Monday, March 2, 2015

St. John, USVI

The US Virgin Islands, consisting of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John might be the best kept secret down south. Quiet and central to the Caribbean, these islands offer an adult break from the hectic and sometimes aggressive visits to over populated islands like Jamaica and the Bahamas.
Cruz Bay
St. John is the smallest (and least populated) of the three islands, and likely the most serene. A quick ferry ride from St. Thomas will get you on the island in about 20 minutes from STT. The ferry entry is the busiest part of the island with people traveling back and forth from the island from 5a until early evening. The Cruz Bay area is buzzing with taxis, hotels, bars and restaurants. A variety of shops and car rentals are available in this small downtown area. It is easy to navigate and people are very helpful, locals and ex-patriots alike.

A 30 minute ride via car or bus will get you to the other side of the island where Coral Bay and the National Forest are located. Coral Bay is much smaller than Cruz Bay and far more limited in resources. There are only a handful of restaurants but there is a grocery, but better shop or eat before sundown, because this sleepy side of the island shuts down at dark. There are only two breakfast options that we found and one was consistently open every morning with coffee and US TV, so if you need CNN and a solid cup of coffee every morning head on over to Pickles in Paradise. The food here is also very good. The best deli on the island; breakfast sandwiches, burritos and so many choices for lunch items. We enjoyed everything we tasted here.

The other breakfast place we found was only open some mornings and at sporadic times. The evening dining was just as limited with only a couple options for food and drink. There were many rental homes on this side of the island, so prepare to make your own meals if you choose to stay in one of the beautiful homes in the Hurricane Hole area.

Local Island Fare

You can’t leave the island without trying the local pate. These breaded pockets hold meat or fish and are the specialty of the Virgin Islands. You can find them almost anywhere, but like food trucks in the states, some are good, and some are really good. Make time to head over to the local mall in the center of town and visit Etta’s. These were the best Pate’s we tasted, and were fresh and flavorful. Hands down, a must try for island fare.

Good evening, Donky!

The wildlife all over the island was rampant and fun to watch. Deer, goats, sheep, dogs, chickens and crabs roam freely. There was no surprise when donkeys came right up to our car to greet us. By the second day, the donkeys were meeting us at the gate to our rental home to get more apples from the kind main-landers. We were happy to oblige and even made a special trip to the grocery to get fruit and carrots for the local animals.

The nightlife is restricted to Cruz Bay, so if you want to drink and party into the wee hours of the night, you will want to stay on this side of the island. There is nothing going on in Coral Bay after dark. Nothing. 

Coral Bay is famous for snorkeling and hiking and if you are the outdoorsy type and appreciate exploring National Parks and wildlife, please take advantage of the hiking trails and open Park trails to the many secluded beaches. We found trail maps were easily accessible, but not very accurate. Follow the local signs and trust the handwritten tips. They work.

If you are like us, we enjoyed sitting on the porch of our house and watching the sunrise every morning, and the sunsets in the early evening, as they reminded us how precious life is in Technicolor. The coquis chirping and the wave’s consistent sounds kept us attached to the earth as we just enjoyed breathing in the natural gifts of the earth.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

West Palm...Food and Fancy

Part of the reason I went to West Palm Beach Florida was to check out my friend from high school and her husband - they have a fantastic restaurant in Vero Beach, about forty five minutes north of West Palm Beach, and well worth the drive.
If you are in the area, you MUST dine at the Citrus Grillhouse. It is amazing!
Chef Scott has brought the eclectic, delicious, yet savvy, food vibe from New York down to the southern laid back of Florida. And does it well!
I took the time to YELP my thoughts about the restaurant because they deserve all the great press in the world. It is a fantastic spot, right on the water. The food was original and flavorful - every bite lending itself to the next. The cocktails were fresh and the wine list was superb. I am so glad we made the trip. A beautiful experience all around, and only a minute, but maybe the best portion of our West Palm Beach adventure.

Must try's: The deconstructed BLT and a grapefruit martini. Um, yeah.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Whoa! West Palm Beach Florida!

I don't know anything better than being able to take a warm vacation in the fall or winter season. Before you get bogged down with the winter blues, get away to the warm sunshine.

After debating an international destination, I decided on West Palm Beach, Florida to share my birds eye view of the pro-grownup destination choices we have right here in our own southern hemisphere.

The downtown area is a combination of city and parks areas. Slightly art deco, like their southern counterpart Miami, but more industrial, similar to the layout of any mid-level city in the mid-west. It is easy to get around - small enough to walk once you get downtown, but taxi's are in abundance if you aren't into walking.
The parks and open spaces between downtown and the marina area, is dedicated to visually pleasing statues, spaces and art pieces.

Areas like Flagler Park have community activities  year round with live music, and entertainment everyone will enjoy.

I expected sunny, warm days and quiet evenings along the shore with relaxing walks and serene
What I did not expect was the active downtown area, with trendy restaurants and coffee houses. I was surprised at the art culture, and by surprised, I mean pleasantly delighted.

West Palm beach is well known for the high end shopping districts and homes accented by boats and luxury toys. City Place is a more than typical outdoor shopping mall with attractions like a Comedy Club and a bowling alley within the parameters. Clematis Street is the hip and trendy part of downtown with a strip of bars and restaurants reminiscent of cities like Denver and Austin.

I was amazed with the historic value and museums available for locals and tourists alike. Easy to find and access, the city seemed happy to share their prized beautiful gifts. A unique and treasured aspect, a traveler is always happy to stumble upon in any city.

You will find all the usual ocean side activities, but expect to find some wonderful pieces of art in unlikely places. Please take the time to walk or bike around the city and be sure to get to Palm Beach, where they have the most visited bike trail alongside the beach between the homes and the ocean.
There is fascinating natural and man-made art everywhere you look if you venture off the beaten path. Wander this city; it invites you to peek at all it's hidden precious talents.

I was enamored with the low-key feel of West Palm Beach and wanted more. I could have stayed here for weeks, and I understand why the snowbirds come down in the winter and why people retire to this wonderful little nook.

If you are looking for an adult getaway with enough night life to keep you entertained for a few days, look at West Palm Beach.
Feel relaxed and happy when you head home after this vacation.

A quick shout out and thank you to iScoot rentals who may just be the coolest scooter and bike rental joint in the state. If I could recommend one local business to check out: iScoot is cool people.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Local Wineries/ Tasting Rooms

The best way to come back from vacation is to ease into life with a couple relaxing home day trips or weekend getaways. Immediately following my vacation to the Caribbean, I visited my dear friend in Phoenix and she took me to a couple of local tasting rooms. I finally made my way home to find my husband had scheduled a couple visits to local wineries in our part of the country.
There are so many great things about visiting tasting rooms. The opportunity to sample local wines seems obvious. There is also the opportunity to meet people that know the area and can tell you about the wines, and the history of the area as well. These experts are well versed, not only in the vineyards, but in travel and other extensions which flow from the intertwined experiences; Wine Art Music Life.
It is a great way to meet other wine connoisseurs and share experiences with local people that have the same interests.

We drove a scenic 90 minutes out of the Phoenix area to visit tasting rooms in neighboring cities Cottonwood, and Jerome, AZ. I will say the cactus trees which lined parts of the highway were breathtaking and worth the trip itself. If you have not been out of the Phoenix metro area, take the time to treat yourself to breathtaking views and possibly one of the best road trips I have ever experienced. Fairly quickly, we found ourselves at The Pillsbury Wine Company/ Tasting Room in Cottonwood, AZ. It was a short 15-20 minute drive to Jerome where we found a few more local tasting rooms including The Echo Canyon Winery/ Tasting Room.

Both locations greeted us with genuinely nice hosts. Knowledgeable, not only of the wines, but also of the area and of other wineries and activities. It was a joy to speak to both these young men as they shared our day, asked about our wine preferences and helped us choose great wines to sample and to order. The gentleman at the Pillsbury Tasting room actually had a handy atlas which he used with regularity and with ease as we spoke of different wine regions, as well as places we have traveled and are looking forward to tasting wines in the future. The wines we tasted were subtle and light -- a great way to start our Arizona wine tour.

The Echo Canyon Tasting room was a bit more social, with a more, bar-like structure. The young man who guided our tasting knew a lot about the area and shared stories as he poured and engaged all the patrons simultaneously. I am akin to reds, but found myself trying a few new whites simply to enhance my vino vocabulary and to get out of my self-imposed rut. Both tasting rooms offered the opportunity to do this with no regrets. Both places were inviting and provided a lovely afternoon experience along with wonderful wines to sample.

In Virginia, where I have recently moved - the town of Middleburg, VA is littered with wineries and tasting rooms - we visited Stone Tower Estate winery, and Greenhill winery & vineyards. Middleburg Virginia is like stepping back in time to old plantations and white gloved service. The estates are vast and vibrant with history.
Greenhill Winery Tasting Room
The area is green and lush, and the vineyards are reminiscent of the vineyards in Napa Valley.
We chose a beautiful day to sit outside and enjoy a couple glasses of wine after our tastings, and I will say, I did not realize how much charm Virginia had until that day. the sun, the horses, the wineries. I'll say, the experience transcended all modern day technologies and will take you right back to the 1900's when you could just picture the horse drawn carriages and the country club boys headed to the golf courses. It was a very upscale feel at every winery we attended.**

Greenhill winery was on beautiful grounds and had very light wines. I enjoyed them all, but could do with or without them in my life. There was nothing that stood out about any of them. The staff was knowledgeable and friendly, ad when we went to visit the members only clubhouse, the climate was inviting and the grounds were lush and spacious. It was nice to see the horses about the grounds which added an air of luxury and familial connection.

Stone Tower Winery had a more open feel - wood and barns, and acres and acres of grapevines and landscape. The wines were rich and full bodied and I could only think how centuries would pass and people will still be drinking these wines. A tradition is being built here and I was happy to be a part of it, and I can't wait to share this experience with everyone who comes to visit this region. I felt something very Napa about this experience and the wine was tremendously impressive, much like the grounds and the conglomerate. The attention to detail which has gone into the design of the grounds and the tasting room itself is well thought out and brilliantly executed.

Both wineries had a solid selection of offerings, yet I was super- pleased to get the opportunity to try the offerings at Stone Tower which, hands down, were some of the best wines I had tasted since I had been to Napa. The bar has been set Virginia.

**Note we did pass a vineyard called Quatros Gumbah's which had busloads of people in the parking lot and looked like a scene of the infamous Animal House Frat party. So, I am certain there is something for everyone.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sint Maarten/ St. Martin

Location and Entry Information: Caribbean island between Anguilla and St. Barths, accessible by plane or boat – a popular cruise ship port comprised of a Caribbean and European population separated by an international border. The north of the island is French and the south side of the island is Dutch, and one may cross back and forth freely, by car, without immigration and customs limitations. There are two airports on the island (one French, one Dutch), the entire island being only 34 sq miles was easy to maneuver solely due to the size. The island has great accessibility due to the dual countries which share the island and the ability to use air, boat or car to get around. We flew into Princess Juliana International airport (SMX) on the Dutch side, and found it easy to take a taxi a quick 15 minutes to our hotel accommodations on the south side of the island. When boating around the island, be very aware of the strict regulations regarding crossing borders and immigration regulations.
Little Bay (Dutch) where we started our tour of the island at a substantial resort called Divi Little Bay Beach Resort.
The resort is a timeshare opportunity and the suite we reserved had an over-sized bathroom suite with Jacuzzi tub and separate shower. A kitchenette with a full sized refrigerator, stove and microwave were included. For the rate this was an exceptional property. The resort housed 3 pools, 3 restaurants, a fitness center, laundry facilities and a café/ market on site. Evening live music kept the entertainment value fair The staff was helpful and cheerful throughout the stay. The property is on an expansive piece of land, and the resort accommodates the distance by scooting clients around in golf carts, especially if you have luggage. We found it easy to walk from one side of the resort to the far side in a 10 minute period.
Divi Little Bay Beach Resort Infinity Pool area
Located a mile and a half from Phillipsburg – this resort is also central to the bustle of the main town of Phillipsburg. The town itself is a port village active with tourists and cruisers. The main boardwalk is lined with restaurants, bars and duty free shops. The main street  also lined with restaurants and hi-end boutiques and duty free shops. This small city is accessible by walking, scooter or taxi cab ride.
Simpson Bay (Dutch) our first point of sailing. Our friends picked us up by sailboat in Little Bay, we sailed around the island to Simpson Bay, where our friends spent their first night, and we subsequently started our voyage around the island via boat. Sailing close to islands such as Anguilla, Tintamarre and St. Barths - all accessible by boat from St Martin, and considered day trips from anywhere around the island. Anguilla, a short hour sail north, and St. Barths, a 3 hour trek south of St. Martin.

Marigot (French) A thriving port and our first stop after setting sail from Simpson Bay. Marigot is a distinct port town vibrant with French custom, food and culture. Brightly colored storefronts and homes lined the streets and high end boutiques were available in the center of town. 

There were historic, beautiful floral lined walkways and side streets, yet amidst hip, nouveau shops and café’s. 

We were lucky enough to arrive at sunset and depart in the daylight, so we got to experience the beauty of the Port, day and night.

Pinel Island (French) My favorite stop on our journey.  Pinel is an island preserve and national park. There are fish and vegetation markers all over the island, and while we were there hiking, a small group of school children were there visiting the island as well, clearly on a nature field trip of some sort. We hiked this island in about 30 minutes and then swam on the northeast side of the island, away from the active boat area.

 We learned after our visit that nothing dead or alive is to be taken from this island as it is a national park and preserve. That includes seashells and other beach life one may be inclined to pocket and take home as a souvenir.
Two fun bars and a small souvenir shop decorate the anchorage side of the island where the water taxis pick up and drop the tourists at a small dock which also serves as a dinghy dock. A short walk from this dock leads to the snorkeling dock where (group led, or independent) we were able to swim with the fishies and explore the coral and reef area along the marked side of the island. This island was accessed by boat only. So, whether by sailboat, speedboat or kayak, and of course the water taxi’s, visitors flocked on a regular schedule from the French Cay to enjoy the sun, water sports and wonderful pina colada’s available on Yellow Beach.

Orient Beach (French) the optional nude beach we stumbled upon, interestingly enough with the most active watersport life adjacent the beach. 
Club Orient
Numerous boats were anchored outside the nude beach club, “Club Orient”. Windsurfing, kite-boarding, sailing and jet-skiing were amongst the many activities we noticed at this fun beach resort.
Orient Beach

Oyster Pond (Dutch and French) this part of the island is split between the French and Dutch, seemed heavy with serious boat enthusiasts. It almost seemed like a sleepy fishing town. The crowd was a more mature and more quiet, and it was the only port we stopped in which had a visible sign stating a boating speed limit. There were beautiful resorts visible from the boat along the shore, also colorful and enticing to visitors and sailors. The restaurants were adorned with white tablecloths and gave an air of maturity, similar to the Bay itself.

Great Bay(Dutch) Cruise port and the entrance to Phillipsburg. This is the main tourist marketplace along the Dutch coast and attracts a mass quantity of traffic simply based on the number of tourists who get off the docked cruise ships daily. This was our last official stop by Nomad’s Land, and where we were signed off the boat by our Captain. Since we had previously visited this portion of the island on our morning jogs from Little Bay, we were only surprised by the sheer number of cruisers who piled into the small island shops and bars and changed the serene morning atmosphere into a bustling shop place.

The people of St Martin are a mix of European, Caribbean and Asian cultures who have found a way to make island life work in a non-traditional fashion. St. Martin is a collective of food, music and cultures which make the island not only interesting, but diverse on another level. The French bakeries and the Caribbean flavors only accentuate the diverse complex restaurants which were found all over the island. We met a friendly German mixologist who had been highlighted in a national article on his expertise – he was charming and witty, and delighted us with his stories and knowledge on making the perfect cocktails. These were the kinds of interactions that were found not to be the exception of the people, but the rule.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Puerto Rico!

A small island territory of the U.S., this island is overlooked in the Caribbean destination bank, likely because it is a U.S. territory. But, that is unfortunate, because this small island has some of the best fusion Caribbean music and Spanish food for miles and miles.
After visiting here a number of times, I find the Isla Verde area to be more touristy and standard practice of what vacationers expect when on vacation; high end hotels, beach access, and overpriced restaurants and bars along the main access roads between the airport and the hotel strip.
There are some fantastic restaurants off the beaten path. We enjoyed the Ceviche House, a Peruvian restaurant, on more than one occasion and found that the $12 U.S. cab fare from our hotel seemed fair. Yes, we could have walked, but why? We were done with the best platters of ceviche on the island, we had no intention of walking anywhere.
We also enjoyed many bars which had delicious local cocktails of coconut sangria and such.

We have now stayed at at least four different hotels/ B&B's and each has it's own distnct characteristic of the island. So, deciding what you prefer, will be the first step in deciding where to stay.
Casino's, family pools, peace and quiet, a great beach, live music on site - once you have made the most important choices, you can find pretty much anything you need and want on this industrious, fast paced island.
Make sure you check out the Rain Forest, Old San Juan, the cats of San Juan and many many other historic castles and landmarks this island has to offer. There are plenty of distractions and diversions to keep you busy on a vacation or if you happen to be there for business.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Cruisin' the Bahamas

My latest travel adventure took me aboard the Carnival Ecstasy. I chose a five day cruise to hit a few different islands while keeping in mind I did not know if I wanted to be on a ship for too long. This cruise ship departed for the Bahamas from Orlando, Florida, and stopped at Little Stirrup Cay, Nassau and Freeport, before making its way back to Port Canaveral on day 5.
Five days may have been too long for me. I think a brief three day adventure where island number one was touched on day number one and island number two by the second morning may be a better option, personally. I found the first day to be quite exciting and enjoyable, but by day number three, realized the attack of indigestion I was having may not go away until I found my land legs again. I was right.
Needless to say, there was food a-plenty. From the moment we boarded the ship, the buffets were ready and available on the Lido deck. We had three or four options for buffet style meals – a grill, a sandwich station and a pizza station. There were also a couple of turnstiles with breads, fruits and pastries. There was always some tid-bit available morning, noon or night. If eating is your vice of choice, a cruise is where you want to be. Now, if drinking is your game, there were many options to get your drink on. We chose a drink package which allowed us unlimited drinks (15) per day for the low price of $49.95 plus a pre-paid gratuity of 15%.
Now, cocktails were priced between $7 and $12, with bottle service available, so after about five drinks per day, you would have reached the price point of the package, so we figured, “why not?” A Bloody Mary or mimosa at breakfast, followed by a couple beers at the pool after lunch, then wine at dinner – then there were the nights we hit the nightclub. If we were not on the plan, we would have easily topped out at four drinks per day.
There were advertised morning specials every day – a breakfast Bloody Mary which ran about $8.95 per drink. There were “Specials of the day” which were presented around the pool every day which were theme based; Bahama Mama’s for $8.95, etc. So keeping this in mind, with the auto-gratuity that was added to all purchases $49.95 seemed like a bargain.
We were allowed to bring one bottle of wine onboard which could be opened at dinner for the wee corking fee of $10.
If entertainment is your draw to a cruise ship, there were a few options to choose from, but they repeated themselves throughout the cruise leaving those of us who decided we would hit all three venues on the first night, something to be desired. We saw two comedy shows, a Motown musical and hit THE nightclub, all on night number one. Luckily (some would say), on night number two we were convinced we could make the fifteen drink maximum and went straight to the nightclub after dinner and passed out promptly after signing for drinks number fourteen and fifteen. By night number three, we were bored. Night number four we went back to the nightclub, but departed early after realized the same twelve people that we had been dancing with for three days straight were as bored with us as we were of them. We packed and waited for morning, hardly able to sleep because the acid reflux was attacking both of us with the veracity of the waves against the side of the boat. It was relentless.
The Destinations:
Little Stirrup Cay is the private island owned by Carnival cruise lines. It is nestled in the Bahamas and although a treat to take a ferry from the ship to the island, that was about the extent of the day’s excitement. The only inhabitants of the island are the same passengers you are on the cruise with and the same cruise ship employees, who seem less than thrilled to spend their day off the boat serving you. Oh, and we quickly found out, our drink program did not work on the Carnival cruise ship island – even though, we had to use our room key to purchase the drinks, the drinks were the same, as were the employees. That fancy cocktail cost $14.95, a third of what would have been considered a bargain under my Cheers program.
The island itself is fashioned somewhat like an amusement park with different stations to participate in different activities.

We brought our own snorkel equipment, which we always do – you never know when you will find yourself in a snorkel-friendly bay with nothing but the sun at your back and fish to watch. There were palm trees and shops, and looked very similar to all the ports on every island we have ever visited.
Then at 11:30a lunch was served – buffet style, with the same items from the ship’s daily buffet.

Nassau features Atlantis and ship sponsored activities to participate in, so the ease of traveling from ship to island activities is taken up by the cruise line itself. Or, you can venture out on your own and be inundated with locals trying to make money for themselves. The typical island wares are available for purchase, as well as the common knockoff bags and accessories. The shopping plaza is very aggressive and almost too distracting to want to find a good deal. It is what it is – for those used to fighting crowds to haggle – this is your spot!!
Then there are the hi-end shops which line the main streets of downtown Nassau. No bargains, but the same types of shops one will find in Vegas at Caesars, or Miami on Oceanview Drive.
Atlantis is a wonderful place to take your children to see a fantastic aquarium – keep in mind it is on a resort and very costly.

Nassau itself has some interesting historical highlights – we did venture past Parliament, and some great historical statues. But even better, we found an amazing restaurant, Café Matisse which served Italian fare and was probably one of the best meals I have had in the past year. The food was amazing and fresh, and the service was impeccable - the highlight of our adventure to say the least.

Freeport was deserted, as we found out, from the devastation of the tropical storm which took place in 2011. Why this is still a port stop for a cruise ship is beyond me. We ventured out, were told by locals that the international marketplace no longer existed, but to go downtown instead. The downtown area was desolate and the restaurant we chose to eat at did not have the beer or food which we wanted to eat – feeling sympathetic, we chose other items, but wondered, “why? Why are we here”?

The bottom line is; I am not a cruiser.

I wanted to see more than one island, get a little taste of something from each spot, but the reality is, even if the islands had been fascinating to me, there was not enough time to really delve into each one for my personal taste. A cruise is like a drive by. Hang on to your hat, through money out the window, and remember the phrase your dad used to tell you as a kid, “You get what you get, and don’t pitch a fit”.

If you truly want to get the most of any destination as a traveler and not a tourist, research your destination, take your time, get off the beaten path and really enjoy each moment. If you do not know the difference between a traveler and a tourist – Take a cruise! It’s the most food you’ve ever eaten!