Hmph. She got all the information, but she keepin’ silent. Be careful, my man!" he chuckles to Angel. He begins to direct us to Karen’s house, then stops midsentence and disappears. A few seconds later, he’s back – in a truck. “Follow me,” he hollers out the window. “We're going to KAREN’S house!”

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With Rollins leading the way, we finally find the house, and it’s adorable.

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A car is parked in the lot; it must be Pam the housekeeper’s. So we knock on a few doors and call her name. Nothing. We call her name some more, but still nothing. We see some laundry hanging outside to dry, and hear someone inside, so we knock on the door once more.

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Finally, the front door opens.

It’s not Pam.

Instead, a dead ringer for the actor Ron Livingston steps outside, rubbing his eyes. He is barefoot and unshaven and wearing a slept-in t-shirt that reads, “Make Beer, Not Bombs.” Clearly this is one bomb he was not expecting.

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“You’re not Pam,” I observe shrewdly. Um, no, he responds. “Pam’s your housekeeper,” I offer helpfully, as though that might explain what the hell we are doing there. He nods. We stare stupidly at each other for a moment, Angel and I tripping over ourselves to explain why we are pounding on the door of his villa at 10:30 in the morning, and him desperately trying to understand how his vacation has suddenly taken such a wrong turn. Amid a flurry of apologies, Angel and I slink away, and our Ron Livingston-look-alike presumably goes home and tells everyone about the crazy couple who tried to break into his villa one morning.

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Obviously this day needed to end with some tequila, so for dinner we headed over to a restaurant called Picante, A Caribbean Taquiera, which is also a Caribbean Overachiever. This restaurant could probably get by with serving just passable food, given that it is bright, cheerful, friendly, and not terribly expensive -- and the only Mexican place on the island. But Picante is more than just passable. It is fantastic.

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These are their seafood enchiladas. They are rich, creamy, delicious, and extremely filling. Anyone who can eat both enchiladas and the rice & beans is a better, and probably rounder, woman than I.

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We finished off the meal with something called "frozen lemon-lime pudding," which was served with a little shaker of cayenne pepper. It was cold, creamy, sweet, and tart, like a cross between sherbet and creme brulee. Hello, lover.

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Posted by TraceyG 09:40 Archived in Anguilla Comments (3)

Anguilla Part 3: Prickly Heat and Anacondas

32 °F

On Wednesday we decided to take Shoal Bay Scuba's snorkeling trip to Prickly Pear island and Little Bay. We arrived at Shoal Bay East a bit early for some, uh, provisions at Gwen's.

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Because we were having lunch later at Prickly Pear, we did our best to ignore this guy, but eventually the smell proved too much and Angel distracted him while I stuffed my pockets full of ribs.

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Then it was on to Shoal Bay, a pretty nice little strip of sand.

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Taking our rum punches to go, we headed over to Shoal Bay Scuba, which is where things started to go downhill for me, heat-wise. I generally love hot, humid weather, but I knew from an earlier check of Accuweather that, between the actual temperature and the humidity, it is about 185 degrees outside, and the air is dead calm. So I’m quickly reaching Situation Critical, and gratefully step into the shade of Shoal Bay Scuba’s little hut. THEIR EVIL LITTLE HELL HUT. That @#$% hut has managed to trap all of the heat and all of the humidity and intensify it about a million times over.

As you can see, I am not being dramatic at all.

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I am dying to jump in the water to cool off, but we have to fill out the paperwork for the trip, so I scrawl my name on the form and leave a sweaty handprint on it for good measure. Angel urges me to drink something, so I chug the remaining rum punch and focus on not passing out, since I don't want to not be allowed on the boat, and I really don't want to be cut off from any future rum punches.

Luckily, I hear that splotchy cheeks brought on by heat exhaustion are all the rage this season.

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Thankfully I was able to make a speedy recovery, and the boat set off. Ta-ta, Hell Hut.

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The highlight of the day was the snorkeling, which was like something out of an undersea documentary. At Little Bay we saw enormous schools of tiny blue and silver fish, as well as several big guys like this one:

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Oh, you had a hard time seeing him there? Exactly. It's all part of his people-eating plan.

When we asked what these large fish might be, our boat captain replied that they were probably tarpon. Later in the week we saw another large fish (off the GB Express boat to St. Maarten), asked what it was, and received the same reply: "Probably tarpon." I am starting to suspect that this is a catch-all term for any large, unidentifiable fish. The big fish that tried to eat Richard Dreyfus in that Steven Spielberg movie? Tarpon. What's really in a fish stick? Also tarpon.

After a full day of snorkeling, it was time to refuel with some carbs. I can’t go more than a few days without pasta before developing an unsightly twitch, and we hadn’t been to Luna Rosa in a few years, so when I started to get a little twitchy, we decided to give them a try. A number of memorable firsts occurred at this meal.

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It was, for instance, the first time anyone ever served me more Parmigiano-Reggiano than I could actually eat. Well played, Luna Rosa. Well played.

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It was also the first time I ever had gnocchi as both an appetizer (with gorgonzola cream sauce) and as an entrée (with bolognese sauce) at the same meal. If these were ordinary gnocchi, I might agree that a belly full of sinkers is not such a great idea. But these gnocchi were floaty little pillows of light and air and happiness. And perhaps just a smidge of ricotta.

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It was also the first time that I ever thought I might not be able to finish a meal because I was just too damn hot. Me, not finish a meal? Never fear. This thing saved my life. Thank you, high-powered AC.

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The next day we headed over to La Sirena for lunch. Or rather, Sirena Resort, as it is now called. Or Anacaona, as it will soon be called in print but not on the lips of anyone with pronunciation issues. Renaming a resort on a tropical island with a moniker that looks suspiciously like “anaconda” is one gutsy move.

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This little guy joined us for lunch.

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And no, I did not step on his tail to get him to make that face.

We like L'Anaconda for lunch because it's peaceful, the food is good, and that cat will eat whatever you can't finish.

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Plus, he is perfectly accessorized to match my hat and bag.

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The next day we had lunch at Blue, at the stunning Cap Juluca.

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As this photo might indicate, I couldn’t believe they took the Greek salad off the menu. It's been replaced with a tomato and mozzarella salad, which I ordered instead. It was good -- as is everything at Cap -- but be prepared for a whole lotta mozzarella sweat when it's this hot outside.

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Luckily the rest of the food was made with either rum or frying oil, which means that we liked it very much.

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Earlier our bartender had mentioned that the resort was packed. She wasn't kidding: Again with the crowds!

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On our way out, we saw this guy making himself rather, er, comfortable. I got the hell out of there before he could prop his foot up on the table and start clipping his toenails.

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Speaking of random strangers, later in the week we saw this guy having breakfast at Kuyah. Don’t worry, I kept a close eye on him to make sure he didn’t try to use his pen as a laser gun or turn his cell phone into a getaway car.

Do not underestimate him, Mr. Bond.
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Posted by TraceyG 18:12 Archived in Anguilla Comments (0)

Anguilla Part 2: Lucy's Sleep-It-Off Special

32 °F

The day started off cloudy with some rain showers, so we decided to spend the morning stocking up on snacks. The hunt for three particular items took us to three different grocery stores, which might lead you to believe that the grocery stores in Anguilla are not very well-stocked. But stocked they are, with all sorts of interesting things.

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I know what you're thinking: Just how popular are soy chunks to warrant their own aisle? Why have I never tried a tropical soy chunk smoothie, or the island grilled soy chunks? I must be eating at all the wrong places.

One of the right places to eat is at Lucy's, where, despite the lack of soy chunks on the menu, the food is quite delicious.

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At Lucy’s we shared a crab fritter appetizer, followed by two orders of the snapper from the dinner menu, which is a salty, garlicky, fried fillet so good that apparently I couldn't even pause to take a photo before digging in.

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Right as the appetizer came, Ronnie Bryan showed up -- we’d called earlier to let him know that the trunk on our rental car wasn’t closing properly. (You know it's a small island when someone can track you down at lunch in the space of about two hours.) While Angel chatted with Ronnie in the parking lot, I of course ate the entire crab fritter appetizer. Later, when Lucy brought out our entrees and noticed that Angel was still out talking to Ronnie, she swiftly took his plate back into the kitchen “so you don’t eat it all!” As if I would do that . . . twice.

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Lucy has been working on a new special drink, which is approximately 1 oz. of lime juice, 1 oz. of mango puree, 1 oz. of amaretto, and 48 oz. of rum. Either that or our eyes are this squinty all the time.

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After passing out napping for the entire afternoon, we were still too exhausted from the Lucy’s Foodapalooza to do much for dinner, so we drove over to Corner Bar for some pizza. As you know, the laws of physics dictate that no matter how stuffed you are, you can always eat a slice of pizza.

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The next day was bright and sunny, which could only mean one thing: Rendezvous Bay.

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Later that evening was Blanchard's for dinner, which is where the rich and famous hang out when they visit Anguilla, and the poor and infamous get to wait 20 minutes for a table . . . even with a reservation. Not that I am bitter or anything.

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Blanchard's is known for its "Cracked Coconut" dessert, which is a chocolate shell dusted with toasted coconut and filled with coconut ice cream. It was very tasty, but not even a giant ball of coconut-shaped chocolate can make up for the good-but-not-great food and $200 tab. Boo.

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The next day we drove across the island to Shoal Bay East, with a quick stop in Island Harbour.

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Remember when you were a kid and you thought a watermelon would grow in your stomach if you swallowed a watermelon seed? Caribbean kids must be terrified of coconuts.

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Shoal Bay is gorgeous, but do not be fooled.

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First of all, there are tiny, curious tropical fish here, which will swim around your calves when you enter the water. I personally find this sweet and charming, and could watch them dart around my feet all day. But Angel, who is a powerful magnet for sand fleas, gnats, mosquitos, rabid dogs, and virtually every other loathsome creature in existence, does not agree. “Those legless bastards are trying to get me,” he explained, exiting the water. I laughed and asked why a fish the size of an anchovy might want to get him. “Because I am tender and tasty,” he answered. Of course.

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The second reason to be on your guard at Shoal Bay is that a large stingray lives here. That in itself is not so terrifying, until you realize that he is cleverly disguised to look exactly like a part of the reef. God help us all.

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Posted by TraceyG 05:59 Archived in Anguilla Comments (1)

Anguilla Part 1: Bored to Tears (of Joy)

It Is Good To Do Nothing, and Then To Rest

32 °F

So . . . Anguilla. Trying to explain to someone why we love this scrubby little chunk of limestone is sort of like trying to convince someone that it might be really fun to sit around and watch paint dry. On paper, it doesn't exactly sound like a barrel of laughs:

No nightclubs.

No casinos.

No jet-skis.

No quaint villages to explore or lush mountains to gaze at.

No duty-free shopping.

No fun.

Well, but Anguilla does have this:

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And this:

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And this:

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This was our sixth trip to Anguilla in the last 12 years, and this time more than ever, we were struck by the number of changes on the island. More hotels. More villas. Road signs, for God's sake. Call me a purist, but I remember the old signs working out just fine:

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Also, the crowds were overwhelming. I mean, just look at them all:

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Frankly, I don't know how we stood it, but I'm pretty sure these helped.

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Our first order of business was to attend "Sunshine Saturday" at Smokey's at the Cove. Sunshine Saturday consists of enjoying a delicious lunch of fresh-caught seafood, sipping tropical drinks, listening to some live reggae, and swimming in the incredible blue-green waters of Cove Bay. I know: Bor-ing!

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On each visit to the island we've stayed somewhere new, and this time it was Carimar, a small resort on Mead's Bay where you can read a book, soak up some sun, take a swim, or just do nothing at all. Yawn.

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Dinner on our first night was at SandBar, a lovely new addition to Sandy Ground.

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We had the panko-crusted shrimp with sweet chili and Anguillian tamarind; the lemongrass chicken satay with coconut-peanut sauce; and the tuna tartare with cucumber. Doesn’t that all sound delicious? Wouldn’t you like to see photos?

Well, so would I . . . but miniature bites of food disappear faster than a shutter click around me and Angel, so how about some nice photos of Sandy Ground instead?

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The next day we had lunch at CuisinArt, a lovely resort named after a handy kitchen appliance.

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I hate to be ungrateful, but if you're going to offer me a smoothie shot before my meal, let's be civil and add some vodka, shall we?

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Although they have a full lunch menu, we always stick with the salad offerings, given that all of their vegetables are grown on the premises in their automatic, systematic, hyyyyydromatic, hydroponic garden.

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More importantly, we always have the frozen mojitos, which are very tiny, but very, very delicious. So imagine our surprise and delight when this adult-sized version showed up instead.

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Sadly, these mojitos were different from the usual blend. Angel thought they’d added too much mint, but I suspected they were adding a different herb (no, not that herb) . . . basil, maybe? Look, I appreciate culinary experimentation as much as the next guy, but please: Don't mess with the mojitos, man.

Dinner that night was E’s Oven, one of our favorites despite the double entendre that the name had for many years before they installed the air conditioner. This time I branched out from my usual fish dish and ordered a steak, which came with a gigantic serving of creamy, cheesy au gratin potatoes.

All Hail the Great Potato Brick!

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Angel had the coconut-crusted grouper with banana sauce and curried potatoes. It, too, was delicious, and large enough for two normal people, or one Angel.

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Angel also ordered the pea soup, which was a cross between a traditional split pea soup and some sort of bisque. It was so good that I immediately made plans to order it for dessert, though those plans were unfortunately foiled by my own gluttony. Damn Potato Brick.

The following day we drove over to Crocus Bay to check out Da’Vida, whose motto is “Celebrate Life.”

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A couple of Type-A New Yorkers, smiling and relaxed? Maybe Da'Vida needs to change its motto to Celebrate Miracles.

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On top of the cool decor and incredible views, Da'Vida's food is a knockout, too, served by a sweet staff whose pride in the place really shines through. And whose restraint in not gobbling up every delicious thing they serve before it can make it to the table is commendable.

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That night we decided on a low-key dinner at Ferryboat Inn. I will have more to say about their much-talked-about burger in an upcoming section of this report, but for now this maniacal grin will have to suffice to explain how good it was.

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Posted by TraceyG 05:40 Archived in Anguilla Comments (5)

A Gimpy, Puffy Weekend in Montauk

32 °F

So, Angel's heel spur began acting up again this week, and the pain was really getting to him. Of course, the cure for a cranky husband is the same as for a cranky baby -- a little liquor on the gums -- so it was off to Montauk this weekend for a little R&R. Our first stop was lunch at Navy Beach.

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Nice rack.

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I decided to try the raspberry and blackberry mojito, which was delicious. So WHY OH WHY would they serve it in a cup sized for a midg . . . er, little person?

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See? Smaller than a cup of water! For shame.

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Lunch started with a salad surrounded by a whole bunch of deep-fried calamari. Which would turn out to be the healthiest thing I ate all day.

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Next up was the cheeseburger served with bacon marmalade, which they make by caramelizing bacon and onions until they cook down into a delicious, oniony, bacony glop. Yum.

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Having grown up in Pittsburgh, I also like my burger with just a little bit of ketchup.

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The decor at Navy Beach is old-school, with framed 1940s bathing suits and other nautical touches.

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This TP holder might be going a little overboard, though. Heh-heh.

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A bunch of friends sharing a beer in front of a boat named "Kinship"? Sometimes the stars just align, folks.

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Somebody could use a hug.

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After lunch we drove over to the Gosman's Dock shopping area, where they really roll out the welcome mat.

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What could be better than a giant flip-flop? Pretty much nothing.

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After a quick walk around Gosman's, we took a drive over to Surf Lodge to catch the sunset.

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Which is where this . . .

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. . . led to this.

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A word of advice: Just because Nike allows you to design your own sneakers doesn't mean you should. I'm talking to you, fashion photographer Ben Watts!

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Caught in a tangled web of bad fashion choices.

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This is the second time someone at a bar has insisted on taking our photo. Which I guess beats drunk-dialing your ex.

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This is Surf Lodge's chef, Sam Talbot, who came in third in Season 2 of Top Chef. The reward for which is being shipped off to "The End."

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Angel and I almost want to have a kid just to see what it would look like. Then we saw this little girl. Mystery solved - child averted. Whew.

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These stump stools are heavy, but not that heavy. As my dad would say: Put some ass into it, kid!

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It's hard to imagine a photo that could perfectly capture the entire aesthetic of Surf Lodge, but this one comes pretty close.

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After a day of lounging around in Montauk, you'd think Angel would be feeling better. But then his heel spur was joined by a chalazion, which is a scary-sounding medical term for a puffy eye. This is the kind of stuff that happens when you get old . . . so I hear.

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We decided to go to Indian Cove for Sunday brunch, since it's close by and, really, who wouldn't be cheered up by a giant crab cake??

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I don't know about you, but a sign reading "Bar" always cheers me up.

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Want more Hamptons? Click here!

Posted by TraceyG 05:38 Archived in USA Tagged montauk hamptons gosmans_dock surf_lodge navy_beach Comments (3)

TuShort and T.Dippy Take the Hamptons!

'Cause you have to have a rap name in P. Diddy territory.

So, my sister Trina (also known as TuShort) and I have an annual summer tradition in which she joins me for a four-day Weekend of Debauchery in the Hamptons. Well, at least as debauched as two married women approaching 40 can get. Unfortunately, due to the Great Mold Debacle of 2009-2010, last year we spent our annual Hamptons weekend not in the Hamptons, but in Cape May, NJ. Which is a little like planning a trip to Mardi Gras, but ending up at a Rotary Club meeting. It can still be fun . . . but it's just not the same. So I was understandably frightened that TuShort might be a like a kid in a candy store with its head cut off (oh yes I did) when we finally turned her loose on the Hamptons. And I was right.

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Our first night we decided to catch the sunset at Docker's Waterside. It was hot and humid out, and therefore very important to stay hydrated. With blueberry mojitos.

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Three rounds of mojitos later (plus a fourth one on the house, which obviously doesn’t count), we decided to get up and dance to the band. Can anyone really resist a little fist-pumping to the Beastie Boys? Later, for reasons that can only be explained by four drinks in a five-foot-tall person, TuShort decided to ask the band’s guitarist to play "Kiss Me Deadly" by 80s metal goddess Lita Ford. What, you don’t remember that song? From 22 years ago? Well, somebody does – it turns out that the guitarist used to play with . . . Lita Ford! You just can’t make this stuff up.

On Saturday we had lunch at Saltwater Grill, where we tried to eat light so that we'd be able to fit into our dresses later that evening. Because nothing is more embarrassing than being asked if you’re knocked up, when all you're really guilty of is carbo-loading.

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Later that night we took the ferry over to Shelter Island. Had I known that TuShort was going to be so excited by a ferry ride, I'd have saved myself the 150 bucks that four appetizers and a bottle of wine set us back at Sunset Beach. Owned by hunky hotelier Andre Balasz (CALL ME), Sunset Beach is a stylish restaurant and bar that attempts to recreate that St. Tropez vibe by squeezing about 500 people onto approximately 3 square feet of sand.

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The weather that night was glorious: about 85 degrees, without a cloud in the sky. Clearly the perfect time to wear your raincoat.

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Seriously, a raincoat?? I am going to need another drink.

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The food at Sunset Beach, like this tomato and fresh chevre tart, is tiny, tasty, and pricey enough to keep out the riff-raff. Joke's on them -- here we are!

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These girls are SOOO jealous of my fake boyfriend.

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Later we retired to the fire pit. We waited for them to hand out marshmallows, but they never did. BOO.

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Marshmallowless gluttons that we are, dinner at Sunset Beach was followed by watermelon margaritas and some shrimp dumplings at B. Smith’s in Sag Harbor. Which is where the “Rock the Dock Summer Gala Benefit Bash” was taking place under an enormous tent on Long Wharf. Now, had this been only a gala, say, or just a bash, we might not have been so tempted. But a GalaBenefitBash? We simply had to, um, attend.

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By Sunday morning, it was time to replenish ourselves. We decided to have lunch at Dockside Bar & Grill, a cute little place with an eclectic menu of everything from edamame burgers to paella to baby back ribs. In other words, a lovely variety of hearty hangover cures. TuShort ordered the chile relleno, which was so large that the woman next to her asked if it was a baked potato. Or a football.

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I ordered a dish called Dolores’ Chicken Pot Pie. Judging by the looks of this thing, I am pretty sure that Dolores must be the secret love child of Kirstie Alley and Homer Simpson.

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After the pot pie was lowered by crane onto the table in front of me, I immediately scanned the menu to see if there was a reward for finishing the whole thing. There wasn’t, but after digging in I realized that finishing this mammoth pie would be its own reward. Thank you, Dolores.

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Later we did some shopping in Southampton. I begged TuShort to sit in this little chair so I could take her picture, but she refused. So instead you will have to just imagine her in this tiny little chair. Which is even funnier.

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Damn commies.

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Monday was our last day, so it was time to slow down, recuperate, and return to our normal diets and drinking habits.

So we had meatloaf and French fries for lunch at this place.

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Followed by a couple of wine tastings.

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First up was Sherwood House, which is housed in a renovated turn-of-the-century farmhouse.

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You know it's time to redecorate when a winery tasting room is nicer than your own living room.

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Later it was on to Paumanok, where we skipped the tasting and went straight for the adult-sized portions. It was very hot out, you know.

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Finally, it was back to NYC for our final night. TuShort opted for dinner at The Stanton Social, primarily because the chef, Chris Santos, is a frequent judge on one of her favorite shows, Food Network's "Chopped," in which he insults the various contestants. If that isn't a recipe for a delicious dinner, I don't know what is!

Because several rounds of cocktails and a never-ending parade of small plates weren't enough, we followed up with dessert. And in keeping with the theme of the weekend, we ordered milkshakes. Spiked with 90-proof Maker's Mark.

Of course.

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Posted by TraceyG 20:15 Archived in USA Tagged sunset_beach hamptons sag_harbor shelter_island Comments (3)

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