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Almost Paradise

Thanksgiving evening, as the gathering of my family at the grill area of Bluebeard’s Beach Club on St. Thomas moved to another location, I snuck off to my room.  I was tired of flailing away uselessly at the no-see-ums who thought my ankles were the buffet, and needed shelter.  I turned on the TV for the first time all week, and happened upon a “throwback Thursday” film marathon and caught most of that classic 80s flick, Footloose, and in particular the song Almost Paradise.  The song title neatly summed up my experience of a week on St. Thomas, an island not typically on my radar screen for various reasons.  There are a lot of close-to-paradise features to a visit here, but they aren’t quite paradise for me.

Before diving into the trip, let me preface this post by saying that I am completely spoiled and I know it.  I have a life that allows me to explore the Caribbean and to narrow my focus down to places that meet my wishes (and if I miss, I try again).  I’m selfish (and an introvert) and don’t like to share my perfect places with very many people.  And I also know that what I love about the islands is not necessarily what other people like; what might be minuses for me can be pluses for others.  I’m always appreciative of a chance to visit the islands, and will make the most of every opportunity; and I’m especially grateful to have shared Thanksgiving week on St. Thomas with my husband’s family and being excused from my usual role of Thanksgiving hostess.  So it’s all good!

There were a total of 15 of us gathering for a week at Bluebeard’s – a Wyndham vacation club, courtesy of my mother-in-law’s gazillion points — flying in from New York, California, Maryland and Virginia.

PLUS: Big jets make air travel less painful.

PLUS: Big jets spare us the sometimes-scary commuter planes we usually fly.

PLUS: It’s really cool to watch planes take off and land from the beach.

MINUS:  All of those people!

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Watching an American Airlines jet land from Brewer’s Bay.

Rick and I rented a 4-door Jeep from local company Amalie Car Rental, and were greeted by a representative as soon as we got off the plane.  By the time I collected our bags, Rick was at the wheel of our pristine new Jeep.

PLUS: Amalie is awesome!

MINUS:  The roads on St. Thomas don’t quite require a Jeep, but they can be quite scary with steep slopes, sketchy guardrails, and tight switchbacks.  The roads are poorly-marked and you’re required to drive on the left.

PLUS:  At least they are paved, for the most part.

Our first stop was the Pueblo supermarket  at Havensight to pick up provisions.  We are used to island grocery shopping, so our shopping list is nothing more than a wish list, only a percentage of which we’ll actually find.

PLUS:  St. Thomas has fairly large supermarkets.

MINUS:  Just because they’re big doesn’t mean you can get what’s on your shopping list.  I mean, really, no limes?  And only Florida avocados?  And the wine selection?  Abysmal.

PLUS:  There’s rum.

We arrived at Bluebeard’s around the same time as others in our group.  It’s a moderately-sized resort located just a few minutes outside of Charlotte Amalie on the south side of St. Thomas.  It features a handful of low-rise buildings perched on a sloping parcel of nicely-landscaped property on a cove known as Limetree Beach.

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A view of Bluebeard’s Beach Club from the check-in area.

Check in was slowed by a suggested visit with the “concierge,” who had “gifts” for us.  But he was really a time share shill peddling “free” lunches and discounts that could only be redeemed with a visit (and captive presentation) at their under-development property on the east side of the island.

MINUS:  Why are you wasting my vacation time?  My mother-in-law has enough time share points to book these half dozen units during a holiday week in the Caribbean.  Do you really think we need more?

PLUS:  None of us are stupid.  We didn’t bite.  Vacation time is too precious.

Finally, we settled into our unit.  Mine and Rick’s had a prime location close to the ice machine, so Dark and Stormies — made with the super-premium version of Gosling’s rum I bought at the duty free store at the airport – were soon in hand.

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Whew!  That drink couldn’t be poured fast enough.  Too bad the weather matched the name of the drink.

Our unit, like all of the others, looked out over the sea.  Our bedroom was in a loft overlooking the living space, which included a modest kitchenette.

PLUS:  The room was clean and reasonably well-equipped.

MINUS:  The room was generic, and could be anywhere from New York to New Caledonia.

MINUS:  The room had windows, but no screens, so we couldn’t open our unit to the elements (like the sound of the sea or the tree frogs).  Instead, we were stuck with AC that sounded like a leaf blower with a stutter.

MINUS:  You have to pay for WiFi – over $30 for the week for the “better” version of it – and it is abysmally, embarrassingly slow and unreliable.  To add insult to injury, Verizon coverage in the USVI is patchy at best, and they treat the islands as if they are a foreign country.

MINUS:  Our unit had a 3-step tile staircase from the kitchen/bath area to the living area.  This is an accident waiting to happen, as the steps have a sharp edge and are very slippery.

Everyone had arrived by Sunday evening, so we had a cocktail hour (or two) on a large terrace overlooking the resort.  This was one of a handful of all-family gatherings – we were here together, but the reality is that herding 15 people for assorted outings and meals is a low-percentage ploy.  So, with the exception of a few pre-arranged outings, no one was obliged to do anything with the group, which worked out nicely.

PLUS:  Bluebeard’s had several spaces where we could all comfortably gather, including a grill area with a covered pavilion.  Even when other families were using these areas, there was room for us.

We took advantage of this lack of agenda on our first full day in the islands, and ferried over to Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands.  For many years, the BVI were our go-to Caribbean destination.  We’d chartered sailboats there on a half-dozen different occasions in the 90s and early 2000s.  But our final trip there was disappointing on many levels – not least of which was the increasing crowds (not just “credit card sailors,” but the arrival of cruise ships that strained the islands’ resources) — that we found bluer seas elsewhere.  More recently, though, I’ve had an urge to revisit.

The highlight of those past visits was visiting Jost Van Dyke, a tiny and sparsely-inhabited island blessed with one of my favorite beaches (White Bay) and beach bars (Soggy Dollar) in all of the West Indies.  So while one might rightly say we took a 3-leg ferry trip and cleared customs and immigration twice in one day just to visit a beach bar, really, it was a fact-finding mission: I wanted to see if the magic was still there.

Finding the magic was going to take some effort, because the skies broke open – and would stay so for much of the day – as soon as we boarded the ferry that took us to Cruz Bay (STJ), West End (Tortola) and finally JVD.  I’d rented a 4WD vehicle from Abe’s and Eunicy’s to ensure ease of movement, even though there are only about 3 miles of road on JVD.  Eunicy met us at the ferry, and we rode along on an errand and took Eunicy’s cousin home before she turned over the keys.

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The ferry stop at West End on Tortola, and the familiar view of Soper’s Hole.  Not even the rainy weather can dull those colors.

As we made our way towards White Bay, I stopped and gazed on the beach from an overlook.  Despite the grey skies, it was breathtakingly pretty.

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Ahhhh … White Bay.  This was the first time I’d ever approached it by land.  In the early days of sailing in the BVI, it was off limits (on “de red-line”), but over the years as navigation aids improved, it became more accessible.

Next stop: the Soggy Dollar Bar.  Bartender Shaneek greeted us with “Good Morning” and I told her I didn’t want to hear that as I was ordering my first drink of the day at 10:15 a.m.  Other visitors slowly wandered in, by land and by sea, as we swam, drank, shopped and lunched.  Due to the rain, the fact that the season had yet to begin, and the absence of cruise ships in Roadtown, it wasn’t too crowded.  But when the sprinkles turned to downpours in the middle of lunch, everyone huddled under the few covered spots.

Soggy weather would not dampen our hours at the Soggy Dollar Bar.  It did serve to cut back on the number of visitors.

Onward to Foxy’s Tamarind Bar, perhaps the most famous of the JVD beach bars.  Great Harbour was largely empty, and so was Foxy’s.  I invited the lonely bartender to “be creative,” and he made me a rainbow-colored nightmare of a rum drink.

A dummy of Foxy Callwood oversees the lack of action at eponymous Foxy’s.

From there, we went to Foxy’s Taboo on the east end of JVD, a place new to us.  The rain was unrelenting, so a visit to the Bubbly Pool wasn’t in the offing; instead, we played Jenga, chatted with the bartenders, and knocked back a few libations.  As we were leaving, we were cautioned to put the jeep in 4WD low – the road out, which has a slope of about 45%, had turned into a waterfall as the water draining from higher in the hills was cascading downhill.  The rain finally let up in time for us to catch the ferry back to St. Thomas.

Heavy cloud cover over Jost Van Dyke (left), and Sandy Cay in the foreground, while Tortola is obscured by rain.

PLUS: The BVI still have some magic, at least in the off-season.

MINUS: No-see-ums don’t mind the rain, and they love me.

Tuesday’s weather was forecast to be only moderately less rainy, but we would be undaunted in our search for the best beaches of St. Thomas, which would continue through the week.  As a practical matter, my perfect beach doesn’t exist.  Certainly, the physical characteristics can be found in many places: soft sand (preferably white or pinkish), a bit of shade, clear water free of rocks or coral rubble, some wave action, and shells or sea glass to collect.  It’s the human factors which are more difficult to pin down, because I want a beach to be both mostly (or completely) empty, but also to have a friendly beach bar – and these two elements are almost mutually exclusive.  But the search nevertheless continues.  Here is my rundown on the beaches on St. Thomas we visited over the course of the week.

Our first stop was Hull Bay, just west of much-touted Magen’s Bay.  Hull Bay is considered a locals’ surfing spot, and doesn’t attract very many tourists.

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Hull Bay wasn’t especially enticing on this fairly dark, cloudy day.

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There is a surf break at this beach, the only reliable on in St. Thomas.

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Hull Bay Hideaway is a textbook perfect Caribbean beach bar; as a bonus, the Ravens flag gave away the allegiances (and histories) of its co-owners.

PLUS:  Hull Bay has Hull Bay Hideaway to recommend it, a mellow (at least before lunch) classic beach bar and a source of amazing fish tacos and fish sandwiches.

MINUS:  The beach doesn’t invite swimming, with small boats moored very close to shore and dark, pebbly sand.  But at least it doesn’t attract hordes.

Lindquist Beach is on the east end of St. Thomas, and is part of the Virgin Islands National Park system, with plentiful parking and clean restroom facilities.  There is plenty of shade and picnic tables, as well as a lifeguard and a roped-off swimming area.  We came here in the rain, so there weren’t very many visitors about.

 

PLUS: Objectively, the prettiest beach we visited on St. Thomas.

MINUS:  Where’s the rum?  You have to bring your own.

Limetree Beach was our “home” beach, and the masses of beach chairs and dive shop, as well many guests, attest to its status as a resort beach.  The sand is fairly dark, and it has a rocky entrance.  There were seas running from the south during Thanksgiving week, so we had some wave action to play in.

Limetree is a decent beach, but look at all of the chairs….

PLUS: Couldn’t get any more convenient than this beach, and we spent hours hanging out in the water, sipping from our “water” bottles.

MINUS:  Lots of people around.

Coki Point Beach had the potential to be the prettiest beach we would visit.  But, like on St. John, the best beaches are also the most popular, especially among cruise ship excursioneers, who tend to pack together like iron filings on a magnet.  The traffic on this skinny peninsula was daunting enough, with parking a challenge as well.  We got a glimpse of the blinding white sand and crystal water, but it wasn’t easy to do so because the shore was packed with bodies.  Not for me; we turned tail.

PLUS:  Could have been a contender.

MINUS:  People!

Magen’s Bay is probably the most famous beach on St. Thomas.  The heart-shaped bay has a lot to recommend it: plenty of shade, picnic tables, public restrooms, light sand, playful surf.

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This view of Magen’s Bay is one of the iconic images of St. Thomas.

We hiked to the furthest west end of the beach and camped out for a while, finding the water delicious for swimming.  Though the sand isn’t as white, Magen’s Bay reminded me a bit of Playa Flamenco on Culebra, except that on Flamenco, people spread out, so even if there is a lively buzz of visitors, you never feel crowded.  On Magen’s, crowds pack in, their matching towels a clue to their origin.  Around beer time, we were pelted with a heavy downpour, with the rain so cold that I escaped into the sea to get warm.  Once the rain stopped, we gave up on getting beers from the concession stand because there were just too many people.

Early enough, and far enough away from the entrance, Magen’s Bay is beautiful and inviting.

PLUS:  Pretty, and very nice for swimming.

MINUS:  People!

Just as we did when visiting St. John earlier this year, we’d have to settle for less pretty beaches to escape the masses.  Brewer’s Beach, though itself not especially developed, is adjacent to the University of the Virgin Islands campus, and has a view of the end of the runway at STT – so it has a slightly urban feel.  The sand is white, though there are patches of sea grass in the water.  There are shoals of small shells and sea glass to explore.  We found a nice shady spot under a banyan tree to park.  The beach appears to be a favorite of residents, and had a holiday vibe as families cooked out and swam in the calm waters.  Though there are no beach bars, a few food trucks supply snacks and beers.

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Brewer’s Bay offered one of the nicest beach experiences we had on St. Thomas.

PLUS: While slightly busy, this is the mellow sort of scene I don’t mind.

MINUS:  A swarm of no-see-sums drove me away.

Our final beach was Lindbergh Beach, named after the famed aviator and fittingly located parallel to the airport’s runway.  There are a couple of resorts along the ends of the beach, but the middle of the beach is undeveloped.  Just park along the airport road, duck under the seagrapes, and drape your towel on the rocks.  The sand and sea are lovely here, and a slight swell makes the swimming interesting.  As well, watching the planes take off and land is fun; the jets especially seem so huge at eye level.

Paradise is where you find it….

PLUS:  I could spend a lot of time here!

MINUS:  Too bad it was the last beach we visited.

It wasn’t all beaches for us, though it wasn’t much more than just beaches.  On Thanksgiving Day, we took a family snorkel trip aboard the Culebra Diver, which was booked through the dive shop at Bluebeard’s (the boat was docked at a marina near Red Hook).

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The matching shirts helped keep us together.

We motored to St. Thomas’ Buck Island (just like there are many Mill Creeks in the Chesapeake, there seem to be many Buck Islands….) and moored in a lee cove for some turtle watching.  (I admit to being too persnickety to wear borrowed snorkel equipment, so I just bobbed around in the water while everyone else snorkeled).

Underwater scenery at Buck Island.

Then the boat moored on the other side of Buck Island, where the nominal attraction is a sunken freighter, but the real attraction is yellowtail snappers with a voracious appetite for Frito Lay products.

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Somebody must have a chip bag in hand.

The seas built to 4 feet, making for a boisterous trip back to the marina, but no one chummed the waters and a good amount of rum was poured.

PLUS:  Aqua Marine runs an excellent adventure, and they managed to keep our entire group (mostly) in line.

MINUS:  Every other excursion boat in St. Thomas goes to the same spots seemingly at the same time.  I was convinced someone was going to be kicked in the face.

One of the great pleasures of island trips is eating local food.  Though not known as one of the gastronomic capitals of the Caribbean, St. Thomas didn’t fail to satisfy.  A combination of good advice from regular visitors, and simple luck, kept us from having a single bad meal.  Of course, you’ll almost never find me ordering a burger or steak in the islands – though there is no shortage of US chains here – I always default to seafood or island specialties.  We had meals at Mim’s (near Bolongo Bay, right on the water, with excellent snapper creole), Iggie’s (best fish tacos I’ve ever had), Da Coal Pot (sister restaurant to the one we ate at in St. John, in a strip center that took some looking for, but worth the effort for delicious goat roti and oxtail stew), and Molly Molone’s (eschewed the turkey buffet for a fish sandwich).

Uninvited lunch guests at Molly Molone’s.

Our last meal as a group, with some of our number peeling off afterwards, was in Frenchtown at Hook, Line and Sinker.  I’d arranged for their private room to accommodate our large group, and it was terrific.  The room – which opened out to the harbor — fit us perfectly, and the staff were friendly and efficient.  Most importantly, the food was great – the best snapper creole I’ve ever had.  Of course, with a group of our size, not everyone can be made happy; for better or worse, Ronald McDonald was my young nephews’ savior!

Of course, there’s a lot more to St. Thomas than my limited explorations revealed.  But I’m not particularly interested in zip lines, aerial tramways, jewelry shopping, or any of the other activities that seem to attract large groups.  More mellow pursuits, like visiting gardens and taking historical tours or hikes, might have been more appealing if the better part of our week hadn’t been rained out.  All in all, it was fun to be together with the entire family, to skip the stress of Thanksgiving weekend, and to get in some quality beach time.  I may never affirmatively seek to visit St. Thomas again, but I don’t regret having done it.

My version of Paradise it isn’t, but it’ll do.

 

 

 

Big Chillin’ in the Big Easy

 

This is my second trip to New Orleans this year; this time, it’s a micro-reunion of college friends.  We’d met almost 3 decades ago at Loyola University of New Orleans.  One of the big films that year was the Big Chill, and we imagined ourselves in the various roles of the college friends in that movie.  Who would be the successful entrepreneur?  The journalist who sells out?  The saintly doctor?  The career woman who puts off having children?  But most of all, I suspect it was the house party (or maybe just the house!) that enthralled us most.  Inspired by that, rather than stay in a hotel, we rented a home via VRBO near the neighborhood we spent 4 years in before scattering to the four winds.

Our VRBO rental, just off Freret Street, and my bedroom.

If St. Charles Avenue is the front door of Loyola, Freret Street was the back door – and that’s where our rental was located.  The unit was clearly added on to and renovated over the years, but retained some of the character of the shotgun it was.  With 3 comfy bedrooms, 2 baths, a living room, dining room and kitchen, as well as front steps and back yard, we had everything we needed.  And Freret Street between Jefferson and Napoleon Avenues is itself in the process of developing into everything a visitor might want – driven by urban pioneers in hipster form.  But while the denizens sport the body art and interesting beards one associates with hipsters, they lack the ironic and supercilious attitude encountered in other cities.  When they greet you with a “Good morning.  What can I get you, hon’?” they actually seem like they mean it.

Within a 1-block radius of our place was a hot dog shop, a Vietnamese restaurant, a bodega, 2 tattoo shops, a salon/spa, a bike shop, a hot dog restaurant, a Peruvian restaurant, bars, a bagel shop, a comedy theater … well, you get the idea.  In fact, while lounging on the front steps in the perfect 78-degree/sunny/not humid weather, it took me as long to refresh my glass of wine from the one in the kitchen refrigerator as it did my friend to go over to a bar and buy a go-cup of bourbon and coke.  But among all of that, there is plenty of road work and construction as well.

A funky hot dog restaurant (with obligatory full liquor license) just across the street from ongoing construction.

As familiar as all of us are with the city, our get-together was less about playing tourist, and more about hanging out together, enjoying the city and the weather, and simply walking around and exploring.  And – oh yeah — eating and drinking!  The food and drink agenda including new spots and old favorites.  Given that it was not a huge festival or event weekend, we had a simpler time getting into the places we wanted to go without having to make reservations weeks in advance, and the opportunity to just wing it.

Which is exactly what we did after arriving Friday evening.  We opened the Google maps app to see what was nearby, and started walking to Pascal’s Manale, an old-school New Orleans restaurant known for barbecue shrimp.  We diverted briefly to Cuzco, a Peruvian restaurant (I love ceviche), but while they had room for us, they had no liquor license and we hadn’t yet gotten any B to BYO (which they allowed).  Onward in the soft evening air, where Pascal’s Manale had room for us in the white-tablecloth dining room.  Seafood is what I frequently order in New Orleans, and my grilled black drum, with a handful of those glorious shrimp in that dark, tangy and complex sauce (which isn’t a barbecue sauce, really, in the Open Pit style one might think of) was a perfect start to a foodie weekend.

My dinner of black drum, and Pascal’s Manale famous barbecue shrimp.

Nowhere near done for the evening, we stopped at the stylish artisan cocktail bar carved out of a former fire station, Cure.  There is a gorgeous, leafy courtyard separated from the sidewalk with an ivy-covered fence and a funky door.  Sitting out there with a ti punch (rhum agricole with simple syrup and lime, my go-to drink in French St. Martin) in the company of good friends was a great end to the evening.  But wait!  We weren’t done!  We stopped in at The Other Bar (cement-floored and grungy with the stigmata of decades of cigarette smoke and spilled drinks), picked up some Moscow Mules to-go, and then watched the world go by from our front steps.

Saturday morning dawned obnoxiously bright and sunny.  I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but there was no Diet Coke in the house, so I needed to get some caffeine onboard and fast.  My former roomie and I walked over to Mojo Coffee House (high ceilings, cement floors, fumed oak, chalk boards, staffed by cheerful tattooed baristas) for my coffee drink of choice (iced skim latte) and normal and non-foofy coffee for the others.  I would do this every morning.  I got the necessary Diet Cokes at the tiny supermercado down the street.  What else did we need?

With an epic walk planned for the day, we started with a bit of pampering at a salon on Carrollton Avenue which we reached by streetcar (you can buy an unlimited ride pass on your iPhone for $3/day on RTA gomobile): pedicures and, for one of us, a manicure too.  I chose an acid yellow polish, the better to keep my eyes on my feet because New Orleans sidewalks vary between concrete and cobbles, and are cracked and buckled by the ancient live oaks lined up alongside.  Since we were at the river bend, and had skipped breakfast, lunch at Cooter Brown’s was on our minds.

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New Orleans’ famous above-ground cemeteries share space with Uptown’s gorgeous homes.

Cooter Brown’s is a bar located across the railroad tracks from the Mississippi River levee where St. Charles Avenue meets Carrollton.  It’s a dark biker/student bar with dozens of beers on tap and in bottles (and bartenders who are knowledgeable and willing to pour generous samples), and a more-than-competent kitchen if you are looking for a po-boy or burger.  The servings are generous, providing us fuel for one of my favorite walks in the city – the Magazine Street crawl.

Magazine Street – from the Lower Garden District all the way to Audubon Park – is a miles-long stretch of boutiques, cafes, bars, shops and restaurants, few of which are representatives of chains.  On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the street was alive with pedestrian traffic, poking in and out of shops or dining and drinking at sidewalk tables.  Unlike Bourbon Street, which attracts more than its share of humanity, Magazine Street is convivial and charming, not tawdry and honky-tonk.  It’s possible to spend a lot of money on Magazine, but I contained my expenditures to a bottle of wine at Spirit Wine, which offers an inclusive but not overwhelming selection of well-chosen wine, and an informed and helpful proprietor.

Saturday night’s dinner was on Magazine Street, at my favorite of all New Orleans restaurants: Coquette.  The chef – who is a Marylander like me – can do things with vegetables that would convert this dedicated omnivore to vegetarianism.  But I don’t have to, because his gifts extend to seafood and meat as well.  This Garden District restaurant is somewhat off the beaten tourist path.  The main floor is a long narrow room along which a bar runs; tile floors, pressed tin ceiling and chandeliers create a bistro feeling.  Although we didn’t have the stamina to do the 5-course tasting, dinner (smoked cobia and grilled octopus for me) left us wanting more, so we hoofed it to Bouligny Tavern after dinner, about 6 block away.  The tavern is next door to Lilette, but between the 2 buildings is a small courtyard where you can settle in with cocktails on a sofa and spend a beautiful evening.

My dinner of tea-smoked cobia, and marinated octopus over crab rice.

Sunday ended up being a marathon of walking.  Our ranks were depleted, so just my friend Dan and I set off for the French Quarter.  Not to drink frozen daiquiris on Bourbon Street, but to find a nice late breakfast/early lunch.  We found ourselves at the corner of St. Peter and Chartres, an oasis of relative cool and calm, in Dickie Brennan’s Tableau.

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A New Orleans classic: grits and grillades.

If you wave off the strolling jazz band, it’s an entirely mellow experience, where people come in without fanny packs and giant white sneakers and the 36 ounce Bloody Mary from down the street.  Thus fortified, we strolled the high-end antique shops and galleries of Royal Street, rambled into the Marigny, and down to the Bywater, where we climbed steps up and over the railroad tracks to get us to Crescent Park.

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French Quarter courtyards and balconies.

Crescent Park is a Mississippi riverfront promenade reclaimed from wharves and warehouses and opened only in the last couple of years.  Here, you can walk alongside the river and appreciate its grandeur and power.  Few visitors hike this far.  Other than the occasional wake of a passing barge, this is a spot for quiet contemplation among the plants and butterflies.

Behemoth cruise ships in contrast with the serenity of Crescent Park.

Footsore after having walked 32+ blocks from the French Quarter, Dan and I retreated to one of his favorite haunts – the not-so-secret-anymore Country Club.  Built in and around a few grand Bywater homes, the Country Club is a bar, restaurant and swim club with a very tolerant attitude (it is not, however, clothing optional anymore).  After the brunch crowd left, we had the expansive columned porch to ourselves as we watched the endless show that New Orleans denizens can provide.

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The gracious portico at the Country Club.

We whiled away late afternoon on our front steps until it was time to walk down Freret Street to dinner at Bar Frances.  It’s a wine bar that features organic and natural wines (the bottle we ordered was cloudy due to natural oxidation, but that didn’t harm the flavor whatsoever), and a brief menu of small plates and some larger entrees.  If you like beets – as I do – a beet tartare small plate will knock your socks off; this is one I feel compelled to attempt at home.

And home is where we were bound on Monday, with early afternoon flights that allowed a leisurely breakfast before heading to the airport.

I don’t know when I’ll return to New Orleans next.  For 10 years in a row, I would have my hotel and air arrangements in place by this time for the following year’s Jazz Fest (last weekend of April and first weekend of May).  But, at least as a tourist destination, New Orleans has recovered – and then some – since Hurricane Katrina, and that has turned Jazz Fest into a painfully crowded slog for me.  In 2014, Jimmy Buffett’s show was running at the same time as Lady Gaga with Tony Bennett and Pitbull, and getting out of the Fairgrounds left me freaked out.  Simply put, I need a break from Jazz Fest, and it will only be during a “down” time like this past weekend (second weekend of October) that I’m likely to return.  But, oh, how lovely it was.

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Given that I’ve been visiting New Orleans regularly since graduation from college, including at least those annual visits during Jazz Fest for the last 10 consecutive years, a lot of people ask me for advice on where to stay and eat and drink in a city that has too many options to count.  So, the rest of this post is my very opinionated review of some of the places I’ve stayed and eaten and drank (drunk?) in the past years.

WHERE I’VE STAYED

Wyndham Belle Maison: Rick and I have been lucky enough to have access to Wyndham vacation club points, so we’ve stayed here for the last 4 years during Jazz Fest.  The location of this property, carved out of an old printing plant with the brick walls and soaring atrium to show for it, can’t be beat for Jazz Festing.  It’s right behind the Sheraton, where the Jazz Fest shuttle drops off.  Being so close to Canal Street, you are by extension close to the French Quarter without being in it.  The units are comfortable, stylish, and well-equipped; they are ideal if you are traveling with another couple and want to hang out together.  The only caveat is that some of the interior units don’t have windows to the exterior, so you can find yourself disoriented as to the time of day.

J.W. Marriott:  Fronting Canal Street, this is also an extremely well-located hotel.  On the plus side, it’s a standard quality J.W. Marriott, the higher-end of Marriott’s offerings.  On the minus side, it’s a standard quality J.W. Marriott, which means it has little relationship to its environment and could be dropped in any city in the world.  I appreciate the plush bedding in the rooms.  I also appreciate that they don’t jack up their prices during special events – the room rate stays pretty constant year-round.

Royal Sonesta:  This is my favorite of the bunch, but I haven’t been able to get a room there for several years.  It’s right on Bourbon Street, but once you go through the doors, it’s like entering an oasis of serenity.  In my opinion, the best rooms are interior ones overlooking the courtyard and pool area and away from the Bourbon Street noise; some of the rooms have french doors that open right out onto the pool/bar deck.  The rooms and common areas feel very vieux Nouvelle Orleans, but with all the modern amenities.

Monteleone: One of the storied grand dames of the New Orleans hotel roster, its best known for the carousel bar in the lobby (that really goes around in circles).  When we stayed here a half dozen years ago, it was in need of a sprucing up.  The location on Royal Street in the FQ is terrific.

Ritz Carlton: This gorgeous property on Canal Street was once the Maison Blanche department store I frequented when a student, and retains some of its old glories.  The RC features high-ceilinged spaces, exceptionally comfortable bedding, and elegant décor; the service here is either attentive or over-bearing (depending on your point of view).  The courtyard bar is one of my favorite places in town to grab a drink.

Crowne Plaza Astor:  Stayed in a suite here with 2 girlfriends, which was large and comfortable BUT the bedroom window overlooked the Quarter and had no sound-proofing.  Very noisy.  All. Night. Long.  Who’d have thought that the sofa bed in the living room (without a window) would be the place everyone wanted to sleep?  Indifferent service, and a very busy lobby.

Sheraton Canal Street:  Huge, soulless hotel with a very crowded lobby, especially during Jazz Fest.  It’s convenient, because Jazz Fest tickets can be picked up here, and the shuttles run from the hotel, but I wouldn’t choose it myself.

Aloft (Baronne Street):  Located in the Central Business District (CBD, which is close to the French Quarter), it covers the bases.  The rooms are done in a modern and inexpensive-looking style, but the common areas are inviting.

Pere Marquette:  I’ve only stayed here one night (before we could get into our time share at the Wyndham), but I liked it a great deal.  Chic, stylish and comfortable, as well as being right on the streetcar line right in the CBD.

PLACES I’VE EATEN:  Aside from the places noted in my report above, we’ve eaten a lot of meals over the years!  It’s really, really hard to get a bad meal in New Orleans.  Where things fall apart – if they do – it’s due to bad or indifferent service, and the service is more likely to be iffy during a major festival or event weekend.  During those times, reservations are essential at the better places, and can be hard to get.  I’ll keep my opinions brief.

August: This is the flagship of the John Besh restaurant empire, and deservedly so.  You’ll have one of the most memorable meals of your life here – not a single false step.  If you have the stamina, try the chef’s tasting menu with wine pairing – but it’s a long evening.  For a smaller (and cheaper) taste, try lunch.

Lüke: Another outpost of the Besh empire, this is a brasserie-styled spot in the CBD.  It’s noisy, but the food is good, casual fare with brisk service.  You can almost always get a table here if you plan ahead.

Cochon: As the name implies, Cochon is about all things pig, Cajun-style.  It’s a warehouse-ish space in the Warehouse District close to the WWII museum (which is a must-visit).  The food is not especially refined, but it’s a carnivore’s delight!  It seems like they overbook during festival weekends, and dinner service can go sideways.  Go to lunch instead.

NOLA: Emeril Lagasse’s offering in the French Quarter, this super-loud place left me cold.  The food just seemed un-inspired.

Clancy’s and Patois: These are old school, neighborhood Creole restaurants offering delicious takes on the classics – if you want a martini, gumbo, and beautifully prepared redfish, this is for you.  Both are small and tucked into Uptown neighborhoods.  It’s very difficult to get a table at Clancy’s (we only managed because we were guests of a local VIP).  I don’t mean to suggest that the two are interchangeable, but either will check the box.

Commander’s Palace: Brunch par excellence.  Wear your Sunday-going-to-meeting clothes here.  Beautiful, lighthearted décor; strolling jazz musicians; courtly service.  This is where families come to celebrate milestones.  The brunch is prix fixe for 3 substantial courses, and a terrific value.  Don’t miss the bread pudding soufflé.

Lilette: The only place in town that has ever not honored a reservation during Jazz Fest, I will forever hold it against them (though it didn’t stop me from a late afternoon drop-in for a glass of wine).  The other time we ate here, it was good, but service was clearly suffering from the overflow crowds in town.

Bayona: At the corner of Toulouse and Dauphine, in the FQ but a few blocks away from the tourist hustle, Bayona is a haven my husband and I have made a necessary stop on every trip.  Dinners eventually proved to be too challenging – in terms of strained service during Jazz Fest, on the few occasions we’d been able to get in – so we make it a Saturday lunch regular.  A fixed price luncheon makes the choices easy, but Chef Susan Spicer’s classics preparations (cream of garlic soup; duck, cashew butter and pepper jelly) always make it to that menu.

Domenica (CBD); Domenica Pizza (Magazine Street):  The Italian iteration of John Besh’s and his protégé Ilon Shaya’s genius, both of these serve wonderful and creative brick-oven pizzas.  The CBD location is housed in the Roosevelt Hotel and has a chic, masculine décor and broader menu that features house-made pastas.  Both offer the popular roasted whole cauliflower appetizer (trust me – it’s worth it).

Borgne: A loud, hotel-based seafood restaurant.  The food is good, but the principal selling point is being able to reserve a table for a large group.

Johnny Sanchez:  In the CBD (Poydras Street), this is a taqueria built in a former bank lobby that has Chihuly-styled chandeliers.  The taco offerings are good, but you’d probably do just as well from a food truck.

Meauxbar: Located on the edge of the FQ and the Treme, Meauxbar is a tiny but trendy restaurant featuring updated comfort food (grilled cheese with caramelized onions and braised beef; steak au poivre) and an ambitious cocktail menu.

Pelican Club: A clubby atmosphere in a brick-walled space off an obscure FQ alley, featuring Louisiana seafood.  If you choose well (whole fish), you’ll be happy; if you hit it on an off night (during Jazz Fest, when a thunderstorm takes out your AC), you’ll be disappointed.

The restaurant scene is ever-changing, and there really are no rules, so be sure to check out the latest reviews and go for it.

 

 

No Broken Glass, No Big Dents

We are a loyal tribe, us Out Island fanatics.  Once we fall for those 698 Bahamian islands, cays, and rocks outside of New Providence (Nassau) and Grand Bahama (Freeport), we return again and again.  We recognize our fellow addicts, and speak to each other with a common vocabulary,  carefully recruiting potential travel companions to bring into the fold.  The thing with the Out Islands is that they require a particular type of traveler who will get it.

There are certain – I won’t say hardships, but rather, challenges to Out Island travel.  While some might say we love the Out Islands in spite of the obstacles, I would hazard to say that we love them because of them.  Because the challenges are part of what make the Out Islands so beguilingly quirky, so ripe for discovery, and so deliciously secret.

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One might think that after nearly 4 months living aboard Calypso in the Bahamas two years ago, that we’d had enough, that perhaps we’d been cured of our addiction.  Instead, I dream of picking sand dollars off flats at low tide.  I perfect my conch chowder recipe.  I imagine muscling my kayak against the current through mangrove creeks.  I am transported by the framed photos in my office (which include a swimming pig and a magenta sunset).  Two years is a long time to have been away from the Out Islands, so I finally pulled together a return visit to one of my Happy Places: Fernandez Bay Village on Cat Island in June.  And we brought along Skip and Harriet, whom we introduced to the Abacos back in 2005  (Abacos 2005), who became smitten with the Out Islands and made up for lost time by sailing to the Bahamas for 3 seasons (Moondance’s Blog).

Out Island challenges typically start before you get there, because getting there from anywhere but Florida can take a good 12 hours of travel time.  It’s not that the distance is that great; it’s just that the bridging of that distance takes some creativity, patience, flexibility and – most importantly – a sense of humor.  Because things tend to go wrong, it’s essential to build some wiggle room into the schedule.  That way, when your pilot announces that you’re circling over NAS instead of landing there because both the radar and radio communications at the airport are down, you’re not sweating too much because you’ve built in a 3-hour+ layover during which to clear immigration and customs, walk over to the domestic terminal, check in with your tiny commuter airline, and get through the understaffed security portal.  It helps to be flying with carry-on luggage only, so you don’t have to wait for bags to be decanted, collected and checked in again; plus, that’s a good guide for how little stuff you really need.

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A tiny airport like New Bight International Airport doesn’t leave much room for error.

While we had our requisite misadventure, Skip and Harriet, flying from Ft. Lauderdale, had their own.  Their flight had been delayed due to heavy storms in southeast Florida, and they cut the transfer to Sky Bahamas much closer than we did.  Nothing some Sands beer (brewed in Freeport, and Bahamian-owned) or rum can’t fix.  Lucky for us, Sky Bahamas was flying with its full fleet, and close to schedule; unfortunately, even though they fixed their planes for flying, they did not fix them for comfort.  No air-conditioning during a 40-minute flight in June was not pleasant, but it was a mere blip.

Once the plane deposited us on the tarmac, we collected our bags and were greeted by a taxi driver sent by FBV, who had us at the front desk in minutes.  “Check-in” took about 2 minutes – confirming that we were staying in Point House (no need for keys) and informing us that appetizers would be served at 7.  Another minute, and we were at the house most distant from FBV’s clubhouse, losing most of our travel clothes and checking out the beach while breaking into the bottle of pineapple rum purchased at the airport in Nassau.  So, after 12 hours of travel, it took about 10 minutes to get into the island groove.  If the rum hadn’t done it, the walk down the gorgeous beach to the tiki bar would have.

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Even on a cloudy day, Fernandez Bay Village is a lovely sight.

It helps that this was our 5th visit (6th, if you count the time we spent anchored in the bay during our sabbatical) to Fernandez Bay.  The place is as familiar as a second home to us, and as welcoming.  We know the ins and outs of FBV, its rhythms and its little quirks.  Although we’re now seeing the next generation taking over the management of the resort, the transition has been seamless as far as we can see.

Like the other Out Island resorts we’ve stayed at or visited, FBV is anchored by a central clubhouse.  FBV’s is a soaring coral stone structure with a thatched roof, next to which is the tiki bar – which we all know is truly the heart of all of the action.  All meals are served here, and all the guests congregate here before dinner to concoct their own drinks on the honor system, or bring their own, and await the sunset.  As with every other visit we’ve had here, we’ve found the other guests to be great company – whether part of the large family group visiting by private jet and yacht, the honeymooners, or the couple who’d mutinied and abandoned ship (and turned out to be from the same town as Skip and Harriet).  Almost all of them were already, or will likely become, part of our tribe of Out Island fanatics.

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This is our first summer visit, so we’re not used to the position of the sunset; in the winter, over open water, we usually watch for a green flash.

Because we were traveling with friends this time around, instead of staying in one of the cottages at FBV, we chose the 2-bedroom villa Point House.  Every morning when I woke, I had the familiar view of the sea from my window, the coral stone walls, and the lazily spinning fan overhead.

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The view we’d wake up to.

But instead of being steps away from the clubhouse, we had the not-so-arduous 5-minute walk down the beach before getting that first blast of caffeine.

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Our quiet end of the beach.

And, being in a house, we had a white-paneled living area with comfortable seating and a compact kitchen.  Most importantly (to me, anyway) was what the villa and cottages lack: walls in the garden baths (allowing the pleasure of semi-outdoor bathing), televisions and telephones.

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Having our own kitchen meant that we could make our own Dark and Stormy cocktails; except no one ever heard of Gosling’s black rum (even though the store was well-stocked with ginger beer), so we had to settle for Ron Ricardo Bahamian dark rum.  Close enough!

The most outstanding feature of Fernandez Bay Village, however, is Fernandez Bay itself.  A perfect white sand crescent lined with casuarinas, palms and palmettos.  When the sun strikes that water, it’s the most mesmerizing, crystalline, blinding, unlikely blue – a color so intense and striking that I’ll call it “Improbablue,” because unless you see it for yourself, you don’t quite believe it’s real.  Since this was our first summer visit, it was also our first experience of how warm the water can be – how easy it can be to simply slip in and never leave its caress.

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Fernandez Bay, colored in Improbablue.  The color is especially stunning when contrasted with dark storm clouds.

Despite all of this to commend FBV, the critters simply thumb their noses and do whatever the heck they want.  The curly-tailed geckos have the run of the place.  The frog likes his perch on our toilet seat (below the lid) – hence the need to turn on the lights and check before having a seat.  The snake was comfortable in the electrical works, causing the power outage that followed the outages that came with the overnight thunderstorms.  And the noseeums – emboldened by a few wet and windless days — made a buffet of us at dawn and dusk, despite lavish applications of DEET.  Every time I scratch the dozens of bites decorating my skin, I think of vacation.

Other critters on the island were far less vexing.  Just south of Fernandez Bay is a network of mangrove creeks which we explore by kayak.  The clear waters reveal schools of juvenile fish, sea turtles, and baby sharks.  They also reveal that the power of positive thinking cannot defeat low tide – one of our outings in the creek was too close to the witching hour, and we got stuck on the tiny hillocks of squidgy sand while trying to traverse to the outlet of the creek (and its secret beaches), and we were forced to turn back.  Our consolation that time was that the outgoing current and wind gently pushed us out of the creek, in contrast to the upstream fight we had to get stuck.

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Rick and Harriet paddle ahead of me in the creek, as thunder rumbles.

FBV is just a small sliver of what Cat Island, which is about 50 miles long, has to offer.  You’ve got to hit the road to explore.  Renting a car is about as major a formality as checking in was – after offering up my credit card and driver’s license, I was given the keys to an elderly Honda CRV, reminded to drive on the left side, and told “no broken glass, no big dents.”  Gilbert’s car rentals knows exactly what Out Island fanatics will do to their cars.  Given the condition of the roads on Cat Island, and knowing where renters are going to take the vehicles, they know that all they can realistically expect is to get their cars back with no major damage.  (I put that to the test right away.  I’ve driven on the left before, but never in a right-hand-drive car.  I had quite an adventure backing the car out of a sandy track I’d mistakenly driven into.  But at least the windshield was clean, as I repeatedly turned on the wipers instead of the turn signal.)

Just like on most every other Out Island, there is one main paved road, with the same name: the Queen’s Highway.  On Cat Island, it hugs the western shore, washed out and crumbling in some places, but in reasonable enough condition to get you from the top of the island to the bottom in about 2 hours.  It’s going off the main road that is the challenge.  The “roads” are a combination of sandy tracks, gouged out limestone, and the occasional rocky stretch.  Vegetation encroaches from the sides, so the shriek-y scratch of sea grapes scraping the paint off your car is part of the soundtrack of any road trip.  Plenty of vegetation – even 18-inch palmettos – grows between the tracks, so the bottom of your car gets scraped clean.  It takes a good bit of bumping, grinding and axle twisting to get to any of the other beaches on the island.

Hard to believe, but spectacular as Fernandez Bay is, we did find ourselves visiting other stretches of shoreline.  FBV had as many as – gasp! – 2 dozen guests that we had to share our mile of beach with.  To get away from all of those people, we had to wander.

There is the pink sand, lively surf, interesting (and sad) collection of flotsam, and “cliffs” (on an island featuring the Bahamas’ highest point, Mt. Alvernia at a mere 206 feet) of Fine Bay about 4 miles away.

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The surf splashes up onto the pink sands of Fine Bay.

Also on the ocean side, the beach we call Conch Cove, with tiny sandy islets offshore breaking the surf.  (This one had better be gorgeous, because it takes about 40 minutes of off-road maneuvering, including passing through a dump and a stinky salt pond, to get there.)

 

More pink sand, and more solitude, at Conch Cove.

             In contrast is the placid Exuma Sound side beach of Old Bight, bordered by an ancient cemetery and plantation ruins.

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Old Bight’s clear and calm waters.

And the wild and undeveloped shore of Port Royal, where a half dozen people had the audacity to join us on 2 miles of sand.

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A dozen years after we first found our way to this spectacular beach at Port Royal, and it seems not to have changed at all.

As part of our road trips, we planned lunch stops.  An old favorite is Yardie’s, deservedly known for the best conch salad on the island, as well as down-home Bahamian specialties like steamed fish, accompanied by frosty Sands.

There is nothing more refreshing, and more typically Bahamian, than a cool conch salad and a frosty beer at a roadside stand.  You can also fill your gas tank here.

A newer addition to the Cat Island scene is the restaurant at Shanna’s Cove, perched on the bluff that tumbles down to the Port Royal beach.  Of all things, Shanna’s is known for good pizza, which hits the spot after eating fish and conch for every meal.

When we tire of conch and our view at Fernandez Bay, there’s always pizza and a caprese salad, with a view of Port Royal, from Shanna’s Cove.

Cat Island’s iconic attraction is the Hermitage, a site I never tire of visiting.  Perched atop Mt. Alvernia and offering views of both the Atlantic Ocean and Exuma Sound, it’s one of those places that inspires me to be mindful and count my blessings.

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Not least of which is my ability to visit the magical Out Islands of the Bahamas and share them with my friends.

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Paradise: Lost and Found

After a day of lazing around The Retreat and driving in to the second-largest “metropolis” on St. John, Coral Bay, for lunch, it was time to tackle some paddling.

 Over the years, I’ve progressed from being a very timid kayaker (who’d only go out in a tandem kayak with Rick) to the owner of my own inflatable kayak that I comfortably took out in most conditions – even ones that I shouldn’t have gone out in (I’m no match for 5+ knots of outgoing tide, as I learned at Big Major’s Cay in the Exumas).  So, when Rick and I hauled our craft down to a bay variously known as Limetree Bay or south Haulover Bay, I was perhaps a bit overconfident.  As I pushed off the cobble beach, the current took me away from shore faster than expected.  When I quickly tried to turn around to wait up for Rick, a wave caught me broadside and I flipped over.  I laughed it off as I righted the kayak, but then realized that my waterproof camera had fallen out with me.

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 The water where I’d flipped was deeper than I could stand in, so just splashing around to look for the camera was not really an option.  Rick was undaunted, drove back to the villa and came back with snorkel gear.  Once in the water, he found the camera right away.  Tragedy averted!  Going forward, I would clip the camera in when kayaking.

 As mentioned before, St. John is mostly national park.  And the national park protects some of the loveliest beaches in the Caribbean, most located in sequence on the island’s north shore.  We made it to three of the north shore beaches: Cinnamon Bay, Trunk Bay (home of a well-known snorkeling trail), and Francis Bay.

Cinnamon Bay was the first of the north shore beaches we visited.

Next stop: Trunk Bay.  Each beach as pretty as the ones before and after.

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Francis Bay, which we reached by hiking.

The jurisdiction of the national park system keeps the area from being commercially developed.  Indeed, Francis Bay provided some of the most vibrant aquatic life I’ve ever seen off a beach (even compared to the protected Exuma Land and Sea Park).  I didn’t need to snorkel there to watch giant hawksbill turtle surfacing for breaths, a shark gliding by, or stingrays ghosting by in the shallows – the water is so clear you can see it all while wading.

These stingrays were not at all skittish.

Moreover, the sands are pristine, the vegetation at the sand’s edge is lush, and the water is just delicious for swimming.  BUT, there are some BIG caveats to these observations.

While there is much to be said for the benefits of the National Park Service’s stewardship of these stunning natural resources, there appears to be a sameness to its efforts that remains deaf and blind to the surroundings.  So while the signage and amenities used by the NPS might work at Yellowstone or even Cumberland Island, the log cabin-y feel doesn’t quite fit the Caribbean.

NPS amenities don’t really fit the site.

But that’s hardly the biggest issue (for me).  On a daily basis, some unholy clock would strike the hour (approximately 10:47 a.m.).  The hordes would start arriving by jitney buses – from larger hotels on the island, from cruise ships berthed in St. Thomas, from all-inclusive resorts.  The arrivistes seem to be driven by the same impulse that drives certain sailors to conclude that if we are anchored in a particular spot, it must be a good one, and therefore, they anchor right on top of us.  And soon, we’d be surrounded by people with no concept of privacy or space.  We’d try to employ the skills we learned traveling in Europe, of being able to turn on our blinders and ignore people just inches away from us, but it proved impossible.  Soon, the tour guides (with no vocal volume modulation) started hectoring their charges, exhorting them to put on their compulsory neon yellow floaty vests and to not step on the coral as they snorkeled.  It looked like the beach scenes from Jaws, but without a great white shark to disperse the masses.   By 11:30, we’d flee, in search of a less-crowded destination.

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It’s a wonder the snorkelers don’t leave the water bruised and black-eyed, likely as they are to kick each other in the face with fins in close proximity.

After our first such north shore beach experience, we made our way to congested Cruz Bay, in search of lunch.  We parked in L&L’s lot, and asked one of the attendants the wrong question: “Where should we go to lunch?”  Not knowing us, he gave the pat answers he probably gives to most visitors.  Instead, we should have asked, “Where would YOU go to lunch?”  In any case, as we walked towards one of the recommended restaurants, I was stopped in my tracks by the signboard for De Coal Pot.  There was goat on the menu.  That was it!  Not a generic island restaurant geared towards visitors (most of which, in fairness, do offer a knockout fish sandwich), but a truly local, Caribbean experience.  We got our down-island fix for lunch (oxtail stew, roti with bone-in chicken curry filling), and noted, tellingly, how some guests walked in and walked right out.

Here was our answer to the crowded beach dilemma: it might take effort, but we’d have to avoid the “popular” spots. We’d hit the best beaches early in the day, before the worst of the crowds arrived.  And beyond that, we might have to sacrifice aesthetics or facilities, or we might shake the fillings out of our teeth on rough roads, but we’d get what we were looking for.

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If we got to the beach early enough, there was even room to park without having to skulk around the lot, looking for an empty spot.

When it came to shopping (which must be done), for example, I limited my purchases to spices from Sunny Caribbee on Tortola, and a pendant of larimar (the only gem found in the Caribbean).

Our initial foray to a mostly off-the-beaten track beach was to Little Lameshur Bay, on the south side of St. John (sorry L&L … I didn’t notice on the back of your rental contract that we weren’t allowed to take the Jeep there, given the unpaved road ….)  While this beach wasn’t empty, the facilities provided here by the NPS were rudimentary (an outhouse with hornets building a nest inside, and a basic sign), and the beachgoers gave each other a respectful distance.  The beach wasn’t as pretty as the north shore beaches, with a rocky entrance into the water and a somewhat pebbly and weedy beach, but that was one of the compromises we’d have to make to get some solitude.

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The beach at Little Lameshur Bay wasn’t as pristine as the ones on the north shore, but it was less crowded and the water was just as beautiful.

It became clear that our housemates had the same ideas we did, even as we went our separate ways.  As Rick and I were enjoying jerk chicken at Sweet Plantain in Coral Bay (which, BTW, offers curried goat for dinner), who should arrive but Jeff and Ginger, with the same plan to eat West Indian food.  Rick and I decided not to tell them what our next destination was, just to see if we’d end up at the same place.

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Jeff and Ginger at Sweet Plantain.

The next destination that day was, in fact, one of the more perfect (to us) spots on St. John.  We called it Vie’s Beach – a small cove across the street from the occasionally-open Vie’s Snack Shop.  Besides dishing out simple lunches from her shack, Vie also collected a $2.50/person admission charge to the beach (which we’d previously vetted by kayaking over).  The beach – again, not as pretty as the north shore gems, but  mellower – featured a nearly irresistible feature about 50 yards off the sand: a floating bar.  An heir to the tradition of The Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke, you had to swim to Angel’s Rest.  Owner Peter moves the bar to whatever location suits him on any given day, and dispenses deceptively strong rum punches.  After arriving, and chatting with Peter, I found myself deep in conversation with a fellow visitor named Judy, who was given away by her ballcap from Compass Cay Marina in the Exumas: yes, a former cruiser, just like me and Rick. And then, who should arrive but Jeff and Ginger.  Great minds think alike!

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From Vie’s beach (above), we swam to Angel’s Rest.  That’s my idea of a beach bar!

Our final St. John beach experience was at neighboring Hansen Bay.  Unlike Vie’s, the proprietresses invited but did not require donations to park here.  As well, they’d set up a gratis bar, stock with such goodies as rum, Laphroaig, beer and honest-to-goodness Diet Coke (Coke Zero just Does. Not. Cut. It.)  Again, donations welcome but not required.  From Hansen Bay, we could also swim over to Angel’s Rest, but now familiar with the dangers of the rum punch, Rick and I kept each other from giving in to the magnetic pull of the floating bar.  We were planning a rare evening foray out for dinner, and being compromised by Demon Rum would not do!

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Hansen Bay.

Thus, we’d managed, by choice of a remote and unique villa and no small effort, to get a truly Caribbean experience on this American island. But for all of the money paid and distance traveled, it shouldn’t have been so hard.

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This huge cruise ship passing in the Drake Channel, visible from The Retreat, reminded us of the kind of experience we did NOT want.

Departure day proved – for us anyway – that the USVI have all of the charm of the U.S., and all of the efficiency of the Caribbean (to riff of the old saw about Washington DC, wherein it’s claimed the Washington has all of the charm of the North, and all of the efficiency of the South).  Fully armed with knowledge of the fact, we were nevertheless stunned that the main road on St. John (Rt. 10, the Centerline Road, and the only route from our villa to the ferry dock) was closed until 10 that morning, for a road race.  Notwithstanding the fact that most rental villas turn around on Saturdays, that rental cars must be returned by 10, and that travelers are expected to be at the airport 3 hours before their flights.

Our Jeep was the first the get past the barricade in Coral Bay that morning, but needless to say we returned our Jeep late (but had informed the agency that it would be late).  We hustled to the airport in St. Thomas, only to find crowds and chaos, in an airport ill-equipped to handle the air traffic it nevertheless courts.  No TSA Pre-check here – though they did allow us to not take off our shoes.  A single restaurant, without enough seating but exorbitant prices, even though most flight times require your presence there at lunch time.  Not enough seating at the gates.  A single restroom.  And some really rude travelers.  You can’t sit, eat or pee at STT without running a gauntlet, but you can buy Stoli or a status watch.

We had a really great experience in St. John.  Our house was perfect, as was the weather.  We had terrific company as well.

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And we found what we were looking for in a Caribbean holiday, albeit working hard to get it.  It might be worth revisiting St. John via sailboat, but the next destinations on my wish list don’t include St. John.

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Looking at all of the boats in Coral Bay makes me wonder if we’ll visit again by sailboat….

House Hunting

This time around, I went about it backwards. Rather than picking any particular destination – I wasn’t even committed to a particular body of water — I idly searched for vacation villa rentals on the internet. When I landed on The Retreat, I knew it was the place I wanted to stay. What caught my attention? There was a main living space with 3 glass garage doors on the water side, and a 4th facing the private pool; each of the 2 bedroom pavilions also had a glass garage door. With the push of a button, the doors were retracted and all that is between the inhabitants and the elements is screens. This was a concept that attracted me.

After falling in love with this villa, I found that it was located on St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. OK. Never been there; never really thought about it. Why not? Two-thirds of the island is National Park, and you can’t fly there directly. And the villa was located on the secluded east end of the island, perched over lightly-visited Haulover Bay. Sounds like just our speed.

We did some advance pre-planning: I arranged provisioning with our on-island manager Dena; we and fellow Sabre sailors Jeff and Ginger each rented our own Jeeps; and we had paddleboards and kayaks delivered . Finally, we set off, the last weekend of February. Rick and I flew to St. Thomas via Philadelphia (what a terrible airport!), while J&G flew via Dulles. The wind was howling on arrival, resulting in an aborted landing for J&G (second time’s a charm), while our jet merely skipped from side to side down the runway. White knuckles all around!

The flights were merely the beginning of our journey. First, the long cab ride from the St. Thomas airport to the ferry terminal in Red Hook – against all odds, Rick and I made the 4 p.m. ferry despite leaving PHL 45 minutes late. Then the 2 block luggage drag from the Cruz Bay ferry dock to L&L Jeep Rentals (they are excellent, BTW, and their customers can park in their lot, which is no small benefit given the tight parking in town). Then the drive to the villa, following Dena.

Just to put things in perspective, the distance from Cruz Bay to our villa is less than 12 miles. But the trip takes about 45 minutes. The speed limit varies from 10-20 MPH, and that’s not just because you drive on the left. St. John is a very hilly island, and the roads are narrow, incredibly steep, and full of blind hairpins and switchbacks.

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And, this being the Caribbean, you’re like to encounter roosters and goats crossing the road, not to mention two new ones for me: donkeys and deer. Our drive to The Retreat confirmed my initial plan to eat lunches out and dinners in so as to avoid driving past dark.

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I’d never seen a deer on a Caribbean island before.  This time around, I saw several, like the one hidden in the brush behind Francis Bay here.  And yes, they did jump into the roadway as well.

Once we got there, we found The Retreat to be the perfect vacation rental for us. Cantilevered on the steep cliffside overlooking Haulover Bay and the Drake Channel over to Tortola, the villa is truly an escape from everything (including Verizon cell towers – our phones picked up signals from Lime in Tortola).

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Looking out from our living room (open walls) across the Drake Channel to Tortola.

The site is hidden from prying eyes and ravenous goats by a wall, foliage, and gate. Parking is at the top of the site, where we also found our watercraft and a hot tub deck we never used. The next level down features a shady lap pool with iridescent tiles, connected to the main building by pergola.

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One either side were the bedroom pavilions, each with a private balcony and outdoor shower (yea!).

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Our bedroom above, and the view from our shower.

Dena gave us a brief tour, showed us how to operate the doors, and left us to our own devices. And the vodka. That first night was like most of the others – vodka and/or rum cocktails, wine, cooperatively made dinners (with pricey but surprisingly decent groceries), and me and Jeff taking turns serving as DJ.

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Some of our gourmet dining efforts — grilled mahi mahi with salad, and fish tacos (made with fresh red snapper).  Locally caught seafood was fairly easy to find.

The world’s slowest (and most expensive) taxi driver took us to and from dinner for a full moon pig roast at Miss Lucy’s midweek, under the full moon that brightened our nights all week.

Moonlit nights were delicious. We had perfect weather all week (with a brief daily shower that spawned rainbows, and some rain at night), and the weather, open walls and comfortable bedding induced good nights of sleep. At home, I’ve been sleeping with a white noise app (set on “peepers”); here, I had the real thing: tree frogs, soft surf, and wind whispering through the lush vegetation. Every now and then, a strong waft of jasmine added to the dreaminess.

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The remote location of the villa was mostly a blessing for me. But it came with challenges. Though I had the best of intentions to kayak daily, there was NO WAY that kayak was going to make it down from the house to the bay. Unburdened, it was a steep hike down to the water’s edge, first by a wooden staircase, and then by a well-groomed track that had rope handholds. Water shoes were a must, because the shore at our landing was rocky and slick.

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The steep stairs down to Haulover Bay (above).  Meanwhile, Rick builds one of his trademark cairns at water’s edge.

Rick reported that the snorkeling in our largely undisturbed bay was excellent; far better than at the famous Trunk Bay snorkel trail. However, there would be no paddling in our bay for me.

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As well, the famous north shore beaches on St. John were a 30-minute drive for us. So regardless of how tempting it might have been to loll around in bed all day and watching the passing boat traffic from bed, we pushed ourselves out of bed to optimize beach time. Still, this was a leisurely schedule for me. I’m usually at my desk by 6:45 in the morning; here, we “forced” ourselves out the door by 9.

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More to come….

Gotta Split; I’ve Got Tickets to Wimbledon!

Wimbledon.  That holiest of holies.  I was enthralled by it before I ever even picked up a racquet.  And once I became a tennis player, it became even more attractive.  It is what the Louvre is to art lovers; the America’s Cup to sailors.  Loaded with history and tradition and pomp and pageantry, it has remained a constant in an ever-changing game.

Attending all four of tennis’ major tournaments (U.S. Open, Australian Open, Roland Garros, and Wimbledon) wasn’t a particular goal of mine until I decided that I wanted to go to Wimbledon for my 40th birthday, after having been to the U.S. Open several times (New York being an easy trip for us).  As it turned out, getting to the Australian Open in 2005 turned out to be more do-able than Wimbledon, mostly because of the expense.  Wimbledon would have to be put off for a while, if only to wrap our brain around the cost of obtaining guaranteed tickets (as opposed to flying across the Atlantic, queueing up and maybe getting in).  But with two down, and Wimbledon on the horizon, we decided to tag a trip to Paris and Roland Garros on to our barge trip last spring.  If all went according to plan, I would complete my spectator Grand Slam before my 50th birthday.

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At the US Open, the Australian Open, and Roland Garros.

Wimbledon was the raison d’etre of our trip to Europe this summer.  And once we’d committed to going to Europe, adding another dream trip of mine – sailing in Croatia – was an easy decision.  Having finished our sail and saying goodbye to Pat and Emily, who would luxuriate for a few more days at a beach resort, we spent a day in the historic city of Split before flying back to London for the main event.

Much of Split is an everyday business/industrial/port city.  But the old core of the city, where we stayed in the boutique Marmont Hotel, is extraordinary.

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Once we finally figured out how to get there, the Hotel Marmont was easy to find by looking for the red wall.

Perched along the Adriatic Sea, Split’s city center is a palace and military garrison built by Roman emperor Diocletian in the fourth century.

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Living spaces, hotels, shops (including the curiously omnipresent opticians’ shops), restaurants, churches, and bars are woven in and among the ruins of the palace.  It makes for a stunningly lovely scene, an oddly harmonious juxtaposition of past and present along the water.

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Like the rest of Croatia’s ancient towns that we visited, the narrow alleys and passages are NOT car friendly.

After flying back to London from Split via Zagreb, we said our farewells to Skip and Harriet.

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Hey guys!  What’s our next adventure?

And we settled into our hotel in Mayfair.

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Our hotel, the Athenaeum, had one of those cool “living walls.”

We used our convenient perch on Piccadilly Street to undertake more exploration of London on foot.

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Finally, on our last full day in London, we headed to Wimbledon, to enjoy the first day, via tube.  We were not alone, as there were crowds of people making their way to the grounds.  Luckily, we had upped our style game a bit – I was wearing a skirt and jacket – because people dress up for Wimbledon.  We saw many young women fully decked out in dresses or skirts with jackets, heels and – yes, most surprisingly because it was warm and sunny – panty hose (the Kate Middleton Effect?); many men wore blazers and ties.  This is the reverence this event seems to require.

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We made it!

One of Wimbledon’s traditions is that the prior year’s champion always plays on Centre Court on the first day.  Thus, by purchasing Day 1 tickets, we were guaranteed to see Novak Djokovic play.  And, he played masterfully, presaging the play that would win him the title this year.

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As a bonus, we also got to see former champion Maria Sharapova play.

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Aside from seeing some of the biggest names in the game on court, we gawked at the royal box (didn’t recognize anyone) and the players’ box (yes, that was Boris Becker), and marveled at the beauty and perfection of the lawn and the grounds.  As we wandered the grounds, we bumped into a few players leaving or going to their courts (Jelena Jankovic, Urszula Radwanska), as well as legends of the game (Mats Wilander).

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We had Pimm’s Cups, as one does.  The flowers on the grounds all hew to the Wimbledon color scheme of purple and green (as does the afghan I took to college, but that’s another story).

Now that I’ve completed my personal Grand Slam, I need to start plotting what’s next….

Pretty. Oh So Pretty: Croatia and England 2015

One of the reasons I love to travel is that it’s a feast for the senses, especially sight.  It’s not that I live somewhere ugly.  To the contrary.  Maryland is lovely – especially in the spring – and the Chesapeake Bay offers a beauty that is at turns calming and exhilarating.  But travel gives a change of scenery, and provides different kinds of pretty to gawk at.

And once we arrived in London on a Wednesday morning, it didn’t take us long to revive ourselves after quick naps to help ease the jet lag.  We were sharing a 2-bedroom apartment on Baker Street in the Marleybone section of London with Skip and Harriet, and were just a few blocks from Regent’s Park.  After a pub lunch, we lost ourselves in the park, among the acres and acres of flowers that comprised the Queen’s rose garden.

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There is indeed a benefit to those drizzly days in England, though we were lucky with weather during our stay.

During our stay in London, Rick and I and Skip and Harriet took a guided gastronomical walking tour.  We started at Fortnum and Mason, a department store holding royal warrants and known for its decadent food hall.  The lower floors, with their glass cases, formally dressed staff, and chandeliers looked like a jewelry store, but on offer were gemlike sweets and preserved fruit.

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After our walking tour, we came back to Fortnum & Mason to buy dinner supplies.  If dollars equaled pounds, it wouldn’t have been too expensive.

We walked all over London, sampling microbrews (our guide had a master’s degree in anthropology with a focus on beer!), drinking chocolate, and cheese.

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We immersed ourselves in the delectable smells of Chinatown and the funky offerings of Soho (one purveyor of services offered a “Back, Crack and Sack” wax on a huge sign in its window.  Ouch!)  We made it to Pall Mall and St. James Square, Jermyn Street and Covent Garden.  Once on our own, we walked along the Thames near Big Ben, Whitehall, Westminster and St. James Park.  The city showed off its splendor in the perfect weather.

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Croatia would not be outdone.  Never having spent any time in the Mediterranean before, I didn’t know what to expect.  But like every other place I’ve ever been, it has comparables.  At times, the bold craggy shores, deep icy waters, and pine trees made me think of the Maine coast.  At others, the red roofs and palm trees made me think of St. Barth.  Almost always, my point of reference is North America, because that’s where I come from.

The first village we wandered around was the petite port of Maslinica on the island of Šolta, surrounding a tiny fjord-like bay, and holding anything we might need until our next port.  White stone buildings with red-tile roofs, a café or two, a small hotel, marina, and a Studenac market (not much bigger than the stores in the Bahamas Out Islands, but much better stocked).

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Tiny Maslinica is home to fewer than 300 people.

No less pretty was the village of Bobovišća on the island of Brač.  If anything, it is smaller than Maslinica.

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By our second day of sailing, we were catching on to the fact that Croatia is NOT a beach destination – at least not as we know beaches.  Here, any slab of rock or shingle, or even poured cement, that is relatively flat and provides access to the water counts.  Some have showers installed.  Many have ladders, because the entry into the water is generally not gradual.

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These pass for beaches….

Where there is gradual access to the water, and/or the rocks are more pebbly (though far coarser than what we think of as sand) you have a bona fide tourist attraction.  And it is likely to be crowded with people, chair-to-chair.

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A crowded beach in the Pakleni islands.

Spoiled by the Caribbean, I didn’t expect much, so I wasn’t too disappointed.  As it turned out, on the 3 occasions when we stopped for lunch and swimming, the waters were too cold for much more than quick dips.  After all, we were somewhat north of 43 degrees – the equivalent of New Hampshire or Maine (or Oregon) – not exactly ideally balmy waters in June.

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Our first chilling swim was off this pristine shore.

After all of these tiny villages, it was time for the “big cities” on the island of Hvar.  Hvar town (pop. 3,672), across the channel from Palmižana, is easily one of the most popular destinations in the Dalmatian islands, judging by the number of nightclubs, restaurants and – for some reason – opticians’ shops (everyone needs designer prescription shades?).

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The waterfront promenade in Hvar has everything a visitor could want.

But more beguiling, by far, is Stari Grad (pop. 2,817) on the opposite side of the island.  The name “Stari Grad” means Old Town, and they weren’t kidding when they named it.  Its origins go back to at least 3500 BC.  Most of the buildings are constructed from an creamy white stone indigenous to the area, much of it worn so smooth over centuries of use that the streets and squares are dangerous to traverse when wet.  (Parts of the White House were built using Croatian stone, from the island of Brač.)

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Beautiful Stari Grad.

As if that wasn’t enough, from Stari Grad Roko took us to another local restaurant.  An open-air affair up in the mountains of Hvar, Konoba Vrisnik offers a classic Croatian dish – PEKA – to those who know to pre-order it.  It takes 2 hours to prepare in a metal pan on an open hearth, covered by a metal bell under hot ashes.  The slow-cooked lamb and octopus we’d ordered were perfection.

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Octopus peka.

Our last night before heading back to the Sunsail marina was in the village of Stomorska.  The pretty village has a full-time population of about 250 souls, but most of the houses here are vacation homes.

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Day and night in Stomorska.

The visitors – mostly European – give the cafés, bars and restaurants a lively vibe.  And though they stay up well past dark, the atmosphere is festive and convivial, not clubby.  We were delighted with the pizza we had for dinner (Croatia is known for it, being as close to Italy as it is, and making its own wonderful cheeses and other toppings).  One of the best (relatively speaking) beaches in the region is on the edge of town.

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The only reason this pebbly beach wasn’t mobbed was because it was early in the morning.

Having completed our limited circuit of these islands, we didn’t find a single spot that wasn’t gorgeous.

More to come.