Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Destin, Florida

Don't adjust your screen settings...the sand really is THAT white!

About this time last year we spent a few days on the Florida Gulf Coast and I put down a few impressions about Panama City Beach (http://disdatdudder.blogspot.com/2010/09/panamaw-city-beach-labor-day-2010.html).  This 4th of July, we drove another hour west, to Destin – a place we’re frequenting at least once or twice a year, since it’s relatively close to ATL.  

Aerial view of the Destin Harbor
I will not bug you with too many details about the place.  It is a nicer vacation spot than PCB, equally crowded, equally pristine beaches and emerald waters, with a slightly more upscale feel to it (not quite as trashy in  my opinion) and a bit more enhanced restaurant scene [albeit, not by much].

Nor will I publish too many pictures, for I don’t want to put myself in a position where I’d have to hire legal counsel to defend my actions… or incriminate myself more than I have already done in the past [in straight English that means we went with a bunch of friends, rented a house for a week, consumed exorbitant amounts of distilled or fermented ‘beverages’ and filled a few pages worth of ‘stories for the grandkids’.  In short, we had a blast – Romanian style!]

The Sandbar just under the Destin bridge is where everyone drops anchor and parties under the sun (yes, those spots in the picture are watercraft of all shapes and sizes)

So, Destin... 

From Ft. Walton Beach [where we stayed a couple of times at the Sheraton on the beach] to Miramar there’s a thin stretch of land that’s been overdeveloped in recent years and fell just as rapidly during the current real estate bust.  Yet, it’s a nice place to visit, plenty of ‘after-hours’ spots [after beach-hours that is] and a few elegant places as well (primarily the complex at Harbor Walk [more touristy] and Baytowne Wharf in Sandestin [a bit classier and well worth a visit]).  On this occasion, however, we didn’t venture out much; only left the house once or twice – except for the girls, who saw plenty of credit-card action at the local outlet mall J

A couple of highlights worth noting in this particular trip: the Big Kahuna Water Park [mandatory day trip on Sophie’s birthday] and a boys’ outing 45 minutes offshore in search for some fresh red snapper.

Years ago we took the kids to the local amusement park.  Bumper cars, mini-golf, rides going in circles, the usual… This time, the water park next door was on the agenda.  For the owners, it’s gotta be a veritable cash cow: fairly expensive [for what it has to offer] and by the looks of it none of the gate fees makes its way back into improving the place.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen an amusement park with so much rust, peeling or faded paint, and inefficient layout.  Not to mention the lack of organization or capacity control… But the kids have fun, and when one’s on vacation, these little things are easier to overlook.  I do have to say one thing though [in typical direct Adrian fashion]: if your body ‘volume’ completely stops the flow of water down the tube, or once seated a small crane is required to lift said body out of the inflatable ‘raft’, one should seriously reconsider their choice of beachside entertainment…

The free-for-all at the end of the river rapids ride
A day earlier, Captain Rocky took six of us on a 4-hour deep sea fishing expedition aboard the ‘Sure Thing’ out in the Gulf of Mexico.  The weather was perfect, and the water surface calmer than I’ve ever seen it before….which was a good thing, considering that any ‘choppiness’ coupled with the amount of booze ingested the night before would have been counterproductive to say the least…

Trolling for mackerel or bonito was not a viable option (too hot near the shore) so we went further in for red snapper.  Within a couple of hours we had 12 reds [overfishing the species limits the daily catch to 2 16-inch-or-longer per person] 3 scamps [a type of sea bass], one yellowtail and a rare black snapper.  Not too shabby, especially since only two of us experienced this type of fishing before!   Dinner that night was amazing…

So there.  Three or four days in Destin would always give you plenty of options.  For us, it’s always nice, since we have a few close friends who live in the area.  Watching the 4th of July fireworks from the beach, along with another 40+ friends who made the drive south was a nice added bonus on this occasion!


Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Weekend in Boston

Aaaah…. Boston.  Beantown.  The Hub (of the Universe).  The Cradle of Liberty.  The Athens of America.  The Walking City.  Whatever name you choose to go with, there’s certainly a character to this metropolis that entices anyone from history buffs, to sports enthusiasts, foodies and scholars… pretty much anyone with an appreciation for how America evolved (and in this case conserved) over the years.

It seems like “the first”, “the oldest” is still present around every corner and well blended in with the new.  There are 17 and 18 century buildings and churches still standing tall (and well preserved) among modern structures.  Newbury Street – Boston’s answer to Rodeo Drive – is a prime representation of this, with essentially every luxury retailer, elegant cafés and beautiful churches lined up in a harmony of color and style.   Then there is the Old Town, where skyscrapers – although clashing here and there with the old edifices – bring a sense of continuity to it all…

 Newbury Street - shops and old churches

The neighborhoods are just as unique, yet well-blended into the city’s canvas: from the North End (where it seems you’ve instantly left the States and are deep in the heart of southern Italy), to ‘old-money’ and affluent Beacon Hill, or the equally vibrant and upscale Back Bay, to ethically-mixed South End, Chinatown (although not one of my favorite when compared to San Francisco, LA or NY), the Financial District and the Waterfront, it just seems like you’re visiting seven cities at once, although most often you’re just rounding the corner only to be surprised by an entirely new perspective!

 Beacon Hill
 South End - Union Park
Old State House with downtown skyscrapers in the background

Did I also mention the water surrounding the city on 3 sides?  Charles River and Massachusetts Bay, tying it to the Atlantic?  The city claims the oldest industrial and fishing port in the Western hemisphere.   Anchored in the Boston Inner Harbor, in Charlestown, USS Constitution is the oldest (1797) – and still active – vessel in the U.S. Navy.  The cadet giving us a tour didn’t fail to mention ‘her’ 32-0 undefeated record in battle (outstanding when you compare it with similar records from the likes of the Bruins or the Celtics… hi,hi,hi).

 Boston Harbor
 USS Constitution
...the galley

And just down the river, in Cambridge, the oldest and most famous higher learning institution: Harvard University (1636).  Beautiful campus, I might add.  With MIT just minutes down the street (and a few other top-notch schools in the area) Boston attracts the brightest minds (and ‘fullest pockets’) when it comes to education.  The pedigree extends way back to 1635 and the oldest public school in America: Boston Latin School, which among its alumni counts the likes of Ben Franklin [whose statue is erected on the site of the old wooden school], Samuel Adams and John Hancock. 

Harvard - welcomes you with open doors (if you have the money or the brains)

Other notable “oldest or first” sites in Boston:
  • The subway (opened in 1897)
  • The Public Garden (1837) – oldest public park (also containing the world’s smallest suspended bridge)
  • Fenway Park (1912) – oldest sports arena in the U.S.

Images from the Public Garden with George Washington on a horse and the famed swan boats 

But enough with the intro and stats.  Is a weekend enough to take in the city with all it has to offer?  Barely.  Unless you travel with me and brought a good pair of walking shoes!  So let’s go:

Tourist ‘traps’ abound – of course – but it’s part of the deal.  Union Oyster House – the oldest restaurant in the States, which opened in 1826 – is one of those.  The Kennedy clan frequented it (JFK allegedly had a booth there) and Louis Philippe – king of France – lived upstairs while in exile here in 1796.  The building itself dates back to 1704.  But one can avoid the long lines and find better food elsewhere.  Ditto for Faneuil Hall.  Souvenir carts and shops, food stalls, the whole ‘tourist-friendly’ arsenal…  But too crowded for my taste.  Maybe it was just the light drizzle who prompted everyone to run for shelter…   

... and back in the day
The Union Oyster House today...

Faneuil Hall

Across the street, another busy setting around the Aquarium on the waterfront.  Tour boats of all sizes and shapes, a few more restaurants and gift carts.  At the Chart House (another 1700’s building that had a musty and faint barn-like ‘aroma’) we did finally ‘break-down’ for a big lobster, amazing bisque and excellent chowder.  When in Rome…

Another 5-10 minutes’ walk from the Long Wharf and you’re in the North End neighborhood.  They might as well call it ‘Little Italy’, for everything on Salem and [especially] Hanover Streets screams ’Italian’.  Quaint little restaurants opening onto the sidewalk [where patrons often wait for an open table], authentic cafés serving the best Italian espresso and gelato, and the ever-present ‘nonni’, puffing on cigars and acting like they own the place.  This is the oldest neighborhood in Boston, and although many ethnic groups claimed it as their ‘home’ over the years, the Italians clearly define it today.  Sunday service in Italian at St. Leonard clearly attests to that.

In terms of restaurants, they are all highly rated and I imagine the kitchens are run by old Italian ladies who put a lot of soul into their cooking.  We were drawn to this area every day, had some great pasta dishes, but the pizza at Antico Forno was just simply phenomenal.  Very close – if not better – to what I had at John’s on Bleecker years ago in NY.  And for desert, Mike’s Pastry – a Boston institution in its own right – seemed to be “the” place, judging by the line that perpetually stretched around the corner, regardless of time of day.  But the wait for the best cannoli I ever had was well worth it.  No wonder everyone was walking around with a string-tied box of southern Italian goodies.     

Check out the line outside the pastry shop... and the guy's smiling at the cannoli pictures on the wall!

The only slight regret was not being able to get into Neptune Oyster – a tiny restaurant that claims the top spot for bivalves and lobster rolls.  The no-reservation policy coupled with the hour-and-a-half wait didn’t sit well with the hunger pains at the time ;-) … as an alternative, B&G Oyster (this one, equally small but in the South End) was on the menu for late lunch next day.  The oysters were very fresh with a dozen different options available, but the lobster roll did not live up to expectations.  Average at best :- (

Paul Revere and the North Church
But back in the North End for a second.  Paul Revere’s house is up there (which I didn’t really care for) but we did swing by the North Church, where they hanged the two lanterns announcing the arrival of the Red Coats.  Now, call me ignorant, but this Revere guy is considered such a hero of the Revolution when all he did was ride up to Lexinton to bring the bad news.  Two others [William Dawes and Sam Prescott, the latter being the only one who actually made it to Concord, where the militia arms were stored] had similar journeys, bearing the same news, but since they weren’t immortalized in Longfellow’s poem, they barely receive any historical credit for their efforts.  So with all due respect for the likes of Samuel Adams, John Hancock and the American Revolution, I just can’t get into the whole Paul Revere deal… If it wasn’t for him, any of the others would have brought the news to Lexington anyway.  Oh, and of the 3 mentioned above, Paul revere was the only one captured… ‘Nough said…   

Regardless, as I mentioned earlier, history buffs would have a field day – literally and figuratively – in ‘The Cradle of Liberty’.  Everyone else would enjoy it equally, for it has so much to offer.

 The Public Library
Capitol Building
Downtown and the Theater District
An Episcopal church on Newbury and The Trinity Church
 Downtown view from across the Charles River
 The Liberty Hotel - a former county jail - provided an interesting stay...

...and a couple more views from the harbor: