ON-THE-ROAD COVID CHRONICLES

DAY 1: THIS HAPPENED IN FLORIDA                         

I have not traveled since January. It’s like I haven’t breathed for eight months. I was so ready, even with Gov. DeSantis’ decision to revoke restaurant restrictions in Florida the day before we left home.

I was a little nervous about going into a restaurant in touristy St. Augustine’s Old City. But our nephew’s wife had highly recommended Prohibition Kitchen, and so we got in a short, distanced line for lunch. The host said there would be a wait for a table, or we could sit at the bar.

Our selfie at Prohibition Kitchen

Several tables sat empty, so that was encouraging that they seemed to be sticking to the old 50 percent occupancy guidelines for Florida restaurants. Throughout the restaurant, management had left up the 6-foot distancing signs. Between couples seated at the bar were empty chairs. More and more encouraging.

We left an empty chair and took two seats near the end of the bar. I placed my purse on the chair next to me, but as I picked it up to get something out, a couple came and sat right next to me.

I kindly asked, “Could you please leave that seat empty?”

The man growled, “Why?”

I said, “You know. Distancing.”

“That is OVER!” he said in a taunting tone.

“Can’t you move down one chair?” I asked.

“No!” he answered. “Those chairs are too low.” I looked and saw he was right, but before I could answer he was complaining to the bartender.

I expected the bartender to stand behind what seemed to be the restaurant’s distancing policy, but he said to me instead: “I’m going to have to ask you to move your purse.” Which I did promptly as the man shouted at me, “If you aren’t comfortable, don’t go out!” I ignored him and turned my attention to my deviled eggs.

Deviled eggs du jour

So, good news is, the eggs du jour were ridiculously delicious: topped with pickled red onions, cucumber, and bits of bacon. Our other midday nosh, crab hush puppies, were nicely, crisply fried with good dipping sauce. My husband was so happy with the local Donkey Reef APA draft, and me with my chardonnay on tap. Surprisingly thrilled, actually.

Still, the experience left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Should I have stood up to the man? (Did I mention the offending couple had no masks in sight the entire time?) Shouldn’t the bartender have had my back? Is the 100 percent occupancy segue too soon? Or was that guy right? Should I not have ventured there?

Am I glad I’ve now left Florida at this crucial time when my decisions to eat out are compromised? Yes. Stay tuned for my experience today in Savannah, Georgia, where wearing masks is required even on the streets.

DAY 1 PART 2: SAVED BY PONTE VEDRA INN (written Sept. 27, before the road trip claimed all my attention and interest)

When I tell you we had the best lobster bisque of a lifetime last night, understand that my husband rarely passes on the rich indulgence when we dine out. This rendition, our doting server poured over generous, juicy chunks of lobster at the Seahorse Grilleat Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. We had checked into the historic coastal property’s new Ocean House beachfront accommodations. Opened in 1928, the iconic golf resort has ever since spelled quiet elegance on the Atlantic coast between St. Augustine and Jacksonville. Recently, it unveiled its two new latest components – the Peyton House and our Ocean House. At the same time classic and modern, they add 41 luxury suites and rooms to the inventory.

 When I walk into a room with a WOW!, and my husband asks if we can just stay here for the entire length of our couple’s getaway, I do a little inner happy dance. From the stand-alone bathtub in the master bath to the graphite-finish appliances in the kitchen to the oceanfront porch that runs from living room to bedroom, this was vacationing perfection.

And the details! I would never expect an oyster motif to equate to elegance. The oyster is clunky, but, I decided, sexy in its own way. Our condo featured oyster portraits and heavy boxes made from them. Curtains and throws were embroidered with reef, fishes, and other oyster neighbors. Indeed, I too regretted only one night to stay there, where luxury was served on the half-shell.

Sigh! Our last day in Florida was saved already.

And then dinner at Seahorse Grille was such an occasion, it actually trumped our living quarters. For devoted foodies such as ourselves, anyway.

I ordered the tuna appetizer with my husband’s bisque. Yin to his yang. The menu had described it as seared and chilled with horseradish, ginger, and ratatouille. It sounded unlikely, but this was not your nana’s ratatouille. Instead of a ragout style tomato veggie dish, it consisted of lightly marinated cubes of zucchini and ginger julienne. The tomato component was a cross between roasted and sun-dried, and out of this world. The nuggets of seared rare tuna actually paled next to the accompaniments.

The pickled slivered ginger in particular beguiled me. So, I was thrilled when it made a repeat performance in my lobster fettuccini, along with bits of preserved lemon, more of that luscious lobster, and a delicate lemon cream sauce.

The grouper special: a feast for the eyes and palate

My husband ordered from the “unscripted & in the moment” portion of the menu. Pureed celery root laid a foundation for the grouper special. Apples and bacon added sweet and salty complexity for a grand, multi-layered effect. Charred rounds of sweet potato and pretty slices of watermelon radish added to the visual delish. A shout-out, too, for the Chalk Hill Chardonnay that played so well with all of the various flavor profiles.

Did we need dessert after that? Of course not. But how could we resist testing what this talented kitchen could make of chocolate souffle? Topped with a pour of salted caramel, the a la mode mindblower was, well, WOW.

A VERY happy ending!

COVID note: Thankfully Ponte Vedra Inn & Club continues to abide by Florida’s previously strict guidelines in the hotel public places, including the restaurant. We felt entirely safe in the hands of the masked and totally capable staff. Our lovely table, overlooking the beach through floor-to-ceiling window with a super-sized rounded aquarium in our sights, was well-distanced from others in the dining room.

DAY 2: SAFELY OUT OF FLORIDA

After the mob tourist scene and unsettling restaurant experience in St. Augustine, I was a tad wary heading to Savannah, Georgia, another historic city that draws crowds. It was my first time exploring the city, so we settled on Old Town Trolley Tours, which I knew from Key West, upon discovering Savannah’s policy of mandatory masking in indoor and outdoor public places. The open-air trolley did fill to capacity at times as passengers unboarded and reboarded. But at each stop, the driver made a point of reminding everyone that they must keep their masks on throughout the 15-stop journey.

We did skip lunching there among the throngs, opting for sandwiches from our cooler, then headed toward our next destination – Blowing Rock, North Carolina. We stopped halfway north of Columbia, South Carolina, at a Holiday Inn Express. Happily, Columbia County requires masks in public places. The HI Express was extremely compliant. Signs at elevators prohibited non-family members from riding together. Complimentary breakfast was served a la counter order.

DAYS 3 & 4: OUR BEST MEAL IN BLOWING ROCK, NC

Excursions to THE Blowing Rock formation and Grandfather Mountain, strolls through the downtown Blowing Rock mountain town scene, stops at Blowing Rock Brewing Company and other venues for bites and sips, sitting in front of the gas fireplace in our cozy room at the Meadowbrook Inn: It all felt safe and delightful as we felt the cool of the mountains temper our summer-weary Florida bones.

View from the Grandpa of mountains

Our last supper we splurged biblically – with fish and loaves, as it were. I was craving local trout, so we culled menus until we settled on Twigs. My husband with his old-fashioned, me with my Wente Chardonnay, relaxed in a cozy space carefully distanced as we ordered our starter of Oysters Orleanaise – flash fried tender niblets with right-on lobster cream sauce for dipping. A sure precursor of things marvelous to come from a menu supported by locally sourced product.

Our cozy room at Meadowbrook Inn

Everything was also house-made, such as the goat cheese and champagne vinaigrette on my house salad and the Lusty Monk honey mustard dressing my husband specified. From there, the kitchen gets all the credit for wonderfully turned-out, composed dishes. I chose sauteed over pecan-crusted for my mountain trout. A fresh interp on piccata, it engaged arugula, capers, and citrus beurre blanc to create an elevated composition.

Piccata divine

Rob’s grilled filet mignon was perfectly cooked to his specifications, but then exceeded all expectations with a conspiracy of gorgonzola butter, tobacco onions, port wine demi-glaze, parsnip puree, wilted spinach, and smashed new potatoes.

Twigs sent us home with that specific glow that comes only from a meal out executed without flaw. We dreaded having to leave North Carolina the final day, but at least we had a finish impactful as Grandfather Mountain.

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