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.

Maple Syrup: Not Just for Breakfast Anymore (When in Quebec)

Full disclosure: I never really liked maple syrup before I went to Quebec City. If I ate pancakes, waffles, or French toast at all – a rare occurrence as I’m a savory breakfast sort – I’d slather on a good fruit jam. You know, something with texture and a more complex flavor profile than just sweet.

MAPLEPIE_1

It All Began with Pie

My first meal in Old Quebec City, nonetheless, ended with a wedge of maple syrup pie – or tarte au sirop d’érable – thanks to my husband’s aching sweet tooth. Something of the consistency of the center of a pecan pie and oozing onto a sturdy homemade crust, it surprised me. In a good way. It started out sweet, but then the maple flavor said bonjour and mellowed that cloying flavor with something just tapped, forestral.

From Soup to…

That, I was to discover, is how maple syrup rolls. And that it behooves a gourmet snob to embrace its versatility. At La Buche Cuisine Québecoise, for instance, the soupe du jour was tomato and maple syrup. See what I mean? It’s omnipresent. Again my first reaction was “too sweet.” Then I licked the bowl clean.

Maple bacon at our favorite patisserie, Paillard. Sure, that makes sense. Maple jelly, maple butter, maple candy and cookies. Bien sur! Maple syrup in cocktails from maple whiskey to maple mojitos: Clever, but even with alcohol, I remained skeptical.

POUDING_1

A very rich poor man’s pudding

Stuck on Maple Syrup

The turning point came with dessert at La Buche, which specializes in local folk food such as poutine and meat pies. Named simply Pouding Chômeur, the poor man’s pudding sweetly enriched my appreciation for maple syrup’s agility and dimension. It slathers chunks of “stale cake’ with caramel-y maple sauce and a healthy drizzle of cream.

Maple-glazed carrots, maple vinaigrette, maple cola, maple beer, fruited maple yogurt…. Did I detect a hint of maple in my soupe a l’oignon? Bring on the sweetness. Bring on the flavor and dimension that grow and grow on you.

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6 Reasons to Visit Sonoma in 2016

 

JACUZZITASTE

Tasting for free at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards.

Napa started it, of course, the wine revolution in the state of California. Like a typical big brother, it lords its tenure and viniculture muscle over little sister Sonoma. The two counties are both known for their beautiful wineries and rolling hills crawling with grape vines. Napa Valley may boast bigger and more well-known properties, but Sonoma Valley guards its own superlatives, which in many ways make it a more well-rounded destination. As spring’s warmth begins to coax out fresh green vineyard canopies, add these six Sonoma Valley benefits to your travel plans.

  1. Free wine tastings

Along Wine Road, you will find more than 400 wineries that welcome the public for tastings of their wares and a chance to purchase wines that are often unavailable or difficult to find elsewhere. At more than 60 of the wineries you can score free tastings: Some simply don’t charge; others are on the Visa Signature Perks plan, where if you show that particular credit card, you get complimentary tastings for two. Tastings usually run around $20 or more per person, so you can realize great savings if you plan ahead and get on the Visa Signature program, which also gets you discounts on purchases made at the qualifying wineries.

  1. The charming town of Sonoma

Smaller and more neighborly than the city of Napa, downtown Sonoma orderly comports itself around a square with a park at center and the historic city hall. Known as Sonoma Plaza, it ranks as the largest plaza in California. A state historic park takes up one block of Spain Street, which borders the plaza on one side. It encompasses a number of Spanish colonial sites including the circa-1823 Mission San Francisco Solano — the 21st and last mission built in Alta California. The historic El Dorado hotel with its highly hailed Kitchen restaurant overlooks the plaza. Or keep in the mission theme at elegant Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn a few blocks from the plaza. Its Santé restaurant absolutely shines at fine California cuisine. Or go for craft cocktails and modern munchies at Whiskey Bar & Grill downtown. Among the shops and galleries around the square, foodies should not miss the Sonoma Cheese Factory, so much more than its name implies.

  1. The equally charming town of Healdsburg

A shopper’s and diner’s delight, Healdsburg too centers around a town plaza. Wine tasting rooms, galleries, and fun gift and clothing shops surround the central park and the block to the north. Check out Studio Barndiva for local artworks and wine sipping. Circa 1902 Healdsburg Inn will put you up in style in the thick of all the charm and action.

  1. Madrona Manor

MADRONA

Tableside ice cream at Madrona Manor

For inimitable historic lodging and over-the-top dining experience in the Healdsburg area, Madrona Manor revolves around a beautiful Victorian mansion built in 1881. The grounds overlook vineyards and hold gorgeous gardens of flowers, statuary, a lovely pool, citrus trees, and vegetables and herbs for the kitchen. Luxury accommodations live in the mansion, the Carriage House, the School House, and other cottages and vintage structures. The dining room too occupies the mansion for an elegant foray into molecular gastronomy that wows the taste buds course after course.

  1. Sonoma Raceway

Home to nationally televised NASCAR, Indy-car, and motorcycle races, the Sonoma Raceway is a little-known bonus to car enthusiasts visiting the area. Right at the southern threshold to wine country, it lets visitors tour around the scenic, hilly track for free when there are no racing events. Many days you can watch drivers enrolled in its Audi Sportscar Experience take to the track. Or suit up and try it yourself. Don’t miss the spit-and-shine garage housing McLarens and other luxe  cars. Then wash away the road dust with a short drive to Ram’s Gate, Viansa, and Jacuzzi wineries. (The latter offers free wine tastings to the general public.)

RACEWAY

  1. Beaches

Sonoma’s best edge over Napa Valley just might be what lies at the edge of its western shore – Pacific Ocean beaches. Rugged cliffs overlook golden sands and  migrating gray whales for more than 55 miles along the dramatic coastline. (In spring the whales are heading southbound from Alaska to Mexico, and volunteers are on hand at Bodega Head to help spot them and answer questions.) Other favorite beaches include Bowling Ball Beach, Goat Rock State Beach, and Salmon Creek Beach.

Bahamas: 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

Welcome!

Welcome!

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? The 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, a constellation of sea stars, and other amazing sea life that inhabited this experience, which felt so much like swimming in one of the aquariums at Atlantis. But better, oh so much better.

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 it 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 on the beach or by the infinity pool that drops off the edge into a mirage of too-beautiful-to-believe water.

For most guests, the highlight of the day is fighting a 20-inch bonefish. For me, during my four-day stay, it was dinner. Executive Chef Owen has worked his way from native Bahamas to Nassau and Italy. He uses local catches – often provided by guests – in inventive ways that meld Bahamian and 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

Your table awaits.

Your table awaits.

At Deep Water Cay, the day starts with hot buffet 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 Morse code.

The tiki bar awaits 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, before repairing to the dining room for something enormously wonderful. They 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 boat break at Sweeting’s Cay for Bahama Mamas? No problem. A shuttle to McLean’s Town for native dinner? What time would you like to leave? A charter 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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Charleston Foodie Fling

Tomato pie.

TOMATOPIE

Dixie Supply tomato pie

I had one singular foodie goal for our trip to Charleston, SC, for the holidays. On my last trip, more than two years ago, I’d successfully sated my shrimp ‘n’ grits cravings. I had eaten my fill of Lowcountry Boil and she crab soup. I had reveled in fine nouvelle Lowcountry cuisine at McCrady’s.All that feasting, alas, had left me with no spare appetite to fit in a wedge of tomato pie from Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe, an off-the-eaten path legend of Charleston’s famed dining scene. And so I dragged my relatives into a convenience store strip where a few tables outside in the parking lot accounts for its best in atmosphere.

Inside, slaloming through other packed and packed-close tables, we made our way to the line at the counter, where we perused a menu of Carolina specialties and more mainstream sandwiches – everything from fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese (a.k.a. Southern caviar) to turkey and brie on a croissant.

My tomato pie would come with sweet potato cornbread, Read more of this post