A Travellerspoint blog

Charleston Part 1: The Yankees Invade (Again)

Historic Charleston, South Carolina fairly oozes the genteel manner of a bygone era. Flickering gas lamps illuminate the city's gracious homes, while horse-drawn carriages roam her cobblestone streets. "Sir" or "ma'am" is the proper way to address someone, and even insults are softened with a gentle "bless her heart" at the end.

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Indeed, cultured Charleston has been named the "Best-Mannered City in America," a designation bestowed by etiquette expert Marjabelle Young Stewart, herself better known as the Queen of Couth.

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Yes, I know: The irony is killing you. But everyone knows that a trip report written by an ill-mannered barbarian is way more fun than a regular report, so stop your snickering.

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Most historians agree that Charleston was originally part of the Carolina territory that was granted to eight Lord Proprietors by Charles II in 1663. The Lords arranged for the first settlement, Charles Towne, as it was originally called, to be established by English settlers from Bermuda under William Sayle in 1670.

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There is, however, a little-known alternate theory, which is that Charleston was founded by a group of greedy orthopedists who conspired to create the most treacherous, uneven sidewalks in the entire 13 colonies.

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They fiendishly arranged the craggy flagstones in a haphazard jumble, then sat back and reaped the windfall that resulted from the never-ending parade of twisted ankles and busted kneecaps. While their fellow settlers delighted in the peal of the town's many church bells, these bastards delighted in the unmistakable thud of yet another unsuspecting pedestrian taking a header.

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We arrived on Friday morning to bright blue skies and warm southern breezes so, after dropping our luggage at the hotel, we decided to take a leisurely (read: painstakingly slow and wobbly) walk up to Hominy Grill in Charleston's Elliotborough neighborhood. Housed in a former barber shop, Hominy Grill is rumored to have some of the best Southern food in Charleston, so I prepared by donning my best elastic-waist expandable dress, and off we went.

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There was a bit of a wait when we arrived, so we sat on the patio with a few drinks to, er, grease the skids for the abomination of fat and cholesterol to come.

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I decided to try a John Daly, which is a boozy version of an Arnold Palmer made with local Firefly Sweet Tea vodka and lemonade. You can almost picture the advertising exec who thought that naming a mixed-up drink like iced tea and lemonade after famous golfers would make the game seem less boring. Nice try, but you could post strippers at all the odd-numbered holes and golf would still bore most people, um . . . stiff. Heh-heh.

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Our meal began with a complimentary basket of boiled peanuts. Boiling the nuts renders them delicious, salty, and addictive, made all the more so by the fact that the softened peanuts are almost impossible to remove from their shells in one piece. So you could end up eating an entire basket just for the challenge of finding the one or two peanuts that come out completely whole. Hypothetically, of course.

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Before I could get that far, our fried green tomatoes thankfully arrived. Although there is probably no one on the planet who loves tomatoes more than I do, fried green tomatoes are not for me -- the texture is just too off-putting. Luckily these came with a serving of homemade Ranch dressing, so I ate the fried breading dipped in Ranch (which is surely the official dish of at least one Southern state), while Angel ate the denuded tomatoes. Teamwork!

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Next up was Hominy Grill's famous shrimp 'n' grits. Although I thought grits might be related to crowder peas or okra or some other little-known confederate vegetable, grits are actually made from a familiar ingredient: ground corn. Which are then prepared with butter and cheese and topped with bacon, which means they could be made out of sawdust and I'd still eat them. I may be a Yankee, but I'm a Southern girl at heart, y'all!

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Angel went with the creole shrimp, which was a little bit spicy and a whole lot delicious.

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I'd heard that Hominy Grill's vegetables were worth a try, so I went with the (mouthwateringly vinegary and salty) cucumber and onion salad . . .

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. . . and the macaroni & cheese, which is vegetarian, so close enough.

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After lunch we picked up a couple of those walkers with the tennis balls for feet so that we could safely navigate around town, then shuffled over to East Bay Street to look around and grab an afternoon cocktail.

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We decided on drinks at Squeeze Bar, which bills itself as the "tightest bar in Charleston." Obviously the owner of this place has never seen a NYC closet.

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Like almost every place we visited in Charleston, Squeeze Bar is a model of cool interior design, with repurposed egg-basket light fixtures fitted with bare Edison bulbs; rough exposed brick; a chocolate brown and pale blue color scheme; nubby ostrich upholstery; and a bartender who looks like he was born to serve up small-batch whiskey.

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After successfully not dropping dead after that lunch at Hominy Grill, later that evening I decided to double-down . . . with some fried chicken skins at Husk. I know what you're thinking: Is it actually possible to improve upon chicken skin? In fact it is, if you deep-fry it, then serve it with a sticky-sweet dip made of honey and hot sauce.

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Also amazing was the bread at Husk, which is so soft as to be almost ephemeral, and topped with a thin, buttery crust dotted with pretzel salt. The result is a bread so good that it doesn't even need butter but, this being the South, you can bet your bippy there is butter aplenty. But not just any butter: pork fat butter. I can practically hear Paula Deen cackling maniacally in the background as I type this.

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The other dishes we ordered -- pimento cheese with country ham as a second shared appetizer, and the cornmeal-crusted catfish for Angel's entree -- were good, but the pork chop I ordered as my entree was, unfortunately, the fattiest, most gristle-and-bone filled piece of meat I've ever had the displeasure of leaving, almost entirely uneaten, on my plate (and which the waiter astonishingly failed to notice when he came to clear them). And so, if you are contemplating a meal at Husk, I'd recommend sticking to the bread and the fried chicken skin, and perhaps a nice after-dinner angioplasty.

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Saturday's weather was just as glorious as Friday's had been, so we planned a walk from Meeting Street west to Colonial Lake, then south to the Battery, finishing up at East Bay Street. Not wanting to undertake such a long journey without proper provisions, we stopped at 82 Queen for brunch, which we chose just as much for the food as for their lovely courtyard.

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Having decided that if the combination of fried chicken skins and Charleston's sidewalks hadn't killed us, nothing would, we each started with a bowl of 82 Queen's award-winning she-crab soup, which is made by combining a 55-gallon drum of heavy cream with 1 cup of crabmeat (measurements are approximate).

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I decided to stick with sweet tea, while Angel tried the Raspberry Spritzer. Secure in his masculinity, that one.

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I tried to go a little lighter for my entree by ordering the Oven Roasted Creamy Chicken Salad. Now, you might think the word "creamy" would be a dead giveaway that there was nothing healthy about this salad, but this is the South. The fact that they added a few pieces of lettuce to the plate automatically qualifies it for the spa menu.

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My plan to eat lighter was foiled in part by the industrial-sized jar of mayonnaise that was surely used to prepare that delicious chicken salad, and in part by Angel ordering this:

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That's right: Just when Hominy Grill had convinced me that adding butter, parmesan, and bacon was the ideal way to prepare grits, the evil genius behind the stove at 82 Queen goes and dumps a whole fistful of cheddar cheese on them instead. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!

After lunch we waddled over to Colonial Lake, which was notable for the fact that even though it was a gorgeous day, and a Saturday to boot, the lakefront wasn't completely overrun with people. Put a lake like that in the middle of NYC, and on a sunny Saturday you're liable to be trampled to death by an army of women pushing $1,000 strollers.

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Later we made our way down to the Battery, where we took in the massive oak trees at White Point Gardens.

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Oh, and the massive piles of bricks on Murray Boulevard, East Battery, and elsewhere.

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Why be repetitive when you could also be redundant in addition?

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CLICK HERE for Part 2!

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Posted by TraceyG 17:30 Archived in USA Tagged south_carolina charleston fig 82_queen hominy_grill low_country husk Comments (5)

Charleston Part 2: Breakfast of Champions

Some of Charleston's most exclusive addresses are found along its waterfront, where the homes are priced out of reach for all but the wealthiest scions of polite society. These upper-crust folks are distinguishable from us commoners by their penchant for wearing tennis outfits even when it's raining, hiring midgets to entertain their party guests, and guarding their homes with stately fake animals.

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Of course, the homeowner with the concrete animals AND the marble entryway automatically wins. You just know he's got a gold-plated toilet seat in there somewhere.

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Well-off Charlestonians have also opted for a less manicured, more kudzued look than is prevalent in the northeast.

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Of course, no walk around the Battery would be complete without an afternoon pit stop for refreshments.

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Sure, Angel is cute, but the person who owns this bike bell is my true soul mate.

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That evening was dinner at FIG, which stands for "food is good," and is also the understatement of the year. This is particularly true at FIG, which was our favorite meal in Charleston, hands-down. From the autumn-inspired allspice martinis we started with, to the salad of baby lettuces with ricotta salata, buttermilk-herb dressing, and the most succulent heirloom tomatoes I've ever tasted, to the Carolina white shrimp escabeche marinated in fall vegetables, ginger, and fresh herbs, everything was fantastic, and that was just for starters.

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For my entree, I went with the snapper barigoule, prepared with artichokes and white wine sauce, along with those same sweet tomatoes, plus turnips, carrots, and a giant blue-crab-filled raviolo. Angel decided to try the grilled triggerfish with Capers Inlet clams, sweet potato, butternut squash, fennel, and lipstick peppers, which was also delicious. A spirited fork duel then ensued, with each of us trying to defend our own dish while simultaneously stealing bites of the other's. I think you can guess who won.

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As if there weren't enough reasons to love FIG, they were burning the most deliciously fragrant Milkhouse Creamery candle in the ladies' room, which was Ginger and . . . Fig. When they care enough to match the candle to the restaurant, and I care enough to notice, you know you've got a match made in OCD heaven.

After that, we certainly didn't have any room for dessert . . . so we stopped by O'Hara and Flynn wine bar across the street for a glass of red wine. To aid with digestion, of course.

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On Sunday morning we made our way over to East Bay Street for brunch at High Cotton.

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Spending time in the South took some getting used to, what with people looking us in the eye and holding doors open for us and such, but perhaps the hardest thing to get used to was the fact that people get dressed up to go out to eat. I actually saw a man in a suit! At brunch! Show up for brunch in NYC wearing anything fancier than your pajamas or last night's clothes, and you'll get the stink eye from every hung-over slob in the place.

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After a round of regular mimosas, I decided to try a pomegranate one, while Angel went with the Huck Finn, which is made with huckleberry-infused vodka, fresh lemonade, and a splash of soda. I hereby nominate this incredibly tasty concoction as the Official Drink of Brunch, Lunch, Dinner, Supper, Breakfast, 4pm Snacks, and Midnight Snacks.

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I decided on the banana nut bread French toast with berry butter, Blis bourbon maple syrup, and applewood smoked bacon. After everything I've eaten thusfar on this trip, would it be wrong to complain that my dish didn't contain enough bacon? Two skinny slices just ain't gonna cut it, especially in a town where lard is its own food group.

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The bourbon in the syrup was a bit overpowering for my taste, and the nut bread was rich and dense, and so between the two I only ate about half of my French toast. A-ha! That explains why I needed more bacon.

Angel went with the buttermilk pancakes with spiced apple whipped cream, and managed to eat all his bacon before I could even figure out that I only had two measly slices. Hog.

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In addition to being unaccustomed to Charlestonians' charming manners, we sometimes found it difficult to remember that it was 2011, not 1954.

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After brunch we stopped by the Powder Magazine, which was originally a military storage area for loose gun powder. The Powder Magazine's walls are three feet thick, and are supported by four enormous arches designed to implode on themselves in the case of an explosion.

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A group of schoolchildren were there on a field trip when we arrived, and the guy in the skirt was telling them all about how the roof was cleverly built with sand stored in it, which would drop down and smother any fire in the event of an explosion. Sure, that was interesting, but all I could think about was how lucky I was to have grown up in Pennsylvania, where our field trips included a visit to the kitchen at a Wendy's and a trip to the Meadows Racetrack and Casino. Good ol' Pennsyltucky!

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Later that afternoon we decided to join one of the Preservation Society of Charleston's house and garden tours. Now, you may remember that we did a similar tour in Key West back in February, which ended in tears and thoughts of suicide. Charleston's tour wisely heads off such unseemliness by granting participants a mere peek into the homes on the tour: At some houses only the gardens were open to visitors; at others, only certain rooms were available for viewing. And unlike the tour in Key West, there was certainly no poking around in Kenny Chesney's closet . . . no pun intended.

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After the house tour we decided to make our way back to the hotel via King Street, which happily coincided with "Second Sunday": On the second Sunday of every month, the street is closed to vehicular traffic and becomes pedestrian-only for the afternoon. This gives residents the rare opportunity to walk on smooth, flat pavement and provides a much-needed respite from worrying about face-planting on one of the misaligned tectonic plates that pass for sidewalks around these parts.

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Tonight was the night we'd designated for tackling the Peninsula Grill's famous 12-layer coconut cake. In order to make sure we'd have room for the cake after dinner, we decided to eat at Magnolias, where they offer "small plates" in addition to their regular entrees.

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Thus, in keeping with Operation Save Room For Cake, I dutifully ordered from the small plates menu.

So I had the grilled meatloaf with butter-whipped potatoes and mushroom-sage gravy.

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And a side of macaroni and cheese.

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And a cup of tomato bisque.

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And a complete lack of willpower.

Angel had the parmesan-crusted flounder with jasmine rice and creek shrimp pirloo with sweet corn, tomato, and asparagus salad; lump crab; and a sherry beurre blanc. No, we don't know what pirloo is; it's just another of those southern words that sounds vaguely dirty to northern ears, like cattywampus or hoecake.

I could tell that our waiter, though unfailingly polite, was disappointed that we didn't order one of Magnolias' classic southern specialties, like the fried chicken or the shrimp and grits. But I didn't want to explain that I was currently engaged in Operation Coconut Cake (which would have been perceived as a direct assault on Magnolias' pecan pie), nor did I have a plausible explanation as to why eating an entire meatloaf was actually in furtherance of said operation, so I said nothing, even though I felt bad that he was left with the mistaken impression that I hadn't eaten everything in Charleston that wasn't nailed down.

And so it was on to the Peninsula Grill. I'd worn a dress and heels for the occasion, to go along with Angel's blazer, as we understood that jackets were recommended for men. So imagine my surprise when we arrived at the Champagne Bar, only to see at least two patrons in jeans, one of whom was also wearing a jean jacket. I'm sorry, but jeans + a jean jacket = a crime not only against fashion, but against all people with eyes.

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The Ultimate Coconut Cake, as it is called, should probably be the Penultimate thing you eat before you die. (The Ultimate being a feast of lasagna, cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, potatoes au gratin, fried pork chops, meatloaf, and macaroni & cheese . . . but I digress). It is a whopping 5" tall and extremely dense, so much so that it looks like it might be dry as dust -- but is actually so moist that the cake sticks to your fork.

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The layers of super-moist cake are alternated with layers of a decadent coconut cream that's been infused with fresh vanilla. And just when your eyes have rolled almost completely back in your head, you discover that the outside of the cake is completely covered in a butter-and-cream-cheese frosting, and that is covered with freshly toasted coconut.

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Angel and I shared one slice but still could not finish it, and so we did the next best thing: We ate half at Peninsula Grill, and the other half for breakfast the next morning. Wheaties, Schmeaties.

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CLICK HERE for Part 3!

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Posted by TraceyG 17:29 Archived in USA Tagged charleston low_country high_cotton peninsula_grill coconut_cake magnolia's Comments (2)

Charleston Part 3: Fit to be Fried

Monday morning started off cloudy with threatening skies, so it wasn't the best day for the lunch we had planned, which was to enjoy the view of the water from Fleet Landing. However, Monday also happens to be Fried Pork Chop Day at Fleet Landing, which means we were going there regardless of whether we received 3 inches of rain or 3 feet.

Housed in a 1940s structure built by the U.S. Navy as a debarkation point for sailors, Fleet Landing's interior design is what the restaurant refers to as "maritime chic," and what others might call, "Where the hell are all the cute Navy officers I was expecting to see?"

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Angel said he'd just have a few bites of whatever appetizer I chose, so I seized the opportunity to order one of the world's great artery-cloggers: spinach and artichoke dip. The northern version of this dip is made with, in order of appearance, spinach, artichokes, and a bit of cheese to bind it all together. In Charleston, however, this dip consists of an entire bowl of cheese and cream bound together with a single spinach leaf and a pea-sized piece of artichoke. In other words, it was divine.

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But the real star of this lunch was the fried pork chops. I mean, knock me down and steal my teeth! Butter my butt and call me a biscuit! Lordy be, but these were some dang good pork chops!

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Oh, and Angel had some food, too.

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These interesting light fixtures are made from blocks of syrofoam. Our waiter said they were to help with the acoustics of the large space, but I think it's to muffle the sound of people yelling "HOLY #$%^!" when they finally get a taste of those pork chops.

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After lunch the rain really picked up, so we instituted our rainy-day contingency plan, which was to walk up to the South Carolina Aquarium. But we'd only gone about two blocks before my shoes started squishing like a soaked sponge, so we called a cab and headed on up.

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This is an albino alligator. I can't remember his name, but judging from his skin, I'm guessing it's not Marshmallow.

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Call me paranoid, but the large seam running down the middle of this aquarium is less than reassuring.

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By the time we were ready to leave the aquarium, it was a full-blown monsoon outside, complete with pouring rain and whipping wind.

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Indeed, the weather was so horrible that by the time we got back to the hotel, I did what any reasonable person who'd been caught in a semi-tropical storm would do: I peeled off all my wet clothes, then took to my bed with a martini.

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For dinner on our last night, we decided to save the best for last. Cypress, you ask, or S.N.O.B.? McCrady's, perhaps? Well . . . not exactly.

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That's right: Where there's a 'Shroom, there's a Tracey.

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In the grand tradition of wanting whatever I can't have, Mellow Mushroom ranks near the top of my list, given that the closest one to my house is in Washington, D.C. As soon as I discovered that there was a Shroom right in downtown Charleston, visions of pepperonis began dancing in my head.

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Having decided that free-flowing arteries are completely overrated, Angel ordered the aptly-named Holy Shiitake pizza, which consists of grilled shiitake, button, and Portobello mushrooms and caramelized onions on an olive oil- and garlic-slathered crust. This fungilicious delight is then topped with mozzarella and Montamore cheese (a sort of parmesan-cheddar hybrid, the inventor of which should win the Nobel Peace Prize), drizzled with garlic aioli, and spritzed (yes, spritzed) with black truffle oil, then garnished with shaved parmesan. One slice is estimated to be 17,000 calories, or 2 additional belt notches.

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Mellow Mushroom's pizza has a unique taste, probably because the crust is made using spring water instead of tap water, and the crust does not contain any refined white sugar. That sounds suspiciously like some sort of health food, which is why I wasn't foolish enough to actually finish mine. Well, at least not all of it.

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Our last day began with Angel and I dragging ourselves to the gym in a futile attempt to undo the damage inflicted by a thousand mushrooms the night before. As Angel leisurely pedaled away on his exercise bike, I decided to spring on him the surprise I'd been harboring for weeks: I was taking him to Chick-fil-A for lunch. So I leaned over and, as casually as possible, said, "You know, you're gonna have to pedal alot faster than that if you want to go to Chick-fil-A for lunch today!" At which point, after the shock wore off, Angel pedaled so fast that the fake wheels fell off his exercise bike and the electronic speedometer went up in smoke.

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Now, if you've never been to a Chick-fil-A before, you're probably wondering why all the fuss over a simple fast-food chicken sandwich. All I can tell you is that Chick-fil-A serves the most tender, juicy, almost sweet piece of all-white-meat fried chicken ever to be placed on a soft, pillowy, perfectly buttered bun. Each sandwich is served completely plain so as to not distract from its fowly fabulousness, save for 2 or 3 small bread-and-butter pickles tucked underneath the filet. Although I don't actually eat those, the remaining pickle juice adds just the right je ne sais quoi to the sandwich, resulting in pure poultry perfection.

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Sadly, we were forced to enjoy our meal in full view of a bunch of students from the College of Charleston, all of whom can down twice the amount of Chick-fil-A that we can, because they have twice the metabolic speed. As if that weren't reason enough to hate them, they also get to spend their days wandering around what has to be one of the world's most gorgeous college campuses, burning off all that Chick-fil-A and Mellow Mushroom.

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After lunch we took another walk down King Street to do a little shopping.

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The patrons and owners of this adorable Italian place off King Street have taken a blood oath of secrecy, which is the only possible explanation for me not finding out about it and then proceeding to eat them out of house and home.

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The pull of the mother ship. Strong, it is.

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This adorable little store is the Savannah Bee Company.

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All of the honeys sold here are produced for a different purpose, such as sweetening your tea, drizzling over cheese, or adding to a marinade for grilling, and are available to try at their tasting bar.

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Although I didn't taste any discernible difference among them, I am a sucker for both cute stores and cool packaging and therefore purchased one of each.

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We were strolling along when we noticed this interesting gate:

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We followed the shady path to the cemetery at St. Michael's Episcopal Church, which is hauntingly beautiful during the day with its weathered headstones and overgrown foliage, but would surely scare the bejeezus out of you after dusk.

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This has to be the saddest little headstone I've ever seen. You spend, 50, 70, maybe even 90 years on this planet, and all you end up with is a headstone the size of a potholder? What a ripoff.

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As is liable to happen in the Holy City, we came across more churches than you could shake a stick at during our walk. To avoid mixing up their names and exposing myself for the heathen that I am, let's just call them all St. Elmo's in honor of the best movie of 1985.

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Inside one of the churches, Angel knelt in one of the pews and said a short prayer of thanks for our lovely trip to Charleston, while I took some pictures and concentrated on not bursting into flames.

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Soon it was time to return to the hotel and prepare for departure, so we decided to take the scenic route back. Not that there's any other kind of route in Charleston.

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Along the way we spotted these two adorable wine bars, which immediately made me curse the fact that I'd wasted time walking around and taking pictures when I could have been doing something worthwhile, like drinking.

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Although we didn't have any more wine, we did stop by the Southend Brewery & Smokehouse so Angel could sample their beer, which is brewed on the premises.

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Unfortunately none of them could live up to the Palmetto Espresso Porter he'd had at Hominy Grill earlier in our trip. The way Angel was stalking that beer all over town, you'd think it was a hard-to-find chicken sandwich or something.

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Do you know what lots of beer plus Charleston sidewalks equals?

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Top billing in the next Jackass movie, that's what. They can just pay me in pork chops.

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Next up, we're headed back to Anguilla, where the beaches will be beautiful, the rum punches will be potent, and the cheeseburgers will be plentiful . . . and then to Key West, where the beaches will be rocky, the drinks will be free-flowing, and the amount of weird will be off the charts. Hit the "Subscribe" button located in the box on the right-hand side of the page and you'll receive an e-mail alert when a new report is posted!

Posted by TraceyG 17:28 Archived in USA Tagged south_carolina charleston mellow_mushroom low_country fleet_landing Comments (5)

Victorian Cape May, Part 1: A Tale of Two Doilies

At first blush, the Victorian-era town of Cape May, New Jersey might not seem like the kind of place that Angel and I would normally enjoy. First off, it's "family friendly," which is travel industry-speak for a town full of little people whose faces are perpetually covered in a mixture of ice cream and dried tears.

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Second, although it's not technically a dry town, you still might find yourself debating which is more difficult, finding a decent martini or remaining sober through yet another haunted mansion tour.

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Finally, Cape May is located in a state that is home to both Snooki and to more toxic waste dumps than any other state in the union, which can't possibly be a coincidence. (I'm kidding, New Jerseyans. Please don't arrange a mob hit on me.)

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And did I mention the doilies? Good god, the doilies.

Yet despite these obvious drawbacks, Angel and I have been returning to this beautiful seaside resort town for over ten years now. With its Norman Rockwell charm, wide sandy beaches, and pointy Victorian architecture, Cape May provides the perfect place for us to slow down, take it easy, and eat our faces off.

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One of the best places to do that is at Freda's, an unassuming storefront that gives no indication of the 18 patterns of floral wallpaper hidden inside . . .

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. . . or of the outstanding cooking by chef Steve Howard, whose wife is the namesake Freda.

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We've enjoyed many delicious meals at Freda's, and this night was no exception. I decided to try one of the night's many specials, the beef Wellington with mushrooms and crabmeat. Much like nobody actually orders a pot pie for the chicken, I ordered the Wellington just for the buttery, flaky, mushroomy pastry puff. That thing could have been stuffed with lint and I'd still have eaten every bite.

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Yes, every bite.

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Angel went with the snapper with Jersey tomato creole sauce, which was tangy with tomatoes and red peppers, and just spicy enough to complement but not overwhelm the fish.

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The ambiance was warm and comfortable, the caring service could not have been better, and we love trying the chef's fresh, inventive take on familiar dishes.

Also, Freda's serves the most decadent, dessert-y version of mashed sweet potatoes I've ever tasted, and if I have to stuff down a beef Wellington just to get to those potatoes, so be it.

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Earlier that day, we'd stopped by the Lobster House for a quick lunch before checking in at our hotel.

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The decor here runs toward wooden ship's wheels and brass lanterns.

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In keeping with the decor's nautical theme, all of the female wait staff are forced to dress like patriotic versions of Shirley Temple on the Good Ship Lollipop. Faces have been obscured to protect the innocent.

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Entrees at the Lobster House come with a small salad and the usual assortment of dressings, plus a sundried tomato vinaigrette with oregano, which sounded more interesting than the others. When I asked our waitress what she thought of it, she replied cheerily, "Well, I've never actually tried it, but I don't think anyone's ever, like, complained about it!" And with that ringing endorsement, I went ahead and ordered my salad with the sundried tomato vinaigrette.

As our waitress astutely predicted, I did not complain.

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It's just a shame they're so stingy with the bread.

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Angel ordered the fish special, almond-encrusted flounder with curry cream sauce. Although the sauce lacked curry's usual heat, it was creamy and tasty, and the fish was flaky and moist with a pleasant crunch from the almonds. I was feeling generous, so I even let Angel have a few bites.

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I went with the baked shrimp stuffed with crabmeat. At first I thought they brought me an appetizer portion by mistake, but then I realized, not everyone out there is lucky enough to be a human trash compactor like myself.

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Anchored alongside the Lobster House is the schooner American, which also serves as an outdoor cocktail lounge. This place could provide hours of entertainment if you're the designated driver: Nope, I didn't feel anything. Wait, you think the bar is actually bobbing? Geez, you must be really . . . tipsy.

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In addition, there's a takeout window, which I do not recommend since, without a sailor-suit-clad waitress, you'll never know it if they get together for a rousing rendition of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" at break time.

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I like lobster as much as the next guy, but seeing one the size of a small child is quite disconcerting.

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After lunch we checked in at our hotel, the Star Inn. Located directly across the street from its sister property, Congress Hall, guests of the Star enjoy all the amenities of Congress Hall at a fraction of the price, plus an adorable coffee shop, vouchers for coffee and pastries, and a charming front porch on which to enjoy it.

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Unfortunately, that bargain came at a price, namely, our room's location directly across from Congress Hall's nightclub, the Boiler Room, which made it impossible to sleep once the club got going at night. I know you're thinking, if you can't beat 'em, why not join 'em? And we would have, if I only I hadn't left my leopard print micro-dress, platform stilettos, and 38 double-Ds at home.

Although all of the Congress Hall properties were fully booked this Labor Day weekend, they miraculously had one early check-out, which just happened to be the one room at Congress Hall that was the absolute furthest from the nightclub. Thank you, early-checker-outer!

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First opened in 1816 as a simple boarding house for summer visitors, Congress Hall was originally called "The Big House" by its owner, Thomas H. Hughes. Convinced the building was far too large to ever be a success, however, Cape May locals nicknamed it "Tommy's Folly." Those Victorians sure knew how to hurl an insult.

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Did I also mention that the room they gave us was an oceanfront penthouse suite, and that they knocked $400 off the rate? At the hotels we usually stay at, knocking that much off the room rate would mean they'd owe us money.

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One of the things we loved about the room were the old-school tiles and fixtures.

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Even the room keys were designed to look like the old paper tickets the hotel's early guests would use to travel to Cape May by train. You might think those large brass rectangles would make the keys harder to lose, but you would be wrong.

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As much as we liked our room, we could have lived without the Overlook Hotel-style hallways. REDRUM!

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However, all was forgiven as soon as I saw this. Sure, there might be murderous twins roaming the halls, but at least they're quiet twins.

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Right around the corner from Congress Hall is the heart of Cape May, a quaint outdoor shopping district called the Washington Mall. The Washington Mall is chock-full of shops and restaurants like a regular mall, minus the big hair and people who don't know how to park.

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One of our favorite shops is Love the Cook. No, we don't cook; their wares are what we like to call aspirational.

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But we do take showers, and you can find every possible scent and form of shower gel, bath gel, shower cream, bubble bath, and plain old soap at Bath Time.

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While I spent an hour or so in Bath Time sampling every product in the store, Angel spent an hour at Jackson Mountain sampling a draft beer and a Yankees game.

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A little off the beaten path is another great shop, Wanderlust, where you can find everything from fish rugs to pineapple tables to seahorse bags. Couldn't everyone use a flip-flop chip-and-dip set?

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Cape May is also home to one of the largest collections of Victorian homes in the country, second only to San Francisco. Which is of course the first place that comes to mind when you think about Victorian prudes.

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On Saturday we decided to ride our bikes over to the West Cape May Tomato Festival.

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Naturally, I came prepared.

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I was not, however, prepared for tomato hats, tomato earrings, and such saucy t-shirts.

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Or so many adorably apple-cheeked kids.

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The festival was, unfortunately, a bit short on its namesake tomatoes. I'd been expecting plates of tomatoes, bowls of tomatoes, tomato soup, tomato tarts, tomato everything. But there weren't too many choices, unless you count this yummy tomato bread . . .

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Or the "tomato chocolate cake," which I will try right after the garlic brownie and the pork chop a la mode.

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Luckily there were a few other choices to be had, like the incredibly meaty crab cakes from the Cape May Crab Cake Factory, and the fantastic raspberry and strawberry lemonades from Sweet Roses Twisted Lemonade.

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Having stuffed ourselves full of tomato bread, crab cakes, and lemonade, we decided to go with a light lunch of salads at Aleathea's restaurant, located at the Inn of Cape May.

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Of course, the real reason I wanted a salad was so I could drown it in Aleathea's homemade Champagne-basil vinaigrette, which is scandalously thick and rich and tastes like freshly-picked basil.

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A chef's salad sounded perfect . . . and . . . you already know where this is going, don't you? A quick scan of the menu revealed that they had taken the chef's salad off the menu! Either chef's salads are now passe, relegated to the Great Culinary Trashheap along with aspic and steak Diane or, more likely, there really is a worldwide shortage of ham and turkey. Forget grain futures, people: The smart money's on cold cuts.

And so I did what anyone whose plans for a light lunch were foiled would do: I ordered a double-wide cheesesteak.

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Before dinner that evening we decided to have drinks at Congress Hall's elegant Brown Room bar.

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The Brown Room draws the fashionable crowd in Cape May, like this guy, who seems to have been going for Prep School Headmaster, but took a wrong turn at Secret Service Agent.

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My drink was made with vodka, fresh strawberries, lemon, club soda, and muddled fresh basil from nearby Beach Plum Farm. For those with any qualms or misgivings about drinking a cocktail with so much basil in it, rest assured: that's what the vodka is for.

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Dinner that night was at the Black Duck on Sunset, located in an old clapboard house that still retains its choppy layout. This makes the Black Duck a great place to eat if you enjoy being seated in the foyer on top of your hostess. That, of course, depends on what she looks like, and how many vodka-and-basil drinks you had beforehand.

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I started with the lobster bisque, while Angel had the lobster dumplings.

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For entrees we both had the Szechwan spiced beef and peanut stir fry, which was delicious.

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This gorgeous building is the Peter Shields Inn.

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The Peter Shields is one of the classiest places in all of Cape May, mostly by virtue of the fact that they managed to stick to just one floral pattern for the wallpaper.

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Also, this is one swanky bar, particularly for a place that doesn't have a liquor license.

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The menu at PSI looked fantastic, with summery dishes like lobster and corn chowder and garden risotto. This place is definitely on the list for our next trip, partly because the food sounds amazing, and partly because eating dinner in a room that doesn't clash with my dress will be a first for me in Cape May.

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CLICK HERE to read Part 2!

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Posted by TraceyG 05:28 Archived in USA Tagged new_jersey cape_may jersey_shore freda's lobster_house congress_hall star_inn Comments (1)

Victorian Cape May, Part 2: A Tale of Two Doilies

On Sunday we decided to try a tiny taco joint we'd spotted while biking around West Cape May the previous day, Key West Tacos. In ten trips to Key West I've never actually eaten a taco there, but if you think I'm turning down a plate full of corn chips on some technicality, you're crazy.

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Though not much bigger than a walk-in closet, the decor is unique and funky, much like Key West itself.

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You'd think Stoner Beverage would sell something a little stronger than 7-Up, no?

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The ten different type of tacos here are overstuffed with the filling of your choice, plus cheese, lettuce, island slaw, and pico de gallo, making a delightfully cheesy, slawy mess all over your plate -- and your lap, should you be daring enough to pick one up.

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They're served with the aforementioned corn chips and a tasty Mexican version of dirty rice.

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Everything was fresh and delicious, so Angel and I made like a couple of contestants at a hot-dog eating contest and devoured every bit, in about 10 minutes flat.

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Also, for those of you still concerned about the Great Napkin Shortage of 2011, I am happy to report that Cape May has thankfully been spared.

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Afterwards we biked around for a bit in a doomed effort to be able to button our pants, taking in a number of interesting sights.

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Mark my words: This homeowner's wife is either dead, or wearing the Hope Diamond on her finger right now.

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If you are parked at a 10-hour meter and still find yourself in need of a five-minute grace period, perhaps what you really need is a new watch.

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You know how I occasionally wonder aloud on this web site about why on earth I ever got married? Well, here's one reason: Angel's willingness to pose with a random clump of freakishly large mushrooms . . . without even asking why.

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I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.

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Of course, you can't bike around Cape May without taking in its many "painted ladies," which can put a smile on anyone's face . . . particularly if they're named Benjamin Moore or Sherwin Williams.

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Among all the Victorians, somehow this gorgeous Mexican-style house just, er . . . snuck in. I know, I know. But my last name's Gonzalez, so it's okay.

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Anyone who matches their porch chairs and their golf cart to their house is A-OK in my book.

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Later that afternoon we decided to check out Reggae Sunday at the Rusty Nail, located at the new Beach Shack hotel. The folks behind the Beach Shack took what was an outdated, slated-for-demolition motel called the Coachman and brilliantly capitalized on the current craze for all things retro by renovating absolutely . . . nothing.

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Wood paneling? Check. Old-school newell-post bar stools? Check. Attached-bench picnic tables? Yep, they have those too.

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The Shack draws a well-groomed crowd.

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We'd no sooner kicked off our shoes, buried our toes in the sand, and ordered a round of drinks, when these two tiny humans plopped themselves down not two feet away from us.

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After some looking around, I finally spotted mom and dad, seated on the opposite side of the restaurant out of both sight and earshot, enjoying their drinks in relative peace. At first I was surprised that Mom would leave her kids alone with two strangers, but after an hour of listening to these two making truck noises, it finally hit me: She was hoping we'd kidnap them. Nice try, lady.

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After that trauma, Angel and I immediately retreated back into our coccoon of safety.

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That evening we had reservations at Louisa's, a postage-stamp sized place that's known for its ever-changing chalkboard menu and made-from-scratch desserts.

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Jersey tomatoes were in season, so I had mine with feta, while Angel went with the fresh mozzarella.

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Louisa's specializes in fresh fish, so Angel and I ordered roughly the same thing for our entrees, too: The mahi-mahi, his blackened with lime Srichacha sauce, and mine simply grilled with basil mayonnaise.

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It is probably wonderful for your husband to gaze lovingly at you like this after many years of marriage, but I wouldn't know . . . since he's actually staring at my dessert.

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I went with the Jersey peach crisp with toasted almonds, while Angel tried the blackbottom pie. Both were served with a generous dollop of real whipped cream, which was delicious, but not as much fun as squirting the stuff from a can directly into your mouth.

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On our last morning we decided to take a walk along the Promenade down to Cove Beach, where you can also find the aptly named Cove restaurant, a tiny spot that's in perpetual danger of being buried by the dune.

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We decided to stay awhile and take in the view.

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Later we rode down to the opposite end of Cape May for lunch at the Pier House. The new houses at this end of town are designed in the same style as town's original Victorians, presumably with the added benefit of being able to plug in a hair dryer without blowing a fuse.

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It is a sad state of affairs when someone's garage is way nicer than your actual house.

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At first glance, the Pier House wouldn't seem to have much going for it: an out-of-the-way location on Beach & Pittsburgh, an outdated web site, and an exterior that looks like a Swiss chalet. But to miss this place would be to miss one of the best meals you're likely to have in Cape May.

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Angel started with the Pyrat Punch, and the only thing you need to know about how potent it was is that he was afraid to finish it. You know how strict the cops are about drinking and bicycling.

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For our lunch entrees, I had the Mad Greek salad, which was similar to a Greek country salad -- no lettuce, and bursting with red and yellow tomatoes, fresh cucumbers, sharp feta, and a hint of mint, and finished with a simple dressing of pungent Greek olive oil, lemon juice, and oregano.

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This salad made up for every single tomato I didn't get to eat at the Tomato Festival.

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Angel went with the Mediterranean chicken sandwich. Imagine juicy chicken marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, and oregano; creamy melted feta; red onions and bitter arugula; and the ripest tomatoes you've ever tasted, all squished together on buttery, grilled Texas toast.

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We're already planning our next visit, and next time we'll order two of those sandwiches, to avoid ending up in divorce court.

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Sure, the patterned upholstery here might give you a seizure . . . but, really, where in Cape May is that not the case?

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Next up, we're headed to Charleston, SC , so hit the "Subcribe" button in the upper right corner and you'll be the first to know whether it's possible to devour Chucktown's famous 12-layer coconut cake in one bite!

Posted by TraceyG 05:25 Archived in USA Tagged new_jersey cape_may jersey_shore key_west_tacos rusty_nail beach_shack pier_house Comments (3)

East Hampton: Rowdy Public Displays of Eating and Drinking

Once named "The Most Beautiful Village in America" by National Geographic magazine, East Hampton is a curious mix of old and new, of country charm and city sophistication.

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With country lanes canopied by 100-year-old maple trees, a town pond complete with a pair of graceful swans, and a quaint Main Street chock-a-block with charming storefronts, East Hampton is a Manhattanite's dream come true: a getaway with all the scenery and charm of the country, but where you can still get a decent bagel, a newspaper, or a $3,000 cashmere wrap without having to drive an hour into town. Think of it as Country Lite.

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East Hampton was founded almost 130 years before the American Revolution by a group of settlers from Lynn, Massachusetts. Apparently they heard about the bagels and made a beeline south.

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The settlers must have enjoyed their new digs a little too much because, in 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts declared the celebration of Christmas in East Hampton to be a criminal offense. The Court's aim was to suppress the excesses of the season, which, according to the town's historical society, included "rowdy public displays of eating and drinking, mockery of established authority, aggressive begging, and boisterous invasions."

Which must be exactly how East Hampton locals view us visitors from Manhattan.

Today, the best place in East Hampton to conduct a rowdy public display of eating and drinking is at the aptly named Rowdy Hall. Known for its oversized Rowdy Burgers, originally Rowdy Hall served as a boardinghouse for East Hampton's artist colony. The restaurant earned its name from the town's churchgoers who, seeing the place still full of reveling guests as they passed by on Sunday mornings, declared it to be a "rowdy hall." Isn't that what makes this country great? Some folks worship God; others worship keggers.

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This is Rowdy Hall's tomato soup with toasted croutons made out of tiny grilled cheese sandwiches. The fact that someone didn't think of this sooner is proof positive that America really is in decline.

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Do you really need to ask what I ate next?

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I know what you're thinking, but a cheeseburger this good could turn anyone into a mesmerized zombie.

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Obviously things were bound to get a bit messy, so Angel and I asked our waitress for some extra napkins. This is what she brought us.

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That's right: The Great Napkin Shortage of 2011 has now spread to the northeast.

East Hampton is filled with many gorgeous homes owned by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jay-Z. One of the most iconic, though, is the "White House," which belongs to Italian-born real estate developer Fred Mengoni.

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Mengoni, who was interviewed by the New York Times in 1997, told the newspaper that the house's bathroom fixtures are gold plated, as are most of the doorknobs and closet handles, and that the cobblestone driveway is heated from below ground to melt the ice in winter. He also told the Times that his motive for coming to America was Marilyn Monroe, whom he had seen in a movie. ''I like blondes,'' Mengoni, then a bachelor in his 70s, was quoted as saying. ''I have many.''

With a house like this, Freddie baby, consider me the latest addition to your harem.

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Besides obscene amounts of wealth and loads of celebrities, perhaps the thing East Hampton is best known for is being home to Food Network personality Ina Garten, also known as the Barefoot Contessa. With her self-satisfied chuckle and the catchphrase, "You're not gonna believe how easy this is," Ina makes whipping up bouillabaisse and chocolate souffles for 12 look about as difficult as hitting a millionaire with your shopping cart at the local Citarella.

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On a recent visit to East Hampton, I stopped by Ina's house to snap some photos. Like many Hamptons homes, Ina's is protected by a tall hedge, a security gate, an alarm system, rabid pit bulls, barbed wire, and a large sign indicating that trespassers will be shot on sight and then fricasseed. Thus understandably wary of attracting unwanted attention, Angel left the car in drive and ducked down in the front seat in case we needed to make a quick getaway, while I jumped out and pretended to be looking for the correct address, calling out in my best blueblood accent, "Bunny? Muffie? Where are you, darlings??"

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Although I'm sorry to report that I didn't see Ina, if I had, I imagine the conversation would have gone something like this:

Ina [irately]: What the hell are you doing on my property?
Me [nervously]: Um, taking pictures?
Ina [demandingly]: What are you, some kind of paparazzi?
Me [sheepishly]: Um, not really . . . I mean, sort of . . . um . . .
Ina [conclusively]: You're here to steal Jeffrey from me, aren't you? I knew it! That's it - I'm calling the police!
Me [beseechingly]: Well, can't you at least send me off with some homemade white-chocolate-chunk brownies for the ride to the station?
Ina [haughtily]: You're not gonna believe how easy they are.

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Not far from Ina's house is one of the loveliest spots in town, East Hampton Point. East Hampton Point resort encompasses hotel suites, cottages, tennis courts, a marina, and . . . oh, who cares about any of that? There's a restaurant!

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Luckily the food is good, since the view is so blah.

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I mean, who can resist a calamari salad with homemade Fritos in it? Not me.

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The resort is currently for sale for the bargain price of $30 million. Start saving your pennies thousand dollar bills!

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This is the wooden racing sloop The Jade. The building that houses East Hampton Point's restaurant was constructed around it when the cost of docking and maintaining the boat became too much. The fact that it was cheaper to actually build a building around it probably tells you everything you need to know about dockage prices in the Hamptons.

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Just down the road from East Hampton is the blink-and-you'll-miss-it village of Amagansett. "Amagansett" is an old Montaukett Indian word meaning "land of the wealthy granola-eaters" . . . roughly translated, of course.

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Despite its small size, Amagansett packs a wide variety of shops into a postage-stamped size space.

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After a stroll around the village, we popped into the local library to use the restroom, where we were glad to see that Yankee ingenuity is alive and well.

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One of the most interesting shops in Amagansett is Cursive East End, an upscale stationery store in the square. Here you can purchase pens, pencils, and other implements that you can use to confirm that after a weekend in the Hamptons, your checkbook balance is now zero.

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After a day of shopping in Amagansett, one of the best places to refuel is at Jack's Stir Brew.

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This place serves something called the Mad Max, which is a regular coffee blended with a shot of espresso. Next time you want your hubby to clean the house, wash the car, alphabetize your DVD collection, count every single hair on your head, and participate in a triathalon, get him a Mad Max, then sit back and relax.

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About halfway between Amagansett and Montauk is something called the Napeague Stretch. Although it sounds like some excruciating new yoga pose, the Napeague Stretch is actually a desolate stretch of highway between Amagansett and Montauk lined with dunes, pine trees, peekaboo ocean views, and a few roadside clam bars, including one owned by the most famous white guy in Anguilla, Cyril Fitzsimons.

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Cyril's on a weekend afternoon resembles a scene from the movie "Roadhouse," if all the actors were Manhattan yuppies and wayward bikers, instead of Patrick Swayze, Sam "I Need a Shampoo" Elliott, and that blind guy.

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Cyril himself holds court from the comfort of his padded wicker chair, deigning to speak to those he deems worthy and barking at (if you're lucky) or outright hollering at (if you're not) those whom he does not.

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How does an Irish Anguillian end up presiding over a hopping clam bar in the Hamptons, you ask? Apparently you leave your native Dublin for a vacation in NYC, join the Marines while on a pub crawl through Times Square, get yourself shipped overseas to fight in the Vietnam War, get shot in the foot and return to Dublin, get caught up in a little matter involving some alleged explosives, open a popular gay bar in Barcelona, return to Manhattan and open a bar on the Upper East Side . . . then somehow end up splitting your time between a sleepy Caribbean island and the star-studded Hamptons. Of course.

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Our first order of business was a round of rum punches, which come with a floater of dark rum on top.

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While I am normally a big fan of extra booze, in this case the rum turned the punch an unappetizing rust color and added a caramely sweetness that I didn't care for. In addition, the punch was missing the most important ingredient besides the rum, which is a dash of freshly grated nutmeg on top. I'm sorry, but I am a stickler for this. A rum punch without nutmeg is like a meatloaf without gravy. It's like spaghetti without a few dozen meatballs. It's just wrong.

And so I was forced to order a BBC instead.

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The BBC was fantastic. I love bananas, but I rarely order banana coladas or banana daiquiris because they are often sickeningly sweet. In this case, however, the bitter coffee flavor of the Bailey's really took the edge off the sweetness, and the rum really took the edge off . . . everything else.

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For lunch we started with the teriyaki scallops, which were so plump and juicy they didn't even need the sauce. Which was good, since we were already a little sauced ourselves.

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As good as the scallops were, they were no match for the garlic-crusted tilapia, which was redolent of deeply roasted garlic and swimming in perfectly browned butter.

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In fact, I am still thinking about that damn fish, mostly because I ordered a salad and the crab cakes.

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To be fair, the salad was very good, and the crab cakes were delicious, with absolutely no filler except for some fresh corn and a bit of shredded carrot for color. True, I don't normally order something so healthy, but have you forgotten about those grilled cheese croutons and the oversized cheeseburger chaser already? Even that tapeworm I probably have is no match for that kind of calorie-fest.

As we were leaving Cyril's, we ran into this guy enjoying a beer.

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I recommended that he give the BBC a try - I think he'd really lap it up.

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Over the next few months we're headed south, to Cape May, Charleston, and Anguilla. Hit the "Subscribe" button on the upper right and you'll be the first to know whether there's any food left after we leave town!

Posted by TraceyG 05:55 Archived in USA Tagged hamptons east_hampton rowdy_hall Comments (7)

Summer in the Hamptons: Don't You Know Who I Am???

Hardly a summer weekend goes by that Angel and I don't find ourselves inventing reasons to make the 35-minute drive from our cottage to the lovely village of Sag Harbor. "Yeah, we need, um . . . spark plugs! And kumquats! Oh, and toenail clippers!" Whatever the item, we convince ourselves that the best -- nay, the only -- place to get one is in Sag Harbor.

Which might not be entirely untrue.

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Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and set along a miles-long shoreline fronting Noyac Bay, Sag Harbor is midway between the Hamptons and the North Fork, both in distance and sensibility.

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Founded in 1707 as a colonial-era whaling port, today Sag Harbor is known for its artsy residents, funky shops, and distinct lack of attitude -- which in the Hamptons means that the millionaires drive beat-up Volvo station wagons instead of Rolls Royces.

Well, except for when they're driving their Maseratis . . .

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Or their Bentleys . . .

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Or flying their seaplanes.

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The friendly locals and natural beauty are nice, but the real reason to visit Sag Harbor is for margaritas. Not just any margaritas, of course, but the supremely tasty watermelon margaritas at B. Smith's, a chic waterfront restaurant that exudes a summertime vibe with its crisp navy and white decor.

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B.'s uses only fresh watermelon juice in its margaritas, so they taste a bit different every year based on the quality of that year's watermelon crop. Ahh, 2008. Now that was a great vintage.

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The food at B's is light and healthy, ensuring that you don't waste precious stomach space on food instead of tequila.

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B's also boasts a prime location right on the marina, where some of the world's largest yachts drop anchor for the summer.

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This is the yacht "Kisses," which is owned by the billionaire Norman Braman. "Kisses" ranks as #47 on the list of the world's largest yachts, which, in the world of billionaires, must be like driving a Hyundai instead of a Mercedes. Poor Norm.

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At least he was able to scrape together enough pocket change to hire a cleaning crew.

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Spending a lazy Saturday afternoon lounging on the deck at B.'s with a watermelon margarita in hand, the sun on my face, watching the sailboats glide by . . . kinda makes you wanna punch me, right? Look, it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it.

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At least it comes with incentives. Heh-heh.

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Really, the only downside to Sag Harbor is all the communists.

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This is the iconic "Sag Harbor" sign, which graces the town's only movie theater.

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In 2004, the owner of the theater planned to replace the sign with something new, but the townspeople gathered up their pitchforks decided they didn't like that idea and actually paid for a replica of the old sign instead. You know how people hate change.

Another landmark in Sag Harbor is the Dock House, a tiny seafood joint on Long Wharf that serves up fresh lobster and other seafood.

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Rub-a-dub-dub, 50 lobsters in a tub.

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Also happening on Long Wharf? Setup for the Rock the Dock Summer Gala Benefit Bash, which I, er, attended in a most spontaneous manner last year.

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In addition to B. Smith's, another great spot in Sag Harbor is Beacon, a tiny restaurant at the Sag Harbor Cove Yacht Club.

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I know what you're thinking, and I don't know why they let me in, either.

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One of the things Angel likes best about Beacon is that when we share an appetizer, they automatically split it in the kitchen and serve it on two separate plates. That way, he at least has a fighting chance of getting a taste of it.

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We also love their fish, whether squished into a taco or luxuriating on a bun.

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Bartender, she'll have a double.

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Given Sag Harbor's laid-back air, I'm sure you're thinking that having a midget buddy wouldn't be necessary here. But you'd be wrong: Who else could fit in these tiny little houses?

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The houses in Sag Harbor aren't the only things reminiscent of a bygone era.

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Really bygone.

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Even the burger joints are old-school.

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Are there two more beautiful words in the English language than TWINKIE MILKSHAKE?

Just down the road from Sag Harbor is the hamlet of Bridgehampton, a visit to which is only slightly more enjoyable than a trip to the dentist. Sure, Bridgehampton is beautiful, but some of the people there can make you wish it were legal to ping someone in the forehead with a BB gun. I hate to generalize almost as much as I hate to leave uneaten food on my plate, but many of the folks in Bridgehampton are the kind of people who will force you into the street rather than move over a bit when they approach you on the sidewalk. They are the kind of people who won't say "thank you" when you hold a door open for them. They are the kind of people who cut in line and then say things like, "But don't you know who I am?" BB, meet forehead.

That's new money for you, I guess. Me, I'd like to think that if I ever got really rich on bad mortgages Wall Street, I'd still remember the little people. Pun very much intended.

So why would anyone who wasn't itching for a fistfight ever be caught dead here, you ask? Well, luckily Bridgehampton has at least one thing besides good manners to recommend it. That reason is Marder's, an over-the-top garden center that is something like visiting an enormous, meticulously maintained botanical garden where everything happens to be for sale, albeit at prices that make your first car look like a real steal.

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Boasting a whopping 33-acre main campus and 10 acres of growing fields, it's easy for plant murderers like me to feel like a kid in a candy store.

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In addition, the garden shop at Marders, housed in an antique barn, offers all sorts of tools and accessories that a Hamptons gardener might need. You know, like $40 candles.

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Upon realizing that it was difficult for some folks (okay, me) to spend hours wandering the grounds without a bite to eat, last year Marders opened the Honeybee Cafe, which serves tasty treats such as olive oil and rosemary cookies, goat cheese and mushroom tartlets, and miniature brownies.

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Another reason to stop by Bridgehampton is for dinner at Almond, a chic French bistro that recently relocated to new digs in the village. During their pre-summer renovations, the owner of Almond posted a few "teasers" of the new space online, including a photo of their new wallpaper: zebras being shot with arrows!! Apparently I'm not the first to appreciate its, uh, charms.

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Even Hawkeye likes it.

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Fast forward to the other night when, finding ourselves unexpectedly without dinner plans on a Friday evening, Angel and I stopped by Almond to see if we could get in for dinner without a reservation. It was only 7:00, so we figured there might be a chance, even though we were sadly sans midget. We noticed a number of empty tables and approached the hostess, who told us she'd "have to check" to see if they could fit us in. As she sized us up to see if we were worthy, the owner was saying his goodbyes to a patron, who thanked the owner for a great meal and told him how much he liked the zebras-being-shot-with-arrows wallpaper. I of course chimed in (with a secret soupcon of sarcasm) that I just adored the wallpaper, too, to which the owner replied, "Oh, everyone loves that wallpaper!" I replied, "Yes, but I'm the only one who ever put it on her blog."

A pause, and then his face lit up with recognition. And then he smiled, gave me a high-five, told me how much he liked my blog, declared how adorable he thought I was . . . and ordered the hostess to seat us at the best table in the house right away.

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And that, dear reader, is how I successfully executed the old "Don't you know who I am??" in Bridgehampton.

BB target practice on my forehead to commence immediately.

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Posted by TraceyG 17:47 Archived in USA Tagged hamptons bridgehampton sag_harbor almond Comments (4)

Summer in the Hamptons: Hampton Bays, the Gateway Drug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No, not that dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

#10: Twenty Bucks Ain't Gonna Cut It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#9: Choose Your Mate Carefully

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess that's why I married him.

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

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

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And yet I look so inocente.

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Of course, we had some other stuff, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Step up and be a man, man.

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

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

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

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

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#6: I Really Am a Human Garbage Disposal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Human Garbage Disposal, that's who.

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

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

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

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

#5: Beware of Internet Scammers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#4: No, Seriously: Choose Your Mate Carefully

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

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

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

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

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

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I guess you could say I liked it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could not have been prouder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After that I had the Florida lobster tail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#1: We Survived the Great Shortages of 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Smile though your heart is breaking . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1108 Southard Street
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631 United Street
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425 Caroline Street
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This last house is owned by country star Kenny Chesney, who purchased the house but never even moved in before deciding that it wasn't private enough and putting it back on the market. Which proves that what he's really hiding under that ever-present cowboy hat is not baldness, but lack of brains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Even the strays in Key West are pretty spoiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Now that's alot of pot.

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

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

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I fought the meatballs and the meatballs won.

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

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

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

Key West Part 2: Wanna See Something REALLY Interesting?

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

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

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

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For lunch we had Painkillers.

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Oh, and some vegetables, served American-style.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And for the low tabs . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I liked it because it was clearly fat-free.

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

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

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Double-fisting, New Yorker style.

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

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

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

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

Sure it was.

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

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

Christmas in NYC: My Heart is Full of Unwashed Socks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Merry Christmas and Happy Hannuka Chanukah Hanukkah Holidays!

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

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

32 °F

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I will totally cut you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Instead, I went a little lighter.

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

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I hate these people.

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

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

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

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Even the garlic is super-sized.

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And this?

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

Yeah, I love this place.

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

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

32 °F

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And yet . . .

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

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

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And it won’t be our last.

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

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

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