Back To The Florida Keys? (In 4 Parts)

When I was a kid growing up in the Northeast more than a few years ago, I thought Florida was the promised land, paradise and the most exotic place I could imagine – all rolled up in one. I was in my twenties before I ever made it there but I had long dreamed of turquoise water, coral reefs, palm trees and warm tropical weather. Later I visited Florida a few times on business and on a vacation and my dreams remained intact. About forty years ago we relocated to Ft. Lauderdale with a job. While there are more than a few people who don’t care for Florida, we loved it.

At the time we moved to Florida, Ft. Lauderdale airport was a single, one-story cinderblock building with twelve parking meters out front. The movie “Where the Boys Are” was still inspiring spring-break college students to the degree that we wouldn’t even try to get to the beach during spring-break because of the traffic and mobs. By late June each year many neighborhoods were all but abandoned and restaurants, if they were open, had few customers. Jump ahead a couple of decades and things have really changed. More business meant more employees. More employees meant more families and that meant more children and all that meant a growing year-round economy. Things were changing and not all for the better.

When I was in the Navy I was a diver and fell in love with coral reefs. In all the forty-eight mainland states only Florida offers coral reefs. If you’ve never glided over or thru a coral reef you have missed one of life’s great experiences and you should try it as quickly as you can. Many people plan trips to tropical places for the beaches and warm water but for very little extra money and effort a coral reef is only a short swim away.

The main attractions in Florida are fishing, boating, beach-combing and diving. Everything is focused on the water. After we moved to Florida, for a number of years every Sunday morning would find us at the beach. It started with breakfast and the Sunday paper, progressed to beach combing and sunbathing and ended with an onshore dive at a nearby reef. It just didn’t get any better than that.

Soon we discovered the Florida Keys and now we had a get-away place for weekends. In those days summer was the best time to go to “the Keys”. Like the rest of Florida, summer was off-season and hotels were cheap. As Florida residents we could frequently find deals at four star hotels that included breakfast and dinner for two for less than a hundred dollars a day! The Keys were everything we loved about Florida and more.

Just recently we spent a week in the Florida Keys. With the exception of Key West it has been over ten years since we’ve been in the Keys and that was way too long. Last September hurricane Irma rolled over the southern Keys as a category four storm. That explains the question mark in this title. Category four hurricanes are incredibly destructive and it always takes time to recover. Part of this trip was to see what progress has been made. This post is presented in four parts:

  1. An Introduction To The Florida Keys
  2. Key West, A Different Sort of Place 
  3. Where to Dine In The Keys (coming soon)
  4. Is It Time To Visit The Keys Again? (coming soon)


Seattle’s Pike Place Market



Seattle’s Pike Place Market

Many cities have farmers markets and open-air venues where growers and craftsmen sell their goods. Over the years many have become local institutions and some boast regional reputations but there is only one Pike Place Market.

When you come to Seattle some time at the market is a must. On our first family visit to this city we spent an afternoon at Pike’s Place Market. We visited the aquarium, my wife bought flowers and we left with a bundle of steamed Dungeness crab for a feast back at our hotel. We’ve been to Seattle a number of times since and have always made time for a visit to Pike’s Place.

Pike Place Market has been a part of Seattle’ story for a long time. Leading up to the summer of 1907 the rapid growth of the city had produced a system of wholesalers who had taken control of the buying and selling of fisherman’s catches, farm produce, dairy products and dozens of other commodities. They had over the previous years driven retail prices up in the boom-town while reducing their wholesale costs. The situation was growing out of control when Seattle City Councilman, Thomas Revelle put forward a proposal where the city would create a public market where fisherman, farmers and citizens could come to sell and buy goods directly in an open market.

Beginning on August 17, 1907, crowds of shoppers seeking fish, produce and hard goods flocked to the new marketplace. In just weeks, dozens of sellers were gathering daily to sell along the created road named Pike Place.

Frank Goodwin, who had made a fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush, began building the permanent structures that make up the Market and it continues today as a thriving and exciting place to visit and shop along the Seattle waterfront.


Hendersonville North Carolina Hits It Out Of The Park

I’m not sure why we selected Hendersonville to stay. We were on a trip around the North Carolina mountains and it was in the neighborhood of Asheville and Chimney Rock. It also had two wineries with good reviews nearby. It was probably the wineries that sealed the deal…

For a small town Hendersonville North Carolina hits it out of the park. Main Street is what every town should aspire to. The main business district is probably ten blocks long and each block has its own public space. Most include planters and outdoor tables and chairs. We’re not sure what the locals do in January but in the summer they dine alfresco along Main Street. This strip of town offers a number of highly rated restaurants, a couple of coffee shops, an excellent bakery and several attractions that include a shark aquarium and a mineral museum (this is mining country).

We’ve run across cities decorated with brightly painted statues in a number of places that have featured cows, horses and dolphins and they seem to add something to scene. Hendersonville has bears. Perhaps a couple of dozen spaced up and down Main to good effect.

Main Street also has its own Mast General Store  and if you haven’t visited a Mast Store you are in for a treat. The Mast Store dates back to 1883 where it opened in the small community of Valle Crucis, which is now North Carolina’s first rural historic district. According to the owners traversing its creaking floorboards, you’ll find country gourmet foods, cast iron cookware, speckleware, old-fashioned toys, footwear for all walks of life, hardware, and even a pair of galluses, if you need them (and candy – lots of candy). For a number of reasons, most of them good, The Mast General Store has expanded throughout the Carolina mountains and is a tourist destination all in itself.

We spent the afternoon visiting two wineries, Burntshirt Vineyards and Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards  both worthy of a little time. We really liked the dry rose at Burntshirt and took some home with us. Also Burntshirt has a cafe and tasting room in Chimney Rock about a little over an hours drive north.

After checking into our hotel we discovered that the town had a free rock n roll concert and Corvette show that evening down on Main Street (every Friday in summer) which ended up topping off a pretty good visit.

If you are looking for a recommendation on where to eat – this is the Blue Ridge Mountains and home to arguably some of the best barbeque anywhere. We had dinner at the Flat Rock Wood Room, which had an extensive menu and really good pulled pork. We also were recommended to Moe’s down on Main but truth is we’ve been pleased with North Carolina barbeque almost everywhere we’ve gone.

In the future if you find yourself poking around the Carolina mountains add Hendersonville to your itinerary – you won’t be disappointed.

A Few Days In Florence

Above: Ponte Vecchio Bridge

If you are visiting Italy you should not pass up a visit to Florence, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region. From many Italian cities, including Rome, it is easy to reach Florence by express train for an extra night or two stay.


Michelangelo’s David

The city is the birthplace of the Renaissance where Michelangelo carved many of his masterpieces and where Dante Alighieri lived and the Medici family ruled. Galileo lived in Florence most of his life while Donatello, Giovanni Boccaccio and Leonardo da Vinci are also on the list of notable residents. It is difficult to stroll the narrow streets and cross the many piazzas without feeling that you are walking through history. Add that to the museums, art galleries, shops, cafes and great restaurants and it is impossible not to fall in love with Florence.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore

Last year we caught a train up from Rome and walked the few blocks from the Santa Maria Novella train station to our hotel, the Hotel Mia Cara. We enjoyed our stay at the  Mia Cara and it was right on the edge of the historic center of Florence making it convenient to walk to many nearby points of interest. The famous Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore), Ponte Vecchio bridge, Uffizzi Gallery, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens are only short strolls away. If you are an art lover and are interested in history, this is the perfect Italian destination because there is so much to see and it is mostly located in a concentrated area.

Piazza della Repubblica

Ten recommended destinations:

  1. Gates of Paradise, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1425 – 1452) at the Museo del Opera del Duomo (originally the doors of the baptistery)
  2. Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael (1513 – 1514) at the Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery
  3. The Medici Palace, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1445 – 1460) near the Church of San Lorenzo
  4. The David, Michelangelo (1501 – 1504) at the Accademia (a copy is also in the Piazza Signoria)
  5. Primavera, Sandro Botticelli (1482) at the Uffizi Galleries
  6. The Perseus, Benvenuto Cellini (1545 – 1554) Piazza Signoria
  7. The Florentine Pieta, Michelangelo (1547 – 1553) at the Museo del Opera del Duomo
  8. The Slaves, Michelangelo (1525 – 1530) the Accademia

    Dante Alighieri
  9. The Mosaics in the Baptistery, (1240 – 1300) Baptistery in Piazza Duomo
  10. Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael (1513 – 1514) – in the Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery

There are a series of three walking tours detailed at the web site Walking directions are provided along with background information on the art and sites along the way and even suggestions for good places to enjoy coffee and gelato as you stroll.

Mercato di San Lorenzo

Shopping opportunities are everywhere in Florence from street markets to exclusive shops. The city is famous for its’ leather as well as jewelry and embroidery. Check out bargains at the Mercato Nuovo, a leather and souvenir street market as well as Mercato di San Lorenzo for food specialties. Not to be missed is shopping on the Ponte Vecchio bridge and the small shops near the west side of the bridge.

Street vendors

Stretching between Piazza Duomo and Piazza Repubblica is Via Roma featuring Florence’s main department store, Rinascente along with Gucci, Cartier, Hugo Boss and many more premium shops. The home of Florence’s up scale designers is Via Tornabuoni. This street spotlights many of the famous fashion houses, as well as historic churches and plazas. Near Via Tornabouni, are Via Porta Rossa and Via della Vigna Nuova, offering more upscale fashion shopping.

While in Florence take time to sample la dolce vita (the good life) with frequent stops at sidewalk cafes for cappuccinos, gelato and wine. One of Italians favorite pastimes is sitting at cafes and watching the world go by.


From Florence you can take a quick side trip to Pisa. It is only a short train ride away with trains leaving about every half hour or so from Santa Maria Novella train station. The Regionale Veloce trains are the ones making this trip, which takes about an hour each way with ticket prices about $10. From the station in Pisa the cathedral and the leaning tower are only a moderate hike away. There are also numerous organized day tours outside the city at reasonable rates that include a day trip by train to Cinque Terre, a beautiful seaside town south of Genoa along with bus tours into the Tuscan countryside.

Animal Kingdom Lodge at Walt Disney World

Animal Kingdom Lodge

Observation patio with fire pit

Our favorite hotel inside Walt Disney World is Animal Kingdom Lodge. We have traveled all over the world and have enjoyed stays at a number of resorts and with only a few exceptions, besides Animal Kingdom Lodge, have we really considered the resort the actual destination.

The Animal Kingdom Lodge is truly unique. Disney has made ever effort to offer the guests of this hotel a real taste of Africa. Most of the rooms look out on the savannah where you regularly catch sightings of giraffes, zebras, wildebeests and any number of exotic birds. The hotels grounds and decorations offer a genuine sense of being in Africq.

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The two main restaurants Boma and Jico take great care to provide an authentic taste of African fare while still provide a refuge for more traditional pallets. In addition staffing at the hotel also brings in groups from Africa, usually for a year contract, to provide guests with insight into the cultures and environments of their home countries. During a stay you will find a number of special events from lectures to night-vision sessions watching the animals.

In addition Animal Kingdom Lodge is also a deluxe resort with the additional benefit of being located inside Walt Disney World with all it has to offer. Unfortunately it is also one of the highest priced hotels on the Disney property with a standard room normally priced between $500 and $600 a night – still a lot cheaper than going to Africa.

For restaurants the family offering is Boma, a buffet restaurant offering a selection of “tastes” of Africa. Jico is the fine dining experience featuring food with an African heritage and a wine list of exclusively South African wines. There is also Sanaa next door at the attached Kadani Village Villas offering a menu of Indian cuisine while gazing thru windows onto the savanna.

Asheville Heart of the North Carolina Mountains

Tucked away in the western North Carolina mountainDowntown Ashevilles is a city of remarkable blended cultures. Its roots are firmly planted in the Appalachian soil tilled by early Scots-Irish settlers. Clogging and bluegrass are still at home here in its lively music scene but so is jazz and rock n roll.

This mountain city is an interesting blend of cultures and traditions. Partly it’s streets seem like a refuge for the hippies of Haight-Ashbury but is also home to a number of stunning architectural gems as well as enchanting districts of winding streets, mixed in with shops, restaurants micro breweries, hip wine bars and galleries of mountain arts and crafts.

Downtown AshevilleWelcome to Asheville, the mountain city, home to one of America’s greatest and largest privately owned houses, The Biltmore Estate. The house was built in the late 19th century by George Washington Vanderbilt II a member of the railroad and steamship dynasty. Asheville is also a major waypoint on America’s favorite national park, The Blue Ridge Parkway which features the North Carolina Arboretum and the Southern Highland Folk Art Center.

After visiting the Blue Ridge Parkway, the mountain gardens, the Biltmore Estate what you realize is that walking around downtown Asheville is just fun. Shopping at the Mast General Store, visiting galleries like the converted old Woolworths store, sampling hand crafted chocolates and having happy hour at a local wine bar all adds up to a great day.

Beer, Hard Cider and Wine Oh My

Part of my families’ history is found in the North Carolina mountains and I remember visiting years ago and finding it almost impossible to find any Downtown Ashevillealcohol to drink. They called them “dry counties”. Well things have really changed. Asheville and the surrounding counties are home to a remarkable number of breweries, hard cider mills, distilleries and wineries:

  • Asheville Brewing Company – boasts a large list of craft brewed beer.
  • Archetype Brewing – West Asheville’s newest.
  • Asheville Distilling Company – located right next door to Highland Brewing.
  • Ben’s Tune Up – is an interesting spot is downtown with house brewed beer and sake.
  • Blue Ghost Brewing Company – just outside of Asheville offers a range of micro brews and barbeque.
  • Blue Mountain Pizza and Brew Pub – in Weaverville offering homemade ice cream, food and small batch craft beer for over 20 years.
  • Burial Beer – a micro brewery and a local favorite.
  • Brother Joe’s Coffee Pub – serving coffee by day and beer at night is the brewing location for Thirsty Monk in South Asheville.
  • Bhramari Brewhouse – located on the South Slope with good beer and good food.
  • Catawba Brewing – South Slope with live music.
  • Eluvium Brewing Company – a new Weaverville brewery.
  • French Broad Brewing – specializing in European Ales, with music three nights a week.
  • Green Man Brewing – known as the Green Mansion featuring Dirty Jacks, Green Man’s original tasting room.
  • Ginger’s Revenge – Ginger’s Revenge located on the fringes of the Asheville River Arts District specializes in alcoholic Ginger Beer.
  • Habitat Brewing Company – Habitat does small batch classic style craft ales.
  • Highland Brewing Co. – Asheville’s first brewery, features entertainment, a rooftop bar, and a meadow for concerts.
  • Hillman Beer – Located on Sweeten Creek Road in Biltmore Village, Hillman offers indoor and outdoor seating and entertainment.
  • Hi-Wire Brewing – located half a mile from Biltmore Estate.
  • Lexington Avenue Brewing – offers a variety of very good beers in downtown Asheville on Lexington Avenue.
  • Mills River Brewery – offers a wide selection of craft beers.
  • New Belgium – located in the Asheville River Arts District is the second location for a Colorado micro brewery.
  • Noble Cider – Asheville’s first hard cider company, Noble Cider specializes in craft cider made from freshly pressed apples.
  • One World Brewing – located down an alley in Downtown Asheville.
  • OysterHouse Brewing Company – a micro brewery and restaurant in West Asheville
  • Pour Taproom – Originally started in Asheville, Pour can now be found in Greenville, Charleston, Durham, Knoxville and Santa Cruz.
  • Sierra Nevada Brewery – opened a brewery just outside of South Asheville in Mills River. Features an impressive tasting room and restaurant .
  • Sweeten Creek Brewing – offering food and micro brew beer.
  • Thirsty Monk Downtown – since 2008 on Patton Avenue has three floors each offering a different theme. Also a Thirsty Monk Biltmore Park location.
  • Turgua Brewing Company – located in Fairview, has a focus on making beers featuring locally sourced ingredients.
  • Twin Leaf Brewery – a family friendly brewery on Asheville’s South Slope features beer and board games.
  • Urban Orchard – West Asheville’s first hard cidery offers cider and local craft beers, and light eats.
  • UpCountry Brewing – includes a stage for music, a restaurant, arcade and indoor/outdoor seating.
  • Wedge Brewery– in the River Arts District and Wedge at Foundation near Riverside Station is a favorite in Asheville.
  • White Labs Kitchen & Lab
  • Hop Brewing Company – in Buncombe County operates out of a train caboose.
  • Wicked Weed – Asheville’s iconic downtown brewery is now owned by AB InBev.
  • Zillicoah Beer Company – is one of Asheville’s newest breweries.

Downtown AshevilleThe region also offers a number of very good wineries including:

  • South Creek Winery (2240 S Creek Rd, Nebo, NC)
  • Belle Nicho Winery (525 Patton Valley Dr, Nebo, NC)
  • Silver Fork Vineyard (5000 Patton Rd, Morganton, NC)
  • Lake James Cellars (204 E Main St, Glen Alpine, NC)
  • Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards (588 Chestnut Gap Rd, Hendersonville)
  • Burntshirt Vineyards (2695 Sugarloaf Road, Hendersonville)

Cruise Ports of Call

Often novice cruisers never give much thought to the details of ports they will be visiting. Even experienced cruisers are often so involved with the overall planning of a trip they overlook those important port details.

On our next cruise are there any tender ports? Are there ports that don’t allow walking out? Are there facilities on the pier? Is a port wheelchair accessible? Often cruise ships are not that free with information on upcoming ports of call and it would be helpful if you knew ahead of time if there are going to be challenges.

We’ve begun going thru our trip notes to build a section devoted just to port information and highlights. We hope you find it useful.

Also, If you would like to contribute please email us at

North America
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The Pacific & Down Under