Tag Archives: holiday

Thanksgiving in Miami

Today I’m completing the triple – the last part of the grand tour of the East Coast of the US!

As much fun as it was to spend a decent amount of time in New York and Washington DC, these are not places noted for their warm weather in November, so it was off to Miami’s South Beach for a week, staying at the super-fancy SLS South Beach hotel. This is a recent addition to the city, but based in an old art deco building which once housed the Ritz Plaza. It’s quite something to wake up in the morning to be greeted by the inviting blue waters with the sun shining brightly. I defy you to look at the picture below and not be jealous!

I’d love to say that I could write lots about daily cultural events and sightseeing, but the reality is that most of the time was spent lying on the beach, swimming in the sea, walking around South Beach’s art deco historic district, eating, drinking and buying souvenirs. In my defence, there was a lot of cultural activities up north, so beach life was perfectly acceptable by this stage. The food was also pretty darned good – in particular, I loved the SLS hotel restaurant Bazaar by José Andrés, where the patatas bravas were superb, and the great Escopazzo restaurant, which offered a superb vegetarian tasting menu with wine pairing. Extravagant, yes, but wonderful food.

One of the reasons that we ended up mostly staying in South Beach and doing nothing more challenging than choosing between beer or a margarita is that you need a car. It’s not just that Miami is a fairly car-friendly city, it’s that all of Southern Florida makes having a car pretty much essential. South Beach is on an island, and you can walk everywhere, but if you want to go a bit further afield, you’ve either got to rent a vehicle, take taxis, or brave Miami’s public transport system, and as we had no ride, that made exploration a little challenging.

However, we were keen to check out Calle Ocho (8th Street) in Little Havana and the Miami Design District. So we decided to do it by public transport. Yes, public transport. From our perspective, the buses looked quite cool, with their 80s neon Miami Vice style livery and on-board airco. However, many Americans (i.e. those with cars) looked at us like we were utterly mad. Maybe we were naive, but the main problem with trying to get anywhere using a bus was simply that it takes a long, long, long time for something to turn up, then another long, long, long time for you to get anywhere.

Anyway, after a long, long, long trip, we got to Calle Ocho, but Little Havana turned out to be a little less exciting than I had hoped, but I put this down to the fact that it was a cool, cloudy Tuesday morning, so hardly the riot of Latin culture that you might expect. Perhaps Saturday evening after the sun has been beating down all day means the place is alive? Nevertheless, I managed to score a jar of Cuban dulce de leche and find the Gloria Estefan star on the Calle Ocho Walk of Fame. Then another bus back to Downtown Miami. This was also slow, but those Cuban grannies all look pretty awesome in their designer sunglasses.

Afterwards, I did something I’d been tipped off about years ago – downtown Miami has a driverless elevated train that whizzes around the towers, and it’s free to boot. It was quite fun after the sloooooowness of the bus from Little Havana to practically fly around the city and it offers some great views. After checking out superyachts at the seafront, it was a short taxi ride up to the Miami Design District. Sadly, they were gearing up for a major event, so a lot of places were closed for remodelling. However, I managed to pick up some quite fun Christmas decorations and an earthenware fox from the Jonathan Adler store, all of which seemed suitably OTT to represent Miami in my Christmas box.

The other “big trip” of the week was with a friend who lives just north of Miami to Delray Beach on Thanksgiving, and then on to a dinner with Cuban friends in the evening. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve seen so much food! There was a huge turkey covered in bacon, massive trays of mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with nutmeg/brown sugar/marshmallows, greens, cornbread…. I managed a small portion of the veggie goodies, and have to admit the sweet potatoes were pretty amazing, although I could not quite bring myself to eat them with the marshmallows. It was a great night, and we were honoured to be invited to join in with a special celebration.

Other than that, it was a week of palm trees, sun, sand, key lime pie, swimming, flip flops, ice cream and cold beer. I could really get used to these extended holidays! Hope you’ve enjoyed the pics, and normal (foodie) service should resume shortly.

And with that, back to real life in London!

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Holiday Time – the Island of Mallorca

Ah, we’re just finished what seemed like back-to-back public holidays, so of course, that meant that it was also time for a bit of a getaway. I left London behind (with the intention to return in time for the Royal Wedding) and spent a week on Mallorca, with most of the time in the north of the island, and a couple of days in the southern capital, Palma.

If Mallorca doesn’t say anything to you, you’re either (1) not from Europe; or (2) not living in Europe. It’s the largest of the Balearic Islands, off the eastern coast of Spain and in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Mallorca (mah-york-a) is famous for it’s clear blue seas, sandy beaches and some rather notorious tourism – which is why we all know it. Well, that last one is not entirely fair. Mallorca has made huge efforts to go all posh, and now boasts exclusive upmarket villas and offers a lot to the more discerning visitor. Yes, time to put away the bucket and spade and think traditional foods, local drinks and some interesting places to visit.

Now, let’s be honest. I expected to spend the best part of the Easter weekend on a beach, reading and eventually retreating to the shade of the pine trees that line the coast when I had had too much sunshine. But…that was not to be.

The weather was, for the first three days, what we like to call “changeable”. This meant it changed from mist to cloud to rain, and then occasionally the sun would make an appearance. Meanwhile, it was pushing 30 degrees back home, which I knew because my friends were sending emails of themselves basking in the sunshine of Hyde Park.

However, I had rented a car and headed inland to see the mountains. One of the most surprising things about Mallorca is just how varied the landscape it – high mountains in the west (with precarious roads that need to be navigated very, very slowly!) to inland plains and sandy beaches. In the extreme north, the coast gets very rugged, with dramatic rock formations jutting out of the sea. As you can see below, the coastlines are many and varied.

In my view, one of the most spectacular parts of the island is the Cap de Formentor, where a truly tiny road snakes through pine forests up to sheer cliffs and on to the lighthouse at the end of the island (bottom two pictures). Quite breathtaking.

Breathtaking, and rather alarming to drive along! Thank goodness the car was about the smallest and most nimble on offer in the rental place. There was no chance of getting a BMW or a Hummer round those hairpin bends! But you need to get up into the hills to see some of the most spectacular scenery and some truly beautiful monasteries and churches. Well worth it.

With the mountains explored, and still very grateful for the tiny car (which turned out to be small enough to park anywhere in the most narrow streets imaginable), it was time for a bit of a change of scene. It wasn’t getting beach-hot yet, so we headed inland to the area known as Es Pla (literally “the plain”).

This is the fertile, agricultural heart of the island. Bumbling around the small towns that dot this landscape, I managed to mangle everything in Spanish as well as the local Catalan. It might look easy written down, but I got pretty tongue-tied, and soon discovered that a big smile and mastery of gracias will still get you pretty darn far. Say it in Catalan (gràcies) and you get a little further. Interesting!

So what are the foody highlights? Mallorca is known for its almonds (the flat, sweet, round variety). These are recorded as far back as Roman times, and even today there are many varieties that are apparently unique to Mallorca. Boom time came when the island’s vines were affected by the phylloxera plague  more than 100 years ago – farmers moved over to almonds, and a new industry took off. Almonds make appearances in perfume, as well as a tasty cake – gató d’ametlla – made with almonds and oranges, and served with almond ice-cream. It’s big, fluffy and delicious.

Another, perhaps more glossy, sophisticated and modern item is sea salt, which is produced in the south of the island around Ses Salines. This is what the locals call flor de sal, literally “sea blossom salt” which is prepared by filtering sea water, and leaving it in outdoor “lakes” and allowing the hot sun to do its work. The crystals are then harvested as they appear. This salt is valued for its higher-than-usual mineral content, and comes all packed in rather attractive, modern packaging (like these). What’s not to like?

Nearby Menorca also makes one rather major claim to fame – that mayonnaise was invented there and is named after its capital, Maó (formerly known as Mahón). Salsa mahonesa. See it? Of course the French don’t agree, but I like the Spanish version of events. In any event, Mallorca today has a very tasty garlic sauce, allioli, which tastes sublime with patatas bravas. So tasty that I didn’t care how much I stank of garlic.

And no piece about Mallorcan food is complete without the ensaïmada…but more of them another day. I’m sure you can guess what I’m up to.

Yes, the Es Pla area is really rather lovely, and here, amid the corn, oats, fruit orchards, olive groves…rather excitingly…you see a lot of vineyards! Wine! Yes, Mallorca makes wine!

As Mallorca is not so large, it doesn’t produce the huge amounts of wine that are needed for bulk production and export. However, there are some decent types, and it’s worth doing a little exploration and trying a bit of the local production.

We popped in to Bodegues Ca’n Ramis in the pretty town of Sencelles, and also picked up a few bottles of the award-winning AN/2 wine from Anima Negra. But perhaps most exciting of all, in one restaurant, I spied a bottle of white Merlot from the Son Prim estate.

I asked the chef for a wine recommendation to go with the meal, and he suggested another Mallorcan white, but I couldn’t resist asking about this white Merlot. Would it go with the dish? He was rather taken aback, said that it was actually his first preference, but that as it was quite unusual, he didn’t think we would like it. So much so, that he even said we could send back the whole bottle if we didn’t like it. Happily, we took the plunge, and it was great. It had a very apparent richness, a sort of buttery quality and depth of flavour that you don’t (or I don’t) usually associate with a white wine. Lucky this was also on sale in a wine shop, so I’ve now got a bottle hidden away at home.

If all that wine isn’t quite enough, at the end of the day and after all that wine tasting, you can also sit back in the heat and enjoy a glass of pomada made with a type of gin from the neighbouring island of Menorca….but more of that some other time (again, you can guess…). Suffice to say, to many can be dangerous.

Around the rest of Es Pla, it’s just a case of pottering around and taking in pretty villages, cafés, restaurants and fields of fruit, vegetables and goats. The attractive town of Artà is home to many artists, and the beaches along the bay of Muro are long, sandy and go from dunes into a bright blue sea. Really, picture perfect.

Later in the week, the sun did finally make an appearance, and it became proper beach weather. While Mallorca might heave in the middle of summer, it is perfect in April. Long stretches of sand, not too busy, and (realising that this is sounding repetitive) lots of bays with clear, azure water. Swimming was….possible, but it did take a while to get acclimatised to the still somewhat fresh waters of the Med. The old story – chilly at first, but fine once you’re in.

The area we stayed in was a little on the touristy side, but it was a hope, skip and jump (or, more accurately, 5 euro in a taxi) to the incredibly scenic town of Alcúdia, which boasts a couple of lovely squares and a clutch of very decent restaurants. This was all the more amazing given that this was not all that far from some of the more extremely “all inclusive” tourist traps. I find it odd that people sometimes don’t want to venture just a few more minutes to somewhere more pleasant, but it’s nice to feel a little smug as you are sitting on a shady plaza sipping the local drink.

And to round off the trip – all that time in the countryside, by the sea and in small towns was nice, but I had to spend a couple of sun-soaked days checking out the Mallorcan capital, Palma. It’s a pleasant place – the skyline is dominated by the cathedral which juts out of the old town. There are plenty of leafy avenues and grand buildings with high-end stores and a large number of bakeries selling ensaïmadas. And, rather helpfully, it’s got a lot of very classy bars for a drink in the evening (such as the excellent Nicolás on Plaza Mercat), as well as lots of good restaurants. The up-and-coming neighbourhood of La Ljota has some interesting places to eat, which tended to be rammed with locals as well as a few more adventurous tourists. I also popped in to the Mercat Olivar, which the guide book dismissed as being of no interest, but it was a treasure trove of little shops and stalls selling just about any item of food you can imagine. I’ve got a little something from there I’ll post shortly, but let that be a lesson – the guidebook often ain’t right!

Much to my delight, the trees all over the city were also sporting jaunty little oranges. I always find it amazing that they are left handing on the trees, as they look so tempting, and are just asking to be picked. However, I did restrain myself from taking them, just as I managed to resist reaching over the fences of houses all over the island and taking lemons from their trees. Can’t imagine that a little Mallorcan granny would have been too impressed to see my hands reaching over her garden wall…

And finally, something that is bound to appeal to animal lovers out there.

Mallorca seems to have a very, very big number of cats. These creatures seem to be everywhere. Towns, countryside, shops, cafés, tourist hotspots, church steps…all lazing around in the sun, and tolerating the occasional pat from a passing visitor.

All in all, a great little trip. Now, can you guess what sort of things I will be blogging about for the next few days? Hmmm…

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Holidays I – Umbria and Milan

You may or may not have noticed that there have been no posts for a while. This is not because I have given up, but I have been on holiday in some rather rural locations, and thus there has been no access to internet access(*). Funny that even five years ago, getting online while you were on holiday was not a big issue, but now that I am the proud owner of a wireless laptop and an iPhone, I really feel that one of my main connections to the outside world has been severed. A little dramatic maybe, but it feels true!

All of this down time means, of course, that I have had ample time to do things aside from blogging. My first week was spent in the Italian region of Umbria, to the north of Rome (the “middle of the boot”). The capital is the hilltop city of Perugia, but this are is perhaps best know for the picture-perfect town of Assisi and her most famous son, St Francis. The area really does look as you imagine Italy to look – fields of olive trees and corn, fig and walnut trees dotted across the landscape, magnificent Renaissance churches. All the agriculture and the newer buildings are on the flat, fertile valley floor, while older towns are perched precariously on the top of hills. I kept thinking about how people actually built these places, with nothing more than horses, donkeys and carts to bring tones of stone up there. Quite amazing to see.

The weather has been hot (35 degrees hot!) with the occasional thunder storm to break the heat. Air conditioning is not something that seems to be a big part of Italian construction in older buildings, so I just took my lead from the locals – take it easy during the day, avoid too much hot sun, eat a lot of ice-cream and then wait for the evenings to sit outside and enjoy la doce vita. When in the car, it was quite funny to pass through towns that by day looked like time had forgotten them, only to see them come alive with a riot of noise once the sun had set. Whole families out enjoying the warm summer evenings.

As someone who has not really travelled much in Italy (just Venice, Milan and Rome), I was struck by just how, well, Italian these people are. You will see two old Italian farmers sqeeze into a tiny (and I mean tiny) van driving corn to the market. People really do seem to ride those little, chic, 1950s retro cars. There are gelato shops everywhere. And everyone is wearing designer shades. Teenagers, priests, grandmothers. And above all, the Italians are some of the friendliest people I have ever come across. If they speak English, they will happily speak to you for ages about the food they are selling, and if they don’t, they still appreciate you making a bit of an effort. If you’ve got the time, learning some phrases as you travel to Italy will pay off.

So what did I like? Perugia was a nice city, but Assisi was the absolute star. More or less pedestrianised and very well preserved. Stunningly beautiful, and with very friendly people. The ice-cream was, of course, good and the weather perfect. What didn’t I like? The ubiquitous mosquitoes, but they are a bit of a problem all over Europe, so not really something I can hold against Italy specifically!

After this stay in Umbria, we travelled by train up to Milan, with a one hour layover in Florence (enough time to be very efficient, dashing to the main square, looking at the cathedral, buying some cakes from a fancy pastry shop and running back to the station).

Milan in August is two things. Hot and closed. As I was only there for the night, this was not such an issue, but it was clear that most of the locals just avoid the heat altogether, just heading to the lakes by the Swiss border or down to the coast. But for one night, after being in the countryside, Milan was great. Just stroll around the small streets and the large boulevards, eat ice-cream and partake of the local early evening custom, a drink and aperitivo (a buffet of snacks). Many bars offer a selection of these nibbles at the end of the day to which you can help yourself – bruschetta, courgette with parmesan, crudités, etc. We had ours at La Bicyclette, and to accompany this little selection I took an Aperol spritz. At the moment I have no idea what Aperol is, other than this is some sort of Campari-style spirit which is mixed with prosecco and sparkling water. It is luminous orange, but delicious and very drinkable. Thereafter, the evening was spent down by the canals at a pizzeria, before heading to a hotel by the impressive Beaux-Arts Milano Centrale station to get a good night’s sleep before catching the train to Basel.

(*) As I write, I am sitting at the farm of the owner of the house we are renting in France. I am surrounded by a range of poultry in all shapes and sizes. The owner seems to think his chickens need wifi rather than his guests. Ah, la belle France!

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