Rolling in the Deep at Deep Water Cay

First we floated above a sand desert with sparse vegetation and sparser inhabitants. Suddenly the terrain turned to prairie and signs of life picked up. Then bam! I found myself above the most beautiful garden I had ever seen – bursting with color, waving hypnotically, casting a spell with natives ranging from purple infinitesimal to six-feet-wide gliding monstrosities.

It was not a dream. It seemed like a dream, but I was wide awake and quite wide-eyed behind my snorkel mask at a dive site known as Thrift Harbour at the eastern extremes of Grand Bahama Island.

Grand Bahama Island: You know it as home to Freeport and Lucaya, but this place couldn’t be further removed. Only thing in common? This incredible palette of gem-like blues and greens painting the pure, clear water.

Dive master Phillip from Deep Water Cay resort guided me on this snorkeling adventure that ended at one of the Bahamas’ famed blue holes. But guiding seemed superfluous to this drift dive where the current did all the guiding. Phillip merely pointed out the eagle rays, barracudas, cubera snappers, and other amazing sea life that inhabited this experience, which felt so much like swimming in one of the aquariums at Atlantis. But better, because these creatures were free.

Resorting to Deep Water Cay

Deep Water Cay occupies its own 2.5-mile island at the East End of GBI, just a conch shell’s throw from McLean’s Town. Conch is especially iconic here, home of October’s annual Conch Cracking Festival.

Bonefish is the other icon. Fishermen in these parts claim to have the best fishing and biggest bonefish of anywhere in the Bahamas. Heck, after a few Kaliks (the local beer), make that “best in the world.”

Kaliks go down smoothly at DWC’s beachfront tiki bar after a day on the water, whether it has been spent flats casting for bonefish, deep-sea fishing for mahi, scuba diving the shallow offshore reef, snorkeling and lunch at a deserted island, kayaking or paddleboarding among the mangroves, or simply lazing by the infinity pool that drops off the edge into a mirage of too-beautiful-to-believe water.

For most, the highlight of the day is fighting a 20-inch bonefish. For me, during my four-day stay, it was dinner. Executive Chef Alex has worked his way from native Bahamas to Nassau and Italy. He uses local catches – often provided by the guests – in inventive ways that meld Bahamian to new American styles. My first night in, a guest shared his mahi catch, which Chef Alex prepared simply roasted with herbs and potatoes. It changed my whole opinion about the fish I previously had turned up my nose at.

 All in a Day’s Play

At Deep Water Cay, the day starts with buffet hot breakfast followed by an almost mass exodus to the sea. Box lunches open in the boat or at “Lunch Beach” or another isolated beach on one of several uninhabited islands that punctuate in quick succession GBI’s East End like a Morse code.

The tiki bar awaits the tall tales and sea-driven thirst upon return. Deluxe munchies and happy hour cocktails happen around the infinity pool while guests watch slides of their day’s adventure, repair to the dining room for something enormously wonderful, then play billiards and other games in the posh lodge decorated with mounted fish and historic images from the lodge’s bygones picturing illustrious guests such as Curt Gowdy.

Legendary fishermen founded DWC as their playground in 1958 – Palm Beach guide Gil Drake Sr., and Field & Stream editor A.J. McClane. Modern-day celebs have included Tom Brokaw and Liam Neeson.

A 2011 renovation brought the historic property into the 21st century plushly. It reopened with a new look and determination to attract families, couples, scuba divers and snorkelers, kayakers and paddleboarders, as well as the fish-frenzied.

Accommodations range from cheerful guest rooms in the historic cottages to luxury three-bedroom rental homes with views of the reef-barricaded sea. Basically, anything you desire here is yours, except for televisions in the accommodations and other such bothersome conveniences.

Massage? Sure in your room or seaside. Conch salad for lunch? Absolutely, fresh from the resort’s conch pen. A shuttle to McLean’s Town for native dinner? What time would you like to leave? Charter a flight directly from South Florida to the cay? DWC has its own landing strip and customs office and will make arrangements.

Heck, our bonefishing guide was even willing to hook a bonefish for us to reel in so we could have our picture on the slideshow that night. Instead I hooked into three that never made it to the boat and a mammoth eagle ray that thankfully finally broke the line before it did my back.

I cared not. Gazing at the horizon — where the water softened to the same shade as the hazy sky so you couldn’t tell where one started and the other ended — catching bonefish seemed a waste of relaxation.

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Cuban Nuances in Tampa’s New Generation of Restaurants

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Ulele restaurant

Senor Castro may have left this world, but the intrigue and influence of the Cuban culture is still alive and well in Tampa, a historic Cuban cigar-making town since the 1880s. Ybor City is the Cuban foodie epicenter with such historic, landmark restaurants as the original Columbia Restaurant, La Tropicana, Carmine’s, and La Segunda Central Bakery.

But Cubano foodways are not confined to Tampa’s Latin district. Cuba and its Spanish abuela insinuate themselves into most menus, even the newest, finest, and most progressive. Besides the ubiquitous Cuban sandwich that everyone claims bragging rights to, you’ll see and taste the influence in dishes from ramen to ice cream.

I was recently engaged in a mission to sample and write about six of Tampa’s most up-and-coming restaurants. There I found delightful ways that Cuban cuisine had purposely or unknowingly creeped into the chef’s head.

In the case of Ichicoro Ramen, the fusion is intentional. The roast pork asado in its Tonkotsu ramen bowl takes cues from Cuban pork mojo. If that’s not evident enough, consider the CuBaoNo – a not-so-subtle nod to the Cuban sandwich in an Asian bun. “This is Tampa,” says manager Eric. “Our Asian fusion has to incorporate that tradition.”

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Tonkotsu ramen

Oxford Exchange, just off downtown Tampa near the university, may emulate a British club, but there’s jolty Spanish cortado (similar to café con leche) beside sthe tea sommelier’s menu.

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Coffee at Oxford Exchange

It was less of a surprise to find tostones – albeit breadfruit tostones rather than plantain – at Seminole Heights’ darling Rooster & the Till. Considering that Chef Farrell Alvarez has Colombian roots, Latin influence is expected. It came with the crisp chicken thigh and yuzu habanero kosho the night I dined.

Also no big surprise at Ulele, one of the latest brainchildren from Columbia Restaurant dynasty kingpin Richard Gonzart. Although the culinary concept is defined as native American, the Naviaera Espresso Chocolate Swirl Ice Cream uses a coffee blend straight from Ybor City.

A native Tampan, Chef Jeannie Pierola has reached semifinalist status four times in the James Beard competition and was recently a guest chef at the Beard House. Her latest edison: food+drink lab near downtown draws on influences from here to Cyprus. The paella negra on the dinner menu the day I visited draws on strong Spanish tradition with a few of Chef Jeannie’s trademark twists such as squid ink rice, saffron uni foam, and piquillo pepper jam.

Chef Greg Baker at Fodder & Shine had me stumped. He professes strict Southern cuisine (with his own interpretations), and whereas I expected Florida Cuban influence to show up, it took a while to find it. There it is! On the Cornmeal Cake Sandwich, topped with killer collard greens, tomato, green pepper, scallion, and cayenne vinegar slaw. And served on – tada! La Segunda Cuban bread.

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