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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3 Funky Restaurants in Fort Myers

FUNKYFMDIXIEIf you’re like me, you love finding local color with your seafood and sandwiches. Fort Myers and its islands dispense plenty of character, along with cold drinks and good eats, at funky spots the locals love for their easy-going attitude and settings. Give these three a test run next time you’re looking outside the box of fancy or chain restaurants.

CRACKER BOX RESTAURANT, SOUTH FORT MYERS

FUNKYFMCRACKERBring a camera, cash, your dancing shoes and plenty of patience. You’ll want lots of pictures of this colorful, shakes-sided restaurant that claims to be the second oldest restaurant in the county (since 1962). Credit cards don’t work here in this old Florida holdout with a bit of an attitude. (Nor does leaving your spouse for payment, the website warns.) Staff doesn’t apologize if you have to wait a spell for your order of famous crab cakes, shrimp or a creamy fish dish named Baked Cloris, after the owner’s mother. They’re proud that everything is made from scratch and to order. As for the dancing shoes, live music happens every night the Cracker Box opens during season.

DIXIE FISH CO., FORT MYERS BEACH

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Resurrected in recent times, the circa-1936 Dixie Fish Co. sat as a vacant landmark for many years on the fringes of the Fort Myers Beach shrimping docks of San Carlos Island. Still, with its peaked tin roof and breeze-through stilted dining room, it feels deliciously old-timey. And speaking of delicious: With the seafood coming in fresh from the sea, the local “pink gold” wild shrimp are roundly applauded, along with mahi-mahi and the catch du jour. Views of the sunset-spotlighted fleet of gritty shrimp boats and the strains of live music most nights stir an ambiance that screams Southwest Florida on the whisper of salty sea breezes.

LAZY FLAMINGO, SANIBEL ISLAND

FUNKYFMLAZYFour Lazy Flamingo restaurant today flock the Fort Myers area, but the original on Sanibel Island, located just before the bridge to Captiva (Sanibel actually has two “Lazys,” as the locals call them) has the most character. Here, you order your lunch or dinner at the bar, then take a bar stool, a booth or a table outside and wait to hear your name called. Home to the area’s first ring-on-a-string toss game and women’s halter tops made from men’s briefs, its nautical ambiance belies a seafood-saturated menu where grouper sandwiches and conch fritters rule. The brave (or beer-emboldened) attempt the scorcher Dead Parrot Wings.

Scenes and (a Couple of) Tastes from Cedar Key

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Less than 20 hours in Cedar Key: not my ideal, oh what a tease! I’d prefer at least a weekend in this bastion of peace and funk. But as it turned out, after a rainy foray around the Nature Coast hunting for real estate, 20 hours proved an ample pit stop for recovery.

The Nature Coast. That’s the PR moniker. Traditionally it has been called the Big Bend, where Florida segues from south-north to east-west. Others have disparagingly referred to it as Florida’s Armpit. They’re beach-lovers, no doubt, who do not appreciate the region’s Old Florida, out-of-the-spotlight, Southern style.

We were taking a big chance heading out to Cedar Key during its early December Pirate Invasion. Hotel.com and Expedia were showing no available rooms. The relentless rain, however, finally worked in our favor.

We stopped first at the place I most wanted to stay, to show off to my husband – the circa 1829 Island Hotel. Crossing the uneven floorboards past the stuffed manatee at the baby grand piano, I greeted the receptionist with a hopeful smile.

“I don’t suppose you have any vacancies,” I prompted. She hauled out a scrapbook-sized bound book and, with two hands, opened it to the day’s date. Like in an old movie, she scanned the columns with her pointer finger, stopping on a square that had been whited out. My heart skipped. A cancellation, just as we’d hoped. She showed us to room 24, opening the lock with a real key. No computerized reservations system or key cards at Island Hotel. Sigh!

Like Cedar Key as a whole, the Island Hotel is stuck in another era, pre-computers. In fact, the island’s history begins with that most basic of computing instruments: the pencil.

As its name hints, the island was once covered with red cedar trees, eventually decimated by the Eberhardt Faber Pencil Company back in the 19th century.

Today, the island’s economy depends on tourism and its art scene; and clams and their restaurant scene.

With such a short window, we got only one opportunity to taste those locally farmed clams – at Steamers Clam Bar & Grill on Dock Street, Cedar Key’s famed dining and party strip that draws the Gainesville crowd on weekends.

The good news: Steamers’ New England style clam chowder was the best to cross my taste buds in a lifetime, and that includes what I’ve slurped in Boston and Maine.

Our only other meal came compliments of the Island Hotel. It includes a full, hot breakfast in its rates, and it too was outstanding, both my mushroom and onion quiche and my husband Rob’s (who was by this point duly impressed with the old timey establishment) French toast.

We had planned to make the nightlife scene, at least the lively hotel bar that happened to be right beneath our creaky floors, king four-poster bed, and blessedly private bathroom. Instead, we ended up with a bottle of wine on the hotel’s second-story wrapped balcony on a swinging bench overlooking the Second Street holiday decorations and listening to good cover band tunes wafting from Dock Street on the brisk December sea breeze.

Following breakfast, we walked around the two-square-mile island and watched the costumed pirates awakening for the final day of their invasion. We headed back across Route 24, renewed and relaxed, but wishing we’d had more of Cedar Key, and more we shall have.

Getting a head start on Christmas in Branson, Missouri

merob_1Does this Christmas tree costume make my butt look big?

Judging by the comments on social media after I posted pictures of my husband Rob and me participating in the tree brigade of Branson’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year parade, it was my childish regression that loomed large. And the fact that we were celebrating Christmas the minute Halloween had snuffed out its last pumpkin candle.

Like some twisted version of Cinderella, pumpkins turned to Christmas trees. Goblins to Santas. Ghosts to angels.

It may have seemed as though it happened overnight, Branson’s preemie jump on Christmas. However, as in the case of Silver Dollar City amusement park, it had been carefully choreographed behind the scenes. The park starts stringing its 6.5 million lights on July 5, said Pete, part of the Herschend family that has operated the one-of-a-kind old-time-artisans-meet-thrill-rides park since the late 1950s.

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Silver Dollar City all aglow

The Saturday evening following the Most Wonderful parade, Silver Dollar City debuted its overachieving Christmas season with dazzling displays, holiday treats, a lighted parade of its own, and Branson-quality big-music productions of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. Even its cave, the 500-feet-deep hole in the ground from which the park has grown, switches on an underground holiday display of lights.

Everywhere I went in Branson those first few days of November, Christmas unabashedly asserted itself. The lunch cruise production on the Showboat Branson Belle culminated in a rousing round-up of holiday song and dance choreographed to a level of Vegas showmanship. Sans the liquor. Sans the sin.

Because Branson stakes its squeaky-clean reputation on over-the-top entertainment production in a wholly wholesome vein, viewed through a lens of patriotism and faith.

100% Chance of Shows

Marquee show venues cram Branson’s legendary entertainment district, all of them holiday-skewed from Nov. 1 through year’s end. At one of the most popular holiday shows, the Andy Williams Ozark Mountain Christmas Show, I witnessed stars of yore evoking emotion and nostalgia. Stars that included the Lennon Sisters and Jimmy Osmond against a backdrop of vintage video: They pay tribute to one of the most iconic names in the annuls of holiday and Branson entertainment. From a Cirque Christmas show with the world’s only aerial acrobatic violinist to a quartet harmony, the Christmas performances in Branson are as dynamic as they are spectacular.

The probability of live shows during a holiday visit to Branson greatly out-percentages the likelihood of snow. The area averages only 10 inches a year, despite its mountains.

On the flip side of the town’s reputation for BIG entertainment, its propensity for amusement attractions prevails. Wolfe Mountain recently opened a snowless (astro-turf-like) snow-tubing experience that had me flying down an undulating hill like one of Santa’s reindeer. I flew again at Fritz’s Adventure’s latest Aerodium outdoor wind tunnel.

Other attractions follow the head-start Christmas protocol to the point where you forget it’s actually NOT December. Luminary pathways and period decorations at Titanic, for instance, turn one of the town’s most-well done museums festive. Others, like the World’s Largest Toy Museum, build on the Branson’s number one sales chip: nostalgia.

Old-time stars, stores like Dick’s 5 & 10 , and a return to family values attract not only its signature senior bus-tour clientele, but also multi-generational families to Branson.

But Why So Early?

As one regular Branson visitor put it to me: Branson lies in the heart of the Bible Belt. “Since Christmas is the Super Bowl of Christianity, they make it last as long as possible,” she said.

The Herschend family of Silver Dollar City and Showboat fame claims responsibility for nudging Christmas onto the November calendar. Since 1988, it has promoted Branson as America’s Christmas Tree City, with a map to of 350 decorated public trees to prove it, and even brought in the Rockettes for a time. Resident Tony Orlando (of “and Dawn” fame) likes to take credit, too, having gotten Bob Hope involved through his “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” classic and tributes to veterans.

So, whether or not that somewhat awkward Christmas tree costume made my butt look big as I marched with a forest of others along lakeside Branson Landing, Christmas trees and the holiday in general are supersized in Branson, a friendly and genuine town that just cannot contain its holiday exuberance to a single calendar page.

IF YOU GO

Information: Explore Branson

CHATEAU_1Accommodations: Chateau on the Lake resort, turns merry and bright with decorations that include a candy house village and a Nativity scene handmade in Italy, whose only other look-alike starred in the movie Home Alone.

Must-try holiday treats: Fruitcakes made by students at the College of the Ozarks, pumpkin pie concretes at Andy’s Frozen Custard, apple dumplings at Silver Dollar City, and pumpkin donuts at Hurt’s.

Links to My Published Foodie Articles

A pupu platter of some of my tastiest work:

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Where to Find Pink Shrimp & Striped Mullet, WGCU.org

10 Amazing Chef’s Tables You Should Know About, USA TODAY 10Best.com

Naples Illustrated’s 2017 Dining Awards, Naples Illustrated

Best Naples’ Restaurants for Fresh-from-the-Sea Catches, USA TODAY 10Best.com

Nassau’s Best Restaurants, USA TODAY 10Best.com

Pink Gold Rush documentary, WGCU-TV

Pink Gold in Fort Myers Beach, VisitFlorida.com

Shea’s at Lansdowne Street brings a little Boston to Naples, Naples Daily News

Three60 Restaurant in Naples, USA TODAY 10Best.com

Iceland’s Crazy Culinary Traditions, USA TODAY 10Best.com

From Farm to Table in Southwest Florida, VisitFlorida.com

Filling Up on Sushi at ‘Tween Waters Inn, TweenWaters.com