Do you have post-holiday letdown or New Year’s Eve dread? Do you feel deflated — like a Christmas yard decoration lying in a heap upon the ground?
There’s a way to flip your mood, stretch yourself like a starfish, and feel happy as a clam. Ok, cliches aside…
Even if you’re not a beach person, celebrating the new year on the southwest coast of the Sunshine State has many benefits. Booking a stay in Fort Myers, Florida, “The City of Palms,” is a really great plan.
If you’ve joined my two-year expedition down the southwestern coast of Florida, you know that I’ve fallen in love with this area of the state. Here I’ve found the white sand and clear aquamarine waters that I played in as a child on the Panhandle’s Emerald Coast. But I’ve also found educational, historical, and cultural treasures. I’ve felt welcome in a community that still marvels at manatees and dolphins and salutes sunsets with bagpipes, conch shells, and guitars.
If wellness is a goal for the new year, multiple studies have shown that merely planning travel gives our mood an instant boost. Amy Blankson, author of The Future of Happiness and authority on health and wellness in the digital era, explains in Psychology Today:
The anticipation and sense of hopefulness for better times can keep us motivated and excited for the delayed gratification of a getaway. This ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ often has a long-term mood-boosting effect and can help us relax as it puts us in the mind frame of a more soothing future.
And about that light…
Sunlight provides Vitamin D and releases higher levels of serotonin which lowers anxiety while elevating mood, focus, sleep, and immunity. (I can attest to the power of perpetually sunny skies. While living in Marrakesh, Morocco, I felt happier and had more energy year-round.)
Travel is also a way to reconnect with people we love as we create shared memories of precious moments. Solo travel provides opportunities to reconnect with ourselves and Creator as we discover (or remember) our passions and purpose. It can also push us to make new friends.
A getaway provides escape into a new world where we can try on another life, explore, learn. It provides not only adventure but also perspective. Miles create distance from our problems, sadness, or stress. We can rest, recover, rethink, and reset when we see the Big Picture. Sometimes this means rising above obstacles and changing our focus literally. I’ll never forget the beauty I saw and gratitude I felt looking down from a balcony on a Spanish hillside or out from ramparts on the African coast. Morocco taught me the gift of rooftops whether places to gather or to be alone. I started 2021 by looking down on the lights of Sarasota from a rooftop New Year’s Eve party at Art Ovation Hotel. I ended it by looking down on Fort Myers from Beacon, the appropriately named rooftop of the luxurious Luminary, another hotel in the Autograph Collection® of Marriott International. (No surprise that their 2022 Rooftop NYE Party quickly sold out, but you can still see fireworks and the Ball Drop at the New Year’s Eve Downtown Countdown. )
Finds in The Franklin Shops on Main Street, Fort Myers, reminded me that travel inspires us to…
Why Fort Myers?
If you like winters with sunny skies and 70 degree temperatures… a walkable downtown with eclectic shopping and dining outdoors on rooftops, by the river, or along a red-bricked Main Street… art galleries, live music, museums, theatre, symphony, opera, or ballet… Spanish Floridian, Art Deco, or Modern architecture… inspiring and beautiful places like the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, … then this is your place. Seriously, the downtown area is one of the prettiest I have seen.
Other Reasons to Choose Fort Myers for a Getaway
Approximately 20 miles from downtown Fort Myers are Fort Myers Beach located on Estero Island, Sanibel Island, and Captiva Island with world-famous shelling, wildlife preserves, and an “Old Florida” feel. And if you’re up for a vast adventure, The Everglades, an UNESCO World Heritage site, is only two hours away.
Fort Myers Beach Photo Courtesy of Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel
Attractions for All Kinds of Travelers in All Seasons
In 2021, MSN, Travel & Leisure, HGTV, Fodor’s Travel, Fishing Booker, Country Living, U. S. News & World Report, Yahoo Life, Coastal Living named Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva as top getaways for many reasons, such as uncrowded family-friendly beaches and outdoor spaces, tropical beauty, charm, island living, wildlife, shelling, fishing spots, and other hidden treasures. And I can vouch for its allure for couple, family, friend, or solo getaways because I’ve experienced all of them there myself.
Located In the historic Downtown River District on the Caloosahatchee River, the AAA Four Diamond luxury property — the first in the area of the Autograph Collection® of Marriott International — first lit up the waterfront and city in late 2020. The hotel, decor, and restaurants are named for visionaries and innovators (such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford whose winter estates are within walking distance) who converted Fort Myers from a cattle town to a historical, cultural center. Today snowbirds, locals, and tourists flock to the 12th floor rooftop bar nightly to do what’s customary in these parts, watch legendary sundowns with a drink or meal. My room was perfect. I felt like Kate Winslet in The Holiday when she raised some fancy window shades with a remote, read in bed, and took a dip in the pool below. The shower/bathroom was the largest I’ve seen in a hotel suite and the branding throughout was very Gatsby.
Sincere thanks to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, Luminary Hotel, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, for your hospitality. You fed my mind, body, and soul with art, beauty, random roaming, and coral skies of hope.
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.
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.
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.
*By the way, if you’re into palm trees, too, see Brandon Hall’s Palm Spa and how he moved Florida north. On his site, learn more about them, and — depending on your location — rent, buy, or store palms and tropical plants for your home and special events.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
ballet in St. Petersburg and Bratislava… theater in New York and London…
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.
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).
Art Ovation Hotel is located in downtown Sarasota, the heart of world-class culture and cuisine. Florida Studio Theatre, Sarasota 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Morning Check out of Sarasota Surf and Racquet Club
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…
*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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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’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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
“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.
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?