Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Palm Springs

Palm Springs was a mecca of the old-time stars and their mid-century modern homes.  Each time I drive in from Las Vegas, my heart jumps at the sight of the palm trees and windmills with the desert mountains as a backdrop.  This trip, The town is decorated for Christmas, incongruos because of the sunny, warm tropical background.  It was a quick four days of connecting with old friends and making new ones. 

Usually I stay in a vacation rental, but this trip I was in a newly renovated hotel.  The owners had done a great job of recreating the vibe of the Hollywood heyday and I went back in time, pretending I was Lauren Bacall or Joan Crawford, only less cool.

Aruba: One Happy Island

"One Happy Island", that's the first thing you see when you enter the airport and probably the last too. All over the island there are big Aruba signs with a big heart that are perfect for people to pose with. I have to agree. Everyone seems happy, locals and tourists alike. It is one of the most heavily re-visited island in the Caribbean. We were there seven days and I am going to post my daily journal, just as I wrote it while we were there.

 Day 1: In an embarrassment of riches, thanks to my tireless efforts to accumulate free airline miles, we were once again on our way to a tropical locale. Less than a month ago we were enjoying Anna Maria Island in Florida. But I had miles which were going to expire and Southwest had just started flying to Aruba, where we had never been, and I was able to secure free tickets. It took us about 11 1/2 hours from our house to our rented villa, including a change of plane in Atlanta. Renting a whole house is not much more, and sometimes less, than just one room at a hotel or resort, especially when sharing the cost with other couples. In addition, having a kitchen saves money on meals. Our rental house in Aruba has its own private pool, outdoor eating area, lounge chairs and hammock. Aruba Happy Rentals secured a rental car for us, Value, which picked us up from the airport and drove us to their office, conveniently located just five minutes from our villa. After a quick checkin, Happy Rentals met us there and led us to the house located in the private, gated, Washington Gardens area. We were thankful to be driving on the right hand side of the street, unlike some of the islands where we had been. We were so relieved to finally be settled.

I looked longly at the inviting pool just outside the living room, but resisted the urge to jump in and instead obediently unpacked and got organized. The next order of business was food and drink. With trepidation we ventured out for the first time to try to find our way to the huge supermarket we spotted on our way in, Super Foods. We didn't noticed many street signs on the way in and many roundabouts. With relief, we found it with no problem. I was absolutely amazed at the size of this store and the amazing selection of food from around the world, leaning heavily toward Dutch products. What immediately caught my eye were the hanging display of whole Serrano hams from Spain hanging from the ceiling. There was an overwhelming display of cheeses and lunch meats. The bakery overflowed with fantastic loaves of fresh baked, seed covered, loaves of bread and mouthwatering cakes that were a beauty to behold. I could have spent hours perusing the aisles, but it was late and we were afraid we wouldn't find our way back in the dark. Armed with cheese, slices of the aforementioned ham, bread and wine we found our way back and enjoyed a light supper and late night swim in the illuminated pool.

 Day 2: After a relaxing morning we finally got underway and did some random driving to acclimate ourselves to our surroundings. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our rental was very well situated with easy access to many of the things on my to do list. I now feel confident to find our way home from anywhere within a reasonable distance. We wanted to do an early dinner at Bavaria (which we found to be literally 5 minutes away). Alas I neglected to check their hours and they were closed today because it was Sunday. I had no Plan B so we had to wing it. We wandered around looking at menus and decided on Gianni's. It looked very commercial, but pleasant, however nearly empty at 4:00. We had plans to make it to the California lighthouse by 6:00 for sunset, so we went in. Now that we're back home I've had a chance to read some reviews, some of which were not very complimentary. Despite the reviews I must say I was very impressed with the service and the food. It was our plan to eat light today and did what most restaurants frown upon: we split our app of Insalata di Pesce with olive oil and lemon and one entree of fettucine, cream, basil and truffles. They split the fettucine in two bowls and there was so much I couldn't even finish my share. But, boy, both dishes were really, really yummy. Since we didn't even have wine with our meal, the total bill came to only $40 before the tip.

 We still had a little time and topped off our meal next door at Gelatissimo with a scoop of Ferrero Roche gelato. On the way out we spotted a sign for Amore Mio pizza delivery (lobster pizza?? Yum!) and took a card for a possible pizza night later in the week.

As we headed toward the lighthouse I couldn't help but notice how many places there were to pull over and park to get on the beach. We've been to many Caribbean islands but most of their beach access is blocked by private homes and hotels.

We could have parked anywhere along here but continued on to the lighthouse and I'm glad we did. I love amateur photography and lighthouses are always fun to photograph. The sunset was lovely and we chatted with some delightful people we kept running into during the day.

 Day 3: There were massive rains this morning, resulting in some flooding on the streets, making driving on some of the back roads somewhat challenging. Our pool was filled to almost overflowing. But it was still warm outside and rather soothing actually...but definitely not a beach day. Instead we drove to Alhambra Casino and tried our luck at the slots. We found our favorite machine, and walked out a few hours later $65 richer. Not bad for penny slots.

I was surprised they even offered free drinks. Alas, it was too early to take advantage of that.

We made up for it later at a fantastic little treat at the end of the day. I had made reservations at Madame Janette's a month ago online. Some comments had indicated it was out of the way and hard to find. Amazingly it was 5 minutes from our villa. The food, the service, the music were all fantastic.  We opted for the goulash soup and pork schnitzel and washed it down with authentic German beer. The garlic bread and scalloped potatoes were so delicious. Everything was seasoned perfectly. The schnitzel was so enormous it covered the entire dinner plate, just like in Austria.  I mentioned to our server he should tell the chef it was just like my hometown in Austria. He told me the chef was from Austria too!

 As we were leaving he came out of the kitchen to meet us. We had a fun conversation and reminisced about Austria. He asked if we'd had dessert, Kaiserschmarren, typical to my hometown region. My mother always used to make it. we declined, saying we couldn't eat another bite. In fact, we had 2/3 of our dinner in a doggy bag.

We made our goodbyes, stopped at the front desk to make another reservation for Friday and went to our car. Just as we were leaving we saw our Chef, Boris, running toward our car with a bag in his hand. I rolled down the window and he gave me the bag, saying he wanted us to have the special dessert of the day, Kaiserschmarren. I will never forget that as long as I live. Much later that evening we tasted the dessert and it brought back memories as well as tears to my eyes, remembering my mother. God bless you, Boris, for that very special moment.

The casino was calling us. A good escape from the heat of the midday. Just as the previous day we headed to Alhambra and just as the previous day our favorite slot game was good to us. We walked out a few hours later with an extra $30. Seasoned gamblers willi laugh at us, but we play penny slots and are unwilling to lose more than $20 a day for each of is. That's our limit. We had our beach chairs with us and went in search of some sand. Hubby wanted to be around people so we headed to Moomba. It took is quite a few wrong turns and asking directions several times before we finally found their parking lot. It's behind the Marriott, on a nondescript sidestreet next to Palm Beach mall. I didn't see a sign on the road for Moomba. Maybe we missed it.

We found a shady spot to set up our chairs and settled in for sunset, which didn't disappoint. I couldn't count how many sunset pics I have taken in my lifetime, lol. Back at the villa, our evening meal was leftovers from the gigantic schnitzel dinner from Madame Janette's the night before. Unbelievably, there was still some leftover for yet another meal. 

Day 5: Nothing much to report today. We spent most of it at the house, in the pool, reading and watching TV. We had an electrical problem: some of the lights and the fridge stopped working. We discovered it the night before. I was very impressed with Aruba Happy Rentals and their timely response. One of the owners, Albert, actually came over at night with an extension cord for the fridge and an electrician showed up in the morning. He determined that it was a problem with the city's equipment and they promptly arrived shortly afterward. The problem was solved. Very impressive on everyone's part.  We went to Madame Janette again for dinner. It is starting to feel like family there. I had brought a little thank you gift to Boris for his kindness a few nights ago and he was surprised and grateful. I was eager to try some of the dishes many of you had written about, so we went with the bang-bang shrimp, lobster ravioli, almond crusted grouper and tenderloin Gianni Versace. All lived up to the reviews and my expectations. We were to be back one more time, on Friday, to experience their first-ever Oktoberfest. Knowing Chef Boris's Austrian background, I was certain it would be a unique and authentic experience.

Adding to the twinkle light ambiance of the evening, the entertainment for the evening was Rene Kannegieter, whose voice reminded me very much of Sting. And he did sing Sting, McCartney, Eric Clapton. At my request he beautifully sang my favorite song "What a Wonderful World." I could have listened to him all night. Music is his night job. He is a schoolteacher by day. I'm sure he is good at that as well.

 Day 6 and 7: The longer we are on vacation the lazier I am getting. All I want to do is eat, sleep, go in the water, gamble a little and repeat! We did take a drive to check out Baby Beach. It is a long way to go and, although it is a very pretty cove, I think the water and beaches in our area are just as nice. I guess if you are a snorkler, that would be a good place to do it. The road takes you through San Nicholas and past the oil refinery. On the road leading to Baby Beach, in the middle of nowhere, we saw a little old man selling candy, his only company a lone chicken.

 I stopped to take his photo and gave him a few bucks to thank him. He didn't speak, or maybe didn't speak English, but he had a sweet smile on his face. It was very hot and all we could think of was to get back to our villa and the pool. So on the way back we drove through Oranjestad, but didn't stop to explore.  Our last night on the island we went back to Madame Janette one last time to experience their first ever Oktoberfest. The food was beyond great, just as before.

In retrospect,  summarizing our feelings about our Aruba vacation: we were very impressed! I liked that we could speak English, use our American money, drive on the right, the weather was great (despite a little rain here and there), no hurricanes, a wonderful huge supermarket and it's not exhorbitantly expensive, like some islands. The people were helpful and friendly, service was very in large part good and efficient and the casinos were an added plus. What's not to like? I can understand why it's one of the most re-visited vacation spots in the Caribbean. It's a Happy Island indeed.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Aruba: Welcome to Happiness

This is the short version of our trip.  My next post will have the daily journal I kept while we were there if you want to read more detail.

In our exploration of Caribbean islands, we have been to St. Barts, St. John, Virgin Gorda, Nevis and Curacao.  Aruba was next on the list.  It is part of the Netherlands Antilles island chain called the ABC islands: Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao.  When Southwest Airlines began service to Aruba in August I tried to book our flights using miles and was successful.  Then began the search for the perfect rental house.  We found Washington Gardens Villa through Aruba Happy Rentals and the trip was locked in.

I love flying over the Bahamas because the water and islands from the air are surreal.  I always sit glued to the window with camera in hand.  It is God's abstract handiwork.


We were drawn to this island because of its English speaking friendly people, beautiful beaches, driving on the right, we could use American money and, although we are not gamblers (we dabble in a bit of slots), casinos.  We picked up our rental car and found our way to the villa.  We were immediately in love.  Walking in the door, we could immediately see how clean and new everything was.  And best of all the whole wall of sliding glass doors leading directly to the inviting pool.

Another reason I was impressed by Aruba was the great variety of good restaurants and the best island supermarket I have ever seen: Super Food.  It sure lived up to its name.  We loaded up on Dutch cheeses, lunchmeats and breads.

Months before our trip my research alerted me to what was reputed to be the "best" restaurant on the island, Madame Janette.  It was suggested to make reservations long in advance to ensure a table.  I made reservations, not realizing that, conveniently, our rental house was just a few blocks away.  We awaited our visit with great anticipation.  We arrived on a balmy evening and were seated in a charming twinkle-lit backyard.  Relaxing live musical entertainment enhanced the atmosphere.  We were surprised that some of the menu was comprised of German dishes:  goulash soup, schnitzel, apple strudel.  We decided to try the goulash soup and pork schnitzel.  

To my amazement, it was better than any I'd had in my childhood home (my family comes from Austria), or even food I'd had in Europe itself.  I told our waiter as much, saying I was born in Graz and asked him to compliment the chef for me.  Our waiter said, "Our chef is from Graz!"  On our way out we met the chef, Boris and reminisced about the old country.  He wanted to buy is drinks, but the portions had been so huge we couldn't manage anything else.  Then he asked if we'd had dessert, saying he makes "Kaiserschmarrn", a dessert my mother used to make all the time.  We told him we'd have to have some the next time.  On our way out we stopped at the desk to chat and made another reservation.  In the parking lot, just about to drive away, we saw Boris running toward us with a carry-out bag and the Kaiserschmarrn dessert.  

Much later that evening we could resist no more and enjoyed the best dessert.  His Kaiserschmarrn was drizzled with Austrian Stroh rum, powdered sugar and surrounded with fresh fruit.  

We ended up eating there twice more and each time Boris treated us to either free drinks or free dessert or both.  If we lived there, I'm sure we would be very frequent guests.

It was a week of relaxing, eating amazing food and enjoying the blue sky and bluer water.  There is something about palm trees that makes me happier than almost anything else.  I'm very fortunate that we have had many opportunities to relax under them often in many wonderful places.  People ask which was our favorite vacation.  Choosing between them would be like choosing a favorite child. They are all different and wonderful in their own way.  I loved Aruba because it was modern, clean, safe, not overly expensive, easy to get to, we can use American money, the people are English speaking and it has all the comforts of home.  That isn't always what you are looking for on vacation, but in this particular case, it was perfect.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Anna Maria Island

We were blessed to be able to fly to Florida for a long weekend and found a great little rental that suited our purposes perfectly.  Anna Maria is "old Florida" with white sand beaches on the Gulf of Mexico and the most amazing sunsets to be seen anywhere.  The Sandbar Restaurant is the place to be at sunset, where you can eat great food and have a drink with your feet in the sand. 

Lizzie Lu's Rentals had availability at their "Flip" duplex just a 5 minute walk to the beach.  We could have walked to the Sandbar, just one mile away.  We loved the retro look of the cottage, complete with brand-new olive green appliances. So much thought went into the decor and layout.  We felt right at home immediately.  But the best part was the very private pool, accessible directly from the french doors in our bedroom.  We felt like we were in a tropical oasis, surrounded by lush palm trees and plantings.

I love to ride and they provided me with a bike, a lock and a helmet to use during our stay.  The island is very bike friendly and I was able to easily explore a different area every morning.

There's nothing like sitting on the beach at sunset, listening to Jimmy Buffet music, enjoying a glass of wine and feeling the balmy breeze on your face.  Ahhhh.......

View the complete photo album here: