Living the Dream on Anna Maria Island

What’s your Dreamscape? Is it an island surrounded by emerald green under a sky of cumulus clouds and blue?

Is living the dream working remotely somewhere over the rainbow where sunsets turn electric in kaleidoscope hues? 

When my children left the nest, I fulfilled an old dream of living abroad. Before the pandemic, I discovered the Clearwater/St. Pete area thanks to my son. He has since fulfilled his dream of moving to the Colorado mountains, and I’ve remembered an even older dream. When I was a child, I wanted to live on the Gulf of Mexico. After the pandemic closed borders, I continued scouting Florida’s western coast (see the series). It turns out that other empty nester/single mom friends have been doing the same. When I learned that Alba Gonzalez-Nylander of AJ Media Services –a friend for over a decade– is one of them, I asked her to join me on this 2nd getaway/project to live like a local on Anna Maria Island and explore what it offers. 

First, a big thanks to Morgan Henderson who invited me to check out her new property 400 steps from the beach. (https://www.floridarentalbyowners.com/listing/2222). Summer 2020 I featured AMI and rented her Bradenton Beach bayside condo (https://www.floridarentalbyowners.com/listing/1321) with my friend, Traci. Morgan was also a guest on my podcast where she educated us on how to own, manage or book (safely) a Florida property. She also showed us how she made remote learning at the beach an amazing educational experience for her kids. Download/stream here or watch here

If you’re looking for a home-away-from- home for spring, summer, fall, or winter break on a beautiful island…  or a new place to land… please watch the video.

I hope, more than anything, you’ll be inspired to remember dreams you’ve deferred and go after them.

To rent Morgan and Dan Henderson’s Holmes Beach condo featured in the video, go here: https://www.floridarentalbyowners.com/listing/2222

To rent the Bradenton Beach condo ( most searched on the Florida Rental By Owners Site in 2020), go here: https://www.floridarentalbyowners.com/listing/1321

The ladies I interviewed have created new lives. So did Alba. I’d interviewed her years ago so I knew of many of her career awards. I also knew when she was 19, she won 2nd place in the Miss Pond’s Cream Prettiest Face in Venezuela and became the first female radio engineer. What I didn’t know until this trip is that while working at the radio station she worked two other jobs– in a production company and media program. Later she worked for a presidential candidate as an audio engineer which allowed her to afford a US university education. Moving here was her dream, and she has been home ever since.   

Alba and Cindy: Empty Nesters Trying On a Beach Home Dream

I learned more on my summer vacation…

I tried to replicate recipes for The Waterfront’s  Hearts of Palm Salad, Columbia’s 1905 Salad, and Marina Jack’s Watermelon Cosmo. Though the ambience wasn’t the same, all turned out well.

But as is always the case with coming “back to reality,” there were challenges waiting. I started a new semester of teaching, had a second eye surgery, and my Mom made a second trip to the ER that led to a week in the hospital. It helped to remember something I’d learned on AMI…

While working on the lanai, I had looked out at the neighborhood houses– pistachio and apricot colors and surrounded by green, green, green. But another afternoon storm was brewing. Palm fronds were twitching in the breeze. I noticed for the first time so many species of palm trees– from the squatty Palmettos to 80-foot Cabbage Palms topped with short shaggy fronts– tufts that look like poodles’ heads. As I Googled more varieties (thanks Susan!), the sky darkened. I hoped the thunder and lightening would pass quickly, but the coconut palms had started gyrating in an apoplectic dance. Remembering a storm that took down a giant oak in our yard years ago, I wondered how palms weather tropical tempests. Then I read that when the wind blows hard on a palm tree, its roots just stretch and grow stronger. 

Later we walked to the beach where sunbeams shot from the bruised clouds. Beauty pierced the black and blue. Light always pierces the dark.

Mom is doing so much better now. Family and friends celebrated my niece’s fairytale wedding. Postponed by the pandemic multiple times, the dream finally happened and was the most perfect ceremony and reception I’d ever seen. 

I don’t like to wait… to wonder when I’ll know for sure what’s next or how I’ll get it. But in the case of moving to Morocco, I see now that moving there was a dream planted in my heart when I was a child, too. These things I believe…

​​Dreams come in a size too big so that we may grow into them. —Josie Bisset 

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.–Henry David Thoreau

I share what I look for in a dream beach vacation or home below because AMI and nearby Sarasota have all. What does your heart desire? What’s your checklist for finding/creating the life you imagined?

Swept Away by Captiva Island’s South Seas Island Resort

Disclosure: A huge thank you to South Seas Island Resort and The Beaches of Ft. Meyers & Sanibel for their hospitality during our sponsored stay. As always, the opinions below are my own.

Disclosure: This post contains an affiliate link to Amazon with no additional cost to the customer.

“What has made the day so perfect? To begin with, it is a pattern of freedom. Its setting has not been cramped in space or time. An island, curiously enough, gives a limitless feeling of both. Nor has the day been limited in kinds of activity. It has a natural balance of physical, intellectual and social life. It has an easy unforced rhythm.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

Never underestimate the healing power of a room- with- a- view of sea and sunrises. Of island sunsets that make strangers friends. Of connecting with family after an unimaginable year. On making a wish on a seashell and feeling like a kid again.

Sunrise seen from our balcony at South Seas Island Resort

Not since we spent a month together on another island in 2016, had Taylor–my adult daughter–and I had a chance to get away together. Because she cares for the elderly, we couldn’t see each other for months in 2020. We’re both vaccinated now, but getting our school and work schedules together–as it is for most families– is a perennial problem. We needed some island time, so we took it. At the South Seas Island Resort on beautiful Captiva Island, we discovered within the U.S. borders a breathtaking part of Florida we’d never seen. Though I did work-by-day and she did school-by-night, our sharing an office with the view and exploring 330 acres of natural nirvana (and beyond) was an escape we’ll never forget. Here’s a few reasons why South Seas Island Resort was named a Top 10 North American Island by Conde Nast Traveler and families return year after year…

(Photos in Gallery Above Courtesy of South Seas Island Resort)

Nowhere else in the US have we stayed this close to the water and seen so much wildlife and sea creatures. The sanctuary has 230 species of birds, such as egrets and the white ibis, bottle-nosed dolphins, rabbits, Cuban anole lizards, and West Indian manatees.

Only in paradise would bunnies live in bushes just around the corner from the bird who lives here. (Unless otherwise noted, photos and videos by Cindy and Taylor McCain).

We loved hopping beaches and cruising shady paths. Sunny Island Adventures offers bicycle rentals for a few hours or the length of your stay to enjoy 20 miles of bike trails.

Taylor and Cindy McCain
deserted beach
Deserted beaches at South Seas Island Resort Photo Credit: Taylor McCain
Blue house and palm trees
Captiva Island Photo: Taylor McCain

This area and neighboring Sanibel Island, which since 1937 has hosted the largest and longest running Shell Fair and Show in the United States, is famous for shelling. It was the inspiration for one of my favorite books, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea where the Gulf of Mexico delivers over 250 types of shells which you can learn more about here. Sanibel Island was featured on the April 2021 cover of Southern Living by the editors as one of The South’s Best Beach Towns. Children love the Sanibel Sea School where every day is a field trip. I eavesdropped on a group exploring the beach by my balcony and not only learned a lot but saw a boy find a starfish in the the few minutes they were there. Offerings for children and adults are here.

We flew into Fort Meyers on Southwest Airlines at the Southwest Florida International Airport located 35 miles from the resort. I’ve been a fan of Southwest for years but because of open seating the fee for early boarding is worth it–especially during high season or if you have a connecting flight and need to get off quickly. We had a great experience with Dolphin Transportation, the largest independently owned fleet of luxury vehicles serving Fort Myers, Naples, and Bonita Springs, who picked us up in a Suburban where I met a fellow writer based in Atlanta and returned us to the airport in a Lincoln Continental. They have bus and van options as well. We didn’t need a car with the trolley and bikes, but the property is so massive–20 tennis courts, 2 community pools (and 17 private ones), 9 dining locations, and other attractions the first day or two you’ll need to use a map and/or the App (which has a Trolley Tracker).

A short drive or ride away are area attractions including J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Lighthouse Beach and the spring training facilities of the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. In addition, the resort is half a mile from downtown Captiva with its shops and restaurants, including the Bubble Room and Mucky Duck.

South Seas Island Resort Trolley Time Photo by Taylor McCain

There are 434 guest rooms, villas, and waterfront private homes. We stayed in one of the 30 newly renovated waterfront suites at North Pointe Village overlooking Pine Island Sound. We appreciated the huge marble bathroom with closets and mirrors– great for two women :), the espresso machine, the wood-inspired floors, comfortable bedding and seating, but forgot to turn on the huge television because we were too busy watching an even bigger world of turquoise waters…coral, blue, and pink skies…boaters, fishermen on the dock, and wildlife from our balcony.

South Seas Island Resort Credit: Taylor McCain

On the bay behind us were rooms overlooking the Yacht Harbor.

For a large family, there are vacation rentals and uber luxurious two-six bedroom Homes of Distinction. Family portraits are available and fantasy wedding venues.

MUST- DOs, MUST- EATS, and A DON’T MISS

Excursion to Cabbage Key

Just 10 miles south of the resort is a tiny island that is old, old Florida at its best. There are no cars or roads–just a few rental cottages where anglers and artists can get inspired. Boaters stop in for breakfast, lunch, or dinner so if alone time gets old, there are always new people to meet. The restaurant is known for its food, a famous customer, and a tradition dating back to the days when fishermen wrote their names on dollar bills and tacked them to the wall for times when they might have no luck and need credit. Behind the bar is Jimmy Buffett’s bill.

You can board the Lady Chadwick of Captiva Cruises at the Yacht Harbor for a one-hour sail to the island. I loved the 70s music and 80s music I heard as we disembarked and headed up the hill.

Dolphin Watch on Lady Chadwick of Captiva Cruises
Cabbage Key Aerial Shot Photo:
Cabbage Key, Florida
Guests have attached dollar bills to the walls of the main dinning room of the Cabbage Key Inn.
Cabbage Key Inn is hopping, so put in your name upon arrival and explore while you wait.
Loved eating on the terrace overlooking the water
Cabbage Key Inn’s Cheeseburger in Paradise
Stone Crab Claws
The Planter’s Punch, Red Snapper, Their Special of the Day, and slaw-Delicious
After lunch, I explored on my own which included climbing to the top of the tower seen here in the background. See the video above for my bird’s eye view.
Ok, when I saw the sign below I decided to take the road less traveled AFTER I went back and grabbed a couple of friends. For someone who considers herself a mermaid, I sadly also have a thing for shark and gator movies 🙂

We learned a lot on the cruise from the ship’s captain. There’s said to be $75000 on the Inn’s ceiling and the $10-$15,000 that falls off each year is donated to charity. I learned that the back bay waters are estuaries for wildlife, fish, crab, oyster beds, and stone crabs which fishermen catch, declaw, and throw them back. Their claws regenerate. I saw where Captiva was split by a hurricane in 1921, destroying farmland there. Other history pertaining to the Native Americans on the barrier islands, to English, then Spanish rule, to Cuban fisheries and cattlemen, some of which is here. I learned the namesake of our boat, the shopping center on Captiva, and some of South Seas Island Resort’s origin. The area was bought in the 1920s by Clarence and Rosamond Chadwick, inventor of the check watermarking process and an opera singer, who made it one of the most successful key lime plantations in the world. In 1961 the Captiva Island Company bought the property for $225,000.

The islands between Cabbage Key and South Seas all have a story–North Captiva which has 11 vacation homes and uses solar power, La Costa with homes run on propane and solar, Pine Island which exports palm trees and has off-the-grid art galleries, and Useppa, base for the CIA during the Bay of Pigs and once vacation escape for Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Shirley Temple, and Mae West. Captiva Cruises offers options for exploring Useppa, other islands and types of excursions.

YOGA

I LOVED doing sun salutations on the Kings Crown Lawn as bunnies bopped in and out of the bushes behind me and boats bobbed past. Ambu Yoga was the best way to start the day and warm up for kayaking later (though Taylor did most of the rowing). If you’re not into yoga, the seaside golf course looked amazing.

Warming up for the Day with Ambu Yoga

MUST EAT

The Harborside Bar and Grill

If you didn’t see the video above, check it out. Our meal there was the event-of-the-week from the Cucumber Smash to the champagne toast to the crème brûlée served beside a fire pit glittering with sea glass. The mixes of their artisan cocktails are hand-pressed and blended, and the spirits infused in-house. A Tennessee girl born in Kentucky, I loved that their focus isn’t rum– as is the case with most island drinks–but bourbon and whiskey. The most impressive presentation I’ve seen was of the The Captain’s Smoked Old Fashioned I had to try. Our server said she did her nails especially for it. 🙂 Another surprise was that the hit of the starters was the Yacht Line Candied Bacon–torched tableside. Other delicious dishes were the Romesco Garlic Shrimp, Kung Pao Calamari, the Cuban Bread, and always my favorite–Spanish Octopus. I had the Mahi Mahi and Taylor enjoyed the Lobster Tacos.

Also the oysters and scallops at Doc Ford’s (see video) are great.

DON’T MISS

THE #1 thing to do at South Seas Island Resort is their signature Sunset Celebration at Sunset Beach. In the video above, singer songwriter Danny Morgan who has toured and played with about everyone from Jimmy Buffett to The Beach Boys, visited the area in the 80s and has been playing to multi-generational crowds since. Rather than wish upon a star, we wished upon a shell as the sun melted into the ocean.

hammock and palm trees
Sunset Beach, South Seas Island Resort Photo by Taylor McCain
Final Sunset with New Friends
Beach dinner by Tacos and Tequila followed by S’mores
Jalapeno Margarita Toast on Sunset Beach

I have only two regrets: One, that a regatta pulled the sailboats from the island. We were excited about taking our first sailing lesson.

Next time. Two, that our time at South Seas had to end.

Anne Morrow Lindberg’s Gift from the Sea

Stay tuned for the Anniversary Celebration of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s, Gift from the Sea, one of my favorite memoirs. I am excited and grateful to be one of the writers invited to work on my memoir on Sanibel Island for this event where she was inspired to write hers–a dream come true.

Silver&Fit International Classes For Travel to Punta Cana, Cabo San Lucas, & Montego Bay From Home

Disclosure: I received compensation for trying the Silver&Fit International class offerings. As always, I endorse only products and services I’ve personally used. I recommend only brands with missions based on values that align with mine. The opinions below are my own. 

Disclosure:There are Amazon Affiliate links below for which I am paid a small amount for purchases. They do not affect the buyer’s price.

 

I do love a beach. Especially now. 

Last week my city, Nashville, Tennessee was frozen for days. Ice, snow and subfreezing temperatures buried cars, stopped garbage trucks, and even cancelled (gasp) my Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods delivery orders. Meanwhile… escape artist that I am, I was beach-hopping. I took a trip to the sunny shores of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Montego Bay, Jamaica; and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic–a country where I lived 2016-17. I traveled by way of Silver&Fit International Series– FREE to the public on Facebook and YouTube

One of the nation’s leading healthy aging and exercise programs, Silver&Fit was created for adults 50+ to live their most vibrant lives. Each daily International Class is filmed in various dream destinations. All classes–Cardio, Strength, Yoga, Dance, Flex and Balance, Mixed Format, Tai Chi– are offered at all fitness levels so my mom can exercise on virtual trips, too. 

The program combines travel, exercise, sunshine, and the ocean–all scientifically to improve mood. As a travel writer, my goal is to not only transport readers vicariously to amazing locations but also to move them–literally–to travel for physical, mental, and spiritual health. Travel can reduce long-term stress, anxiety, and the risk of heart disease. Studies at University of Surrey and Cornell show that even just planning a trip makes us happier. Taking classes from teachers in these locations of beauty can inspire planning an actual adventure there for one day. 

Silver&Fit offers many workouts– including 9 live classes streamed daily on Facebook and YouTube, 6 days per week. Recordings are posted so videos are available anytime, anywhere. Instructors are inclusive and encouraging–suggesting you use the belt of a robe or sand in a bottle if you’re on vacation or at the beach.

I did 30-minute yoga and cardio classes for my first getaways. They reduced anxiety and Covid fatigue, made it easier to keep up with daily fitness goals for 2021, and were fun. 

I enjoyed Stephanie’s International Cardio Class for building strength and endurance filmed in Huatulco, Mexico. I’m thinking my next destination abroad might be Mexico, and I’ve been curious about Oaxaca for awhile. Jump rope could be good for jump starting the morning. The shadow boxing could be great for a burst of late afternoon energy. I’d been needing a pandemic punching bag.

Jumping rope in Silver&Fit Cardio Class

Shadow boxing

I loved Jill’s International Yoga Class –one of the most popular–filmed at Montego Bay. I could blame losing my balance a couple of times on Ella, but I’ll fess up. I hadn’t done a class since last month. It was good to get back on track. Yoga is great during lunch breaks to release stress and strain from teaching and writing in front of a computer screen all day. 

International Yoga With Silver&Fit Instructor Jill on Montego Bay

Silver&Fit International Yoga Class Montego Bay

Stretching and cooling down

My knees greatly appreciated De De’s International Flexibility & Balance Class in beautiful Cabo San Lucas. A classy, career professional, she has worked with athletes and celebrities. 

Wallace J. Nichols, PhD, a marine biologist and author of Blue Mind, found that exercising near water or the ocean can relax the mind even more. I have always preferred walking or biking–really any activity–in an outdoor, beautiful setting VS a gym with blaring music or tvs. Thus, Joli’s International Yoga class, filmed in Mexico at sunrise just a few feet from the tide, was a wonderful workout and gets my Best Beach Experience Award.  

In Marrakesh I became addicted to pool days. Pretty pools are backdrops an added bonus to Kelly’s International Yoga Class in Punta Cana and Joanie’s International Flexibility & Balance class in Montego Bay and. 

Follow The Silver & Fit Facebook Page for weekly and daily schedules as well as Live Stream alerts. There you’ll find an active community that shares educational articles, fun challenges, tips, recipes, and photos. If you try a class, let me know what you think. If you know someone who would benefit from this info, please share. 

Go to ​www.SilverandFit.com​

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#silverandfit #healthyaging #sponsored #something for everyone

Sarasota County, Florida’s Cultural Coast, Offers Best of All Worlds: Part 1

Disclosure:  A big thank you to VisitSarasota for the gracious hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own. 

Please note: Decisions about traveling during the pandemic are important and personal. CDC guidelines are here.  As I do when home, I take precautions, such as choosing restaurants and activities with outdoor seating/spaces, and on planes wearing a mask, sometimes with a shield.  When planning a trip, check for the latest updates on what is open and closed in Sarasota County due to Covid-19 or weather conditions here

In this series I’ll explain just a few reasons why Sarasota County has won so many awards. In 2020 Tripadvisor’s Traveler’s Choice™ Awards ranked Siesta Beach #11 of the Top Beaches in the World and #1 Beach in the US. In 2020-21 Sarasota was named #1 Best Place to Retire and #16 Best Place to Live by US News and Report.  In 2020 Southern Living ranked it #7 Best Beach Town for Retirement. In 2019 Conde Nast Traveler ranked it #2 for the Best Places to Retire and Rent.com named it the #1 Best City for Vegans in America.

Unconditional Surrender Statue, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

I was swept away by Sarasota County on a quick trip there last summer when I saw its beauty and  learned that it is Florida’s Cultural Coast.

I wanted to start 2021 in this sunny place for a brighter year. I especially looked forward to returning after quiet holidays when my family couldn’t gather as usual because Nashville was too cold for us to meet outdoors.

Snowbird friends nest in this area yearly. My sister and brother-in-law spent their honeymoon in Sarasota, and we hope to gather our adult children, cousins, and moms for a multi-generational reunion there one day.  Since I was a child, Florida has been my Happy Place.  My children loved it too. The Destin area is only 7 hours by car from Nashville so many families from here make it their go-to vacation spot.  But over the last couple of years, I’ve been working my way down the west coast. Sarasota County truly offers the best of all worlds—the most beautiful beaches in the country, a welcoming community of locals focused on health and fitness, AND a big city art and culinary scene.

When planning a vacation, we can feel forced to choose between two types we love– exploring a new city or relaxing on a beach. The liberal arts instructor in me likes to nerd-out in artistic centers.

I’ve been moved by paintings in Paris, Amsterdam, Rome… 

The Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida

ballet in St. Petersburg and Bratislava… theater in New York and London…

Venice Theater,  Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

sculptures in Athens and Florence…

The David at The Ringling Courtyard, Sarasota

 palatial architecture in Marrakesh, Venice, and Rome.

Ringling Museum of Art Courtyard, Sarasota, Photo Courtesy of VistSarasota.com

Sarasota County offers all of these experiences. 

Sometimes the free spirit in  me just wants a dozen raw oysters and live music, a transcendent sunset, days spent gathering seashells and crashing on powdered sugar sand. 

Siesta Key Beach, voted #1 in the US, is that place, too.
If you enjoy walking or biking to patios of locally-owned coffee shops and cafes …

Lila, Sarasota

checking out craft beer breweries

Big Top Brewing Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

…or having a cocktail on a rooftop looking down on city lights and an ocean bay… 

Art Ovation Rooftop Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Sarasota County is your place.

Family members have different interests and priorities… shopping vs golfing, playing beach volleyball vs working out, eating vegan vs grilling steak or seafood, exploring nature vs hopping beaches, watching dolphins vs watching the Braves. Here everybody gets to do his or her thing.

Sarasota County also makes the ideal remote classroom. It’s why some parents working from home have moved their children’s virtual learning to Florida’s west coast. Here family bonds over all kinds of field trips–opportunities providing education and wellness for mind, body, and spirit.

Selby Butterfly Garden Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Research shows that just planning a trip makes us happier. Even just a long weekend away can reduce stress. Sarasota is only a 2-hour flight from Nashville and much of the southeast. I flew Allegiant as I’ve done in the past and been very pleased. Last fall Allegiant added 8 new cities with flights to Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport. Other departures include Asheville, NC; Fairfax, VA; Louisville, KY; and Knoxville, TN. 

Below is my 3-day itinerary of starting 2021 in Sarasota County. Please check out highlights in the video below. 

The Pineapple Drop  was cancelled but should be back to bring in 2022. Ubers were booked for the weekend. I had better luck scheduling ahead with Lyft. Other than wanting to stay longer…like a month…a year…I wouldn’t have changed a thing. 

(Those I recorded in video removed masks  for interviews only).

Day One
Arrive in Sarasota County at SRQ Airport

Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Check In Art Ovation Hotel, Autograph Collection 

Art Ovation Hotel  is located in downtown Sarasota, the heart of world-class culture and cuisine.  Florida Studio TheatreSarasota Opera House  , other venues and Main Street are steps away. The boutique hotel itself celebrates and inspires creativity with exhibits of contemporary artists throughout.  I felt at home the minute I stepped out of the taxi when I heard salsa music playing throughout the lobby and Overture Bar where rotating art exhibits represent global cultures. Cuban art was in the spotlight  while I was there– inspiring workshops, the menu,  and the playlist.

Upon arrival I was given a guide inviting guests to ten events over the weekend including the New Year’s Eve party on the rooftop, tours led by cultural curators of art galleries throughout the property, live musical performances by Motown and jazz artists, and the weekly Vino Y Arte class where a local artist paints live, then teaches participants her/his techniques as they sip wine and create masterpieces of their own.

Art Ovation Hotel Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Sarasota Opera Production of Romeo & Juliet Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Florida Studio Theatre, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Lobby Lounge

 

The hotel provides courtesy bikes and beach chairs. After the New Year’s Eve party I was tempted to grab a cabana poolside but instead took a bike to my yoga class, to lunch, and to check out the neighborhood.

The staff are consummate professionals. They were gracious and helpful with ordering a quick breakfast in the room, scheduling rides, and  and providing insider tips on venues for Latin dance. My King Guest Room was on the 6th floor with  a view of the city lights. In addition to luxurious bedding, walk-in shower, and bath products, in each room is a ukulele for  find your musician within. Their commitment to inspiring creativity extends to all ages, even after you’ve returned home.

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9 pm Dinner at Columbia Restaurant

Since taking a quick spin around St. Armands Circle last summer, I was on a mission to eat at this award-winning institution. Being there on NYE was a real treat. Columbia’s, founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., has additional locations in Tampa, St. Augustine, and Clearwater.  It has been owned and operated by 5 generations and is  known as Florida’s oldest restaurant, the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, and was named one of the most historic restaurants in the country by USA Today. Like the food and service, the guest list is stellar–  Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Marilyn Monroe, Liza Minelli, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Tyler, and George Clooney.

After living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic I  miss  favorites enjoyed in my Piantini neighborhood and at  Pat’s Palo in the Colonial Zone . Columbia’s has empanadas, croquettes, paella, sangria –oh my!–and so many other choices on the dinner and wine menus choosing is difficult.  My server, Roxy, helped with this. I had  the Ybor City Devil Crab Croquettes, the Original 1905 Salad, the Filet Mignon, and a glass of Don Cesar 2011 Ribera del Duero Spanish wine. Roxy recommended for another day one of their most popular dishes, Salteado . Was I pleased with my experience? See the highlight video above. Reservations recommended, and they offer catering.

Roxy, my amazing server, is new to Sarasota and loving it. She makes me want to move here, too. Another server stopped by to say he grew up in Budapest and has been to all 50 states. He settled in Sarasota and says, “I know it’s a cliche, but this IS paradise.”

The Original 1005  salad is worth the hype. It would also be perfect for lunch with a dessert.

 

I can’t believe they share recipes for their signature  salad (above), popular Cuban sandwich, Mojitos and more here! Columbia’s makes not only guests happy but also servers and management who stay. Manager Richard Appelgren told me he came here from Chile in 1984: “It was my first job and I never left. I love it here.” When I asked how Covid-19 has affected business, he said they adhere to  all safety  measures and fill tables at 50%. He added, “People trust us, and that’s why they keep coming back.”

Columbia’s Manager, Richard Appelgren

NYE Party for Guests on Art Ovation Rooftop–See story on Instagram Highlight. 

Day Two
11:00-12:00 AM Pineapple Yoga + Cycling Studio 

(In this outdoor cycling/yoga class we wore masks unless on our mats or bikes, and class size was restricted to follow social distancing guidelines. More about Yoga and Lila in Part 2.)

1:00 Lunch at Lila
Afternoon on Lido Beach
Dinner at Element. Steak. Seafood. Pasta. 

Around here exceptionally talented creatives aren’t just found on stages. They are found behind-the-scenes making magic.  I love the stories of Executive Chef Nils and Chef Michelle . These culinary artists, a top-tier staff, an extensive wine list, and gorgeous setting make Element a favorite of local foodies and out-of-town guests. The modern dining rooms and candle-lit terraces make this restaurant a haven. Manager James Harries makes sure all feel welcome. My fun server, Phillipe, suggested the scallops. They were served on parmesan farro risotto with a citrus herb crumb topping and cucumber mint relish. The dish was incredible, and so was the white wine he turned me onto– a Sancerre named for the Upper Loire Valley in France. See highlights in video above. Recommendations recommended.

Element’s elegant dining room

I loved the terraces at Element for their quiet, private spaces.

Day 3
Morning Check out of Art Ovation Hotel  
Private 3-hour tour of The Ringling with Virginia Harshman 
An incredible behind-the-scenes look at the museums and Ca’ d’Zan will be featured in Part 3 of this series. 
Check in at Sarasota Surf & Racquet Club 

My condo was spacious–perfect for a family vacation. As always, my favorite room was the screened in lanai overlooking the pool, beach, and sea. I wasn’t there long enough to buy groceries or grill out, so for lunch I took a trolley a couple of miles down Midnight Pass Road to Siesta Key Village for oysters.  (See video for highlights.) The sunset behind the Club was beautiful as expected, and I hear there’s a drum circle on Siesta Key Beach on Sundays at sunset. Check out other things to do here.

Nightlife in Siesta Key Village, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

8:30 Dinner Ophelia’s on the Bay on Siesta Key

Ok, this is a  Must-Do. Please see the video above with highlights. I understand why Ophelia’s on the Bay has received recognition from magazines such as Gourmet and Food and Wine. And why it is a popular wedding venue. In fact, a ceremony had just ended before I arrived. Owner Daniel Olson started working in his father’s restaurant in  Maryland at age 14. In 2000 he moved to Sarasota and in  2004 became Executive Chef. His passion and creativity sustains  a loyal  following  of locals and of tourists who always come back.

I loved eating under twinkling lights and a full moon reflected on the bay. I was thrilled to learn that my server, Cassy Belliveau. lived in Nashville six years and worked at one of my favorite restaurants there. She recommended what I believe was the best salad I’ve had in my life. The lobster and pasta made in-house are perfection. The creamy Champagne sauce made the dish so rich and delicious that I saved a bit to carry away for breakfast. Other recommendations are the Maryland Crab Cakes and the Eggplant Crepes, made with Mascarpone, Ricotta, Fontina, spinach, basil, and San Marzano Pomodoro Sauce–staples on the menu for twenty-five years. Reservations recommended.

Ophelia’s on the Bay, Photo Courtesy of Visit Sarasota.com

~  Lioni Latticini Burrata Con Panna Mozzarella ~Heirloom Tomato and Heart of Palm Salad, Prosciutto di Parma, Country Olives, Roasted Peppers,
Black Truffle Marcona Almonds, Black Truffle-Dijon Vinaigrette

1 ½ Pound “Lazy” Maine Lobster, Butter Poached, Handmade Fresh Tortellini, Champagne Lobster Sauce

Day 4
Morning Check out of Sarasota Surf and Racquet Club
Depart from SRQ Airport  

MORE PlACES TO STAY AND PLAY

See the Official Visitors Guide containing a a map, activities for younger children, and MUCH more: digital version and additional guides to download here. 

First, FESTIVALS, My Favorite Thing

See the calendar of annual events in Digital Guide mentioned above — Pages 36-37. Below I’ve highlighted a few festivals and events happening in the next few months (one in November below) to get you started…

FEBRUURY

4th Annual Taste of New Orleans

Thunder by the Bay–Music and Motorcycles Fest for Local Charities

Sarasota Ski-A-Rees–Ski Show normally every weekend February-May. On hold but check back for reopening.

MARCH

Suncoast BBQ & Bluegrass Bash

APRIL

Venice Shark Tooth Festival

MAY

Myakka River Blues Festival

JUNE

Sarasota Music Festival

2022

SarasotaHighlandGames.com

Sarasota Music Half Marathon

More Places to Stay

Luxury, Boutique and More here.

Longboat Key

The Resort at Longboat Key, Winner of the Condé Nast Traveler 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards

The Resort at Longboat Key, Photo Courtesy of VistSarasota.com

 

Zota Beach Resort, Winner of the Condé Nast Traveler 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards

Zota Beach Resort, Photo Courtesy of VistiSarasota.com

 

Lido Beach

Lido Beach Resort

Lido Beach Resort, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Hotel Indigo

Don’t forget the fur babies…

Hotel Indigo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Legacy Hotel

Legacy Hotel, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Other Places to Learn and Play

 Mangrove Tunnels at Lido Beach

Mangrove Tunnels Lido Beach, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Sarasota Farmer’s Market

Sarasota Farmer’s Market, Photo Courtesy of VisitSaraosta.com

Sarasota Jungle Gardens

Sarasota Jungle Gardens, Photo Courtesy of VistSarasota.com

Civil Rights Tour , Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com.

 

Other possibilities for beauty, adventure, Education and fun include Mary Selby Botanical Gardens, MOTE Marine LABROTORY & AQUARIUM, Civil Rights Tour, and Siesta Key Water Sports.

More Places to Eat

Places to ShopSt. Armands Circle & Beyond

L. Boutique–See all of their designers. I fell in love with kaftans in Morocco so no surprise I LOVE Camilla’s Kaftans and her story. 

T.Georgiano’s  

Influence Style

Island Pursuit

Molly & Zoey

Apricot Lane Boutique 

Fixxation Boutique,

Lotus Boutique,

Pineapple Lain Boutique

The Bazaar on Apricot and Lime 

Camilyn Beth

In the next 2 posts I’ll focus on Health and Wellness Getaways and the Biggest Attraction in Town.

 

 

Local’s Guide to Tarpon Springs, Florida: A Greek Village for Travel Bucket List or Retirement

*Did you know the 12 Days of Christmas are December 25-January 5 anticipating The Epiphany/Three Kings Day on January 6? Did you know the largest Epiphany celebration in the northern hemisphere is in Tarpon Springs? Join me on a podcast tour of Tarpon Springs with Dr. Vincent Huth to learn more, plan a trip, plan a new life. See links below post for your Travel Bucket List to his Must Sees, Must Dos, and Must Eats. 

When a friend and fellow world explorer told me he’d decided not to retire on the southern coast of Spain or Ireland as he’d planned–that he, in fact, was moving to the Gulf of Mexico in the US, I was surprised. But with the enthusiasm of Ponce de León, he told me about discovering Tarpon Springs, Florida  a Greek Village of 24,000 so relaxed and affordable that he’d changed his course.  Thanks to Anastasios Papapostolou of GreekReporter.com for permission to use this video:

I love Greece, so on a road trip to Anna Maria Island with my friend, Traci, we stopped  to check out his new home. We caught up with fresh salads and a seafood pizza from Jimmy’s (which I’ve longed for since) at a seaside picnic table minutes from his house.

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The pines swayed in the ocean breeze on that hot July day as did boats tied to the sponge docks we walked past after lunch. Along the historic main street we strolled past Hellenistic statues and quaint Greek shops. We stopped for dessert at Hella’s Restaurant and Bakery which alone is worth the trip. Sorry, Italy, but a cone of their Banana Foster is the best gelato I’ve ever had!

I plan to return for more walking (and biking and boating) to drink in more of the natural beauty of parks, beaches, and lakes surrounding a European-style city center of Victorian homes.  Though the ancestors of  Epicurus make this a place to eat, drink, and be merry, we somehow left feeling lighter. As for Vince, it’s obvious perfect weather, performing arts, gorgeous cathedrals and a close community quickens the spirit. Away from the madding crowds, such a Florida find is a sip from the fountain of youth and a taste of nectar from the gods.

Tarpon Springs, Florida, less than an hour from crowded Clearwater or Tampa, was built by Greek immigrants in 1875 who made a quaint village on the Gulf of Mexico the sponge capital of the world. Today the city still has more Greek-American residents than anywhere in the US and the largest Epiphany celebration in the Western hemisphere. January 6 typically draws over 10,000 visitors to watch boys dive as their grandfathers did for a cross thrown into the ocean.  

What to See in Tarpon Springs

Vince’s Must-Eats discussed on Podcast

Nearby events and destinations Mentioned on Podcast

 

 

Anna Maria Island: World Class Beaches with Old Florida Charm

Bradenton Beach, Florida
Beautiful Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island–pristine and peaceful place to spread out, relax, breathe.

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The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.Jacques Yves Cousteau

What can I say? I’m a Pisces and was caught in the ocean’s net long ago.

When my spring break trip to Sicily was cancelled by Covid and borders began closing, I planned an escape to another island–this one in the US.  My sister and brother-in-law love Anna Maria Island, Florida where they vacation (and Sarasota where they married just down the road).  We grew up doing summer sojurns with Mom and our grandparents to Panama City, then took our own children to build sandcastles in Destin, also on Florida’s northern “Emerald Coast.” I’ve explored Florida’s east coast from Daytona to Miami to the Keys so began last year chasing the legendary sunsets on beaches in  the Tampa Bay area and southwest Florida. 

I’m drawn to all kinds of water–whether it laps the beach gently or crashes against its rugged rocks.  While living in Morocco I escaped the city to inhale, exhale with the tide in Essaouira, Agadir, Taghazout, Asilah and Tangier.  I’ve been thrilled by coasts in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, France, Monaco, Greece, Italy…Costa Rica and the Bahamas…California, Hawaii, Tybee Island, Folly Island, and Hilton Head.

But if you want an island escape with sand, white and soft as powdered sugar, and clear, green/blue waters,  check out the Cies Isles in Europe; The Dominican Republic, where I lived for a year in the Caribbean, and Anna Maria Island. This US destination provides gorgeous sunsets; major shelling; live music; dolphin and manatee sightings; no high rises or food chains, a trolley to take you all the way to Sarasota, and a laid-back Old Florida vibe.  I now understand why residents call it Paradise and travelers become pilgrims who return yearly. Woman on shore of Bradenton Beach

Beaches on the 7-mile island include Anna Maria City, Bean Point, Holmes, Bradenton and Coquina. We stayed on a private section of Bradenton Beach where there was plenty of room for social distancing.

I went with my friend, Traci, also a teacher, who has to plan vacations around school. When our spring breaks were cancelled, we made plans for June, then postponed them to July thinking Covid would calm down. It didn’t.  Florida became a hot spot, but we’d chosen an area that wasn’t. We’d booked a condo which had a kitchen for meals and deeded  beach  property. We also drove rather than flew, did dinners in restaurants with outdoor/open spaces maintaining social distancing, and wore masks in the few enclosed public spaces we went. We also stayed in touch with friends who are Florida residents and kept us current on the situation. There was no heavy traffic or long waits at restaurants. As with any vacation in the pandemic era, be sure to check the latest information on health-related sites. This one might also be useful for  Covid-19 Travel Information for Florida.

Where to Stay

Location. Location. Location. Our comfortable, spacious condo was located in Bradenton Beach on a bay beside Cortez Bridge.  It had paved paths both to its deeded beach property across the street and to Historic Bridge Street a couple of blocks away where the clock tower calls locals and tourists to a hub of fun. Owner Morgan Henderson is an amazing host who after months of staying in touch now feels like an old friend! She had everything we needed in the 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom space including a wagon to carry coolers, an umbrella, beach chairs, and towels to the beach. If you book with her, please say hi for me!

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We enjoyed the calming decor of the condo– blue hues of the Gulf. The living area windows and sliding doors to the lanai illuminated the space with a view of the bridge and bay.
Bradenton Beach Condo overlooking bay
Here mornings begin with a cup of coffee and evenings with a glass of wine. On a rainy afternoon, a dolphin joined me.

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Where to Play and Relax

The Beach of Course!

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Entrance to Historic Bridge Streeta couple of blocks away

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My favorite hangout was  listening to music on the water dockside at Bridge Tender Inn..

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Dan Signor IS a “big shot” the way he tears up the keys and strings at Bridge Tender Inn. He had me from the moment he played Van Morrison’s “The Mystic.”
Anna Maria Oyster Bar–great raw oysters outside on the water with a view. This place was so good we went twice!
Surround me with water!
Loved walks in the quirky local neighborhood between our condo and Bridge Street.
Meanwhile, back at the condo…
Next door was a GREAT place for Mexican food, Wicked Cantina. They also have a restaurant in Sarasota. We went away with leftovers and stuffed.
MUST DOs are the margaritas and guacamole bites –freshly made guac rolled in a fried tortilla chip crust served with Jalapeño Ranch sauce
The shrimp burrito was so good!
Gulf Drive Cafe was across the street on the beach. Great place for ocean view, drinks, “food, and fellowship” as we say in Kentucky and Nashville where we’re from.
After a rough 2020 we were in a girl trip crash-at-the beach and relax- near- the- condo mode. We saved the north end of the island for the last day and did get to places below, but rain thwarted plans to do Bean Point (named for the first permanent resident ), then a late lunch or dinner at The Sandbar . Though the restaurant has a parking lot, getting to the northernmost beach is daunting due to lack of public parking near there. Better to take the trolley rather than a car unless you can hike, bike, or golf cart it . Traci is  bringing her family to AMI later this year, I can’t wait to be back with mine, so no worries… next time.
Cutest store ever is the Shiny Fish Emporium where you can paint a sand dollar for $15, find a bohemian or vintage frock, and eye the green velvet couches for an island nap. We enjoyed chatting with Grace who works there and gave us the scoop on navigating Pine Avenue and her end of the island. In addition to popular restaurants, like The Donut Experiment and Poppos Taqueria next door, there’s Beach Bums for renting bikes, golf carts, and water gear.
This Latin dancer’s dream…cha cha cha
Shiny Fish Emporium
Our last night we went for more live music at Island Time. I enjoyed my lobster tail and steak and hearing Robert Garcia play favorites by Cat Stevens and Rod Stewart while heckling the audience.
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Traci’s friend, Pam, who recently moved to Florida joined us for beach time, dinners on Bradenton Beach, and on our excursion to Sarasota. She suggested for future stays Lazy Lobster and Dry Dark Waterfront Grill in Longboat Key. We’d already tried Mar Vista there and loved eating by the water under the trees. The scallops were amazing! Down the coast (a 30-minute drive from AMI) we took a quick spin around St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, bought by Charles and John Ringling of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1917. In 1927 they moved the circus to Sarasota as their winter headquarters. John Ringling’s permanent art collection was left to the public. Guests can tour the galleries, now the State Art Museum of Florida, and the Ringlings’ Mediterranean Revival-style mansion on the Ringling estate. I can’t wait to further explore “Florida’s Cultural Coast”--hopefully during the Sarasota Highland Games and Celtic Festival celebrating Scottish roots. I want to know more about Sarasota’s intriguing history and that of Anna Maria Island.

So what have I learned in the year of the Great American Road Trip after being grounded from Europe? I’m told in Sarasota I’d normally hear languages from around the world as I do there. I miss that! But I’m discovering incredible natural beauty in my home country–a place of diverse, gorgeous landscapes; immigrant influence; and indigenous roots. So much more to see…

2020 has been a stormy year. None of us can know when this pandemic will end–when borders will open and global travel resume. We keep watching the sky, but I believe with God’s help, we can weather the storms–even find beauty in the midst of them– and more than we dare dream on the other side.

Disclosure: I received a discount on my accommodations, but as always, the opinions on this blog are my own.

Las Terrenas: DR Destination for Business and Pleasure

When I told US friends I was moving to The Dominican Republic, several said they’d vacationed there and loved it.  Most, like many of my coworkers and school community, enjoyed seclusion at Punta Cana’s resorts where they received five-star treatment.  I get it; I loved this stay at Barcelo Bavaro Grand Resort last fall.  Perfection…or at least one version of it.  But like my friend from home, Sara, who said she had wanted to see the “real DR,” I also understand why many local friends love the Samana area for adventure and authenticity.  I especially like Las Terrenas because of its “mom and pop” properties–private apartments and beach bars I remember from my childhood summers in Florida.

I love the laid back vibe of the province of Samana and will be forever grateful for the good times spent there with friends —horseback riding, swimming in a waterfall, drinking pina coladas on a small island off the main island, and whale watching in Samana Bay. I’ve seen couples enjoying different stages of life together there, too–newlyweds, retirees, and recently a pair from Canada who decided to pack up, move south, start a beach business, and live the dream.

I’ve always been fascinated with expats reinventing their lives in faraway places,  like folks I met in Marrakesh like Aussie Alexandra featured on this blog who are doing just that.   Likewise, Samana has enticed many from North America and Europe to move to the Caribbean.

Something pulls people here–even if just for a weekend.  Anyone who travels regularly from Santo Domingo knows the thrill of coming around this curve, parking on the roadside lookout point, and thinking I’ve arrived. Paradise pops in Renoir-rich blue and green until sunset softens the sky with Monet-muted purples and pinks.  This place definitely leaves an impression.

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Riding through the province of Samana is also colorful.   Mountain homes teeter on cliffs and balance above deep ditches while motorcycles and cars careen around curves.

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Last January I loved the villa  where my friends were married and vowed to stay in such a place near the hub of town on my next trip.   I had instead chosen an all- inclusive  in El Portillo because I’d snagged a Daily Deal on Booking.com.   I looked forward to pondering possibilities for the new year and not having to decide where to eat or what to cook sounded relaxing.

I left Nashville on a redeye flight after the holidays, had a layover in Miami, then a three-hour bus ride from the Santo Domingo airport.   Seventeen hours later, I was excited to finally drop my bag in the room and head for the fridge.  I’d planned to grab a beer, order room service, and take a hot bath in the Jacuzzi, but the fridge was empty, room service was not included, and the bath jets were dead.  When I went to the terrace to regroup before making the trek back to the front desk, the sliding glass door’s lock fell to the floor.  Two days and multiple hikes to the front desk later, I was moved to a room where everything but the safe worked.  It was fixed a day later.  But on the very bright side–where I like to focus–the weather was perfect, and I loved dancing/exercising at the pool with fun instructors, great music, and guests from Europe.  Hearing French, German, Italian, and Spanish on the beach was sweet as was eating every meal on the water, Brazilian steak night, the Crème brûlée, and the French man who sang while couples danced in the dark (see video at bottom).

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Winter weather in the DR is amazing.  Sunny, mostly dry, breezy and low humidity compared to the rest of the year.

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My next trip to Las Terrenas was in mid-March and amazing.  Thanks to Sana we had a private villa, Casa Anna, with a pool she found on AirBnB; Italian owners, Allesandra and her husband , greeted us when we arrived.   The perfect location, it is in a quiet neighbourhood just a five minute walk to the fisherman’s village, Pueblo de Los Pescadores, the town’s pulse where locals, expats, and tourists shoot pool, watch games, listen to live music, eat, drink and are merry.  We started the weekend with dinner there; I had a whole fried fish and a mojito as lights blinked along the shore like fireflies and water lapped the shore near our feet.

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Steve and Sana

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The next morning we had coffee with the hummingbirds on the bungalow’s covered porch, then went looking for an American-sized breakfast on the beach. We found it at One Love Surf Shack.  Owners, Barry and Chef Kari, served bacon, eggs, toast, and  rosemary potatoes (delicious).  Barry joked if we were looking for granola and yogurt we’d come to the wrong place.  I enjoyed every bite but was too full to join the three generations of ladies doing  Zumba on the beach beside us.  Barry said to come back for Happy Hour, their signature burgers, and open mic night.

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Backyard Blooms

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Chillin’ with Cava and Fresh-Squeezed Passion Fruit at One Love

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Barry and Kari, owners of One Love Surf Shack

The Canadian couple scouted locations around the world to open their restaurant:   Mexico, Ecuador, Galapagos Islands,  France,  Thailand,  Panama,  England, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hawaii.  Why did they choose the DR?

“Health care, title to own the property, exchange rates, tax treaties (getting their retirement money from Canada), basic amenities and infrastructure as opposed to ‘nice to have’ things which we placed on the bottom of the list. We tried to stay away from the ‘la-la’ happy things and focus on daily reality basic fundamentals when making our decision.”

It seems they made a great call… maybe even got it all… judging from the jovial crowd of back-slapping regulars reminiscent of buds who gathered every night at the bar Cheers. We watched the US play the DR in baseball.  There was a whole lot of happy going on.

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I’ll be leaving the island in June but will maybe return one day with a dance partner like these guys at El Portillo.  Sana says she’d like to stay here with Steve and sell coconuts on the beach.  No doubt business in Las Terennas will be booming.

Whale Watching in Samana Bay, Dominican Republic

Spring break may be in April this year  in The Dominican Republic, but spring flings have been happening here for awhile. Every January-March humpback whales go rogue—migrating to Samana from Greenland and Iceland over 3000 miles away.   Dr. Ken De Pree, author of Whales of Samana, likens their mating behavior in Dominican waters of Samana Bay, Silver and Navidad Banks to humans cruising singles bars. To attract the ladies, males croon tunes, form bromances to size up the competition, then brawl-it- out with up to nineteen rivals for the most fertile female.   Breaching, tail slashing, body slamming each other– sometimes even drawing blood–there’s a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on.   Pregnant moms then carry calves for eleven-twelve months, give birth, and nurse another eleven months  until their babies are strong enough to make the journey back to the North Atlantic.

Whale watching ranked top of my DR Bucket List since moving here in 2016. Thanks to my friend, Sana, who booked Kim Beddall, an English- speaking Marine Mammal Specialist with Whale Samana, and her husband, Steve, who booked a car to get us there, we set sail last Sunday on Pura Mia, a 55- foot custom whale watching vessel.  We loved returning to beautiful Samana Bay.

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Since humpbacks are the most active species of whales anytime, knowing our boat would be a bit bigger than creatures that average 40-50 feet and weigh 30-40 tons (the record is 59 feet and 60 tons) was reassuring. Even so, the traffic of an estimated 1500 whales—400 that congregate at one time in rough waters in Samana Bay– made for some rocking and rolling on the waves. The tour company offers Dramamine, but most, like me, who had never been seasick didn’t take it. A rookie mistake. Thankfully pressure point bracelets, Sprite, and crackers helped as an hour in many of us were turning green.

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Steve and Sana

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The company offers the next trip free should no whales be spotted, but we, thankfully, hit the motherlode—a 45- foot mom and her 15-foot baby girl that rolled and flailed right beside our boat. Mama Crochet, a regular to these parts named for her lace-like markings, shared her offspring (below) with us up close and personal for much longer than is usual.

Humpbacks are in the family of great whales and are named and catalogued by the unique patterns on their tails, or “flukes,” which power them through the water. These tail markings, like human fingerprints, are one-of-a-kind.

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Their heads resemble those of alligators, making them seem prehistoric (the DR was scouted by Spielberg for Jurassic Park after all)  as they peer at strangers with their eyes just above the water.

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They have grapefruit-sized bumps, two blowholes, and an accordian-like gullet, chest, and stomach. Though they can stay underwater forty minutes, they never fully sleep, but take turns resting each side of the brain to avoid drowning.  They have a dorsal fin as keel and body heat regulator. Their flippers are approximately one-third of their body length and their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae means “big wing from New England,” the place where they were first academically described, though there are drawings of them on caves in the DR by aboriginal inhabitants predating Columbus.

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Mothers of newborn whales don’t stop moving but tow their calves in their slipstream because babies do not have enough fat or blubber to float and could sink and drown. Also, until they are ready to swim well, they could be attacked. When strong enough to travel north, the mom has to fight off Orcas. Collisions with cruise ships are sadly too common and should mom die in the first year of a calf’s life, baby will die too because it is still nursing, consuming fifty gallons of milk per day. Adult whales do not eat while in the Caribbean but live off their fat until they migrate home. Their daily diet–1.5 tons of fish and shrimp-like crustaceans during feeding season—is the equivalent of 12,000 MacDonald hamburgers.  It  takes energy to carry 1,000 pounds of barnacles—enough to fill a pickup truck—on their bodies.

I highly recommend Whale Samana. They observe safety regulations and $3 of the fee ($59 adults/$30 children under 12) goes to the Marine Mammal Sanctuary.

We spied two adult males and tried to catch up with them, but they stubbornly dove deep and reappeared ten-twenty minutes later in different directions farther away.

We were serenaded by a male’s song by way of a recording played on the ship.  Only males sing and can hear each other twenty miles away.  Jacques Costeau called them the “Carusos of the Deep.” Prior to 1952 when the first scientist captured their song on tape, sailors and whalers were spooked by haunting sounds from beneath their ships.  Though that mystery was solved, there are still many unknowns about humpbacks and what lies beneath.

Sources: Whales of Samana by author Ken De Pree, PhD, who has studied humpbacks near Samana since 1987, and contributors  Osvaldo Vasquez, a leader among Dominican scientists in the study of humpbacks and Kim Beddell, founder of whale watching in Samana Bay in 1984-85.   Also special thanks to Kim Beddell for amazing information given at sea.

Carnival in the Caribbean

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It was the Grand Finale of a month of festivities all over the island. In Santo Domingo there had been an air show the week before celebrating The Dominican Republic’s Independence Day on February 27, and this would end the Caribbean Carnival season in Santo Domingo. My friends texted to say the Malecón—the oceanfront road where the oldest parade in the Americas was about to begin—was closed. I’d have to walk several blocks to get to the restaurant to meet them. I’d seen families walking toward the parade site for miles from the Colonial Zone where I’d had lunch, some stopping to buy masks, others in costumes. My driver motioned me out, so I asked which way to Adrian Tropical. He pointed left.

I stepped out onto a side street that far ahead dropped off into the sea, but I was already swimming through waves of color.   Dominican groups gathered plumed in jewel tones, sequins, fringe, and feathers. I passed the Tainos in traditional dress (the indigenous I’d seen in paintings  last fall ), then women like cabaret dancers in larger, more flamboyant headdresses like those seen in Rio.  I tried not to look lost. I’d lived in the DR since August and was comfortable being the only expat gringa singing to bachata in my barrio’s grocery store, La Serena (Little Mermaid), but here I was a fish out of water again, disoriented by the masses and not knowing exactly where the taxi had dropped me. I squeezed past the barricades, crossed the street, and was seaside, hoping to see the restaurant up the coast. Earlier the driver got lost taking me to the Spanish Square—the biggest landmark in the city. I hoped his directions were right.

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After a few blocks of moving through the crowd upstream, I stopped and asked a lady eating street food if she knew where Adrian Tropical was. She called over two guys. I turned.

It was them. The ones my friend–her families were locals– said I didn’t want to meet.

They were completely covered in black grease—tarred but not feathered–playing the part of chicken thieves, once a common problem now satirized here. She said the Carnival parades can get crazy and that these guys tell you if you don’t give them money they’ll hug you. I’d just passed other chicken thieves—men clothed as women with bulging bosoms and butts.  Once these humps were really live chickens but now they are pillows stuffed under their dresses. The Carnival star/antihero is the “Limping Devil”–Diablo Cojuelo–symbolized by the chicken carried upside down by his feet.  Island lore is that the devil was  cast from heaven to earth for his trickery,  causing him to limp.

Looking into the eyes–the only body parts not covered in tar– of the characters representing Roba la Gallina (Steal the Chicken) made me turn chicken.

“Donde?” (Where are you going? they asked.)

“Adrian Tropical.”

“Ah, Tropical! Tropical!” They happily pointed to the direction I was headed. I thanked them and turned to hurry on, almost colliding with another guy I was warned about. He was carrying a “bladder”—a balloon on a stick—to wallop people with. I felt like Candide.   No one can make this stuff up.

After 20-30 minutes  of walking I decided I’d been sent on a chicken chase. I about-faced, crossed the street, and  scanned the sky for anything familiar. I was dying to text my friends to ask where they were and to take photos of the costumed characters and creatures I passed, but I had been warned by locals to hang onto my purse and not take my phone out in the crowd.

When I saw the Crowne Plaza, I sent up a hallelujah and started sprinting until an officer checking IDs checked me.

Like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, I growled a plea. “I only have a bank card, and I just want to see the parade.”  I must have seemed scarier than the devils cracking whips in the street beside me. She waved me on. I ran up the steps, asked another security guard which way to the roof, and he pointed to the 2nd story terrace. I texted my friends who said I was only an 8-minute walk away, but the parade had started and diving into the crowd  beyond the hotel again was too much for me. I told them I’d stay put.

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I looked down and understood the extra security.  Below was the Ministry of Culture’s main stage  where participants stopped to perform. It was like being in front of Macy’s on Thanksgiving, but with three times the number marching (30,000 yearly), above the fray, and feeling a warm ocean breeze.  Here’s what I saw…

Masks were worn by the first actors on Greek and Roman stages.  Festivals were held for Bacchus/Dionysus–the god of fertility, wine, and revelry–as a reprieve from following Apollo/god of restraint, rationality, and order the rest of the year. Masquerade balls during Carnival, the most famous originating in Venice, spread to other parts of Europe and were brought to the Caribbean by conquerors.  Combined with African traditions of the people who were here and enslaved, carnival celebrations spread throughout the Americas.  The largest in the world is in Rio, the most popular in the US  is in New Orleans.  The word carnival means to give up meat or things of the flesh, a practice observed by some during lent in Catholic/Christian countries.  Thus, Carnival often occurs just before lent begins.    To consider the relationship between lent and carnival, Christianity and community, see one of my favorite movies, Chocolat,  set  in a small town in France in 1959. The main character’s Latin American roots are also central to the theme.

Have you been to a Carnival parade or celebration?  If so, where?  Which are the Must-Sees?

When the Crazy Child Writes…on Memoir, Loss, and Letting Go

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 “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” –Maya Angelou

On a February Sunday in 2016 I sat calm, spent on the shore of Sidi Kaouki.  Two of my closest friends, Kate and Ritchie, were with me eating salads by the sea. We were aware that our time together was short—a hazard of expat life that bonds people fierce and fast. I had told the school I wouldn’t be returning to Morocco in the fall. When offered another contract, I was tempted to stay longer because leaving the kids, friends, and country would be so hard and no job had opened at home. But I missed my kids and though they were adults, I felt they needed me.

We had completed a writing workshop at the Blue Kaouki hotel in a rural area twenty-five miles south of Essaouria. Jason, a writer and our co-teacher, had led the workshop of faculty members. He and his fiancé often surfed at the quiet beach town, so we stayed at their usual hotel, which had a terrace and sunroom where we could meet shielded from the February wind.

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We had left school on Friday and while the ride through the rural countryside was beautiful, my gut churned. A policeman stopped the van and climbed aboard, asking us one-by-one where we were from and where we were going. Satisfied with the driver’s papers and our answers, he waved us on. I checked my phone again to see what was going on, and it seemed a terrorist cell had been discovered and members had been arrested near there a few days earlier. Even so, this was not what upset me. After living in Morocco almost two years I knew the country’s vigilance against terrorism — the teamwork of the people and the police meant eyes and ears were always protectively watching and listening. No, I was worried and felt sick about what was going on at home.

My plan had been to return to the same address of twenty-one years after my time abroad, but circumstances had left my house standing empty for a couple of months. I’d hoped to get a renter until I could move back in late June, but no one was interested in such a short lease. I couldn’t afford to let it set empty until then, and I didn’t want the stress of renting it for a year, leaving me with nowhere to live. Given the upkeep of a large yard and an old house, I wondered if it was time to downsize. After months of praying and discussing with my family, it seemed time to let it go.

In 2014 before I left the US, I read an article written by an expat that said there would be great gains from living overseas. I knew I was meant to go to Morocco, but the article said there would inevitably be losses, too. I never dreamed our family home would be one. Today, almost a year since the house sold, I am thankful and believe God worked out all things for good, but I still sometimes wake from dreams where I’m on my deck with my dog or in the kitchen with my kids, and my heart hurts.   A year ago… the heartbreak seemed unbearable.

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Ritchie, who is now teaching in Russia

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I hated that the huge job and burden of getting the house ready to rent or sell had fallen on my brother-in-law, sister, and daughter—months of fielding phone calls; meeting potential renters/buyers; cleaning; hauling; painting; upgrading; waiting on installers, repairmen and inspectors. A back-breaking and agonizing feat, a sacrifice of precious time–all for which I will be forever grateful and humbled by.

I also hated that I couldn’t say goodbye.

So when Jason sat us down and explained we’d be writing from the part of us called our “Crazy Child,” I felt grateful for release and terrified of what would surface. The last two months I’d cried into my prayer journal—pages of countless question marks and pleas for answers from God. The day before we left for the workshop, I prayed He would strengthen my family over the weekend for the final phase of preparing the house to be sold. I asked for stronger faith for us all from the outcome—whatever would ultimately happen. But as my guilt for being away mounted and grief grew, I felt physically sick.

Jason held up a book by Clive Matson, Let the Crazy Child Write!: Finding Your Creative Writing Voice, and we read aloud some excerpts:

The Crazy Child is an aspect of your personality that is directly linked to your creative unconscious. It is the place in your body that wants to express things. It may want to tell jokes, to throw rocks, to give a flower to someone, to watch the sunset…

To convulsively weep and throw up simultaneously? I wondered, hoping so, because that was what mine was about to do.

The Crazy Child is also your connection to the past. Everything in your genetic history, your cultural history, your familial history, and your personal history is recorded in your body—in your nervous system. Your Crazy Child has direct access to it all. Everything you have done, and everything that has been done to you, is in its domain…

When the Crazy Child writes, it’s a raw, truthful part of you that reveals itself. It has not been civilized…Your Writer and Editor …are valuable aids to writing. But the Crazy Child—your creative unconscious—is the source.

I had thought the workshop would be good for me. I was thankful for a chance to focus on creating something rather than losing everything.

I knew the “Editor”—the critical voice—all too well. It always spoke in “shoulds” and kept reminding me that I should be home in Tennessee this weekend, though logic told me there was no way I could get there and back from Africa in two days. So when Jason sent us off to write from our Crazy Child—not the Writer who wants to organize or the Editor who wants to polish—I felt relieved. Alone I could cry and cleanse my stomach of everything souring there. There would be time to revise the draft others would see later.

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When we reconvened I felt weak but better. The dry heaving had subsided. But then, to my horror, Jason said we would share THIS PIECE…NOW. To reassure us, he read from Bird By Bird written by one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, on the value of what she calls “shitty first drafts”:

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea ofshitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

Normally the “Mr. Poopy Pants” part would have made me laugh, but I just wanted to cry. Again. I felt as I had so many years ago—naked and exposed. My paper was worse than undigested food mixed with stomach acid.  Following Anne Lamott’s lead…I told Jason my draft was not only shitty. It was liquid diarrhea. How could I not clean it up? It was sure to smell up the place. As the sharing began I realized I had no other choice but to let it go. To let her go. My Crazy Child would wait her turn, then share like the others.

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One-by-one we read.   Around the table our crazy kids showed themselves. They were from Canada, France,  Australia, The Philippines, England, and the US. Collectively they made us giggle, laugh, nod, sigh, and weep. We asked them questions and repeated back their words—their wisdom, their courage—as their writers took notes. When I finished reading, some were crying and Ally, our guidance counselor and one of the most sensitive souls I’ve ever known, got up, walked over, and hugged me from behind. We all left lighter that day because we carried home something of substance—of ourselves and of each other. Our sharing made us vulnerable, and for that we left stronger.

Yesterday I saw on Pinterest writing prompts my daughter had pinned. She and her brother are doing great, and that makes me happy. Recently I took the online class by Brené Brown, The Wisdom of Story, and have finished the first chapter of the memoir I’ve needed to write, it seems, my whole life. I get up at 5 AM before work and continue after school till I can work no more. Glennon Doyle Melton, Brown’s co-teacher, says we must write from our scars, not our wounds. This morning I reread what I wrote at the workshop a year ago. It was stream-of-consciousness–the gushing flow of multiple losses over many years, allowed to surge when the locks were lifted on the dammed pain. It will be there– in my book—because it covers chapters, decades, of my story.

In some ways I’m where I was a year ago. And not. Then I had no idea I’d end up teaching in The Dominican Republic. I’ve told the school I’ll be moving home this summer to be with my family, though no job has opened there. Whatever happens, I know I’m to continue working on my memoir and that my Father loves and  has a plan for this Crazy Child, Gypsy, Writer, and Southern Mom–all me.

*I know many of you have told me you want to write your story, too.  I have also found these resources to be helpful:

Story Structure to Die For: P J Reece–an alternative plot structure

Anything by Laura Fraser–her memoirs serve as great models and she mentors, too

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Celine, Kate, and Ritchie at lunch on Saturday

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