A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: TraceyG

The Key West Food & Wine Festival, Pt.1: The Wrath of Grapes

So, I've got a bone to pick with the folks who run the Key West Food and Wine Festival. The tag line for this winey weekend, which I have written about here and here, is "78 Degrees. 30 Events. 1 Tiny Island." Really? That's like describing Mardi Gras as "Some Beads and Maybe a Parade," or Super Bowl weekend as "There Might Be Hookers, But Don't Count On It." In other words, it doesn't even begin to describe the beachy bacchanal of food, wine, more food, and even more wine -- with a few detours into tequila, whiskey, and Champagne thrown in to keep things interesting -- that is the days-long eating-and-drinking binge known as the Key West Food & Wine Festival or, as I like to call it, "The Ultimate Liver Smackdown."

Day 1: I'll See You On the Other Side

We arrived on a gorgeous January morning after a quick and easy flight.

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Our friend Mark, who runs the festival, had arranged for us to be greeted by a rep for Tesla, one of the event's sponsors. The idea is that they give you a ride into town in the new Tesla Model X, a futuristic pod with falcon-wing doors, a medical-grade HEPA filter comparable to those used in hospital rooms, and more gadgets than the Starship Enterprise, including a self-driving mode -- and during those 15 minutes you agree to drop a year's salary on a new car because it reminds you of the one in "Back to the Future."

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The Model X was gorgeous, no doubt, but there was one tiny flaw . . .

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I told Angel not to bring so much stuff.

Eventually we managed to squeeze everything in, and the car drove itself on over to Old Town, where we'd rented the top floor of an eyebrow house on Olivia Street.

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We'd actually stayed here before, about 15 years ago, and were delighted to find that the amenities we'd enjoyed most -- the private deck, hot tub, and outdoor shower -- were just as we remembered them.

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We didn't have much time for hot-tubbing, though, since we had very important errands to run.

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That evening was the Welcome Party for the Food & Wine Festival on the beach at the Casa Marina.

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Our friends Claudia and Alden had driven down from Key Largo for the night to attend the kickoff party with us.

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We were thrilled and flattered, but they weren't the only ones trying to cozy up to us. Well, one of us, anyway.

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A spectacular sunset rounded out the evening.

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After the party wound down, we headed off to Santiago's Bodega with Claudia and Alden to get some dinner. You know, because we hadn't already eaten enough.

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It is possible that you may have overdone it on the wine when you manage to have a 2+ hour dinner and have nothing more to show for it than a single blurry photo of some flaming cheese.

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You would think that would've been a hint to call it a night, but you would be wrong. And so we set off for The Saint, a chic new hotel that Claudia had been raving about.

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It would have been rude to check out the space without also having a cocktail, so we had two.

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And then we started swinging.

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We had been on something like a 7-hour bender by this point, and it was clearly time to wrap things up. Which is why we thought it would be a fantastic idea to go to The Other Side for a nightcap.

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There, I discovered my new favorite cocktail: The banana nut bread Old Fashioned, made with Jameson Irish whiskey, Brazilian banana liqueur, spiced pear liqueur, and black walnut bitters.

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Even Fredrick approved.

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Day 2: Sweet Caroline

The next day we were off to a slow start, though I cannot imagine why. We decided to take it easy by spending the day at the pool.

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We had the place to ourselves, and spent the morning dozing in the cushy loungers and taking dips in the warm water.

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Eventually our stomachs started growling, and we decided to answer the call. We headed over to Caroline's for a healthy lunch of salad.

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Well, salad with fried chicken. And fried shrimp. And cheese.

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Later that afternoon, we took a spin on our bikes before heading back to the eyebrow house for a soak in the hot tub and a much-needed nap.

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That evening we had plans to meet up with friends Stephanie and Ari at Michael's. We'd never been before, but I knew I was going to love it because MEATLOAF.

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And not just any meatloaf, but meatloaf made of a Wagyu and prime tenderloin blend with house-made spicy ketchup.

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We had drinks, appetizers, and other entrées, too, of course, like a yummy Ruby Sipper with ruby red vodka, cranberry, and fresh basil; meaty crab cakes; snapper meunière with lemon brown butter; a warm chocolate cake; and a bunch of other stuff I could not be bothered to photograph because MEATLOAF.

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Day 3: The Garden of Good and Drunk

The next day we were scheduled to attend several food and wine events back-to-back, so we decided to line our stomachs with a big lunch at (dearly departed) Kelly's to give ourselves a fighting chance.

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Were you wondering why we also had key lime margaritas right before five hours of wine tastings? Scurvy prevention.

Soon it was time for the Tropical Garden Tour and Tasting, which would take us to five different gardens around the island.

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The event was sold out, with folks lined up for a chance to enjoy a glass of Hahn wine and some nibbles paired to go with at each stop.

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Now this lady knows how to dress for a wine tour.

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We boarded the trolley and set off for the first garden, the Memorial Sculpture Garden in Mallory Square.

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There, we enjoyed a glass of Hahn chardonnay and a black pepper popover with warm mushroom salad and goat cheese.

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We moved on to the Oldest House, where we feasted on lobster and avocado gazpacho and delicious little antipasto pinwheels with sundried tomato tapenade.

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Next up, we visited the gorgeous Audubon House.

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Unfortunately, however, there weren't alot of good spots for snacking here.

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By this time, we'd had three glasses of wine and had stuffed ourselves full of popovers and pinwheels, so it was time for a little divine intervention to keep us going.

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Finally, we set off for Martello Tower on Atlantic Boulevard, which houses the Key West Garden Club.

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Completed in 1864, West Martello Tower was used during the Spanish American War for quartering troops, storing supplies, and serving as a lookout.

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Today, it's used to house crowds of revelers scarfing down black bottom key lime pies, chocolate custard tarts, coconut tres leches bites, and some red wine.

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We still had two and a half more days to go, and it is not giving anything away here by admitting that, well . . . I didn't make it.

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The liver is the only organ in your body that can regenerate itself. Take advantage and get your KWFWF tickets here!

Posted by TraceyG 04:38 Archived in USA Tagged key_west key_west_food_and_wine the_saint the_other_side andrews_inn carolines Comments (3)

The Key West Food & Wine Festival, Pt.2: The Wrath of Grapes

That evening was the Grand Tasting at the Southernmost Beach Resort.

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We immediately began stuffing our faces with everything on offer.

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We might have had some wine, too.

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Day 4: Uncorked and Uncouth

The next day we decided that the only cure for that much wine was some good, old-fashioned grease. Lupita's -- with its cheery decor and cheesy enchiladas -- was the perfect antidote.

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Once tucked in at a cozy booth, we feasted on chips and salsa, lobster enchiladas, Dos Equis for Angel, and a Mexican soda for me, since I don't like to drink and drive.

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I do, however, like to match my dress and my flip-flops to my ride.

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We'd no sooner dried out from the night before when it was time to pour even. more. wine. down our throats.

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A bar crawl like no other, Duval Uncorked features over two dozen shops and restaurants along Key West's main drag, each of which offers a glass of wine and nibble or two paired to match.

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One of the first stops was at Wine-O, a stylish new wine bar at the La Concha on Duval.

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Stylish and comfortable.

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From there, we moved on to the frosé with elderflower at the Little Room Jazz Club.

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From there, it was a haze of pour, sip, giggle, repeat.

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Of course, it wouldn't be a bar crawl in Key West without drag queens, sitar-strumming superheroes, and dogs on bar stools.

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I wasn't feeling much pain by the end of the crawl, which is why it seemed like a great idea -- if by "great" you mean "incredibly ill-advised" -- to stop at the Speakasy on the way home.

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It was all downhill from there.

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We'd planned dinner with our friend Steve that night, but I urged Angel to go on without me. You know it's bad when I was worried I might embarrass them . . . in Key West.

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And because he is the leading contender for Husband of the Year, well, every year, Angel surprised me by bringing home a pepperoni pizza since I'd missed dinner . . . and remembering to photograph it.

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But not without a little pit stop for himself first.

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Day 5: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

It was our last day in Key West, and a chilly one at that, so we decided to spend it indoors sobering up so we wouldn't get kicked off our flight that afternoon.

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Oh, you're wondering why we'd go out for pizza, after I just devoured an entire pizza the night before? Hi, I'm Tracey. You must be new here. Welcome!

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Onlywood is tucked away in a little alley off of Duval Street, adding to the cozy feel on a rainy day.

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With Angel busy checking on our flights, I used that opportunity to scarf down all the meatballs we'd ordered.

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Soon our wood-fired pizzas arrived, and between last night's pizza and today's, the dough sponges did their job and we were permitted to board the plane.

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I'm just glad they don't have breathalyzers on those things.
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There's lots in the hopper! There's "The Missing Bling Ting" in Anguilla; yours truly roughing it in the bush in South Africa (sans ironing board!); homemade hooch in the Hudson Valley; a birthday blowout with my sissy in Brooklyn; another pre-Irma trip to Anguilla (remember when Seaborne lost Angel's luggage? I sure do); and a lazy long weekend in Delray Beach. Check back soon, or click here to subscribe and Travellerspoint will do the checking for you!

Heading to the Key West Food & Wine Festival? What doesn't kill you makes for great stories! Get your tickets here.

Posted by TraceyG 04:58 Archived in USA Tagged key_west kwfwf key_west_food_and_wine_festival lupitas duval_uncorked Comments (2)

Cuba, Part 1: Half of My Heart Is In Havana

Havana. The very name evokes images of a seductive tropical paradise, off-limits and forbidden. Havana is sultry nights spent dancing with strangers and downing mojitos; it is high heels and red lips and vibrant flowers tucking back loose strands of hair.

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Havana is rum and revolution; music and moros. It is a study in contradictions: Startling beauty and crumbling buildings; brutal dictators and a burgeoning arts scene. It is a city moored in time, never-changing and yet ever-changing.

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Most importantly, it's where Fredo betrayed Michael.

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But when we first set foot in Havana on a hot November afternoon on the tongue-twisting Perseverancia Street, my preconceived notions of this intriguing city are immediately dispelled. Dogs are barking, men are hollering. Children are crying and music is blaring. An old man with an impressive set of lungs is bellowing "CLORO!!!!" so loudly that it can be heard several blocks away.

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I comprehend only snippets of Spanish as I carefully pick my way down the middle of a dusty street that is a veritable obstacle course of rocks, potholes, trash, and god knows what else. Directionally I'm at sea, and not yet convinced that the neighborhood we've chosen to stay in, Centro, is all that safe.

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Yet amid this loud, crowded, dusty assault on the senses, there is beauty, so much beauty that I can't even begin to take it all in. Havana is stunning, like a tropical Paris, and I am torn between rejoicing in the city's magnificence and despairing at the senseless regime that has allowed so much of it to fall into ruin.

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After just an hour or so in this noisy scrum, I am exhausted.

I am exhilarated.

I am falling in love.

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Our journey began at the arrivals terminal at JFK -- yes, arrivals. Flights to Havana have their own private check-in area, tucked away at the end of a deserted, out-of-the-way corridor, which immediately gave the trip an air of secrecy.

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And the flight itself had an aura of outright fantasy, seeing as how it was only about half-full.

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A few short hours later, the island came into view.

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We'd decided to stay at a casa particular -- the Cuban version of a B&B -- called Casa Densil. Praised as a "tiny gem" in Vogue, the magazine had also raved about Casa Densil's rooftop terrace and private feel.

We chose a casa over a hotel for the chance to live like real Cubans for a few days, though that usually also means living without air conditioning and even hot water. Casa Densil, however, offered both, along with a great location just a few blocks from the ocean and a short walk to Habana Vieja, the historical "old town" where many of the buildings date back to the 1500s.

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We were greeted at the airport by a sweet ride -- a classic, emerald-green Chevy Impala -- and a sweet lady, Barbara, the daughter-in-law of Ezio, one of the owners of Casa Densil. We immediately noticed Barbara's accented Spanish, and were surprised to learn that both she and Ezio were not from Cuba, but from Italy.

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Indeed, such is the allure of Havana that, although initially we couldn't fathom why anyone would voluntarily move to a communist dictatorship, by the end of our trip, the idea didn't seem so crazy.

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Located just two blocks from the Malecón, or seafront promenade, Casa Densil was built in 1907 and retains much of its original architecture and decor.

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Divided into two halves by an interior courtyard, the rental half of the casa consists of 3 queen ensuites plus communal living and dining areas, while the other half houses the owners' quarters.

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Our bi-level suite consisted of a bedroom and small sitting area downstairs, with a vanity area and separate shower overlooking the courtyard upstairs.

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One floor above, an expansive roof deck plays host to breakfast each morning, along with dinner under the stars by request.

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Across the street, one of Ezio's friends was restoring one of Centro's many crumbling buildings to its former glory -- a small sign of progress.

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After settling in and freshening up a bit, we set off to find the incongruously named Calle O'Reilly in Habana Vieja.

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Named for Alexander "Bloody" O'Reilly, an Irish-born military strategist and Inspector-General of Infantry for the Spanish empire, today the street is home to some of the city's hippest bars and restaurants, including the one we were seeking, O'Reilly 304.

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But first we had to get from Centro to Vieja. Centro has variously been described as no-frills and crowded, with LaHabana.com helpfully pointing out its potholed streets and "frenetic (even daunting) street life." It was, in fact, all those things, but it was also positively buzzing with the contagious energy of daily life in Havana. (LaHabana also noted that some of the city's finest restaurants are in Centro, and so I rest my case.)

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As we approached Vieja, the tenor of the neighborhood began to change; it became prettier and better-manicured, but also more touristy and less authentic.

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It was to be our first meal in Havana, and we were a bit apprehensive, having heard stories about some restaurants running out of plates, utensils, and even food. That was certainly not the case at the stylish O'Reilly 304, where we ordered up an assortment of mini empanadas, croquettas, and papas bravas, all accompanied by complimentary fried plantain chips studded with large slivers of garlic and served with a fiery salsa.

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For bebidas, Angel decided to try the local beer, Cristal, while I took our waitress's advice and had a watermelon mojito.

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The mojito was delicious -- strong and swampy, just the way I like 'em -- but I was surprised to find myself stealing sip after sip of Angel's crisp, refreshing Cristal.

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After lunch, we explored Calle O'Reilly a bit, then made our way over to La Bodeguita del Medio, one of the most famous spots in Havana to sip a mojito.

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Roughly translated as "the little bodega in the middle," La Bodeguita opened in 1942 as a small grocery store; later, it began offering snacks and drinks for the regulars. One day one of those regulars, a journalist named Leandro Garcia, decided to write his name on the wall, and soon many other distinguished personalities followed suit, including Brigitte Bardot, Ernest Hemingway, and the former president of Chile, Salvador Allende.

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Today, La B del M is crowded and touristy, and the mojitos are nothing to write home about, but it was a must-do nevertheless.

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That evening we had reservations at Habanera in Miramar, a short drive from Centro.

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Before the Cuban Revolution, Miramar was home to some of Havana's wealthiest residents. After the revolution, however, Castro seized many of the mansions -- along with the owners' belongings and even their bank accounts -- in the name of "fairness." Today, Miramar plays host to many Cuban government officials, foreign embassies, and banks.

Habanera is housed in one of Miramar's prettier mansions, this one dating back to 1930.

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We had to forego the spacious outdoor patio due to a quick pop-up shower, but dining indoors among the fabulous artwork and period furnishings suited us just fine.

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We began the meal wth a couple of simply-prepared appetizers -- a green salad with serrano ham and parmesan and a fresh fish ceviche -- along with a rum Old Fashioned for Angel, and a fun Cuban cocktail for me.

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For the main course, I chose the curried shrimp in coconut sauce, while Angel went with the chicken with chimichurri sauce.

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Both dishes came with the politically incorrect, but very tasty, moros y cristianos -- black beans (the Moors) and white rice (the Christians).

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It had been a long day of sensory overload, and we were dead on our feet by the time dinner wrapped up late in the night. And so we headed back to Casa Densil to get a good night's sleep for the mojitos, music, and mayhem that awaited us in the days ahead.
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CLICK HERE to read Part 2!

Posted by TraceyG 06:30 Archived in Cuba Tagged havana centro vedado vieja o'reilly_304 habanera casa_densil Comments (10)

Cuba, Part 2: The Lure of the Lair

The next morning we greeted the day from the rooftop at Casa Densil.

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Then we did something we almost never do: We set off without a plan.

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But we did have a map, which we'd marked with various shops, bars, restaurants, art museums, and other points of interest that I'd researched before arriving. That sort of planning is essential for a visit to Havana, since looking up anything on the fly, including directions, isn't an option: WiFi is virtually nonexistent.

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Soon we found ourselves drawn to La Luz, a small local spot with outdoor tables where we could enjoy the live band that had just started playing.

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We settled in at a table in the shade and ordered up a couple of cool cocktails to beat the heat.

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Soon we were hungry, we so decided to order some fried chickpeas to snack on. We were a little confused when they brought us a spoon, but these stewed chickpeas turned out to be one of our very favorite dishes of the entire trip.

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After lunch there was more music, this time with dancers on stilts.

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After lunch we ambled around Vieja to take in the historic sights. Our first stop was Museo de la Ciudad, the museum of the city of Havana.

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Of course, once you've seen one cannon, you've pretty much seen them all, and that seemed like as good an excuse as any to go grab a drink.

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We headed up to the rooftop at Hotel Ambos Mundos, which was home to Ernest Hemingway for seven years during the 1930s.

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Surely Hemingway must have enjoyed a pina colada or two served in a hollowed-out pineapple while writing "A Moveable Feast," so I figured I'd have one, too.

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Angel decided on a caipiroska, which was quickly becoming our drink of choice in lieu of mojitos, since we weren't loving the ubiquitous Havana Club rum.

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Having been properly, er, fortified, we decided to check out Fort San Salvador, which was built in 1590 as part of Havana's colonial-era defense system.

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It had been a long day of sightseeing and my feet were aching, so we picked a candy-apple-red ride to match my dress and headed back to Casa Densil.

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After a short siesta, it was time for dinner at the famed La Guarida, just a couple of blocks from our casa.

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Known as the restaurant in a ruin, La Guarida -- which means "the lair" -- is known for its faded but stunning architecture and secret-hideaway feel.

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Even the bathroom was cool.

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The space is large and spread over several floors, including a main dining room; a couple of smaller, private-feeling rooms with just 3 or 4 tables; a narrow balcony overlooking the street; and a large, open-air terrace overlooking the city.

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Happily, the great food -- including tuna tartare, ropa vieja, and grilled swordish -- and the mismatched glassware just added to the charm.

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Indeed, everything was so delicious that we decided to have dessert -- a deconstructed lemon pie with almonds for me, and a gorgeous apple tart with vanilla ice cream for Angel.

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After dinner, we braved the precarious sprial staircase up to Guarida's sexy rooftop lounge, El Mirador (which means the tower or turret), for a nightcap.

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Though Havana's mojitos failed to impress us, the rum old-fashioned, made with Havana Club 7-year, was a hit, as were the succession of sweet, tart, perfectly muddled caipiroskas.

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Soon it was time to head home, and the empty streets on the way back to Casa Densil looked ominous. But we found Havana to be incredibly safe, even late at night, and so we strolled back to Casa Densil arm-in-arm.

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Mostly to keep from falling over after all those caipiroskas.

Posted by TraceyG 05:36 Archived in Cuba Tagged ruin el_mirador casa_densil la_luz fort_san_salvador ambos_mundos la_guarida Comments (9)

Cuba, Part 3: Take Me Out to the Ball Game

The next morning Angel and I decided to have breakfast together at Casa Densil, since we planned to split up for the afternoon.

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We enjoyed strong coffee, fresh fruit, and an assortment of cereals, plus an unusual pink drink that neither of us could identify. Angel asked our server what it was, and even though he speaks fluent Spanish and I have a decent vocabulary, neither of us were familiar with a Spanish word that sounded like "you who."

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Until I figured out that it was English. Yoo-Hoo. Strawberry Yoo-Hoo, to be exact.

After we stopped laughing, we each set off on our respective plans for the day: Angel was headed out to Havana's baseball stadium, Estadio Latinoamerica, to see the Havana Industriales take on Granma (which didn't sound like much of a contest to me), while I planned to spend the afternoon sunning myself at the rooftop pool at the Hotel Parque Central and wandering around town.

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Attending a baseball game in Havana is a little like attending an underground rave -- nobody seems to know where it's happening, or on what day, or at what time -- and if you do manage to somehow stumble upon it, it's really noisy and confusing.

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The schedule we'd found online before leaving New York had the game starting at 1pm, but word on the street was that it would actually start at 4 (though without internet or television, there was no way to confirm). We'd also heard that they didn't serve food at the stadium, so Angel showed up early (whatever that means in this case) to grab a sandwich beforehand.

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Of course, only after he'd downed a smushed El Rapid-o-wich did he discover that not only was there food at the stadium, but really good food.

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Happily, his luck only improved from there -- a group of friends from Florida who regularly attend the games in Havana took him under their wing, pointing Angel to the best roast pork sandwiches, introducing him to Coral juice drinks, and sharing background information and stats on various Industriales players.

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And then he hung out with Rob Reiner.

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While Angel rubbed elbows with celebrities, I claimed a lounger at the Parque Central's rooftop pool, then enjoyed a towering strawberry daiquiri as I basked in the warm sunshine.

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For lunch, I ordered up a cool, refreshing tomato gazpacho, an entire pizza that I didn't have to share, and a pina colada for good measure.

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Soon, however, I found myself longing to get back out on the street, the noise and energy and foreign-ness of it all drawing me like a magnet. And so I headed back to Centro to explore the area around Casa Densil.

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Without Angel around, I was left to my own translations of the signs I saw around town.

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"Your electoral college is a baby circus, but it's not your fault."

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"If you don't have a batallion in your life, alleviate it with some alcohol."

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"Jesus is our homeboy."

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"This message brought to you by rum. Lots and lots of rum."

Speaking of rum: That evening we had reservations for dinner and drinks at one of the hottest spots in town, El Cocinero.

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Located on the banks of the Almendares River between the neighborhoods of Vedado and Miramar, El Cocinero, which means "the chef," is defined by its towering smokestack, a remnant of the peanut oil factory that occupied the premises in the 1930s.

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We'd booked a table on the coveted rooftop terrace and were graced with perfect weather -- including a full moon -- to enjoy it.

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For dinner, we grazed on ropa vieja, mini Cuban-style cheeseburgers, patatas bravas, and a couple of appropriately swampy mojitos. (Are you noticing a stubborn unwillingness to give up on the mojito? We figured if we tried enough of them, we'd find the perfect one. El Cocinero was as close as we got.)

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After dinner we headed upstairs El Cocinero's "waiting bar," one of the coolest spots we've ever been to . . . since it's housed inside the smokestack.

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And the inside of the smokestack is illuminated by a constellation of "stars" -- thousands of tiny colored lights.

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By the time we'd had another round of drinks it was nearly 11pm . . . which was just in time to visit an art gallery.

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But not just any art gallery. The Cuban Art Factory, known by the initials F.A.C. (La Fábrica de Arte Cubano), is Havana's hottest nighttime scene, drawing throngs of hip young Cubans with its contemporary art exhibitions, dance performances, plays, and indie-music concerts -- all of which go on until 3 a.m.

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The space at F.A.C. consists of different inter-connected rooms, so you can meander from one space to the next as the mood strikes, moving from a crowded dance floor, to a quiet room with a single video installation or sculpture, or to the bar for a piña colada.

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We would have loved to wander around F.A.C. until the wee hours (and will definitely do so next time), but other plans beckoned. A friend of Ezio's at Casa Densil was scheduled to perform at a local bar called Sia Kara in Centro around midnight, so he dropped us off at the packed space, but not before speaking to the manager to make sure there'd be room for us and that we'd be well taken care of.

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We were ushered to a cozy couch in Sia Kara's loft, which afforded a perfect bird's eye view of the piano and lounge space below.

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An unassuming bar frequented not by tourists but by chic Cuban hipsters, the name "Sia Kara" is said to come from the Afro-Cuban religion and is colloquially used to ward off a bad mood or tell someone to just "forget about it."

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Which is precisely the function of a bar like Sia Kara, estoy en lo correcto?
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Posted by TraceyG 05:41 Archived in Cuba Tagged baseball granma parque_central industriales sia_kara el_cocinero f.a.c. beisbol estadio_latinoamerica Comments (1)

Cuba, Part 4: A Mojito-Borne Illness

The next morning marked our fifth day in Havana, which is about four more than I can usually go without some pasta. And so we set off for 5 Esquinas Trattoria in Vieja.

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Occupying a tiny triangle where, yes, 5 corners meet, 5 Esquinas also had 5 of my favorite things: Homemade pasta, fresh mozzarella, frozen lemonade, ice-cold Cristal, and outdoor seating.

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Properly, er, carbonated, our next stop was Habana 1791, a perfume shop located in an 18th-century mansion in the heart of Old Havana.

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The shop has 12 different "signature" scents from colonial-era Cuba, such as violet, orange blossom, lilac, vetiver, and tobacco, along with custom scents like the one I chose, verano (summer).

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I even got to choose the bottle -- one hand-painted with tiny colorful flowers.

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After a little more wandering around, we happened upon the lovely Hotel Raquel.

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The rooftop bar affords a nice view of the street below.

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By this time it was nearly happy hour, so we stopped at Mojito Mojito for a frosty pina colada and a mojito made with 7-year Havana Club.

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The staff here was sweet and accommodating, and even the check comes with love.

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In fact, we so enjoyed the drinks and the warm welcome at Mojito Mojito that we decided to return for dinner. Apparently I was very excited by the prospect.

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We ordered up a panoply of porky products, along with a couple of perfectly-shaken cocktails.

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After dinner we headed back to the rooftop bar at La Guarida -- I mean, it was on the way.

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We ordered up our "usual" caipiroskas, along with a cigar for Angel.

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Eventually we made the short walk back to Casa Densil, capping off the evening by taking in nighttime city view and brisk sea air from the rooftop.

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The next morning I awoke feeling terrible -- exhuasted and weak. I never get sick, so I had no idea what the problem might be, and without any Wifi to consult Dr. Google, my imagination began to run wild. The leading contenders were hoof-and-mouth disease from all the pork chops I'd eaten the night before and salmonella from that glass of warm Yoo-Hoo . . . and Angel wasn't any help. All week I'd been trying to pet a cat I kept seeing around the neighborhood, and all week Angel had been warning me not to. Left on my own while he was at the baseball game the day before and, well, I think you can guess what happened.

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And that's how Toxoplasmosis worked its way to the top of the list.

Too weak to even get showered and dressed, I urged Angel to continue with our lunch plans on his own, and so he set off for Azucar while I tried to remember exactly how snuggly I'd gotten with that cat.

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Angel enjoyed croquetas, a ham sandwich, and a watermelon caipiroska for lunch, while I had my own saliva and a fever.

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I hadn't recovered by the evening, and so our plans to see the Cabaret Parisien at Hotel Nacional after dinner at L'Atelier were foiled. In fact, I was still so ill that even heading up to the roof at Casa Densil for dinner was out of the question.

And so the sweet staff brought the dinner to me.

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Fragrant Cuban chicken soup with fideo pasta, mounds of rice, chicken legs . . . it just kept coming, even though I could do nothing more than take a few sips of what turned out to be the best chicken soup I'd ever had.

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They even brought flan for dessert.

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Happily, we'd brought an assortment of baby products to Havana -- wipes, q-tips, cotton pads, and the like -- and were thrilled to be able to use them to "repay" my sweet waitress/nurse, Meiby (and baby Chiani), for her kindness.

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Whatever was in that soup did the trick, and the next day, though I was still quite weak, I felt well enough to head up to the roof for a quick breakfast before we had to depart.

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It wasn't until I got back to New York that I was able to Google my symptoms and obtain a diagnosis: Severe dehydration.

It made perfect sense. Angel had gone though roughly a dozen bottles of water during our stay, while I'd barely made it through one.

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I'm sure it had nothing to do with all those mojitos.

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Where to next? A dose of Vitamin D in Delray Beach; a clothing calamity in Anguilla; homemade hooch in the Hudson Valley; a birthday blowout with my sissy in Brooklyn; a wine-soaked weekend at the Key West Food and Wine Festival, and some bungling in the bush in South Africa. Check back soon, click here to subscribe, or join us for weekends in the Hamptons this summer at Escape.From.New.York on Instagram!

Posted by TraceyG 04:05 Archived in Cuba Tagged el_mirador casa_densil la_guarida 5_esquinas_trattoria habana_1791 mojito_mojito Comments (6)

Anguilla, Part 1: The Fountain of Youth

Before we get into this five-part fiesta of cheeseburgers, lobster, and rum, there's something I'd like to say: Thank you.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy work day or lazy weekend to read this blog, to comment on it, to commiserate with me, or just to offer a kind note or message. What started off seven years ago as a way to pressure myself into honing my photography skills by posting them for public ridicule has blossomed into a wonderful way to meet like-minded people who at least pretend to understand why I travel with my own nutmeg and my own ironing board.

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One of those like-minded folks, a gentleman named Hal, had gotten in touch with me earlier this year, and it was a very pleasant surprise when he suggested that Angel and I stay at one of his condos at the Fountain Residences on Shoal Bay for our next trip to Anguilla. Hal and his wife Donna would be on island during part of our stay, so we could finally meet and get to know each other “IRL,” as the kids say.

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Of course, I saw through that pretext immediately: What Hal really wanted was to see if I could eat more in one sitting than he and his wife combined. To which I might say, LOL, LMAO, and ROFL.

But no matter: I'm certainly not too proud to perform like a trained monkey when the circumstances call for it. And so we set off for Anguilla, bound for blue water and sunny skies.

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Our visit coincided with the 50th anniversary of Anguilla's revolution, during which 600 British paratroopers invaded Anguilla when the islanders rebelled against independence from Great Britain. It was hard not to see the parallels -- I, too, was invading Anguilla and the islanders were almost certain to rebel against me eating all their food -- so I decided I should drape myself in the Anguillian color scheme for the occasion.

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This visit also marked the 50th anniversary of Angel's birth, and I had some secret plans up my sleeve to make sure we celebrated in style. Or at least with enough rum punch for him not to notice the lack thereof.

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But first things first: We unpacked just the essentials -- deodorant and a toothbrush for Angel; 18 pairs of sandals for me -- and then bounded down the short little path from Fountain to the beach for a swim.

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Fountain shares a small stretch of Shoal Bay East with Zemi Beach House, just a stone's throw from Gwen's and Tropical Sunset.

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The dramatic rocks and varying shades of turquoise make it a perfect spot for photos.

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Even bad photos.

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Among the rocks, I found this little throne. Angel agrees that I am at least slightly more benevolent than King Joffrey.

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After our swim, we decided to check out the grounds at Fountain before heading back to the condo to clean up for dinner.

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The property at Fountain consists of twelve 2-bedroom units -- six poolside and six oceanside -- with full kitchens, spacious living areas, and roomy bathrooms with oversized showers.

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Each unit can be rented as a one-bedroom or studio if you don't need both bedrooms.

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Of course, we needed both bedrooms -- one to sleep in, and one to house my flip-flops.

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Fountain may not be as chi-chi (or as cha-ching) as Zemi Beach next door, but it's got charm in spades, with shady paths lined with conch shells, cushy loungers at the pool (equipped with built-in drink trays!), outdoor showers, and even a bin full of beach and pool toys for the kids.

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And, of course, Fountain enjoys the same gorgeous sunsets, made even better -- as most things are -- with wine.

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Arrival day also happened to be Angel Eve, and we had decided in advance to celebrate at our beloved Dolce Vita.

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After some red wine and deliberations, Angel decided to try something new: The grilled black Angus ribeye served on a hot stone and accompanied by an assortment of salts: peachy-pink Himalayan, fragrant rosemary salt, and a fiery salt studded with crushed Tellicherry peppercorns.

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There was no way I was eating any kind of meat in advance of FBI Monday (see Rule #1), so I stuck with the classic lobster pasta in pink sauce instead.

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We were much too full for dessert, but couldn't resist when Abbi surprised Angel with a slab of chocolatey tiramisu, topped with a towering birthday sparkler.

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The next day started off cloudy, but luckily it wasn’t cutting into my beach time: My plan for the morning was to drop Angel off at Elodia's, head over to Village BakeHouse to pick up the birthday cake I'd secretly ordered, then deliver it to Ferryboat Inn for Angel’s birthday dinner . . . all without calling Angel for directions or roadside assistance, lest that give away the surprise.

There were, of course, a couple of roadblocks. First, the literal ones:

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And second, although I've driven on island before -- who could forget all those pharmacy runs during CoffeeGate? -- this was the first time I was driving from one end to the other alone. I'm not great with directions as it is -- I'm generally looking out for new restaurants and baby goats, not memorizing turns -- and this trip involved multiple stops. And so, just to be on the safe side, I brought along the mobile phone that was provided for us at the condo.

An actual. mobile. phone.

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I told you I wasn't good with directions. Apparently that's how I drove myself right back to 1989.

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On top of that, because it was drizzling by the time I set off, I'd left my sunglasses back at the condo. My prescription sunglasses . . . which I need for driving.

But the worst part was the phone. That godforsaken, E.T.-phone-home contraption would not stay on the hook no matter how or where I positioned it or how securely (or violently) I stuffed it into the glove box. The incessant dial tone was mocking me, I was sure; I could almost hear its taunts about my bad driving and poor eyesight and non-existent sense of direction in that endless, high-pitched drone.

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Despite these obstacles, I managed to find the Village BakeHouse, though I did not find the nearby parking lot. Instead, heeding Angel's advice to stay on the left no matter what, I maneuvered the car into a nearby ditch and stumbled out like a blind mole . . . who’s also gone deaf from a maddening dial tone.

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Of course, I wasn't willing to settle for just any birthday cake for my little viejito. And so I'd arranged for Pascal to make an authentic bizcocho, or Dominican cake, which is just like regular birthday cake . . . except that about one-third of the cake is pure fat. The result is an extra-springy, extra-moist cake, which is then topped with suspiro, a soft, fluffy meringue icing. (There's also usually a layer of pineapple jam, guava jam, or dulce de leche in between the sinful layers, but I'd asked Pascal for coconut cream instead.)

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Miraculously, I managed to get the cake all the way down the stairs and into the car without dropping it. Which is not to say that I did not have some wobbly moments navigating myself and the cake into that ditch, then gunning the car like I was at a monster truck rally in an attempt to catapult it back onto the road.

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All of which goes to explains why, if you saw me behind the wheel that day, you saw a wild-eyed maniac -- with one hand on the wheel, one hand on a lopsided birthday cake, and one eye squeezed shut in an attempt to squint down to 20/40 vision -- doing battle with a Soviet-era telephone that absolutely refused stay on the $#@&% hook.

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Meanwhile, back at Elodia's, the weather had not improved, so Angel contented himself with guzzling rum punch and checking his futuristic iPhone for Amber Alerts involving yours truly.

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I dropped off the cake without further incident and joined Angel for lunch, where we had "the usual" -- grilled fish for Angel and a turkey club for me.

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Plus a side of chicken nuggets, 'cause I like to party like it's my birthday . . . even when it's Angel's.

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Happily, by mid-afternoon, the day had brightened enough for us to take a swim.

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We returned to Fountain just in time for another fabulous sunset.

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Soon it was time to clean up for Angel's birthday dinner.

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He'd chosen Ferryboat Inn, which might not be the first place that comes to mind for a milestone birthday celebration on an island brimming with gourmet restaurants, but is the only logical place if you've ever had the good sense to call ahead and order Marjorie's life-changing lobster Thermidor. Plus, FBI was the very first restaurant we ever visited on our first trip to Anguilla 20 years ago -- nearly to the day -- and it seemed only fitting that we celebrate Angel's 50th, Anguilla's 50th, and our 20th all on the same night.

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To our delight, Marjorie surprised us both by decorating our usual table with balloons, a candle centerpiece, and elegantly folded cloth napkins.

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It was a lovely gesture, particularly at a spot so casual that we looking forward to seeing our favorite dogs in the dining room.

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And so you could have knocked us over with a feather when Christian busted out a celebratory bottle of Champagne, and a fancy glowing ice bucket.

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Because it was Angel's birthday, he got to eat his buffalo wings at the table, instead of over at the bar where I didn't have to smell them.

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While Angel devoured his wings, I was holding my breath -- both literally and figuratively -- in anticipation of the main event: Marjorie's justly-famous lobster Thermidor.

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Were you so busy drooling over that Thermidor that you didn't even notice that thing that looks suspiciously like a green vegetable next to the lobster? I can't say I blame you, but trust me: That cheesy, creamy, crunchy-edged spinach casserole was so mind-blowingly delicious that I would have happily traded my entire lobster -- or at least half of it -- for just one more bite of that casserole. I can only assume that it's not on the regular menu because creamed spinach casserole + FBI cheeseburger would be so much cheesy stupendousness that the universe might implode.

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After dinner, Marjorie brought out the bizcocho, and the entire bar serenaded Angel with a rum-fueled rendition of "Happy Birthday."

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As the night wound down, we settled into a loose circle of Adirondack chairs in the yard and sipped the last of the Champagne, with the sound of the waves providing the soundtrack to raucous retellings of McClean family lore, countless belly laughs, and hugs and happy tears before we finally called it a night.

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At least at Ferryboat, that is. Because not even spinach casserole beats a slice of extra-sinful birthday cake in bed.
----------------------------------------------
Wondering why this post is pre-Irma? Read the "prologue" here...or, CLICK HERE to read Part 2!

Posted by TraceyG 06:04 Archived in Anguilla Tagged ferryboat_inn shoal_bay fountain_residences elodia's Comments (20)

Anguilla, Part 2: The Falcon Has Landed

The next morning we awoke to a glorious sunrise over Shoal Bay East.

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Like all the great mysteries of the world -- where do all the missing socks go? is there a big pile of eyelashes behind your eyeball? why do I always pick the bag of Doritos with a substandard amount of nacho cheese powder? -- I have no explanation for why I am up at the crack of dawn on vacation, but cannot get out of bed before 8am at home without hitting snooze for at least one solid hour, which begets yet another mystery (why on earth is Angel still married to me?).

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After the cloudy start the day before, we were thrilled to see that it was shaping up to be a beautiful day.

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We decided to spend it at Trattoria Tramonto on Shoal Bay West.

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There are many reasons to love Tramonto: The pasta, the watermelon-y rum punch, the pasta, the quiet beach, the pasta, the blue-bottle rosé that matches the restaurant just so, and, oh yeah . . . THE PASTA.

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And you thought I only matched my flip-flops to my bikini.

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After a morning of swimming in the warm sea and lounging under the shady palms, it was soon time for lunch. I was thinking maybe I'd have the pasta.

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We settled in at a table at the water's edge and split our attention between studying the menu and admiring the view.

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We started with the freshly-baked focaccia, followed by -- surprise! -- the penne pomodoro topped with a flurry of freshly-grated parmesan for me, and the grilled swordfish special for Angel.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon floating in the blue water, napping in our comfy loungers, and sipping those tasty rum punches.

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Oh, and hanging with my new buddy.

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Back at Fountain, we took a quick dip in the pool, then I poked around the property for a bit while Angel fixed us a round of rum punches.

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Later, we fixed ourselves up and set off for a spicy supper at Picante in the West End.

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We love Picante for the casual atmosphere, friendly service, and twinkling lanterns.

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But who am I kidding? I'd eat Picante's cheesy seafood enchiladas off a dirty tray in a prison mess hall if I had to.

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Generously stuffed with crab, prawns, and lobster swimming in a seafood bisque sauce, those enchiladas are the main reason to visit Picante, but they are certainly not the only reason.

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The next day was another beauty, so we decided to head over to Rendezvous Bay. Our plan was to make Anguilla Great House our home base for the day, with a stop at neighboring CuisinArt for lunch.

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Eventually we ambled down the beach for some lunch at CuisinArt. On our way, we happened upon the lovely Jeanene, ambassador for the Sunshine Shack and poster girl for infectious smiles who was, as usual, parked outside of SSS with a rum punch in her hand and one of those aforementioned smiles on her face.

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I was getting a complex being surrounded by that many dimples at once, but luckily it wasn't anything that a frozen mojito couldn't cure.

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Thanks to its stellar hydroponically-grown produce, CuisinArt is the only place on the island where you'll catch me eating raw vegetables. Scratch that -- it's the only place anywhere you'll catch me eating raw vegetables.

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We listened with amusement as the woman seated next to us ordered tuna salad and chicken salad for lunch -- neither of which (nor even the ingredients for which) are found anywhere on the menu. It made me feel a whole lot better about asking for the white bean dip instead of baba ghanoush with our mezzo platter.

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The platter also came with olives, roasted red peppers, naan bread, and a tug-of-war over those blocks of creamy feta drizzled with fresh basil pesto.

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The day was hot, and we knew we needed to save room for a couple of Great House's pina coladas, so we both ordered a hydroponic salad to keep things light.

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I ordered the little gem salad so I could get my hands on some more of that salty feta, while Angel decided to try the chopped salad with kale, currants, chickpeas, and basil balsamic vinaigrette, all topped with a mountain of fresh, tangy goat cheese.

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Afterwards, it was time to hang up my hat and take a nap.

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Back at the Great House, bartenders Jodi and Shanna hooked us up with a nice, strong rum punch for Angel, an overflowing Pina colada for me, and two beautiful smiles for anyone lucky enough to catch them posing.

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Later that afternoon, we had plans to meet up with Christian from Ferryboat Inn. We'd never actually seen him anywhere but behind the bar at FBI, so it was mostly just to see if he actually had legs.

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As you might guess, Christian started off a little apprehensive, so I agreed to shoot him roughly from the waist up so everyone would recognize him.

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He got a little more comfortable as I continued shooting . . .

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And by the time the rum and Cokes kicked in, we were treated to a full-on grin.

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That night, we had plans to take Hal and Donna out to dinner before they headed home. We left the choice of restaurant up to them, and they chose Falcon Nest in nearby Island Harbour. We agreed to meet by the pool at Fountain and ride together in one car.

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We'd never been to Falcon Nest before, but when Hal mentioned that he'd called ahead to order three lobsters -- one for me, one for Angel, and one for he and Donna to split -- I knew we'd like this place just fine. (I also liked that Hal knew it would start World War III if Angel and I had to split anything, least of all fresh grilled lobster).

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And once I discovered the $5(!!) rum punches and Falcon Dip, I knew we were going to love this place.

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I mean, they had all my favorite stuff: Cheap rum punches, ginormous grilled lobsters served with a mound of curry-spiced pasta salad, rice 'n peas, a big ol' pile of French fries, and an addictive "secret sauce" for dipping them in (or pouring on your lobster, or on your rice, or just directly down your gullet).

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Best of all, we got to spend time with Hal and Donna, a couple of adorable lovebirds who met in high school, then went their separate ways. They then proceeded to meet up every 5 or 10 years at their class reunion (each of which Hal attended for the sole purpose of finding out whether Donna was still married), and finally got together when Donna became available to marry her one true love, Hal -- who'd pined away for her for decades.

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Thank you, Hal and Donna, for introducing us to our new favorite restaurant, and for providing such sweet, entertaining company.

And for not making us split that lobster.
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CLICK HERE TO READ PART 3!

Posted by TraceyG 05:51 Archived in Anguilla Comments (15)

Anguilla, Part 3: The Ultimate Backstage Pass

The next morning, we stopped by the Village BakeHouse so I could thank Pascal in person for Angel's birthday cake. It seemed like as good an excuse as any for stuffing ourselves full of jelly donuts and apple tarts.

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Housed in the 1700s-era former Koal Keel restaurant, the building was originally constructed by slave labor for a Dutch family from St. Maarten, who used it as a sugar and cotton plantation.

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When things dried up -- the slaves were freed and years of drought took its toll -- the plantation owners abandoned the building. Eventually, however, descendants of the very slaves who had worked the plantation bought the building, and if that is not a fitting end to this story, I don't know what is.

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Today, Pascal and his wife Suzan use the charming space to whip up decadent French pastries, tasty sandwiches, and gorgeous cakes like the one Pascal made for Angel.

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I did my best to remove the thick layer of powdered sugar from my face, then rounded up the camera-shy Pascal for a quick photo.

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Looking to kill some time before our next meal, we decided to take a ride over to the former site of Oliver's on Long Bay, where we could reminisce about prior meals.

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We spent a few minutes poking around the abandoned restaurant, each of us lost in our own fond memories of Tracey's Seafood Compote.

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Soon it was time to eat again, and only one thing can cure a bad case of Compote Fever.

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And as far as I'm concerned, there's only one place to get one.

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Drinks in hand, Angel chatted with Christian and I snuggled up with Basil while we waited for our burgers. Or maybe Angel chatted with Basil and I snuggled up with Christian. Who can say when FBI's killer rum punch is involved?

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I came prepared with snacks, which made for one very smiley girl.

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And Christian surprised me with this fabulous "backstage pass," hand-crafted by the talented Daryl Thompson at Alloyd Enterprises, which made for another very smiley girl.

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You're probably noticing that most of these photos are a bit blurry. I'd like to chalk it up to the fact that it was about 1,000 degrees in that kitchen and I was on the verge of passing out, but I think we all know it could have been a comfortable 68 degrees in there and I'd still have been on the verge of passing out.

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You might think that seeing where the magic happens would satisfy me for a while, but the effect was just the opposite: Being in such deliciously close proximity to those burgers sizzling away on the grill only made me that much more anxious to dig into my own.

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Even Basil was anxious, knowing she might score some leftover scraps.

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Finally the mother of all burgers arrived and, as usual, it was spectacular.

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As my eyes rolled back in my head, Christian simply stood by with a justifiably arrogant look on his face that said, "That's right, b!tches! My burger smokes all you fools."

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Well-earned, Mr. McClean. Well-earned.

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As is our habit, we typically steal away to a less-populated section of beach after FBI Monday, in hopes of sparing innocent beachgoers the sight of two adults who look suspiciously like hippopotamuses -- large, somewhat grey, 3/4 submerged, with nothing but two tiny ears sticking out in case someone yells, "Last call!"

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There we bumped into Paul, whom you might know from the Facebook forum as the guy who spent his last trip to Anguilla on a quest to rank all of the island's fish sandwiches. (I don't have a photo of him because he bravely approached the two hippopotomii while they were submerged.) I really wanted to like this guy, especially given his hobby of ranking foods, but he was swimming in Rendezous Bay -- not idly bobbing, but actually exerting energy and moving his limbs and everything. Other than that, though, he seemed like a really nice guy.

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Toward the end of the afternoon, the sun dipped behind a cloud, creating vibrant turquoise stripes across the water.

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Later that evening, we decided to stop by the new Four Seasons (formerly Viceroy) for a round of cocktails before dinner.

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I usually refer to the Four Seasons as "FS," but after seeing these obscene drink prices, I've decided to change that to "FFS."

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As if the prices weren't off-putting enough, we were not permitted to sit in the lounge seats of our choice -- a table surrounded by 4 low-slung chairs close to the water -- because FFS wanted to keep those open for a theoretical party of four. Even though the place wasn't full . . . and the sun had already set.

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We watched as another couple -- guests of the hotel who, as it turns out, had just arrived after a long flight and were visiting Anguilla for the first time -- were told the same thing. As they stood there bewildered, we discreetly approached and asked if they'd like to join forces. They readily agreed, so we claimed the four seats and enjoyed a lovely conversation over a round of (overpriced and tiny) drinks.

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At least Larry was smart enough to just order a beer.

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Too soon, it was time for our dinner reservation at Jacala, so we exchanged contact information with our new friends before heading off. (If you're reading this, Anne, I know that 50-page annotated Excel spreadsheet of restaurants I gave you was probably a bit overwhelming, as was my detailed PowerPoint presentation of menus, recommended dishes, and reviews. Still, if you made it through the first two dozen or so restaurants on the list during your weeklong visit, I will consider my job here to be done.)

Over at Jacala, we cozied up at a candle-lit table and prepared for what we knew would be one of the best meals of our visit.

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We started with a couple of old favorites, the creamy cucumber gazpacho with tomato sorbet for me and the tuna tartare with wakame, olive oil, and ginger, also for me (and, fine, Angel too).

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For mains, we both decided to branch out a bit, foregoing our usual pile of grilled crayfish in favor of two new-to-us dishes. Angel decided to try the evening's special of grilled swordfish with ratatouille and roasted red pepper sauce, while I took a chance that the breaded chicken with lobster and shellfish sauce would not turn out to be a strange experiment gone awry.

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I needn't have worried. The chicken was incredible -- tender, juicy, and perfectly complemented (surprise!) by the shellfish sauce, with a creamy carrot purée to round things out.

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All in all, it was a perfect meal, as usual.

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And nary a beet in sight.
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Need more Anguilla right now? Click here to read Part 4, or check out our quickie stay at Cap Juluca, which we tacked on to the end of this trip, here.

Posted by TraceyG 07:56 Archived in Anguilla Tagged anguilla jacala ferryboat_inn cheeseburgers village_bakehouse Comments (7)

Anguilla, Part 4: Fancy Meeting You Here

The next morning, we awoke at Fountain to another cloudless sky.

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We decided to spend the day at one of my favorite spots, Ocean Echo on Mead's Bay.

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It was hard not to feel welcome here when Del somehow managed to remember both of our names, even though it had been nearly a year since we'd last seen him.

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Soon a round of Rumzies beckoned, so we headed up to the restaurant for drinks and some lunch.

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After lunch, we decided to walk down to the other end of Mead's to check out the beach in front of Malliouhana.

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As lovely as this part of Mead's is, I have to admit: At Malli prices, I would not expect to have to sand-luge my way down this cliff every day.

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Later that afternoon, on our way back to Shoal Bay East, we stopped at SeaSpray Boutique to say hello to our friend Pam.

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We might also have stopped by to pick up some of her killer rum punch mix, which comes with freshly-ground nutmeg.

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Pam's boutique is chock-full of beachy jewelry, scented soaps, original artwork, and postcards.

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Oh, and the cutest selection of tropical Christmas ornaments you're likely to find anywhere, plus delicious jams and sauces from Anguilla's Jammin', which are made from locally grown ingredients.

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Back at Fountain, we enjoyed a round of rum punches, with a sunset colored to match.

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Having loved our dinner at Falcon Nest the night before, we decided to take another one of Hal and Donna's recommendations tonight. And so we set off for Ben's Pit Stop in Island Harbour.

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Formerly of Big Spring and Cafe de Paris, Ben knows his way around a baguette . . . and, apparently, a killer pizza crust.

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Much of the pizza on island is what I'd call "good for Anguilla," but it's certainly nothing to write home about -- especially if your home is in New York. But at Pit Stop, the pizza is so good that I found myself fantasizing about a "Pit Stop NYC" spinoff, which would be located across the street from my apartment and stay open 24 hours a day.

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Besides their fantastic pizza, Pit Stop offers a small menu of French classics, including what Angel described as the best escargot he's ever had . . . including all the ones he's sucked down in Paris.

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On this night, Ben's was a riot of local sights and sounds -- dogs barking, kids crying, parents yelling, engines revving, and two sloshed guys at the bar loudly debating American politics -- but that was just another reason to love it.

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The next morning was July 4.

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And what better way to celebrate 'Murica than by waking up with a food hangover, then spending the morning lazing around like a slug?

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After our swim, we decided on a return visit to Trattoria Tramonto for lunch. So far on this trip I'd had the lobster pasta at Dolce Vita, the penne arrabbiata at Tramonto, and a pepperoni pizza the night before, so I decided to do my patriotic duty and get to work on my carbs quota.

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We settled in at a table for two and ordered up a bottle of Clos Beylesse.

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But that chilled bottle of rosé was no match for the day's heat, so I left Angel at the table and headed down to the water for a quick dip while we waited for our food to arrive. As I walked by the dining pavilion, I heard someone call my name. To my complete surprise and delight, it was Nicolee and Pierre -- owners of one of our favorite villas on the island, Sweet Return.

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Nicolee and Pierre graciously invited us to join them, so we grabbed our wine and headed over to their table.

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Where they even more graciously stood by as I photographed not only my food, but theirs, too.

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We enjoyed a fabulous lunch, catching up with Nicolee since our last meet-up in New York and getting to know a bit more about Pierre. In fact, we'd probably have spent the whole afternoon chatting away, if we hadn't been suddenly and unceremoniously rained out. We said our good-byes as we dashed for our cars, and while Pierre and Nicolee headed back to the villa, Angel and I decided to check out one of Anguilla's newest resorts, The Reef by CuisinArt.

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The two-story lobby are of The Reef resembles a luxury yacht, with sleek lines, multiple "decks," and lots of polished wood.

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The hideous black box that towers over the sleek lobby, however, looks exactly like the kind of soulless office complex that you go on vacation to get away from. Just one glance at it made us both suddenly crave an alcoholic beverage, so we headed down to The Reef's beach bar, Breezes.

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There, we enjoyed a Painkiller topped with rum and nutmeg and a frothy B.B.C.

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The weather hadn't improved by that evening, so we didn't feel much like going out. Instead, we picked up a couple of rotis from the Roti Hut . . .

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Along with another one of those fabulous pizzas from Pit Stop.

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Just trying to make my quota, you know.
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Click here to read Part 5 . . . and then check back for another pre-Irma post from last May. I'm obviously way behind, so my New Year's resolution is to put down that cheeseburger and type with both hands.

Posted by TraceyG 08:28 Archived in Anguilla Tagged anguilla sweet_return trattoria_tramonto shoal_bay_east bens_pit_stop Comments (8)

Anguilla, Part 5: Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner

The next morning we decided to have lunch at Straw Hat. We were hoping for a redo, as our last meal there had unceremoniously been cut short after I poisoned Angel.

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The day was hot, and we needed cold drinks, stat.

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After perusing the menu, we decided to share a couple of appetizers -- the tuna tartare and the plaintain chips with fresh salsa -- followed by the mahi sandwich with spicy jerk aioli for Angel and a fantastic Greek salad for me. (I know, I know: Another salad. But I'm a sucker for a favorable feta-to-greens ratio and really good dressing, and Straw Hat nails it on both counts.)

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We whiled away the rest of the afternoon floating in the blue water and sipping a succession of Ti punches.

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Later that afternoon we headed over to Island Harbour to see a friend's new home, and got caught in a quick pop-up shower on the way. We decided to pop up ourselves . . . at Tropical Sunset for a couple of guavaberry coladas.

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We fell in love with guavaberry coladas on our first trip to Anguilla 20 years ago, and over the years they've become harder and harder to find. Kudos to Tropical Sunset for going old-school, especially given that guavaberries do taste vaguely of Pepto-Bismol.

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That evening was our last night, and we'd saved one of the best for last: E's Oven.

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And we'd saved one of E's best dishes for last: The famous oven-roasted chicken.

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There are worse ways to spend your last night on Anguilla than with the coconut-crusted grouper and a plate full of chicken skin pilfered from your husband.

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As usual, we tried to squeeze in as much beach time as possible before departing. And so, on our last day, we decided that we had time for one last swim before heading out. And to make it worth it, we made a beeline for Ocean Echo on Meads Bay.

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There, Del hooked us up with our last Rumzies of the trip.

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But not our last drinks of the trip.

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We even managed to work in a quick lunch.

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And the very best bon voyage treat I could have asked for.

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(Yes, that's Kraft macaroni and cheese. Yes, I saw a little kid eating it and asked our waitress if I could get some too. Yes, I am a ravenous five-year-old girl trapped in the body of a ten-year-old boy.)

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We had time for one last soak before heading back to Fountain to pack up.

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Later, as the plane took off and the island grew smaller in the distance, I thought about what a perfect celebration of milestones it had been: Angel's 50th birthday, Anguilla's 50th birthday, and our 20th anniversary of visiting the island.

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That's a heck of a lot of cheeseburgers.
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You know what else I have a heck of a lot of? Blog posts! Coming soon: A mojito-borne illness in Havana; the wrath of grapes at the Key West Food & Wine Festival; yours truly roughing it in the bush in South Africa (sans ironing board!); homemade hooch in the Hudson Valley, a birthday blowout with my sissy in Brooklyn; and another pre-Irma trip to Anguilla (remember when Seaborne lost Angel's luggage? I sure do). Check back soon, or click here to subscribe and Travellerspoint will do the checking for you!

Posted by TraceyG 06:44 Archived in Anguilla Tagged anguilla straw_hat ocean_echo es_oven Comments (11)

Key West: A Major Award at the Conch Fritter-Eating Contest

You know it's not going to be a normal trip to Key West when you text a friend who lives in Old Town in order to make plans and he casually mentions, "By the way, you're busy on Sunday . . . because I entered you in a conch fritter-eating contest."

Then again, when is any trip to Key West a normal one???

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We arrived on a gorgeous October morning and were quickly whisked away to the Paradise Inn on Simonton Street, a secluded oasis of calm amid the cacophony on Duval Street of noisy bars, drunken boors, and the kind of people who participate in competitive eating contests.

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But peaceful as Paradise Inn may be, this is still Key West.

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Our "usual" suite on the second floor overlooking the pool was unavailable, so we took the one next door instead.

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After a quick change of clothes, we headed over to Lagerheads, a cheery Caribbean-style spot on the water near the Key West Bight.

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We snagged two seats at the bar, then ordered up crab cakes, fish tacos, some smoked fish dip, and a couple of frozen drinks to get ourselves into island mode.

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Afterwards we biked around for a bit, then headed back to Paradise Inn to laze around the pool.

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Later, we stopped by Louie's to usher in the sunset.

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We checked out some of the island's Halloween decorations on our way back to the hotel.

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Back at the hotel, we devoured the pizza we'd picked up along the way, then called it a night.

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The next day we met up with friends Stephanie and Ari at Hot Tin Roof for brunch.

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It's always nice when they're expecting you.

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Hot Tin Roof has a great brunch deal: For a set price, you can order anything on the menu -- in any order, and as much as you want -- and they'll serve it up with unlimited bottles of Prosecco and OJ, or unlimited Bloody Marys if that's your thing. And so what is billed as "brunch" is really an all-you-drink vodka-and-Prosecco party with everything from chicken and waffles with cayenne maple butter to compressed watermelon salad with tequila and feta to sesame tuna with crispy pork belly. Oh, and pancakes.

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That afternoon, our friend Mark invited us to stop by for a slice (or three) of the homemade key lime pie he'd made for me.

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Which was one of the nicest things anyone's ever done for me, especially after I've shamelessly accosted them on social media every time they post a photo of anything even resembling a pie.

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He even saved the limes as proof that he really made the pie from scratch, since he knows I am suspicious of anyone who claims to use their oven for anything other than shoe storage.

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That evening it was time to start preparing for the conch fritter-eating contest, so I did what any competitive athlete would do: I headed over to Abbondanza for some carbo-loading.

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I love pasta, but I was even more excited about the meatballs.

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That cheesy chicken parm was no slouch, either.

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The next morning we made a beeline for Agave 308 for some last-minute preparations for the conch-fritter eating contest: Tequila for courage and tacos for...ever.

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The conch fritter-eating contest was the brainchild of the aforementioned Mark, he of the fabulous key lime pie and even more fabulous Key West Food and Wine Festival, an annual bacchanal of food and booze at which I have engaged in various questionable behaviors that I have heard rumors about but do not actually remember. The fritter-eating contest was just another of Mark's evil plots to make sure everyone who visits Key West leaves with an XXL pair of elastic-waist pants and plans for a juice fast.

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A big crowd turned out to watch us all make fools of ourselves.

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I checked in with our friend Deb (who was clearly skeptical that a skinny chick like me stood a chance at this thing -- especially one who doesn't particularly like conch fritters), then signed a waiver that said something about how I wouldn't sue if I ended up in a ditch with a belly full of fried dough.

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We'd arranged to meet up with friends Jessica and Jeff, who came to cheer me on (and, in Jeff's case, be goaded into participating himself).

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Of course, I dressed appropriately for the big event.

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Or at least I thought I did.

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I'd told Mark beforehand that I would be wearing a conch dress in honor of the occasion, and at the contest he sweetly presented me with an award for "Best Dressed."

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However, when I tried to duck out of the contest since I'd already "won," he snatched my Major Award back, forcing me to actually participate before he'd turn it over.

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The competitors were grouped into four heats, mine being the last. Of course, because this is Key West, it wouldn't be enough to just have a conch fritter-eating contest; there had to be a twist.

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We couldn't use our hands.

And adding insult to injury, the day was windy. Really windy. I'd worn my hair down and didn't have anything to pull it back with. And so I suddenly realized that while I had no chance of winning a conch fritter-eating contest that day, I stood a very good chance of winning a hairball-eating contest.

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Of course, that didn't stop Mark from drawing a tapeworm on my name card, or stop me from bragging that I'd already won (at least the fashion portion of the competition).

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The first three heats were a tough act to follow, putting up some impressive numbers.

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Jared and Kevin were tied for first with 14 fritters each, but then Big Don ascended the dais . . . and quickly ascended to the top of the pack.

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But not without some not-so-gentle "encouragement" from his girlfriend, who pounded on the table so violently that we figured Big Don was Dead Don if he didn't top 14.

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Luckily, having downed an impressive 16 fritters in three minutes flat, Big Don seemed like a shoo-in to win . . . until my heat. I'm not saying this thing was rigged, but it can't be a coincidence that The Tapeworm was seated between two guys who ended up placing in the top three.

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Sadly, however, I failed miserably when it came to living up to my reputation, at least for eating food. I'd downed roughly 2.5 fritters and an entire head's worth of human hair before giving up and chugging some wine.

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Which did not go unnoticed by at least one disgusted competitor.

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Meantime, Big Don's record of 16 fritters was about to be shattered by the unassuming Pac-Man on my left, Loren, who was gobbling up fritters as fast as they could bring them.

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In the end, Loren bested everyone, including Big Don, to take home the prize, having somehow managed to scarf down a whopping 19 conch fritters in just three minutes.

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It's always the skinny ones you gotta watch out for.
----------------------------------------------------
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Wanna stick it to Hurricane Irma and your own liver? Get your tickets for January 2018 Key West Food and Wine Festival here: https://www.keywestfoodandwinefestival.com/

Posted by TraceyG 09:01 Archived in USA Tagged key_west abbondanza conch_republic lagerheads agave_308 Comments (4)

Cap Juluca: The Best Day of the Week is Maunday

How do you wrap up a sublime stay on an idyllic island known for its breathtaking beaches, fantastic food, and stunning scenery?

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With a stay at Belmond Cap Juluca, that's how.

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But to call it a stay is really to sell it short. Cap Juluca isn't just a stay, it's an experience.

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That experience begins when you arrive and are led through a series of Moorish arches into the stunning open-air lobby.

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The soaring white dome dotted with touches of pale blue mimics the powder-white sand and turquoise sea just beyond.

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Then again, the pedestrian "turquoise" doesn't even begin to sum it up. Is the water azure? cerulean? teal? sapphire?

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Yes, it is.

A complimentary rum punch arrives during check-in, and soon you find yourself wondering: Is the rum is getting to you, or does every single staff member you've encountered thusfar really know your name already?

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Yes, they do.

In fact, no matter the question, the answer at Cap Juluca always seems to be "yes."

Fresh fruit and cheese awaiting us in our room? Yes.

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An icy bottle of Côtes-du-Rhône to accompany it? Yes.

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A beachfront villa with a view of a sea so blue that it doesn't look real? Yes.

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And a private solarium where one can sunbathe au naturel should the mood strike? Oh, yesssss.

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Indeed, the only down side to all this pampering is how easy it is to get used to. And so, when you return to the real world and your boss inexplicably fails to address you as "Mrs." and doesn't pull out your desk chair for you and neglects to bring you a rum punch while you draft that memo, you can start to feel rather slighted.

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We'd already been on island for nine days when I surprised Angel with a short stay at Cap Juluca to wrap up his birthday celebration. I wasn't sure he'd appreciate having to pack, unpack, and then re-pack in order to move hotels, but it turned out I had nothing to worry about: When we first arrived on the island, an immigration officer noticed the repeat visits on our passports and asked Angel what his favorite beach was. Expecting him to mull it over before answering, I was stunned when Angel responded, without even a split second's hesitation, "Maundays Bay."

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The man has good taste. Named the number-one best beach resort in the world by Andrew Harper’s luxury travel magazine The Hideaway Report in 2013 and again in 2016, and one of the ten best beach hotels in the world by Coastal Living magazine in 2015, Cap's claim to fame is a pristine, secluded stretch of white sand and crystal-clear water, punctuated only by loungers, umbrellas, and serenity.

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I mean, New Yorkers rarely smile as it is, let alone like this.

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We didn't have much time to spare, so after settling in at the room, we sunk our feet into that floury sand and took a swim before lunch.

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Eventually we tore ourselves away, but only because food was waiting.

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We snagged a front-row table at the beachfront Blue, where Angel perused the menu while I continued to nurse my rum punch from check-in. This, of course, did not go unnoticed by our server, who immediately inquired, "Would you like some more ice for your drink, Mrs. Gonzalez?"

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Why, yes. Yes I would.

And maybe a Junior Special with Bailey's, coconut, banana, and nutmeg to wash it down.

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I know that pita bread and bikinis make for bloaty bedfellows, but the lobster salad with lemon vinaigrette was calling my name, and who was I to ignore it?

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Angel ordered more sensibly, deciding on the "deconstructed" Caesar salad topped with a spicy Serrano chili frico.

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And we both kicked things off with the cool, refreshing honeydew cucumber gazpacho with shrimp salsa.

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The service at lunch had been impeccable -- warm and friendly, but also professional -- but that came as no surprise, since Belmond operates some of the world's poshest hotels (the five-star La Samanna in St. Martin), restaurants (the famous "21" Club in New York City), and even trains (the Orient-Express!), with Cap Juluca being the most recent addition to its collection.

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After lunch we ignored the advice of mothers everywhere and catapulted ourselves straight into the water for a swim.

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By late afternoon we were ready for another cocktail, but this is Cap Juluca: They certainly won't be stopping by your lounger every so often to see if you'd like anything (wouldn't want to disturb you), and you certainly won't be getting up to get it yourself (wouldn't want you to even have to stand up, let alone walk 10 paces to the beach bar).

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And so you simply reach up and send out a distress signal, and a server appears with a menu and a smile.

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We stopped by the pool on our way back from the beach.

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Though we both agreed that the pool is lovely, it is also about as useful as a screen door on a submarine when the world's largest swimming pool is just outside.

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That evening we had reservations at Pimms.

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My reputation apparently precedes me, as we were thrilled to learn that the resort had graciously arranged for us to enjoy a complimentary tasting menu.

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Widely regarded as one of the most romantic restaurants in the Caribbean, Pimms is set directly over the water at the west end of Maundays Bay, affording a front-row seat to the waves below as well as a panoramic view of the bay.

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The resort's new chef, Gabriel Kolofon, was born in Argentina and most recently cooked in Riviera Maya, Mexico, bringing a beachy vibe to Pimms and a little Latin flair to the lounge at Spice.

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We were over the moon when Chef Gabriel came out to consult with us on the tasting menu, offering recommendations and suggesting that we go off-menu for a course or two so that he could introduce us to a few of his favorite dishes from Spice as well. He even arranged for us to receive our own dish for each course so we could share our thoughts, but not our food. (Like I said . . . my reputation precedes me.)

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We settled in with a favorite bottle of wine -- the excellent Clos Beylesse "blue bottle" rosé -- and spent a few giddy minutes speculating as to what surprises might be on their way from the kitchen.

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The first was a conch fritter with spicy aioli, followed by cool, refreshing watermelon and feta salad with pickled onions, slivered almonds, arugula, and an anise-watermelon vinaigrette.

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Next, a creamy butternut squash risotto with calamari and aged parmesan appeared. If you're thinking that calamari and butternut squash make for an odd couple, let me assure you that they are actually having a hot, steamy affair.

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The next course took us off-menu: A fantastic, crispy-skinned pan-seared snapper atop a sweet potato-couscous mash, accompanied by a rich, creamy sweet potato puree that could have been an entrée all by itself.

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We'd devoured three courses plus an amuse-bouche thus far (leaving absolutely nothing, save for the carrot tops from the snapper dish) and apparently Chef Gabriel knows a couple of gourmands when he sees them. (As with most words, "glutton" sounds so much nicer in French, n'est pas?) And so, out came an Angus beef tenderloin with smoked truffle potato mash and tiny ceviche'd mushrooms . . . followed by a lemon-lime sorbet in Proscecco . . . followed by a plate of chocolatey baked goods . . . followed by dessert.

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The tenderloin was bathed in the most decadent sauce I think I've ever had -- a creamy truffle foie gras sauce so sinfully delicious that we could probably call off the war on drugs if they'd just bottle this stuff up and give it away.

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The desserts were magically tailor-made for our individual tastes: A velvety vanilla creme brûlée with blackberry and raspberry sauce, gelled raspberries, and a crunchy vanilla cookie crumble (for me) . . .

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. . . and a chocolate soufflé with vanilla bean ice cream, plus ginger biscotti and a tart sauce of strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries to balance the sweetness of the soufflé's warm, gooey center (for Angel).

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It had been the meal of a lifetime: Four courses of sheer perfection -- plus conch fritters, plus the sorbet and Prosecco, plus the tiny cakes, plus an icy bottle of our favorite rosé -- all tailored to our specific tastes by one of the most thoughtful and talented chefs we've ever had the pleasure of meeting.

Even if all of our chatting and photographing did mean that we lost a little bit of that vanilla-bean ice cream along the way.

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We made our way back to the villa, guided by a full moon illuminating the night sky.

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Back in our room, the small hurricane we'd left behind in our scramble to make our dinner reservation on time had miraculously disappeared: Our clothes were folded into neat little piles, our shoes were paired off and stowed away, the lights had been dimmed, yards of mosquito netting were draped over the perfectly-turned-down bed, and a citronella candle glowed softly in a corner.

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And as if the entire setup couldn't get any more romantic, we had just snuggled under the sheets when a light rain began to fall, pattering softly against the wooden hurricane shutters and lulling us into a deep, blissful slumber.

The next morning we bounded out of bed with one thing on our minds. No, not bacon . . . or, rather, not just bacon. We needed another swim in Maundays Bay.

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Breakfast is complimentary at Blue for guests of the resort, so we secured a beachfront table, then took at a peek at the offerings.

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In addition to baked goods, smoked salmon, and assorted yogurts and cereals, there's hot food (eggs, sausage, and the aforementioned bacon), along with an omelet station.

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Although I'd declined an iced tea from our server earlier, I changed my mind and went up to the buffet to grab one. I found the tea, along with glasses and straws, but didn't see any ice. I must have been wearing a confused expression because, literally within seconds, I heard someone stage-whisper, "So-and-so! HELP Mrs. Gonzalez, please!"

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As with the other pampering Cap offers its guests, this kind of treatment, too, has set unrealistic expectations at home, where I now expect to have every single thing I want at the exact second I want it . . . and Angel now expects that sooner or later, he is going to have to shoot me.

After breakfast, we made a beeline back to the beach for one last swim in that glorious water.

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That's when we noticed that a ground sea had rolled in while we were at breakfast, bringing with it a few tiny pieces of seaweed.

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I was tempted to ask the staff if someone could come out and pluck it out of the water by hand, but figured I'd better not.

I knew the answer would be "yes."
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Posted by TraceyG 07:34 Archived in Anguilla Tagged beaches maundays_bay cap_juluca pimms belmond british_west_indies Comments (11)

Best of Philadelphia: The City of Gluttony Love

Much like its favorite son, Rocky, the city of Philadelphia often seems to be underestimated. Primarily known for cheese steaks and the Liberty Bell, Philly probably isn't the first place that comes to mind when you think of creative cocktails, gorgeous architecture, flower-filled parks, or edgy public art installations . . . or, you know, funky light fixtures and romantic outdoor weddings. But my sister Trina and I found all that and more during our springtime visit to the City of Gluttony Love.

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1. Double-Secret Prohibition

Philly's got a great speakeasy culture, and there's no better place to do a little cloak-and-dagger drinking than at Hop Sing Laundromat.

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Named one of the 30 greatest bars in the world by Condé Nast Traveler, Hop Sing is housed behind a nondescript door on a seedy block lined Chinese takeout joints.

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Run by an international man of mystery known simply as Lê, Hop Sing has no phone, no internet . . . and absolutely no photos, as they are strictly prohibited.

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After handing your ID over to Lê -- dressed quite nattily, as you are also expected to be -- you must then wait patiently in the holding pen while he disappears with it. Is he making a copy to sell to underage college students? Checking for speeding tickets? Adding you to his list of what he refers to as "imperialist Americans"? No one knows, but the list of banned patrons reportedly contains 1,700 names, so it's not just for show.

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Make that 1,702.

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2. Scratch That Itch

Lots of cities have beautiful gardens, and Philadelphia is no exception.

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But I bet very few of them have an STD garden.

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I don't know much about plants, but it's looking like poison ivy is the least of my worries.

3. Can You Hear Me Now?

Philadelphia has some awesome public art, both small . . .

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. . . and large . . .

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and sized just right.

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But you didn't hear that from me.

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4. With a Cherry on Top

Washington, D.C. puts on an extravaganza of pink petals every spring, but Philly isn't far behind.

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But instead of ringing a reservoir as they do in D.C., Philly's cherry blossoms form blush-colored canopies over charming, colonial-era alleyways.

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And don't even get me started on those creamy white apple blossoms.

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5. Oui ou Yo

It's a little-known fact that Paris and Philadelphia are sister cities. Both revere cheese; both have storied pasts; and citizens of both cities speak English with a foreign accent. Oh, and both have some of the most beautiful doors I've ever seen.

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6. Let's Get Lit

I've long speculated that Philly's funky outdoor art is proof that the pot is better here than elsewhere. But throw in their crazy-town blingy bulbs, and I think we can put all speculation to rest.

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I mean, Oscar de la Hoya on a neon motorcycle? Come on.

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7. Here Comes the Bride

As we strolled around the city, we saw not one but three different beautiful brides. Maybe there was a Groupon?

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8. Say Cheese

Philly is known for its cheese steaks, but don't think you have to confine yourself to a bun to get in on the action.

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But it certainly doesn't hurt.

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9. I'll Take Mine With a Twizzle Stick

New York City has snooty mixologists who demand to be treated like serious chefs; Philly has Stephen Starr, the man who thought cocktails would be more fun if they came garnished with Lucky Charms and Twizzlers. He thought right.

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Of course, if you're feeling a little fancier, there's always the blackberry bramble at Del Frisco's; the All the Way Mae at Rouge (think gin, strawberries, and basil); or the fruity frozen margaritas as El Vez.

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Or, if you're saving room for a third cheese steak, consider combining cocktail hour with dessert and have the Bananas Foster milkshake with Gosling's rum at the Marathon Grill.

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I'm considering having my tonsils removed just so I can live on these for a week without having to explain myself.

10. The Holy Grail of Gastronomic Gluttony

Of course, no visit to Philly (or to the East Coast, really) would be complete without a stop at the Reading Terminal Market. Not only is it the best market in the city, it would be the best market in virtually any city. Where else can you find everything from Philly classics like pork rolls and tomato pie to gargantuan cupcakes and massive pork shanks?

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Honorable Mention: Most Obscene Use of Butter Since "Last Tango in Paris"

Making a sticky bun is like working a tanker truck's worth of butter into a blob of dough the size of a Ping-Pong ball, and Beiler's Donuts at Reading Terminal Market affords a front-row seat to all the, um, heart-stopping action.

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By the time the kneader is done, every square inch of the place is dripping in butter, and the kneader looks like he's just finished a butter-wrestling match. (Which should totally be an Olympic sport.)

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At least that explains why they have that glass between the kneader and the spectators.

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11. Lunch for the Swing Set

Whimsical Stephen Starr strikes again, this time with these swingy cocoon chairs at The Continental Midtown.

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Just maybe don't attempt these after a night of Twizzler cocktails.

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12. The Writing is on the Wall

Or the hubcaps and broken bottles, as the case may be.

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13. Sign O' the Times

Philly's got some fun and funky signs . . . but especially if you've been doing some serious day drinking.

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14. The Official Sport of Philadelphia

Now that Rocky's retired, I guess it's bread-stacking instead of boxing?

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And the decision goes to: Anyone but this guy.

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15. Little Nonna, Big Meatballs

Have you been to Little Nonna's yet? If not, finish up that cheese steak, then beat feet over to this charming Center City hangout, where the staff is sweet, the garden is delightful, and the melt-in-your-mouth meatballs are a way better way to get your protein than a glass full of raw eggs.

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16. Take Me To Church

Or Sunday school, anyway, where Tria Café in Washington Square West will indoctrinate you in a divine wine and celestial cheese for a heavenly price on Sunday mornings. It's church for food-worshippers.

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Until next time, Philly. Save me some cheese.

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What's up next? Angel gets nekkid in Anguilla; Tracey wins a conch fritter-eating contest in Key West (sort of...); we discover a hoppin' hula hut in the Hamptons; and my bad hombre and I take a mostly-legal trip to Cuba! Check back soon; subscribe here so you don't have to; or pop on over to Instragram @escape.from.new.york to see how I'm faring in the eating contest that is my life.

Posted by TraceyG 06:04 Archived in USA Tagged philadelphia pennsylvania philly tria el_vez del_friscos hop_sing_laundromat little_nonnas Comments (14)

Anna Maria Island, Part 1: A Freaki Tiki Good Time

Locals call it the "Florida Easy Button." Coastal Living magazine calls it one of their "dream towns." And Travel and Leisure dubs it a "quiet escape" and touts its "sandy seclusion." Why all the fuss over a simple 7-mile stretch of shoreline, one of dozens along Florida's west coast?

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Maybe it's Anna Maria's wide, pristine beaches, dotted with towering Australian pines. Maybe it's a vibe that's decidedly more artsy and outdoorsy than yacht clubby. Maybe it's the quaint waterside seafood shacks, or the dozens of candy-colored beach houses, or the free rides on the island-wide trolley.

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Or maybe it's the location. Anna Maria is just minutes from Longboat Key and St. Armand's Circle, two places where we could indulge our inner snobs with good wine, gourmet cuisine, and upscale shopping when the mood struck.

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The funny thing was . . . the mood never really struck. That's how charming Anna Maria is.

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But to immerse ourselves in all this charm, first we had to get there. Although Sarasota's airport is the closest one to Anna Maria, we decided to take an early morning flight into Tampa instead, which would allow us time for a leisurely lunch in Ybor City, a mid-afternoon snack in St. Pete Beach, and a scenic drive over to Anna Maria, all timed to coincide with check-in at the house we'd rented for the week.

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Our first stop was Tampa's Ybor City, a historic neighborhood founded in the 1880s by cigar manufacturers and populated by thousands of Cuban, Spanish, and Italian immigrants in the early 1900s.

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And because it was Christmas, the neighborhood was decked out in its festive finest for the holiday.

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Some folks even came bearing gifts.

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Although I've been known to travel great distances -- even to foreign countries like Anguilla and Brooklyn -- in search of the ultimate cheeseburger or pepperoni pizza, it's not my usual M.O. to seek out . . . a salad. But when I heard about the famous "1905" salad at the also-famous Columbia Restaurant, I knew we had to give it a try.

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The Columbia Restaurant is the oldest in Florida and has been owned by the same family since 1905, now in its 6th generation.

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The restaurant has also expanded over the years, now encompassing numerous dining rooms spanning an entire city block.

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And of course a sizable bar, for sampling the mojitos and sangria.

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We were seated in the main dining room, which is crowned with a spectacular skylight.

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Tossed tableside, the 1905 salad was inspired by the immigrants who worked in Ybor's cigar factories: Romano cheese from the Sicilians, garlic dressing favored by the Cubans to marinate fresh roast pork, baked ham to represent the Spaniards' beloved Iberico, plus Florida tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, and Swiss cheese.

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The salad was fantastic -- cheesy and garlicky and perfectly crisp -- but man cannot live on Swiss alone, so we had some other stuff, too.

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After lunch we made our way down to St. Pete Beach for "dessert."

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With its beachfront patio and huge selection of drinks, Bongo's at the Grand Plaza Hotel seemed like the perfect choice.

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Though it was crowded with holiday revelers, we managed to snag two seats near the soothing fountain.

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Refreshing, too, since we had our own little "sprinkler."

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We even had our choice of bands -- Latin-tinged pop at the bar, or a full-on marching band on the beach.

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By mid-afternoon, it was time to head over to Anna Maria. The drive was lovely, particularly as we approached the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay, which connects St. Petersburg to Terra Ceia, near Bradenton.

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The place we rented was one of "The Saints," a group of four bungalows in Anna Maria's southernmost neighborood, Bradenton Beach.

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I was a bit nervous about our bungalow, the 2-bed, 2-bath St. Barths unit, since it was brand-new and therefore had only a handful of reviews, and scarcely more photos. Any hesitation fell away, however, as soon as we set foot in the spacious, spic-and-span home decorated with beachy touches throughout.

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They even left us a welcome bag of snacks and a gift-wrapped tin of homemade Christmas cookies.

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Though late December in Anna Maria can be a bit chilly for swimming, I'd nevertheless made sure to rent one of the two bungalows with a private pool, hoping for the best.

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As it turned out, the entire week was gloriously sunny and unusually warm, with highs in the mid-80s each day.

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Not that it was enough to get Big Baby Angel into that "frigid" 82-degree water.

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That evening for Christmas dinner, we had reservations at the Chart House on nearby Longboat Key.

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We kicked things off with a pomegranate mojito for me, and a Bold Manhattan with chocolate bitters for Angel.

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After gobbling up that calamari, we moved on to the snapper Hemingway topped with lump crab and lemon-shallot butter, and the macadamia-nut mahi with warm peanut sauce and a mash of gorgeous purple Peruvian potatoes.

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We awoke the next morning to greet our first full day on the island, and didn't waste any time ticking the #1 item off our to-do list: Gorging ourselves on stone crabs.

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With our much-beloved Moore's closed due to the owner's retirement, we set off for SandBar, a beachfront spot that prides itself on its purveyors, many of whom are local.

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There was a wait for a table, but the warm sunshine, stunning view, and frozen rum-runners kept us well-occupied.

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Soon we were led to a "front-row" table in the sand, where it was clear that SandBar was a place where everyone can make themselves comfortable.

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Really comfortable.

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Though many spots on AMI have stone crabs, most serve them cold with a mustard dipping sauce. But butter beats mustard (and everything else) any day of the week, so SandBar wisely serves their stone crabs warm with drawn butter.

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Of course, a pile of stone crabs wasn't going to cut it for lunch, so we threw in some blackened grouper tacos with corn and black bean salsa, along with the succulent Gulf shrimp baked with crabmeat stuffing.

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After lunch we decided to do a little exploring, and were treated to a rainbow of adorable cottages and businesses.

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That evening we were scheduled to meet up with some folks we met online through this blog, Steve and Liza, who offered to give us a "barstool tour" of the area. We happily agreed and made plans to meet up at their favorite local watering hole, Clancy's, which was just across the bridge in Bradenton, but might have been an entire world away.

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Only in Bradenton can you end up dancing to a zydeco band at an Irish tiki bar with a couple of strangers you found on the Internet.

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The band, Gumbo Boogie, bills itself as a unique stew of rock, blues, country, and soul flavored with a pinch of New Orleans. All I know is, they were perfect to (gumbo) boogie down to.

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We ended up befriending the accordion player, Ryan, who invited us out to see the band later that week.

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At an old folks' home.

In a trailer park.

On New Year's Eve.

Of course, I accepted. I mean, I was already hanging out with the only accordion player in Florida under the age of 80 playing Creole-tinged favorites at an Irish tiki bar. How much weirder could things really get?

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In fact, we liked Clancy's so much that the "barstool tour" we'd been promised never actually materialized. When I teasingly mentioned this to Steve, he slid down one stool and said, "See? I was on that barstool, now I'm on this one. It's a tour!"

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While Liza and I tore up the dance floor, Angel and Steve were deep in conversation. As it turns out, Steve, also known as "Dr. G," spent his career teaching and mentoring the most forgotten students in the New York City school system -- those kids, like many Angel himself went to school with, who have a better chance of ending up in a gang, in prison, or dead than graduating high school, let alone college.

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Which explains how one can imbibe too many syrupy rum & Cokes at a kitschy roadside tiki bar and end up being brought to tears by the heartwarming stories of one man's lifelong dedication to making the world a better place.

And just to keep things from getting too sappy, it was at that moment that a motorcycle gang rode up on a bunch of Harleys, and I signaled to Angel that we should probably get out of there before the place turned into "Roadhouse."

It didn't take long, however, for me to realize that what I'd thought was a biker gang was, in fact, a bunch of former NFL players who happen to like zydeco.

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As if the night couldn't get any weirder.

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The next day we decided to do some exploring around Anna Maria, hoping for a bit of normalcy after our nutty night at Clancy's. Apparently, it was not to be.

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And we were still a week away from crashing that New Year's Eve party at the old folks' trailer park.
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Posted by TraceyG 09:34 Archived in USA Tagged tampa bongos chart_house st_pete_beach anna_maria_island columbia_restaurant Comments (8)

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