Summer Baycation: Wine Not?

Sometimes, there’s just nothing better than spending a summer week on Chesapeake Bay.  That was exactly our plan for vacation this summer: taking the week surrounding 4th of July and cruising aboard Calypso around the Bay.  Last year, we’d spent 4 perfect days anchored in Still Pond on the Eastern Shore almost directly across the bay from Aberdeen, Maryland – an only slightly brackish creek (hence, largely immune from jellyfish infestations) with sandy beaches and very little civilization.  Aside from a wicked thunderstorm on arrival day, we had perfect weather.  All we did was swim, paddle, eat, swim, paddle, read … well, you get the idea.  We were looking for a reprise this year, just for a longer visit.  The provisioning lists were made, menus planned, boat readied, and several friends were planning to go out the same week.

But as I cleared my desk on Friday, the weather forecast looked absolutely miserable.  Suffocating heat and humidity.  I can handle that during the day, since we can always jump in the water.  But there was to be no relief at night either, and a sleepless week is no vacation at all.  So, as I am wont to do, I started formulating Plan L.  First, plugging in alternative destinations to use frequent flier miles.  Then, once availability is established, finding places I might want to stay.  Finally – and perhaps most importantly — checking the weather!  Rick was traveling for business on Friday, so I outlined my plan in an email to him and put tickets on hold.  Decision time was Saturday morning: either go to the marina, or start making reservations.  We went with Plan L: flying to San Francisco, 3 nights in the Napa Valley, a final night in San Jose, then going home.  (I don’t know that going to wine country in July is optimal, in terms of weather, but we got a lucky week.)

Our American Airlines flights went off without a hitch, and we arrived at SFO and were on the road by about 1:00 p.m.  I’ve only spent time in San Diego, and had no idea what to expect of Napa.  As we got past the city bustle and approached the town of Napa, things did not look promising.  It just looked like extended suburbia with horribly un-synchronized traffic lights.  But things looked better as we stopped at the Oxbow Public Market, right on the Napa River, to have a late lunch.  The market is nirvana for locally-sourced artisan foods – from flavored olive oils and vinegars, to cheeses made from unpasteurized milk.  We went to a sit-down restaurant – the Kitchen Door – for a late lunch, where we ordered a bottle of Napa sauvignon blanc and I enjoyed the first of several remarkable pasta dishes (this one with mushrooms).

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Given the late lunch, and expecting that jet lag would catch up with us, we wandered around the market to gather the makings of a casual, al fresco dinner.  A baguette, pate, cheese, sausage, chocolate.  And wine.

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The drive up the Silverado Trail, up to St. Helena where we were staying at The Wine Country Inn, took us past one vineyard after another, with names well-known and obscure.  Grapes, grapes, grapes everywhere!  The temperature was in the low 80s with low humidity, with honeyed sunlight drenching the camel-colored hills.  At last, we turned off the Silverado Trail and drove up a hill to the Inn.  What an oasis!  A collection of woodsy buildings and cottages spilled over a hillside, nestled among olive trees and flowers in bloom, right between the Duckhorn and Freemark Abbey vineyards.

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I’d booked one of the cottages, and it came complete with comfortable seating, a fireplace, a huge bathroom with walk-in shower and jetted tub, and a fridge and sink for our wine country finds.  As well, we had a private courtyard surrounded by foliage and containing a fountain.  We spent the rest of the day exploring and enjoying our wine and edibles, and congratulating ourselves for escaping the oppressive Maryland heat.  Especially when it dropped into the 50s every night.

Beautiful scenery at The Wine Country Inn.

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The intense sky was partially caused by a fire about 10 miles east of where we were staying.

All of this was prelude to what we came to Napa for: wine.  I’d called the inn before flying out and got some recommendations for a driver/guide who could take us around on Monday.  We were lucky enough to book a tour with Robert Sherman (Winery Tours Napa Valley — https://www.winerytoursnapavalley.com/wordpress/  ), and he delivered exactly what we wanted: private tours at boutique wineries.

The beauty of the Napa Valley is revealed once you get off the main road.  Each winery we visited was unique – and uniquely gorgeous — but they were all similar in the passion they exhibited for making quality wine.  Not really having had a chance to do much research on the wines in the region (which account for only 4% of California’s wine production), we soon learned that Cab is King.  This was something of a challenge for me and Rick, as we are both Cab Skeptics – not really having enough experience or appreciation for these rather pricey wines.  But our hosts helped us learn to appreciate cabernets by explaining their process, answering our endless questions, helping us hone in on what kinds of wines we liked, and showing us foods to pair them with to taste them at their best advantage. (Not just breadsticks on these tours!  But carefully paired bites that helped us get the most out of the wines – including the stunning combination of bleu cheese and a late harvest port-like zinfandel – Yowza!)

The science behind growing grapes is complex.  For example, the winemakers go to such levels of minutiae that they trim off extra leaves so that a bunch of grapes is shaded by not 12, not 14, but 13 leaves so as to have the perfect balance of sun and shade.  And everything on their properties, including the amazing caves painstakingly bored through the mountains – some of the older ones by hand, and others by machine; some reinforced with gunnite, and some naturally supported, are purpose-built.  Yes, pomegranates are nice, pretty when blooming, and loaded with anti-oxidants, but they also attract hummingbirds which eat pest-y bugs.

And so, on Monday, Robert drove us around St. Helena and Calistoga, taking us to wineries that included Kelly Fleming, Joseph Cellars, and Titus Vineyards.  We explored not only cabernets, but also other wines, including sauvignon blancs that were an absolute revelation; beautifully balanced with lots of fruit flavors and crispness (I’ve been disappointed with some of the mass market sauv blancs because they smell wonderful, but taste like lemon or grapefruit juice).  But by the end of the day, we were over-stimulated and found that the spit bucket was our friend.  Nevertheless, we ended up buying quite a bit of wine to have shipped home; none of the tastings was free, but the purchase of wine typically results in a waiver of the fee.  Besides, very few of these wines are available at home – we checked!  We couldn’t have had wine shipped home 10 years ago.

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Joseph Cellars

We ventured to Yountville for dinner.  It’s an absolutely gorgeous little town, but with restaurants that rival any in a big city, much less the world (French Laundry, anyone?).  We had dinner at Bottega, where I was bowled over by another amazing pasta (rigatoni with rabbit and mushrooms), and we washed it down with a local sparkling rose.

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Gorgeous Yountville

The next day, we were on our own.  We visited Tres Sabores on the recommendation of friends and were not disappointed.  The vineyard is certified organic and dry farmed (i.e. no irrigation); they have their own cave as well as bottling equipment, so they are entitled to label their wines “estate” wines.  We were accompanied on our tour there by 3 friendly golden retrievers; the puppy followed us into the cave and wanted lots of attention.  After the tour, we sat in the olive grove tasting their offerings, including a dangerously drinkable blend they call Por Que No? which varies from year to year at the winemaker’s whim.

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Tres Sabores, and one of the friendly doggies.

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Interestingly, the most vaunted tour – and most expensive (fee not waivable) – was the most disappointing to us.  (Granted, we’d been mightily spoiled by this point with our private, exclusive visits.)  Though by no means a bad tour, the Schramsberg Vineyards tour was a bit too polished and pat for our tastes; as well, there were – gasp! – 12 of us on the tour.  Schramsberg is the oldest maker of sparkling wines in the valley, following the methode champenoise and undertaking the many processes required of it largely by hand.  The pours were generous, and the wines lovely, so we didn’t suffer too much.

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Schramsberg’s beautifully manicured grounds.

Sparkling wine everywhere!

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On the recommendation of several residents, we had dinner at a winery called Brasswood in St. Helena.  Definitely off the tourist path.  We knew to order the off-menu appetizer of hand-pulled, hand-folded to order, warm mozzarella (how can something so simple be so perfect?!)  We had a Brasswood-made rose (Ladera) with out dinner.  Mine was yet another exceptional pasta.  Indeed, the look and feel of Napa’s natural environment – right down to weather – took my imagination right to the Med, so eating terrific Italian-inspired food was not surprising.

We didn’t have enough time to hit all of the high spots of the San Francisco Bay area, so for our last day we chose to visit Monterey.  It sounded like a nice place to go, and though we missed her, our niece will be attending graduate school for the Navy there.  I had no idea what to expect beyond a vision inspired by one of my cousin’s paintings, with windblown Monterey cypresses clinging to cliffs overlooking a roiling sea.  While I was prepared for how chilly it was, I wasn’t prepared for how dune-y it was, with road signs warning of drifting sands. Beautiful beaches, though with lots of kelp and COLD water (judging from the number of swimmers, Canadians go to California as well as Florida….)

We ventured to Fisherman’s Wharf, and concluded that it’s definitely NOT our scene.  Very crowded and tourist-y, with little to offer beyond generally uninspired restaurants and tacky shops.  The one offering a whole red snapper for lunch (Scales) drew us in, and rewarded us with relative quiet, water views (they have seals!), and Duckhorn sauvignon blanc, so it wasn’t a total bust.

I’m sure there’s more to Monterey that what we saw, but we decided to drive further down the coast to Carmel, stopping along the way to check out Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove, where I got my expected rocky and wind-washed ocean view.  Once we arrived in Carmel – which is admittedly beautiful – we didn’t even leave the car, since the town was packed chock-a-block with 4th of July mobs.  Not that we’d have been able to park anyway.  Jet lag and wine overload soon caught up with us, so we drove to San Jose where we were staying at the Hotel De Anza in the business district to catch our early flight the next morning.

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This is what I expected to see on the California coast.

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Seals lounging on the rocks.

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San Jose is a major American city, a hub of technology business.  And yet, on the 4th of July, downtown was totally dead.  In fact, we had to call around to find a nearby restaurant to have dinner, but found one around the corner.  Amidst all of this, Rick got a call from American Airlines bumping us from our seats the next morning.  Rick calmly negotiated us onto later flights AND cash vouchers.  So we got to sleep in and have our next trip paid for.

We came home to the oppressive heat and humidity that we’d been fortunate to escape, but after having Friday to re-orient ourselves, the weather finally broke.  Saturday was sunny, crisp, and breezy, which meant we got to have a short sailing cruise, if only for one night.  We sailed to the Rhode River, rafted up with some of our usual partners in crime, and spend Saturday night bobbing around in the miraculously nettle-free water, drinking wine and telling tales.

I am notorious for having bad travel karma, especially when it comes to weather.  But for this one week in July, my past experiences with bad weather taught me how to re-plan a vacation on the fly, and karma came around for me.

More ICW Wandering

After nearly 3 decades of traveling together, Rick and I have developed a number of customs and traditions — ranging from my requirement to have a cafe cubano at Cafe Versailles in Miami’s airport (and Rick making fun of me for bouncing off the walls afterwards due to unaccustomed amounts of caffeine) to when and where we go.  For years, we took an annual tennis vacation in the spring so that my hobby didn’t get short shrift.  Then in 2007, tennis travel was pre-empted by an annual trip to New Orleans to attend the Jazz and Heritage Festival (see Jazz Fest 2014), which went on for 10 consecutive years.  When that started to become too crowded and crazy, we came up with another plan: to travel to some of the enticing spots along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway that we only saw in passing on our way home from the Bahamas.

Our ICW roadtrips also have the benefit of allowing us to see friends along the way, including the growing diaspora of Maryland friends who have moved to Florida.  This year’s ultimate destination would be Fernandina Beach, Florida.

But, for the second year in a row (that makes it a tradition, right?), we drove first to Charleston, finding ourselves (again) at the amazing Vendue Hotel on a Saturday afternoon in late February.  As if made to order, the weather was glorious — sunny, breezy, warm.  One of the perks of being a guest at the Vendue is preferred access to the rooftop bar, one of only two on the peninsula.  Rick and I happily whiled away our afternoon there with sparkling wine.

Not that an excuse is ever needed to visit this charming city, but our friends Jeff and Ginger used their wish to shake down their new engine as a excuse to take their Talisman to Charleston for the winter; and Brett and Erica (of Whisper) were feeling bad about not using their Southwest Airlines companion passes often enough, so they were in town this weekend as well.  While Rick and I were doing the important work of making sure the Vendue’s wine selections were in good order, the others were out sailing before they joined us on the rooftop, and later for dinner across the street (there is a reason we choose to be in walking distance…) at McGrady’s Tavern.

Not that Rick and I imbibed too much; we were heading further south early the next morning for our traditional visit with Skip and Harriet in Vero Beach, Florida — it was our 6th time, so I think it qualifies as a bona fide tradition.  We made it in very good time, managing to ignore the siren songs of both South of the Border and Ron Jon Surf Shop.

With good friends, there is no need for them to pull out all the stops to entertain us.  We’re content to be in each other’s company — hanging out on the beach (and watching the Canadians actually go in the water), listening to music, shopping, eating and drinking, and solving the problems of the universe.

The beach is different every day we visit.  Sometimes, there is nothing to be found; other times, there are piles of shells and some not-so-nice surprises.

After a few days in Vero Beach, we would head to Fernandina Beach (on Amelia Island), which is the northernmost town on Florida’s Atlantic coast.  We’d only had a chance to fuel up there before heading offshore, but were completely enthralled by the days we spent anchored off Cumberland Island ( Cumberland Island 2014 ) just to the north one of America’s paradises.  Skip and Harriet would join us in a beach house we’d rented.

But first, we took advantage of our head start on the trip up to Fernandina.  We drove lazily up Highway A1A, passing through Florida beach towns, some straddling a narrow spit of land between ocean and estuary.  And yes, we succumbed: we stopped at Ron Jon.  Tacky though it may be, it’s also a good place to shop for such necessities as Olukai flip flops, which I live in from April through October and during warm weather trips in between (they have arch support!).

But eventually, we had to hop back on I-95 if we were to have any chance to pick up the keys to our rental before the office closed and pick up provisions.  Amelia Island is big enough to have good supermarkets, and an excellent seafood market (especially since it is one of the shrimping capitals of the U.S.).  And, it being February, it was still stone crab season, so our first meal at the beach would start thus:

IMG_1724 In addition to shrimp and stone crabs, northern Floridians also brag about being the suppliers of a good share of the blue crabs Maryland is known for.  While that may be so, in one area, Maryland can claim bragging rights: our iconic Thomas Point Lighthouse.  The beach house we couldn’t resist, known as Katie’s Light, is a mere replica.  But what a charming one!

IMG_4857IMG_4863While the exterior of the house copied the lighthouse, the interior was like an old-time ship built around a spiral stair and featuring beautiful wood finishes, portholes, brass trim, and even a lounging/sleeping area that felt like a quarterberth.  And, as an absolute bonus, we couldn’t get much closer to the ocean.

Though Amelia Island is part of Florida, it is also very much part of the lowcountry.  One aspect of the lowcountry that I love is the huge tides which leave seeming miles of ocean bottom exposed at low tide, offering unparalled opportunity to explore the flats and find treasure.  We explored Amelia Island State Park, at the south end of the island, while Skip golfed (he’s not quite the beach walker that Harriet and I are).  It’s the kind of beach that I love, with curves and cuts and flats and dunes and tidepools, every corner revealing a new sandscape.

Like someone we know who was obsessed with seeing monkeys in Nevis, Harriet was obsessed on this trip with finding sharks teeth.  This first excursion left her emptyhanded.

Our trips into historic Fernandina Beach did not leave us so — dozens of shops and boutiques kept us well-entertained.  As did the beautiful architecture and foliage.

As vibrant as town seemed, evidence of Hurricane Matthew’s ravages were still about.  Worst off was the ICW-side waterfront, where the City Marina is in desperate need of rebuilding and dredging, the plough mud blocking in the innermost slips.

Lucky for us, there was enough room at the docks for a handful of tour boats, so we took a tour of Fernandina Beach and inside Beach Creek on Cumberland Island.  Which was perfect, since we’d wanted to re-visit Cumberland, but it would otherwise have consumed the better part of a day to get there by car and ferry.

Happily, the famous feral horses of Cumberland decided to show up and show off for us.

Beach Creek offered all of the beauty of a southern tidal creek — green marsh grasses, wild birds, the rich scent of mud; this time, no dolphins or manatees, though.

Despite the natural wonders, the sight that captivated us most was entirely manmade: a submarine being escorted to sea from the King’s Bay base across the river from Cumberland Island.

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We learned on our tour that Fort Clinch State Park (a fort where nothing ever happened, named after someone who’d never been there) was a well-known spot to hunt for those elusive shark’s teeth.  It also affords great views of the Amelia Island lighthouse, marshes, and beaches.  A visit was required, even though the weather had turned cold, to coincide with a terrible windstorm up north.

No luck with the shark’s teeth, alas.

We’d have to content ourselves with yet more days of listening to the surf, drinking wine with friends, and marveling at the honeyed light of early morning and late afternoons.

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And then, it happened.  On our last night at the beach, after our bags had been mostly packed, we headed out to “our” beach at low tide and wandered among the tide pools.  One discovery by Harriet followed others by her and Rick.  They found their shark’s teeth!

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I didn’t find any of my own, and would have to satisfy myself with my own treasures (including a fossil shell) which I keep in a beautiful mango wood bowl Skip made for me.

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And then I’ll come back to try again some other time.

Nevis Nice

It isn’t easy to get here; certainly harder than in the past. But our hosts at Nisbet Plantation know this, and they do what they can to ease our path. Still, we start with a 3:00 a.m. wake-up, followed by an early flight to Miami, then on to St. Kitts. There, after clearing immigration and customs, we were greeted by Careen, who ushers us to a taxi. A 20-minute taxi ride reveals the lush greenery of St. Kitts – and all of the new development since we passed through here in 2014. Then a water taxi ride – with free-flowing Carib — from the megayacht marina (the dock at Reggae Beach having been destroyed by Hurricane Maria) to the semi-destroyed but serviceable dock at Oualie Beach on Nevis. Finally, the last hop by Calvin’s taxi to the welcoming arms of Nisbet. There, we are met with smiling faces, moist towels to freshen up, and the signature Avenue of the Palms rum cocktail.

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Many of the license plates around the island bear the words “Nevis Nice.” I choose to think that it’s not a shortening of the phrase “Nevis is Nice,” but rather the word “Nevis” elevating and qualifying the word “Nice.” “Nice” is such a half-hearted adjective by itself; but Nevis Nice is a different matter altogether. It’s a beautiful, warm, lush kind of nice.

The flight over to Nevis and her sister islands gives hints of what to expect. Each of Nevis, St. Kitts, Saba and St. Eustatius was formed much the same way: by volcanic eruption. These days, the heart of each of the islands looks like a Hershey’s kiss candy was dropped on the blue Caribbean Sea, with its tip melted or sunken in a little, and then draped with a luxuriant carpet of dense vegetation, dotted here and there with flowers, houses and beaches.

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On the right is St. Kitts’ volcanic peak, Mt. Liamuiga.

I am a beach lover, and will be the first to admit that Nevis’ beaches aren’t all that; and they’ve suffered even further from 2017’s horrible hurricane season. But the beaches aren’t really the attraction here. For starters, Nisbet Plantation – where I could (almost) happily stay without moving – is a gorgeous property, its green lawns punctuated with towering palms and yellow cottages, leading down to the sea.

Nevis is known for its plantation inns, and Nisbet is the only one on the beach. The others are nestled high in the mountains, with distinct personalities. Rick and I make a point of visiting some of them on each trip.

Golden Rock Plantation is built around the ruins of a sugar mill, with some of the lodgings located within the ruins. The site is terraced, and features water gardens and other tropical foliage, highlighted with tomato-red woodwork. It’s a great place to have a lunch of grilled fish sandwiches and Carib.

Montpelier Plantation has a different vibe, even though its starting point is also a sugar mill and buildings made of coral stone. The new additions to the inn are white, cool and crisp. We like to visit when Nisbet’s bartender Kaddy is working there. (Kaddy is a delight, and also a minor celebrity: http://www.bravotv.com/top-chef/blogs/hotel-bartenders-reveal-their-craziest-on-the-job-stories. He’s been known to offer us rum tastings.). This year’s visit turned out to be a stop on Rick’s lobster sandwich tasting tour (even though I ordered it); Montpelier’s was far-and-away the best, but I’m sure butter had something to do with that!

Close to Montpelier are Nisbet’s botanical gardens. While the Three Amigos (Rick, Brett and Jeff) made the 6 Waterfalls hike partway up Nevis Peak, I took those of us who were less willing to haul ourselves up a slippery mountain using ropes on a mini-tour of the island, including a stop at the privately-owned gardens. An endless array of palms, fruit trees, orchids, and water features kept us wandering happily over the grounds. A baby goat named Bridget capped off the visit.

The Botanical Gardens offer an array of settings for botanical delights.

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The Gardens’ location up in the mountains provide expansive vistas of Nevis.

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I’m a sucker for baby goats.  Unfortunately, Bridget wouldn’t stand still for photos.

Meanwhile, the 6 Waterfalls hike also offered stunning vistas.

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Several of the 6 waterfalls.

Planting our flag on near a waterfall.  The Nevis Peak hikes are not ones to be undertaken without a guide.

The residents of Nevis clearly take pride in their island. Almost every restaurant we visited, in addition to offering delicious (albeit limited) food, also provided a spectacular setting. One example of that is Bananas located up in the rain forest. Although built in recent times, it is designed to echo the gingerbread architecture of past centuries. The gardens are lovingly tended, and the interior sports interesting artwork and a riot of color.

It may have taken 5 visits, but Rick and I did finally make our way to the best beach on the island. It’s is known as “Lover’s Beach” for the seclusion it provides. There’s a spot to pull off the road, and then an unpaved road leading to it. (We drove it the first time we went there. NOT a good idea. Sorry Mr. Parry.) The beach is at west end of the airport’s runway (you can see the windsock), so you’ll get buzzed by the FedEx or DHL plane landing, but other than that, there is little sign of civilization here other than perhaps one or two other visitors. The bottom is sandy, and the surf is lively. I found myself there 3 times, including once during my island tour; even Skip went in the water, which is highly unusual.

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Lover’s Beach, all to ourselves.

The volcanic origin of Nevis is without doubt.

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Can we go to the beach without one of Rick’s iconic cairns?

By far, the most beautiful quality of Nevis is it’s people, from Nisbet’s friendly and warm staff, to the random people on the beach or the road, always there with a smile and a wave.

Rummed Out

Despite wanting to keep Nevis to ourselves, word is getting out, at least among our friends. This time around, casual mentions of our vacation plans resulted in 3 sailing couples joining us: Skip and Harriet (veterans of many trips with us) (see Harriet’s blog post here: https://moondance38.wordpress.com/2017/11/21/nevis/), Jeff and Ginger (who joined us in St. John last year), and Brett and Erica (newbies to my cruise directing other than a Louis Vuitton Cup weekend in Chicago, though Brett is a veteran of a few boat deliveries with Rick). And where there are sailors, there is rum.

A visit (or two) to Sunshine’s (in)famous beach bar was obligatory. This year, I planned ahead and brought not only Calypso stickers, but an AYC burgee (which was properly secured to a rafter behind a Maryland flag – we love our flag!)

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Us, with Brett and Erica, beneath our state and club flags.

There is so much to love about Sunshine’s – the seats that are more like futons which invite lazing; amazing lobster salad sandwiches; celebrity photos on the walls (doesn’t Justin Trudeau look like a real-life version of a Disney prince?); friendly staff with whom I can chat with forever; a location on a long stretch of Pinney’s beach; and laid back guests.

Look carefully at the top of the post to spot a Calypso sticker; and look carefully at a Killer Bee so that you recognize danger.

But the main draw at Sunshine’s is the Killer Bee rum punch. It’s a beautiful orange-y red color and absolutely delicious. And absolutely lethal. Besides the fruit juices and bitters is a slow-acting combination of rums that doesn’t catch up with you until you’ve ordered your second (or third). Despite our warnings, some of our crew exceeded the recommended maximum of two. And so, on our first visit, some of us found ourselves braving the rocky water’s edge to swim for an hour or so, Caribs or more Killer Bees floating precariously above the water. One the second visit, one of us was bonelessly slouched on the futon, alternatively but insistently demanding a monkey sighting and the return of the sun. The sun came out after a few showers passed, and the monkeys (real, not hallucinated) later.

Sunshine’s isn’t the only place to enjoy rum; it is merely the most dangerous. The Gin Trap’s bar features dozens of varieties of gin, but they mix a delicious rum drink called a Monkey Slap (don’t look this up on Urban Dictionary; it is NOT representative).

And at Bananas, we enjoyed a gorgeous variety of cocktails (they feature a large selection of rare and exclusive rums) mixed and muddled by hand – a Hotter Than Haiti includes Barbancourt rum, muddle citrus, and lots of ginger – zingy!

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Almost too pretty to drink?  Nah!

Last time we visited Nisbet Plantation, we planted a palm tree to commemorate our 25th anniversary. Since then, the maintenance of the little placards marking the trees has gone a little lax – our placard had apparently rotted away and not been replaced. Using advanced geometry and trigonometry and geo-location, examining pictures from the past visit, and estimating the growth rate of our palm, we chose one we liked. Just as we christened it with rum when we planted it, we shared shots of Mt. Gay over it this time around with our friends, toasting our friendship.

Our baby palm tree, when first planted with MT and Julie.

Our gang, with our now tween-aged tree.

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Sunshine’s and our palm tree weren’t the only recipients of our rummy largesse. Although we often went our separate ways during the day, late afternoon would often find us around the pool, (mere steps away from the Seabreeze bar), with a glass of wine or a cocktail. After showers, we’d sometimes gather at each other’s rooms – Brett and Erica had bought several bottles of rum at the duty free store in San Juan airport, which Skip and Harriet were trying to use up the bottle of local CSR we’d had put in their room as a welcome gift.

From the pool deck.

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The Seabreeze bar.

The no-see-ums would drive us to the Great House eventually. The British Colonial styled common areas provided a comfortable and friendly place for pre-dinner (and post-dinner) cocktails, where we achieved a nodding acquaintance with the other guests, and, for better or worse, provided occasional entertainment involving singing and dancing. Dressing up for dinner is expected, but it’s actually a nice change from sunscreen-smeared and salt-and-sand-crusted days. And the quality of the food – with a completely different menu every night – deserved it.

At the end of the week, I was just about rummed out. Which is a perfect place to be when I start my post-sailing season/post-vacation cleanse….

Shuffling Around

It’s impossible to talk about a Caribbean trip this year without acknowledging the destruction caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria. Almost every image of a flattened island reminds me of places I’ve visited in the past and people who have welcomed me there.

As someone who travels to the Caribbean once or twice a year, I’ve thought long and hard about what this means to me; I don’t pretend that my vacation dilemmas are in any way comparable to the struggles of the storm victims to secure the basic requirements of life: food, water and shelter. Nevertheless, the economies of destroyed islands are dependent on tourism to one degree or another, so travelers like me are necessary to their recovery unless they somehow discover another way to achieve economic viability. In the short run, visiting the impacted islands (assuming it’s even possible) to “help” is a non-starter, as unskilled laborers are more burden than help, and distract from the hard work of re-building.

Our trip to Nevis had been planned a long time ago, and included 3 days in Grand Case, on the French side of St. Martin, before flying on to Nevis. Sadly, Maria finished Grand Case off, destroying everything in that village. Other than Skip and Harriet, all of our crew had to re-arrange our travels, and it proved too logistically challenging for what would have been a fifth couple to join us (Pat and Emily, veterans of our Croatia sail). When and if Grand Case is back in business, we will be sure to return to do our share to contribute to the economy.

Naturally, we were not the only ones impacted, who wished to find another destination in the Caribbean (or elsewhere) to vacation.

One of the wonderful things – to me – about visiting Nevis is the puzzled responses we’ve gotten from those who ask us where we’re going.

Me: “Nevis.”

Them: “Huh?”

Me: “Sister island to St. Kitts.”

Them: “St. what?”

Me: “Birthplace of Alexander Hamilton.”

Them: “Mmmm.”

Me: “Down island, in the Caribbean, only sideswiped by the hurricanes.”

Them: “Whatever. Have fun.”

Part of the attraction of Nevis is that tourism is decidedly low-impact and light-touch. I like keeping it one of my little secrets.

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But many visitors who had never heard of Nevis are now finding themselves on her green shores because their cruise ship was re-routed, or they read somewhere about it. And it’s not an easy or natural fit. A cruise ship anchored off the shore (there are no appropriate harbors in Nevis) ferried in a crowd to sit on Pinney’s Beach. Not one of them seemed to move, or go swimming; and I didn’t see any of them visit one of the half-dozen beach bars or spend a penny there. A group that was deposited by minibus at the Botanical Gardens spent a few minutes there and shuffled on. And I was surprised to see young kids (well-behaved) at Nisbet Plantation, which has little to amuse them besides the pool, as the beach has eroded somewhat.

One of the keys to enjoying a vacation is to have reasonable expectations. So while Nevis is perfect for me – who likes to get away from it all and make her own fun in a beautiful natural environment – it has remained under the radar for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s not right for everyone. I’m gratified that my friends loved Nevis and Nisbet Plantation as much as I do – we have carefully vetted them (;-)), but not everyone will feel the same way.

In the meantime, I will keep coming back to Nevis, and other islands, and do what I can to support them.

Crossing Our Wake – Back to the Exumas

Blue is normally thought of as a cool color.  But in the Exumas, it’s a shimmering, scorching HOT color.  Hot like light sabers and lasers.  Blinding, searing its image into my eyes and brain.  And unforgettable.

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A little taste of Exuma blue….

Just a little more than 3 years ago, my Bahamian cruising odyssey ended.  But the urge to return and sail the Exumas haunted me.  Unless I were willing to do a land stay and tolerate the limited range of a rented runabout, or suddenly came into some money (so that I could charter a seaplane and be dropped aboard my yacht), it would take some doing to fit the Exumas into my normal vacation allowance.  Enter Navtours, a Quebec-based charter company with a Nassau base and sub-bases at Staniel Cay and Emerald Bay.  Rick and I, and our friends Skip and Harriet (with 3 Bahamian seasons aboard their Moondance) chartered a 39-foot Lagoon catamaran named Narval (which devolved into Larva almost immediately).

Larva, laden with kayaks and Kaliks.

The first day of a sailing charter is not typically much fun.  We had smooth travels to reach Nassau, but once there, found a junkanoo celebration and 4 cruise ships in port, clogging roads and making the 40-minute ride to Palm Cay marina at the southeast end of the island a much longer slog.  Then follows the heavy work of boat briefings and provisioning and finding places to stow all of our provisions – at least we’d been excused from the chart briefing, as we were as familiar, if not moreso, with the Exumas than the briefer.  Our provisioning was only modestly successful: we had good luck with the online nassaugrocer.com, but the choices at the nearest supermarket were less appealing, and the wine and liquor selection at the nearest purveyor abysmal (but you’d have been luck if you needed libations for Passover).  The whole Palm Cay set-up confirmed the urge to get out of there ASAP: the gated entrance, the need to wear wristbands, the loud EDM-loving marina guests (refugees from the ill-fated Fyre Festival?), the no-see-ums nibbling at our feet at dinner, and the chain across the entry channel to keep out (or in) unauthorized boat traffic.

The mere existence of this charter company doesn’t necessarily guarantee access to the Exumas.  As we’ve learned from being trapped at Emerald Bay (just north of Georgetown, on Great Exuma) due to heavy seas, getting kicked off the docks at Staniel Cay due to winds in the wrong direction, or waiting for weather windows to make crossings: planning and good conditions are essential.  Our trip was timed for May, a month likely to have good conditions but not yet too hot or in the heart of hurricane season.  And we lucked out, as a cold front was just dissipating and we got calm seas (and calm winds, alas) and good visibility for our 7 hour motor across the Yellow Bank (studded with coral heads) from New Providence to Shroud Cay in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.

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Rick reaches for a mooring ball — we’ve reached Shroud Cay!

I’d dreamed about Shroud Cay ever since I left it.  The beach on the Exuma Sound side of Shroud, reached by traversing a mangrove creek by dinghy, features in my fondest memories.  But first, I had to get past the unsettling feeling that Shroud had been taken over by megayachts – visible from miles out – and their passengers on jetskis buzzing around heedlessly.  Fortunately, they were anchored far from shore and their endlessly running generators were not within hearing range; moreover, their guests didn’t seem to be interested in the lower-tech highlights of Exuma Park.

Are really big boats taking over the Exumas?

The mangrove creek empties into a deep pool and then gives way to gorgeous beach.

After enjoying the magical beach at Shroud, we climbed atop the ridge to view the remnants of “Camp Driftwood” (from which the DEA was rumored to be using long-range lenses to capture the tail numbers of planes landing at neighboring Norman Cay, owned by drug lord Carlos Lehder and used as a hub for trafficking), gaining breathtaking views of the area.

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Views of the mangrove creeks and the beach from the ridge.

After carefully evaluating the situation, we then concluded it was safe (and fun!) to throw ourselves into the deep blue pool at the creek’s exit and ride the outgoing current to the sand bank.  Like 2-year-olds, again!  And again!

Jumping into the pool and riding the current.

Because of the condensed nature of our visit, we didn’t linger at Shroud Cay, and didn’t even stop at Hawksbill Cay – which is surely worthy of more exploration – on our way to Exuma Park headquarters at Warderick Wells Cay.  A trip of reminiscence like this one requires re-visiting certain touchstones: Chatting with Cherie in the office and buying a t-shirt.

Arriving at Warderick Wells.

Swimming at Tabebuia Beach.

Hiking up to Boo Boo Hill and looking (futilely) for the driftwood artifacts we’d left behind.

Gazing from above at the J-shaped channel forming the anchorage.

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And walking the ironshore trails even though we each harbor fears of falling on the jagged rocks or having them poke through our shoes.

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At the south end of Exuma Park, Cambridge Cay holds similar allure though fewer visitors.  Honeymoon Beach, with its blue swimming hole, even tempted Skip to jump in – his standards are very exacting.

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Ahhh, Honeymoon Beach.

A short hike from Honeymoon Beach reveals the beach facing the cut between Cambridge and Compass Cays, where the water is warmer and on this day offered up playful surf.

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Just another sunset.

Harriet and I took advantage of the kayaks we’d rented, and for the first time ever I found myself kayaking without either wind or current against me; we paddled to both of the beaches near the mooring field, beached the kayaks, and then hiked to Bell Rock.

Fewer people visit Cambridge Cay than Warderick Wells, but that leaves more of it to just us.

Of course, the less clement side of a Bahamian journey sometimes reveals itself as well.  Of this we were reminded when Rick and Harriet decided to snorkel the crashed plane and the nearby “Aquarium” site near Little Hall’s Pond Cay (Johnny Depp’s private island).  I insisted on going along for the ride to serve as a lookout.  When we saw how fast the current was running near the plane wreck, we came up with a safety plan; as it was, Rick and Harriet went in for only a moment, Harriet hanging on to the dinghy painter.

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The wicked current ruled out too many underwater pictures; here’s one of the plane wreck.

On to the Aquarium.  Most of the Aquarium site – rich with aquatic life – was an eddy, but as she approached a corner, Harriet got swept up in the current.  Per plan, as Rick fought the current to swim back to the dink, I started the outboard and we motored over to find Harriet clinging to a rock outcropping.  (She’d have been fine if she went with the flow, as the current would have taken her to shallows, but she couldn’t see that far.  And we were reminded why slack tide is best for snorkeling.)

After that burst of adrenaline, a break was in order, so we went swimming in one of the blue pools at O’Brien Cay.

Wish we’d had more time for O’Brien’s Cay.

The afternoon was devoted to more relaxed activity: sand dollar hunting off the sand flats between Pipe Cay and Compass Cay.  While my hunting technique was still on point, we weren’t especially successful.  But near where I found the Big Daddy of all sea biscuits 3 years ago, Rick found its slightly smaller brother.  (Having hoped that we would discover a large cache of sand dollars, we’d brought with us a box to transport them, and managed to bring the giant find home in one piece.)  All was not lost, because we planned to hit more productive sand flats the next day from our secret anchoring spot south of Pipe Cay.

Hunting for sand dollars, and then relaxing during yet another world class sunset.

But before that, we had more touchstones to re-visit on Compass Cay, a short distance from where we’d anchored on the north side of Pipe Cay.  The marina there was packed with huge power yachts, without a single mast to be seen.  As well, Compass Cay is one of the landing spots for what I call “Hit-and-Run” Exuma tourism: go-fast boats packed with up to 2 dozen daytrippers from Nassau, cruise ship excursioneers from Nassau, and escapees from Sandals on Great Exuma zoom up to the cays and offload their cargo to swim with the sharks.

At least the daytrippers left the Sands to us.

Those detractions notwithstanding, we checked on the artifact we left at the marina (still there).

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A little worse for the wear, but 3 years later, Calypso’s sign is still at Compass Cay.

Compass Cay provides art supplies, resulting in a colorful collection of artifacts.

We then hiked to Compass Cay’s east side, featuring one of the loveliest beaches in the Exumas: Crescent Beach.  The name says it all.

The Exumas seem like one giant ad for local beer.

Beyond the beach, proprietor Tucker Rolle or one of his sons cooks up a limited menu of $16 cheeseburgers for lunch.  They may not be the best burgers in paradise, but after several days of cooking every single meal for ourselves, it’s a delight to have someone else to do it for you.  With the daytrippers gone and the burgers in the works, Harriet and I sat on the dock, dangling our feet in the water.  We’ve played with the Compass Cay nurse sharks on past visits; they love to be stroked behind the gills, and will snuggle up to your feet to be petted.

Asking for trouble?

This time, though, a yacht captain was cleaning his catch at the end of the dock, and a piece of mahi mahi he tossed over incited a bit of a frenzy.  My left foot was mistaken for chum and CHOMP!  Unbelievably, I’d been bitten by a shark!

I’m assuming the shark realized that I was not its intended lunch, because it released my foot almost immediately.  But not before leaving tooth-shaped punctures, tearing skin and drawing blood.  I stopped the bleeding with a wad of paper towels and taped over the worst of the damage with band-aids at the marina.  Later, aboard Larva, we found some antibiotic wipes and gauze in the first aid kit, and white duct tape in the spare parts locker, and I was able to hold myself together and hobble around for the balance of our trip.  But beach walking and sand dollar hunting – especially in the deep wet sand of some of the flats – was out of the question unless I wanted to attract less-friendly sharks.  The shark bite (call me “Chum”) made me forget the ignominy of a tumble down the steps down to our hull and the resulting bruises from a few nights before.

(It may seem that I’m making light of this situation, but I know I was truly fortunate that the injury wasn’t much worse.  I know well that sharks – no matter how tame-seeming – are wild, unpredictable animals.  I knowingly took the risk that something could happen when I put my feet in the water.  Although the Exumas are not that many miles from the mainland U.S., they are truly remote and medical attention, had it been necessary, might have required a Coast Guard airlift to Miami.  Also, those obnoxious-seeming, light-blocking megayachts are filled with generally kind people who have many resources and the willingness to use them – from satellite phones to surgical staplers, and I’m grateful for the offers made.)

Rick searching for sand dollars at Pipe Cay without me.

Mine and Rick’s (a great proselytizer of the benefits of rigging tape and duct tape) makeshift EMT skills held up well enough to let us enjoy a new-to-all-of-us spot, Sandy Cay.  Just west of Big Major’s Spot and Staniel Cay, this tiny little islet features a lovely beach divided by a long sand spit.  One side has a deep pool perfect for swimming, and the other has shallower water and a bit of surf; both feature water of inimitable Exuma blue.

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Delicious beaches at Sandy Cay.

Alas, civilization was starting to call.  Across the water, we could see the anchorage at Big Major’s Spot (aka “Pig Beach”) clogged with huge powerboats.  Likewise, the marina at Staniel Cay was full of monster boats, blocking the view of the iconic cottages edging the water.  We were running out of time.

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Staniel Cay’s colorful cottages seem overshadowed by the big boats docked at the marina.

(Another break from my post for a long parenthetical editorial….  About those pigs….  Since our sabbatical, the pigs have become a real “thing,” attracting more Hit-and-Run tourism and imitators.  You can accuse me of pulling up the drawbridge after having crossed the moat, since I’ve gotten to enjoy the spectacle that is swimming pigs.  But in fairness, I was already in the Exumas engaging in what I like to think is fairly low-impact travel, and seeing the pigs was incidental.  Now, it seems like every third post on Bahamas travel forums is a visitor to Atlantis or the like wanting to “swim with the pigs” without regard to the impact they make on the fragile environment for a few moments of amusement.   You don’t really swim with the pigs; you can’t ride the pigs; and unless there happen to be piglets, they are not especially cute.  They are very large feral animals that have been known to nip people and pop dinghies.  These same visitors are often taking tours that also visit Bitter Guana Cay to see the endangered iguanas and blatantly feeding them despite the signs prohibiting it.  Is this what we really want for these precious islands?)

Eventually, it was time to head in to Staniel Cay Yacht Club.  We’d already learned that our VHF radio had a range of about 39 feet, so we had to phone in to get settled.  Despite an atmosphere that seemed to favor the poweryacht crowd over cruisers, it felt like something of a homecoming.  (I also pointedly placed Calypso stickers everywhere, just to get some representation for sailors.)  We cleaned up the boat, got rid of trash, packed bags, and generally readied ourselves to turn over Larva to her delivery captain the next day.  In the bar, we left our mark on our club burgees and chatted up fellow travelers while drinking cocktails we didn’t have to mix ourselves, before enjoying a dinner we didn’t have to cook ourselves.

As a transition before coming all the way home, we flew to Nassau on Flamingo Air.  Flamingo seems fairly reliable, and they now even have a tiny office at the airstrip.  But it’s still a situation where your pilot sizes you up to figure out how best to balance the plane, and loads the luggage in assorted compartments.  My rear seat had such a low ceiling that it was in a permanently reclined position.  The short flight offered stunning views of the beloved cays where we’d spent the prior week.

In Nassau, we were staying at A Stone’s Throw Away, a small inn near the airport which had the look and feel of the old colonial Caribbean, even though it was built in this century.  Perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, you enter the inn from the bottom of the cliff, up 3 flights of stairs which tunnel through the cliff base.  The landing there is the pool and grotto, and further up is receptionand the common areas.  Our room had a huge porch overlooking the water, with a carved daybed and two loungers.

After a run to the supermarket for first aid supplies and lunch at Compass Point, we never felt the need to leave.

We had dinner at the inn  – and I was in my happy place: whole steamed fish!

We’d managed to pack a lot of experiences in our trip.  We had great company and great weather, and the prime attractions of the Exumas to me – the spectacular natural environment and the lovely people – remain the same.  Despite the mishaps, and despite the creeping tide of larger-scale tourism, I would go back in a heartbeat.

 

ICW Roadtrip

ICW Road Trip

Nearly 3 years ago, in April 2014, we began our long journey home from the Bahamas, up the Intracoastal Waterway.  The digital breadcrumbs that marked our passage on our chartplotter have since been erased, but the memories still remain.  The tight timeframe of our return – we’d wanted to maximize our time in the Bahamas – meant that we didn’t dawdle, and we skipped many places we’d wanted to visit, and gave short shrift to the stops we did make.

After 10 straight years of attending the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in the spring (even a detour from our sabbatical: https://sabrecalypso.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/detour-and-frolic/), we decided that the event had become too crowded for us.  Good for NOLA for recovering from the meager crowds that followed Katrina, but not so good for me.  With vacation days freed up, this year we’ve begun what might become an annual tradition of taking a trip down the I-95 corridor to visit or re-visit some of those ICW sites.  In our car!  Where we can fill the trunk with anything we might possibly need or want, and throw back to our younger days with obligatory road snacks (Twizzlers anyone?), 80s and 90s music (The Outfield!) and lots of time to solve the problems of the world (or make snarky observations about it).

Once outside of the Baltimore-Washington-Richmond metroplex (or traffic cluster#%&k), we found ourselves on roads where (most) drivers use turn signals, look before merging, and drive exactly 0.5 mph below 80 in the left lane (because, you know, 80+ is “reckless”).  The trade-off is gas stations where the likelihood of actually being open for business is inversely proportional to (a) the number of signs on the highway advertising them, and (b) your need to use the restroom.  And a “South of the Border” billboard every 3 miles until you cross the South Carolina border, and a Ron Jon Surf Shop billboard thereafter. Instead of following the “magenta line” (which tracks the ICW on the chartplotter), we followed the lavender line on Waze; I adjusted the cruise control on the steering wheel to adjust my speed instead of clicking +/- 1 on the autopilot to correct my course.

Romancing the Cobblestones

We made it to our Saturday destination mid-afternoon: Charleston, for an early Valentine’s Day date night.  Calypso spent a month in Charleston at the city marina without our supervision, and several days with us on board, so we’re not unfamiliar with the city’s charms.  Beautiful weather (70s, sunny, breezy) and a curbside-to-room valet greeted us at the Vendue, just off Bay Street.

The Vendue is a boutique hotel which balances history with modern amenities, and features original art everywhere (I stopped picturing every piece in my house once I saw the prices).  Our room had a working fireplace and all the sherry we could drink, as well as an extra-large walk-in shower with 2 rain showerheads and lots of outlets to plug in our chargeables.  Our old-fashioned room key (remember keys?) got us free coffee in the café in the morning as well as preferred access to the hotel’s wildly popular rooftop bar.  By 3, when we’d arrived at the bar, the place was hopping, with crowds of seemingly uniformed Millennials sporting aviator shades and Louis Vuitton totes.  Despite our advanced age and incorrect sunglasses, we enjoyed drinks and the view.

We took a long leisurely walk in the general direction of dinner, ogling the enviably lovely homes and taking care not to trip over the cobbles.  You can’t help but hear the whispers of history tickling your ears as you’re looking out from the Battery across the water to Fort Sumter (where, Rick will remind you, the South fired the first shots in the War of Northern Aggression).

Our dinner destination, Husk, is housed in a lovingly renovated historic building to bring you the latest hyphenated hot buttons on the American dining scene: Southern, organic, locally-sourced (yes, I’m sure they can tell you the name of the duck whose leg was confit-ted for your dinner), snout-to-tail, artisan-crafted, house-made, daily-updated, carefully-curated.  It was fun to dine at a restaurant whose chef (Sean Brock) was a judge on the Top Chef episode aired just that week.  Brock’s Husk isn’t just a restaurant that hits the buttons; it’s one of the restaurants which made them, and does them exceptionally well.  From roasted oysters and lettuce wraps with glazed pig ears, to duck confit over grits, dinner was beautiful and delicious.  Go there!

After dinner, we tried to go to the Gin Joint for a nightcap, a favorite bar, but – get this! – there was a 30 minute wait to get in!  We were taking off early the next morning, so went to the elegant bar at the Vendue instead and used our $25 voucher to buy a round before sliding into our sleigh bed.

Friends in Warm Places

Since our friends Skip and Harriet moved to Vero Beach, Florida, we’ve regularly crossed our own wake by visiting them.  We spent nearly 3 weeks at Vero’s Loggerhead Marina on our Bahamian sojourn, so when Rick and I volunteered to make dinner one night during our visit, I strolled through the Fresh Market and the ABC store like I’d been there many times before.  Because I had!  When you are provisioning a boat for a trip to the Out Islands, you’ve got to prepare for a lot of shortages – you might find plenty of conch in the Bahamas, but not avocados, Wheat Thins or French rose – necessitating a lot of trips to Publix, Fresh Market, Target, the ABC store, and West Marine.

After a smooth ride from Charleston (we did NOT stop in Cocoa Beach to visit Ron Jon – checked that box a long time ago), we had a reunion with our pals involving a long soak in the hot tub and a Hendricks and tonic.  Skip and Harriet seem to be part of a diaspora of Sabre sailors in Vero Beach (another cluster is in Sarasota – hey MT, Julie, Christine, Jerry, Brian, Marj!), so, we shared our first evening in the Florida warmth with the former Moondance crew, as well as the Serendipity and 2nd Symphony folks, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over Skip’s smoked pork butt.

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Hanging out with some Sabre peeps poolside in Vero Beach.

We had nothing ambitious planned for our Florida visit – nothing is required of close friends other than their company.  The biggest activity of our days was quality beach time – beachcombing (sea glass and Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish), basking in the sun, and marveling at the brave creatures who actually went in the water (their technical name: “Canadians.”)

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More shells and goodies than I’ve seen on Vero Beach in a long time.

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This is not the kind of goody you want to find accidentally!  This is the first time I’ve ever seen a Portuguese man-of-war, and there were lots of them on the beach.

Morning beach time ceded to beachfront lunches (Mulligan’s, Waldo’s) featuring that most simple and sublime of Florida pleasures: the grilled fish sandwich.

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Rick, at Mulligan’s.

And, since it’s vacation, a glass of wine or beer.  Afterwards, shopping or more beach time before returning to Maison Moondance and that inviting hot tub.

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Ah, more Florida beach time.  The northernmost of Vero’s beaches is lightly visited.

We ended up going out to dinner only once, to a place called Southern Social, but had planned to be called Swine & Co.  Pig is the theme here, and they mean it: every appetizer or plate that might be served with or enhanced by a chip, cracker, crispy onion or other saltycrunchy bit is accompanied by pork rinds.  So, ceviche comes with pork rinds; corn dip comes with pork rinds; mac-n-cheese is garnished with pork rinds.  A bit gimmicky, BUT their sangria makes everything forgivable.  And it’s not garnished with pork rinds.

Going Low

Besides our crossing from Florida to West End, Grand Bahama, the only other overnight ocean passage we made on our Bahamian journey was from Fernandina Beach, Florida, to Beaufort, South Carolina (that’s Byoo-fort, not to be confused with Boh-fort NC).  Aside from the relief of making landfall, Beaufort offered the sheer pleasure of her springtime beauty.  We were captivated and anxious to spend more time here, so we planned a leisurely visit after our days in Vero Beach.

We’ve been visiting the Lowcountry for years, and I’ve been enthralled by those long wooden piers crossing golden marshes and ending over open water, providing access to the snaky curves of the creeks and rivers of the region.  This time, we rented a rambling house walking distance from Beaufort’s historic district with just such a pier, with a covered deck at the end that gave out to views over the Beaufort River (which we’d cruised past aboard Calypso) and the fighter jets taking off and landing at the neighboring Marine base.  It took no time after our arrival before we settled on the dock with glasses of red wine.

The dock and marsh at Pinckney Home Place.

Over the course of our many visits to South Carolina, we’ve watched Beaufort bloom – and I’m not just talking about the azaleas starting to pop in the precious February sun.

Beaufort in bloom.

While having the Spanish moss draped loveliness of the setting for The Big Chill and many an overblown novel (ahem, Pat Conroy…), the town is coming to life as more than just a day trip from Charleston, Savannah or Hilton Head.

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Beaufort loves its live oaks.

The shops on Bay Street are more numerous and interesting; the restaurants on Carteret are more plentiful, hip and current (we had terrific meals at Saltus River Grill, Breakwater and Wren); and the streets don’t roll up after dark (we were there during an international film festival).

The juxtaposition of river, marsh and antebellum architecture is nevertheless the initial attraction in Beaufort.

Gorgeous Beaufort homes.

And while pricey, one can gawk at the real estate and actually imagine owning it here (albeit with one less kidney), unlike Charleston, where historic district homes (and the attendant costs of refurbishment and maintenance) are attainable only for families who’ve been there for generations, movie stars, and hedge-fund types – who don’t even live there full-time.

We spent hours walking around town, revisiting spots we’d visited before and exploring new ones.

We also hit the road, exploring the surrounding area, including the charming town of Bluffton.  However, our plan to visit the state park at Hunting Island – which is Beaufort’s ocean beach – was a bust.  It turns out the park was closed because contractors were still cleaning up the wreckage caused by Hurricane Matthew.

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En route to our aborted visit to Hunting Island, we stopped for lunch at Johnson Creek Tavern and added to the décor.

The park staff at Hunting Island suggested we go to Fort Fremont for an alternative beach walk.  Although the batteries were built at the end of the 19th century, they looked like some of the Brutalist architecture in Baltimore, like the old Mechanic Theater and the fountains near Harborplace.

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A stroll along the Beaufort River.

Still in need of a beach fix, we drove to Hilton Head, about an hour away.  We used to take annual spring tennis trips to Hilton Head and other places, so it was familiar.  The beach here is wide and hard-packed, making for easy walking.

The beach at Hilton Head.  Luckily, I wore bright shoes, so there was no risk of losing me among the crowds.

But it’s also crowded, as is the entire island and the surrounding roads.  I suppose it’s convenient to have everything you might possibly want or need so close by, but that’s not my vacation style, so returning to our little escape in Beaufort was a relief.

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The sun setting on a beautiful week.

And after a week of laid back limin’, perhaps Hilton Head was a necessary transition to civilization and the crazies who drive I-95 in the DC area.

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.