Trattoria Mario, Florence

Most people think pasta when it comes to Italian cooking but actually Italy has a number of regional cuisines. Tuscan and Florentine diets trend heavily toward cold sliced meats, grilled meats, lots of beans, soups and stews. With the exception of lasagna, pasta is usually done as a side dish or a casserole in Florence. Because Florence has become such an international city and a huge tourist destination many of the restaurants have put together menus that fit the visitors expectations. One small restaurant in the central city that doesn’t fit that description is Trattoria Mario.

If you are looking for a great value in good authentic food in Florence, Italy check out this gem. A local trattoria with an international clientele, owing its popularity somewhat to a bit of encouragement from Trip Advisor reviewers. It is located at Via Rosina, 2r, 50123 just a short walk from the Basilica di San Lorenzo.

The restaurant is cozy and if crowded you will probably be sharing a table if you are a small party, but that is part of the experience. While there we overheard several tables talking in several languages. The restaurant has the feel of a neighborhood place with a staff that is friendly and efficient. The dishes are prepared with skill and are mostly priced between €5 and €8. The menu is hand written and taped on the kitchen window and as the chef runs out of an item he comes out and strikes thru it. Inexpensive splits of local wines are also available.

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Antigua – Something for Everyone

Technically, the country is Antigua and Barbuda but Barbuda is lightly populated and rural. Antigua and Barbuda became an independent state on November 1st, 1981 and is a member of Caricom, the Caribbean Common Market . The currency is the East Caribbean dollar (EC$) but US dollars are gladly accepted.

History buffs will love exploring English Harbour and Shirley Heights. In the eighteenth century English Harbour was a base for the British Navy and headquarters for the fleet of the Leeward Islands. The Heights had a garrison and fort commanding the high ground above the harbor. English Harbour was developed by Horatio Nelson in the eighteenth century and included Nelson’s Dockyard to service the fleet.

After closing in 1889, the dockyard has now been completely restored and it is the only Georgian dockyard in the world. Shirley Heights can be reached via a lookout trail and, from its’ height of 492 feet, provides views of Guadeloupe and Montserrat. Dow’s Hill Interpretive Center is located along the trail and offers a presentation of Antigua’s history. Observation decks at Dow’s Hill provide sweeping vistas of the harbour and surrounding islands and the ruined fortifications of Fort Berkeley are nearby.

Sailboat people know English Harbour as the site of Sailing Week, one of the Caribbean’s premiere sailing events each year. The event is so popular that accommodations are hard to come by and some people plan years in advance to attend. Even if you aren’t a sailboat person, the weeklong party is an overall great time. Accommodations in the English Harbour area include The Copper and Lumber Store Historic Inn, Admiral’s Inn & Gunpowder Suites and the Antigua Yacht Club Marina Resort nearby in the Falmouth area.

If you are looking for tropical beaches it is said that you can visit a different beach every day and not start over again for a whole year. There are a number of resorts to pick from including the longtime favorite Halcyon Cove just north of the capital of St. Johns. South along the coast are Keyonna Beach Resort and Jolly Beach Resort. At the other end of the island is The St. James Club, an exclusive all-inclusive property that has been a popular resort for well-to-do English tourists.

If you are looking for insight into life in Antigua and aren’t looking for a beach location, try staying in the middle of St. Johns. The Heritage Quay Hotel is frequented by business travelers and is located near the waterfront. It is on Heritage Quay a popular shopping and duty free district, near King’s Casino and not far from Redcliffe Quay, a tourist shopping, craft and restaurant area. Nearby is the cruise ship pier which can be very congested on days that ships are in. St. Johns also offers the Antigua Museum and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. A short trip from the city is Betty’s Hope, a former sugar cane plantation.

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Singapore

Most people, when they talk about Singapore, speak in superlatives but, the simple truth is, mere words just aren’t enough. We flew to Singapore on United 1 from San Francisco a seventeen plus hour flight

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Gardens by the Bay

and had booked a room at the Grand Mercure Singapore Roxy in the heart of the historic Katong District.

The hotel is halfway between the airport and the Marina Bay District and offered a free airport shuttle. The facility is

China Town

modern, the rooms are comfortable and the staff is friendly and helpful. A great buffet breakfast is offered and, depending on the category of stay, may be included in the rate. The location is near shopping malls (Parkway Parade Shopping Center is across the street) and restaurants and just a few blocks from East Coast Park.

After walking to the park, you are amazed by the view out to sea. It looks as if half the ships in the world are either anchored just off shore or are cruising by. Looking at a map you will notice that the South China Sea is blocked to the east by the Southeast Asia peninsula. The first opportunity that eastbound shipping has sailing from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and all the other nations of the area is past Singapore and thru the Straights of Malacca (also sp. Melaka). That’s a lot of cargo bound for Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India all moving right past Singapore. That may also help explain why this city-state has become so rich and important.

The stories about the strict laws and their enforcement are mostly true. It seems that even chewing gum in Singapore is against the law because the government thinks it messes up the streets. When you arrive in country, your immigration form explains that selling drugs is punishable by death. While civil libertarians may be shocked, the obvious result is one of the most modern, safe and clean cities we have ever visited.

English is an official language taught in all schools along with Malay, Mandarin and Tamil but almost all signage is in English making it easy to get around and find things. The city boasts a world class rapid transit system, the MRT that is easy to access, purchase tickets for and understand. The system offers an all-day ticket but we found it cheaper to purchase roundtrip fares to specific destinations. The cleanliness is also striking. No graffiti anywhere and you could probably eat off the floors.

Singapore boasts dozens of world famous restaurants and clubs, a Universal Studios theme park, one of the world’s great zoos, a water park, aquarium and two botanical gardens, the newest and most spectacular being Gardens by the Bay. Almost everything can be reached via the MRT or an inexpensive taxi ride. The city also boasts a Chinatown and a Little India which offer inexpensive shopping and eating options.

Singapore is home to a number of Hindu Temples  because of the Indian labor brought in by the British when they established a trading post in the early nineteenth century. The oldest, Sri Mariamman Temple dates back to 1827. The Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple is located on Ceylon Road, a few blocks from the Grand Mercure Roxy. It was built by the Sri Lankan Tamils for the Hindu God Ganesha.

While not a destination for bargain hunters because of the high cost of living, the city is home to a number of malls and department stores along with high-end specialty shops. Singapore shows off with a modern skyline and one of the newer additions is the triple towers of the Marina Bay Sands. This complex features a hotel, a casino and 170 plus premium brand stores capped by a connecting roof garden floating at the top. It is home to a number of restaurants operated by the likes of Wolfgang Puck, David Myers and Gordon Ramsay.

The popular symbol of Singapore is the Merlion, a lion with the body of a fish. While there are supposedly a number of local legends about the history of the Merlion the truth is it was created for the tourist board in the sixties as a marketing tool. The official symbol of Singapore is a red graphic of a lion’s head.

Photos top to bottom: Singapore skyline at night, Gardens By The Bay, Chinatown, ships at anchor, MRT map and train, Botanical Gardens, Figure at Hindu Temple, Skyline featuring Marina Bay Towers


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Yellowstone, An American Treasure

We spent a couple of years trying to plan a trip to Yellowstone. One of our primary goals was to spend some time at The Old Faithful Lodge. It turned out that getting reservations there is a very difficult thing to do. It is almost impossible to book directly with the lodge, because as soon as the booking season becomes available, it is virtually sold out. The Park Service suggested we book through a broker where you pay a non-refundable fee. We then found out that some travel friends of ours had booked a trip through Yellowstone with Caravan Tours the year before and really enjoyed it. After speaking with them, we decided to give this a try, our first land tour.

Crazy Horse Memorial

The tour we booked started in Rapid City, South Dakota, and visited Mt. Rushmore National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, Devils Tower National Monument, Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, Yellowstone National Park, the

Mount Rushmore

Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole and ended in Salt Lake City, Utah. After leaving the tour in Salt Lake we rented a car and spent a week on our own visiting Moab, the National Parks of Arches, Canyonlands, Capital Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion. That gave us a good perspective to compare the two experiences.

Devil’s Tower

First, an overview of the tour. Caravan provided accommodations each night, a modern and comfortable motor coach that accommodated 48, a driver and tour guide, admission to all parks and attractions, breakfast each morning and occasionally other meals. Suitcases were tagged and placed inside our hotel room each evening and picked up outside our room in the morning.

The tour started with a meet and greet with our guide Greg on Wednesday at the hotel in Rapid City. The next day we boarded the bus and headed for Crazy Horse Memorial and after that stopped at Mt. Rushmore. Neither of these sites were on our bucket list but,

Little Big Horn Memorial

afterwards, we are glad we visited. Back in Rapid City that evening the town was hosting the first street concert of the season (Thursday evenings) which was a nice surprise.

The next morning we headed west with stops at the Devils Tower and the Little Big Horn Battlefield. The Devils Tower is a natural wonder and truly an impressive formation (think Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The Little Big Horn site offered a historical perspective on the 1876 battle. The Custer National Cemetery was on the same property. Next stop was lunch at the historic Sheridan Inn and a talk on Buffalo Bill. We spent the night in Billings, Montana.

Yellowstone Canyon & Falls

Between stops, one of the interesting aspects of the tour was our guide playing historical or informative DVDs relating to the places we were visiting. Greg also shared his knowledge and thoughts in a running commentary throughout the trip.

Day four of our journey was dedicated to the main

Mammoth Warm Springs

event, Yellowstone National Park. If you have not visited Yellowstone, no matter what you have heard cannot do it justice. Our first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs where we encountered some elk and walked trails around the hot springs where mineral deposits form terraces down a hillside. After a few brief stops, including iconic Yellowstone Gorge, called the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone with Yellowstone Falls we arrived at the Old Faithful Lodge for a two night stay. Shortly after checking in we got to watch our first Old Faithful eruption.

If you intend to visit Yellowstone, the first thing you need to recognize is that the park is larger than the state of Delaware with just nine hotels and a few campgrounds inside the park and reservations difficult to come by. Most Park visitors stay at motels in Jackson Hole or West Yellowstone so a lot of time is used up getting in and around the park. As summer advances so do the lines of cars so getting up early becomes a necessity. Also, if you get into the park late, the parking lots for a number of featured areas can be gridlocked.

Old Faithful Lodge

The Old Faithful Lodge is a historic site sitting in the middle of the largest concentration of geothermal features in the world. We were told that half of the world’s active geothermal features are located within one mile of the Lodge. The Lodge is an impressive building with a grand lobby standing five stories high. The guest rooms, however, are primitive by modern standards: no air-conditioning, television or wifi, with spotty cell service and a real 1950s look. Ours had one double bed with a small bathroom featuring a pedestal sink (not much room for toiletries). The real draw is simply the location.

The afternoon we arrived, just outside our window, was a bull bison and, looking down the hill past the general store, there was a steaming field of vents with various geysers going off frequently. Every evening in the main lobby there was live music and, weather permitting, a fire in the massive fireplace. Food is available in the main dining room (menu & buffet), the lobby bar which served light fare like bison burgers and chili, and a deli. Near the main lodge there is a country store with counter service until 5 o’clock and a large cafeteria a short walk away. Between the lodge’s front door and the cafeteria is the Old Faithful geyser, currently putting on a show about every ninety minutes.

 

Jackson Hole

After checking out of The Old Faithful lodge we stopped at Lake Yellowstone on our way to the Tetons National Park followed by a night in Jackson Hole Wyoming. The next day we headed off to Salt Lake City with a stop at the Oregon Trail Center.

The Tetons

We both felt as if we had gotten our moneys worth with this tour. We saw sights we may have never visited by ourselves, met some great people, traveled in comfort and spent time at all of our wished for destinations. We would highly recommend Caravan Tours and their Yellowstone trip.

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Visiting Alaska’s Denali

Above photo: First look at “The Great One” Mt. Denali and the Alaska Range.

Seals on Resurrection Bay
Onboard the Wilderness Express

We visited Denali as part of a cruise-land package. Many travelers enjoy this combination of cruise and land tour as it is a comfortable way to visit this part of Alaska. We took the cruise from Vancouver and then traveled overland by train and bus. If we were to do it again, however, we would do the opposite. It would be much better to spend a number of days touring and then have a wonderful seven nights to relax and be pampered on the cruise ship.

We disembarked our cruise in Seward where we visited the Alaska SeaLife Center and then enjoyed a Resurrection Bay Wildlife Cruise. Seeing the variety of wildlife, dolphins, birds and animals was amazing.

In the early evening we boarded the Wilderness Express which took us to Girdwood where we spent the night at the Hotel Aleyska. It is our understanding that some cruise lines offer train service all the way to Denali but the Celebrity package did not. The trains are made up of glass domed observation cars with a dining room on the lower level. The cars themselves are actually owned by the various cruise ship lines.

On the second morning of our adventure we took the Alyeska Tramway to see the views from 2,300 feet above the valley. We had time for some hiking and took lots of pictures. In the early afternoon we boarded our bus and spent the next night at the Marriott in the city of Anchorage. While in Anchorage we spent time at the downtown market and had a light meal at a wine bar, Crush Wine Bistro. The following day we spent most of the time on the bus getting to Denali with a stop for lunch in Talkeetna. We also got our first good views of Mt. Denali (McKinley).

We arrived late in the afternoon at the Denali Visitor Center where we took the Discover Denali Tour, a 1.5 mile walk and stop at the Visitor Center familiarizing us with the park and all it has to offer. We spent the night at the McKinley Village Lodge (now Denali Park Village). The next morning we embarked on the tundra wilderness tour, sponsored by the Park Service, with approximately 8 hours on a bus dedicated to enjoying the scenery and wildlife and learning the park’s history. There were lots of photo stops and a “bag lunch” was included.

If you are planning on going to Denali on your own it is important to understand three things. First, the park is vast and has very little in the way of rest areas or visitor centers. Second, the park generally does not allow private cars far beyond the entrance and visitor’s center. Lastly, you need reservations to take the park operated bus tour and they book up weeks, maybe months in advance. Visiting Denali is not a casual process and considering the vast distances crossed in Alaska, you need to make your arrangements months in advance.

A Dall Sheep

The highlight of this whole trip was the day touring the park. The scenery is inspiring but so is the very desolate and wild character of Denali (map). The focus of the tour is the wildlife but that too needs some explaining. Area wise, Denali is our largest national park. It encompasses about 9,492 square miles (larger than the state of New Hampshire) and most of it is without roads or even trails. The animal populations are much smaller than most would expect. There are only 70 Grizzly bears per 1,000 square miles. Other census numbers per 1,000 square miles show 131 Black bears, wolves less than 8, and the estimate for the total Denali Caribou Herd was about 2,230 animals. Dall Sheep totals for the park are less than 1,900. Based on these numbers it’s easy to understand that looking for wildlife is the major focus of the tour. We were lucky and saw two grizzly bears, a small herd of Caribou and two different groups of Dall sheep. We also saw many “suicide squirrels” so named because locals think they prefer to die in front of buses rather then face the prospect of a grizzly bear digging them up.

The landscapes are vast and rugged and North America’s tallest mountain, Denali (previously Mt. McKinley) stands above everything. The only problem is that it is shrouded in clouds most of the year, but, even if you miss the “Great One,” the Alaska Range is awesome.

After another night near Denali our bus headed for Fairbanks and our flight home. In Fairbanks you can see and walk under The Alaska Pipeline, visit an interesting history center and see gold mining operations. We love cruising Alaska but this land tour was a truly unforgettable trip.

Photos top to bottom: Featured – Mt. Denali Range, Sea lions Resurrection Bay, Wilderness Express interior, Wilderness Express rounding turn, Approaching the Alaskan Range, Park Service tour bus, Park landscape, Grizzly bear, Caribou, Dall sheep, Park landscape.

St. Croix U.S.V.I.

St Croix: A Different Caribbean

At 84 square miles, St. Croix is the largest island in the Virgin Island group and significantly more rural than the others. The island features a rain forest in its western interior, an arid climate in the east and two historic towns.

The island was a possession of Denmark until the early nineteenth century and boasts a deepwater port at the west-end town of Fredireksted. The port was defended by Fort Fredirek as far back as the mid eighteenth century. A second deepwater industrial port was developed on the south coast in the nineteenth century. The island, along with St. Thomas and St. John was bought by the United States in the early nineteenth century. That means you don’t need a passport to visit and you can bring back five liters of liquor duty free.

Christiansted is the other town on the island and, to us, represents the quintessential tropical waterfront. Christiansted is located on the north central coast. The waterfront is fringed with a boardwalk and small boat docks, protected by a natural reef and a close-in small island. The harbor features sailboats at anchor, crystal clear water and a number of small hotels and restaurants along the boardwalk. Running up from the waterfront is a colonial era town where the stone and brick buildings include colonnades protecting the sidewalks. Most of these buildings feature galleries, shops and restaurants along with a couple of small hotels. Just to the east on the waterfront is the old Fort Christiansvaern operated by the U.S. Park Service. The small island in the harbor is Protestant Cay and features the Hotel on the Cay which is serviced by hotel launches.

For almost thirty years, Christiansted was often our base of operations and we have stayed at King’s Alley, Holger Danske, Caravelle, The Hotel on the Cay, The Danish Manor (now the Company House Hotel) and a number of places which are no longer open, like the Anchor Inn. On a number of trips we didn’t rent a car and spent almost all our time around town or at the beach at The Hotel on the Cay. (You can take the hotel launch over for a fee if you aren’t a guest).

Most of the beachfront resorts are clustered in three or four locations on the island and you really need a rental car to get around. Driving is on the left side of the road which can be awkward because most of the vehicles also have the steering column on the left. Taxis are available but they are expensive. There is also limited bus service and “taxi buses” which have dedicated routes and a flat fare.

The most popular area on the island is the eastern north shore with the centerpiece being the Buccaneer Resort and Golf Course. The Buccaneer has been an institution on the island forever and deserves its’ high marks. A little further along the coast are the Tamarind Beach and Chenay Bay resorts. We stayed at Chenay Bay a couple of times long ago when the cabins were pretty primitive but still everyone enjoyed the stay and the beach is great. Based on current photos and reviews a lot has changed at Chenay Bay.

Crossing the island to the east end of the south shore there are a couple of resorts centered on Divi Carina Bay Resort. We haven’t visited since Hurricane Hugo destroyed the Divi hotels in 1989 but, before that, we did a fair amount of snorkeling along that shore. The reef is close along that area and the coral is impressive.

Another area, which we used to love for its beaches and good snorkeling, is Davis Bay. Located along the western north coast it has always been pretty isolated and primitive but the beaches are some of the best on the island. Some thirty years ago the Rock Resort people built an exclusive resort above Davis Bay called the Carambola Resort but a combination of things, including Hugo, caused the venture to fail. Today it is alive as the Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Resort and, based on location alone, it is worth considering.

On our first visit to St. Croix we rented an apartment at Mill Harbor and it is still there and renting units along with its neighbors Colony Cove and Sugar Beach. While a little out of the way, the beach is nice and the amenities are good.

Back in the day when an associate and I had some time to kill we would drive into the rain forest for a beer and stop at a thatch-roofed shack of a bar with a pig pen attached. In those days you were expected to buy the pig a beer by simply tossing a can into the pen. The pig would pick up the can, raise its head, crush the can and drink. If you got there too late (or early depending on perspective), the pig was passed out drunk. I never knew the places name but apparently it is Montpellier Domino Club and I would bet that that pig is long gone. It has been replaced by a couple of pigs and now seems to be a “must do” tourist destination.

If you are a skin or scuba diver, or just a novice swimmer, one real “must do” on St. Croix is to visit the underwater National Park at Buck Island where the whole island, not just the reef, is the park. Located 1.5 miles off the northeast coast, there are a number of boat tours from Christiansted out to the area and the reef is spectacular. There is also an underwater trail on the eastern tip. If you can convince yourself to take this trip and put on a face mask you will never forget it.

At this juncture we don’t think we can offer much in the way of restaurant recommendations because that scene is likely to change a lot over even short periods of time. Back in the day Friday night was a locals event at Cheeseburgers in Paradise and, that may still be the case, but late night mud pie and Jamaican coffee at the Chart House are long gone. Anyone with recent experiences, we would love to hear from you. We are planning a short visit for this coming January.

While there aren’t a lot of cruise ships visiting some do spend a day tied up to the Fredireksted pier and, if this is how you come to St. Croix, we would recommend that you rent a car and spend your day driving around the island. The scenery is breathtaking with the rugged coast along North Shore Road and Cane Bay Road worth the trip. Along Centerline Road visit the Estate Whim Museum, the only surviving plantation great house in the Virgin Islands. Go into Christiansted for lunch and a walk around and return to Fredireksted via the rain forest on Mahogany Road.

 

Cruising and The Jones Act

Ever tried to book back-to-back cruises and the cruise company says you can’t book it because it invokes the Jones Act? The Jones Act is a 97-year-old regulatory relic instituted during the Wilson administration to protect our maritime industry. The short description says that you cannot transport cargo or passengers between two American ports unless you use ships built in American shipyards, flagged as an American ship and crewed by U.S. citizens. The problem for the cruise industry is America doesn’t build cruise ships any more, it is expensive to flag ships in the U.S. and even more difficult to staff ships with U.S. citizens.

While it is a nuisance for the cruise industry it is a disaster for American business and our economy. As of 2016 there are less than one hundred tankers in the world that meet the Jones Act requirements. Because of this it is cheaper to ship U.S. oil to Europe from Texas than to refineries in New Jersey. What that means is our oil companies import more expensive oil while at the same time we export our oil. While complicated the Jones Act is one of the things standing in the way of our energy independence.

One of the more insane things that happened as a result of the Jones Act occurred during the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Norway dispatched three specialized oil clean-up ships to help with the disaster but the U.S. government wouldn’t allow them to help because of the act.

There have been a number of locations where the cruise industry has wanted to serve the American traveler by embarking in one port and disembarking in another. Hawaii is one of those locations, with inter-island cruises as well as cruises originating on the West Coast. New England cruises and Alaska are two other cruise destinations that would benefit by not having a Jones Act. In the case of Alaska there are a number of popular week-long itineraries that go one way, but because of the Jones Act they are served out of Vancouver instead of the U.S. port of Seattle. We recently wanted to take the last Alaska cruise of the year from Seattle and stay on for a cruise from Vancouver to Hawaii but because we would embark in Seattle and disembark in Honolulu the Jones Act prevented it.

If you are a cruiser maybe it’s time you suggest to your congressman that the Jones Act has outlived its usefulness. Even if cruising isn’t your thing you should still consider contacting your congressman. The Jones Act costs you money at the gas pump by adding one or two billion dollars to fuel transportation costs each year and also prevents economical use of LNG in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guam. Puerto Rico is the most negatively impacted by a number of elements in the act. There are still a number lobbies that fight to keep the Jones Act from being repealed and that includes labor unions, like the long shoremen and law firms that work injuries at sea cases. It has been suggested a number of times that the act could be eliminated for our island territories at least and new laws could be passed designed to cover American labor impacted by the health issues involved. Unfortunately special interests still take priority in Congress over the interests of an uninformed public.

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