A Culinary Insiders Tour to Miami and Key West (Part III)

This is a continuation blog post, Part III, from a series of posts describing the itinerary and experiences on a recent Travel with Doc Culinary Insiders Tour to Miami and Key West.

Part I can be found here: A Culinary Insiders Tour to Miami and Key West (Part I)

Part II can be found here: A Culinary Insiders Tour to Miami and Key West (Part II)

A quick recap of Part I and Part II: Our group has finished four full days of gastro-tourism in Miami.  With food explorations in Little Havana, Wynwood, South Beach, downtown and other parts of Miami, our group was now ready to head south to Key West.  Highlights from the first four days included dining at Alter, gastroPod, Eating House, Bachour Bakery & Bistro (including a pastry workshop), La Mar and a cocktail workshop at The Broken Shaker.  All of the chefs were so kind with their time and explanations of their foods and preparation.

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DAY 5, Wednesday, April 20, 2016

After four fun, food-filled days in Miami, it was now time to head south to Key West for two nights.  Our first stop south of Miami was Robert Is Here, a famous fruit market located in Homestead, FL.  This fruit stand was started in 1959 when Robert was just 6 years old selling cucumbers from his family farm.  Since then the fruit stand has grown and now specializes in tropical fruits, fresh fruit milkshakes and homemade key lime pies.  We ended up purchasing a variety of different tropical fruits and sat at a picnic table to cut into them for a taste.  It was a great morning snack for the road and a great selection of interesting fruits and tastes.

Jackfruit

Jackfruit

Fruit

Watch guard chicken

Watch guard chicken

papaya

Mango

Mango

Fruit tasting

Fruit tasting

For lunch we made a stop in Key Largo at the Key Largo Fisheries, a local fish market and boat dock that serves up the local catch of the day overlooking the various fishing boats.   We tried some shrimp, snapper and stone crab chowder.  It was a relaxing spot on a beautiful day of driving down the Keys.

Key Largo Fisheries Marina

Key Largo Fisheries Marina

Key Largo

Pink shrimp

Pink shrimp

Heading down to Key West

Heading down to Key West

Drive South II

Doc Sconz taking it all in

Doc Sconz taking it all in

Arriving in Key West in the middle of the afternoon, we checked into our hotel, The Curry Mansion, and had a relaxing drink on the patio.  The Curry Mansion was built in 1899 and according to local lore, the cook created the famous Key Lime Pie.  The hotel was nice and we recommend staying in the The James House which is located across Caroline Street.  It is a nice quiet spot.

Our dinner plan was the Hogfish Bar and Grill on Stock Island.  Chef Norman Van Aken in Miami highly recommended this restaurant and it was a lively place situated in a marina surrounded by shrimp boats with a true local feel.  Owned by Bobby Mongelli, the Hogfish Bar and Grill is a must stop on a visit to Key West.  It is not situated downtown, but it definitely has some of the freshest catch around.  There is a true Jimmy Buffet feel to this place as well, as most people are just relaxing, having cocktails and enjoying the views and food.  Bobby sent some special appetizers for our group including some incredible fresh shrimp.  We ordered a variety of different fish specials and enjoyed our first taste of Key West.

hogfish bar

Shrimp

Shrimp

Hogfish fingers

Hogfish fingers

Shrimp Boats

Shrimp Boats

Sunset on the marina

Sunset on the marina

After dinner and back in town, we ended up at The Other Side, a great hidden cocktail bar serving up some delicious takes on famous recipes.  It was a great way to end up our day of traveling down to Key West from Miami.

DAY 6, Thursday, April 21, 2016

Our last full day of the Culinary Insiders Tour to Miami and Key West involved some sport, some torrential rain and ended with a great last meal and pig roast.  Up early in the morning for our fishing charter, we headed back to Stock Island and grabbed a quick Cuban breakfast and some Cuban sandwiches for the boat.

Cuban breakfast spot

Cuban breakfast spot

The fishing experience included approximately 6 hours on the boat going to different spots around Key West with the intention of catching snapper and whatever else would grab our lines.  It was a day that started with a lot of excitement as we both hooked sharks early on and some snapper.  Doc Sconz was even able to get the nurse shark he caught up to the boat before letting it go.  As we traveled from key to key, the fishing started to get more difficult as the weather started to turn and by midday we were running out of luck.  But it was a beautiful way to see Key West from the water and the southern most part of the United States.  Once back on land, we brought the fish we caught to our chef for the evening, chef Martin Liz, who would be providing us with a ceviche workshop that evening.

Our fishing leader Sam

Our fishing leader Sam

Bait!

Bait!

Nurse Shark

Nurse Shark

Shark

Doc the fisherman

Doc the fisherman

Fishing IV

Fishing III

Beautiful water

Beautiful water

Snapper for ceviche

Snapper for ceviche

Once back in Key West and washed up, the tropical rains began.  Fortunately for us, they came at a good time and ended before our last meal of the trip at The Lost Kitchen, a new venture in Stock Island that is run by chef Martin Liz.  Chef Liz started this new private dining spot not far from the Hogfish Bar & Grill on the same marina.  It is to be used for private cooking events like ours and for other cooking classes and functions.  Chef Martin Liz is classically French-trained and focuses on Key West’s local harvest, seafood and Cuban specialties.  For us, he went above and beyond by doing a traditional Cuban pig roast in a Caja China that was custom-built.  We started our meal with a ceviche workshop using the fish that we caught earlier in the day.  It tasted so fresh and his style of ceviche was very good.  This was also followed by a shrimp appetizer before the full meal of the pig roast and sides.  Joining us for the evening was Bobby from the Hogfish Grill and his wife Michelle, as well as another couple that own a restaurant in town.  It was a great group and fun to be with the local restaurant experts.

Ceviche workshop

Ceviche workshop

Lost Kitchen II

Ceviche

Chilau

Chilau

Doc with chef Martin Liz

Doc with chef Martin Liz

Chef Martin Liz

Chef Martin Liz

Pig roast Cuban style

Pig roast Cuban style

Bobby with some special Cuban Rum

Bobby with some special Cuban Rum

What a great way to end our Culinary Insiders Tour of Miami and Key West.  It was a memorable meal of true Key West spirit and food.  In looking back at all of the memorable meals and experiences on this tour, it is hard to pick standouts since they were all so different.  From Cuban to fine pastries to seafood and BBQ.  A great time was had by all.  Our trip ended the following morning with some guests flying back to Miami.

Key West

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A Culinary Insiders Tour to Miami and Key West (Part II)

This is a continuation blog post, Part II, from a series of posts describing the itinerary and experiences on a recent Travel with Doc Culinary Insiders Tour to Miami and Key West.  Part I can be found here: A Culinary Insiders Tour to Miami and Key West (Part I)

A quick recap of Part I: Our group has just finished two initial days of gastro-tourism by spending time in the Little Havana and Wynwood districts in Miami.  Our guest chefs for the weekend were chef Norman Van Aken and chef Jeremiah Bullfrog.  We ate at many incredible establishments including La Camaronera, El Palacio de los Jugos, Alter, El Brazo Fuerte, Garcia’s, the Vagabond BBQ party and finally at gastroPod.  It was quite the weekend and we were ready to start the week!

We just needed two!

We just needed two!

DAY 3, Monday, April 18, 2016

It’s Monday morning and Miami is going to work.  Our job for the next two days was to sample and taste our way through the rest of Miami.  It was a difficult job, but with a lot of dedication, the mission was accomplished.  We began bright and early at 9am at El Mago de las Fritas where we met both Javier Ramirez, a local restaurant guru and backer, and Steve Plotnicki, author and founder of the Opinionated About Dining blog.  El Mago de las Fritas has been around for 31 years and is a staple in Little Havana that serves a specialty called “fritas” which are a Cuban interpretation of a hamburger.  The “frita” is made with cooked and raw onion, a mix of ground beef and chorizo, and is topped with potato sticks.  It is a hangover cure and definitely a way to get the blood moving (or not) in the morning.  We each ordered a “frita” and sat below the photo on the wall of President Obama meeting the chef from El Mago de las Fritas.  It was a fun and filling way to start the morning and the week.

El Mago de las Fritas

El Mago de las Fritas

A classic "frita"

A classic “frita”

Doc Sconz, El Mago chef & Steve Plotnicki

Doc Sconz, El Mago chef & Steve Plotnicki

But the morning was only halfway over!  And it was time to have our second lunch or taste of the morning at El Latin American Cafeteria.  It was here that Javier sent us to try their Cubano, or Cuban sandwich, which is comprised of Cuban bread, mustard, sliced pork roast, glazed ham, Swiss cheese and thinly sliced dill pickles added in layers.  The sandwich is generally pressed.  What we found is that you need to specify that you want mustard on your Cuban sandwich.  If you don’t, it doesn’t taste like a true Cuban sandwich.  So we ordered a second one, even though we were getting full, and added the mustard this time.  Now it worked as all of the tastes came together.

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Time to walk.  And walk.  It was only 11:30am and we needed movement and exercise.  So we took a stroll near our next destination, Eating House Miami, in the Coral Gables area of Miami.  It was great to stretch our legs and get the blood flowing before one of the highlights of our trip.

Eating House was our “real” lunch destination and it was a most memorable experience.  Chef Giorgio Rapicavoli prepared a wonderful lunch and cocktail workshop that lasted well into the mid-afternoon.  What was so great about this tasting lunch and cocktail workshop was that we got to talk and hang out with chef Rapicavoli and learn about his experiences of learning to cook in his house making pomodoro sauce with his mother, his time in Italy with the Slow Food group and his time working on his new restaurant, Glass & Vine.  The meal itself was fantastic as well.  Some dishes that stood out included his classic Heirloom Tomato dish which includes nuoc cham, peanuts, frozen coconut milk and herbs.  We were needing a lighter meal and this fit the mood!  We also had some innovative tacos using roasted avocados in place of tortillas.  Yum.  And the cocktails he created were extremely tasty and refreshing.  The first included some sugar cane rhum that was fermented in house.  The second cocktail was a form of michelada that included some mezcal and toasted grasshoppers that lined the rim…  A huge thanks to chef Giorgio Rapicavoli for his great experience at Eating House!

Chef Giorgio Rapicavoli

Chef Giorgio Rapicavoli

Cocktail workshop

Cocktail workshop

Sugar cane rhum cocktail

Sugar cane rhum cocktail

Heirloom tomato dish

Heirloom tomato dish

After a break in the late afternoon, it was time for the next experience.  We headed back to The Freehand Miami for a special cocktail workshop at the bar above their restaurant 27.  We met first with cocktail guru Elad Zvi from The Broken Shaker.  He took us on a tour of the garden within The Freehand Miami and showed us some of the herbs and plantings that they used for their cocktails and food.  Everything was so compact, yet uniquely organized.  We then headed upstairs to join bartender Randy Perez who walked us through the making of three very tasty and well-crafted cocktails.  The restaurant at The Freehand, 27, also provided some sumptuous bites to eat while enjoying our cocktail workshop.  Randy took us through all of the steps with each cocktail and it was impressive to see how The Broken Shaker is really trying out new renditions of classic cocktails as well as using local ingredients to add that “Miami” touch to their offerings.  They were all very gracious hosts!

Bar manager Elad Zai

Cocktail guru Elad Zvi

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Bartender Randy Perez

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It was a nice evening so the plan was to walk from The Freehand to Taquiza, our last eating stop for the day.  South Beach is always so busy, even on a Monday, and it was great to see people out and about at the beginning of the work week.  Taquiza is a traditional Mexican taqueria using blue masa for their tortillas.  The owner, Steve Santana, has a background working with The Broken Shaker, Eating House and some stints with chef Jeremiah Bullfrog, so it only made sense that we finish this whirlwind of a day tasting some of their tacos.  We tried a variety of everything that was still available.  This included the Rajas, Carnitas, Barbacoa, and Huitlacoche tacos as well as some sides.  Other tacos were already sold out!  Too bad because I had the Al Pastor on my mind.  It was a full day, but extremely fun and tasty.

A sample of tacos

A sample of tacos

DAY 4, Tuesday, April 19, 2016

No super rush this morning after our busy day on Monday, so it was time for some beach time and to enjoy the sun and sand in South Beach.

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Our morning did eventually start at 11:00am with a brunch/lunch/pastry workshop at the newly opened Bachour Bakery & Bistro located in Downtown Miami at Brickell World Plaza.  It recently opened on March 25th, 2016.  The bakery and bistro is run by both Antonio Bachour, the world-renowned St. Regis Bal Harbour pastry chef and chef Henry Hane, a former Eating House chef and partner.  What an experience!  Not only is Antonio an incredible pastry maker, but his whole staff is so well-organized and filled with experts, that we felt like we were at the top pastry house in the world.  And to top it off, chef Henry Hane is preparing some masterful savory dishes as well.

Chef Antonio Bachour

Chef Antonio Bachour

Chef Henry Hane

Chef Henry Hane

Our meal started out with the “brunch” portion which consisted of an assortment of various pastries including croissants and other baked goods.  So well done.  This was then followed by a savory “lunch” tasting menu of most of their best dishes.  And they kept coming to the table with more when we thought we were done… a theme for the week.  There was no way we were able to taste any of their desserts at this point, so we started the pastry workshop which consisted of making from scratch macarons with pastry chef Karina Rivera.  She was awesome!  Not only did she explain how to make the perfect macaron, she let us try our piping skills and we all did pretty good.  It was quite an experience to learn how intricate and involved the whole macaron process is.  Very fun.  So after making sweets, we were ready to sample a variety of Antonio’s treats.  Three more plates came out with samples of some of his best.  It was a four-hour experience of great food, people and sights.  Definitely a highlight of the trip.

First course - pastries

First course – pastries

Second course - savories

Second course – savories

Macaron workshop

Macaron workshop with pastry chef Karina Rivera

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Last course - sweets

Last course – sweets

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The team at Bachour Bakery & Bistro

The team at Bachour Bakery & Bistro

The group with chef Antonio Bachour

The group with chef Antonio Bachour

The dinner plan for the evening was to dine at La Mar by Gaston Acurio at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.  Prior to arriving for dinner, we stopped at the home of one of Miami’s great cocktail and food enthusiasts, David Sprintis.  It was here that David made us a great lulo margarita cocktail.  Lulo is a citrus fruit native to the northwest region of South America.  It was a very nice quick visit with David and we are grateful for his hospitality and delicious cocktail.

Lulo margarita

Lulo margarita

La Mar by Gaston Acurio is a Peruvian restaurant that is run by Executive Chef Diego Oka.  He was born and raised in Lima, Peru, and some of his influences come from his grandmother’s cooking and his Japanese-Peruvian heritage.  He has worked at other La Mar locations as well, including Lima, Bogota and San Francisco.  We were joined by chef and author Norman Van Aken and his wife Janet.  Chef Oka brought out a variety of different fusion Peruvian items and it made for a special way to end our Miami portion of the Travel with Doc Culinary Insiders Tour of Miami and Key West.

Executive chef Diego Oka

Executive chef Diego Oka

A beautiful causa

A beautiful causa

KFC - Korean fried chicken

KFC – Korean fried chicken

Fish finale

Fish finale

Our La Mar dining group with chefs Norman Van Aken and Diego Oka

Our La Mar dining group with chefs Norman Van Aken and Diego Oka

Day 4 ended our Miami portion of the trip.  On Wednesday, April 20th, Day 5, we started our trek to Key West for two nights.

Here is a link for Part III: Part III

If you are interested in learning about future Culinary Insiders Tours to cities around the globe, please sign up for our mailing list  http://www.mytraveldirections.com

A Culinary Insiders Tour to Miami and Key West (Part I)

It was a year ago that I partnered with Dr. John Sconzo to work on creating culinary travel experiences around the globe.  Dr. Sconzo writes a well-followed blog called DocSconz, Musings on Food and Life (http://www.docsconz.com) which covers his food explorations and experiences at different locales, both domestically and internationally.  Our inaugural trip focused on Miami and Key West.  The purpose was to see Miami and Key West in the eyes of some of the best-known chefs working in the area.  We did this by spending time with each of them to get to know their favorite neighborhoods, foods, and visions for Southern Florida cuisine.  Six different chefs helped provide an incredible experience during our five nights in Miami and two nights in Key West.

Accommodations in Miami were at The Angler’s Hotel in South Beach.  The Angler’s Hotel is a Kimpton hotel in the art deco district close to the ocean.  It was a perfect spot to return to after busy days of touring and tasting Miami.  And it didn’t hurt that the beautiful ocean was just a couple of blocks away.

A stroll down South Beach

A stroll down South Beach

DAY 1, Saturday, April 16, 2016

Since the group arrived throughout the day on Friday, we started the tour on Saturday morning at 10am with a journey to Little Havana.  It is hard to think of a better place to start a tour of Miami than Little Havana.  The Cuban presence is so strong across Miami and influences the food and culture profoundly.

The guest chefs for the day were chef and author Norman Van Aken and chef Jeremiah. Chef Norman Van Aken is a world-renowned chef.  He is considered the “Father of New World Cuisine” and is one of the only chefs to have won the James Beard Award, the Robert Mondavi Award, and the Food Arts Silver Spoon for lifetime achievement.  Chef Jeremiah, also known as Jeremiah Bullfrog, is a celebrity chef and food truck owner based in Miami.  He spent time working at El Bulli in Spain, as well as Noma and others.  Since 2009 he launched gastroPod Miami, the first gourmet street truck in Southern Florida.  It was so great to be with both of these chefs in Little Havana since they knew the history and the best spots to taste.

Chefs Norman Van Aken and Jeremiah Bullfrog

Chefs Norman Van Aken and Jeremiah Bullfrog

Our first stop was La Camaronera, an iconic Cuban fish market and restaurant.  Started in 1966 by the Garcia brothers, La Camaronera is known for its Cuban fish-fry and fresh seafood.  The platters started coming out with appetizers including oysters, calamari, and conch.  We next tried a couple of different fish sandwiches with snapper and shrimp.  Entrees of stone crab and yellow tail finished off this first taste of Little Havana.  It was only 11am so we could not fill ourselves up too quickly!

La Camaronera

La Camaronera

The group meeting Chef Norman Van Aken and his wife Janet

The group meeting Chef Norman Van Aken and his wife Janet

Yellow Tail for Sale

Yellow Tail for Sale

Pan Con Minuta (Snapper Sandwich)

Pan Con Minuta (Snapper Sandwich)

The group

The group

The next stop was Calle Ocho, or the heart of Little Havana.  Here we started by watching the local domino players compete in Domino Park.  The place was packed with both men and women players.  No spitting allowed.  No bad language.  And no firearms…  Interesting rules.  Needing a pick-me-up, we headed down the street to get a cortadito, a classic Cuban coffee that includes some milk.  Served in small cups, it provided a much-needed jolt.  Needing more of a rush, our next stop was Azucar, a Cuban ice cream shop where we sampled a multitude of ice creams including the Abuela Maria, the Cafe Con Leche, the Mulatica (cinnamon oatmeal cookie), and many fruit flavors.  To balance out the coffee and the ice cream it was time for a cocktail!  This seemed to be the answer for balancing throughout the trip..  Next door to Azucar is the world-famous bar and lounge, Ball & Chain.  Since 1935, Ball & Chain has been providing food, drinks and live entertainment in the heart of Little Havana.  Here we listened to some live Cuban jazz and had some mojitos to cool down.

Domino Park

Domino Park

Cortadito

Cortadito

Ball & Chain

Ball & Chain

Ball & Chain

Ball & Chain

Group having mojitos at Ball & Chain

Group having mojitos at Ball & Chain

El Palacio De Los Jugos was our next and last stop on our Little Havana journey for today.  Founded in 1977, El Palacio is an open-air restaurant filled with Cuban food.  There are a variety of meats, seafood, fruits, juices and spices.  The Flagler location is the most famous with musicians playing in the background and entire families enjoying their meals under a large yellow and red awning.  Our group tried some lechon (pig), BBQ chicken, plantains and rice.  It was a great way to end our afternoon in Little Havana with our chef guides.

El Palacio De Los Jugos

El Palacio De Los Jugos

Fresh coconut water

Fresh coconut water

In the evening we had reservations at Alter, chef Brad Kilgore’s fine-dining establishment in the Wynwood neighborhood.  Prior to heading to Wynwood, we ventured to The Broken Shaker at The Freehand Miami for cocktails.  The Broken Shaker is run by Elad Zvi who is becoming the cocktail guru in Miami.  We had a round of cocktails and it was time to head over to Wynwood for dinner at Alter.  Unfortunately, chef Brad Kilgore was under the weather this evening and was not at the restaurant, but we still had a great experience with their 7-course tasting menu.  Highlights were the egg course and the morels.  It was a full day of great tastings throughout Miami and we ended up closing down Alter as the last customers around 12:30am.  What a start to our culinary adventure!

Cocktail at The Broken Shaker

Cocktail at The Broken Shaker

Egg course at Alter

Egg course at Alter

DAY 2, Sunday, April 17, 2016

Our Sunday morning started with a trip back to Little Havana to go to El Brazo Fuerte, a Cuban “pastelito” shop and bakery.  “Pastelitos” are baked puff-pastries filled with sweet or savory fillings.   We ordered an assortment for the group including fillings of guava, guava and cream cheese and coconut.  Also ordered were some croquetas of meat and potato filling.  Nothing washes Cuban pastries down better than a cortadito!

"Pastelitos"

“Pastelitos”

Along the Miami River are some great fish markets and seafood restaurants.  We stopped in both the Casablanca Fish Market and Garcia’s Seafood Market.  Everything was freshly caught and we decided to have lunch at Garcia’s, which happens to be the same Garcia family that owned La Camaronera from Saturday’s Little Havana lunch.  We were treated to an incredible meal at Garcia’s Seafood Grille.  They were so nice to us and sent us a selection of appetizers including a whole octopus, clams and roe.  The smiles on our faces were ear to ear and the taste of the seafood was phenomenal.  We also ordered some colossal stone crab claws and a grilled yellow tail snapper.  I love seafood and I was on Cloud 9!  I do have to say that this was some of the best seafood I have had in my entire life.

Colossal Stone Crab

Colossal Stone Crab

Octopus, clams and roe

Octopus, clams and roe

We just needed two!

We just needed two!

The day could have easily ended there, but not on this culinary insiders tour.  It was time to head to the Vagabond Hotel, a boutique Biscayne Boulevard hotel located in the Upper East Side of Miami.  The Vagabond is actually set in a legendary former motel that dates to 1953.  Here we attended one of their weekend BBQ series that includes well-known chefs from Miami.  The chefs for this Sunday’s event were chef Phuket Thongsodchaveondee of Cake Thai and chef Alex Chang of the Vagabond Hotel.  They created a thai-inspired BBQ lunch that included fish, chicken and other nicely-spiced treats.  It was a great “party” atmosphere at Vagabond pool where guests sat out on lounges and a DJ was spinning the tunes.  That was lunch #2.

The Vagabond Motel

The Vagabond Motel

DJ spinning at the pool

DJ spinning at the pool

The BBQ party was just starting at the bar

The BBQ party was just starting at the bar

Chefs Alex Chang and Cake

Chefs Alex Chang and Cake

Exercise is important on a trip like this so we went to Wynwood to check out the street art and walk around.  Wynwood is home to over 70 galleries, museums and collections.  It is also filled with incredible street art from artists around the globe.  It is one of the largest and most prominent creative communities in the US.  We spent about two hours walking around the district and the Wynwood Walls.  We also stopped for a coffee at Panther coffee in Wynwood that specializes in small-batch roasting.  It was packed on this Sunday afternoon.  Lots of iced coffees…

Artist Tati Suarez

Artist Tati Suarez

So fun to explore all of the street art

So fun to explore all of the street art

DAY 2 - XIII

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Inside the Wynwood Walls

Inside the Wynwood Walls

DAY 2 - XIV

Panther Coffee

Panther Coffee

Dinner happened to be in Wynwood as well, so we ended up staying in the district.  This allowed some time to relax and digest for our next meal at gastroPod.  Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog went out of his way to prepare a special private dinner at his gourmet food truck location and property in the heart of Wynwood.  We were joined by some other friends of chef Jeremiah and food experts.  The dinner was a nice mix of cocktails and appetizers that we had while standing watching the kitchen perform inside the truck and this was followed by more entrees served to us at tables outside on the property.  Chef Jeremiah was such a wonderful host and it was great to spend both Saturday and Sunday with him.  The food was delicious and the setting perfect.  It was a great way to end another day of culinary tastings.

gastroPod

gastroPod

DAY 2 - VII

Cocktails before dining

Cocktails and chatting before dining

Our dinner party

Our dinner party

The DJ taking a break

The DJ taking a break to eat

Doc Miami

Doc Miami

This is the end of Part I.  Part II coming soon.

If you are interested in learning about future Culinary Insiders Tours to cities around the globe, please sign up for our mailing list  http://www.mytraveldirections.com

Travel Review – 2015

It’s amazing to think how quickly time passes.  This year was no different.  At the end of last year, I had an idea of what 2015 would bring in terms of family, work and travel, but this year proved to be filled to the brim.  It was the first year in many where I was able to have some time to travel and unwind between the daily routine of work and the responsibilities of raising a family.  It was nice to be with my family as well on three of five trips in 2015.

My work in the travel industry has provided me opportunities to lead groups to various parts of the world.  In 2015, I co-led the 9 Maple Whisky-Tasting Tour to Scotland which turned out to be an incredible adventure (Scotland Whisky Adventure).  2016 is shaping up to be filled with new tours and travels.  There is a new travel venture with Doc Sconz (Travels with Doc) and another 9 Maple Tour, this time to Ireland (9 Maple Tour of Ireland).

Below are five photos each representing a memory of one of the trips that I went on in 2015:

Akumal, Mexico

Akumal, Mexico – January 2015

Grand Canyon, AZ - May 2015

Grand Canyon, AZ – May 2015

Chatham, Cape Cod, MA - July 2015

Chatham, Cape Cod, MA – July 2015

Horseshoe Bay, Bermuda - August 2015

Horseshoe Bay, Bermuda – August 2015

Urquhart Castle, Scotland - September 2015

Urquhart Castle, Scotland – September 2015

Next December I am sure that I will be looking back on 2016 in amazement.  It is exciting to know that each year can bring so many new memories.  Travel inspires you.  It is addictive.  And I look forward to each new journey.

A Scotland Whisky Adventure

It was only a week ago that I co-led a fantastic tour to Scotland with my friend and co-leader Matt Ferguson from 9 Maple Ave. This was the first distillery tour for 9 Maple Ave, a classic whisky and Jazz bar located in Saratoga Springs, NY. The purpose of the tour was to explore the vast world of whisky and the distilling process of scotch. In total, we visited 11 unique distilleries throughout the Highlands and Speyside regions of Scotland and everyone really enjoyed the journey. Not only did we visit many distilleries, but we also spent time enjoying the culture of Scotland and visiting many historic spots. Here are some of the highlights of our trip.

Edinburgh Castle View - Charles with Horace

Edinburgh Castle View – Charles with Horace, one of our tour guests

The tour began in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. The first two days were spent exploring this beautiful city and we were lucky with the weather! Not often do you have consistent blue sky. Some of the sights that we visited included the Rosslyn Chapel – famous for the Da Vinci Code, the Edinburgh Castle – the mighty fortress above the city, the St. Giles Cathedral, the Holyrood Palace, the New Town and the Grassmarket areas.

Looking up at the Edinburgh Castle

Looking up at the Edinburgh Castle

The magnificent Rosslyn Chapel full of secrets

The magnificent Rosslyn Chapel full of secrets

Our guide Andy explaining to Matt from 9 Maple the skyline of Edinburgh

Our guide Andy explaining to Matt from 9 Maple the skyline of Edinburgh

Sign at the Edinburgh Castle

Sign at the Edinburgh Castle

Matt Tasting at the Scotch Whisky Experience

Matt Tasting at the Scotch Whisky Experience

Group Tasting

Group Tasting

 

 

 

 

 

 

Besides the pubs in the evening, the first true whisky-tasting opportunity happened at the Scotch Whisky Experience, a tour and museum of everything scotch. It houses the largest collection of scotches found in the world, featuring 3,384 bottles, most extremely rare and looking rather old… After the tour, we sat in the tasting room and really got to work trying various malts from all over Scotland. The jet lag seemed to disappear quickly!

After two nights in Edinburgh, we headed northwest to Oban, visiting the Inverary Castle along the way. The drive took us through the beautiful Loch Lomond area. It is hard to describe how peaceful this area is reminding me of Middle Earth. Arriving in Oban, we quickly grabbed some seafood on the pier before heading to our first distillery visit, the Oban Distillery. Oban was one of my first favorite single-malts so it was fitting to begin our distillery visits here. It was a great tour.

On our drive to Oban.

On our drive to Oban.

Inverary Castle

Inverary Castle

At the Oban Distillery

At the Oban Distillery

A last shot of Oban in the morning.

A last shot of Oban in the morning.

One of the finest whiskies I have tasted.

One of the finest whiskies I have tasted.

The following day we headed north along the coast and had a very special visit to the Ben Nevis Distillery in Fort William. Since we were taking many notes on the tour, our tour guide gave us some VIP treatment. After the tour concluded, our guide took us upstairs to taste some of the best whiskies I have ever tasted. It was a truly special moment on this trip and reminded me of why I love traveling so much. You just never know when these moments come around.

Ben Nevis Casks

Ben Nevis Casks

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Ben Nevis we continued north along the famous Loch Ness with a constant eye on the water in search of Nessie. Unfortunately Nessie must have been sleeping because she didn’t appear. But the Urquhart Castle did. What a beautiful location for the remnants of this castle overlooking the Loch. It was a nice place to take a break from the drive.

Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness

Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness

Our day ended at the Tomatin Distillery where we also had a great tour and tasting.

Tomatin Stills

Tomatin Stills

This became the theme of the trip over the next few days: multiple distilleries and multiple tastings. Hard to complain since it was a Monday. We based ourselves in Aberlour at The Dowans Hotel for 4 nights which was the perfect base for exploring the Speyside region, the heart of whisky making.

Over the next three days we visited 7 different distilleries. The first day included the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, the Glenlivet Distillery near Ballindalloch in Moray, and the Glenfarclas Distillery also in Ballindalloch. All were very different from each other, some independent and others owned by large global beverage companies. Our favorites always seemed to be the independent family-run distilleries.

Glenfiddich antlers

Glenfiddich Antlers

Glenlivet

Glenlivet

Glenfarclas Still

Glenfarclas Still

The second day included a drive north to visit both the Dalmore Distillery in Alness, 20 miles north of Inverness, and the Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain. Another beautiful drive. The location of the Glenmorangie Distillery was probably my favorite, with its vast views over the Dornoch Firth or waterway leading to the North Sea. I regretted not purchasing a cask-strength bottle at Dalmore which will require me to return soon!

Dalmore Truck

Dalmore Truck

View from Glenmorangie Distillery

View from Glenmorangie Distillery

The last full day in the Speyside region included the Aberlour Distillery, a 5-minute walk from the hotel in Aberlour, and the Macallan Distillery in Craigellachie, Moray. A great way to end our four-night stay in this region.

Aberlour Tasting

Aberlour Tasting

The Macallan

The Macallan

Leaving Aberlour, we headed south through the Cairngorms National Park to our last distillery visit at the Dalwhinnie Distillery, unique for its location and climate (highest in elevation and coldest). Brrrr. We had a nice visit and tasting with chocolate before heading back south to Edinburgh for our last night. We closed out the tour with some shopping and a nice pub crawl before calling it a night for our early morning wake-up call and departure back to the States.

Dalwhinnie Distillery

Dalwhinnie Distillery

A final pint to celebrate Scotland

A final pint to celebrate Scotland

Overall it was a great success for our first 9 Maple Ave Whisky Tour. We visited more distilleries than we planned and built a base for many more adventures to come. Individual write-ups on each distillery visit are in the works, so please stay tuned! Also, if you are interested in our next 9 Maple Ave tour, we will be heading to Ireland in July, 2016. Here are more details: 9 Maple Ave Distillery & Brewery Tour July, 2016  Cheers!

A Grand Time

Many years ago I traveled from San Francisco with my grandmother on a National Parks Tour of Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon.  It was an Audubon Society bird-watching trip with a group of retired seniors.  I was close to 10 years old and it seemed that everyone on the trip had about 55 to 60 more years of experience at watching birds than I did, but it was a great bonding trip with my grandma.  At the Grand Canyon, it wasn’t a bird that everyone was searching for.  It was a squirrel!  The Kaibab Squirrel.  We spent one whole day looking for this elusive squirrel.  It had a white bushy tail and we only saw one.  But it was a success!

Kaibab Squirrel

Kaibab Squirrel

35 years later, I found myself back at the Grand Canyon on a hiking trip with my wife’s mother and brother.  And what did I first see driving into the park from the eastern entrance??  A Kaibab squirrel that had met its fate trying to cross the road.  Maybe it was a sign, maybe not, but it was the only Kaibab squirrel I saw during my entire 4-day stay in the park.

The Grand Canyon in late April is a magical place.  The weather is not too hot or too cold, the tourist crowds are manageable, many flowers are blooming and the light in the sky is a deep blue.  We stayed in a cabin on the South Rim at the Bright Angel Lodge, an old institution that has not changed much over the years.  But it is a perfect place to make a base to explore the different parts of the canyon.  My reason for being there was my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday.  Her plan to celebrate this momentous birthday was to hike down to the Colorado River and back, which she had done numerous times before this trip.

Our first full day included a challenging hike from Hermit’s Rest, the furthest shuttle spot going west, down to Dripping Spring.  What a hike!  It combined everything you want in a hike: beautiful jaw-dropping views, isolation and silence, canyon edges, a beautiful terminus, and a definite challenge.  Below are some photos from this first day.

Down from the rim, beautiful area

Down from the rim, beautiful area

The trail winds along the edge

The trail winds along the edge

The canyon formed from the Dripping Spring

The canyon formed from the Dripping Spring

The Dripping Spring

The Dripping Spring

Back up to the top!

Back up to the top!

The birthday hike happened on our last day.  It was the classic 18-mile marathon hike.  We went down the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River and came back up Bright Angel Trail.  With a 5:30am start I thought we would have the trail to ourselves, but that was wrong.  There were approximately 75 or so hikers and runners (yes, runners!) that started at about that time.  We let most of them go ahead so we could enjoy the trail at our own pace.  It felt like a marathon when it was over.  Coming back up the last few miles on Bright Angel Trail tested all of us, but we did cross the finish line by 4pm with big smiles on our faces.

The morning sunrise into the canyon

The morning sunrise into the canyon

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On top of the world!

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Overlooking battleship point

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About half way down

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On the edge

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Looking back up

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A picture-perfect trail

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The mighty Colorado

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The slow hot grind back up

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A 70th birthday success

Overall, it was a great trip and a nice time to “un-plug”.  To reconnect with nature is an important aspect of my life and it is one that keeps me in check with all of the other moving parts and responsibilities that we take on over time.  Happy birthday Helena!

 

Your favorite place?

In Tennessee last week I met a young global traveler who reminded me of myself in my early 20s when life was an adventure and responsibilities were few.  It was amazing to hear of all of the journeys that he had taken already in only 24 years.  He definitely had me beat at his age.  We had a lot of things in common: he just lost a parent to cancer (I lost my father to cancer when I was 22), he was searching for a direction in life, love and travel, and he was also rediscovering home again after many years of exploring the world.

The conversation lasted for a good couple of hours and the stories resulted in mixed feelings for me of sadness, excitement, and empathy.  At one point I asked the question, “What is your favorite place that you have seen in the world?”  As I began to think what my favorite place might be, it made me think of a different question.  If you could take and show anyone a certain place in the world, where would this be?  This is a very different question but one that has more meaning to me.  Sure, I have been to places that I would consider to be my “favorite places,” but this is very personal.

When I asked him the “favorite place” question, the response I received was not what I expected.  He had done a lot of his traveling on the water, via barges and other ships.  And he ended up in port for a week outside of Bilbao in northern Spain.  But it wasn’t necessarily the city that he described as his favorite place (even though it sounds like a great spot to be and high on my list of destinations), it was a bar called The Hole in the Wall in the port of Castro Urdiales.  He went there every night and the feeling he had there was unlike anything he had ever experienced: a sense of the world wrapped up in one spot.  From people being friendly and interested, to the setting and timing in his life, The Hole in the Wall was more than, well, a hole in the wall.

The port with The Hole in the Wall

The port with The Hole in the Wall

I found a YouTube video advertisement for the place which seemed rather “sports bar” in a Spanish way:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDPjE5osQxM

This brings me back to my quandary of what constitutes a “favorite place.”  The history?  The people?  Its setting, be it urban or in nature?  Or the beer?  When I think of some of my “favorite places,” most of them consisted of the location and timing mixed together.  For example, I was in Tikal in Guatemala in 1990 when you could climb to the top of Temple IV and sit there and watch the sun go down over the canopy of the rainforest.  Today you can’t do that; it is forbidden to go all the way up (because it is too dangerous!).  But it is one of my favorite places.  If I were to go back, would the experience be less?

Tikal's Temple IV

Tikal’s Temple IV

Now that I am planning more itineraries for the travel business, I keep thinking of the other question: “Where would you most want to take people to visit?” And that is a great way to start a conversation–please share your comments and your favorite places or experiences!