Monday, June 6, 2016

What Makes St. Augustine Sooooo Fabulous?

Guardian on the Left
Guardian on the Right
Three hours south of my home in Bluffton, South Carolina, lies the historic town of St. Augustine. 

What makes a town of only 12.7 square miles and 14,000 people so popular? The combination of history, great restaurants, tourist attractions, beaches, a winery, a distillery, a unique college, an eclectic museum, and southern charm all add up to a great little place on the Northeast coast of Florida.

First a bit of history. Pedro Menendez de Aviles of Spain arrived with 10 ships and 1500 men in 1565 with the orders to rid Florida of the French, who occupied much of the area. He successfully accomplished the task - although in a somewhat gruesome manner of hangings and beheadings! With the French thus eliminated, he established the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine. Twenty-one years later, in 1586, Britain's Sir Francis Drake attacked the city and burned the wooden fort to the ground, however, the British did not come to rule the city and the rest of Florida until The Treaty of Paris in 1763. British rule only lasted twenty years. The Treaty of Versailles in 1783 returned Florida to the Spanish and it remained so until 1819 when Spain ceded Florida to the United States. St. Augustine has been under the control of France, Spain, Britain and the US which only adds to its rich heritage.

Casa Monica Hotel
There is so much to say about St. Augustine, it will take me a couple of blogs to cover it all. This blog will just hit the highlights, starting with our hotel: The Casa Monica. Centrally located and originally opened in 1888, it is a member of the Historic Hotels of America National Trust. Victorian in the interior with spacious rooms - ours overlooked a park and fountain - excellent amenities and very friendly service, especially at the bar where we had frequent happy hour cocktails!

One of many seafood meals
Next comes the food scene. This one will take me a full blog to detail, but let's leave it to say that you have more than ample choices, especially if you like seafood. We had meals ranging from the simple to the elaborate, all tasting wonderful with especially great Southern service. We sampled O.C. Whites for seafood, lunch at the Ice Plant Bar, Catch 27 for more seafood, lunch in The Colonial Quarters, Cellar 6 (need I say more seafood), lunch at Meehan's Irish Pub (told you there was something for everyone!), Columbia for seafood with a Spanish flare, lunch at Cafe Alcazar and our last (of course, seafood) dinner overlooking the Inland Waterway at A1A Ale works. More on these in a later post!

San Sebastian Winery
Bourbon aging in Barrels
For the production of local alcoholic consumables, we have no complaints about  St. Augustine. It has not only a winery as we are finding with many medium sized cities these days, but it has a full fledged distillery as well! The San Sebastian Winery produces a number of award-winning red, white, and fortified wines. They tend towards the sweeter styles, but do have a couple of good dry reds. Their tasting offered about 6 choices and ran the gamut from dry reds to
chardonnay to a sparkling Blanc de Fleur to a rich port. The St. Augustine Distillery, built in a late 19th-century ice house, is only two years old. It is producing some very nice vodka, gin, and rum. It is awaiting its first batch of barrel-aged bourbon.

St. Augustine Trolly
Being a tourist, we did decide to do some touring. My wife Dianne and I have discovered that the best way to orient yourself in a new place is to try the local hop-on, hop off bus or trolly. St. Augustine does have such an offering - and it was a bargain! We paid $25 each for a three-day ticket which allowed us to see most of the city and its attractions at a fairly leisurely pace. 

Cannon Protecting the Harbor
We spent a good half day at the city's historic centerpiece, the Castillo de San Marcos, now part of the National Park Service. Taking 23 years to complete, its construction started in 1672. Although often attacked in the last 300+ years, its walls have never been breached.

Glass Exhibit
Flagler College
A couple of other interesting places we visited included the Lightner Museum and Flagler College.  Both of these are significant in St. Augustine's development over the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But more on that in a later post when I'll be able to go into their importance and relation to one of the co-founders of Standard Oil, Henry Morrison Flagler.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

London's Only Michelin Starred GastroPub!

The Harwood Arms
On an unpretentious side street in an upper middle class neighborhood in London's southwest area of Fulham is the only pub in the city to have obtained a Michelin Star. Featuring locally procured produce, game and fish, The Harwood Arms combines the relaxed atmosphere of a typical London pub with the gastronomic delights expected of a Michelin Starred venue - a true "gastropub".

I was in London for a conference and had an extra day - that I would normally spend seeing a play or two in the West End theaters! A friend and London resident, Jane, suggested Brunch before I trekked off to TKTS and the theatre. I hadn't seen Jane in a while and it offered the opportunity to catch up, so I readily agreed! She suggested The Harwood Arms, having been there recently for dinner with another mutual friend. She thought that a Saturday Brunch might prove just the time to enjoy the well as enjoy the nearby Fulham Saturday Market, and still leave plenty of theatre time for me. I was staying near Westminster, so it turned out to be a simple tube ride on the District Line towards Wimbledon...boarded at St. James Park and met Jane at Fulham Broadway. A short walk later we were at the pub.

The Brunch Menu
In typical pub style, I started with a pint of good hand-pulled, cellar temperature English Ale as we perused the brunch menu. The restaurant offered either two or three courses.  Jane and I both opted for the two course option, deciding to omit the starter, have a main and a "pudding" (dessert for my American friends). 

The Specials
It was a tough choice. Besides the standard menu, there were additional choices laid out on a "specials" board. I opted for the Cornish sea bream with baby shallots, Jerusalem artichokes and very unique pickled mussels. Jane chose the Haunch of Berkshire venison with wild garlic, baked beetroot and smoked bone marrow tart.

My sea bream was wonderfully moist and I think the best part was the fish skin...crisp and savory. The mussels had just the right amount of acidic pickling to complement the slight sweetness of the fish. Jane didn't say much as she focused on consuming four beautiful slices of perfectly cooked and presented venison. There was silence for a good while as we consumed our brunch accompanied by a very nice Luigi Bosca DOC Single Vineyard 2013 Argentinean Malbec.

The Rhubarb Soufflé
The highlight of the meal came with the pudding. Both Jane and I opted for a hot rhubarb soufflé into which was inserted a generous scoop of a fine vanilla ice cream. This was one of the lightest and tangiest soufflés I have ever tasted. Everything just melted in your mouth leaving a very pleasant aftertaste of tart rhubarb and sweet vanilla!

Head Chef Alex Harper has certainly earned his Michelin Star in my mind. If you are in London, check out The Harwood Arms at: .

Monday, April 4, 2016

A Visit to "Harry Potter Land" - Universal Studios in Orlando

Book #1
First a bit of background: When the first Harry Potter book came out in 1997, my wife, Dianne, decided to pick up a copy...just because it was getting such raves.  When she brought the book home I poo-pooed her for buying a "children's book". 

Well...I happened to pick it up when she wasn't around and discovered why it was getting such raves. It was some fantastically creative story telling - and not necessarily just for children. I wouldn't give it back to her until I had finished reading it! 

The Heart of Universal Studios Orlando
As a huge fan of JK Rowling and her Harry Potter books and movies, I couldn't resist the opportunity spend a couple of days in Orlando at Universal Studios. This was my first trip to Universal, so it took a bit of time to get oriented and find out just where the Harry Potter places were.  It turns out they are located in different parks...of you have to pay a "two park" entry fee.  Clever? Not! 😁

Dragon Dominates Daigon Alley
After getting oriented...and purchasing the needed two park fee...we set off for the newest of the Harry Potter lands, Daigon Alley. You may remember that this was the place where everyone went to get their wizarding needs, from wands to Hogwarts school uniforms to Quidditch brooms. The attention to detail was just astounding! You could easily imagine yourself being a witch or warlock and finding the appropriate magical stuff for whatever you wanted to do!

Wands for Sale
There was one place that was jam-packed with wands...and I did break down and bought one (they took good old American money and credit cards, you didn't need a Gringott's account 😀). I purchased a replica of Professor Dumbledore's wand. Every wizarding device and magical accessory was available no matter where you looked.

Celestial Sky
One especially interesting shop focused on the astronomical accessories that a non-Muggle might want to acquire.  Telescopes, astronomical charts, models of the sky and stars...all of which were incredibly detailed...available for purchase with what had to be considered Muggle money.  That is because the next adventure took us to the center of the wizard's financial empire - Gringott's Bank.

A Diligent Troll at Work
The best part of the visit to Daigon Alley was the venture into the vaults of the Troll managed Gringott's Bank.  I won't give away the actual adventure, but believe me, you need to give it a try.  It is a "ride" that takes you through some of the most interesting parts of the early Harry Potter tales. (A bit of advice, don't have a heavy lunch before you explore this part of Daigon Alley!) This is what recreating the Harry Potter experience is all, scary, action packed and wonderfully realistic as we Muggles can endure!

On Our Way to Hogwarts
OK...we had covered Daigon Alley...took a break for lunch...and headed off for the "other" Harry Potter land - Hogshead and Hogwarts - the home of the wizarding! But to get there, we had to take the Hogwarts Express train that departed from Platform 9 3/4 from King's Cross Station in London. Again, attention to detail was paramount here.  Obviously on their way to Hogwarts, we could see passengers disappearing into the brick wall labled "Platform 9 3/4" as we entered the station!

We boarded the train, had an interesting view of the English countryside as we propelled our way to the second Universal Park and the quaint village of Hogshead.  As with Daigon Alley, things were authentic and could even get a butter-beer or partake of some very interestingly flavored magical candies 😀. We thoroughly enjoyed the shops before heading up for the real adventured - a trip through Hogwarts.

Hogwarts at Universal Studios Orlando
From a tourist perspective, we were lucky to have come on a day that had few tourists...but, you could tell that this "exhibit" had been set up with the expectation of many-many-many tourists pouring through the "castle" on any given day.  To get to the main exhibits, you had to go through a vast maze of cues.  When we were there, they were virtually empty so there was no hold-up, but I could see a long-long wait on another day.

Now, there were distractions along the way to keep you occupied, so not much to complain about, but, at the end you were in for the journey of your life...well sort of. It was a great experience and, again, I won't give away the details.

I'll just wrap this up with saying that: If you are a Harry Potter fan, then both the Daigon Alley and Hogshead/Hogwarts experiences at Universal Studios Orlando are well worth it!

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Friend's 80th Birthday Celebration Aboard a Princess Cruise

Emerald Princess
The latest adventure was a Cruise aboard the Emerald Princess through the Western Caribbean. We used it as an excuse (as if we ever really need one) to celebrate the 80th birthday of a friend and neighbor - Stan. We were accompanied by Stan's wife and her sister and husband - overall a fun group. 

Sailing from Ft. Lauderdale, we covered the Western Caribbean ports of Grand Cayman, Roatán (an island off Honduras), Cozumel (just off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico) and a day at Princess Cay (a Princess owned retreat at the southern tip of Eleuthera in the Bahamas).

Dianne's Prime Rib
My Moist Salmon
We boarded mid-day, unpacked and settled in for what we hoped to be an enjoyable week. The first night's meals were a treat for both my wife Dianne and myself. She really likes rare prime rib and I thoroughly enjoy a moist piece of fish.  We were both satisfied with our dinners...however the choice of wine was made a bit more difficult with our divergent main course choices...I think we settled on a Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Glasses for the 6 Variety Wine Tasting
The first full day aboard the Emerald Princess was a leisurely "at sea" day. I signed up for a excellent wine tasting of 6 varieties from a French Champagne through some of the top-end wines in the Emerald's cellar.  We spent most of the rest of the day reading, relaxing and getting ready for the formal evening.

Together for Formal Night
Many people really don't enjoy the "formal" shipboard evenings...but (as usual) I am the exception to the rule!  (Maybe I have spent too much time in the UK where "formal" gatherings are much more common - especially around holidays.) I do like getting all "dressed-to-kill" with my white dinner jacket, plaid vest and matching tie...right down to the patent leather shoes. Needless to say we thoroughly enjoyed the evening and the company.

Chance to go to Hell
The next day we had our chance to go to Hell and back. Yes, there is actually a little town on Grand Cayman named "Hell" - even has its own post office - that specializes in all things related to Satan. You can even get the t-shirt! 

Natural Blow Hole
However, Grand Cayman has a good deal more to offer than just Hell.  It's famous Cayman Turtle Farm is dedicated to preserving the green sea turtle. They have on display everything from hatchlings to 600+ pound behemoths. There is a place on the south-eastern end of the island with natural "blow holes" where, on a good day, they spew water far into the air - we were there on a moderate day so it was maybe 20-25 feet...but still impressive!

Dedication Plaque
Sadly, there are also a number of shipwrecks around the island, the most impressive being the Wreck of the Ten Sails. Ten vessels, in 1794, quickly became victims to the very dangerous East End Grand Cayman reef. However quick action by shore based rescuers saved all but 8 crew members. Queen Elizabeth (oh, did I mention that the Cayman Islands are still a British Crown Colony) dedicated a plaque to the rescuers and the fallen on the 200th anniversary of the wrecks when she visited the island in 1994.

Martini with Olives
Tonight was Stan's actual 80th birthday, so we celebrated in style and went to the Crown Grill that specializes in steaks (and other really good martinis!) Needless to say, everyone had a great least those of us who can remember the dinner.  I do remember we went to an entertainment after the dinner, put on by the excellent staff orchestra, singers and dancers
The Night's Entertainment
onboard. It was sort of a parody of an English Pub that included much audience participation.  Stan's wife was whisked up on stage to take part in a balloon balancing contest (never seen that in an English Pub!) and I got "recruited" to participate in a sing-along that, should you have a slip of the tongue, you readily embarrass yourself - I'm turning red just thinking about it!

The following morning we arrived at Isle Roatán which lies about
Our Arrival
30 miles off the Northeast coast of Honduras.  (On a bit of a side note: the difference in cleanliness, levels of obvious poverty, and overall culture were very different from what we observed in Grand Cayman.  This, I think has a great deal to do with the fact that the Caymans are a global trusted financial capital and that is their number one industry, while Roatán's primary industry is Tourism followed 
by fishing.)

That said, we tried something different for a change and, based on the recommendation of our travel agent, did not do a ship's tour but arranged for a private local one through a company that focuses on alternatives to cruise line arranged tours: ShoreTrips. This worked out very well as we were able to choose what we wanted to see and go where we wanted to go (we had been to Roatán on a previous cruise so we had some ideas as to where we wanted to spend our time).

Where we Docked
Hummingbirds at Lunch
Our guide met us promptly at the appointed time and was a charming, albeit young, college student - who did know the island and its history. Dianne and I were on our own and we had not only a good tour of the entire island - from Punta Gorda with its beaches and Garifuna Culture Center to French Harbour, the bustling Spanish speaking center of the Island to Coxen Hole - where we had an amazing lunch while watching humming birds feast at a nearby feeder right on the water.

The Local Brew
A local beer accompanied some of the best red snapper we have ever had.  Dianne's came with a garlic sauce and mine was a ginger sauce...fresh, moist, mouth is watering just thinking about it! Made our way back to the ship, with our tour hostess pointing out the sites along the way.

Drink Delivery
Had a quiet night aboard and prepared for Cozumel just off the Yucatan Peninsula the next morning.  Again, Dianne and I had been there many times (for six+ years we had a time-share in Cancun the first week in September...often journeying down the Yucatan and taking the ferry across to Cozumel). We probably had the best time when we signed up for a Mexican cooking class (I should probably do a blog on the two Mexican cooking classes we have taken...)! Did I mention that Dianne and I really like to cook and enjoy trying new cuisines whenever we have the chance! In any case, we didn't stray far from the ship and enjoyed watching some interesting methods of drink delivery - six margaritas on top of one waiter's head!

All of Us for a Crab Shack Dinner
That evening we tried the Emerald Princess' Crab Shack.  This was a feast of all you can eat seafood - primarily crustaceans - Alaskan King crab legs, clams, mussels - along with corn, sausage, potatoes and other goodies.  All of this is served with appropriate (almost full body) bibs!

Princess Cay in the Bahamas
Another day at sea and then, on the last full day aboard, we arrive at our final port of call on this cruise, Princess Cay, at the southern tip of Eleuthera in the Bahamas.  This is a beach-lovers paradise with great sand, surf, snorkeling, pretty good diving, and - of course - limited shopping! Having been there a few times and being a fair-skinned Irishman who can take only so much of the sun, I elected to stay aboard.  Dianne and the other ladies - as well as Stan - did go ashore to enjoy the sun and surf.

We arrived back in Ft. Lauderdale the next morning...Stan and his group departed the ship bright and early, anxious to get back home (and get their two dachshunds out of the kennel...they missed them terribly!) 

We said our goodbyes...but were staying on board for what is called a "back-to-back" continuation...same ship, same suite, same steward - different itinerary.  But more on that in my next post!

Monday, November 9, 2015

One Day in Mazatlán from a Cruise Ship

Mazatlán Cathedral
Mexican Silver Chains
Located on Mexico's Western shore at the foot of the Sierra Madre Mountains and almost directly across the Sea of Cortez from Cabo San Lucas lies Mazatlán  The Spaniards arrived here in 1531. But it was really German immigrants, by the mid-19th century, that transformed the area into a thriving commercial seaport. They made fortunes by importing equipment for the nearby gold and silver mines. Today, it is still a major seaport for Western Mexico and exports over 40 million pounds of shrimp each year.

High-flying Diver
A city bus tour pointed out the history and much of what Mazatlán had to offer...and it is a lot! You have the standard site seeing or shopping...oh, and don't forget the food - the coastal Pacific has much to offer! But these were not the most dramatic parts to the city. 

Diver's Point offers a twice daily spectacular where a diver take a plunge from a platform 59 feet above the water. Not overly spectacular (I have seen cliff divers do well over 100 feet!) until you consider that  water was only 6 feet deep where he went in!

A View Out To Sea
For spectacular views of the open sea to the west, the tour progressed along the boulevard called the Malecón. The coastline is spotted with tiny, unoccupied islands. The day was brilliant with a clear, deep blue sky and a wisp of billowing white clouds.

Cathedral Basilica
After the orientation, our tour left us at the Centro Historico, or the Old Downtown District.  

Central to this area and completed in 1856, is the combined Moorish and Gothic designed Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. If the combined architecture styles aren't enough to differentiate this Cathedral, add to it the fact that it is the only Roman Catholic Church in the world that displays the Star of David from each of its 28 stained-glass windows.
The Cathedral's Interior

And speaking of those windows, on a sunny day, the light streams through, rendering some of the deepest red and green examples of stained glass that I had ever encountered. The red and green light strikes the walls, chandelier and floors of the Cathedral leaving vivid impression of its interior.

For shopping, Mazatlán has its Zona Dorada or Golden Zone. Vendors abound with handmade crafts and jewelry. Also you find some very nice seaside restaurants and hotels.

Bronzed Dolphins!
Mazatlán offers much too much to explore in just one day. If you are adventurous, there are zip-lines, hiking and deep sea fishing. Stone Island, only 10 minutes from the heart of Mazatlán offers a 6 mile long beach with restaurants, banana boat rides, horseback riding and a lot more. 

Mazatlán is quintessential a very good way!

But the Grand Princess sails on time!  We arrived back aboard just in time for evening cocktails, and prepared for another enjoyable evening sailing the Pacific Ocean.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Cabo on a Cruise

Cabo's Symbol
Took a cruise that included Cabo San Lucas earlier this year.  Had been there before so didn't want to take a typical cruise ship tour and decided to go off on our own. So my wife, Dianne, and I took the tender in to the docking area and just walked around for most of the day.

The Fake Lighthouse
Doesn't sound overly exciting unless you are a people watcher, which we are. There were all types (not wanting to impose I chose not to photograph them) from the typical cruise ship tourist, to the bingle-bangle local hawker, to the "serious" business people (mostly trying to sell "seriously" expensive jewelry and the like to tourists!)

Mexican Cacti
This turned out to be the kind of day that you need every once in a while. Nothing planned, no frantic events - except catching the last launch back to the ship ;>). Had a leisurely lunch at Solomon's Landing (spelled Londing) right on the water - fresh seafood tacos cooked with a bit of Mexican flair. 

Lunch is followed by some shopping - Dianne needed a new watch band for her Philip Stein (found it, but waaaay too expensive) and a leisurely walk back to the launch.

Pelicans and Dolphin
Other than the people watching mentioned earlier, there was a Dolphin that wandered all the way to the dockside and was flirting with a fisherman for some handouts (and trying to beat the pelicans away). A lot of activity in the mid-afternoon along the docks and piers as both tourist anglers and local fisherman were bringing their catch home.  Even saw a huge swordfish - at least it looked huge to me - being carried by about 4 people.  Somebody was going to have a great dinner that evening!

We had a calm trip back to the Grand Princess, our home-away-from-home for 10 days. We were treated to a somewhat roundabout routing where we got to see (once again, and fairly close up) the very tip of the Baja Peninsula - "Land's End" - with its craggy rock formation and circular tunnel to the Pacific as well as the very secluded (only accessible by boat) "Lover's Beach".

Lover's Beach
Did get a chance to get a few pictures of the "sites" that everyone else probably photographs. Mine are, of course, better - well maybe not, it was a cloudy afternoon and that dulled the results (excuse, excuse!)

Land's End