New York City Update: The Tony Award-winning The Band’s Visit and more

By Alexandra Cohen

NEW YORK BROADWAY UPDATE:There are many reasons to travel to New York City, but one most unique to the city’s soul is the extensive list of amazing Broadway musicals found at the heart of Times Square.  Let me recommend, in particular, the 10-time Tony Award winning Best Musical, The Band’s Visit. (www.thebandsvisitmusical.com).

Playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th Street), the production recently welcomed award-winning Israeli actor Sasson Gabay to the company in his Broadway debut. He is reprising the character he created in the 2007 film on which the musical is based.

Following the Tony Awards on June 10th, The Band’s Visit is now tied as the third most Tony Award-winning show in history and is one of only three shows in Broadway history to have won the “Big Six” awards (Best Musical, Best Actor—Tony Shalhoub, Best Actress—Katrina Lenk, Direction, Book, and Score). Thus far, due to popular demand, the show has been extended through June 2019, with the potential to extend even more.

The Band’s Visit opened on November 9 after being developed by a multi-award-winning team: music and lyrics by David Yazbek, whose previous credits include Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Full Monty, book by Itamar Moses, and direction by David Cromer.

As the musical begins, a series of well-intentioned mistakes land an Egyptian Police Band in a sleepy and remote village in the middle of the Israeli desert, which its inhabitants label as “boring” and “bland”.  One of the central characters, Dina (played with great magnetism by Tony Award-winner Katrina Lenk), describes the mood of her town best in the opening number, as “looking out into the distance even though you know the view is never going to change”

With no bus until morning and no hotel in sight, the band are taken in by the locals for one night that will in some way or another, change all of their lives. The Band’s Visit celebrates the deeply human ways in which music, longing and laughter can connect us all.

Although I must say that I expected this show to be quite serious in nature, I was pleasantly surprised by the simultaneous comic undertones. Although the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra are meant to perform at the Arabic cultural center in Petah Tikvah, Israel, a member of the band with poor English skills accidentally sends them to the similarly pronounced destination of Bet Hatikvah “with a B”, eliciting many laughs from the audience.

Yes, quite often it is the creative and witty lyrics that allow for laughter, including a particular line of song in which the words “awful” and “falafel” were used in a rhyme. However, as the connections between the Israeli locals and Egyptian visitors are forged, the story becomes unexpectedly moving. Although they are different, as shown in certain moments by the characters speaking their respective languages rather than English, they are also in many ways the same, and if that is not a universal message that this world needs, then I do not know what is.

It is rare to see a story like this on the Broadway stage. When reading through the Playbill prior to the show, I noticed many proud Israeli actors in the cast, one of which is actor Ari’el Stachel, who plays Haled and won a Tony Award for his portrayal this year.

At the telecast, when presented with his award, he had a few words to say. “For so many years of my life I pretended I was not a Middle Eastern person,” he said. He thanked the creators of the show “for being courageous for telling a small story about Arabs and Israelis getting along at a time that we need that more than ever”.

He continued on to say: “I am part of a cast of actors who never believed that they’d be able to portray their own races, and we’re doing that.”

The Original Broadway Cast Recording is now available from Ghostlight Records, which you can download online.

The North American Tour of The Band’s Visit will launch in Providence, Rhode Island in June 2019. Exact dates and additional cities will be announced at a later date.  As for international plans, producer Oren Wolf has said in interviews that there have naturally been some conversations about Israel. “I’m very interested in looking at some of the Middle Eastern markets,” he noted. ” It’s such a delicate show. I’ve described it like a piece of Kleenex that gets wet, so one pebble too many and it breaks. I just have to figure out the most delicate way to go into those other markets and if there’s a compelling reason to do it. If there is, I’ll be eager to roll up my sleeves and make it happen.”

Tickets ($49 – $169, including the $2 facility fee) are available at telecharge.com, 212.239.6200, or at the Barrymore Theatre box office (243 West 47th Street). For groups of 10 or more, please contact Broadway Inbound at broadwayinbound.com or 866.302.0995.

The performance schedule for THE BAND’S VISIT is: Tuesday – Thursday at 7pm; Friday & Saturday at 8pm; with matinees at 2pm on Wednesday & Saturday; Sunday at 3pm.

Info: www.TheBandsVisitMusical.com.

WHERE TO STAY:  I absolutely love the historic Algonquin Hotel (www.algonquinhotel.com). There was simply no other option when I booked this trip many months ago.

Located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, this jewel of historic New York hotels commands 44th Street near 6th Avenue, just a short walk of a block and a half away from Times Square.

The Algonquin first opened its doors in 1902. Today, it is part of the Marriott chain’s Autograph Collection, an evolving ensemble of strikingly independent hotels. Each destination has been selected for its quality, bold originality, rich character, and uncommon details. The result is an array of properties that is nothing less than unique. The Algonquin Hotel was the first New York City property to become a part of the collection.   

For 100 years, the Algonquin has been greeting and lodging the country’s most prominent writers and literary personalities, as well as the leading figures of the American stage. The hotel is best known, perhaps, for the members of the Round Table, a group of luminaries who had in common both the ability to fire blazing witticisms and to withstand being on the receiving end of them.

After World War I, Vanity Fair writers and Algonquin regulars Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood began lunching at the Algonquin. Though society columns referred to them as the Algonquin Round Table, they called themselves the Vicious Circle. “By force of character,” observed drama critic Brooks Atkinson, “they changed the nature of American comedy and established the tastes of a new period in the arts and theatre.”

Each of the 181 rooms and 25 suites features a comfortable well-lit work desk, as well as complimentary Wi-Fi.

When you enter the hotel, you come face to face with the casual Lobby Lounge, along with The Round Table Restaurant. Just to the left is the hotel’s trendy bar, aptly named The Blue Bar.

As a cat lover, I was of course excited to see Hamlet VIII, the  two-year-old orange cat who calls The Algonquin his home. According to hotel executive assistant Alice De Almeida, he was originally a feral cat found in Long Island and brought to the Bide-a-wee shelter (the oldest shelter in the Big Apple), where the Alonquin then adopted him as their own. He came to the hotel in July 2017 after their former cat, Matilda III, retired. “He is so friendly and loveable that people who never liked cats love  him.,” Alice says proudly. “He has great purrsonality!”

Hamlet has his own Twitter and Instagram accounts, as well as an email account.  “I take care of all his needs, front and back, vet visits and more,” says Alice.

Recently a group of feline fashion “mewdels” took to the runway (held safely in the arms of their owners) in one-of-a-kind outfits designed by certified animal fashion designer Ada Nieves, in celebration of Hamlet VIII . The annual Celebration & Cat Fashion Show had as is theme “The Purring 20’s”, the time of the great authors and celebrities who frequented the hotel’s famous Round Table. It also marked the official party debut of Hamlet, the young American shorthair ginger cat who reigns over the front desk and observes from his own private treehouse, endearing himself to hotel guests and visitors alike, with warm greetings.

Highlights of the evening included: cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and desserts; the cat fashion show; a silent auction, and an on-site mobile adoption unit that was in front of the hotel that day. Additional funds were raised throughout the evening with raffle prizes, including a variety of pet products curated by the event’s co-chair, Pet Lifestyle Expert and author, Sandy Robins. All proceeds benefited the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals.   Guests also got a look at advance copies of the new illustrated book, Hamlet – The Algonquin Cat, by Lesley Martini, with illustrations by Massimo Mongiardo, scheduled for release in September.

Based on the timeline of a book written by the hotel’s first general manager, the hotel is now proud to say that the lineage of The Algonquin Cat dates back to the early 1920s. Two days after this first cat, Billy, passed, another stray cat wandered into the hotel and The Algonquin welcomed Rusty. The famous classical actor, John Barrymore, best known for playing Hamlet on stage, was a resident at the time in the early 1930s, and Rusty was renamed Hamlet in his honor. The lineage thus far now includes eight Hamlets and three Matildas. Each cat that has reigned at The Algonquin has been a rescue.


The hotel’s executive chef cooks Hamlet special meals on holidays. He receives fan mail and gifts constantly from around the world. He has recently been the subject of a painting that hangs above the Front Desk, by New York artist Marcus Pierno. Hamlet can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  He can also be reached via email: hamletalgonquincat@algonquinhotel.com.

WHERE TO DINE:  Over the past year, I have been fortunate to experience the extraordinary cuisine of master chef Geoffrey Zakarian at two of his restaurants: Georgie at the Montage Beverly Hills, and Point Royal at the Diplomat Resort in Hollywood, Florida. When looking for a place to dine near Times Square, I was pleasantly surprised to find another one of his restaurants, The Lambs Club, only a block away from our hotel.

bartender

Located at 132 West 44th Street, The Lambs Club offers  Zakarian’s modern approach to American cuisine with distinct ingredients, highly seasonal menus, and a signature approach to hospitality.

Zakarian and his talented culinary team marry their passion for food with their classical training to deliver exceptional dining experiences, whether it is a casual burger in The Bar or the sought-after Delmonico Steak in the main dining room. A team of skilled chefs put forth daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner, offering guests dishes composed with the most seasonal and highest quality ingredients.  Wine Director A.J. Ojeda-Pons oversees a wine list that has secured Wine Spectator’s coveted “Two Glasses” distinction in their Restaurant Awards, where the restaurant is highlighted as one of the nation’s best. The World of Fine Wine quickly followed suit, presenting the restaurant with “Two Stars” in their World’s Best Wine List. On the cocktail list, guests will find both classic and innovative cocktails, created with fresh ingredients and house-made infusions – a true revival of the craft of cocktailing.

Inside The Lambs Club, guests are transported from the hustle and bustle of Broadway to the welcoming oases of the restaurant’s many one-of-a-kind spaces. The distinguished history that connects the landmark building to the Great White Way is prominently displayed in the main dining room, which boasts an enormous 18th century fireplace, a gift from Architect Stanford White.

We very much enjoyed our meal at the the 90-seat restaurant. From a house-smoked pastrami sandwich for lunch and a Creekstone 28-day, dry-aged Delmonico steak at supper, the menus here touch all of the bases. Situated just a block from Times Square, the Lambs Club provides the perfect setting for a pre- or post-theater bite, or even just an escape form the hustle and bustle.

Throughout a career spanning 30 years, Zakarian has made his mark as a chef restaurateur known for his sophisticated taste and signature style. An accomplished chef, host and culinary consultant, Zakarian has presided over some of the country’s top kitchens, traveling the world for new inspiration in a lifelong effort to deliver paramount hospitality experiences. He opened The Lambs Club in 2010 with his wife Margaret and partner David Rabin.

For reservations call 212.997.5262 or email reservations@thelambsclub.com

By Alexandra Cohen

Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller stars in Broadway’s Carousel

By Alexandra Cohen

NEW YORK-  The much-acclaimed revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic musical Carousel, directed by three-time Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien and choreographed by 2018 Tony Award winner Justin Peck, of the New York City Ballet, will  play its final Broadway performance at the Imperial Theatre (249 West 45th Street) on Sunday, September 16, 2018.

Carousel actually initially premiered back in 1945. This production marks its fifth revival since then, following the tragic romance between carousel barker Billy Bigelow and mill worker Julie Jordan, along with all that ensues in their small fishing town in Maine. At its heart, although it is a love story, it is even more so a story of redemption.

The show features a catalogue of much loved musical theatre standards, including “If I Loved You,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, the latter of which brought the audience to tears after being sung by the spectacular opera singer and Tony-nominee Renée Fleming, making her Broadway debut.

Fleming, however, is not the only big name in Carousel, which is populated by Broadway veterans, including Tony Award-winner Jessie Mueller (previously known for originating the role of Carole King in Beautiful and for starring in Waitress), Tony nominees Joshua Henry and Alexander Gemignani, and this year’s Tony Award winner for Best Featured Actress in a Musical: the divine Lindsay Mendez.

Although the beautiful music is a focal point of the show, just as important was the dancing. The male ensemble delivers a fantastic ballet performance, led by the extraordinarily talented Amar Ramasar.

Plot-wise, to offset the darkness surrounding the tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship between Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, the two protagonists, we also have a lighter storyline which comes in the form of a more comic romance between Julie’s best friend, Carrie Pipperidge (Mendez), and an ambitious fisherman named Enoch Snow.

This revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel released a new cast recording on June 8, produced by Steven Epstein. Andy Einhorn and Sean Patrick Flahaven serve as executive producers.

Tickets for Carousel can be purchased online at carouselbroadway.com, via Telecharge.com or by phone at 212 239 6200, or by visiting the Imperial Theatre Box.

By Alexandra Cohen

Experiencing The Pan Pacific Vancouver Luxury Hotel

VANCOUVER – It was a beautiful summer day when we visited the Pan Pacific Vancouver  (https://www.panpacificvancouver.com) Hotel at Canada Place, so what better spot to stay than poolside at the sundeck? We thoroughly enjoyed the lovely outdoor facility, featuring a heated salt-water swimming pool and hot tub. There is also an indoor sauna for total relaxation. The panoramic views of the city, harbor and coastal mountains was impeccable. 

This spectacular 23 storey, 503 room hotel debuted on Vancouver’s downtown waterfront on January 8, 1986. It combines the warmth of Canadian hospitality with contemporary North American service excellence to provide a superlative experience for guests and visitors.  Since its completion, the hotel has attracted more royalty, visiting heads of state, and entertainment luminaries than any other hotel or resort property in Western Canada. 

During high season you can order drinks and food poolside; at other times there is a telephone for you to call in orders. Pool attendant Steve started us off with some drinks and provided us with a nice lunch menu. While I opted for a delicious grilled chicken sandwich and a small salad, the three other members of our party selected the house crafted Angus beef burger served on a sesame brioche bun. They also ordered small salads.

Located on the eighth floor, the poolside is so beautifully structured. We had plenty of room to spread out on the nice lounge chairs while a table with an umbrella provided us with the necessary shade and a spot to enjoy our lunch. The water temperature was ideal and we appreciated the assortment of noodles which enabled us to glide relaxingly in the pool.

I was fortunate to meet Stephen Peters, the distinguished and dynamic general manager. He was pleased to inform me that the hotel was 100 percent occupied at this time. We hope to come back and stay on the property when there is room somewhere down the line. I was very appreciative when Peters accepted my request for a personal tour. It was clear from the get go that he is a hands on GM. There are more than 400 people on staff here he clearly knew everyone who passed by us, from housekeepers to bellmen. We took a promenade through the main lobby, past some very nice shops, through the interior and exterior of the restaurant and right into the kitchen where we chatted with the chefs.  Next was a visit to the reservations centre and then to cruise ship level and the lovely Spa Utopia Health and Wellness Centre, which offers therapeutic  massage treatments and signature therapies. There are 26 treatment rooms, with private suites for couples and VIP spa suites as well.  Privately operated by Awni Abu-Ulba, the spa does indeed work closely with the hotel. In fact for those who book treatments in this sprawling 12,000 square foot spa, a day at the pool is added to the package. A nice fitness club is located at the same level.

Up we went next to see some of the rooms. In 2017 this hotel concluded a massive renovation program for all of its rooms. It features 225 double doubles, 237 kings, 10 city suites, 11 Bayview suites, 11 Mountain parlours (the two can be transformed into suites as you enter one door first to get the other two), two balcony suites and five luxury suites. Peters told me that rooms come in 30 different shapes and sizes.  

The rooms I saw all had exceptional view. One had a big window you can peer out of from the bathtub, with no worries since nobody can see in from the outside. On the 23rd floor sits the posh Pacific Club Lounge, available to guests staying on floors 21 to 23 which features 70 rooms and suites. Perks include priority check-in, a complimentary continental breakfast, a self-serve honour bar, concierge services, complimentary evening hors d’oeuvres and a nice work environment.

There is both valet and self-parking available.

As the hotel is located atop the Canada Place Cruise Ship Terminal, guests who are arriving or departing from this area merely need to walk through the terminal and take one elevator into the hotel. “When they check out,” said Peters, “our staff will bring their bags right to the cruise ship.”

Dining at Oceans 999

We enjoyed a wonderful dining experience at one of the hotel restaurants called Oceans 999. Boasting amazing mountain and harbour views, the restaurant serves up a delightful selection of Pacific Northwest cuisine prepared using fresh local ingredients. Savour an array of exquisite Italian dishes ranging from succulent fresh fish to hearty pastas on Saturday nights, or an impressive range of the chef’s favourites, including dim sum, savoury carved roasts and delectable desserts on Sunday nights. Our party of five was expertly guided by our server Harry. We started off with some drinks and shared some appetizers: the shrimp gyoza (sustainable shrimp and chive dumplings with sriracha aioli and ponzu dipping sauce) and a tempura prawn dynamite roll (oceanwise prawns, wasabi mayonnaise, Japanese chili sauce, mango and cucumber. There are nice salads and soups of the day. We tried a variety of main courses: the fish of the day, a Halibut served on a bed of couscous and some rice on the side; the butter chicken, with steamed onion and cumin scented basmati rice with crispy grilled poppadum; the tenderloin steak; lamb chops; and some fish and chips. The atmosphere was superb, with options to sit inside or on the terrace. A musician played nice music in the background. This is another way to experience this gorgeous property, especially if you are not staying here. The menu is on their website.

For more information about the hotel call toll free-free from Canada at 1-800-663-1515 and from the USA at 1-800-937-1515 or e-mail reservations@panpacificvancouver.com .

Mike Cohen can be reached at info@mikecohen..ca. Follow his travels at www.sandboxworld.com/travel or on Twitter @mikecohencsl.

The exceptional Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida

By Alexandra Cohen

HOLLYWOOD, FLORIDA:  A number of years ago, my family joined friends for dinner at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida (http://www.diplomatresort.com).  Looking around at the beautiful facilities, I distinctly recall hoping to experience the hotel in its entirety one day.

Recently, that wish came true, our visit coming soon after the completion of a $100 million transformation of this oceanfront, all-encompassing destination resort offering a fresh new take on vacationing for all business and leisure travelers. From the Atlantic coast to the Intracoastal, the reinvented resort pays homage to the hotel’s storied past as a social hub, with a modern take on design and amenities, including a luxurious spa and more than 10 new culinary concepts.

Upon entering the Diplomat, the first thing that you notice is an open concept lobby with sweeping views of the ocean via the floor-to-ceiling windows of The Hotel Bar- the property’s wraparound indoor-outdoor bar.

ACCOMMODATIONS: The Diplomat is now part of Curio Collection by Hilton, a global set of upscale hotels handpicked for their unique character. We stayed in a gorgeous Oceanview Double Deluxe Room with a balcony, providing a beautiful and completely unobstructed view of the ocean. Wonderfully appointed, this retreat is both original and modern, with a gracious lounge area and workspace as well as a generous bath with both a glass-enclosed shower and a separate deep-soaking tub. In-room indulgences – luxe robes, plush bedding and Bigelow bath amenities – enhance the experience of Florida beachside living at its finest.

With 1,000 guest rooms – including a Presidential suite, 515 king rooms, and 484 double rooms, with 96 being suites – The Diplomat is the largest hotel in Broward County. Designed by the world’s leading hospitality interior design firm, Hirsch Bedner Associates, the resort’s stylish and thoughtfully designed rooms offer sophisticated spaces, befitting the prime beachfront location in Hollywood. A strong sense of place is woven throughout, reflecting a glamorous oceanfront design that nods to the storied history of the Diplomat Hotel of the 1950’s. Carefully selected artwork throughout the property highlights the local-regional lifestyle, with modernized spaces harkening back to the hotel’s vibrant past.

All rooms feature unobstructed ocean or Intracoastal vantage points, while most suites boast 180-degree views of the tropical surroundings, including a variety of premier suites, the Governor and Presidential suites. Suites exude a mixture of midcentury elements with refreshing ocean tones, creating the perfect backdrop to relax and recharge completely with hand-tufted rugs, natural wood furnishings, crisp white bedding backed by driftwood headboards, and nautical touches that speak to the location. Guestrooms at the property depict two separate design schemes: Sunrise and Sunset. Sunrise rooms are modern, vibrant and refreshing with earthy tones that provide a soothing, calm atmosphere accented with blue ocean colors. Sunset rooms conversely present a subtler, more modern and organic design scheme with views overlooking the famous South Florida west horizon, giving guests a front seat view to stunning sunsets.

DINING OPTIONS: The Diplomat has no shortage of exceptional dining options. We were there for four nights, and via the “Diplomat Restaurant Group” (DRG) there were no less than 10 innovative and surprising culinary destinations to choose from. Guests are welcome to Dock & Dine at Diplomat Landing’s 7-slip marina with 350 feet of linear dock or park complimentary valet and self-parking for up to four hours when dining on property. Unique dishes and drinks highlight ingenuity and variety, using locally sourced ingredients and fresh mixes for cocktails created on-site. Each destination is rooted in strong culinary sensibilities and exudes brand individuality, creating distinct spaces and experiences.

Let us certainly recommend breakfast at Point Royal, a coastal restaurant also open for lunch and dinner. This is a large dynamic buffet filled with almost every breakfast option imaginable, from house-made pastries and an inventive cereal bar to egg dishes, salads and grains. The salad bar, for instance, includes arugula, mix greens, cherry tomatoes, chickpeas, shaved radishes, cucumbers, pickled onions, parmesan cheese, poppy seed vinaigrette, cumin-lime vinaigrette and seasonal daily selections. You can choose from Florida smoked salmon, red onions, whipped cream cheese, capers, hard boiled eggs, assorted bagels, the Breakfast Reuben (corned beef, pickled cabbage, gruyère, scrambled egg, and comeback sauce), crispy breakfast potatoes, and much more. It is conveniently open from 6:30 am to 11:30 am.

Our first dinner was also at Point Royal (http://www.pointroyal-fl.com), part of famous chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s approachable American cuisine, complete with indoor/outdoor seating and a grand yet modern Raw Bar. We had previously experienced Zakarian’s excellent cuisine at his restaurant Georgie in Beverly Hills, so it was a given for us to pursue a reservation at Point Royal for dinner as well.

Complimentary parking is offered for guests who dine at Point Royal.  There were a variety of hand-crafted cocktails to choose from, and my dining partner opted for a satisfying rum passion fizz. While we looked at the menu, our fabulous server brought us some delicious cornbread and smoked honey butter (smoked in-house). Next, there was no question that we wanted to sample a seafood platter, so we opted for The Diplomat, featuring six oysters, six clams, an eight-ounce king crab, three pink shrimp, and half a Maine lobster. This was absolutely superb. We then shared some tossed heirloom lettuces, which included shaved carrots, radish, and aged sherry vinaigrette. The yellowfin tuna tartare, with avocado and chili-sesame seed vinaigrette, was next, followed by an order of roasted Maine diver scallops, which included baby turnips, fennel, herbs and smoked fish chowder. All in all, it was an amazing meal, which we capped off with the most decadent of desserts, a Black Forest meringue pie. The rich, dark chocolate pie crust was filled with a layer of sharp cherry curd, topped with light meringue rippled with dark chocolate.

We simply cannot wait to return and try some of the many other signature dishes, including the Pomegranate glazed short rib, steaks, the local black grouper, the grilled Spanish Octopus and the marinated baby kale just to name a few.

The next night, we also enjoyed a superb meal at Monkitail (https://www.monkitail.com), which won the top spot for Best Hotel Restaurant in USA Today’s 2017 Readers’ Choice Awards. After eating there ourselves, we no doubt understand why it was selected for this honor. Celebrity chef and restaurateur Michael Schulson is at the helm; Monkitail is his seventh restaurant. The menu is a contemporary take on the classic izakaya, featuring shareable small plates and sushi as well as an array of specialty cocktails and saké. Surrounding an open robatayaki kitchen in the heart of the restaurant is a private dining area overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Tucked away beyond Monkitail’s main dining room is Nokku, a discreet cocktail lounge with four private rooms, each having full karaoke capabilities.

What an absolute treat this was! My dining partner started off with a blooming blossom drink from the cocktail menu.  We then proceeded to allow the chef to make a series of outstanding suggestions. This began with the hot Hamachi, toro caviar, and the big eye tuna special. The Edamame dumplings were specifically recommended to us, having won the nod for Best Bites of 2017 by noted South Florida food critic Michael Mayo. To say that this dish exceeded our expectations is an absolute understatement. As Mayo explains: “The dumplings are delicate and plump, round and dimpled, and resemble tortellini. They shimmer and almost float in a broth of sake and brown butter. They are stuffed with a delectable mix of pureed edamame, cream, truffle and caramelized scallion.”

The tasting continued with some Robatayaki lobster tail, skirt steak and short rib skewers, a duck scrapple bao bun, a tempura shrimp taco, an aged New York strip, and broiled sea bass with aioli and snap peas.  Just when we thought that the meal could not possibly get any better, our server brought us two excellent desserts. First came the fruit loop ice cream and almond joy, which came in mini cones. Next was a chocolate mousse with miniature brownies, cherries, and ice cream on top. What a meal! If you are anywhere in the vicinity of Hollywood, Florida, you must come to the Diplomat to dine.

Other food choices at the hotel include Bristol’s Burgers, Candy & Cones, Counter Point, Diplomat Prime, Nokku, Playa, Portico Beer & Wine Garden, and the Canteen, which includes snacks and ready-made sandwiches and salads. There is also the Diplomat Restaurant Delivery, providing room service from any of the dining establishments on the property.

For kosher food in Hollywood, you can try Sara’s, Big Apple Pizza, the Grand Café Espresso Bar, Hummus Factory, La’Chaim Meets China, Levinsky Roasting, Levy’s Kosher of Hollywood, Mizachi’s Pizza Kitchen, Mozart Cafe,  Pita Star,  Redwan’s Pita Bakery, Sylvia’s Kosher Place, Yum Berry Cafe and Sushi.

ACTIVITIES: The Diplomat is also perfect for family-focused guests, providing a variety of activities and amenities for all ages, meant to create happy, genuine and memorable vacation experiences.

In addition to the two beachfront pools, there is also jet skiing, ocean kayaking, paddleboard rentals, and the property’s newest addition, the Dip + Slide water play area. Designed with an interactive water bucket that playfully tips over when full, the area entertains young travelers and is strategically located to give parents a direct line of sight from the lagoon pool so they can still relax poolside. Pool amenities include complimentary towel service and full-service poolside lunch and spa services.

We marveled at panoramic views of the ocean from the edge of the infinity pool, which features a porthole bottom, and two waterfalls that cascade into the 240-foot lagoon pool below. You can cool off in the lagoon pool surrounded by lush tropical landscaping and sweeping views of the ocean. Conveniently, both pools are open from sunrise to sunset.

From sandcastle building and free arcade and poolside games to bounce houses and behind-the-scenes resort tours, guests aged four to 12 are always entertained and supervised at the fun-filled kids club, Ocean Ambassadors.

At The Diplomat Spa + Wellness Center, guests can recharge at the expansive 24-hour fitness center or get pampered at the new, full-service 14,000 square-foot spa overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. From healing massages and cleansing facials to energizing body treatments, a full-service spa experience awaits you. Before and after treatments, you can clear your mind in the relaxation room with a mesmerizing rain wall that invites calm. I had the opportunity to experience a 50-minute Diplomat Signature Spa Treatment, which I must strongly recommend. Be sure to make your spa reservations well in advance as space is limited. You can do so by calling the spa Concierge at 954.602.8400. A credit card is required to secure your appointment.

THE CABANA EXPERIENCE: Exclusively designed for The Diplomat, specialty cabanas created by fashion designer Trina Turk are available for rent on the lower floor of the pool deck, providing a relaxing and stylish oasis for the day. We were fortunate to spend an entire day in a private poolside cabana where we were pampered by the pool concierge and spoiled with generous amenities and a comfortable haven. Fourteen spacious poolside cabanas surround the lagoon pool and eleven upper cabanas offer a more secluded experience with sweeping ocean views from the upper deck. Located on the Lagoon Pool deck, poolside cabanas are equipped with flat-screen HD televisions, ceiling fans, mini-refrigerators stocked with six waters, interior seating with a table, a sun umbrella, two chaise lounges outside, and towel service. The cozy upper cabanas also come with amenities and services, which include interior seating with a table and sun umbrella, four chaise lounges outside, and towel service. Advanced reservations are recommended and are available to guests with a room reservation. Up to six guests may occupy an upper or lower cabana, both of which are open from 9 am to 6 pm.

While spending the day in our poolside cabana, we ordered lunch from Playa, a Beachfront Nuevo-Latina restaurant and bar featuring an extensive rum and tequila selection.

There is also The Diplomat Golf Club, The Diplomat Tennis Center and the Diplomat Marina. With 209,000 square feet of flexible function and meeting space, The Diplomat continues to serve as the premier location for business travel and large-scale conferences, weddings, and milestone celebrations.

BOUCHER BROTHERS ON THE BEACH: We were thrilled to discover that The Diplomat partners with the award-winning Boucher Brothers Management to pamper guests during their day on the beautiful Hollywood Beach.   We got to spend a day lounging in private daybeds and relaxing on a chaise for a luxurious take on ‘fun in the sun’. The team from the Boucher Brothers team could not have been nicer in setting us up, and they in fact came back several times during our stay to adjust the umbrellas and make sure everything was okay. Lunch and drinks were available right at our chairs. This service is available daily from 9 am to 6 pm. To reserve, call (954) 602-8690. When lunchtime came around, we started off with some drinks, followed by our burgers and chips. The orders were delivered in large plastic containers, with serving plates and cutlery inside.  In terms of beach rentals, run by the Boucher brothers and its BouYah Watersports Division (www.bouYahWaterSports.com), there are full and half day rates for chaise lounges, sand chairs, umbrellas, cabanas, and luxury queen and king beds. BouYah also rents out jet skis, kayaks and paddle boards. You can book your choice experience right at the hotel or call in advance and ask to be connected to someone from the Boucher Brothers team. This is an established firm with over 26 years of experience providing hospitality management solutions for resorts, hotels and condominiums.  They service dozens of hotels across Florida.  Kenny Gonzalez is the regional general manager covering Hollywood, Hallandale and Miami, and his team does a top-notch job.

LOCATION: Nestled between the aquamarine shores of the Atlantic Ocean and the peaceful Intracoastal Waterway, The Diplomat stands in the very heart of Hollywood. With an ideal location, the property’s transformation caters to those looking for seamless travel and local experiences with easy access to key destinations. The hotel is only 10 minutes from Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, five minutes from Hollywood’s historic oceanfront Boardwalk, 10 minutes from world-class shopping at Aventura Mall, and 30 minutes from South Beach. Starting room rates in low season begin at $189/per night and $249/per night during high season (based on availability at time of booking). For reservations please call 1-954-602-6000. For more information, visit www.diplomatresort.com.

DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hollywood Beach

By Alexandra Cohen

We have always enjoyed staying at  DoubleTree Resort by Hilton properties. After enjoying a nice experience last summer in Santa Monica, we were excited to find a newly branded addition to the chain in Hollywood Beach, Florida.

Checking in to a DoubleTree hotel always starts on a sweet note thanks to their signature, warm chocolate chip cookies.

Owned by Sotherly Hotels and managed by Chesapeake Hospitality, DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hollywood (http://www.hollywoodbeachresort.doubletreebyhilton.com)   is located at 4000 South Ocean Drive, approximately eight miles from the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. The hotel opened with its new identity last October after undergoing an extensive $7 million facelift.

Through its multi-million-dollar transformation, the property features 311 oversized guestrooms and suites, all with furnished balconies overlooking the property’s attractions. Along with a 24-hour business center, it houses 10,000 square feet of meeting space, including a stylish boardroom and an outdoor pavilion for up to 250 guests.

Each room comes with complimentary WiFi, a 37-inch HDTV, premium cable, a vanity area, a work desk, and a kitchenette, which includes a microwave, mini-refrigerator, and coffeemaker. We were able to open a sliding glass door and enjoy the view from our private and furnished balcony.

Situated near the ocean waves and white-sand beaches, the resort allows easy access for guests to hop on the Hollywood Trolley to tour Ocean Drive or to set off on the Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi.   Family-friendly activities and outdoor recreation are at guests’ fingertips from walks along the beach to people-watching on the nearby Hollywood Boardwalk.

“This idyllic seaside resort is located between two of Florida’s biggest cities and travel hubs, Miami and Fort Lauderdale, making it easy for travelers to reach major airports, cruise terminals and to explore South Florida’s famous beaches,” said Dianna Vaughan, global head and senior vice president of DoubleTree by Hilton.


Guests will find American cuisine with Caribbean flair across the resort’s restaurant and bars. Its lobby nook, Made Market, offers Starbucks coffee, ice cream, snacks, and more. Port South Bar and Grill is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, featuring Caribbean Fusion and local seafood in an indoor and outdoor setting. The Port South Lounge serves tropical cocktails, domestic and imported beers, and fine wines. Just steps from the Intracoastal Waterway, guests can enjoy live music, cocktails and snacks from the poolside Lava Tiki Bar.

The resort’s spectacular amenities include an outdoor infinity pool and whirlpool, daily room service, and a 24-hour Fitness Center and Business Center.  We were beyond impressed with the beautiful and spacious pool area, with plenty of lounge chairs available. The Tiki Hut serves drinks, including different specials of the day, and we had a fabulous view of the intracoastal waterway, with boats passing by and music playing.  For lunch, we enjoyed some grilled quesadillas and shrimp tacos.

“The resort promises to make any vacation memorable – from breathtaking beaches to family-friendly attractions like the famous Boardwalk, Anne Kolb Nature Center or a jaunt to Fort Lauderdale or Miami,” said  General Manager Joseph A. Ruiz.As a local landmark, we look forward to welcoming guests under the trusted DoubleTree by Hilton brand.”

DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hollywood Beach is also part of Hilton Honors, the award-winning guest-loyalty program for Hilton’s 14 distinct hotel brands. Members who book directly have access to instant benefits, including a flexible payment slider that allows members to choose nearly any combination of Points and money to book a stay, an exclusive member discount, free standard Wi-Fi, and access to the Hilton Honors mobile app.

Diamond and Gold members will enjoy free Wi-Fi and space-available upgrades to the hotel’s exclusive Hilton Honors floor. Additionally, Diamond members will receive the complimentary Wake Up DoubleTree BreakfastTM and 1,000 Bonus Points per stay. Gold members will have the option of a complimentary, continental breakfast or 1,000 Bonus Points per stay.

 

A Visit to Tampa Bay

When my family and I spent a previous winter vacation in St. Petersburg, Florida,  we found ourselves commuting to nearby Tampa on a fairly regular basis for shopping and dining. We liked what we saw and were sure to make it our base the next time around.

The hip, urban heart of Florida’s Gulf coast beats in Tampa Bay (www.visittampabaycom). Here cultural gems mingle with authentic history to create an atmosphere that inspires awe and adventure.  Whether your quest is for art spanning antiquity to the modern era, sensational live entertainment or other untold delights, imaginative and inspiring thrills await around every corner.

WHERE TO STAY: It was very nice to stay in the downtown area and the gorgeous Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina (www.tampamarriottwaterside.com), only eight minutes from the airport. Offering spectacular views, stellar service and a high-quality experience all around, this upscale  hotel is particularly well-situated for guest convention-goers or if you want to attend an NHL game with the host Lightning across the street at the Amalie Arena. And as I found out, it is a pretty good choice for a family vacation as well, with its central location, superb facilities and top-notch customer service.

This striking, 27-storey high-end property has more than 700 non-smoking rooms and suites that feature private balconies overlooking Harbour Island, downtown and the hotel’s 32-slip marina. All rooms include high-end signature bedding, flat-screen TVs that can connect with laptops and large, luxe bathrooms with the softest, fluffiest white towels and sleek granite counter-tops.

High-speed in-room internet is available for a daily service fee, and it is free in public spaces. General amenities include a palm-studded pool and groovy hot tub and a full-service spa/gym on the third floor, a business center and multiple newly renovated options for wining/dining that include white tablecloth fancy, sports bar casual, poolside grill and a lobby-side Starbucks cafe. There’s valet parking for a daily rate.   At night you can enjoy live music, adding to a very uplifting atmosphere.

Following   $2.5 million in improvements in 2013, the hotel is currently in the midst of a $40 million upgrade.  Every single room is getting a makeover, as will the lobby. The check-in desk will move to a pod format and a full service Starbucks is in the works, along with an expanded outdoor patio, an outdoor beer garden and an extremely popular Topgolf simulator, using real golf balls.

The Marriott Waterside is owned by businessman Jeff Vinik, who plans to build two more hotels virtually next door and each within breathing distance of his pride and joy, the Amalie Arena. Vinik also owns the Lightning.

My family really fell in love with the pool setting. For starters this is a good sized pool with plenty of seating options. Besides standard lounge chairs, there are many chairs and couches with soft and ultra-comfort  cushion covers and standalone large cushioned lounge chairs located next to gigantic umbrellas which will shield you from the sun. You can order drinks and food from the bar.

Boasting a prime Channelside location, this waterfront hotel is tucked between the Tampa Convention Center and the arena.   The marina and the popular Riverwalk are right outside your door – The Riverwalk being a 2.4 mile   path connecting culture and entertainment. I walked its distance several times and noticed plenty of bikers and those on Segways using the area as well.

We stayed in one of the magnificently newly renovated luxury suites on the 22nd floor. I must say that when the bellman opened the door we were left speechless by the space and beauty of what would be our home for five nights.

All rooms feature featherbeds and duvets, as well as flat-screen TVs and Plug-In technology. There was a pretty master bedroom, with a huge walk in closet and a door that closes leading to a very large living room that features a comfortable couch and two doors leading to an outdoor balcony with a beautiful view of the harbor. The room contained a small fridge, enabling us to pick up some groceries at the nearby Publix and make our own breakfast.

In our case, a request for a two bedroom suite was actually upgraded via a connecting room. This provided our family with the kind of personal space we are not usually accustomed to in a hotel room.  The renovations include sophisticated artwork, boasting a nautical theme (inspired by the waterfront location); textured flooring, replacing carpeting; and luxurious bathrooms featuring a unique barn door for added flexibility and a shower you will want to stay in all day.

New elevators feature neat touch screen pads to push what floor to go to.

The lobby bar offers cool cocktails and a stunning view of the marina and waterfront. Champions Bar and Grill showcases new additions in its impressive collection of sports memorabilia and décor, as well as offers the biggest games on new flat-screen TVs. For a quiet meal, Café Waterside features new intimate seating arrangements along with stunning water views and a delicious menu. Champions is about to be transformed into an American Gastro Pub format,

While we did take advantage of the 24 hour room service, one night we chose to stay at the hotel and have dinner at the Waterside Grill. Let me strongly recommend this as a dining choice whether you are staying at the hotel or not. The restaurant offers a relaxed atmosphere and delicious American cuisine.  You can feast on fresh seafood, prime steaks, expertly crafted cocktails and decadent desserts.  They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and you can dine inside or on the terrace facing the Tampa waterfront.

A couple of glasses of wine, pino grigio and chardonnay, allowed us to toast to a good evening ahead. Executive Sous Chef Rich Willerer has worked in the kitchens of many top restaurants in North America. For the past nine years he has called this hotel in Tampa home.  He is very proud of an initiative he took with other local chefs to form a coalition and help Tampa restaurants get better suppliers and more farm to table artisan ranchers, growers and farmers.

Chef Willerer personally greeted us with some of his homemade appetizers and a special order of devilled eggs with caviar. As there were three of us, he suggested we consider sharing some items, to which we agreed. It was a good decision and made for a very enjoyable dining experience.

First came some pistachio crusted sea scallops with lemon marmalade and bacon jam. That was followed up with some refreshing bowls of fruit and vegetables mixed together with a vinaigrette sauce. Next came a grilled local swordfish with coconut risotto, bok choy and guava cream. I have always been a fan of swordfish and this combination with the risotto was just perfect. The chef recommended we try some steak. The wood-grilled Delmonico was cooked an absolutely perfect medium, with sherry creamer potatoes, rainbow carrots and a delicious sauce.

For dessert we shared an outstanding piece of apple pie with vanilla gelato, a tasty order of flan and a decadent piece of chocolate cake. This was a meal that indeed exceeded our expectations. You can read the menus on the hotel website or call 813-221-4900 for reservations.

CITY PASS AND ATTRACTIONS: Like other cities when you want to play the role of tourist, get the CityPass (https://www.citypass.com/tampa#6QcVgMcR8yS4QVcg.99).  It is only $143.29 for adults and $129.77 for children. This includes admission to Busch Gardens, The Florida Aquarium, the Lowry Park Zoo, the Clearwater Marina Aquarium and either the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) or the Chihuly Collection.

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (www.buschgardenstampa.com) is the ultimate family adventure, offering 300 acres of fascinating attractions based on exotic explorations around the world. A unique blend of thrilling rides, one of the country’s premier zoos with more than 12,000 animals, live shows, restaurants, shops and games, this spot provides unrivaled excitement for guests of every age. Normal park hours are 10 am to 6 pm. with a 365-day operating schedule. Hours are extended during select weekend, summer and holiday periods. Strollers, wheelchairs, lockers and pet kennels are available for rental. Wheelchair seating is available at all facilities, and assisted listening devices are offered at several attractions. Diaper-changing and baby-nursing areas, first aid, an automated teller machine and taxi and bus parking may be found on-site. The park’s newest attraction puts a spin on family thrills with Cobra’s Curse. This one-of-a-kind spin coaster features a 70-foot vertical lift and takes riders on a whirlwind adventure of exciting explorations. Located in the Egypt area of the park, explorers will come face-to-fang with an 80-foot snake icon, and discover the mysteries of an Egyptian archaeological excavation. Busch Gardens® welcomes guests to closely observe and even take part in the animal care experience in the Animal Care Center. From nutrition to treatments, X-rays to surgeries, much of Busch Gardens’ animal care is now conducted in guest view in this new state-of-the-art facility. The Moroccan Palace Theater is home to Busch Gardens’ spectacular, year-round ice skating shows. This summer, the Palace debuts the hottest show on ice, Turn It Up! This all-new ice show vibrantly celebrates summer with contemporary performances, aerial moments and eclectic pop music.  Tour packages are available and they create fun and fascinating behind-the-scenes explorations that give guests a unique insider perspective. From connecting with endangered species to front-of-line access at the most popular attractions, there is basically a tour for every member of the family.

Located right across the street from Busch Gardens is Adventure Island’s (www.AdventureIsland.com) 30 acres of water-drenched fun in the sun. It features the ultimate combination of high-speed thrills and tropical, tranquil surroundings for guests of all ages. Within a soothing Key West atmosphere awaits an unrivaled blend of slides, corkscrews, waterfalls, a wave pool, children’s water playground and other family attractions. Adventure Island also features outdoor acres, picnic and sunbathing areas, a gift shop and a championship sand volleyball complex for hours of fun in the sun. You can access their full accessibility guide on their website.

The Florida Aquarium (www.flaquarium.org) is one of the top of its kind in the country, with over 20,000 sea creatures! Here you can experience sharks, alligators, otters and more while encountering ring-tailed lemurs, hissing cockroaches and colorful chameleons in Journey to Madagascar.  After exploring the exhibits inside, splash away outside at Splash Pad, the outdoor water play area for children.

At Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo (www.lowryzoo.org) you can see more than 1,200 animals, including manatees, koalas, elephants, tigers, penguins, giraffes, orangutans and much more. Enhance your visit with water play areas, rides and educational shows a five-time winner of the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence (2010-2015), this is recognized as one of the most popular zoos in the southeastern U.S., with over one million visitors annually. The Zoo originated in the 1930s as a municipal department with a small number of Florida native species. It grew gradually throughout the next four decades, but struggled to meet the developing professional standards of modern zoos. In 1982, community leaders created the Lowry Park Zoo Association to take over management of the Zoo for the City of Tampa with the goal of creating a world-class zoo through a public-private partnership. The Association then became the Lowry Park Zoological Society of Tampa, Inc., as it remains today. Working with a national zoo designer, the Society was able to create a modern, 24-acre facility that opened to the public in 1988 and shortly after earned Accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo has now grown to what now encompasses 56 acres of naturalistic animal exhibits in a lush, tropical garden setting. The Zoo offers popular educational programming, fun recreational amenities, up-close animal encounters and engaging seasonal events for which it has won accolades as one of the country’s most family-friendly zoos.

Tampa’s Museum of Science & Industry, better known as MOSI (www.mosi.org), is a scientific playground with more than 450 hands-on activities in the largest science center in the southeastern United States. You can see the stars in The Saunders Planetarium, explore another world in their NASA-funded Mission: Moon base lunar colony and touch the future in the next exhibit, Connectus. MOSI’s innovative exhibits urge you to ask questions and expand your mind. The museum shows you how cool curiosity can be – there are no tests or quizzes here.  This place sparks conversations about the world and the future among kids and their grandparents, between spouses, and with strangers. There’s no other place like it in Tampa Bay. Plans call for a brand new MOSI to be built in the downtown area. For now, its current campus on East Fowler Avenue across from the University of South Florida is running strong.

MOSI is intent on creating an inclusive guest experience where everyone can participate in the excitement of science. Many of its exhibits offer multi-sensory interactive experiences. If you are concerned about too much sensory stimulation, ask a MOSI staff member or volunteer about what you might expect while exploring the exhibits. MOSI is wheelchair accessible. Automatic doors are located at the main entrance from the MOSI Entry Plaza and parking lot. Handicapped parking spaces are available near the entrance to MOSI. The property surrounding the museum is paved. Wheelchairs are available at no additional cost on a first-come, first-served basis at the MOSI Ticket Office. Guests must leave a driver’s license or credit card at the ticket office until the wheelchair is returned.

Some exhibit areas may be dim due to the nature of the exhibition. Although visitors requiring assistance from a service animal are welcome, MOSI reserves the right to limit access that may pose safety or health concerns. If you require an accommodation for your visit, please contact Anthonette Carregal, Vice President of Museum Operations, at least 15 working days prior to your visit by calling (813) 987-6333 or by email at acarregal@mosi.org. For hearing impaired assistance, call the Florida Relay System at 711.

If you are in the downtown area, then I recommend you stop by the Unlock Tampa Bay Visitors Center. Kevin Wiatrowski from Visit Tampa Bay was kind enough to give me a walking tour of the downtown streets and he was very proud to show me this storefront location at 201 North Franklin Street which only opened last summer. It is open Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm and Sundays from 11 am to 5 pm. Here you will get excellent local advice on attractions, restaurants, and things to do during your stay. The staff is very knowledgeable. Make sure to check out the exceptionally neat gift shop, which includes a curated selection of Tampa-themed memorabilia and apparel.

The TECO Historic Streetcar runs from downtown to Ybor City (the Latin Quarter) and has a stop right outside the Marriott Waterside.  The TECO Manatee Viewing Center at the Big Bend power station is a nice place to check out manatees this time of year. Hundreds of them gather in the warm water emitted from the power station. There’s a nature center and a short walking trail through the mangroves.

The Pirate Water Taxi provides hop-on, hop-off service along the waterfront and stops near the Marriott Waterside as well.

STRAZ CENTER: While in town we secured tickets for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Concert, featuring the Florida Orchestra at the magnificent Straz Center for the Performing Arts (www.strazcenter.org). Cars fly, trees fight back, and monsters are on the loose in Harry’s second year at Hogwarts! This concert featured the film, with the orchestra performing John Williams’ unforgettable score. A capacity crowd loved every moment of it. Watch for this to come to a city near you. The question is, can any place do it better than the Straz?

A year earlier we saw the Broadway hit An American in Paris while in town. We simply love this venue and were literally looking for an excuse to return. There is ample parking in the nearby Poe Garage, which actually has a covered walkway connected from the Straz for easy access

The Straz is the largest performing arts center in the Southeast and the only one with an on-site performing arts conservatory. It was incorporated in 1980 and opened in 1987. In the early 1990s, the Straz Center (then known as Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) established arts education as a community priority, working closely with area public, private and home school programs to enhance arts education for children throughout the seven-county Tampa Bay area. Outreach programs included curriculum connectors to Florida education standards and teacher study guides in print and online. The Straz Center’s extended in-school artistic residencies, summer programs and after school offerings helped to fill the increasing gaps in arts education left by budget cuts. Since 1991 the Straz Center’s Education department housed programs such as Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra and Community Arts Ensemble, a free summer theater day camp that served urban children in need by connecting them with nationally known artists in a rehearsal-based process. Each summer, an original musical play was written and produced especially for that year’s group of up to 100 children to perform in a fully-staged production for friends and family in one of the Straz Center’s main halls.

If you are headed to Tampa in 2018 there are some great Broadway shows booked such as  Forever Plaid, Phantom of the Opera, The Color Purple, The Bodyguard, Beautiful – the Carole King Musical, Waitress, Sound of Music, The Illusionists and Cinderella. The spectacular tour of Hamilton will land at the Straz for the 2018-2019 season. You can also check out Opera Tampa, which produces   the highest caliber presentations.

THE LIGHTNING AND AMALIE ARENA:  I made my first visit ever to the   Amalie Arena (originally called the Ice Palace), which opened on October 12, 1996. How lucky could I be? On  the night I was available, the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning happened to be hosting my hometown Montreal Canadiens. A visit here, regardless of the event taking place, is an absolute must.

(Photo by Casey Brooke Lawson/Tampa Bay Lightning)

Start off by checking the schedule for the Lightning. It was very nostalgic for me to be in the press box. Twenty-five years earlier when Tampa entered the National Hockey League as an expansion franchise I was among a group of journalists invited for a visit. Naturally, one of the things the local tourism board wanted to showcase to the Montreal media was the arrival of the NHL to Tampa.  So off we went to the temporary home of the Lightning, the 11,000 seat Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds for an exhibition game. With my tape recorder and microphone in hand, I requested for and received a one-on-one interview with hockey legend Phil Esposito. He was president and general manager of the new team and the man solely responsible for bringing pro hockey to town, having persuaded a consortium of Japanese businesses to provide the necessary capital.

The first few years were rough for the Lightning, with significant financial losses. They withstood the challenges. As ownership changed hands a few times, Esposito was eventually ousted in his role. He is adored in this city. Outside of the arena there is a bronze statue of him.  He also serves as a commentator for home game radio broadcasts.

Having spent the past week in Tampa, it was clear what a hockey mad city this is. Everywhere you go there seem to be signs on buildings saying “Go Bolts!” or “Be the Thunder!” At the AMC Theatre we went to, there were photos of Lightning players in the hallway leading to the ticket counter. On major streets, there are oriflammes featuring Lightning team members.

I knew my visit to Tampa would not be complete without meeting Esposito again. I congratulated him for what he brought to this city and asked how proud it made him to see the hockey franchise thriving on its 25th anniversary. “Very proud,” he said, “and thank you.”

The Amalie Arena is a fantastic hockey venue. The outside actually more resembles a football or baseball stadium and before each game there is a lot of action going on.

I really liked the game presentation. It started off with the American national anthem sung by a female sergeant from the US Army, who got a warm ovation. At each home game, $50,000 is presented to a community hero. On the scoreboard a Lightning player moderates a short slideshow of the recipient whom they show live at the end holding a Tampa sweater. In this case it was the director of a non-profit pre-school was highlighted. By the time her story was told, fans gave her a standing ovation. They did the same for another member of the US Army who had his story of bravery recounted.

McDonald’s sponsors a short feature called “Small Fries” as the camera catches the cutest little kids in the crowd. Like Montreal, they have the Kiss Cam. But at the end, instead of embarrassing couples to pucker up, they look for someone without a significant other and play the song “All By Myself.” On this night, they chose a fan with a Habs jersey.

The arena, also home to the Arena Football League’s Tampa Bay Storm, has hosted numerous high-profile events including the 1999 NHL All-Star Game, the 2007 ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament, the 2008 NCAA Women’s Final Four, the 2009 SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament, the 2012 Republican National Convention, the 2012 NCAA Men’s Frozen Four and more. In August 2014, local Tampa Bay company Amalie Oil entered an agreement for the naming rights to the arena.

Amalie annually hosts more than 150 events ever year, which ranks among the top venues in North America. The facility encompasses 670,000 square feet with three decks and seven separate levels. The building is 133 feet 10 inches in height and 493 feet in diameter. Two hundred and forty-two new sport lights have been installed to increase game night lighting by doubling the foot-candle levels, exceeding all NHL standards and enhancing HD broadcasts. LED display boards that circle the entire area feature 1.7 million square pixels for pure viewing pleasure.

FOX RENT A CAR:  In late 2011, Tampa International Airport officials began the process of updating the Master Plan for the 3,300-acre campus. The final plan, approved in 2013, will allow the airport to accommodate up to 35 million passengers each year, and is divided into three distinct phases: Decongestion, enabling and expansion. It allows a “build as demand dictates” approach to growth, with phases based on passenger volume.

The first phase, which is scheduled for completion in 2018, helps decongest the curbsides, roads and main terminal, and includes a 2.6 million-square-foot Rental Car Center, a 1.4-mile automated people mover and an expansion of the main terminal. Upon disembarking, passengers board a train (The SkyConnect  Automated People Mover System) which brings them to the brand new rental car terminal.

This brings me to Fox Rent A Car (www.foxrentacar.com). On our trip last year to St. Petersburgh, Florida we had our first experience with Fox in Tampa and we were extremely pleased with the service. It was therefore a no brainer to book with them again.

As of this writing Fox was about to move into the new rental facility (in February 2018) at the airport. For our visit though, as is the case for other cities where Fox is present, we relied on a shuttle and the process went very smoothly.  Our driver helped load and unload all of our luggage. It was a pleasant 10 minute drive, where Senior airport Operations Manager Alejandro Rosquete Sr. greeted us. Not only did he remember exactly who I was from a year earlier, but he had total recall for what make of vehicle I drove away with. It was a brand new Chrysler 300, an experience we liked so much we ordered a repeat. Alejandro brought the car around and proceeded to show us all of the features. We took the $6.99 per day option for the tolls, which allowed us to cruise right through the special Sun Pass lanes saving us time. At Fox you’ll find economy cars, family-size cars, SUVs, mini-vans and luxury or sport vehicles available for your discount rental.

The Tampa operation is managed by Edgar Hernandez, who has been with Fox since the company first arrived in Florida six years ago. In addition to Tampa, their Sunshine State locations include Orlando, Fort Myers, Miami and Fort Lauderdale.  Prices here are significantly better than the competition.

The Tampa location is open 24 hours a day. For more information call (800) 225-4369 Ext. 1 or (310) 641-3838 Ext. 1

Fox is now  the fifth largest car rental company in the US and it continues expanding globally   with new locations open for reservations in the popular tourist markets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Merida, Mexico, Auckland, New Zealand, Fort McMurray, Alberta and Istanbul, Turkey, Aruba, Antigua, Barbuda and Poland. Fox is recognized as a discount car rental company and let me assure you they beat their competitors in terms of price and customer service by a mile.

Fox was founded in 1989 as a value-based car rental brand catering to airport travellers. Actively managed and owned by its founders, Fox has enjoyed robust growth for over 25 years. Fox offers consumers great value, convenience and superior service at 19 major corporate owned airport locations across the US plus 115 plus affiliate locations in 33 countries and a growing roster of international partner locations at www.foxrentacar.com.

For customer service call toll free (800) 225-4369 Ext. 9 Fox does assist with reserving vehicles with hand controls. Fox cannot provide hand controls on every make or model of vehicle, and cannot confirm a reservation for a particular make or model of vehicle on any rental. Please call (800) 225-4369 at least 72 hours in advance to make your reservation. For assistance with a wheelchair-accessible shuttle, you can call (929)-346-0099.

Back to the airport expansion in Tampa. Phase 2 includes a curbside expansion and 17-acre commercial development around the rental car center. The commercial development area will feature an office building, convenience store with gas station, hotel, and a commercial curb to accommodate transit and other ground transportation, and connections to regional trail networks. The curbside expansion will include new express lanes exclusively for passengers without checked luggage.

Phase 3 will includes the construction of a new Airside D with 16 gates capable of handling both domestic and international flights

Saddlebrook Resort (Tampa)

Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, Florida

WESLEY CHAPEL, FLORIDA– Some 25 years ago I was part of a press tour to Tampa.  Our group was hosted at spectacular place called the Saddlebrook Resort (www.saddlebrook.com) in the suburb of Wesley Chapel – a half hour drive from downtown Tampa. I could not believe my good fortune when I was given the keys to my own private town house condominium.

I never forgot my experience at Saddlebrook, so when we recently set our sights on another trip to Tampa I targeted this 480 acre property for a return visit. We were fortunate to spend five nights there. The three of us booked a 950-square-foot two-bedroom suite. It included a spacious living room, separate dining area and a fully-equipped kitchen with a serving bar. The master bedroom boasts a King bed as well as a separate dressing area and elegant marble bathroom. The second bedroom is thoughtfully-appointed with a Queen bed, as well as an additional dressing area and marble bathroom. Both bedrooms offer complete privacy. These spacious two-bedroom suites also feature a private patio or balcony that is accessible from the living room.  There were two in-room safes.

Saddlebrook formally opened in 1981, with a unique car-free Walking Village design that allows guests to easily walk throughout the resort without the need of a transportation system while providing sanctuary to nature. Thomas L. Dempsey, who was chairman and CEO of Penton Publishing, a subsidiary of the Fortune 500 Pittway Corporation, developed the resort. He envisioned a spot that would allow guests to experience a side of Florida many had never seen, an abundant wildlife that thrives because of the preservation of surrounding lakes and woodlands. The resort itself is located within a gated and secure nature preserve that is home to colorful birds such as Sandhill Cranes, Wood Storks and Great Blue Herons to Snowy Egrets and even gators, along with verdant vegetation that exists in harmony with the natural layout of the hotel grounds.

Dempsey purchased the resort from his employers, Pittway in 1988, and remains chairman and CEO as well as a full-time resident. Saddlebrook now operates as an independent family-owned resort in the grand style and tradition typified by the nation’s finest properties. Over the years, the resort has continued to flourish, becoming an acclaimed destination for Tampa conferences and events as well as a nationally-recognized training center for golf and tennis. In 1992, the Saddlebrook Preparatory School was founded designed to offer student athletes a comprehensive educational experience with concurrent enrollment in either the Saddlebrook Tennis Program or Saddlebrook Golf Academy. Saddlebrook Prep is fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Florida Council of Independent Schools.

Saddlebrook Resort is a certified Florida Green Lodging property. As you walk, jog, or bike along pathways of this eco-friendly Tampa Bay resort, be sure to take in the tropical landscaping and views that surrounds the property.

During your stay, you may catch a glimpse of the area’s colorful wildlife, which includes an array of birds from Sandhill Cranes, Wood Storks and Great Blue Herons to Snowy Egrets, and wildlife, even alligators. Fragrant flowers compliment the swaying palms and stately cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss beckoning guests to explore and convene with the elements.

Saddlebrook recently completed a nearly $2 million renovation on its signature Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, which included the addition of an advanced irrigation system. This computer-controlled system uses only a fraction of the water required by a typical Florida golf course.

The resort’s eco-friendly laundry facility features an extremely high temperature wash cycle and use only mild biodegradable detergents in all of our processes.

Saddlebrook maintains some exceptionally beautiful natural corridors, which not only enhance the guests’ enjoyment, but serves to protect several plant and animal species indigenous to the area. This includes the Great Egret and the Bald Cypress Tree, two key endangered species of flora and fauna that are fighting for a place in the local wetland ecosystem.

With over 40 percent of electrical energy consumption associated with climate control, Saddlebrook has installed active climate control systems in guest rooms and meeting facilities. The conference center is computer-controlled to cool only the rooms that need it, at exactly the right levels. Similarly, when guest rooms are unoccupied, thermostats are turned down to a predetermined setting, which keeps the room fresh, but does not cool excessively.

When it comes to guest room transportation, resort maintenance and golf course use, the majority of the carts in the Saddlebrook fleet run on rechargeable electric batteries. Not only is this better for the environment, but also results in less noise pollution so you can fully enjoy your resort experience. By using a model of central parking and providing bus transportation for  team members, it is calculated that on average about 200 miles per day of cars being driven on the open roads is saved.

This Florida hotel and conference center is completely self-contained, with restaurants, spa, golf, tennis, fitness facilities, three pools and an outdoor team building course all on-site.

The restaurants at Saddlebrook offer both fine and casual award-wining dining served by our signature hospitality. Whether you are entertaining executives at Dempsey’s Steak House, enjoying a post-game lunch while overlooking the 18th green at, or enjoying a fresh breakfast with the family at Tropic’s Restaurant, options are sure to delight every palate. The hotel also   offers In-Room dining services 24 hours a day.

Regarded as one of the best steak houses in the country, Dempsey’s   serves prime beef and fresh seafood in traditional setting.  Enjoy a hearty Aged Porterhouse, Bone-In Filet Mignon, or market fresh seafood including Colossal Shrimp or Pan Seared Wild Salmon. Don’t forget to try our famous table-side Caesar Salad.

When you need to clear your mind and rejuvenate your senses, treat yourself to a day of pure pampering at The Spa at Saddlebrook. This 7,000-square-foot European-style spa has 12 treatment rooms, separate men’s and women’s dressing rooms, each with a steam room.  Sauna, and whirlpools feature a full menu of spa and salon services as well as whirlpools, saunas, steam rooms, and a courtyard terrace for lounging, sunbathing and dining. The professionally trained and licensed practitioners at the spa are skilled in a variety of therapies including traditional Ashiatsu, and as massage techniques ranging from sports recovery to reflexology and hot stone treatments.

In addition to the world-class golf courses and tennis courts, the fitness facilities at Saddlebrook cater to every interest and skill level. The Sports Village features grass and sand volleyball courts, a regulation-size basketball court and a Field Turf sports field. The refreshing waters of the 500,000-gallon free-form Superpool are a highlight of any stay. There are two additional pools at the resort, including the adults-only Serenity Pool.

Bicycle rentals and fishing poles are available at The Swim Shop, and the resort also offers a variety of scheduled activities from morning power walks and group fitness classes to poolside games. Families visiting the resort can take advantage of S’Kids Club, a fun-filled program for guests.

To reserve your stay today at Saddlebrook Resort or contact a Reservations Agent toll-free at 800.729.8383 or locally at 813.907.4401. You might enjoy the place so much you will consider buying a unit. The sales office is located right next to the registration center.

SUPERB SHOPPING NEARBY: Located just 10 minutes from the resort, The Shops at open-air village with 800,000 square feet of retail, dining and entertainment Wiregrass is an options. Stroll through well-known department stores like Macy’s, as well as over 100 specialty and designer shops in this pedestrian-friendly destination. Five minutes from The Shops at Wiregrass the new Tampa Premium Outlet Mall is anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue OFF 5th, plus 110 shops including Calvin Klein, Coach, J. Crew, Michael Kors, Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger.  Thirty minutes away, International Plaza and Bay Street is home to Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Tiffany’s and nearly 200 specialty stores as well as “Only at Bay Street,” an open-air village with unique restaurants and boutiques. We went to this locale a number of times and really enjoyed the experience.

HELLO RUBY TUESDAY:  We were thrilled to find a fantastic Ruby Tuesday Restaurant about 20 minutes from Saddlebrook at 17520 Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.  Being from Canada, with no Ruby Tuesday locations to enjoy, this is a real treat for us which is why we went there twice. We like the menu and especially appreciate the generous salad bar.  There are so many different selections. The staff were very nice. Right next door is a large AMC Movie Theatre, which we took advantage of right after dinner. Just over a year ago Ruby Tuesday closed nearly 100 under performing locations. Happily, this was not one of them.

 

 

 

The Don CeSar at St. Pete Beach

Historic Don CeSar in St. Pete Beach

ST. PETE BEACH – Just over a year ago my family and I made our first visit ever to St. Pete Beach, Florida and stayed at the extraordinary and historic Don CeSar Resort (www.doncesar.com). It was a Loews property at the time. Soon after Host Hotels & Resorts purchased it and engaged Davidson Hotels & Resorts to manage the main locale and the Beach House Suites down the street.

The Don CeSar opened at the height of the Great Gatsby era in 1928. Known as Florida’s iconic “Pink Palace,” The Don CeSar is reminiscent of a Mediterranean-style castle set upon the white sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico in St. Pete Beach. A AAA Four Diamond property, National Historic Landmark and member of the Historic Hotels of America, The Don CeSar features 277 luxurious guest rooms including 36 suites, six restaurants and lounges, two deluxe heated pools, more than 38,000 sq. ft. of event space, the 11,000 sq. ft. Spa Oceana, fitness center, Camp CeSar Kids Camp, The Shoppes of The Don, and access to beach rentals and water sports.

We were very fortunate to be invited back for a lavish day on the beach and let me say for certain that the Don has not lost any of its charm!

Last year we were actually based at the Beach House Suites, taking the very short commute back and forth to the much larger Don CeSar. Guests at the former can take advantage of  the full resort privileges at the Don CeSar, where room charging options are available  at Spa Oceana, shops, and restaurants, including the award-winning, Four-Diamond, Maritana Grille and the Rowe Bar.

The poolside concierge provides everything from cucumber hydration to tropical smoothies.

For those who are physically disabled, the pools and whirlpools at both complexes have special lifts.

The Don CeSar Hotel partners with the award-winning Boucher Brothers Management to pamper guests during their day on the beautiful St. Pete Beach. Take a walk from the pool deck and have some fun on the Gulf of Mexico, seeing the beautiful pink castle from a different view while cruising on wave runners or exploring on ocean kayaks. We got to spend our day lounging in private daybeds and chilling out on a chaise for a luxurious take on fun in the sun. Jimmy from the Boucher Brothers team could not have been nicer in setting is up like kings. He in fact came back several times over our seven hour stay to adjust the umbrellas and make sure everything was okay.

Lunch and drinks were available right at our chairs via the Beachcomber. Here you can enjoy frozen drinks, mojitos, fresh seafood, salads, burgers and other traditional dishes such as the NY Strip Steak Salad, grilled pineapple, tomato, jicama, crispy tortilla and sweet onion vinaigrette, Gulf Fish Tacos with soft corn tortillas, lettuce, salsa, queso fresco, chipotle crema and jicama citrus slaw, and the Foot-Long Dog with pork carnitas, jalapenos, and bread & butter palm of hearts. It is open daily from 11 a.m. to Sundown. We started off with some drinks, an Iguana Smash, a Blueberry blast and a Pina Colada followed by our lunch selections of tortilla chips, fish tacos, a Beachcomber burger and chicken quesadilla. The orders turned around quite quickly and were delivered in large plastic containers, with serving plates and cutlery inside. I have never felt so comfortable dining on a beach chair before.

In terms of beach rentals, run by the Boucher brothers  and its BouYah Watersports Division (www.bouYahWaterSports.com), there are full and half day rates for chaise lounges, sand chairs, umbrellas, cabanas and luxury queen and king beds.

We also took advantage of the Jet Ski rentals. It is $120 per hour or $60 for a half hour after lunch time. You will save some money if you book it in the morning. The staff will sit you down in the Jet Ski in the water, provide a series of guidelines and then allow you to start the motor and go on your merry way. This was a real “rush” for my family. The one hour went by very quickly.

BouYah also rents out banana boats, kayaks and paddle boards.

You can book your choice experience right at the hotel or call in advance and ask to be connected to someone from the Boucher Brothers team.

As for things to do at the hotel, don’t miss a trip to Uncle Andy’s Ice Cream Parlor for some homemade ice cream. Go shelling on the white powder beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Take part in hourly games and activities for children of all ages, including sand-castle building, treasure hunts and obstacle courses. Check out the indigenous fish in the aquarium off lobby.

Kids from aged four to 12 can spend the day exploring the beaches and garden surroundings of the Don. Exciting and kid-friendly activities include beach crafts, seashell hunting, and castle contests, pool games and special Kids Night Out events. You must provide 24-hour advance reservations by calling 727-360-1881 x2233.

For teens the hotel offers a combination of entertaining, fun and educational activities to occupy your hard-to-please teens and tweens who receive music download cards, a list of nearby tourist attractions, activities and shopping geared to teens and access to a lending library of Gameboys, DVD players, board games, and more.

Tampa Dining Tips

Tampa Bay’s cuisine is just as unique and rich as its culture. Sip on lavish libations at the many waterfront bistros and bars. Take a bite into some culinary diversity. Discover fine dining or farm-to-table restaurants and enjoy fresh seafood and authentic Spanish dishes.

Here is a look at some restaurants I experienced.

THE COLUMBIA RESTAURANT:   When in Tampa, you must experience Florida’s oldest restaurant and in fact the largest Spanish dining establishment in the world. The Columbia Restaurant (www.columbiarestaurant.com) was founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez Sr.  It began in Tampa’s Ybor City, (pronounced EE-bore) as a small 60-seat corner cafe known for its Cuban coffee and authentic Cuban sandwiches, frequented by the local cigar workers.

The original Ybor City location is nothing short than magnificent. Additional Columbia locations include St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, the Historic District in St. Augustine, Sand Key on Clearwater Beach, Central Florida’s town of Celebration, Columbia Café on the Riverwalk in Tampa and Columbia Restaurant Café at Tampa International Airport. All Columbia locations are owned and operated by fourth and fifth generation members of the founding family except for the airport, which is operated in partnership with HMSHost.

To this day, over 110 years since it first opened, the Columbia remains in the same family. Richard Gonzmart is the CEO/President and his brother Casey serves as the Chairman of the Board. The fifth generation is also involved; Richard’s daughters, Lauren and Andrea, and Casey’s son, Casey Jr., work in the corporate office. Lauren has four children, twins Michael and Isabella, Maximilian and Alexander, and daughter Andrea has one child, Amelia. Their children represent the sixth generation.

Over the years, Columbia Restaurant has attracted some of the most well-known athletes and entertainers from yesteryear to today.

Richard and Casey Gonzmart have completed several rewarding projects. This included a     5,000 plus square foot $2 million kitchen in the Ybor City restaurant in what was a parking lot/delivery area on the south side of the restaurant.

The old kitchen space was remodeled and turned into two new dining rooms; the Andalucia and the Familia de Casimiro. These were the first new dining rooms built in the restaurant since 1956. The Familia de Casimiro was designed to resemble a Spanish wine cellar, with space for private meetings.

The Andalucia seats up to 80 people, and the Familia de Casimiro up to 30. These two new dining rooms made for an additional 110 seats and brought the total number of dining rooms to 15, with seating for up to 1,700 people. The restaurant has a grand total of 52,000 square feet, and encompasses an entire city block.

The new kitchen and dining rooms were part of a $6.5 million renovation project that prepared the restaurant for its 100th anniversary in 2005.

Reservations are accepted. There is a children’s menu and valet parking Casual attire is fine, but sleeveless shirts on men are not permitted. The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner. Takeout is available on all lunch and dinner menu items.

Some of the menu favorites include Columbia’s Original “1905” Salad,® Spanish Bean Soup, The Original Cuban Sandwich, a variety of Tapas, Paella, Red Snapper “Alicante,” Pompano en Papillot, Roast Pork “A la Cubana,” Chicken and Yellow Rice “Valenciana,” Filet Mignon “Chacho,” Café con Leche and Flan. A gluten-free menu is available.

Winner of Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence, every year since 2004, for an outstanding collection of Spanish wines (more than 1,056 wines, inventory exceeds 50,000 bottles).

There is always entertainment at the Ybor City location, with Flamenco and Spanish classical dance performances nightly ($6 per person cover charge).  There are no shows on Sunday, a live jazz band Tuesday through Saturday nights, live music every Friday and Saturday night in the Tapas Bar and at the Cafe at the Tampa Bay History Center on the Tampa Riverwalk, live music every Friday and Saturday night.

When we arrived for dinner we took advantage of the valet parking and got in line to see the hostess. We were escorted to our table and handed a menu which necessitated a lot of study on our part. It had been 23 years since my last visit to this restaurant and it remains a fabulous dining experience.

After some white sangria was brought to the table, the three of us agreed to share some items from the menu starting with the Tapas (pronounced TAH-pahs) section. These are popular throughout Spain in bars and restaurants.  Tapas usually accompany a glass of sherry or other aperitifs. Simply put, they are appetizers. Together they can form an entire meal, ranging from simple items such as olives or croquettes to more elaborate preparations such as mussels in a spicy sauce.   We opted for the tapeo sampler, which allowed us to make three choices. Ours were: Empanadas de Picadillo (spiced ground beef, garlic, tomato, onions, raisins and olives, wrapped in two pastry turnovers);   Croquetas de Langosta (two large croquettes made with Maine lobster meat, blended into a delicate roux, breaded with Cuban bread crumbs, served with a lobster sauce); and Scallops “Casimiro” (Colossal fresh scallops baked in a clay casserole with lemon butter and topped with seasoned bread crumbs and white wine). It arrived on a tower of three plates.

We moved on to share two main courses.  The Ropa Vieja was originally introduced to Cuba by Spanish sailors.  The name means “old clothes” because the choice beef is shredded, sautéed and simmered with onions, green peppers and tomatoes.   Served with platanos and white rice we thoroughly enjoyed this dish. The same goes for the baked stuffed grouper. This featured a boneless fillet of red grouper stuffed with crabmeat and a tropical passion fruit butter sauce. Gently baked, it was served with yellow rice and fresh vegetables.

When it came time to have dessert, we had just enough room to share the Churros “Tres Amigos” Golden brown Spanish pastry, dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with three sauces of rich warm chocolate, caramel and guava.  It was a terrific meal and let me add that this represents a very affordable choice for families.

The entrance to the restaurant and to the different rooms are handicapped accessible.

RUTH’S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE: Ruth’s Chris Steak House locations can be found across the United States and elsewhere around the world. While in Tampa, we dined at the 350- seat 1700 North Westshore Blvd. location in what would mark my long awaited first review of this very famous restaurant chain.

More than 50 years ago, the “First Lady of Steak,” Ruth Fertel, bought a local steak house in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was called Chris Steak House. She had never planned to expand, but after a fierce kitchen fire decimated the property she was forced to relocate in order to stay in business. Within 10 days she had the restaurant up and running. But the Chris Steak House name was not allowed to move with it. With little time and a mischievous smile, Ruth added her own name to the sign, making it “Ruth’s Chris Steak House.” Later Ruth admitted the name was strange, but she managed to work around it.

In 1965, Fertel was a single mom trying to earn enough to send her two sons to college.   She worked every job at the restaurant: from butchering and broiling steak, to waiting tables, keeping the books and washing the dishes. Fertel’s hard work paid off, and her restaurant soon became the most popular steak house in New Orleans.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House began with a team of working mothers, hired by Fertel for their hardworking attitudes and dedication to doing things right. Having established a “this is how it’s done” tradition – passion, hard work and business savvy – Ruth’s Chris Steak House began to grow.  In the years that followed, Ruth’s Chris Steak House brought its signature sizzle to more than 150 company and franchised owned locations in the U.S and  internationally. It sure has stood the test of time; more than 120 employees have been with the company nearly 20 years or more.

Ruth passed away in 2002, but her legacy of community, philanthropy, and commitment to serving only the best lives on.   What started as one restaurant has grown into the largest collection of upscale steak houses in the world. Now guests routinely savor the sizzle of USDA prime steak and genuine hospitality across the globe.

“Ruth had a recipe for everything from preparing the best steak of your life to simply living right,” said Mike O’Donnell, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Ruth’s Hospitality Group, Inc. “She knew the value of hard work and the true meaning of hospitality.”

Jim Martin, the general manager of the Tampa location, gave us a warm greeting and proudly told some stories about his nearly 30 years with the company. He also shared a few personal anecdotes of his memories of Ruth Fertel, whom he had the pleasure of interacting with on many occasions.

At Ruth’s Chris, your last bite is just as good as your first. Their perfected broiling method and seasoning techniques ensure each cut of USDA Prime beef they serve arrives cooked to perfection and sizzling on a 500 degree plate. The menu includes seafood, appetizers, sides and desserts.

At Ruth’s Chris, there’s more to their bar than world-class wines. They specialize in handcrafted cocktails, from vintage classics to their very own house specialties. All made with fresh-squeezed juices, premium spirits and the perfect finishing touches, I started the evening off with a sweet and tasty cosmopolitan.

For dinner let us recommend the Porterhouse steak for two – 40 ounces of prime beef with the rich flavor of a strip and the tenderness of a filet. This was more than enough for our party of three, with some roasted cremini mushrooms and fingerling potatoes on the side. While we each had our eyes on one of the many excellent soups and salads as a pre-meal selection, instead we agreed to share a small (but it is actually quite large) chilled seafood tower – Maine lobster, king crab legs and knuckles, colossal lump crab meat and jumbo cocktail shrimp served with both Sriracha-lime seafood   and cocktail sauces.

When it came to dessert, our waiter Wayne suggested we go with the crème brulee and we did so with a few spoons. Wayne was right on the mark.

Ruth’s Chris does offer a gluten-free menu. The items available are either gluten-free as prepared, or are modified to be gluten-free. If you have an allergy or dietary concern, contact the restaurant before your reservation time or ask to speak with a manager or chef upon arrival. They do offer vegetarian options.

To learn more about the legend of Ruth Fertel and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, visit RuthsChris.com.

OYSTERCATCHERS: When on holiday we always try to find the best seafood restaurant in town. In Tampa, that would be Oystercatchers (www.oystercatchersrestaurant.com) at the Grand Hyatt at 2900 Bayport Drive.  To get there you drive down a winding road approaching the illuminated circle drive, flanked by palm trees and bright flowerbeds. There is valet parking.

Photo: redsquarephoto.com

As you enter the restaurant through the lounge, you are taken back by the spectacular panoramic view of Old Tampa Bay. With its innovative cocktails and contemporary furniture, the lounge, outside patio and lower bay-level deck provide a comfortable yet chic hotspot for locals and visitors alike. The visually stimulating water views and sunsets provide a unique environment to enjoy feature wines and appetizers. As for the menu, it highlights an array of the freshest, wild and line caught fish available, organic produce and seafood specialties with a unique and contemporary flair.

We indulged in the flavorful creations of Chef de Cuisine Shane Clarke, who artfully blends the freshest catch with innovative touches, as only one born to the water can do.

Our server, Donald, has been part of the Oystercatchers staff for well over 20 years and he guided us excellently. General Manager Justin Beach and Chef Clarke actually greeted us at the start of the evening with a special sampling of their scallops. They were so delicious we knew we had to include this as part of our main course.

For our party of three we chose to share a number of dishes and that started with the appetizers: eight splendid oysters, an order of golden calamari fries, an arugula salad and yellowfin tuna (red in color, served medium rare from Florida’s East coast).   This was a great combination!

Photo: redsquarephoto.com

When it came to the main course, we opted to share a two pound lobster. It came to the table completely cut up and easy to dip into the garlic butter. We also added an order of large juicy sea scallops from the Mexican Gulf, perfectly prepared and among the best I have tasted in many years.

For dessert we shared the house specialty, a slice of key lime pie and a piece of sumptuous chocolate cake.

Unquestionably this is the place you should go for seafood in Tampa Bay! It is open for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5:30 pm to 10 pm and Sunday from 6 pm to 9 pm. A popular brunch is served from 10:30 am to 2 pm Sundays. And you can drop by for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. For more information call (813)

BIZOU BRASSERIE: I had breakfast one morning in one of downtown Tampa’s most iconic and historic buildings, the city’s former federal courthouse. Bizou Brasserie (www.bizoutampa.com) may look formal on the outside, but inside you’ll find a downtown Tampa restaurant to remember in a casual, fun environment. Located within Le Méridien Tampa at 601 N. Florida Avenue, Bizou (meaning “kiss” in French) is just the place to kick off a great evening at a restaurant in downtown Tampa or wind down after a night on the town. Here you’ll find a comfortable, relaxed setting for all kinds of occasions including before or after a special evening downtown visiting the museum, Tampa Theatre or a performance at the Straz Center. The breakfast was pretty good, some corned beef hash with potatoes, poached eggs and a choice of toast.

BERN’S FOR DESSERT: We had dined at the famous Bern’s Steak House (www.bernsteakhouse.com) in Tampa a year earlier.  It was great to learn about the history.  Founder Bern Laxer was born to a Romanian mother and Polish father on the Lower East Side of New York in 1923, and grew up in the Bronx.  After serving in World War II, he returned to New York where he pursued a degree in advertising from New York University.  He met his wife Gert in a copywriting class and they married in 1950. They ought a small luncheonette in 1953 which would grow into Bern’s.

We decided to go to Bern’s after our own dinner one night and back inside the world famous Harry Waugh Dessert Room. Built in 1985 using redwood wine casks to create 48 private rooms, guests get to enjoy nearly 50 desserts, wines, ports, sherries, and madeiras. This represents a separate sitting. All desserts – ice creams, sherbets, pies, pastries, hot fudge, whipped cream, breads and crackers – are made by Bern’s with the freshest and best ingredients available.  Make sure you have a reservation or prepare to wait a long time for a table.

In the end one member of our party opted for a specialty drink, a Butterscotch Bern’s (vanilla ice cream with butterscotch liqueur and other special liqueurs) as well as two outstanding desserts:  the s’mores cheesecake (chocolate cheesecake, graham cracker crust and toasted vanilla marshmallow crème) and a piece of Granny Smith Apple Pie (caramelized apple filling wrapped in a sweet buttery dough and served with a caramel sauce and cinnamon ice cream).

If you are in the area of 1208 S. Howard Street then make a reservation by calling 813-251-2421. You can valet park for $5.Bern’s is fully wheelchair accessible. There are elevators which bring you to each level of the restaurant.

 

 

New York Broadway Update

By Alexandra Cohen

NEW YORK BROADWAY UPDATE:  There are many reasons to travel to New York City, with Broadway musicals heading the list.  Let us recommend two shows, Groundhog Day and Come From Away,

Groundhog Day, the Olivier Award-winning new musical based on the iconic film by the same name, continues to delight crowds at the August Wilson Theatre in New York City. Groundhog Day was re-imagined by the award-winning creators of the international hit Matilda The Musical—including director Matthew Warchus and songwriter Tim Minchin—with a book by original screenwriter Danny Rubin.

Phil Connors, played by three-time Tony nominee Andy Karl, is an arrogant big-city weatherman forced to relive the same day over and over again in a small town that he loathes. It seems that he can do whatever he pleases with no consequences, but as he gets to know associate TV producer Rita Hanson (played by Barrett Doss), he falls for her as she teaches him to live each day to the fullest.

Before opening on Broadway, the show opened on the West End to critical acclaim, picking up Olivier awards for Best Musical and Best Lead Actor (Karl), amongst others. Andy Karl, to put it simply, is absolutely brilliant in this production. He sells the show from beginning to end, preventing the repetitive nature of the show from becoming boring for even a second with his fresh acting choices.

Karl made the news by tearing his ACL on stage when the show was still in previews. Exemplifying the expression “the show must go on”, despite having to crawl offstage in tears, he returned just over ten minutes later to sing the final number. Karl officially returned to the show only 72 hours later with a brace on his leg, just in time for opening night, earning glowing reviews and eventually a Drama Desk Award and Tony nomination.

In addition to Karl, his romantic opposite, Barrett Doss, also impresses. Doss made her Broadway debut in 2014 as an understudy but has shown that she belongs firmly in the spotlight with her strong voice and magnetic stage presence.

Groundhog Day, the perfect mixture of uproariously funny and incredibly moving, is sure to see audience members leaving with smiles on their faces. One of such audience members recently was none other than Bill Murray, who played Phil Connors in the film. “It’s really something. It’s very powerful”, he said. Murray reportedly was seen sobbing in the audience by the end of the show, and in fact, loved it so much that he returned again the next night for a repeat viewing.

Hurry up and try to catch this wonderful production before it closes on September 17, 2017. If not, you can still catch it on the road, as an 18-month national tour is planned for next year.

COME FROM AWAY: Come From Away, which was nominated for seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, features an outstanding ensemble of actors who work together to tell this deeply moving story. Each performer plays multiple roles, and they transition seamlessly from Newfoundlanders to the people on the planes under the expert direction of Tony Award-winner Christopher Ashley.

Come From Away (www.comefromaway.com), the new Broadway musical by Canadian husband and wife duo Irene Sankoff and David Hein, tells the often-forgotten story of the 38 planes that were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001. While the tragedy of 9/11 does not sound like the most uplifting premise for a musical, the show’s creators refer to it instead as a story about 9/12 and the days that followed. Come From Away, to put it simply, is a 100-minute musical celebrating human empathy and kindness.

The small town of Gander nearly doubled its population, turning itself upside down to accommodate the visitors, many of whom spoke different languages and came from different cultural backgrounds.

Of particular note in the cast is Tony-nominee Jenn Colella, who amongst other roles, plays Captain Beverly Bass. Bass was, as sung by Colella, “the first female American captain in history”, and her plane flying from Paris to Dallas was one of the 38 diverted to Gander. She has been to see Come From Away a whopping 61 times thus far. “I never get tired of it,” Bass told the New York Times, also adding “I can’t believe I’ve seen it that many times – but I’m ready to go back”.

Leaving the theatre following the show, I couldn’t help but feel exceptionally proud to be Canadian. Come From Away is laced with inside jokes meant just for us, like references to Tim Hortons and Molson beer, along with stereotypical jokes like a moose standing in the middle of the road and the communal disappointment felt when hockey is cancelled.

While history largely forgot about the incredible people of Gander, that cannot be said anymore. In June, it was announced that for their hospitality and kindness, the town of Gander will be honored as the first municipality to win an international humanitarian award from the Values-In-Action Foundation.

Run, don’t walk, to see this incredible Broadway production. Come From Away will also launch a North American tour across the United States and Canada at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre in October 2018, and a third production has been announced to play Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre beginning on Tuesday, February 13, 2018.

MOMA : When in New York City, we strongly recommend a visit to the fabulous Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), dedicated to being the foremost museum of modern art in the world.

Central to  MoMA’s mission is the encouragement of an ever-deeper understanding and enjoyment of modern and contemporary art by the diverse local, national, and international audiences that it serves. It opened in 1929 in the Heckscher Building located at 730 Fifth Avenue.  Over the course of the next 10 years, the Museum moved three times into progressively larger temporary quarters, and in 1939 finally opened the doors of the building it still occupies in midtown Manhattan. Subsequent expansions took place during the 1950s and 1960s planned by the architect Philip Johnson, who also designed The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden. In 1984, a major renovation designed by Cesar Pelli doubled the Museum’s gallery space and enhanced visitor facilities.

In 2001, the Museum began a major renovation and expansion of its midtown location designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. MoMA closed its doors in midtown in May 2002 and opened in its temporary quarters MoMA QNS in Long Island City, Queens, in June 2002. Design by Michael Maltzan and Cooper, Robertson & Partners, MoMA QNS functioned as the Museum’s temporary exhibition space until September 2004.

MoMA reopened its midtown location on November 20, 2004, to coincide with the Museum’s 75th anniversary. The 630,000-square-foot Museum is nearly twice the size of the former facility, offering dramatically expanded and redesigned spaces for exhibitions, public programming, educational outreach, and scholarly research. The Museum now features 125,000 square feet in gallery space. Kohn Pederson Fox served as executive architect on the project. The total cost of construction was $425 million.

Completed in November 2006, The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building marked the culmination of the Taniguchi project, providing significantly increased space for MoMA’s wide-ranging educational and research activities.

The six-storey    David and Peggy Rockefeller Building Gallery Building houses galleries for the collection and temporary exhibitions. Architecturally distinctive galleries designed specifically for the type and scale of works displayed provide an ideal showcase for MoMA’s unparalleled collection of modern and contemporary art. Spacious galleries for contemporary art are located on the second floor, demonstrating the Museum’s commitment to the art of our time. There are galleries for Media (second floor), Prints and Illustrated Books (second floor,) Architecture and Design (third floor), Drawings (third floor), and Painting and Sculpture (fourth and fifth floors).  Expansive, sky lit galleries for temporary exhibitions are located on the sixth floor, and additional galleries for temporary exhibitions are also located on the second and third floors. The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium, which soars 110 feet above street level, also functions as a gallery for various departments

One of the stars of the museum’s collection is Vincent Van Gogh’s – The Starry Night.  It depicts a turbulent sky over Saint Remy, where Van Gogh was confined to a mental asylum during his final days. The roiling energy of the sky, intense color and exploding stars are thought to evoke Van Gogh’s emotional state. He once said, “Looking at the stars always make me dream.”

Make sure to check out the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, restored to Philip Johnson’s original 1953 design by Yoshio Taniguchi in 2004. Taniguchi enlarged the garden to 21,400 square feet and re-established the southern terrace, which is now an elegant outdoor patio for The Modern Restaurant. Yearly exhibitions are presented in the garden, and it has been the home of Summergarden since 1971. Views of the Garden are available from numerous vantage points throughout the Museum.

Across the Sculpture Garden and opposite The David and Peggy Rockefeller Building is MoMA’s eight-story Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building, a 63,000 square foot space for educational and research activities, as well as offices. The Library and Archives occupy the top floors of the building and include a light-filled reading room and outdoor terrace. The building also features an entrance for school groups, a 125-seat auditorium, and an orientation center, workshop space for teacher training programs, classrooms, study centers, and a large lobby with double-height views into the Sculpture Garden. Exhibitions drawn from the Museum’s Library and Archives are displayed for the public throughout the year on the mezzanine level of the building.

MoMA is open seven days a week at 11 West 53 Street. For more details and to find out about present and upcoming exhibitions log on to www.moma.org.

WHERE TO STAY:  Is there really any better place to stay in New York City  than the historic Algonquin Hotel (www.algonquinhotel.com). On our most recent trip,   we were fortunate enough to secure reservations again.  Located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, this jewel of historic New York hotels commands the center of 44th Street, just a block and a half away from Times Square. The Algonquin first opened its doors in 1902. Today it is part of the Marriott chain’s Autograph Collection, an evolving ensemble of strikingly independent hotels. Each destination has been selected for its quality, bold originality, rich character and uncommon details. From near to far, iconic to historic, the result is an array of properties that is nothing less than unique. The Algonquin Hotel was the first New York City property to become a part of the collection.

For 100 years, the Algonquin has been greeting and lodging the country’s most prominent writers and literary personalities, as well as the leading figures of the American stage. The hotel is best known, perhaps, for the members of the Round Table, a group of luminaries who had in common both the ability to fire blazing witticisms and to withstand being on the receiving end of them. The tone they set during their daily meetings set the literary style of the 1920s. After World War I, Vanity Fair writers and Algonquin regulars Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood began lunching at the Algonquin. Though society columns referred to them as the Algonquin Round Table, they called themselves the Vicious Circle. “By force of character,” observed drama critic Brooks Atkinson, “they changed the nature of American comedy and established the tastes of a new period in the arts and theatre.”

Each of the 181 rooms and 25 suites features a comfortable well-lit work desk, as well as complimentary Wi-Fi.  Always one step ahead of everyone else, the hotel was the first to offer accommodations to actors and single women travellers.   You can download the special Folio app, which will provide access to a wide variety of ebooks you can read as long as you remain on the premises.

Delighting thirsty revelers when it opened at the demise of the Prohibition in 1933, The Blue Bar has moved – both physically and eruditely – through decades of Times Square hotel bar trends.  There is also The Round Table Restaurant and the casual Lobby Lounge.

As a cat lover we are always excite to see the house cat, Hamlet. For many years the history of The Algonquin Cat was believed to have its origins in the 1930’s, when a stray cat came wandering into the hotel for food and water.

San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO – Let me begin by saying how welcoming the city of San Francisco is to tourists. I cannot remember a time when a tourism bureau was so helpful.

San Francisco is often called “Everybody’s Favorite City,” a title earned by its scenic beauty, cultural attractions, diverse communities, and world-class cuisine. Measuring 49 square miles, this very walk-able city is dotted with landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, Alcatraz and the largest Chinatown in the United States. A stroll of the city’s streets can lead from Union Square to North Beach to Fisherman’s Wharf, with intriguing neighborhoods to explore at every turn. Views of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay are often laced with fog, creating a romantic mood in this most European of American cities.

The San Francisco Travel Association (www.sftravel.com) is a private, not-for-profit organization that markets the city as a leisure, convention and business travel destination.  With more than 1,300 partner businesses, San Francisco Travel is one of the largest membership-based tourism promotion agencies in the country. Tourism, San Francisco’s largest industry, generated record-breaking numbers in 2016.  More than 25.1 million people visited the destination, spending in excess of $9.69 billion.

We were there for a week and built our itinerary carefully.

It is  easy to spend weeks in San Francisco and still not experience everything the city has to offer. The Golden Gate Bridge, the most famous bridge in the world, manages to impress even the most experienced travellers with its stunning 1.7-mile span. Approximately 120,000 automobiles drive across it every day. A pedestrian walkway also allows the crossing on foot, and bikes are allowed on the western side. The Golden Gate Bridge is said to be one of the most photographed things on Earth. Cable cars have been transporting people around San Francisco since the late 19th century. The cars run on tracks and are moved by an underground cable on three routes. Their familiar bells can be heard ringing from blocks away. Tickets ($7) may be purchased at the cable car turnarounds at the ends of each route. Each one-way ride will provide spectacular views of the city’s celebrated hills, as well as exhilarating transportation.

Alcatraz, the notorious former prison, is located on an island of the same name in the middle of San Francisco Bay.  Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to Pier 39, a festive waterfront marketplace that is one of the city’s most popular attractions. A community of California sea lions has taken up residence on the floats in the Pier 39 Marina and visitors line the nearby railing to watch their antics. From there it’s a short walk to the San Francisco Dungeon and Madame Tussauds, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and the famous crab vendors selling walk-away crab and shrimp cocktails. Union Square is the place for serious shoppers. Major department stores and the most exclusive designer boutiques line streets like Post, Sutter, Geary, Grant, Stockton and Powell. The Westfield San Francisco Shopping Centre houses the largest Bloomingdale’s outside of New York and the second largest Nordstrom in the U.S.

The entrance to Chinatown at Grant Avenue and Bush Street is called the “Dragon’s Gate.” Inside are 24 blocks of hustle and bustle, most of it taking place along Grant Avenue, the oldest street in San Francisco. This city within a city is best explored on foot; exotic shops, renowned restaurants, food markets, temples and small museums comprise its boundaries. Visitors can buy ancient potions from herb shops, relax and enjoy a “dim sum” lunch or witness the making of fortune cookies.

San Francisco is home to internationally recognized symphony, opera and ballet companies, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art , the Asian Art Museum, the de Young Museum, the Legion of Honor and the California Academy of Sciences – the only place on the planet with an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum, and a four-story rainforest all under one roof.

Do consider purchasing the San Francisco CityPASS, which saves travellers up to 42 percent off combined admission to top attractions. It includes a Cable Car and Muni Bus Passport, good for three consecutive days of unlimited rides on all Muni buses, light rail trains, streetcars, and the city’s celebrated cable cars. While other visitors are paying $7 for each one-way cable car ride, CityPASS holders can hop on and off as many times as they like. Also included is pre-paid admission to the city by the Bay’s top attractions: California Academy of Sciences, a Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise, the Aquarium of the Bay on San Francisco’s lively Embarcadero waterfront, and a choice between the Exploratorium and the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor. Travellers with kids will definitely want to check out the Exploratorium’s stunning new home at Pier 15. The museum’s 330,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor space features some 600 exhibits, 25 percent of which are new installations designed to engage, delight and inform.  Each 2017 San Francisco CityPASS ticket booklet costs $89 for adults, $66 for kids, ages five to 11. Passes, which can be purchased online at CityPASS.com/san-francisco  or at any of the CityPASS partner attractions listed above, are valid for nine consecutive days, beginning with the first day of use.

Since 1997, CityPASS ticket booklets and admission cards have been premier products for travelers who want to visit a destination’s top attractions while enjoying significant savings. CityPASS booklets/cards are available for New York City, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Southern California, Tampa Bay and Toronto. Visit CityPASS.com.

 

WHERE TO STAY – THE HILTON UNION SQUARE: We were excited to get accommodations  at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square (www.sanfrancisco.hilton.com)

located in the theatre district and within  walking distance to cable cars,  the Moscone Center and about one mile from night clubs, Chinatown and Nob Hill.  Macy’s and the upscale Westfield San Francisco Center are only a few blocks away.

This historic three-tower hotel provides rooms with city views, the Cityscape lounge on the 46th floor and a ballroom that occupies an entire floor. You can relax on their16th floor pool deck. It’s only 14 miles from the San Francisco International Airport. There are more than 1,900 rooms here, making it the largest hotel on the West Coast.

We stayed in one of the hotel’s newly renovated Tower Two Luxury suites, which has a main bedroom with two Queen sized beds and a small sofa. This connects to a much larger room –called a parlor – which features a Murphy bed, two sofas, a round dining room table that can seat six and windows on all sides. Combined you have two bathrooms, two fridges, two in-room safes, more cupboard space, which adds up to ultra-comfort.  There is also a tablet in each room, which provides you with all of the necessary hotel and city information. For a nominal charge you can surf the net with it as well.

The hotel even has a Suites Director, a fine gentleman named George Ferris. At the front desk there are plenty of staff to take care of you and I very much appreciated the able assistance provided by the concierge team.

Classic guest rooms offer HDTV and Wi-Fi access while ultra-modern rooms showcase city skyline or bay views. Accessible rooms are also available.  There’s plenty of choice for dining here. Head to Herb ‘N Kitchen where you can eat your way – sit down, grab and go, or order to your room. Urban Tavern is the place for sit down dining and a fantastic buffet breakfast under the name of “Poached.” The Lobby Bar is the perfect setting to unwind after a busy day.

Whether conducting business, keeping up with a fitness routine or looking to spend quality time with your family, this Hilton hotel provides the amenities you expect and the extras you deserve. A Business Centre is located in the lobby level of Building Two. It includes computer work stations, conference room rentals, rentals for audio/visual equipment and conference rooms, a fax machine, and data phones with web access, Express mail and even secretarial services. For your fitness and recreational convenience, enjoy the fully equipped 2,800 sq. ft. health club with high calibre equipment.

There are accessible guest rooms with mobility features, entry or passage doors that provide 32 inches as well as special provisions for parking, entry ways, swimming, braille on the elevators, closed captioning on televisions or closed captioning decoders, TDD devices, a digital alarm clock available with sound and a vibrating pad, grab bars in bathroom, shower baths or roll in showers, an inflatable chair available to assist in getting in and out of a bath and a  level or ramp entrance into the building.

 

EMBASSY SUITES AIRPORT: Here is a tip when arriving in San Francisco in the middle of the evening. Why head to your main hotel right away? We checked into the modern Embassy Suites by Hilton San Francisco Airport hotel. Here you can enjoy spacious accommodations in this all-suite hotel, where a separate living area and bedroom are standard features. The flexible rooms have tiered Wi-Fi available and convenient, delicious dining options at your fingertips. Their daily cooked-to-order breakfast and evening receptions with drinks are included in all reservations. They offer a complimentary shuttle bus service to and from the airport, a free daily trolley to and from the city of Burlingame (11:30 am to 9 pm) and a complimentary motor coach to downtown San Francisco on Fridays and Saturdays.  The hotel is located 10 miles south of downtown.  You can take a refreshing swim in their indoor on-site swimming pool, or check out the fitness center. The tropical atrium, perfect for relaxing after work or a day out, features a beautiful koi fish pond and water fountain. The on-site restaurant is called Two Fifty and there is also a Starbucks on site. I really felt at home here and enjoyed the ambience of the gigantic lobby where I connected to free Wi-Fi and got a lot of work done squeezed between some Netflix binge watching.

The hotel is fully accessible, with a wide front entrance, wide hallways, several elevators, walkways above the tropical atrium.  There is easy access to the pool as well. Service animals are permitted. It is located at 250 Gateway Boulevard. For more information call 650-589-3400 or log on to www.sanfranciscoairportsouthsanfran.embassysuites.com.

 

HOP-ON, HOP-OFF BUS:   For our first full day in San Francisco it was a no brainer to take the hop-on, hop-off Big Bus tour.  You can buy your tickets in multiple ways. Log on to www.bigbustours.com and click on the San Francisco section as this company operates across the globe. We previously experienced it in London and Paris. Download the free App before you go.  In a city like San Francisco, with stunning bays, bridges and hills, this bus tour is the perfect way to sightsee. Hop-on, hop-off, and revel in the flexibility as you explore the treasures of Golden Gate Bridge to Fisherman’s Wharf, Haight Ashbury to Chinatown.  You will be offered ear buds when you board and a guide will announce all of the sites you pass by. Just keep your tickets as these will get your re-entry. You can sit in an enclosed space downstairs or climb the stairs to the open air second level if there is room. The buses are supposed to arrive at different spots every 20 minutes. That does not always occur, so we called on Uber a couple of times to keep us on the move. Overall, though, we were very pleased and hit all of the major landmarks. There are a variety of different packages available, so pick the one that best suits your needs. As for handicapped accessibility, Big Bus tours does operate wheelchair accessible vehicles with lifts that can accommodate a weight up to 650 pounds. The entire fleet in San Francisco is not wheelchair accessible. If you or your travelling partner(s) requires an ADA accessible vehicle,   contact the company 48 hours prior to your planned tour commencement. They can then arrange for a suitable vehicle to be available at the time and location required. Passengers with mobility impairments may not be able to access the upper deck.

 

MUIR WOODS AND SAUSALITO:  Alan Rosenzweig moved to San Francisco 30 years ago from Brooklyn to go to university and never left.  “When I arrived here, I spent just about every weekend exploring different places on foot, by bike or in my car,” he recalls. “One of my first trips was to Muir Woods National Monument and the grove of coastal Sequoias (Redwoods) — the tallest trees in the world! Thirty years later, I am taking people to visit this spectacular Redwood Grove as well as to many other places I love and appreciate.”

Via his Best Bay Tours (https://bestbayareatours.com), Rosenzweig found a second career and started thinking about what he loves to do: to travel, explore and engage people.   “I have travelled throughout the United States, as well as to many parts of the world,” he says. “I have spent time in Central America, Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. For three months I lived in Borneo volunteering at an Orangutan rehabilitation center and wildlife refuge. I’ve visited most of the National Parks in the USA. I’ve also volunteered as a tour guide at Ano Nuevo State Park near San Francisco, which is home to a large population of elephant seals. So it seemed like a natural move for me to create Best Bay Area Tours and become a tour guide. I absolutely love doing what I do. I get to show people from all over the world many of the wonderful sights, smells and tastes of the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s been a lot more fun than I thought it could possibly be. I look forward to seeing you on one of my tours.”

We had a great time on this tour. A comfortable van picked us up in front of our hotel and what an incredible chauffeur/tour guide we had in charismatic Paul Berman. A native of Scotland, he moved here 27 years ago with his wife and never left.  The Muir Woods tour took us across the Golden Gate Bridge, past the Marin Headlands, and into a magical Redwood forest known as Muir Woods. This is one of the most amazing and beautiful sights in the world. The Coastal Sequoias (Redwoods) in Muir Woods are the tallest trees in the world,   found only along the Northern California coast, and after decades of logging only five percent of these old growth trees remain. On our drive to Muir Woods Paul explained how this grove of Redwoods was spared from the clear-cutting that went on during the gold rush and then again during the rebuilding and reconstruction of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Once in the grove of Redwoods, we had a special opportunity to walk amongst these beautiful and awe inspiring Sequoia trees by following the creek bed. We spent about 90 minutes in the Redwood grove. The tour the moved on to picturesque Sausalito,  California,  where had a chance to shop, visit art galleries and have lunch all while gazing across the bay at beautiful San Francisco. You have the option of returning with the tour back to San Francisco with a stop in the Marin Headlands, which provides stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco beyond. Or you can stay in Sausalito and spend as much time as you’d like and then make your own way back via the ferry. Tour prices are $45 for children and $60 for adults. This does not include the $10 entrance fee to the Muir Woods National Park.

 

ESCAPE TO ALCATRAZ: I have always been fascinated by Alcatraz, once home to some of America’s most notorious criminals. The federal penitentiary that operated here from 1934 to 1963 brought a dark mystique to the Rock as the presence of infamous inmates like Al “Scarface” Capone, and the “Birdman” Robert Stroud helped to establish the island’s notoriety. To this day, Alcatraz is best known as one of the world’s most legendary prisons. A visit to Alcatraz is high on every San Francisco tourist’s list.  We booked our tickets via Alcatraz Cruises (www.alcatrazcruises.com), the National Park Service concessioner of ferry service to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz Cruises hosts nearly 1.5 million visitors annually. Plan about two and a half hours for your visit. You can stay as long as you like, taking the cell house audio tour, exploring the rest of the island and its historic exhibits, and returning to the mainland. The National Park Service volunteers and guides offer guided programs throughout the day, frequently taking visitors into seldom-seen areas of the island. The compelling Cell house Audio Tour “Doing Time” through the cell house featuring the actual voices of former guards and inmates is currently available in multiple-languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish Dutch, Mandarin, Portuguese and Korean. An orientation video with historical footage of the island is shown every half hour. In addition, museum displays and several bookstores are available. From late September until February 1, when bird nesting season begins, you can explore the island’s historic parade ground and hike down the Agave Trail to the water’s edge.

Portions of the cell house West Wall are temporarily shrouded while they repair and restore this important historic structure. With the exception of the hospital wing, all areas traditionally open at this time of year remain so. There are limited areas on Alcatraz that are always closed, due to their fragile, potentially harmful, condition. Restoration of the cell house will be complete in early 2018.

Many people are unaware of the wealth of other stories to be learned on the island. Alcatraz is now home to rare flowers and plants, marine wildlife, and thousands of roosting and nesting sea birds. Civil War-era buildings dotting the island give insight into the 19th century when the island served as both a harbor defense fort and a military prison. You can also see visible reminders of the American Indian Occupation that started in 1969 after the prison closed, highlighting an important milestone in the American Indian rights movement.

As for Alcatraz Cruises, we were transported to the island on the nation’s first hybrid ferry, an eco-friendly vessel powered largely by solar panels, wind turbines, and grid electricity. Carpet, countertops, and fixtures incorporate recycled and sustainable materials. It was a fascinating experience. Here is a tip. Order your tickets as far in advance as possible.

 

CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENCE:  The California Academy of Sciences  (http://www.calacademy.org) is home to an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, and research and education programs, which engage people of all ages and backgrounds on two of the most important topics of our time: life and its sustainability. Based in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, it’s remarkable what is housed all under one living roof.

The Steinhart Aquarium is one of the most advanced and biologically diverse aquariums in the world, home to the world’s deepest indoor living coral reef, an albino alligator, a colony of African penguins, a shark lagoon and more than 38,000 live animals representing over 900 species. Through partnerships with Academy scientists, who travel the world in search of new and little-known species, Steinhart’s biologists often display animals you won’t find in any other public aquarium.

The Morrison Planetarium is home to one of the largest and most advanced all-digital domes in the world. The Academy’s Visualization Studio produces award-winning original planetarium shows that tell stories about faraway galaxies—and our home planet Earth—using scientific data to depict the most current discoveries.

The Kimball Natural History Museum explores some of the most significant discoveries and issues of our time. Explore majestic dioramas of African landscapes and animals and immerse yourself in exhibits that examine the evolution—and future—of life on Earth. And don’t miss our earthquake simulator, the Shake House, while learning about the natural forces that have shaped the Bay Area.

The Osher Rainforest allows visitors to explore a lush, four-story rainforest, housed in a 90-foot glass dome and teeming with life from some of the most biodiverse places on Earth—from an ant colony and free-flying birds and butterflies to enormous Amazonian fish.

Along with dozens of daily programs on the museum floor, there are plenty of ways to see and learn more during your visit and after hours. You can book a behind-the-scenes tour

and get a closer look at the live animals, discover scientific collections, or learn what makes this museum the greenest in the world. On Thursday nights, adults 21 and over can enjoy live music, cocktails, and special activities and entertainment in addition to exploring the entire Academy after dark. The Academy also partners with scientists from institutions around the world to host lectures on a wide range of topics. Astronomy buffs can learn more about discoveries within the final frontier at our Benjamin Dean Astronomy Lecture series.

Admission is: $34.95 for adults; $29.95 for youth ages 12 to 17, Seniors ages 65 plus, and students with valid ID; $24.95 for children ages four to 11; and free for children ages three and younger. Admission fees include all exhibits and shows. Hours are 9:30 am to 5 pm Monday – Saturday, and 11 am to 5 pm on Sunday. During peak periods, including some holiday weekends, extended hours may apply. Visit www.calacademy.org or call (415) 379-8000 for more.

 

CULINARY TIPS: Dining in San Francisco is an attraction in itself. Known as one of America’s best restaurant cities, San Francisco chefs excel at combining the freshest local ingredients, authentic international flavors and a touch of creative genius. Choose your cuisine – Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, Moroccan, Indian, Malaysian, Mexican, Greek, Russian or “fusion,” a combination of any or all of these influences.

 

DINNER AT FARALLON AND SHOW:  We came upon the ideal dinner and show combination right next to each other- a fabulous meal at Farallon Restaurant (www.farallonrestaurant.com), followed by an evening at the San Francisco Playhouse and a presentation of the La Cage Aux Folles.  In fact, the dinner and a show promotion that Farallon has with the Playhouse is a $49 three-course prix fixe dinner the details of which are listed here: http://www.farallonrestaurant.com/promotions-farallon/.

Farallon, founded by famed restaurateur and designer Pat Kuleto and Chef Mark Franz, has been enchanting guests for 18 years. With carefully crafted details that capture the life aquatic, Farallon has been vastly lauded as a top dining establishment offering coastal cuisine from Chefs Franz and Jason Ryczek, highlighting the freshest seafood available. Since opening in 1997, Farallon has been named a top restaurant by Bon Appetít, Esquire, and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as receiving a nomination as a James Beard “Best New Restaurant” and “San Francisco’s Best Newcomer” from Food & Wine magazine’s readers’ poll.

Farallon offers a sophisticated menu featuring “coastal cuisine” created by Franz and Ryczek. The freshest seafood available comprises the majority of the menu, rounded out with local produce, meat, and game. The Oyster Bar menu features a daily selection of 10 different types of oysters from around the world, all on the half shell. Tartars, caviar, and house-cured gravlax are also available. Iced shellfish platters feature an assortment of raw and chilled shellfish.  The dining room menu features appetizers to pique the palate, such as Ahi Tuna Panzanella with pistachio pesto, Calabrian chilis, and sea beans; Baby Beet & Dungeness Crab Salad with grapefruit, hazelnuts, mint, and black truffles; Sea Urchin & Bone Marrow with grilled levain and garlic scape persillade; and Oysters & Gnocchi with paddlefish caviar, celery root, and baby fennel. Dining room appetizers are priced from $11 to $19.

Dinner entrees are priced from $27 to $36 and include dishes such as Seared Tombo Tuna with garbanzo beans and red walnut muhummara; Dry Aged Prime Ribeye Pave with honey glazed baby carrots, farro verde, and fines herbes; and Cast Iron Roasted Striped Bass with baby artichoke barigoule, rouille, and pistou.  Chef Eleana Rosenthal’s innovative desserts include dishes such as Bergamot Angel Food Cake with earl grey ice cream, short dough, and honeycomb; Lavender-Lemongrass Panna Cotta with tapioca, huckleberries, and poppy seed tuile, plus an exquisite selection of imported and domestic cheeses.

As for the décor, Kuleto created a colorful undersea fantasy in a space originally designed for a 1925 Elks Club’s salt water plunge room. The underwater whimsy begins in the 25-seat Jelly Bar with its hand-made “jellyfish” lights suspended two stories overhead, the octopus bar stools, hand-made illuminated kelp pillars and a floor resembling the bottom of the ocean with sandy color and inset marble- tiled fish. The Oyster Bar offers eight sea urchin bar stools, white Carrera marble counters, custom stainless steel oyster display case and large oval mirror. These elements come together to evoke a classic oyster bar feel. The “caviar” staircase leading to the balcony shines with 50,000 iridescent indigo-blue marbles, suggestive of caviar; the ceiling is done in a rich, night-sky blue, overlooking the underwater scene below. Leading into the Pool Room is the Nautilus Area, designed to suggest the inside of a shell, with its winding nautilus-patterned floor, the light fixtures made with real and glass barnacles and the sand-coated ceiling.  The Pool Room features a restored elaborate 1920s-era painted mosaic of mermaids on the three Gothic arches, along with hand-made giant “sea urchin” light fixtures and three commissioned paintings portraying how the San Francisco wharf might have looked at the turn of the century.  Hammered copper and metal fish scales adorn the open kitchen that is lit by hand-blown glass blue squid fixtures. The Wine Hold, 12-seat semi- private dining room off the Pool Room is adjacent to the restaurant’s wine cellar and features a painting suggestive of being in the hold of a ship, surrounded by bottles of wine.

Wine Director Luke Kenning brings an extensive knowledge and enthusiasm for wines to Farallon. The $200,000 cellar maintains over 500 wines from around the world, priced from $35 to $1,500. With a generous selection of half-bottles and wines-by-the-glass, Farallon’s wine program is accessible and enjoyable.  With one of the largest collections of single malt whiskeys in the city (140 in total), Farallon complements its celebrated food with an impressive spirits program from Bar Manager Kevin Boals. The cocktail list of this Union Square haunt is full of simple classics with Boals’ personal touches. Guests of all tastes and price ranges will find something to enjoy at the bar. From unique Tasmanian single malts to rare, closed distillery treasures, the ever-changing bar menu is stocked with exciting bottles that always blow cocktail connoisseurs away. The private dining rooms, located on the fourth floor of the historic Elks Building, are designed in a manner consistent with Farallon’s underwater theme. The Sevruga Room, seating up to 18 guests, is a cozy wine library with a hand-blown glass aquarium and a candle-lit fireplace. The Osetra Room, with 10-foot French windows overlooking bustling Union Square, seats up to 50 diners. Beautiful porthole paintings are the perfect accent to this room. The largest of the three rooms is the Beluga, which seats up to 120. French doors lead you into the grand ballroom of a luxury ocean liner that has sunk to the bottom of the sea. Inside, sea creatures are having a party. All the rooms are serviced from their own kitchen under the direct supervision of Chef Ryczek who uses the freshest ingredients to create seasonal menus that change daily.

We had an absolutely fabulous dinner. Our server Nancy nicely described the options and paired different wine with our appetizers and main courses. We started off with a large selection from the raw bar:  lo b s t e r   c l a w , Dungeness crab, oysters, clams and prawns as well as tasting of Pacific Coast oysters. I also enjoyed a very unique bowl of soup, the Brodo of Homemade Charcuterie, mussels, mushroom , tortellini, summer corn and pesto. For the main course our party of three feasted on the  sablefish, from the Farallon Islands, which came with h i c k o r y ro a s t e d b a b y e g g p l a n t, couscous, figs, almonds and ras el hanout (a yogurt-like topping). The bone dry scallops, with m u s h r o o m s,  cherry tomatoes, flageolet beans and arugula pistou got a big thumbs up. So did the flannery filet of beef,   with braised scallions, fingerling potatoes and crisp summer peppers. For dessert we opted for the mocha mousse chocolate cookie crumble and lavender Chantilly and the  raspberry charlotte with lime meringue, fig compote  and citrus tuile. It was the perfect ending to a perfect meal!

Dinner is served Monday through Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m; and  Sunday, 5:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Happy Hour, offered  daily in the Jellyfish Lounge & Oyster Bar, goes from 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Reservations for dinner are recommended by phone or Open Table. Info: 415.956.6969

 

SAN FRANCISCO PLAYHOUSE:  Now beginning its second decade as San Francisco’s premiere Off-Broadway style theatre company, the San Francisco Playhouse (http://sfplayhouse.org) presents a diverse line up of shows from cutting edge, bold plays direct from Broadway runs like Bengal Tiger in the Bagdad Zoo to innovative musicals like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or classic musical favorites like My Fair Lady and Company.  The Playhouse has a cool bar and happy hour, as well as the diverse entertainment offering, presenting a wide range of theatre including premieres by new writers, all in an intimate setting of 200 seats.  They are in performances throughout the year, so there is always something for people to see.  I’d make this an automatic stop for any planned trip to San Francisco.

The Playhouse has also been praised for its commitment to new works and for its world premieres, several of which have moved to New York for acclaimed Off Broadway runs. This is a newly renovated theatre which still retains its historical beauty and significance. We thoroughly enjoyed  a showing of the classic La Cage Aux Folles.  As artistic director Bill English notes, there is no better recipe than La Cage, with the catchy tunes of Jerry Herman and the wicked book of Harvey Fierstein to install a permanent grin on our faces. The music and acting was great and the laughter in the room was infectious.You can find the full lineup of their productions planned through September 2018 on their website. It is located at 450 Post Street (between Mason and Powell Streets) on the second floor of the Kensington Hotel, less than one block from Union Square.   There is elevator service.

 

RYOKO’S JAPANESE RESTAURANT & BAR:   In terms of sushi, there is no question that Ryoko’s  Japanese Restaurant & Bar is tops in San Francisco.  Located on the border of Nob Hill and Tenderloin, at 619 Taylor, this is a lively basement sushi spot helmed by high-skilled Japanese chefs. There is a dj every night but Sunday. Reiko Kobayashi, whose mom Ryoko owns the spot, notes that it has been in operation for 30 years. It opens at 6 pm each night and continues serving until 1:30 am. Reservations are not taken here, so prepare to line up.  When we arrived at 7:30 pm there were already many people standing along the stairs and out the door. You first must enter the name of your party on a sign-up sheet, but it is truly worth the wait. The manager on duty, Ling, got us a nice table, had us seated and made some helpful suggestions starting off with a creative cocktail. As for the menu and the evening’s specials, posted on a board behind the bar, she was right on the mark. We shared the beef teriyaki, the grilled whole squid,   oh toro (fatty tuna), jumping unagi (eel), spicy scallop, shrimp symphony, crunchy crab (deep fried soft shell crab, cucumber and mayonnaise and the 49ers (crab and avocado with tuna and salmon on top) named in honour of the city’s football team. There are also sushi rolls named after Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and Pier 39. Some of the other favorites include  such non-traditional maki rolls as the Kentucky, which has fried chicken in it. There is also the volcano, containing fried shrimp, jalapeño, and peanut butter. Everything here is served so fresh. There is no handicapped access to the restaurant.

 

JOHN’S GRILL: There is a very historic restaurant in San Francisco called John’s Grill (www.johnsgrill.com). This is one of the city’s oldest and most famous dining establishments, born in 1908, known for its great steaks, seafood, salads and pastas and the price is indeed right. The restaurant was actually a setting in author Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. You will be impressed with the interior, complete with original period furnishings as well as a kind of virtual museum of authentic memorabilia. The dark oak panelled walls are covered with photos of well-known patrons and San Francisco of the past. Located within walking distance from Union Square, it has a full bar and is open daily. The list of famous patrons, from Hillary Clinton to Johnny Depp, can be found on their website.   General Manager Sean Kulanet gave me a personal tour of the restaurant. We were seated on the main level. Little did we realize that there were two more floors and a total capacity for nearly 300 diners.  Last year they installed an elevator for patrons in wheelchairs or with mobility problems. Washrooms are also handicapped accessible. On the bright and cheerful top floor, a private room with a door can accommodate a small group. This is excellent for business meetings or family gatherings.

Our excellent server was Chris. He gave us the option of ordering from the main menu or the evening table d’hôte.  Our party of three each chose the latter. It began with a jumbo prawn cocktail, followed by a choice of either some New England clam chowder or a Jack Lalanne favorite salad for two. It contained seasonal greens, crab, shrimp, avocado, mushrooms and tomato tossed in their famous creamy bleu cheese vinaigrette dressing.  We opted for the New York steak and definitely made the right choice. It was perfectly cooked and cut like butter.

All beef entrees are served with seasonal vegetables and baked Idaho potato. They have an extensive wine and drink list. I chose a wonderful glass of Chardonnay. For dessert we thoroughly enjoyed the flan (vanilla cream caramel).   The restaurant is located at 63 Ellis Street.  It is always crowded so call first for reservations at 415-986-3274.

 

PIER MARKET: Be sure to experience the Pier Market Seafood Restaurant, located at Pier 39. The family owned restaurant specializes in mesquite-grilled fresh, local, sustainable seafood and fabulous California wines enjoyed while providing bay views of Alcatraz and the Pier 39 sea lions. You can also enjoy dining on their fabulous outdoor patio, perfect for people watching on the Pier.  Owned and operated by the Simmons family, who created and built Pier  39, they own three other restaurants – the Fog Harbor Fish House, the Wipeout Bar & Grill and the Biscoff Coffee Corner. The Simmons family has been a part of San Francisco for over 30 years, created and developed Pier 39 and are third-generation restaurant purveyors, priding themselves with being a family-owned and operated business and a sustainable seafood company.

We started off with some drinks, a raspberry mojito and a California Dreamin’ (vodka, peach schnapps, orange and cranberry juices, shaken). For appetizers we opted for the clam chowder in a sourdough bowl and salad combo. The chowder was piping hot and when I was done I ate a good part of the bowl; the Caesar salad was tasty. We also had half a dozen shucked oysters served on the half shell. For the main course we turned to their specialties section and selected the crab cake dinner (a large portion of their fabulous crab cakes served with Cajun rémoulade) and the whole Dungeness crab, which comes teamed and served with drawn butter. For dessert we treated ourselves to the warm chocolate fudge cake and the tiramisu. The service was excellent and we appreciated manager Michael Guevara checking in on us throughout the evening. The restaurant is very much handicapped accessible; in fact the entire pier is beautifully set up to accommodate those in wheelchairs.

Log on to www.piermarket.com for more information. And a great video-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2w8uxBpawfU

 

BEST PIZZA:   I can never travel without sampling the best pizza in town. In San Francisco that would be Amici’s East Coast Pizzeria (https://www.amicis.com). In the mid-1980’s two East Coast transplants, Peter Cooperstein from Boston, and Mike Forter from New York decided to do something about their mutual longing for the style of pizza they’d grown up with, and set out on a quest to learn the secrets that made pies from the famous pizzerias of New York, Boston, and Connecticut so distinctively delicious. The friends discovered that their favorite pizzerias had something in common: a traditional, Italian brick oven. The 700 degree temperatures of the stone hearths produced thin crusts that were crisp, airy, and slightly chewy. When the pies ingredients were of the highest quality and freshness, those hot bricks melded together the flavors just right, for a taste that was nothing short of perfection. Peter and Mike returned inspired, and were excited to share what they had learned with fellow East Coast transplants. In 1987 they opened the first Amici’s East Coast Pizzeria in downtown San Mateo and to their delight it became a success – not only with transplants, but with everyone. With a focus on authenticity, friendly service, customer satisfaction, and with carefully measured growth, Amici’s has become the Bay Area’s standard for high-quality, freshly made pizzas, pastas, and salads enjoyed by thousands in their homes, businesses, and in Amici’s stylish restaurants. There are 10 locations, including two in San Francisco. We stopped at the one at 2200 Lombard, conveniently on the route of the hop-on, hop-off bus and it made for a fantastic lunch!

At Amici’s, the pizzas are baked in brick ovens, the way tradition-minded Italians have been baking pizzas for hundreds of years. Because the pies are baked directly on the super-hot brick floor, the crust comes out crisp and darker than the typical American pizza – often a bit black. If you are a crust lover, you will find this crust distinctively delicious. If a darker crust is not to your liking, just specify “light crust,” although the result may be undercooked for some tastes. Besides pizzas, they have salads, sides, starters and desserts.  You can call 415-885-4500 for more information.

 

DINNER CRUISE:   Are you looking to do something completely different in San Francisco? We had a wonderful evening on the Hornblower Dining Cruise (www.hornblower.com). You’re not truly a San Franciscan, we were told, until you cruise the Bay! With the Hornblower you can embark upon an exquisite brunch, lunch, or dinner cruise, feast on shimmering Bay views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge, and take it that gorgeous city skyline.  There is great food, special cocktails, champagne, live music, and the most stunning views in town. We chose a three hour  dinner cruise, complete with a four course seated dinner. Our sever Lupita welcomed us to our table with some glasses of sparkling wine, summer spinach salads and a basket of fresh bread. We each enjoyed some piping hot tomato basil soup and ordered the herb roasted chicken breast, with risotto cake, seasonal vegetables and lemon butter sauce and the braised lamb shank with parmesan truffle mashed potatoes and seasonable vegetables.  Decadent chocolate flourless cake with raspberry glaze topped off one fine meal. The Hornblower departs and returns from Pier 3 on The Embarcadero. For 35 years, its yachts have sailed past famed landmarks while serving seven California cities and New York City.   In addition to dining cruises and classic, scenic, city and wildlife tours, the company hosts holiday dining cruises and private charters for corporate, school and family groups. Whether an intimate anniversary celebration, a wedding ceremony, a teambuilding event or a birthday bash for up to 2,200, Hornblower’s professional event planners help clients navigate every detail. We loved every minute of this experience, stepping outside to take some priceless photos and revelling in some unforgettable scenery. You can call  415-788-8866 or email sf@hornnblower.com Monday to Friday. Hornblower does have accessible yachts in the fleet. However, not all yachts and decks are accessible. You need to call 1-888-467-6256 to ensure handicap accessibility for the date you are planning to cruise

Marina del Rey

Marina del Rey

Ever since I can remember, the Marc Jordan song with the lyrics “Living in Marina del Rey” has been ringing in my head. So when I planned our trip to California, the tune indeed led me to this destination.

Set in the heart of the Los Angeles coastline, Marina Del Rey (http://www.visitmarinadelrey.com) is a waterfront playground with endless harbor views and a relaxed “California cool” vibe on LA’s bustling Westside. Its prime location is four miles from LAX, steps from world-famous Venice Beach and is easily accessible to major Los Angeles attractions like Santa Monica and the Getty Museum.

With year-round sunshine and average temperatures in the mid-to-high 60s, the breezy, cool and Idyllic way of life in the Marina appeals to visitors and locals.

WHERE TO STAY: Tucked along the Pacific coast between Venice Beach and peaceful Playa Vista, The Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey (www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/california/marina-del-rey) is one of the most ideally located luxury hotels near Culver City, to explore Southern California’s most eclectic stretch of coastline. Literally meaning “sea coast of the king,” Marina Del Rey is aptly named, as it is home to more than 7,000 pleasure boats and yachts in one of the largest man-made marinas in the world, as well as shopping and gourmet dining.

The hotel is conveniently located near some of the most sough-after tech companies such as YouTube, IMAX and the future Google campus. It  recently underwent extensive guest room enhancements, finishing one of its premier ballrooms that overlooks the marina.

We are big fans of the Ritz-Carlton property in our native Montreal, so it was very exciting to spend the day at this Marina del Rey location and give a private tour of the facility. From private Juliet balconies off of every guest room, or from a restaurant terrace where handcrafted cocktails around a fire pit stir inevitable conversation, this is one of the finest luxury hotels in Marina del Rey. It features 304 guest rooms and suites with private balconies featuring marina and city skyline views. There are Exclusive key-access-only Ritz-Carlton Club® Level rooms, L.A.’s only waterfront pool and whirlpool and a newly renovated lobby lounge. I was thoroughly impressed with the state-of-the-art fitness center, with eucalyptus steam rooms, full showers, restrooms and keypad lockers with safe.

My family and I were escorted the poolside and shown to a beautiful private cabana.  Inside there was an extremely comfortable couch, a television with a remote control, a fridge stocked with waters, soft drinks and fresh fruit and a basket full of delicious snacks. On a small table were a selection of nice magazines. Outside the covered structure were three nicely padded lounge chairs with towels and large umbrellas to block the sun. We were provided with a menu to the Waves Poolside Bar & Grill. After one of the staff members brought us a bottle of champagne we placed our order, a superb hamburger with salad, a chicken sandwich and some chicken strips. It all arrived promptly and perfectly prepared.

The pool was refreshing and the whirlpool even more refreshing. Using our pass key, we took a leisurely stroll outside the grounds to admire the marina and the many different boats.

Director of Sales and Marketing Ed Curry gave me a tour of the facility. The Cast & Plow Restaurant off the lobby offers one of the prettier patio layouts I have seen. At the gift shop Curry told me that skateboards actually represent the top-selling item. “We can’t keep them on the shelf long enough before we need to order more,” he said.

Up we went to the 12th floor to see one of the beautiful guest rooms with a view and then down a short flight of stairs into the exclusive Ritz-Carlton Concierge Club Lounge. This beautifully designed room is open to all guests for an extra charge of $250 a day for snacks, drinks and a private place to relax.

This is definitely a hotel I’d like to enjoy an extended stay at some time in the future.

SIXT RENT A CAR: For this trip to California, renting our own car was a priority.  In researching all of the different options I came across one I was frankly not familiar with called Sixt Rent a Car (www.sixt.com). After collecting our luggage at Los Angeles International Airport, we headed to the shuttle area where a Sixt van pulled up and brought us to their large garage very nearby. It was seamless check-in process. I was pleasantly surprised to drive away with a significant upgrade – a white Mercedes. This was a first for me. Customer Service Branch Manager Maria Vigil patiently explained the operation of the vehicle. It drove so smoothly, I was very sad to return the keys at the end of my trip. We also met the new branch manager, Amar Tankha, who told us that Sixt also has branches in West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Venice Beach and Santa Monica.

Sixt Rent a Car was founded in 1912 in Munich, Germany, and started out with a fleet of just three vehicles. As one of the first and most important international car rental companies in the world – with over 100 years in operation – the business seems to have earned a trusted reputation as a global leading car rental provider. Sixt was the first car rental company with a website and the first to accept mobile reservations. Today they are present in over 100 countries with branches in over 4,000 locations. You will be able to find Sixt car rental services internationally, in almost every major city and tourist destination worldwide and at convenient locations such as airports, train stations, cruise ports, and hotels.

Sixt expanded to the United States in 2011 and is now present at 50 locations in 14 States. This includes the following airport locales: Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Las Vegas (LAS), Los Angeles (LAX), Phoenix (PHX), Seattle (SEA), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Miami (MIA), Orlando (MCO), San Francisco (SFO), San Jose (SJC), Atlanta (ATP) and Tampa (TPA). Up next will be San Diego and San Antonio. According to Daniel Florence, the co-president for Sixt USA, operations began at Miami Airport and rapidly expanded both within Florida and to key on- and off-airport locations throughout the US.

The company’s strengths lie in the high proportion of premium cars in its vehicle fleet, the consistent service orientation of employees, and a good price-performance ratio. Taken together, these strengths have given the company an excellent market position. “We are proud to maintain alliances with renowned brands in the hotel industry, well-known airlines and numerous prominent service providers in the tourism sector,” stated Florence.

Sixt has a wide range of categories and models, including SUVs, convertibles, sedans, pick-up trucks, vans, and sports cars. The majority of its vehicles are from premium brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Cadillac, and BMW.

There is a lot of buzz around hidden costs when renting a car. Which are the advantages of renting with Sixt?  “We always say that with Sixt, you can drive first class and pay economy, and it’s really true,” says Florence. “Our cars are generally no more than nine months old, and we offer premium brands at extremely competitive prices. Additionally, the Sixt experience is just unique – our customers are impressed by everything from the sleek design of the stations to our friendly rental agents, who might offer a chilled bottle of water on a hot day. A couple of weeks ago in Miami Beach, we surprised our customers with popsicles, beach balls, sunglasses, and photos. We strive to keep our rates as transparent as possible, and our rental agents are always happy to explain in-depth how our coverage packages and other additional sales products works, so that there are no surprises in the end.”

 

Santa Monica

SANTA MONICA AND THE WESTIN LAX: After spending a week in San Francisco and five days in Beverly Hills, we decided to conclude our trip with a relaxing five day stay in Santa Monica (http://www.santamonica.com).

Santa Monica sits perched on the Pacific Ocean at the crossroads of Pacific Coast Highway and California Interstate Highway 10, a mere eight non-freeway miles from Los Angeles International Airport and within close proximity to all of LA’s most famous landmarks and attractions. It is a great spot to walk on the beach, take in all of the rides and fun at the pier and do some shopping at the 3rd Street Promenade.

DOUBLETREE EXPERIENCE:   Just a short walk from the pier you will find the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Santa Monica (www.SantaMonicaSuites.DoubleTree.com). When you check into this all-suite hotel,   a warm DoubleTree chocolate chip cookie awaits you. You are only three blocks away from the beach.

The two-room suites provide room for work or for the whole family. A private bedroom and separate seating area with a sofa bed mean that everyone can have their own space. You can watch a movie on one of the two 55 inch flat-screen TVs, or surf the web while you make a snack. A wet bar with a microwave, refrigerator, and coffeemaker gives you some of the freedom of being at home.

We especially appreciated their outdoor pool, which was kind of a game breaker for us. You can unwind after a busy day with a workout in the fully equipped fitness center, or relax with friends over a pre-dinner drink in the Jazz Loft bar. You can grab a bite at the Fourth Street Grille, or a coffee and a snack to go to Cafe Pronto. Top marks go to this hotel for its breakfast service, which runs from 6 am to Noon on weekends and until 11 am on weekdays. The buffet has some nice choices, but I especially appreciated the polite staff who made any type of egg request on your mind.

I was thoroughly impressed with the unique free shuttle service to points of interest in Santa Monica provided by Santa Monica Free Ride. This souped-up four seat golf cart runs seven days a week, from Noon to 8:45 pm. All you need to do is send a text and allow 10 to 15 minutes for pickup. It was great to leave the car at the hotel, which offers a super valet parking service and save money on any taxi or Uber expenses.

General Manager Brian Murphy told me that the hotel is about to undergo a significant renovation job and by next year they will become a full Hilton property.

The hotel has elevators leading to every floor, easy wheelchair access to the pool and health clubs and handicapped lifts for the pool and whirlpool.

THE LOEWS: Meanwhile, after experiencing a Loews resort in St. Petersburg, Florida last winter, we were excited to check out the Loews Santa Monica (https://www.loewshotels.com/santa-monica).

This hotel has 347 luxurious guestrooms including 21 suites (all including white noise machines). There are 17,000 square feet of indoor function space, with ocean views, an Eco-friendly full-service spa offering organic treatments and the Ocean & Vine restaurant, which serves locally caught seafood and fresh farmers’ market produce.   There is also the Bar Belle Lounge, a tribute to Santa Monica’s famed “Muscle Beach” female bodybuilder Abbye Stockton. There is Wi-Fi in all guestrooms and public spaces.

Located at 1700 Ocean Avenue,   you can consider the sound of waves to be the soundtrack of your stay. Here, you can stroll along miles of perfectly maintained beaches and take in front-row views of the Pacific Ocean. We spent the day at the two-tier pool deck overlooking the sea, the perfect place to soak up the sun as you recline on a comfortable chaise. While you unwind, enjoy extras such as Evian Mist, chilled fruit, and tropical smoothies thanks to some signature poolside pampering. In the summer, the attentive poolside concierge delivers all that and more. A soak in the Jacuzzi represented a nice treat. The pool itself is so beautifully heated that I just did not want to get out.

After a workout at the very spacious fitness center, you can relax in the Eucalyptus steam room or spoil yourself with an Aroma Massage or Pure Fiji Guava Anti-Aging Nourishing Wrap at the Ocean Spa.  Very soon, the hotel will begin offering outdoor workouts on a grass setting at the beach. If work is calling, they have a full-service Executive Business Center. If you prefer to return emails poolside, there is Wi-Fi.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch and some smoothie’s poolside via the Blue Streak Restaurant, where you can enjoy sandwiches and snacks served with a side of stunning Pacific views every day from 11 am to 10 pm.

The hotel offers 12 ADA rooms, one of which is a suite. Some rooms are hearing accessible and some have a roll-in shower feature. As demonstrated by the tour area Director of Public Relations Jaclyn Slifer gave me, there is a ramp at the pool deck to get to the lower Ocean Terrace area with fire pits, and the elevators take guests right to beach access, where another ramp leads straight to the beach.

DINING OUT:   Santa Monica emerged as an international culinary destination in the 1980s and has remained in the top echelon of American dining thanks to local culinary innovators, a firm commitment to farm-to-table dining and year-round access to the world’s finest ingredients. The prominence of Santa Monica’s culinary scene has become a central part of the destination’s culture, and interactive culinary experiences offer an exciting opportunity for visitors to be authentically integrated into it.

For an upscale, but not stuffy dinner with the ocean just outside, Water Grill’s  (www.watergrill.com) Santa Monica location at 1401 Ocean Avenue offers a seafood dining experience for the adventurous at heart. The menu has an entire page just for the raw bar, featuring oysters from all up and down the east and west coast. For the seafood lover, there are a number of different whole fish entrees, such as European sea bass or New Zealand pink bream. For over 25 years, the Water Grill has pleased the palates of seafood lovers in Southern California. Water Grill delivers a remarkable experience through its devotion and inspiration for seafood. Hailed as “the best seafood in Southern California” by the internationally recognized Zagat Guide, it consistently offers dazzling fish preparations of superior quality and freshness.

On the night we visited the place was packed, with people happily waiting for a table. Everyone I asked told me that this is the best dining establishment in all of Santa Monica. I could tell this place was going to be good as early as the bread plate arriving at the table. Yes, the bread was that good.

We started off with a drink, the appropriately named Ocean Avenue, containing vodka, fresh strawberry & lemon juice, with tarragon essence and served over ice. Our charming server Alicia then provided some background on the menu. We shared an order of Baja Stone Crab to start and I had my personal favorite, a bowl of New England clam chowder. For the main course the Wild Black Cod Miso (sablefish), served seared with eggplant, blistered shishito pepper, and red miso sauce called out to two members of our party. This is a favorite fish of family members and not something you see on many menus. I had my eye on the Wild New Zealand Sword Fish, with marinated zucchini and caper brown butter.  In addition, I ordered some Yukon gold mashed potatoes on the side. I wish I could make them as good as this.

The original Downtown Los Angeles Water Grill was remodeled in 2012 and was well received by its guests. In 2013, the Water Grill Santa Monica opened. A third joined the family in San Diego’s Historic Gaslamp Quarter in 2015 and a fourth came on board in the fall of 2016 at the South Coast Plaza in Orange County. Restaurant number five arrived in Dallas, Texas in January 2017.  They all fall under the King’s Seafood Company umbrella.

BEACH BUTLER: On a brief day visit to Santa Monica a few years ago we came across an outfit called Perry’s Café and Rentals (www.perryscafe.com). As tourists, we wanted to spend time at the beach, but we did not bring our own towels, chairs or umbrellas.  Perry’s has been an integral part of the Los Angeles beach scene and an icon in the community for 40 years now. With nine prime locations throughout Santa Monica and Venice beach, including four open-air cafés, they possess a large array of amenities.

Perry’s offers an assortment of beach and bike rentals, delicious foods with fresh ingredients prepared daily, and a variety of items to satisfy your palate.  You can relax at one of their lounge areas, eat with friends, get pampered by our Beach Butlers or simply enjoy a bike ride. Oh yes, the Beach Butler.  We took the option for beach chairs, umbrellas, a wind block, a small table, towels, a cooler of iced water and a boogie board. Our “Butler” was Sheldon. He gave us his cell phone number when we were settled in and simply said to text him if we needed anything. We only spent a few hours there, but this was indeed a paradise setting. The water was comfortable and frankly, we cannot wait to repeat the experience the next time we go back.    For reservations just call 310-303-8493 or via their website.

WESTIN LAX:  Rather than rush to check out of our Santa Monica hotel to get to the airport for our return flight home, we decided to stay at the Westin Los Angeles Airport (http://www.westinlosangelesairport.com) for the final night. This is a beautiful property which many travelers use as a base for an entire trip.

Located just four blocks from LAX, The Westin Los Angeles Airport is ideally situated for your convenience. Whether traveling for business or pleasure, this sophisticated hotel puts you within easy reach of everything you need for a successful trip. Major companies such as Boeing, Raytheon and Mattel are just a short drive away, as are the quintessential Southern California communities of Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Marina del Rey and Santa Monica.

I got the family settled in,  returned my Sixt Rent a Car vehicle only a few blocks away and came back to 5400 West Century Blvd. What a good decision this was. We had a deluxe corner king non-smoking suite, with a separate living room, a nice balcony and a large washroom. Both rooms were outfitted with white noise machines, something I sleep with every night of the year. Being next to an airport, this is a very bright move by the hotel. We had a small fridge, a hide-a-bed and a large sofa, a desk for me to write this very story on my computer and Wi-Fi connections for up to four devices. This was an absolutely fabulous setup which really helped us conclude our trip on a very positive note. The room also gave us access to the 12th floor Westin Executive Club Lounge.    Westin Executive Club Room guests and SPG® Platinum members enjoy exclusive access. It includes complimentary wireless high-speed internet access, computer workstations, access to business news, and Starbucks® coffee 24 hours a day. Breakfast is served Monday through Friday mornings, and hors-d’oeuvres are served Monday through Thursday evenings. The hotel does provide a shuttle to and from the airport every 20 minutes.

There is a nice outdoor pool and whirlpool, 24/7 workout facilities, a top-notch business center,  accommodations for dogs up to 40 pounds, superb meeting facilities and several options of where to dine. The 1930’s-style Daily Grill Restaurant & Bar is inspired by the great city grills of yesteryear; it’s a great spot in which to toast the end of a successful day. Daily Grill features an all-American menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as an expansive appetizer and cocktail menu, available from 4 to 7 pm daily.  We had a nice dinner there.

I would definitely recommend this place for more than a one night stay. They even have a shuttle to Manhattan Beach.

For more information call (310) 216-5858.

Beverly Hills/Los Angeles

BEVERLY HILLS – Should we stay in Los Angeles, Hollywood or Beverly Hills? This was the decision we had to make for the second leg of our trip to California. Downtown LA is best suited for the business crowd; Hollywood, in my opinion, is just a little too busy; and Beverly Hills (www.lovebeverlyhills.com) is simply one of world’s most sought-after locales.

Centrally located in Greater Los Angeles, this is recognized as a premier vacation and business travel destination, boasting beautiful weather year-round, acclaimed full-service and boutique hotel accommodations, sumptuous dining, and incomparable shopping.  Synonymous with Hollywood glamour, Beverly Hills enjoys an international reputation as the home and playground of A-list movie stars.  The city is not only known worldwide for its grand mansions and chic shops along Rodeo Drive, but also for its multitude of art and architecture, spas and salons, and exceptional walk-ability.

There are self-guided walking tours of Beverly Hills, screenings at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the historic Greystone Mansion, museum exhibits, art shows, concerts and film festivals.

THE MONTAGE:   We were thrilled to experience the beautiful Montage Beverly Hills (www.montagehotels.com/beverlyhills), ideally situated for shopping and dining among Rodeo Drive’s storied collection of shops, restaurants and galleries. The hotel features 201 well-appointed guestrooms, including 55 suites as well as 20 private residences and Spa Montage Beverly Hills. We stayed in a luxury one bedroom 875 square foot Beverly Suite, which   features a king-sized bed, a private living room and one and one-half bathrooms. There is a very large book shelf, with reading material.  Overlooking stunning views of the Beverly Hills skyline, the living room offers a comfortable sitting area with a queen-sized sleeper sofa and a dining table for two in select suites. Every indulgence imaginable is provided, including stunning marble and mosaic-tiled bathrooms with generous tubs and dual sinks, an executive desk with a 42-inch LCD television and an in-room guest tablet featuring access to all of the hotel’s amenities and services at the touch of a button. There is complimentary champagne awaiting for you in the mini-bar upon arrival.

Montage Beverly Hills was the first hotel and residences to receive Gold LEED certification in Southern California. In 2015, Montage Beverly Hills was named the #1 Hotel in Los Angeles in the Condé Nast Traveler Annual Readers’ Choice Awards.

Guests here have access to the rooftop retreat, complete with a saline swimming pool and an exceptionally large whirlpool. Private poolside cabanas, The Rooftop Bar & Grill and lush landscaping are set against the backdrop of panoramic views of the Beverly Hills cityscape and the Hollywood hills. The Rooftop Grill serves fresh California cuisine in a comfortable atmosphere that perfectly complements an afternoon by the pool. We were absolutely enthralled with this setting and the welcoming staff, who set us up so comfortably and kept checking on us.

The valet parking system works beautifully. Call from your room and your vehicle is waiting outside.

Montage Hotels & Resorts is a hotel and resort management company founded by Alan J. Fuerstman. Designed to serve the luxury traveler and homeowner, the company features an artistic collection of distinctive hotels, resorts and residences in stunning settings that offer comfortable elegance, a unique sense of place and spirit, impeccable hospitality and memorable culinary, spa and lifestyle experiences.

DINING OUT:  Montage Beverly Hills has partnered with chef and restaurateur, Geoffrey Zakarian, who brought two new concepts, Georgie (http://www.georgierestaurant.com)

and The Garden Bar, to the hotel and local community.  Georgie, Zakarian’s first Los Angeles restaurant, is a lush and textured space with a relaxed and playful ambience.  Located on the ground floor of the hotel, The Garden Bar is a bustling, dynamic lounge adjacent to Georgie and offers classic cocktails and all day fare in a comfortable yet refined setting.  Both concepts feature indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the spectacular Beverly Canon Gardens.

Georgie, with its warm and welcoming environment, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers vibrant, thoughtfully balanced dishes that showcase Zakarian’s Modern American cuisine.  The Garden Bar serves as a glamorous neighborhood gathering place with a robust beverage and cocktail program, in addition to a lighter food menu offered morning to night.

We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner at Georgie, where our wonderful server Olivia guided us perfectly through a very impressive looking menu. For starters we shared some delicious Dungeness crab and a dozen East and West Coast oysters. For main courses we opted for the smoked beef cheek, the poached Dover sole and the New England rack of lamb, each beautifully presented and tantalizing. Olivia surprised us with an order of beet risotto, something I would not have selected on my own. It was superb! So was another appetizer, the pâté en croute and a side of mushrooms (stuffed with more mushrooms).  Dessert was an absolute delight, with some Georgie donut bites, lemon basil roasted peaches, pineapple upside down cake and house made sorbet and gelato. It was a warm summer evening, so we dined on the lovely outdoor terrace. Whether you are staying at the Montage or are anywhere near the LA/Beverly Hills area, make Georgie a stop on your dining tour!

The executive chef is Wilfrid Hocquet, who came here from France and he consistently updates the menu. Zakarian has naturally been on site. Chef de Cuisine is Elisha Ben-Haim. You can book a table by e-mail at reservations@georgierestaurant.com, calling
310-860-7970   or via Open Table.

Zakarian is one of the nation’s premier restaurateurs.  With an eye for style and a passion for hospitality, he operates food and beverage venues across the United States, including The Lambs Club in New York City, The National in New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut, The Water Club at The Borgata in Atlantic City, The Palm Court, The Champagne Bar and The Rose Club at The Plaza Hotel.  In addition to the restaurants, his company, Zakarian Hospitality, has produced the acclaimed cookbooks, Geoffrey Zakarian’s Town / Country and My Perfect Pantry: 150 Easy Recipes from 50 Essential Ingredients and will launch  a line of products with HSN in the summer of 2016.  Info: www.geoffreyzakarian.com.

The Palm

Last summer we experienced the Palm Restaurant (http://thepalm.com/Beverly-Hills), for the first time while in Atlantic City. When we found out there was a relatively new Palm location in Beverly Hills it moved to the top of our list. Just a few blocks East of Rodeo Drive at 267 North Cannon Drive, this 6,000 square foot 185 seat dining establishment opened its doors on November 7, 2014. It did so at the same time as the long-established West Hollywood location was closing its doors.

General Manager Jeff Kops and Executive Chef Pedro Inoscencio run a fine oiled machine here. We had the novelty of walking only a few doors away from our hotel. There is valet parking for those who drive there.

Leather booths dot the main dining room. There is private dining area in the back, as well as a large window-side table directly in the front. As per the Palm’s signature, the main wall depicts iconic L.A. destinations. In fact it serves as a living wall where caricatures of new “regulars” are being painted over time.

The Palm philosophy was born in 1926, when Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi opened their first location in New York City. From day one, Pio and John shared their commitment to quality and generosity of spirit with every guest who walked through their doors. What began as a restaurant became a legend – a place to not only enjoy an excellent meal but also catch up with old friends, meet new ones, close business deals, and celebrate family milestones. Still owned and operated by members of the Bozzi and Ganzi families, The Palm continues to serve as a second home for countless patrons, thanks to the exceptional standard of hospitality established by its founders.

When you start with the best ingredients available, you don’t need to rely on overly elaborate recipes or culinary fads. That’s why The Palm Restaurant’s menu features honest, satisfying dishes that reflect the best of our Italian-American heritage – from prime aged steaks and jumbo Nova Scotia lobsters to Italian classics like Chicken Parmigiana and Veal Martini.

We started off with one of their outstanding house drinks, a cherry blossom- CIROC Vodka, PAMA Pomegrante Liqueur, hand-squeezed lemon juice, cane syrup, topped with Nicola Feuillette Brut Champagne. As an appetizer we shared a delicious order of baked clams, served on top of some superb sauce which our server recommended we dip our bread in. It was a good tip.  The Monday Night “Chop Chop” Salad (finely chopped romaine, iceberg, tomato, onion, roasted pepper, radish, scallion and anchovies) was amazing. Then came the main course, a fabulous surf and turf we put together – a 28 ounce prime Porterhouse steak and a four pound lobster. The steak was cut nicely from the bone and divided in two. A staff member then came over and cracked the lobster for us, something I always appreciate. We added some whipped potatoes with roasted garlic on the side. What a spectacular dining experience this was! And it was not over. For dessert we had the house speciality, warm cinnamon sugar donut holes with raspberry and chocolate sauce along with whipped cream and some ice cream

Signature dishes at The Palm also include jumbo shrimp, stellar bacon-wrapped scallops, classic Italian fare like chicken parmigiana, prime steaks, seafood staples such as jumbo lump crab cakes and swordfish steak, with a cherry tomato olive relish and signature sides such as Half & Half, cottage fries and fried onions and asparagus fritti with lemon garlic butter.

For reservations call 310-550-8811 or do so directly via their website.

Thumbs Down for Nate and Al’s

Nate and Al’s, the famous deli on Beverly Drive, was a big disappointment. I went to get a pickup order and despite asking the gentleman on the phone and again in person to include plastic cutlery and some mustards in the bag, he did not do so. I then had to dash around my hotel asking for these things. By the time I sat down to eat, my soup was cold and my hot pastrami was not too tasty. Ditto for a simple order of scrambled eggs and hash browns – a big thumbs down.

A BLUE RIBBON FOR THE GROVE:  The Grove is a magnificent outdoor retail and entertainment complex which opened in 2002. You will want to take pictures at the large animated fountain.    An internal transit system uses electric-powered trolley cars to link The Grove and the adjacent Farmers Market. The Grove is anchored by Nordstrom and has flagship stores for British fashion chain Topshop/Topman, Barnes & Noble, and Apple. Other stores in the center include Michael Kors, two-story GAP and J.Crew locations, Crate & Barrel, Nike, MAC Cosmetics, Coach, Anthropologie, Barneys New York, Kiehl’s, and American Girl Place. The main entertainment venue is a 14-screen movie theater complex owned by Pacific Theatres. The Grove’s many restaurants include Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill (https://www.blueribbonrestaurants.com), showcases the Bromberg Brothers’ and partner Toshi Ueki’s dedication to the tradition of pristine quality fish and family style Japanese fare. You will be treated to some of the well-known Blue Ribbon staples such as togarashi spiced Fried Chicken served with Wasabi Honey and Oxtail and Bone marrow fried rice as well as an extensive wine, sake and cocktail menu.

SIXT RENT A CAR:  For this trip to California, renting our own car was a priority.  In researching all of the different options I came across one I was frankly not familiar with called Sixt Rent a Car (www.sixt.com). After collecting our luggage at Los Angeles International Airport, we headed to the shuttle area where a Sixt van pulled up and brought us to their large garage very nearby. It was seamless check-in process. I was pleasantly surprised to drive away with a significant upgrade – a white Mercedes. This was a first for me. Customer Service Branch Manager Maria Vigil patiently explained the operation of the vehicle. It drove so smoothly, I was very sad to return the keys at the end of my trip. We also met the new branch manager, Amar Tankha, who told us that Sixt also has branches in West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Venice Beach and Santa Monica.

Sixt Rent a Car was founded in 1912 in Munich, Germany, and started out with a fleet of just three vehicles. As one of the first and most important international car rental companies in the world – with over 100 years in operation – the business seems to have earned a trusted reputation as a global leading car rental provider. Sixt was the first car rental company with a website and the first to accept mobile reservations. Today they are present in over 100 countries with branches in over 4,000 locations. You will be able to find Sixt car rental services internationally, in almost every major city and tourist destination worldwide and at convenient locations such as airports, train stations, cruise ports, and hotels.

Sixt expanded to the United States in 2011 and is now present at 50 locations in 14 States. This includes the following airport locales: Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Las Vegas (LAS), Los Angeles (LAX), Phoenix (PHX), Seattle (SEA), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Miami (MIA), Orlando (MCO), San Francisco (SFO), San Jose (SJC), Atlanta (ATP) and Tampa (TPA). Up next will be San Diego and San Antonio. According to Daniel Florence, the co-president for Sixt USA, operations began at Miami Airport and rapidly expanded both within Florida and to key on- and off-airport locations throughout the US.

The company’s strengths lie in the high proportion of premium cars in its vehicle fleet, the consistent service orientation of employees, and a good price-performance ratio. Taken together, these strengths have given the company an excellent market position. “We are proud to maintain alliances with renowned brands in the hotel industry, well-known airlines and numerous prominent service providers in the tourism sector,” stated Florence.

Sixt has a wide range of categories and models, including SUVs, convertibles, sedans, pick-up trucks, vans, and sports cars. The majority of its vehicles are from premium brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Cadillac, and BMW.

There is a lot of buzz around hidden costs when renting a car. Which are the advantages of renting with Sixt?  “We always say that with Sixt, you can drive first class and pay economy, and it’s really true,” says Florence. “Our cars are generally no more than nine months old, and we offer premium brands at extremely competitive prices. Additionally, the Sixt experience is just unique – our customers are impressed by everything from the sleek design of the stations to our friendly rental agents, who might offer a chilled bottle of water on a hot day. A couple of weeks ago in Miami Beach, we surprised our customers with popsicles, beach balls, sunglasses, and photos. We strive to keep our rates as transparent as possible, and our rental agents are always happy to explain in-depth how our coverage packages and other additional sales products works, so that there are no surprises in the end.”

WARNER BROTHERS TOUR: When in LA you really should not miss an opportunity to experience the Warner Brothers Studio Tour (https://www.wbstudiotour.com) in Burbank. This is a three hour visit inside a real working Hollywood studio. Guests get to explore outdoor sets and soundstages used to create productions such as Gilmore Girls, The Big Bang Theory and Argo. Each tour includes exclusive access to original props, costumes, picture cars, and sets used from Batman to Friends. Additionally, studio tour guests stop at the DC Universe – DC Comics Exhibit, the real Central Perk Friends set,  spots used for the motion picture La La Land (such as the café where Emma Stone’s character worked), the original Batman Museum – Batmobile Collection, and so much more.   We went into the buildings where the Ellen  Degeneres  and Conan O’Brien shows are recorded. There is plenty of time to pop out of your trolley and take photos.

While we were at the WB, we went behind the scenes of the hit tween drama Pretty Little Liars. We had the opportunity to see and experience a collection of authentic props and wardrobes from the show for the first time, including iconic costumes worn by the show’s five lead characters: Aria Montgomery (Lucy Hale), Hanna Marin (Ashley Benson), Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell), Spencer Hastings (Troian Bellisario), and Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse). In addition to authentic character wardrobes from the series, Pretty Little Liars: Made Here  also showcased a variety of memorable set design elements from the show, including a recreation of A’s lair, complete with costumes, props, and décor; all five Pretty Little Liars dolls; select pieces from the Caleb, Ezra, and Toby characters,  including Toby’s Rosewood police uniform; the Liar’s Lament “endgame” board; Radley Sanatorium; Halloween/Masquerade Ball episode costumes; and an interactive green-screen photo opportunity.

On December 9, 2016, a reimagined exhibit opened offering an up-close look at authentic props and costumes from Fantastic Beasts and Where to find them and the beloved Harry Potter films. Highlights of the Fantastic Beasts experience include costumes worn by Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Katherine Waterston (Tina Goldstein), Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein), Dan Fogler (Jacob Kowalski) and Colin Farrell (Percival Graves), as well as Newt’s case of creatures. Tour guests are now able to explore how J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World has been brought to life on the silver screen over the past 15 years.

Soundstage and Backlot availability is subject to change daily due to production on the lot. No two tours are alike. A studio and deluxe tour experience is unique every day of the week.  And with more than 450,000 registered artifacts, the Warner Bros. Prop Department contains countless treasures used in nearly a century’s worth of entertainment.   The latter was established in the early days of the Studio to house the antiques from the very first Warner Bros. productions. Today, it has grown to over 200,000 square feet and four floors of set dressing. From Casablanca to The Hangover, you’ll see history unfold right before your eyes during your journey through arguably the largest prop department in the world.

Stage 48: Script to Screen features an interactive soundstage exploring phases of the film and television production process. Here is where you see how Hollywood is made. The knowledgeable tour guides, like ours named Tim, will happily answer all of your production-related questions—and reveal even more of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets—during this 45-minute, self-guided experience at one of the best things to do in Los Angeles. From screenwriting and casting, to audio mixing and the glory of awards season, guests will enjoy a truly immersive look at how the magic of Hollywood is made. I even got to hold a real Academy Award trophy for the camera, weighing in at eight pounds.

The best way to purchase tickets is online via wbstudiotour.com and clicking the “Buy Tickets Now” button, located at the top of the website. Online purchases allow you to print your tickets at home for your convenience. The parking lot is located at 3400 Warner Blvd. Burbank, CA 91505.

HELICOPTER TOUR:  If you are looking to get a really great view of the city, book a flight with Elite Helicopters (www.elitehelicopters.com).  The 30 minute Downtown/Hollywood tour. Is highly recommended. Owner Helen Kosmala and her team of pilots aim to please. You are asked to arrive 15 minutes in advance. They are located on Roscoe Blvd in Van Nuys, California.  Dress light and comfortably and leave bulky purses and jackets in the car. Don’t forget to charge the camera!

CEDAR SINAI MEDICAL CENTER:    If you need a hospital in the Los Angeles area, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (https://www.cedars-sinai.edu) on Beverly Boulevard is a non-profit, tertiary 886-bed hospital and multi-specialty academic health science facility which has a well-deserved reputation for truly treating its patience well. I have spoken to many Canadians who have needed to go to a hospital while in LA and they rave about this place. For starters, the triage process in Emergency is so well organized. After a nurse goes through the basic questions, any blood tests deemed necessary are done immediately. When admissions takes your basic information for registration they make it so easy for you to connect with your insurance company and have them receive the bill directly – saving the stress about having to lay out a lot of money. They do not bilk you for parking. In fact, when you are discharged they validate your ticket, bringing the price down to $5. The cafeteria does not try and overcharge either. You can have a light dinner for $4.50. Form the physicians to the nurses and even the individuals who transfer you for different tests, they all treat the patients so warmly.

Since its beginning in 1902, Cedars-Sinai has evolved to meet the healthcare needs of one of the most diverse regions in the nation, continually setting new standards in quality and innovation in patient care, research, teaching and community service.

Cedars-Sinai is one of the largest non-profit academic medical centers in the U.S. with 2,100 physicians, 2,800 nurses and thousands of other healthcare professionals and staff. Clinical programs range from primary care for preventing, diagnosing and treating common conditions to specialized treatments for rare, complex and advanced illnesses. In addition, Cedars-Sinai serves the community through its Medical Network, which includes the highly rated Cedars-Sinai Medical Group and Cedars-Sinai Health Associates

Cedars-Sinai has consistently been named one of America’s Best Hospitals by U.S. News & World Report, has received the National Research Corporation’s Consumer Choice Award 18 years in a row for providing the highest quality medical care in Los Angeles, and has the longest running Magnet designation for nursing excellence in California.

Cedars-Sinai is a leader in the clinical care and research of heart disease, cancer and brain disorders, among other areas. Pioneering research achievements include using cardiac stem cells to repair damaged hearts, developing minimally invasive surgical techniques and discovering new types of drugs to target cancer more precisely.

Cedars-Sinai also impacts the future of healthcare through education programs that encompass everything from highly competitive medical residency and fellowship programs to a biomedical science and translational medicine PhD program, advanced training for nurses and educational opportunities for allied health professionals. Most notably, Cedars-Sinai demonstrates a longstanding commitment to strengthening the Los Angeles community through wide-ranging programs that improve the health of its most vulnerable residents.

Cedars-Sinai began as two hospitals created by the Jewish community in the early 1900s. Since merging in the 1960s, the Cedars-Sinai has evolved and grown with Los Angeles. The newly launched historical conservancy exhibit, located on the Plaza Level of the South Tower, tells our story with photos, these fun fact videos, and much more.

St. Petersburg and Clearwater, Florida

Over the years my family and I have had many enjoyable trips to Florida. In most cases, we stayed in the Miami Beach area. However, working with the Canadian office of Visit Florida (www.visitflorida.com), I was encouraged to consider a trip to the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area (http://www.visitstpeteclearwater.com) and over the Christmas holidays we did just that.

White-sand Florida beaches with crystal-clear water, a foodie and arts scene praised by Travel & Leisure, and glittering nightlife options that range from craft beer bars to New York-style dance clubs—in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, the options are endless for whatever kind of vacation you’re yearning for, be it rejuvenating or exhilarating.

Along with award-winning beautiful beaches, St. Petersburg is home to the world-renowned Salvador Dali Museum, top-rated restaurants and beautiful Fort De Soto Park. This waterfront escape is a perfect family getaway with so much to explore. The city, which glimmers between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, is known for its warm weather and for holding the title of “most consecutive days with sunshine” at 768. Downtown St. Petersburg is the city’s heart, home to great shopping, restaurants, bars and attractions. We spent some real quality time there and enjoyed excellent meals at Ruth’s Chris Steak House and 400 Beach Seafood and Tap House.

After making a stop to check out the largest collection of Dali’s work outside of Spain, swing by the Chihuly Collection on picturesque Beach Drive to witness mind-blowing glasswork. Beach Drive anchors downtown shopping, dining and entertainment districts that include outdoor cafes and restaurants, world class museums and a dazzling array of shops, galleries, businesses, hotels and bed and breakfasts that line the city’s pedestrian-friendly streets. Grab a sweet treat at Kilwin’s Chocolate or browse along the many galleries and jewelry shops.

We went to the Dali Museum (http://thedali.org) on a Thursday evening. Located in the heart of   downtown St. Petersburg, this is home to an unparalleled collection of Salvador Dali art. It features more than 2,000 works, comprising nearly 100 oil paintings, over 100 watercolors and drawings and 1,300 prints, photographs, sculptures and art objects. The building is itself a work of art, featuring 1,062 triangular-shaped glass panels—the only structure of its kind in North America. Nicknamed The Enigma, it provides an unprecedented view of St. Petersburg’s picturesque waterfront. The Museum has attracted the world’s attention, and was listed by AOL Travel News as “one of the top buildings to see in your lifetime.”

I was thoroughly impressed with the experience and definitely list this as a “must see” for anyone in the area. Make sure to take advantage of the audio tour, available in several different languages. Many of the art work is labelled by numbers, so it is easy to pick up the commentary of relevant background information. I definitely acquired an increased fascination with Dali when I completed the gallery.

The museum recently announced two new permanent installations for the public to enjoy: a breathtaking new outdoor sculpture of Salvador Dali’s memorable mustache, and, inside its galleries, the awe-inspiring and globally award-winning Dreams of Dali virtual reality (VR) experience. First introduced as a component of the special exhibition Disney & Dali: Architects of the Imagination (January-June 2016), Dreams of Dali allows users to go inside – and beyond – Dali’s 1935 painting Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus” and explore the world of the Surrealist master like never before. The VR experience and its component 360-degree video received visitor acclaim, online praise and international recognition through a multitude of industry awards, including the prestigious 2016 Cannes Cyber Lion Gold; a 2016 Webby People’s Voice award; Facebook Silver award for Innovation, among many others.

Visitors to the museum are engulfed by art in every form – from the magnificent works of the talented Salvador Dali on display and installations in the outdoor Avant-garden. The Garden was inspired by local flora and Dali’s fascination with duality in art and nature, and is home to a tree where visitors can share their wishes, a meandering labyrinth, a tranquil “melting clock” bench, and myriad mathematical environmental elements. One of the most popular attractions in the Garden, known as the ideal spot to take photos and share via social media, was a colossal three-dimensional mustache that over time began to deteriorate.

Through April 17, 2017, the Dali is presenting the work of one of the most celebrated female artists of all time, Frida Kahlo. Her works have achieved significant importance in art, popular culture and the politics of personal identity. The exhibition features more than 60 pieces, including 15 original paintings – many of them among Kahlo’s own favorites – seven drawings, and more than 45 of her personal photographs.

The exhibition celebrates the beautiful yet tumultuous life of the iconic artist. There are, in a sense, two Fridas we learn: the suffering, pain-wracked Frida and the Frida alive to the joys of the universe. The exhibition demonstrates that despite her troubles, Frida’s legacy is her redeeming art and indomitable spirit.

The Dali Museum is located at One Dali Boulevard. For additional information contact 727-823-3767. The museum’s galleries are wheelchair accessible. There are four wheelchairs for public use, available on a first come, first serve basis, and cannot be reserved. There are designated accessible parking spaces located in the blacktop parking lots immediately adjacent to the museum’s south and west sides. The building was designed and constructed according to current ADA standards. In the course of planning for future expansions and renovations, The Dali is committed to a building providing full access to all.

Downtown St. Petersburg is known for its urban art scene, where you can see dozens of painted murals on a stroll down Central Ave. The St. Pete Mural Tour takes you on a guided journey through the colorful streets of the city with tours led by local artists who uncover the vibrant stories of the creators behind the murals.   You might also want to check out the Museum of Fine Arts or the Florida Holocaust Museum.

There are some live theatre options here. Visit the Sunken Gardens, a botanical paradise in the midst of the city. As St. Petersburg’s oldest living museum, this 100-year-old garden is home to some of the oldest tropical plants in the region.

We met some people with young kids who really enjoyed the Great Explorations Children’s Museum.  Designed for children 10 and under, the 24,000 square foot museum is filled with exhibits and activities to stimulate learning through creativity, play and exploration. The museum is a learning playground where children can make a discovery, make a mess, and even make a new friend.

In terms of downtown parking, there are private valets. If you are going to one of the restaurants connected to a specific valet, there is generally validation where you can save half the price. One night I choose a public lot, which was double the price but unlike the valets there was no curfew to worry about.

Check out Fort De Soto Park at 3500 Pinellas Bayway South. This is 1,100-plus acres, made up of five interconnected islands, featuring two fishing piers, a historic fort, seven miles of paved trails and iconic North Beach.  Explore the two piers at Fort De Soto Park. Visitors can enjoy two piers at Fort De Soto Park. One is on the bay side and the other is on the Gulf. The Bay Pier provides an awesome view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to the left and to the right you will see an island with a lighthouse on it – that is Egmont Key. The Gulf Fishing Pier is the longest at more than 1,000 feet and with no charge to fish on the pier; it has become a popular spot for locals and visitors alike!

Interested in kayaking through the mangroves at Fort De Soto Park? Stop by the Topwater Kayak Outpost to explore the calm waters that weave through the mangroves. Manaphins and dolphins are a common sighting in these waters.

During our stay we were steered towards   Pass-A-Grille Beach. Located at the southernmost end of St. Pete Beach, historic Pass-A-Grille is a quaint, laid back beach town where you can park your car and walk to the beach, boutiques, ice cream shop, outdoor art market, restaurants, tennis courts and fishing piers. There were many road repairs going on when we visited.

St. Petersburg is actually the physical home of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Major League Baseball team that many hope will one day relocate to Montreal. They play out of Tropicana Field near the downtown area.

If you’re traveling with kids, you’ll find family-friendly things to do to keep your whole group entertained. Outdoor lovers won’t be disappointed with all the sporting adventures that abound: from boating, sailing, stand-up paddle boarding and other watersports, to horseback riding on the beach, to highly rated golf courses and hiking and biking trails.

The events calendar is always full, and features everything from big-name concerts and performances to Saturday art walks and annual seafood and music festivals.

What I liked most about St. Pete was that even though we visited during a very busy period, tourist stops, shopping malls, restaurants and even the highways were not overly congested like we have seen too many times in the South Florida area. We only had nine days to explore, so a second trip to St. Pete/Clearwater is definitely on our wish list.

In compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the city of St. Petersburg recently began the process of updating its ADA Self Evaluation and Transition Plan to ensure that its public facilities, services, and programs are accessible to people with disabilities.

CAPI (The Committee to Advocate for Persons with Impairments) is a group of residents appointed by the Mayor with advice and consent of City Council. The function of CAPI is to advise city council on issues and to advocate on behalf of persons with disabilities. CAPI provides the city with guidance relative to the concerns, rights, special needs and dignity of persons with disabilities to ensure their full participation in and enjoyment of the city’s facilities, programs, and services.

CHECKING OUT CLEARWATER: Clearwater is about 45 minutes away. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is the home of Winter and Hope, stars of the sequel to box office hit “Dolphin Tale.” Clearwater Marine Aquarium operates as a marine hospital with its main mission to rescue, rehab and release.

Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill in Clearwater was started by a Quebecer. We passed by but did not have time this trip to indulge in a fresh-caught Grouper sandwich just feet from the white sands of Clearwater Beach. Frenchy’s, which has five local restaurants, is a staple of Clearwater Beach.

Consider a Dolphin Cruise aboard the Sea Screamer. Soak in the sunshine aboard a dolphin cruise in the Gulf of Mexico. Watch as dolphins play in the boat’s wake by wowing everyone with playful jumps. This area is home to the largest pod of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

Named the number one beach in the U.S. by TripAdvisor this year, you’re sure to find your perfect spot in the sand on Clearwater Beach. Rent a cabana and beach umbrella from a local vendor, or walk toward the more residential north side of the beach for a little serenity away from the bustling scene of Pier 60 and Clearwater Marina.

Take a stroll to Sunsets at Pier 60 festival- a local institution in Clearwater Beach. This free, family event takes place 365 days a year, weather permitting. Next year, the daily festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Explore the various artisans, crafters, street performers and musicians and take in a great sunset.

Visitors can enjoy the best of all worlds in St. Petersburg/Clearwater, from award-winning beaches to theme parks and everything in between. A dazzling array of world-class museums, galleries and performing arts have made St. Petersburg/Clearwater the cultural gem of Florida’s west coast, including the world-renowned Dali Museum.

Along with the areas many pristine beaches and barrier islands, a wealth of parks and preserves offer a fascinating look at nature. Outstanding fishing and scores of water sports and eco-tours are popular activities along the area’s 35 miles of coastline. Back on land, golfers can tee off at more than 40 courses.

The area’s eclectic mix of beach and downtown communities provides diverse options for hotels, dining, shopping and nightlife, from sophisticated resorts and nightclubs to casual beachside dining and surf shops. Numerous year-round events add to the fun including art and music festivals and professional sports games.

In Clearwater, disabled persons can enjoy the city with more ease, thanks to continuing efforts to make the confines and attractions accessible to everyone.

WHERE TO STAY: We were very fortunate to obtain accommodations at the Beach House Suites by Loews Don CeSar (https://www.loewshotels.com/don-cesar). The hotel debuted its total room renovation in February 2016, introducing 70 brand-new all-suite accommodations. The resort, located directly on St. Pete Beach and just one-half mile from the iconic and posh Loews Don CeSar Hotel, is perfect for extended stays, smaller groups and families. Each suite includes a separate living room with sofa bed, washers and dryers and a kitchenette with mini-refrigerator, dishwasher, Keurig coffeemaker, microwave, toaster and induction stove top. Special details such as spectacular views of the Gulf of Mexico, private balconies and stellar Loews-style service complement the new suites and make vacations at Beach House Suites that much more memorable. We felt very much at home.

Beach House Suites is a non-smoking property and welcomes pets ($45 per night pet fee applies). There is a daily resort fee of $25 per room. This  entitles guests to all the amenities and activities at Loews Don CeSar Hotel: complimentary shuttle service to each hotel and downtown St. Pete, high speed Wi-Fi (thumbs up to this service in the room and at the pool), a 24-hour fitness center access, yoga and aerobics classes daily, non-motorized watersport rentals (8 am to 10 am), half-day access to Camp CeSar for the little ones, history tours and complimentary tastings, two bottled waters daily, pressreader access, in-room  coffee, turn down service upon request, poolside pampering, pool and beach games, airline boarding pass printing and 24-hour shoe shine.

Pet-friendly rooms are available on the first floor only, so one must call 866-728-2206 to check availability.

When we first booked this place we were excited to know that we had full access to the Don CeSar. You can get there by walking, via the shuttle or taking your own vehicle. I was even provided with a neat book upon checking in about the hotel’s history. They even provided guided tours each day. We quickly discovered that lounging by the pool at the Beach House Suites was a solid option. For one thing, the pool area was never overly crowded. The pool attendants set up our chairs and umbrellas each day. We swam in the nicely heated pool and took advantage of the warm and soothing Jacuzzi. Nice music plays on the speaker system. You can play a game of ping pong, shuffleboard or check out the giant chessboard. There is a full bar where you can get some great smoothies and food items – the latter delivered within a half hour from the Don CeSar. And of course it is a nice option to be able to go back to your own room when you wish for a rest, collect some snacks or make a sandwich.

Manager Andrew Isherwood and his staff do pay close attention to everyone’s needs. I was impressed with how quickly Andrew remembered the names and room numbers of each guest. During his daily walkabouts he’d stop me near the pool or lobby to find out how everything was going. It is this type of individual attention I truly appreciated about the Beach House Suites.

We did take advantage though of  the full resort privileges at the Don CeSar, aka the Pink Palace, where room charging options are available  at Spa Oceana, shops, and restaurants, including the award-winning, Four-Diamond Maritana Grille and the newly opened Rowe Bar.

There are two beachfront heated pools. The poolside concierge provides everything from cucumber hydration to tropical smoothies.  With programs like Loews Loves Kids and Loews Loves Pets, everyone in the family is sure to have a great time at the Pink Palace. And that includes your favorite four-legged friend.

For those who are physically disabled, the pools and whirlpools at both complexes have special lifts.

Loews Don CeSar Hotel partners with the award-winning Boucher Brothers Management to pamper guests during their day on the beautiful St. Pete Beach. Take a walk from the pool deck and have some fun on the Gulf of Mexico, seeing the beautiful pink castle from a different view while cruising on wave runners or exploring on ocean kayaks. We got to spend one day lounging in private daybeds and chilling out on a chaise for a luxurious take on fun in the sun at the Loews.  Lunch and drinks were available right at our chairs via the Beachcomber. In terms of beach rentals, run by the Boucher brothers, luxury beach lounges cost $10; Beach Sand Chairs, $8; Large Umbrellas, $15; Deluxe Beach Cabanas, $30 and those Luxury Beach Beds, $100.

We also took advantage of the Jet Ski rentals. It is $120 per hour or $60 for a half hour after lunch time. You will save some money if you book it in the morning. The staff will sit you down in the Jet Ski in the water, provide a series of guidelines and then allow you to start the motor and go on your merry way. This was a real “rush” for my family and an activity I would strongly recommend. You can book your choice experience right at the hotel or call in advance and ask to be connected to someone from the Boucher Brothers team.

Lunch at the Don CeSar’s Sea Porch is another option. The Chef de Cuisine ensures fresh catches, comfort food, and local coastal flavors that cater to all appetites. This seaside location, with both indoor and outdoor seating, is the perfect place to enjoy breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Groups can enjoy the upper level, Gatsby’s, with sliding doors, a great choice for exclusive, private functions for up to 30 people.

The signature Loews Loves Kids programs are designed to make it fun—and easy—for families to travel with children and teens. No matter how old your kids are, they are guaranteed to have as good a time as you do. From lending libraries of games to childproofing kits, they have everything to make your family’s travel as seamless as possible. A “Kids Closet” offers items available for guests to use during their stay. These include toys, books, car seats, strollers, nightlights, potty seats, baby bathtub, baby blankets, outlet protectors, self-contained DVD players with age-appropriate DVDs—and more. There are children’s menus, with healthy options, plus fun books with crayons. Cribs and roll-away beds are also available for in-room use.

There is a list of nearby tourist attractions and activities recommended for children, as well as nearby pharmacies, pediatricians and bonded babysitting services. For babysitting needs, simply contact the concierge for arrangements and fees or more information.

Each summer, families can make a splash in the pool and enjoy a family-friendly “dive-in” movie.

As for things to do at the hotel, don’t miss a trip to Uncle Andy’s Ice Cream Parlor for some homemade ice cream.  One morning I enjoyed a quick small breakfast there.  You can also go shelling on the white powder beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, take part in hourly games and activities for children of all ages, including sand-castle building, treasure hunts and obstacle courses or heck out the indigenous fish in the aquarium off lobby.

Kids from aged four to 12 can spend the day exploring the beaches and garden surroundings of the Don. Exciting and kid-friendly activities include beach crafts, seashell hunting, and castle contests, pool games and special Kids Night Out events. You must provide 24-hour advance reservations by calling 727-360-1881 x2233.

For teens the Loews Don CeSar offers a combination of entertaining, fun and educational activities to occupy your hard-to-please teens and tweens who receive music download cards, a list of nearby tourist attractions, activities and shopping geared to teens and access to a lending library of Gameboys, DVD players, board games, and more.

The hotel has several ADA (American Disability Act) sanctioned rooms. There are eight at the main resort, including one of the Penthouse suites, and four ADA sanctioned rooms at Beach House Suites. These rooms include roll-in showers and in the Beach House Suites the washer and dryer units are next to each other, rather than stacked on top of each other.

THE MARITANA GRILLE: It turned out that one of the more outstanding restaurants in St. Pete was right at the Don CeSar. The Maritana Grille exudes fine dining. Our meal there was a true experience, thanks very much in part to our superb server Tim who guided us perfectly through each portion of the meal. There is a reason why this made it as a USA Today 10 Best acclaimed restaurant. It features food sourced from local farms, dairies, and fishermen and includes traditional contemporary favorites prepared with a creative twist.  The menu is accented with an extensive wine list, first-class service, and a stunning setting, graced by dazzling salt water aquariums. Ask about the private Chef’s Table, where your entire dinner experience is specially created and presented by the talented culinary team—the perfect setting for special occasions or whenever the mood strikes. In this case you are seated right in the kitchen.

We began with some drinks, the pink pearl consisting of chopin vodka, Chambord, champagne sparkle and fresh raspberry. On this night, a fabulous seafood platter was available. It consisted of some crabs, large shrimp and six kusshi British Columbia oysters, with champagne mignonette and cocktail sauce.   In addition, we ordered some delicious tuna sashimi (with ginger vinaigrette, lemongrass aioli and ginger crunch) to share while one member of party selected the roasted carrot bisque. This literally tasted like candy it was so good, featuring toasted coriander, lime and chili oil.

For the main course, Tim went over the many sumptuous options. We took some time before settling on three dishes: Maine lobster, with hand cut pappardelle, asparagus spears, trumpet mushrooms and lobster cream; an extraordinary serving of Chilean sea bass, with confit potatoes, asparagus, oyster mushrooms, herb foam and port lemon reduction; and an Anderson Ranch Lamb Rack, with celery root purée, sweet pea gnocchi, carrots and mint pesto. Tim would also make a great sommelier, for he matched different glasses of wine with each of our dinners to absolute perfection.

The dessert options were tantalizing to say the least. We opted for the olive oil cake (white chocolate ice cream, vanilla custard, black pepper strawberries and olive oil powder), the key lime semi fredo (graham cracker whipped cream, crushed blackberry sauce, meringue kisses and blackberry sherbet) and mocha spheres (dark chocolate espresso, coconut ice cream, caramel cream and cocoa toast). This was definitely an opportunity to share, so we dove into each one at a time. Needless to say, there was not a crumb left on any of the plates.

Open for dinner daily at 5:30 pm, reservations are strongly recommended. You can call 727-360-1882, email cbarrett@loewshotels.com and log on to the full menu on the hotel website.    Hats off to chef Mouhssine Benhamacht and his team.

HAROLD SELTZER’S STEAKHOUSE:  Canadians in particular will want to visit Harold Seltzer’s Steakhouse. I quickly learned that Harold is a native Montrealer whose grandfather Sam was one of the city’s most legendary butchers.

Upon arriving at the St. Pete locale, I felt right at home. There was the well-lit up sign no passing car could miss, several model cows near the entrance, a packed parking lot accompanied by a sizable lineup for tables and a menu which looked oh so familiar.

Harold Seltzer was only eight years old when he started to work at his grandfather’s iconic butcher shop in Montreal for 75 cents an hour. As he grew up, he learned the business inside out and put himself through school by waiting on tables and working in management for different restaurants. While he chose a different career path and became a commercial tax real estate lawyer, the food industry remained close to his heart.

Sam Seltzer (1905-1997) began working as a young boy delivering packages of meat on the streetcars of Montreal. He worked for the butcher shop of the man who would become his father-in-law and eventually opened up one of his own, which he became deservedly famous for more than 60 years.

Harold’s father Nelson and his uncle Norman took over the family business and grew it to greater heights, serving the finest cuts of aged and marbled beef to individuals, as well as the better restaurants, hotels and private clubs in Montreal. Nelson also owned and operated many restaurants in Canada, before returning to the meat and wholesale food business and still works full time.

In 1995 an opportunity presented itself to launch a steakhouse concept in the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida area and Harold jumped at it. He called the restaurant Sam Seltzer’s Steakhouse, after his legendary grandfather, and from the first 1,000 seat dining establishment in Tampa it grew into a chain of 30, with other locations in such places as Clearwater, Orlando, Sarasota, St. Pete, Port Richey and Fort Myers.

Harold sold his interests in Sam Seltzer`s Steakhouse in 2004. One night, six years later, he was watching the news and saw that the entire chain was shutting down. He was shocked and felt particularly bad for the staff who would be out of work. A few days later he purchased the contents of the St. Pete and Port Richey locales and reopened under the new name of Harold Seltzer`s Steakhouse.

Harold Seltzer’s Steakhouse is reputed to have the best prime rib in town and I can personally attest to how good it is. He buys all of his beef in bulk and ages it for five to six weeks to make it more tender. They make their own dough each day in order to serve homemade dinner rolls and croutons and house-made dressings and they have strict meat handling approaches. From the time the meat is produced, Harold’s has control over it. It is cut in-house and aged a minimum of 35 days.

Besides the prime rib, members of our party also ordered the 10 once rib eye and the filet mignon. We began our meal with delicious house salads and bowls of another speciality, the lobster bisque.

The St. Pete restaurant seats about 350 people.  It was impressive to watch Harold in action. For one thing he stopped at every table to chat and most customers spoke to him on a first name basis. He cleared dishes and when I went to the washroom there he was cleaning the sink counters. A little later I saw him circulating in the kitchen.

The St. Petersburg restaurant is located at 3500 Tyrone Blvd. while the one in Port Richey is at Gulf View Square Mall.  Log on to www.seltzerssteakhouse.com

FOX RENT A CAR: Booking a rental car from a good agency represents an important component to any holiday. On our recent trip to St. Petersburg, we had our first experience with Fox Rent a Car (https://www.foxrentacar.com/en/faqs.html). Our Air Canada flight landed at the airport in Tampa. A free shuttle brought us to their area headquarters where we drove away with a Chrysler 300. I really liked this vehicle.  It even came with Sirius XM Satellite Radio. At Fox you’ll find economy cars, family-size cars, SUVs, mini-vans and luxury or sport vehicles available for your discount rental.

The shuttle pickup was very smooth. Our driver Robert was a real gentleman, loading and unloading all of our luggage. It is a pleasant 10 minute drive from the airport, where a friendly staff awaits and checks you in promptly. The gentleman at the desk signed me in and then walked me to the Chrysler, loading our luggage and giving me an overview of the car’s features. We brought our own GPS, but Fox will provide you with one.  Our return to the airport was just as smooth

Fox is the fifth largest car rental company in the US and it continues expanding globally   with new locations now open for reservations in the popular tourist markets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Merida, Mexico, Auckland, New Zealand, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada and Istanbul, Turkey.

“We are very happy to expand with our new airport partners in Canada, Northern Ireland, New Zealand, Turkey and Mexico to bring the Fox value and brand experience to travelers in these growing leisure rental markets” said Jack Wetzel, Director of Fox Affiliate Division for Fox Rent A Car. “We continue to seek out new partners and business location opportunities to expand our car rental service to loyal Fox customers around the globe.”

The addition of these new locations enables Fox to now reach an additional 52 million international travelers and expand its value-based rental service around the world through. Overall Fox has more than 12 locations in 29 countries and territories, including the United States and with an available fleet of over 60,000 vehicles worldwide.
Fox Rent A Car, Inc. was founded in 1989, as a value-based car rental brand catering to airport travelers. Actively managed and owned by its founders, Fox has enjoyed robust growth for over 25 years. Fox Rent A Car offers consumers great value, convenience and superior service at 20 major corporate owned airport locations cross the US plus more than 90 affiliate locations and a growing roster of international partner locations at www.foxrentacar.com.

With 20 major airport locations across the US, Fox offers the consumer the same selection of foreign and domestic vehicles at a significant discount from the larger rental operators in the market. As the 21st century traveler becomes more discerning and cost-conscious, the Fox brand will continue to gain acceptance and a loyal following, founded on the principle of consistently offering value and superior service to the customer.

I was very impressed with the Tampa operation, managed by Johnny Hubner. The airport is currently undergoing major renovations. When completed in early 2018, there will be a new rental car facility at which point Fox will relocate.

Fox has been in Florida for five years now, with locations in Tampa, Orlando, Fort Myers, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Their prices are significantly better than the competition. “Pricing is obviously a big factor when renting a car,” says Hubner. “That and of course the reputation of the company. I believe we stand out on both counts.”

The Tampa location is open 24 hours a day.

For more information call (800) 225-4369 Ext. 1 or (310) 641-3838 Ext. 1

For customer service call toll free (800) 225-4369 Ext. 9 Fox does assist with reserving vehicles with hand controls. Fox cannot provide hand controls on every make or model of vehicle, and cannot confirm a reservation for a particular make or model of vehicle on any rental. Please call (800) 225-4369 at least 72 hours in advance to make your reservation.

For assistance with a wheelchair-accessible shuttle, you can call (800) 225-4369.

I strongly recommend this company. Great service and none of the competition can beat their prices.

Tampa Dining and Arts Tips

While my family and I stayed in beautiful St. Petersburg on our most recent trip to Florida’s Gulf Coast, we did make the 30 minute drive into Tampa a few times.

BERN’S STEAK HOUSE:  Prior to our trip I began to hear many excellent stories about Bern’s Steak House (www.bernsteakhouse.com) in Tampa. This is the spot known for perfectly aged steaks, one of the largest wine collections in the world and an internationally famous dessert room. These elements have combined since 1956 to provide guests with a unique culinary experience. I must say I cannot recall a dining experience quite like this. The prime steaks are cut to order, vegetables are grown locally on the Bern’s farm and sourced from the finest purveyors, and the menu includes 21 choices of caviar.  Bern’s founder, Bern Laxer, was born to a Romanian mother and Polish father on the Lower East Side of New York in 1923, and grew up in the Bronx.  After serving in World War II, he returned to New York where he pursued a degree in advertising from New York University.  He met his wife Gert in a copywriting class and they married in 1950.  To support them, Bern operated a one-man advertising agency in the city.

In 1951, the couple planned to move to California, but they first wanted to visit Bern’s aunt in Tampa. After watching her labor tirelessly in the Chinese restaurant she owned for nearly 40 years, Bern vowed never to enter the restaurant business. During their time in Tampa, Bern and Gert ran out of money so they simply decided to call Tampa home. Bern found work in advertising with several companies, while also freelance writing a garden newsletter called Garden Notes in his spare time.

Bern and Gert initially attempted to open a soft-serve ice cream parlor in downtown Tampa, but couldn’t secure the necessary financing. In 1953, they bought a small luncheonette called The Gator Juice Bar, which served orange juice, coffee, and cold sandwiches at lunch time.  After several months, the Laxers added cold breakfast and opened earlier in order to accommodate more diners.

Bern and Gert spent five days a week working at the luncheonette while Saturdays were reserved for shopping, cleaning, scrubbing, and making repairs in order to prepare for the week ahead. The Laxers served dishes prepared with only the freshest and best ingredients in their small restaurant. On Sundays, Gert rested while Bern continued to produce his four-page garden newsletter. Before long, the luncheonette added hot breakfasts and lunches, fresh eggs, and homemade doughnuts under the new name Bern and Gert’s Little Midway.  Acknowledging their success, the Laxers purchased the Beer Haven bar in what was then a small strip shopping center and moved their operation to 1208 South Howard Avenue. After a “historical” meeting with 10-20 investors, Bern and Gert began their new endeavor in what is now the Bordeaux Room of Bern’s Steak House. Bern and Gert always planned to be equal partners and therefore share equal billing in the name of their new bar. However, in order to save money, they salvaged letters from the existing Beer Haven sign and bought an “S” to create “Bern’s”. They eventually added “Steak House” because the phone company wouldn’t allow single name listings.

Not long after opening the bar, the Laxers learned that the man who sold them the Beer Haven had done so without permission from the landlord. With the landlord threatening not to renew their lease due to his disapproval of alcohol sales, Bern and Gert agreed to go back into the food business and became a restaurant once again. The Laxers labored seven days a week, Bern as the cook and dishwasher and Gert as waitress, hostess, and second dishwasher, as they served breakfast, lunch, and dinner with beer and coffee in between.

As time marched on, Bern and Gert gradually bought adjoining shops and grew Bern’s from one to eight dining rooms and from 40 to 350 guest seats.

Sadly, Bern passed away in 2002. Gert, now retired, visits occasionally while their son, David, carries on the tradition of running Bern’s Steak House, Bern’s Fine Wines and Spirits, and its sister restaurant, SideBern’s. His son David Laxer runs the operation.

Bern’s waiters train for approximately one year, working at every station in the restaurant.  Our server Curt reviewed the extensive menu and made some recommendations. We started off with a delicious order of 12 oysters on the half shell for the two of us and some lump crab cakes with avocado green tomato salad and Bern’s blend mustard butter sauce for the third member of our party.  The former was accompanied by classic cocktail sauce, horseradish sorbet, green Tobasco granita and truffled mignonette. From there, it was pretty straight forward. The three of us shared a 22 ounce cut of Chateaubriand, perfectly cooked at medium.  It cut like butter. All entrées include French onion soup au gratin with garlic and spelt toasts, steak house salad, baked potato, steak house crispy fried onion rings and a vegetable tasting of the evening.

The menu, which you can download from their website, is most comprehensive in describing the food and how it is prepared.

After dinner, we went on the restaurant’s famous kitchen and wine cellar tour.  Then it was time to step inside the world famous Harry Waugh Dessert Room, built in 1985 using redwood wine casks to create 48 private rooms where guests to this day enjoy nearly 50 desserts, wines, ports, sherries, and madeiras. This represents a separate sitting. All desserts – ice creams, sherbets, pies, pastries, hot fudge, whipped cream, breads and crackers – are made by Bern’s with the freshest and best ingredients available.  Wow, it was difficult to choose. In the end we opted for two specialty drinks, a dreamsicle (vanilla ice cream, orange juice, orange schnapps and Hangar One mandarin) and a Butterscotch Bern’s (vanilla ice cream with butterscotch liqueur and other special liqueurs) as well as the chocolate-chocolate-chocolate, classic (layers of chocolate cheese pie, chocolate cheese cake and milk chocolate mousse on a dense chocolate crust and served with whipped cream and milk chocolate shavings) and the capacino creme (their signature version of the classic American dessert Tiramisu). What a truly amazing dining experience. If you are in the area of 1208 S. Howard Street then make a reservation by calling 813-251-2421. You can valet park for $5.

Bern’s is fully wheelchair accessible. There are elevators which bring you to each level of the restaurant.

STRAZ CENTER: While in town we purchased tickets to the hit musical An American in Paris, which was playing at the beautiful Straz Center in Tampa Bay. Built on an abandoned gravel lot in a city that was lacking cultural offerings, the Straz Center (http://www.strazcenter.org) began as the dream of a community.  Today it is the largest performing arts center in the Southeast and the only one with an on-site performing arts conservatory. The Straz Center was incorporated in 1980 and opened in 1987.

In the early 1990s, the Straz Center (then known as Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) established arts education as a community priority, working closely with area public, private and home school programs to enhance arts education for children throughout the seven-county Tampa Bay area. Outreach programs included curriculum connectors to Florida education standards and teacher study guides in print and online. The Straz Center’s extended in-school artistic residencies, summer programs and after school offerings helped to fill the increasing gaps in arts education left by budget cuts. Since 1991 the Straz Center’s Education department housed programs such as Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra and Community Arts Ensemble, a free summer theater day camp that served urban children in need by connecting them with nationally known artists in a rehearsal-based process. Each summer, an original musical play was written and produced especially for that year’s group of up to 100 children to perform in a fully-staged production for friends and family in one of the Straz Center’s main halls.

The Straz Center is committed to making the performing arts available and accessible through a variety of services, including sign language interpretation, audio descriptions of shows and open captioning. It encourage patrons needing these services to call ahead (813.229.STAR). The Straz Center has an ‘Open Doors’ Accessibility Policy. Wheelchair accessible seating may be purchased online or over the phone with a Customer Service Representative.

IHOP EXPERIENCE: If you want to grab a fun meal before the show, then I recommend the IHOP 10 minutes away at 802 S Dale Mabry Hwy. International House of Pancakes® began making people smile in 1958 when it opened its doors in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Fifteen years later, a new marketing campaign introduced the acronym “IHOP,” and since then it’s been the name people know as the place they can enjoy their favorite breakfast experience—any time of day. For 58 years, IHOP has been a leader, innovator and expert in all things breakfast, any time of day. The chain offers 65 different signature, fresh, made-to-order breakfast options, a wide selection of popular lunch and dinner items as well as meals under 600 calories. IHOP restaurants offer guests an affordable, everyday dining experience with warm and friendly service. As of June 30, 2016, there were 1,695 IHOP restaurants in 50 states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam as well as Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, The Philippines, and Panama. IHOP restaurants are franchised and operated by Glendale, Calif.-based DineEquity, Inc. (NYSE: DIN) and its affiliates. Why not consider buying a gift card online at http://www.ihop.com/Restaurant-Gift-Cards. You can send it digitally to anyone you wish.

There was also an IHOP just down the street from our hotel in St. Pete. Open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, I only wish I had this kind of option for breakfast foods and a whole lot more in Montreal. They also provide wireless internet at a good speed.

FOX RENTAL CAR:   Booking a rental car from a good agency represents an important component to any holiday. On our recent trip   Florida we had our first experience with Fox Rent A Car (https://www.foxrentacar.com/en/faqs.html). Our Air Canada flight landed at the airport in Tampa. A free shuttle brought us to their area headquarters where we drove away with a Chrysler 300. I really liked this vehicle.  It even came with Sirius XM Satellite Radio. At Fox you’ll find economy cars, family-size cars, SUVs, mini-vans and luxury or sport vehicles available for your discount rental.

The shuttle pickup was very smooth. Our driver Robert was a real gentleman, loading and unloading all of our luggage. It is a pleasant 10 minute drive from the airport, where a friendly staff awaits and checks you in promptly. The gentleman at the desk signed me in and then walked me to the Chrysler, loading our luggage and giving me an overview of the car’s features. We brought our own GPS, but Fox will provide you with one.

Fox is the fifth largest car rental company in the US and it continues expanding globally   with new locations now open for reservations in the popular tourist markets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Merida, Mexico, Auckland, New Zealand, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada and Istanbul, Turkey.

“We are very happy to expand with our new airport partners in Canada, Northern Ireland, New Zealand, Turkey and Mexico to bring the Fox value and brand experience to travelers in these growing leisure rental markets” said Jack Wetzel, Director of Fox Affiliate Division for Fox Rent A Car. “We continue to seek out new partners and business location opportunities to expand our car rental service to loyal Fox customers around the globe.”

The addition of these new locations enables Fox to now reach an additional 52 million international travelers and expand its value-based rental service around the world through. Overall Fox has more than 12 locations in 29 countries and territories, including the United States and with an available fleet of over 60,000 vehicles worldwide.
Fox Rent A Car, Inc. was founded in 1989, as a value-based car rental brand catering to airport travelers. Actively managed and owned by its founders, Fox has enjoyed robust growth for over 25 years. Fox Rent A Car offers consumers great value, convenience and superior service at 20 major corporate owned airport locations cross the US plus more than 90 affiliate locations and a growing roster of international partner locations at www.foxrentacar.com.

With 20 major airport locations across the US, Fox offers the consumer the same selection of foreign and domestic vehicles at a significant discount from the larger rental operators in the market. As the 21st century traveler becomes more discerning and cost-conscious, the Fox brand will continue to gain acceptance and a loyal following, founded on the principle of consistently offering value and superior service to the customer.

I was very impressed with the Tampa operation, managed by Johnny Hubner. The airport is currently undergoing major renovations. When completed in early 2018, there will be a new rental car facility at which point Fox will relocate.

Fox has been in Florida for five years now, with locations in Tampa, Orlando, Fort Myers, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Their prices are significantly better than the competition. “Pricing is obviously a big factor when renting a car,” says Hubner. “That and of course the reputation of the company. I believe we stand out on both counts.”

The Tampa location is open 24 hours a day.

For more information call (800) 225-4369 Ext. 1 or (310) 641-3838 Ext. 1

For customer service call toll free (800) 225-4369 Ext. 9 Fox does assist with reserving vehicles with hand controls. Fox cannot provide hand controls on every make or model of vehicle, and cannot confirm a reservation for a particular make or model of vehicle on any rental. Please call (800) 225-4369 at least 72 hours in advance to make your reservation.

For assistance with a wheelchair-accessible shuttle, you can call (800) 225-4369.

New Jersey’s Wildwoods

WILDWOOD CREST – It is always exciting for my family and I to explore a brand new vacation spot. After experiencing Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for the first time in 2015, we decided to follow this up with the Wildwoods in New Jersey (www.WildwoodsNJ.com).As usual, we get an early start at securing reservations, doing so many months in advance of a July visit.

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Home to more than 180 special events and festivals throughout the year, some might consider the Wildwoods the “Events Capital of the East Coast.” The events take place at various locations throughout the island’s three distinct municipalities: Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood. Visitors can find an event happening nearly every day of the week throughout the summer at locations including the Wildwoods Convention Center, Fox Park, Olde New Jersey Avenue and on the beach and world-famous Wildwoods Boardwalk.

The Wildwoods’ annual calendar of events not only draws visitors to the family resort, but also provides additional activities and entertainment outlets to those already visiting for vacation or business. From firemen to fishing tournaments, music to marbles, the Wildwoods have developed a unique offering of special events not equaled in any other resort destinations.

Spring is the time when the outdoor fun starts rolling in the Wildwoods, with events like the Boardwalk Classic Car Show, Easter Weekend and the one-of-a-kind Sensational Spring Weekend taking place. These events get the year started off right and help set the tone for the rest of summer. Highlighted by great music, loud engines and family fun, spring events in the Wildwoods are a great reason to warm up after a long winter.

Once Memorial Day hits, the summer really starts heating up. The Wildwoods host their annual International Kite Festival (the largest such event in North America), National Marbles Tournament, Wildwoods Baby Parade, New Jersey State Barbeque Championships, the Anglesea Blues Festival and spectacular 4th of July Weekend. Traditional events like these attract hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the country every summer.

Also taking place almost every weekend throughout the summer on the five-mile island are block parties, craft shows, conventions and many festivals. A wide variety of free concerts and live entertainment can also be found almost every single night of the week throughout the summer, including spectacular, free Friday Night Fireworks and free live concerts featuring national recording artists, oldies groups, dance and big band music and more!

Best of all, the fun doesn’t end in the Wildwoods once September comes around. The Wildwoods’ “Second Season” starts up after Labor Day Weekend, offering visitors a host of events every weekend through the end of October. Fall events in the Wildwoods include the NJ Governors Cup and the Olde Time Italian Festival; the Irish Fall Festival; the Seafood and Music Festival and the amazing Fabulous ‘50s Weekend.

There’s a little something for everyone on the Wildwoods Calendar of Events: Roller Derby, MMA, WWE Live and the Harlem Globetrotters for sports lovers; monster trucks, car shows and motorcycle rallies for auto enthusiasts; Comic, Sports Card, Toy, Postcard and Stamp Expos for collectors; a Barbeque and Blues Festival, Seafood and Music Festival and Italian and Irish Festivals for music and food lovers; and events like International Kite Festival and National Marbles Tournament for families. The best part about all of the Wildwoods’ events is that they are open to everyone to come and enjoy – and most of them are free to attend!

The Wildwoods Calendar of Events is available online at www.WildwoodsNJ.com or by calling 1-800-WW-BY-SEA (800) 992-9732.

WHERE TO STAY: We were fortunate to get reservations at The Adventurer Ocean Inn (www.AdventurerInn.com), which I can confidently say is probably the nicest hotel in all of the Wildwoods. This is indeed an oceanfront location, which has everything that your family or group needs to relax and unwind at the beach. You can wake up to the sounds of the ocean, watch the sun rise from an ocean view or oceanfront balcony, enjoy breakfast in their oceanfront restaurant or simply bask in the sun at the beach or at the pool area. From this location, you can walk to the beach, the Boardwalk and waterparks, and the Wildwoods Convention Center with ease. It comes complete with a cardio room, convention/meeting rooms, Southern exposure outdoor pool and kiddie pool, and free outdoor and garage parking on the premises.

Mary Nell Murphy is the managing director and owner of the hotel, which was originally operated by her grandparents. While her dad Greg Lacivita is still involved, he is slowly drifting into retirement and allowing Mary Nell and her sister Joanna and brother Chris to keep the family tradition going.

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We felt right at home at The Adventurer Ocean Inn the moment we arrived. This hotel features some of the largest and cleanest two, three and four room suites in the Wildwoods. Upgrades are done each off-season. They used to close from October until May. But given the increased activity at the Convention Centre, their opening date has been moved up to April, March and next winter February. We had a very comfortable two-room suite, which had a king size and double bed in one area. This was separated by a sliding accordion door, opening up to a nice sized living room/full kitchen with a pullout sofa bed, a nice sitting chair and a table with five chairs, which we used to eat at. It also became my “go to” spot to do work on my computer.

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As far as the pool facility is concerned, I want to give a huge thumbs up. On the eighth and final day of our visit, we felt very emotional leaving our very comfortable chairs and taking our last swim in the perfectly heated pool. There are plenty of chairs and umbrellas. You just need to give your room number and you will receive some nice sized towels for the day. We particularly appreciated the covered outdoor lounging area with an adjacent sundeck at the second level, which also had comfy couches. There is WiFi poolside so we could enjoy our different devices. At pool level there is an enclosed oceanfront lounge/meeting area, which connects to the beach. It also has tables to eat at, a TV to watch and washrooms.

The front office staff are extremely friendly and helpful. They will steer you in the direction of different tourist attractions. The reception area has an endless array of tourism flyers and booklets to choose from. There is a business centre with two computers and two printers.

The Adventurer Pancake House and Family Restaurant is located on the first floor on the oceanfront side of the building. It has been privately run by the same family for the past two decades.
There is a washing station on the oceanfront side of the building, just before entering. Guests are encouraged to wash sand off there before entering the building or the pool area. We swam in the ocean each day, which was happily quite warm in the month of July. It was an easy walk from poolside.

The hotel is located at the beginning of the Boardwalk, which has shops, eateries and arcades, The rides are three quarters to one mile from the Boardwalk, so you do not hear any noise from them.

Coin-operated laundry and ironing facilities are available on site. Groups can take advantage of a Penthouse convention / meeting room. There elevators on each side of the building, complimentary cribs and cots and daily housekeeping service. I was very impressed with the number of luggage carts available in the garage. There is a large Acme Supermarket only a few blocks away from the hotel so we were able to do a full order to stock the fridge when we arrived and go back and forth during the week to pickup other items.

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The hotel has excellent access for the handicapped from the garage elevator. There is a ramp leading to the pool. Mary Nell plans to have a company come in the next off-season and conduct a needs assessment. She has already added roll-in showers to some rooms.

All of the 113 rooms are non-smoking and have individual climate control(s), private balconies, telephone(s) with automated voice mail, free wireless internet access, refrigerators and microwaves, an in-room safe, flat screen TVs, hair dryers and toiletries, iron and ironing boards, kitchens, coffee pot, a two burner stove, pots and pans, dishes and silverware and a toaster

The beach is free and available for your vacationing pleasure. Umbrella and beach chair rentals are conveniently located directly on the beach; no need to bring your own! The Beach Patrol can also assist handicapped or wheelchair-bound individuals and their families onto the beach and/or to the waters edge. Guests can simply walk outside the building and enjoy!
This a fabulous family location and from speaking with many of the guests, they come back year after year. In fact it is fairly common for them to book their rooms for the following year upon checkout. By doing so they are able to lock in the rates that exist at the time.

I strongly recommend the Adventurer Ocean Inn! It made our trip and I thank the people from the Greater Wildwoods Tourism and Improvement Development Authority for recommending it.

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WHAT TO DO: There is an awful lot to do here and it all starts at The Wildwoods Boardwalk, often called “two miles of smiles.” Here you will find spectacular amusement piers, world-class roller coasters, interactive waterparks, family atmosphere, carnival-style games of chance, shops and irresistible food. Imagine, nearly nine million visitors are attracted here each season. We just loved the atmosphere.

Since its birth as a mere 150-yard stretch of boards in the 1890s, the Wildwoods Boardwalk has always been the center of activity. Throughout the years, the Boardwalk has gone through many transformations, growing and evolving with the mood of the country, and in its 100-year history, was twice moved closer to the ocean with the changing shoreline. Today, it is one of the country’s last great seaside promenades. Its rich history and world-famous ambiance has led to the very concept being replicated both in Disneyland and Hershey Park in Pennsylvania.

Stretching for two and a half miles, the Boardwalk offers pure sensory overload with over 100 rides and attractions (more than Disneyland) ranging from world-class roller coasters and wet ‘n wild waterparks to carnival-style midway games, flashing arcades and a myriad of retail shops and eateries (more than the Mall of America).

The Boardwalk features Morey’s Piers (www.moreyspiers.com), containing three action-packed amusement piers. Morey’s Mariner’s Pier, located at Schellenger Avenue in Wildwood, offers the atmosphere of a traditional amusement park. With the classics like the Super Scooters, Teacups, Musik Express and the Giant Wheel, Mariner’s Landing takes families back to the turn of the century when life was simpler. It’s also the only place to experience Breakfast in the sky— a gourmet, white linen and china breakfast on the Giant Wheel, offering spectacular views of the ocean and all of the Wildwoods.

Morey’s Surfside Pier, located at 25th Street in North Wildwood, is like stepping into a colorful seaside carnival. It was the first of Morey’s three piers, opening in 1969 with a giant fiberglass slide that only cost 25 cents to ride. Surfside Pier mixes a variety of kiddie rides with family thrills in an environment fueled by neon colors, bright lights and music.

Morey’s Adventure Pier is the one that rocks, packed with high thrill extreme rides, the world famous wooden coaster and the Three-Point Challenge Basketball Game. Soar through the air over the beach on the SkyCoaster, feel the G force of the SkyScraper or shoot your way to the moon on the SlingShot. A brand new stage features School of Rock.

Guests visiting the Wildwoods Boardwalk will find an array of exciting amusements, including three of the best seaside roller coasters in the country at Morey’s Piers: the Sea Serpent, the Great Nor’easter – an inverted looping coaster, and the Great White – one of the tallest and fastest wooden coasters on the East Coast. Also, giant monster trucks offer a high-speed, bumpy ride along the beach; and the Wildwoods’ three large beachfront water parks provide cool relief on a hot summer day – with plunging waterfalls, cool cabanas, spas, hydrochutes, speed slides, raft rides, tube floats, lazy rivers, waterslides, rope swings, water guns for soaking, and a 1,000 gallon dumping bucket. We secured special bracelets, which provided us with unlimited access for a full day to any ride in the amusement park as well as access to the water parks. You can also purchase tickets individually. I loved their flume ride, where we got happily soaked during two plunges and the huge ferris wheel. There were no huge lineups that you see at many amusement parks and that was appreciated.

Another of the Boardwalk’s most popular attractions is the Sightseer Tram Cars (http://watchthetramcarplease.com/tramcar), the source of one of the most familiar quotes to any visitor to the Jersey Shore and the Wildwoods Boardwalk: “Watch the Tram Car, Please,” transporting visitors from one end of the famous wooden way to the other.

The Sightseer Tram Cars were originally built for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. In 1949, Gilbert Ramagosa purchased five of the electric powered cars and put them into service on the Wildwoods Boardwalk. For over 65 continuous years, they have ferried tens of millions of visitors and locals alike along the Boardwalk.

The Tram Cars were way ahead of their time in being environmentally friendly, as they can operate for up to 12 hours at a time on the power of a single 2,000-pound electric battery. Today, eight Tram Cars traverse the Boardwalk and carry approximately 500,000 people annually along the promenade. A nominal fare provides seating on the Tram Car and transports visitors to their desired destinations along the Boardwalk, running a continuous loop from Cresse Avenue on the Wildwood/Wildwood Crest border to 16th Street in North Wildwood. We very much appreciated this service, having secured a booklet of tickets, which costs $50. You can get on and off where you wish. There are also bracelets available for $6 a day. Individual rides cost $3. This was so convenient for our family as we got on just steps away from the Adventurer Ocean Inn and simply got off at the Boardwalk stop we desired.

The Boardwalk is also perfect for a stroll on a cool night or a scenic bike ride amidst all of the Boardwalk’s amusements during the early morning hours. The Cresse Avenue bike ramp provides ‘bikeability’ for the Wildwoods connecting Wildwood Crest’s beach bike path to the Boardwalk. At the North end of the Boardwalk the bike ramp connects the Muhlberry Bike path in north Wildwood all the way to the Sea Wall, a scenic six-mile trek.

The Boardwalk has won numerous travel and tourism awards including being named among the top three Boardwalks in the nation as a Best Boardwalk for Food by TheDailyMeal.com in 2014; a Top Boardwalk in the nation by FamilyVacationCritic.com in 2015,2014, 2013 and 2012; and the Wildwoods’ Morey’s Amusement Piers were named among the Top 10 Piers by Coastal Living Magazine in 2014. In 2013 the Wildwoods were also recognized as one of the Most Awesome Boardwalks in America by BudgetTravel.com; as the Favorite Shore Town by Delaware County Daily Times readers; and as the Favorite Beach and Boardwalk by NJ.com readers.

While walking on the Boardwalk we met a young man giving samples of some neat pastries. He turned out to be a Montrealer working for one of the first BeaverTails (www.beavertails.com) outlets in the United States, Based on an old family recipe, BeaverTails pastries are a Canadian icon – a unique and delicious treat. Served hot and topped with numerous choices, including cinnamon & sugar, chocolate hazelnut spread, Reese’s® Pieces and peanut butter, BeaverTails pastries satisfy indulgences of all tastes. BeaverTails also offers a menu of favorite snack foods, including BeaverBites, BeaverDogs, poutines, and moozoo® smoothies, frozen yogurts and gelatos. The young man, a student at the John Molson School of Business, said that the response has been good. Not only do many Quebecers visit the Wildwoods, Americans were very curious – especially about our famous poutine.

Splash Zone Water Park (http://www.splashzonewaterpark.com), water-drenched fun in the sun, features the ultimate combination of high-speed thrills and tranquil surroundings for guests of all ages. It is located right on the Boardwalk. Within the atmosphere of a secluded family fun oasis awaits a mélange of everything from a giant water bucket, to waterfalls, speed slides and body flumes to a lazy river, a children’s water playground and a tree house loaded with a giant arsenal of every interactive water toy imaginable! When you’re not getting drenched in the water, Splash Zone offers sunbathing areas, a picnic facility and mouthwatering food at the Zone Grill. You can also book your own cabana.

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We love to play mini-golf. Our chosen course in Wildwood was the Black Light Mini Golf: Dragon’s Lair Mini Golf (http://dragonslairminigolf.com) on the Boardwalk. It was a lot of fun and only $5 per person for 10 holes. You can play rain or shine in this glow in the dark indoor facility, open 10 am to midnight daily.

We had planned on experiencing the Sightseer Whale & Dolphin Cruises (http://bigbluesightseer.com), but time ran out for us.

DINING OUT: Imagine enjoying a romantic dinner overlooking the water as fishing vessels glide into port with the day’s catch. Or, think how wonderful it would be to begin your day with a stack of fluffy pancakes dripping with butter and syrup while watching morning cyclists pedal along the Boardwalk, all the while thinking ahead to a fun day at the beach. Then, it’s lunch with pizza, burgers, curly fries or a sub, all topped off with soft-serve ice cream or sugar-powdered funnel cakes and a promise that you’ll worry about cholesterol, and calories later.

That’s what it’s like when you vacation in the Wildwoods, where there are restaurants and menus for every appetite, every budget and virtually every taste. From fresh seafood and Mexican fajitas to Chinese egg rolls and Italian cuisine, the Wildwoods have something for everyone.

The restaurant renaissance that started years ago in Cape May has spilled over into the Wildwoods and a growing number of gourmet restaurants are located throughout the five-mile island, each of them garnering superb reviews from critics and patrons alike. The Wildwoods’ upscale restaurants offer memorable surroundings, remarkable cuisine and attentive service for a perfect evening touched with romance, candlelight and delectable food.

Outdoor dining overlooking the ocean, the bay or the inland waterway is another unique way to enjoy dining in the Wildwoods. With amazing food, cool breezes, a phenomenal view and great music to top it off, there’s nothing like it. The backdrop is the evening sunset, sailboats slowly gliding past as the sun begins to sink toward the bay, leaving vibrant streaks of color in the evening sky.

For families on vacation, there are plenty of child-friendly dining options spread across the five-mile island. For example, the Wildwoods Boardwalk offers everything from hamburgers and hotdogs to French fries and pizza. Also, the many Doo-Wop style dinners throughout the Wildwoods offer large menus and a unique setting the kids will love. With classic diner food along with retro jukeboxes, waitresses in poodle skirts and black and white checkered floors, the Wildwoods’ Doo-Wop style diners are a great place to bring the kids for a meal anytime of the day.

For the adults, most restaurants throughout the island offer a full selection of cocktails and wines. Wine connoisseurs will find wine lists that reflect a wide selection of vineyards and vintages – including some New Jersey grown choices. A few restaurants even permit guests to bring their own choice of wines to enjoy with dinner.

I would like to recommend two restaurants in particular, which are part of the Big Fish Restaurant Group: the Beach Creek Oyster Bar and Grill (www.beachcreek.net) and The Boathouse (www.boathouseonline.com). Both promise outstanding dining experiences.

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At the Beach Creek, located at 500 West Hand Avenue, general manager Colleen Guest and her team run a successful operation. You can tell this when you arrive and see the wait for tables. Intimately served indoors amidst copper and wooden decor, or outside on their waterfront deck, this place knows its food. Located directly on the water, the Beech Creek is known for its award winning contemporary international cuisine. This casual surf ‘n turf restaurant and bar features an intimate dark lit dining room, a marina-side deck and live bands.

This restaurant has such a wide array of choices for wine, cocktails, appetizers and main courses that you will want to come back more than once.

We began our meal with some cocktails, a Hawaiitini and a Pineapple Express. It was difficult to select from the delicious looking presentation of appetizers. We settled on the Sunset Seafood Platter – six oysters, six top necks, six shrimp and colossal lump crab meat. It was amazing! We also shared some delicious seared scallops – cornmeal seared scallops and some more colossal lump crab meat, served over a tomato-basil bruchetta.

A Caesar and petite house salad were next, making way for the main entrées. The seafood a la vodka featured sweet sea scallops, tender shrimp and jumbo lump crabmeat in a vodka infused tomato cream sauce over penne pasta. The sea bass Champignon really stood out for us. This char-grilled Chilean sea bass filet was served with sautéed greens on a lobster risotto filled grilled Portobello cap and in a light grilled Portobello broth. Our final choice was the rib steak – 14 ounces of grilled Black Angus beef, served with sautéed greens and potatoes. This was an absolutely outstanding meal. We did save room for dessert, sharing a superb and nice-sized piece of double layer chocolate cake and a vanilla bean crème brulee. The menu is on their website and I would recommend you take a look before going for dinner.

If you get to the Beach Creek before 6 pm then you can take advantage of the three-course early bird special. For $25, you get bread, bruschetta, soup or salad, an entrée and dessert. Keep in mind that the portions are very generous.

You can call them at 609-522-1062.

At The Boathouse Restaurant and Marina Deck (www.boathouseonline.net), located virtually next door at 506 West Rio Grande Avenue, there is ample seating indoors and on the dock overlooking the intercoastal waterway. We arrived to a nice atmosphere of live music and young children dancing to the tunes of the musician. General manager Rick Raduns and his team provide a warm welcome to al guests. The Boathouse has been in business since 1989. It was built on the site of old bait and tackle shop and serves lunch and dinner daily in June, July and August. Come September they offer dinner daily, and lunch on the weekends. They open for dinner on weekends in October, until October 15. Happy hour is from 4 pm to 6 pm and take-out is available as well.

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There is handicapped access via a ramp. If you are wheelchair bound you will need to stay at the first level. We were seated in the nicely air conditioned second floor. Our lovely server Michaela went over the daily specials and some recommendations from the menu. I started off with a mouth-watering Pina Colada while another member of our party enjoyed a glass of pinot grigio. Some fresh dinner rolls arrived at the table piping hot.

We ordered to appetizers to share: the cold shellfish sampler contained three clams and three oysters on the half shell and chilled shrimp cocktail, with some delicious dipping sauces; and the Maryland style crab cake, broiled and served with a siracha remoulade sauce. Michaela then brought a bowl of house salad for the three of us to share. It was superb, with a house vinaigrette dressing and plenty of croutons.

For the entrées, we had a wonderful choice among meat and poultry, pasta and fresh seafood. Our selections were the broiled seafood combination, seafood ala vodka and the king cut prime rib. The broiled seafood combo is the restaurant’s best seller and includes a delicious sampling of fresh local flounder, shrimp, scallops, crab imperial and clams casino. Seafood ala vodka included shrimp, scallops, crab meat and penne, tossed in a cream rosé sauce. As for the prime rib au jus, it was cooked perfectly and cut like butter. All dinners are served with the garden salad, rolls and two choices from either French fries, baked potato, roasted red bliss, the daily vegetable, cold slaw or apple sauce. Pasta (marinara or butter) or for $2 alfredo can be substituted for the two sides.

When it came time to order dessert, Michaela tempted us with her description of the homemade decadent chocolate pie. The recipe apparently comes directly via the chef’s grandmother. Well, it was beyond “decadent” and highly recommended. The chocolate had a fabulous fudge flavor and there was plenty of whipped cream and chocolate sauce as well.
Take note that the sunset specials include two entrées for only $29. There is also a children’s menu, with items at $8 each.

You can call the restaurant directly at 609-729-5301.

Here is another tip. Check out the Marvis Diner (www.marvisdiner.com) on Pacific Avenue. We loved the fact it serves an all-day breakfast. Service was excellent and the menu had a wide array of choices. Their Greek salad is a real winner.

For more information or a list of dining options please visit www.WildwoodsNJ.com and click on the “Where to Eat” button or call 1-800-WW-BY-SEA (800-992-9732).

New York Broadway Update

NEW YORK CITY: There is one thing about travelling to New York City. It becomes pretty addictive. My family and I recently wound up there for a rare summer trip, stopping off for five days en route to Wildwood, New Jersey.

For this trip, we definitely had Broadway on our minds. We were fortunate to find accommodations right in the Times Square area at the historic Algonquin Hotel. As well, our two chosen restaurants –Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House and Patsy’s were right in the same area.

BROADWAY: There are many reasons to go to New York City, but the extraordinary selection of Broadway productions heads the list. On our most recent trip, we got to see four spectacular musicals: Hamilton, Waitress, The School of Rock and The Color Purple.

Hamilton is without a doubt the biggest theatrical juggernaut to hit Broadway. It was recently nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tony Awards, winning 11 including Best Musical at the award ceremony in June. The cast album, which includes an amalgamation of many current musical styles, hit number one on iTunes and was ranked the second best album of 2015 by Billboard.com. Tickets are already sold out until May 2017 at the Richard Rogers Theatre at 226 West 46th Street, with an open-ended run beginning in Chicago in the fall. The national tour is set to begin in San Francisco next March.

So what is this show that has every celebrity and talk show host buzzing? Inspired by the biography “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow, with book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and direction by Thomas Kail, Hamilton tells the story of the man on America’s ten-dollar bill, “the ten-dollar founding father without a father.” An orphan immigrant with a talent for writing, Hamilton lived a full and dramatic life, playing a major role in the American Revolution and acting as the first Treasury Secretary of the United States. In hindsight, a hip-hop musical seems like the perfect way to tell his story.

The show opens with the song “Alexander Hamilton,” which tells of Hamilton’s upbringing in the Caribbean and his arrival in New York City, summarizing the first 100 pages or so of Chernow’s biography. It quickly becomes clear that hip-hop truly is the only style that can adequately showcase Hamilton’s genius and gift with words.
Hamilton’s genius is reflected in the musical’s creator, who also played the role of Hamilton until recently, Lin-Manuel Miranda. For his work on Hamilton, Miranda was awarded a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation as well as the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama along with many other accolades. First Lady Michelle Obama has seen the show twice, calling it “the best piece of art in any form I have ever seen in my life,” an opinion I have to agree with myself.

Hamilton Richard Rodgers Theatre Also Starring Alexander HamiltonLin-Manuel Miranda George Washington Christopher Jackson Aaron Burr Leslie Odom Jr. Eliza Hamilton Phillipa Soo King George Jonathan Groff John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton Anthony Ramos Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson Daveed Diggs Angelica Schuyler Renee Elise Goldsberry Production Credits: Thomas Kail (Director) Andy Blankenbuehler (Choreographer) David Korins (Scenic Design) Paul Tazewell (Costume Design) Howell Binkley (Lighting Design) Other Credits: Lyrics by: Lin-Manuel Miranda Music by: Lin-Manuel Miranda Book by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Hamilton
Richard Rodgers Theatre
Also Starring
Alexander Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda
George Washington Christopher Jackson
Aaron Burr Leslie Odom Jr.
Eliza Hamilton Phillipa Soo
King George Jonathan Groff
John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton Anthony Ramos
Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson Daveed Diggs
Angelica Schuyler Renee Elise Goldsberry
Production Credits:
Thomas Kail (Director)
Andy Blankenbuehler (Choreographer)
David Korins (Scenic Design)
Paul Tazewell (Costume Design)
Howell Binkley (Lighting Design)
Other Credits:
Lyrics by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Music by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Lin-Manuel Miranda

As the show has been running for over a year at this point, many cast-members have decided to move forward, leaving room for a new cast of talented actors to take their places. While the original cast is incredibly talented, as evidenced by their multiple Tony Award wins, the show is special enough that it stands on its own and doesn’t rely on any one actor to carry it forward.
Javier Muñoz, our new Hamilton, is not really a rookie to the role. In fact, he was Miranda’s alternate; performing the role two shows a week for the past year. He has already performed for President Barak Obama, as well as for Beyoncé and Jay Z. After having seen him live, I understand why he is right for the role. His performance takes inspiration from Miranda while simultaneously making every word his own.

The show breaks boundaries and poses questions relevant both to Hamilton’s story and to modern day. At a time when Hollywood’s diversity has been under fire, Hamilton features people of color as America’s founding mothers and fathers. At a time when the debate on gender equality is escalating, Miranda features and empowers the women often forgotten by history. Do we place enough value on immigrants and their potential to shape our countries? Do our history books always give us the full, unbiased story? What does it mean to leave behind a meaningful legacy? Now used as a teaching tool in schools, Hamilton’s central questions engage students in a whole new way. History has never been so much fun.

When will the show be coming closer to home? Reports are that David Mirvish is in discussions to create an all-Canadian cast edition of Hamilton and park it in one of his Toronto theatres, but no timeline has been discussed at the present moment. To quote lyrics commonly sung throughout the show, “look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now”.

For more information, log on to http://www.hamiltonbroadway.com

Waitress is a musical based on the 2007 cult Indie movie starring Keri Russell, showing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (256 West 47th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue).

The storyline revolves around Jenna (Mueller), a waitress and expert pie maker stuck in a small town and a loveless marriage. Faced with an unexpected pregnancy, she fears she may have to abandon the dream of opening her own pie shop forever… until a baking contest in a nearby county and the town’s handsome new doctor offer her a tempting recipe for happiness. Supported by her quirky crew of fellow waitresses and loyal customers, she summons the secret ingredient she’s been missing all along – courage.

Even before seeing this show, I knew that it was full of promising ingredients. The catchy music and lyrics were written by five-time Grammy Award-nominated singer songwriter Sara Bareilles and the direction was done by Tony Award-winner Diane Paulus. Waitress is also the first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team.

Yes, the show will make you hungry for pie. The delicious-looking pies on both sides of the stage, featured in tall glass freezers, along with the ones integrated into the story, will make you hungry enough to buy some pie from the vendors. Each pie is sold in a small jar at $10 each with the phrase “it only takes a taste,”also the title of a song from the show, written on top.

While pie is prominently featured, the real star is Jessie Mueller, winner of the 2014 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Mueller elevates an already excellent show with the quality of her performance, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award this year.

Mueller is nothing short than fabulous to watch. She made her Broadway debut opposite Harry Connick Jr. in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, for which she received Tony Award and Drama Desk nominations. She was also seen on Broadway in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Drama Desk nomination) and Nice Work If You Can Get It. In her native Chicago, Mueller has won acclaim for starring roles in She Loves Me (Joseph Jefferson Award), Guys and Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof, Curtains and Carousel (Joseph Jefferson Award), among other musicals.

When I saw the movie Waitress, it reminded me of the movie Alice Doesn`t Live Here Anymore and the TV show Alice. This is likely because at the diner where she works, Jenna, like Alice, has two interesting co-workers. Becky (Keala Settle) is strong and full of funny quips. An exchange with her boss, Cal, goes as follows:

“Lady, you are really pushing my buttons today,” says Cal.

“Which one is mute?” Becky responds, to many laughs.

Dawn (Kimiko Glenn from the popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black) is an awkward girl who unexpectedly finds love with an odd man named Ogie, played hilariously by Christopher Fitzgerald. He won a Drama Desk Award and was nominated for a Tony for his performance, including his show stopping number “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.”

Another standout is Drew Gehling, who plays Dr. Pomatter. His affair with Jenna is scandalous and hilarious to watch, in part due to his superb comedic timing.

WAITRESS MUSICAL ORIGINAL BROOKS ATKINSON THEATRE 256 W. 47TH ST. Jessie Mueller Jenna Nick Cordero Earl Christopher Fitzgerald Ogie Keala Settle Becky Eric Anderson Cal Charity Angel Dawson Ensemble Thay Floyd Ensemble Drew Gehling Dr. Pomatter Kimiko Glenn Broadway debutDawn Molly Hager Broadway debut Ensemble Aisha Jackson Ensemble Dakin Matthews Joe Jeremy Morse Broadway debut Ensemble Ragan Pharris Broadway debut Ensemble Stephanie Torns Ensemble Ryan Vasquez Ensemble
WAITRESS
MUSICAL ORIGINAL
BROOKS ATKINSON THEATRE
256 W. 47TH ST.
Jessie Mueller
Jenna
Nick Cordero
Earl
Christopher Fitzgerald
Ogie
Keala Settle
Becky
Eric Anderson
Cal
Charity Angel Dawson
Ensemble
Thay Floyd
Ensemble
Drew Gehling
Dr. Pomatter
Kimiko Glenn
Broadway debut Dawn
Molly Hager
Broadway debut Ensemble
Aisha Jackson
Ensemble
Dakin Matthews
Joe
Jeremy Morse
Broadway debut Ensemble
Ragan Pharris
Broadway debut Ensemble
Stephanie Torns
Ensemble
Ryan Vasquez
Ensemble

Despite some over-the-top moments, the characters are all relatable in some way or another, particularly our main character, Jenna. Director Paulus says, “What’s riveting to me is this is the story of a waitress struggling with these issues, and yet when I saw the film I thought of all kinds of people I know — girlfriends of mine — who have struggled with the same kinds of issues that this character struggles with.”

From the moment the curtain rises, when Mueller belts out the fabulous and catchy song “Opening Up,” you are immediately hooked. Having seen the movie, I wondered how they would adjust the storyline to include music. Well, songwriter Bareilles did a magnificent job. The show is two and a half hours, with intermission, and it rolls by quickly.

Producers have announced a national tour of the show will kick off at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square in October 2017. No word on whether any of the stops will be in Canada. Info: wwww.waitressthemusical.com

SCHOOL OF ROCK: I did know quite what to expect from School of Rock – The Musical at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre (1634 Broadway). Based on the smash hit 2003 film of the same title, it features an original score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater, a book by Julian Fellowes and direction by Laurence Connor. Alex Brightman and Sierra Boggess lead the cast as “Dewey Finn” and uptight principal, “Rosalie Mullins.”

Let me just say right from the start that I loved every moment of this production. In fact, it is better than I could have possibly imagined. Had tickets been available, I would have gone back to see it again the following day. Most of the performers in this show are young kids and as the voice of Andrew Lloyd Webber himself tells us before the curtains go up, they really are playing their own music live.

Alex_Brightman_and_the_kids_of_School_of_Rock_-_The_Musical_Photo_by_Matthew_Murphy

The show opened to rave reviews last December. It was nominated for four Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Brightman). The storyline involves Dewey Finn, a failed, wannabe rock star who decides to earn a few extra bucks by posing as a substitute teacher at a prestigious prep school. There he turns a class of straight-A students into a guitar-shredding, bass-slapping, mind-blowing rock band. While teaching these pintsized prodigies what it means to truly rock, Dewey falls for the school’s beautiful, but uptight headmistress, helping her rediscover the wild child within.

Alex Brightman more than earned his Tony nomination. He truly did leave everything on that stage, giving what must be an absolutely exhausting performance. While watching, I couldn’t imagine him doing this very performance eight shows a week, which is the standard Broadway schedule.

Even after his tiring performance, Brightman exited via the stage door after the show. He was personable and interactive with his fans, posing for selfies and signing autographs. He told me: “I have lost 55 pounds in this role since last November”. After having seen him perform live, I can’t say that this number is surprising.

I loved the movie, actually watching it several times, so seeing the musical was a treat. Brightman had a big challenge as everyone who has seen the movie remembers Jack Black’s iconic performance. Brightman stays true to the original while still making the role entirely his own. Leaving the theatre, Jack Black was the last thing on my mind.

“I can’t, for the life of me, do a Jack Black impression. Gun to my head, it’s not something in my wheelhouse,” Brightman told The Village Voice. “When I came in to audition for it, I was like, ‘I can’t do an impression, so I’m just going to do my thing.’ I put myself in the same situation of a burnout who is then saddled with thirteen kids in a school that he has no business being in — how would I, Alex Brightman, react to that?”

While he gives an outstanding performance, the true stars of the show really are the children. Many of them were cast in a large open call in New York City. Children lined up all day for the chance to audition, and I noticed in the playbill that many cast members were making their Broadway debuts.
They are not only amazing instrumentalists for their age. They play their instruments just as well as a Broadway house band would play the songs, and their energy is infectious through the show’s most popular tunes, including “Stick it to the Man” and “Teacher’s Pet”.

Aside from the upbeat numbers, a highlight of the show is a song called “If Only You Would Listen” in which the children lament to the audience about their parents who do not understand. Many sniffles could be heard from the crowd around me following the powerful and emotional performance.

This is such a crowd pleaser that by intermission everyone in my row was saying “wow!” repeatedly. The closing number really sends everyone home on a high. It is more like the conclusion of a live rock concert as the traditional curtain call is replaced with Brightman introducing the cast as they take their bows.

Tickets for School of Rock – The Musical are $59 – $155 and are available by visiting the Winter Garden Theatre box office Monday to Saturdays between 10 am and 8 pm and Sundays from Noon to 6 pm, online at Telecharge.com, or by calling 212-239-6200. Performances are Mondays and Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and 1 pm and 6 pm on Sundays. Info: www.schoolofrockthemusical.com

Accessible seating is available for Hamilton, Waitress and School of Rock. Wheelchair locations are available in the orchestra section of the theatres (pending availability). You may purchase one wheelchair and three companion seats per order if available. For guests with limited mobility, there are seats available with movable/folding armrests. The mezzanine requires stairs, as this theatre does not have an elevator or an escalator. All seats in the orchestra section are accessible without using any stairs. For guests with sight or hearing impairments, accessible seats are available in orchestra sections. For more details on accessible seating policies you can contact the box office directly by calling 212-719-4099.The Brooks Atkinson is equipped with one wheelchair accessible restroom on the orchestra level. There are designated wheelchair and companion seats in the rear of the orchestra section. Although animals are not permitted in the theatre, an exception is made for guide dogs and service animals. Headsets for sound augmentation are available at the theatre, free of charge. Photo identification is required as a deposit.

THE COLOR PURPLE: It is hard for me to believe that I saw the motion picture The Color Purple more than 30 years ago, starring Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg. When I heard that it had been revived, following a successful run almost a decade ago as a Broadway musical, I knew I just had to add it to my list. You can see it at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre at 242 West 45th Avenue.

purp_Danielle Brooks and Kyle Scatliffe in THE COLOR PURPLE photo by Matthew Murphy, 2015

The original production opened on Broadway in 2005 and played 910 performances. This reimagined production opened in London during the summer of 2013 at the Menier Chocolate Factory before transferring to Broadway. The musical is based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the 1985 Hollywood film it spawned.

At the 2016 Tony Awards, The Color Purple won for Best Revival of a Musical while Cynthia Erivo, took home Best Actress in a Musical honours for playing the iconic role of Celie.  I cannot possibly start this article with anything other than the magnificent performance given by Erivo, unbelievably in her Broadway debut. With this performance, she has solidified what is sure to be a long career for her.

Celie’s journey is not an easy one and is surely challenging to perform eight shows weekly. Celie endures decades of abuse of all kinds: sexual, physical, and emotional. Despite many losses and obstacles, she somehow finds her way to independence and self-acceptance.

By the show’s end, when Erivo sings the show’s most famous number “I’m Here”, telling us that “I believe I have inside of me everything that I need to live a bountiful life”, audience members can’t help but tear up with joy. It is impossible for the crowd to not cheer when she looks directly at us and finally declares: “I’m beautiful”. Deservedly so, the crowd rose to its feet mid-show for a lengthy standing ovation when she completed the song, the first time that I’ve ever seen this occur.

While Erivo is incredible in this production, the entire company of performers showcased their outstanding talents. The show features powerhouse Danielle Brooks from “Orange is the New Black”), who was unfortunately not there when I attended (her understudy, however, was spectacular as well). In the role of Shug Avery, originated in this production by Jennifer Hudson, Tony Award-winner Heather Headley now takes the reigns, giving a brilliant performance.

Directed by Tony Award-winner John Doyle and with a memorable score of jazz, ragtime, gospel and blues, this musical handles heavy material beautifully.
Thinking back to the movie, I struggled to remember the meaning behind the title. After watching the titular song “The Color Purple” performed live, I can’t imagine ever forgetting that it serves as a reminder that we can always find beauty in the world around us. It is impossible to leave the theatre without feeling uplifted and empowered.

The Bernard Jacobs Theater is not completely wheelchair accessible. There is some accessible seating in the Orchestra section. There are no steps to the designate wheelchair seating locations.
Once on the Mezzanine or Balcony level, there are approximately two steps per row. For information on performances for the Hearing Impaired and Deaf call: (212) 221-0013.  Performances for the Partially Sighted and Blind call HAI (Hospital Audiences Inc.) at (212) 575-7663, Monday to Friday, 9am – 5pm (EST). For Assistive Listening System, call: (212) 582-7678 to reserve in advance. A Drivers license or ID with a printed address is required as a deposit. There is a wheelchair accessible (unisex) restroom located on the orchestra level. Additional restrooms (not wheelchair accessible) are also located down one flight of stairs. Info: www.colorpurple.com.

Algonquinexterior
WHERE TO STAY: There is no greater gift when it comes to accommodations in New York City than finding a place near Times Square. Last year we discovered the historic Algonquin Hotel (www.algonquinhotel.com). On our most recent trip, a rare summer visit for our family, we were fortunate enough to secure reservations again. Located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, this jewel of historic New York hotels commands the center of 44th Street, just a block and a half away from Times Square. The Algonquin first opened its doors in 1902. Today it is part of the Marriott chain’s Autograph Collection, an evolving ensemble of strikingly independent hotels. Each destination has been selected for its quality, bold originality, rich character and uncommon details. From near to far, iconic to historic, the result is an array of properties that is nothing less than unique. The Algonquin Hotel was the first New York City property to become a part of the collection.
For 100 years, the Algonquin has been greeting and lodging the country’s most prominent writers and literary personalities, as well as the leading figures of the American stage. The hotel is best known, perhaps, for the members of the Round Table, a group of luminaries who had in common both the ability to fire blazing witticisms and to withstand being on the receiving end of them. The tone they set during their daily meetings set the literary style of the 1920s. After World War I, Vanity Fair writers and Algonquin regulars Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood began lunching at the Algonquin. Though society columns referred to them as the Algonquin Round Table, they called themselves the Vicious Circle. “By force of character,” observed drama critic Brooks Atkinson, “they changed the nature of American comedy and established the tastes of a new period in the arts and theatre.”

Each of the 181 rooms and 25 suites features a comfortable well-lit work desk, as well as complimentary Wi-Fi. Always one step ahead of everyone else, the hotel was the first to offer accommodations to actors and single women travellers. We stayed in a very comfortable one bedroom Noel Coward Suite, named for the legendary playwright, composer, actor, singer and director. There are framed Playbill covers from Coward’s productions in the room.

Algonquinbed
The layout was ideally suited for us. There is a nice sized entrance, with the master bedroom to the right, a large bathroom straight ahead and the living room with a pullout couch to the left. But that is not all. The latter is also somewhat of library, with shelves of books to choose from. You can also download the special Folio app, which will provide access to a wide variety of ebooks you can read as long as you remain on the premises.

The Algonquin was recently the site of a large pre-Tony Award party for the creative team and cast of Waitress.  Delighting thirsty revelers when it opened at the demise of the Prohibition in 1933, The Blue Bar has moved – both physically and eruditely – through decades of Times Square hotel bar trends. There is also The Round Table Restaurant and the casual Lobby Lounge.
As a cat lover we are always excite to see Matilda, the house cat. She is a real beauty and can be found sleeping in atop her cat house at the front desk or making her way through the different cat doors on the main floor. Matilda is a large ragdoll cat, soft as velvet.

For many years the history of The Algonquin Cat was believed to have its origins in the 1930’s, when a stray cat came wandering into the hotel for food and water. After the hotel acquired an out-of-print book written by the hotel’s first general manager, Frank Case, a chapter was discovered about a cat named Billy. Based on the timeline of the book, the hotel is now proud to say the lineage of The Algonquin Cat dates back to the early 1920’s. Two days after Billy passed, a stray cat wandered into the hotel and The Algonquin welcomed Rusty. The famous classical actor, John Barrymore, was a resident at the time in the early 1930’s and Rusty was renamed Hamlet in his honor. Hamlet is said to have been Barrymore’s greatest stage role. The hotel has had a total of 11 cats, including Billy. The lineage includes seven Hamlets and three Matildas. Each cat that has reigned at The Algonquin has been a rescue. In 1980, author Hilary Knight immortalized The Algonquin Cat with his cartoons for a children’s book on which he collaborated with Val Schaffner. The current Matilda began her residence in December 2010.

Today, Matilda is looked after by the hotel’s Chief Cat Officer, Alice De Almeida. The hotel’s executive chef cooks her special meals on holidays. She receives fan mail and gifts constantly, from around the world, including Japan, Australia and Russia. Matilda can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. She can also be reached via e-mail: matildaalgonquincat@algonquinhotel.com.
The hotel hosts an annual cat fashion show where the cat models— “mewdels” – were mostly stationary, arranged on a circle of tables in the Oak Room, just off the main hotel lobby. The traditional sold-out show benefits charities such as the animal-welfare non-profit the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, in addition to paying tribute to New York City’s first responders.
It should come as no surprise that with the return of the musical Cats on Broadway, a special partnership has been developed with the Algonquin. A variety of promotional activities will be lined up, including the wrapping of elevators and the introduction of a “Cats” suite.

In the book the Algonquin Kid: Adventures Growing Up In New York’s Legendary Hotel, author Michael Colby tells the story about his grandparents Mary and Ben Bodne built this legendary landmark. Southern Jews, they owned the hotel from 1946 to 1987. As a kid, Colby and siblings visited their grandparents every weekend. Colby took up permanent residence in the hotel at the age of 18 and made his way into the theater world as a librettist, composer and lyricist. His musical, Charlotte Sweet, an all-sung, all-rhymed original musical with libretto by Colby and music by Gerald Jay Markoe, received three Drama Desk Award nominations and was critically lauded as “adorable, strange and delectable” by the New York Times, ”
The Algonquin, its bar and restaurant, have easy access for wheelchairs from the street. There is valet parking. The hotel has six ADA rooms and one ADA suite. There are two elevators. Staff are very helpful and friendly.

DINING OUT: New York City is indeed the place to dine, with an endless array of choices to please your palate.

For dinner one night we made our first visit to the fabulous Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House (www.delfriscos.com). This is an energetic, luxurious three-story restaurant, located at 1221 Avenue of the Americas. To say we were impressed is an understatement. General Manager Orlando Santana sat us at a beautifully placed top floor table of this seasoned dining establishment, which can accommodate more than 500 people at a time.

Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House New York_Main Interior

Del Frisco’s was established more than 20 years ago. The cornerstone of the menu is aged USDA Prime Beef. They serve only the best hand-cut steaks, chops and freshest seafood, including Australian cold water lobster tails while using the freshest ingredients to create mouthwatering appetizers, flavorful side dishes and irresistible desserts. The sommeliers are on hand to guide you through their very extensive wine list while the bartenders will lift your spirits with hand-shaken martinis and handcrafted cocktails. We lucked out, with sommelier Kristin Beckler and our waiter Tim. Kristin mixed and matched our selections of wine impeccably with the items Tim recommended. Did we really need to read the menu? Perhaps not, for we put our trust in Tim and the experience exceeded our wildest expectations.

We started off with their signature VIP cocktail, Svedka Clementine Vodka infused with fresh Hawaiian pineapple. Then came the appetizers. We shared another one of the house specialties, the crab cake with Cajun lobster sauce, shrimp cocktail and a Caprese salad – a simple Italian salad, made of sliced fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and green basil, seasoned with salt and olive oil. It closely resembles the colours of the Italian flag: red, white and green.

When it came to main appetizers, we also decided to share. Since Del Frisco’s is known for its fantastic steaks, that is what we wanted to sample. Tim recommended the bone in filet and the bone in prime rib eye. As sides, he suggested we try the Cauliflower and Brie au gratin and the Lobster Mac and cheese. We trusted him implicitly and he did not steer us wrong. Tim was accompanied to the table by three other servers who cut the meat and apportioned the sides. First class all the way around!

As for Kristin our sommelier, this lady clearly loves her job. She is, of course, a walking encyclopedia on their huge selection of wines. We started off with the Corra “Tail Feathers” 2015 from Rogue Valley, Oregon – a Viogner/Muscat Blanc/Riesling. Kristin soon came back with another bottle, this time the Pierre Bouree Fils 1er Cru “Les Morgeots” 2009 Chassagne-Montrachet. When dessert came she concluded our evening with a sweet Royal Tokaji “5 Puttunyos” 2008 from Hungary. Oh yes, the dessert. We left just enough room to enjoy their fabulous lemon cake split in three and a serving of their equally spectacular chocolate mousse.

Out of the 12 Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House locations across the country, this one is an iconic staple and flagship. The 18,000 square foot restaurant boasts floor-to-ceiling windows with breathtaking views of Sixth Avenue, truly bringing midtown Manhattan to life for every diner as Radio City Music Hall’s lights shine brightly in the distance. Our table faced the Fox News building. As a new junkie it was unique to see the latest headlines flash across the screen on the facility’s façade.

The restaurant is often packed with the city’s broadcast, business and sports elite and is an ideal locale for visitors looking for a top-notch dining experience before or after a Broadway show.
Del Frisco’s Steak House also recently unveiled new menu updates to appeal to guests’ modernized palates and now offer a refreshed take on the restaurant’s classic steakhouse fare. In addition to staples such as rare cuts of wet-aged steaks and fresh seafood, the menu now includes a variety of elevated classics including Wagyu Beef French Dip, Lobster Roll and Sautéed Chicken Picatta, along with eclectic appetizers and sides like Seared Rare Wagyu Beef Carpaccio, Crab Fried Rice and Thick Cut Bacon Au Poivre. It has a wine list of over 1,200 selections.

Del Frisco’s offers specials tailored to holidays like Valentine’s Day, Christmas and Thanksgiving, as well as prix fixe menus to make things a little simpler for everyone. If you’re planning a bigger gathering for holiday celebrations, their private rooms can accommodate anything from a couple of tables to 75 or 100 people, with amenities like a separate bar, dedicated service, flat-screen TVs and other niceties. All it takes is a phone call to one of their coordinators, and they’ll be happy to set you up with whatever your holiday plans might entail.

The restaurant is owned by Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, which is based in Southlake, Texas. It owns and operates three contemporary, high-end, complementary restaurant concepts: Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, Sullivan’s Steakhouse, and Del Frisco’s Grille. Each of our three concepts offers steaks and other menu selections, such as chops and fresh seafood, complemented by an extensive wine selection.

The main entrance and floor is handicapped accessible.  You can call 212-575-5129 for reservations.  One dining establishment that had never been on my radar screen before was Patsy`s Italian Restaurant (http://www.patsys.com). Well it sure is now! Located at 235 West 56th Street, just a few short blocks from Times Square, this legendary Midtown Manhattan spot had been known for years as Frank Sinatra’s restaurant of choice and has become a favorite with countless stars including Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Ben Stiller, George and Amal Clooney, David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Lopez, to name a few.

PatsySal and George Clooney 2015

Founded in 1944 by Pasquale “Patsy” Scognamillo, Patsy’s has been in its current and only theater district location (in the building next to the original site) since 1954. In almost 70 years of existence, Patsy’s Italian Restaurant has had only three chefs; the late Patsy himself, his son Joe Scognamillo, who has been at the establishment since the tender age of seven, and Joe’s son Sal Scognamillo, who has been manning the kitchen for the past 29 years. I had an opportunity to meet Sal, an incredibly friendly and personable gentlemen. He greeted me with signed copies of his two cookbooks, one with a foreword by Ben Stiller and the other by Nancy Sinatra. Not only are the recipes and accompanied photos superb, but so are the stories about the celebrities who have dined there. Sal even sent me away with a jar of one of their homemade pasta sauces. These famous sauces, made from the freshest ingredients, are available in supermarkets and specialty food stores throughout the U.S. The tomato-based sauces, 100 percent natural, with no preservatives or added sugar, are available in six varieties, including marinara, tomato basil, Fra Diavolo, puttanesca, vodka and pizzaiola.

Sal is a proud owner. While his 84 year old dad still comes in regularly, he is preparing for the next generation. His eldest son Joe, 20, is completing university and working at the restaurant when class is not in session. Sal and his wife, who gave up her law practice to join the team at Patsy’s, live on Long Island. Sal comes in almost every day, working a 10 am to 11 pm shift, and loves every minute of it. He spends the early hours in the kitchen and during the evening works the two floors and mixes with the customers. The restaurant can seat 180 people and with its lunch and pre-theater specials, is busy all of the time.
Patsy’s attracts a varied clientele, including an extremely loyal following of regular patrons, Italian food aficionados, tourists, and celebrities. They enjoy the restaurant’s remarkable signature dishes, including succulent veal chops Siciliano, spicy lobster Fra Diavolo, tender chicken contadina, and savory calamari stuffed with seafood. Spectacular seafood such as striped bass marechiare, lobster oreganata, and shrimp scampi are always requested, as are meat favorites like sirloin steak pizzaiola with peppers and mushrooms, stuffed veal chop marsala, and chicken livers cacciatora.

I was dining alone on this evening, as other members of the family enjoyed a show nearby. My server Tony gave me time to review the appetizing menu and then helped with some recommendations. I started off with orders of fried calamari and fried zucchini. The former was served with yummy marinara sauce on the side while the latter was prepared in the form of French Fries – crispy and delicious. I followed that off with a magnificent chopped salad, one of the best I can remember having in years. For the main course there were so many options. Tony assured me I could not go wrong with the spaghetti and meatballs and he was correct. The meatballs cut like butter and melted in my mouth. By this time I literally had to take a break in order to regain enough of an appetite to sample some of the mouthwatering homemade desserts that passed by my table on a large cart. When I had a hard time choosing, Tony made it easy. He provided me with the equivalent of one piece of cake in three different variations: chocolate mousse, cannoli and Napoleon (custard, whipped cream and puff pastry). I was glad that I had a nine block walk to meet up with my family, for I needed some exercise after this very special dining experience.

For more information call (212) 247-3491, e-mail anne@patsys.com or log on to www.patsys.com where you can view the entire menu. Sal wanted me to share with readers the fact this is “the only” Patsy’s Italian Restaurant in the world that his family runs. The temptation to franchise might be there, but why mix with perfection?

CITY PASS: Before your departure look into purchasing the New York CityPASS (www.citypass.com). You will save 42 percent on the city’s six best attractions -plus skip lines. New York CityPASS includes admission to the Empire State Building Experience, American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Top of the Rock Observation Deck or the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island or Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises, 9/11 Memorial & Museum OR Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. The cost is $114 for adults (a $195 value) and $89 for youth (aged six to 17, an $89 value. It is valid for nine days. You can purchase the booklets or printable vouchers at citypass.com or at participating attractions for the same low price.
-With files from Alexandra Cohen
Mike Cohen can be reached at info@mikecohen.ca. See his travel advice column at www.sandboxworld.com/travel.

Atlantic City: New Jersey’s The Palm Restaurant

It’s called the “Entertainment Capital of the Jersey Shore” for its exciting mix of world-class entertainment, dining, shopping, beaches and all-around fun. While in Wildwood for vacation, my family and I decided to take a day trip to Atlantic City (www.atlanticitynj.com). It currently boasts eight hotel casino gaming properties – the Tropicana, Bally’s, Borgata, Caesars, Golden Nugget, Harrah’s, Resorts, and Trump Taj Mahal – along with several popular beach bars, free beaches, internationally-acclaimed and neighborhood-favorite dining, state-of-the-art conference/meeting venues, historic Absecon Lighthouse, the Atlantic City Aquarium, world-famous Boardwalk, Steel Pier, outlet and destination shopping at Tanger Outlets The Walk and Bass Pro Shops, respectively, and of course the Miss America Pageant and Show Us Your Shoes Parade.

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We spent the first part of our day at the Tanger Outlets, known as The Walk. It was a lot of fun. Located at 2014 Baltic Avenue, it is one of the first things you will see upon exiting the Atlantic City Expressway. You can valet park for $12 or self-park for $10. Once on site, there are more than 150 stores and restaurants to choose from. We found many good deals, even with the exchange of the Canadian dollar.

For complete information about visiting Atlantic City, log onto www.doatlanticcity.com, where you can find visitor information as well as a calendar of events, entertainment and tours that is updated regularly.

THE PALM:
I have travelled to many cities where the Palm Restaurant (www.thepalm.com) exists. But it was not until Atlantic City when I finally experienced this culinary masterpiece inside the Quarter at the Tropicana Casino and Resort at 2801 Pacific Avenue. Prior to our reservation we took advantage of the valet parking covered by the restaurant and explored the hotel, visiting the different shops and of course trying our luck on the slot machines. But unquestionably our choice of the Palm was right on the mark. Friends had told me this was “the” best dining establishment in Atlantic City and based on our dinner I must agree.

The Palm philosophy was born in 1926, when Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi opened their first location in New York City. From day one, Pio and John shared their commitment to quality and generosity of spirit with every guest who walked through their doors. What began as a restaurant became a legend – a place to not only enjoy an excellent meal but also catch up with old friends, meet new ones, close business deals, and celebrate family milestones. Still owned and operated by members of the Bozzi and Ganzi families, The Palm continues to serve as a second home for countless patrons, thanks to the exceptional standard of hospitality established by its founders.

When you start with the best ingredients available, you don’t need to rely on overly elaborate recipes or culinary fads. That’s why The Palm Restaurant’s menu features honest, satisfying dishes that reflect the best of its Italian-American heritage – from prime aged steaks and jumbo Nova Scotia lobsters to Italian classics like Chicken Parmigiana and Veal Martini.

There are 21 Palm restaurants across the United State, plus a Palm Bar & Grille at JFK Airport. It was not hard for us to see why The Palm is one of the most popular restaurants in Atlantic City. It all starts with Paul Sandler, the happy go lucky general manager who has been at the helm since this locale first opened in 2005. He is so hands on that when I called to make a reservation he answered the phone himself.

SandlerLobster

“It’s been a good ride,” Sandler says. “It’s a pleasure to work with a company that shares the same values as yourself. For The Palm, it’s all about the hospitality piece, not putting numbers through the door and making as much money as possible. Hospitality and quality come first and then the money will always follow.”
Sandler noted that what differentiated The Palm Atlantic City from others in the family is the casual atmosphere. “This is a beach town,” he remarked. “They can come in wearing what they want. I think people appreciate that.”

palm_gallery_food_lamb_chops

The walls of the restaurant feature painted portraits of international and local celebrities, along with loyal diners.

“The company hasn’t changed, and neither have we,” Sandler says. “It stands by its original core values of dedication, loyalty, quality and the whole nine yards. I think the only thing that has changed because times have changed is that the controllables at store levels have changed, so operators don’t have to compromise service and quality while still remaining profitable. But customers would never see that. We still have the same prime steaks and Nova Scotia lobsters since the first Palm opened in New York in 1926. We are just more astute to remain a profitable business.”

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Our server, Danielle Wilson (pictured below), has been on staff for nine years and it shows. She was a walking encyclopedia on the menu, the specials and items that were not even listed. When we asked for her to recommend a drink that had a bit of a fruity taste to it she listed the Little Vixen. It was right on the mark. There were three of us and to start up we shared an amazing Seafood tower, which included oysters, clams, lobster and shrimp. This could have been a meal itself. The oysters were amazing, as were the other items included. We shared what is called the Monday Night Salad – finely chopped romaine, iceberg, tomato, onion, roasted pepper, radish, scallion and anchovy. It was fantastic! Moving on to the main course, we decided to share a Jumbo Nova Scotia Lobster for two. It was steamed and already cut up nicely. A member of the dining staff removed the meat from the shells for us. As well, we shared a gigantic Porter House steak. It came pre-sliced and cut like butter. We enjoyed each morsel. For our sides we chose the three cheese potatoes au gratin and the wild mushrooms, again both outstanding. I cannot remember having a potato dish this delicious. All of their sides by the way are served family-style for two or more.

DanielleHighRes

We did save room for some of the scrumptious desserts on the menu, sampling the key lime pie and an extraordinary bag of warm doughnuts, dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with chocolate and raspberry sauces. If you are going to Atlantic City, Wildwood, Cape May or Philadelphia anytime soon, then make sure to experience this particular location for The Palm. It is worth the trip alone!

The Palm is open from 4 pm to 9 p.m. Sundays, 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays and 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
There is disabled access through the front door on street level or via elevator from The Quarter.
For more information call 609-344-7256 or go toThePalm.com.

Cape May, New Jersey

Fine wines, outstanding restaurants, classic jazz festivals and special events year ’round. Some things just get better with age, and charming Cape May, New Jersey is no exception. This historic Victorian seaside gem is the oldest resort and one of the most beautiful spots in the country. The entire city is a National Historic District, with nearly 600 preserved Victorian buildings. – See more at: http://www.visitnj.org/city/cape-may#sthash.U7mZo7zi.dpuf.

It is a mere 20 minute drive from Wildwood.

CAPE  RESORTS:  In terms of places to stay, the Cape Resorts (http://www.caperesorts.com) offer everything you can ask for and more. Each of  this group’s hotels has its own deeply individual personality. That means beautiful settings, approachable design, an array of wonderful dining options, plus fun activities from sunrise till evening. There is Congress Hall, The Virginia, The Virginia Cottages, The Beach Shack, the Sandpiper Beach Club, The Star  and  Barons Cove Sag Harbor All of the hotels and restaurants are serviced by Cape Resorts’ very own 62-acre Beach Plum Farm, located about  one mile away from the properties. The farm provides the restaurants and hotels with fresh eggs, produce, flowers, pork, herbs  and more.

Congress Hall (1)

CONGRESS HALL: We chose  Congress Hall to experience Cape May. This is  both Cape May and America’s oldest seaside resort. The hotel is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. We booked a fabulous beach tent for three. After purchasing our beach pass, we were escorted to our tent. Staff helped us set up in this utopian location on the gorgeous beach, just steps from the water. For the ultimate experience in relaxation, rent one beach tent and learn firsthand just how good a perfect day at the beach can feel. When you get thirsty, someone will bring you a bottle of ice-cold water. Order a tall iced lemonade or a refreshing fruit smoothie for the perfect summertime treat. Building sandcastles can always work up an appetite, so you can order from their delicious lunch menu, made fresh and delivered right to your beach chair. Since these beach tents have a reputation in relaxation, they are very popular and are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis for either a full or half day. These rentals include: two lounge chairs (we requested three), plush beach towels, a cooler filled with water, soda, and iced tea (Congress Hall and Virginia Beach Tents only) and table and food service. In addition, we got three chairs and two umbrellas and a few more towels placed just in front of our tent. This was the perfect place for us to sit first when we came back from our numerous trips to the ocean. The water was quite warm in July, a real bonus compared to the temperatures we experienced in the past in places like Cape Cod and Maine.

The three lounge chairs sat atop a wooden deck. There was a menu on a clipboard. All we needed to do was place a flag in front of our tent and one of the staff members took our order and delivered the food right to our seats. It does not get much better than that. We thoroughly enjoyed our choices of a beach burger, a black mako (shark) sandwich and a Congressional Caesar salad, with grilled chicken. In addition, we ordered a couple of smoothies – mango and strawberry.

Later in the day we spent some time poolside at Congress Hall. There is one small pool – beautifully heated- for adults and a larger one for kids and families.

Congress Hall Pool (1)

Providing hospitality since 1816 and celebrating its bicentennial this year with newly renovated rooms, Congress Hall   is a haven of relaxed elegance, fun, historic charm and luxury at the New Jersey shore. Set amid landscaped grounds overlooking Cape May’s broad sandy beaches, the iconic Congress Hall is just a few steps from the ocean in the heart of Cape May’s famed historic district.

Guests can dine at The Blue Pig Tavern, the hotel’s signature restaurant that features farm-to-table menu items from Cape Resorts’ very own 62-acre Beach Plum Farm located one mile from the hotel. Additionally, Congress Hall guests, Cape May visitors and residents can experience the luxurious, accessible and relaxing Sea Spa. Acknowledged by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the top 75 hotel spas in the United States, the Sea Spa interior is designed to look like the inside of a beach tent to further enhance the feeling of a seaside getaway. During the summer season, guests can also enjoy beachside spa services. Congress Hall was additionally honored by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the top US hotels in the Northeast, made their list of the Top 10 Hotels in the Mid-Atlantic, and was most recently awarded the number two spot on Condé Nast Traveler’s 2015 Reader’s Choice Awards Top 20 Hotels in the Mid-Atlantic and New York. The property offers a wide variety of entertainment, including the Boiler Room, a live entertainment lounge offering wood fire pizza, a fun atmosphere with a New York downtown nightclub vibe, and the Brown Room, a sophisticated lounge where hotel guests and locals mix and mingle while enjoying cocktails and delicious appetizers which also highlight ingredients from Beach Plum Farm. Congress Hall is located at 200 Congress Place.

Summer vacations in Cape May are a time-honored tradition passed down from generation to generation. Congress Hall, America’s original shore getaway, embodies the best of that tradition in America and one that all started with this iconic hotel. Three major celebratory events were scheduled during the year on  Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day, paying homage to the past, present, and future with live entertainment and various classic American festivities. Throughout the year meaningful items were collected at the hotel and through social media from past and present guests to be buried in a time capsule.

Owner Curtis Bashaw, and his sister Colleen Bashaw, who designed all the interiors, are proud of their property’s milestone  anniversary. They have had an almost 50 year involvement with the property, starting when their grandfather, the Reverend Carl McIntire, purchased it and they spent their summers there as children. “Having grown up in Congress Hall with my family during the summers, I appreciate how important traditions are and how special places impact those traditions” explained Curtis Bashaw. “When Congress Hall opened in the summer of 1816, the United States flag had only 15 stars and the county was only 40 years old. For Congress Hall – which has endured fires, storms, economic disasters, wars, massive changes to building and fire codes and evolving consumer preferences – to have survived 200 years and be a thriving resort today is a truly remarkable accomplishment. We are proud and excited to celebrate this milestone with concerts, dinners and festivities all summer long.”

While staying at Congress Hall, guests can enjoy newly renovated rooms thanks to an extensive, multimillion-dollar renovation of all 110 guestrooms and the creation of four new suites  named after the presidents who have stayed there. Congress Hall was once known as the official “Summer White House” of President Benjamin Harrison, who conducted state business there in the summer of 1891. The American Institution has also hosted Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, Chester Arthur and James Buchanan, all while in office. While the room design may be new, interior designer Colleen Bashaw, describes her design inspiration as follows: “The architecture of Congress Hall is grand in scale yet simple in ornament. My goal with the interior design is to maintain that perfect balance spoken through the architecture of the building; luxurious while accessible with a dash of whimsy. A driving force for me is the thought that generations of families call this their summer home. I want my work to be part of the reason they return.”

Info: www.congresshall.com.

DINNER: We had the opportunity to enjoy two nice meals at the Cape  Resorts. Following our day at the beach, we took a five minute walk to the Rusty Nail Bar and Grill, located at the Beach Shack, for a really fun dinner. It represented a fabulously relaxing backdrop to dine at during a warm summer evening. We were seated  at a  table near the bar.

Rusty Nail 2

A revived beachfront motel, the Beach Shack features 65 spacious efficiency style rooms, including dog-friendly accommodations, all of which offer an ocean view, and a clean, sophisticated beach resort vibe, providing the perfect place to relax for man and man’s best friend. Decorated in a casual, mellow, beach-style, guestrooms are all about comfort and are located steps away from the beautiful beaches of Cape May and the hotel’s beach tents and service which offers menu items from The Rusty Nail, or “The Nail,” as it’s known by locals — The Beach Shack’s famed iconic surfer bar that made a name for itself in the 70s.  Named by Travel + Leisure as one of the Top Beach Bars, the Rusty Nail attracts everyone from lifeguards and surfers to beautiful beach bunnies, who gather around the wood bar that is rumored to be the longest in Cape May.  With live music, a fire pit, weekly pig roasts, shuffleboard and sand bar, The Rusty Nail is an authentic and cool beachside hangout.  The restaurant offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is located at 205 Beach Avenue.

CH Beach Tents

The Beach Shack and the Rusty Nail are dog friendly. The restaurant even holds an annual dog pageant each September and offers a dog menu. This is a laid-back beach restaurant, so do not worry about attire.  We started off with some drinks, thirst quenching pina coladas and a Rusty Rum Runner, a tropical blend of pineapple, orange and mango juice, banana liqueur and Bermuda rum.

As an appetizer, we shared the Nail sampler. This included some shrimp, oysters and crab meat, served with dijon mayo, cocktail sauce, and lemon. The menu has a wide array of choices. We settled on the fish and chips, an order of roasted scallops and two jumbo lump roasted crab cakes. Along with each main course you can pick two from buttermilk mashed potatoes, baked potato, French fries, baked yam or side of pasta and a seasonal vegetable selection.
The following evening we returned to Congress Hall for dinner at the Blue Pig Tavern  (http://www.caperesorts.com/restaurants/capemay/bluepigtavern). Its name derives from a gambling parlor sited in Congress Hall in the mid-1800s. Earlier still, in the 1700s, Elias Hughes operated a tavern for whalers on this site. It was the first tavern in Cape May. Beloved by locals and visitors alike, we were told that there is no better place to enjoy classic American comfort food. In the warmer months, you can dine on their wonderful, secluded patio. In the cooler months, cozy up to the magnificent dining room fireplace. Executive Chef Jeremy Einhorn has implemented a delicious farm-to-table menu featuring fresh produce, herbs and eggs from the Beach Plum Farm. Jeremy, a member of the Jewish community, has been in his position since 2010. He paid a friendly visit to our table, located outdoors in a courtyard beneath some umbrellas on a warm summer evening.

Blue Pig Tavern Exterior

After some drinks, we shared the Raw Bar Sampler. It consisted of six oysters and six clam claws, with a few dipping sauce choices. We next ordered some salads- a red and yellow endive and another called Beach plum farm greens.  The former consisted of farm lettuce, crisp endive, walnuts, apples and roasted shallot vinaigrette. As for the latter it contained tender beach plum farm lettuce, also tossed with the same vinaigrette.

For the main course we settled on the steak and crab cake entrée and the half roasted chicken. They came with sides of beach plum farm seasonable vegetables and roasted potatoes, Yukon gold mashed potatoes, creamed Jersey corn, green beans and herb jus. For dessert we shared a piece of apple pie with ice cream.
There is free valet parking at the restaurant, located directly at the entrance to Congress Hall.  For reservations call 609-884-8422.

New York City: The Algonquin

NEW YORK CITY: My family and I recently returned from a wonderful five days in New York City. Of course, the Big Apple is also one pretty terrific place to shop, from the boutiques of Madison Avenue, the iconic department stores on Fifth Avenue, the world’s largest Macy’s, the two bargain-packed Century 21 locales and the fashion-forward shops in SoHo and the Village. There are many great museums to choose from as well.

Among the most popular tourists stops in the Big Apple are the 9-1-1 Memorial, the Empire State Building, the Museum of Civilization, Ellis Island, The Statue of Liberty, Central Park/the Central Park Zoo and the Bronx Zoo.

CITY PASS: Before your departure look into purchasing the New York CityPASS (www.citypass.com) www.citypass.com. You will save 42 percent on the city’s six best attractions—plus skip lines. New York CityPASS includes admission to the Empire State Building Experience, American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Top of the Rock Observation Deck or the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island or Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises, 9/11 Memorial & Museum OR Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. The cost is $114 for adults (a $195 value) and $89 for youth (aged six to 17, an $89 value. It is valid for nine days. You can purchase the booklets or printable vouchers at citypass.com or at participating attractions for the same low price.

The one place I wanted to explore was Top of The Rock (www.topofherocknyc.com), translating into climbing 70 floors to the top of iconic Rockefeller Center. With my City PASS in hand I went there on several occasions, only to be turned away due to zero visibility. For future reference, all hallways, exhibits and restrooms are handicapped and wheelchair accessible. Power assist doors are located at the main entrance on Fiftieth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Elevators are available at all Top of the Rock entrances and on street level on Forty-Ninth and Fiftieth streets for access to the concourse entrances. Washrooms have designated wheelchair accessible stalls. Guides are trained to accommodate anyone in need by leading the tour through wheelchair accessible routes and at an appropriate speed. For all short films played during the Top of the Rock experience, printed transcripts are available upon request from any Top of the Rock staff. All visitors are given a personal headset with a closed circuit connection to allow optimal audio clarity. Guides are trained to speak at an appropriate volume and speed upon request. Service dogs are welcome in all public areas.

By the way I picked up my City PASS at the Official NYC Information Center at Macy’s Herald Square. In addition to the city specialists who are there to answer any of your questions, the center also features touch-screen information kiosks to help you plan your trip, featuring Google maps and the ability to print directions; a multitude of guides and maps; and tickets for various attractions (many discounted). Visitors can also enjoy a Macy’s 10 percent off visitors Shopping Pass, which is obtainable for free from the center’s specialists or by using a driver’s license or passport at one of the kiosks. Located inside the Macy’s flagship on 34th Street between Seventh Avenue and Broadway, the center is convenient not only too many subway lines, but also the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak—which all operate in and out of Penn Station, located across the street. In addition, 34th Street is a major shopping hub in Manhattan and the location of a number of flagship stores.

BROADWAY: Unquestionably “the draw” in New York City remains its extraordinary Broadway productions. Be prepared to pay big dollars, even for a seat that is the second to last spot in the house at the top. Here is a tip though. Go online via Ticketmaster or Telecharge, check out the precise availability and call the toll free number so that you can get a more accurate route of what is available. While they offer to mail the tickets at least 48 hours before the show, we recommend that you either print them out online or ask to pick them up at will call. In some cases you can even buy cancellation insurance. The biggest hit on Broadway these days is Hamilton, the musical exploration of political mastermind Alexander Hamilton. It is a rap history lesson starring Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda. We began looking for tickets months in advance, but they were sold out going the conventional route. Somewhat reluctantly, we went on Stubb Hubb and paid an insanely high price. The show is spectacular. We were able to secure tickets for Fun Home, a refreshingly honest coming of age story of seeing your parents through grown-up eyes. It is told by the main character as a child, teen, and adult. The show is done in an intimate circular theatre. Five of the actors were nominated for Tony awards.

WHERE TO STAY: We really wanted to stay close to Times Square on this trip and hit the jackpot with the famous Alonquin Hotel (www.algonquinhotel.com). Located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, this jewel of historic New York hotels commands the center of 44th Street, close to the bustling heart of Times Square and Fifth Avenue. The Algonquin first opened its doors in 1902. Today it is part of the Marriott chain’s Autograph Collection, an evolving ensemble of strikingly independent hotels. Each destination has been selected for its quality, bold originality, rich character and uncommon details. From near to far, iconic to historic, the result is an array of properties that is nothing less than unique. The Algonquin Hotel is the first New York City property to become a part of the collection. “The Autograph Collection is a very cool brand,” says Nicholas Sciammarella, manager of marketing and e-commerce. “Each hotel in this group is really unique and different to stay at.”

ALGONQUIN HOTEL FOR MAYDAY WEDNESDAY APRIL 15, 2015 Michael Rubenstein michael@mrubenstein.com

For 100 years, the Algonquin has been greeting and lodging the country’s most prominent writers and literary personalities, as well as the leading figures of the American stage. The hotel is best known, perhaps, for the members of the Round Table, a group of luminaries who had in common both the ability to fire blazing witticisms and to withstand being on the receiving end of them. The tone they set during their daily meetings set the literary style of the 1920s. After World War I, Vanity Fair writers and Algonquin regulars Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood began lunching at the Algonquin. Though society columns referred to them as the Algonquin Round Table, they called themselves the Vicious Circle. “By force of character,” observed drama critic Brooks Atkinson, “they changed the nature of American comedy and established the tastes of a new period in the arts and theatre.”

Each of the 181 rooms and 25 suites features a comfortable well-lit work desk, as well as complimentary Wi-Fi. Always one step ahead of everyone else, the hotel was the first to offer accommodations to actors and single women travellers. We stayed in a very comfortable one bedroom suite named the Robert Sherwood Suite.

 Michael Rubenstein michael@mrubenstein.com

Delighting thirsty revelers when it opened at the demise of the Prohibition in 1933, The Blue Bar has moved – both physically and eruditely – through decades of Times Square hotel bar trends. There is also The Round Table Restaurant and the casual Lobby Lounge.

As a cat lover I was eager to meet Matilda, the house cat. She is a real beauty and can be found sleeping in atop her cat house at the front desk or making her way through the different cat doors on the main floor. Matilda is a large ragdoll cat, soft as velvet. Operations manager Abeer Soliman was kind enough to bring her out so I could pet her.

Matilda

For many years the history of The Algonquin Cat was believed to have its origins in the 1930’s, when a stray cat came wandering into the hotel for food and water. After the hotel acquired an out-of-print book written by the hotel’s first general manager, Frank Case, a chapter was discovered about a cat named Billy. Based on the timeline of the book, the hotel is now proud to say the lineage of The Algonquin Cat dates back to the early 1920’s. Two days after Billy passed, a stray cat wandered into the hotel and The Algonquin welcomed Rusty. The famous classical actor, John Barrymore, was a resident at the time in the early 1930’s and Rusty was renamed Hamlet in his honor. Hamlet is said to have been Barrymore’s greatest stage role. The hotel has had a total of 11 cats, including Billy. The lineage includes seven Hamlets and three Matildas. Each cat that has reigned at The Algonquin has been a rescue. In 1980, author Hilary Knight immortalized The Algonquin Cat with his cartoons for a children’s book on which he collaborated with Val Schaffner. The current Matilda began her residence in December 2010.

Today, Matilda is looked after by the hotel’s Chief Cat Officer, Alice De Almeida. The hotel’s executive chef cooks her special meals on holidays. She receives fan mail and gifts constantly, from around the world, including Japan, Australia and Russia. Matilda can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. She can also be reached via e-mail: matildaalgonquincat@algonquinhotel.com.

The hotel hosts an annual cat fashion show where the cat models— “mewdels,” – were mostly stationary, arranged on a circle of tables in the Oak Room, just off the main hotel lobby. This year’s sold-out show benefited the animal-welfare nonprofit the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, in addition to paying tribute to New York City’s first responders. Accordingly, each cat was outfitted as a different civil servant. A cat dressed in an M.T.A. uniform lolled in front of his food bowl, and a Persian in a tiny fireman’s hat snoozed next to a neighbor dressed as a paramedic. Cami, a rescue representing the nurses of New York, reclined near a stethoscope with a small, clear plastic cone around her neck, which was practical, not aesthetic.

“Matilda lives in a custom-made pet home perched atop the front desk. She freely roams the luxurious property (except the kitchen and dining areas), takes plenty of catnaps (which are in her job description), and receives fan mail and gifts from all over the world (including the aforementioned pet home). We got to pet her a few times.

I received a copy of a book about the hotel when I checked in called the Algonquin Kid: Adventures Growing Up In New York’s Legendary Hotel. The author is Librettist/Lyricist Michael Colby, whose grandparents Mary and Ben Bodne owned the hotel from 1946 to 1987. As a kid, Colby and siblings visited their grandparents every weekend. Colby took up permanent residence in the hotel at the age of 18 and made his way into the theater world as a librettist, composer and lyricist. His musical, Charlotte Sweet, an all-sung, all-rhymed original musical with libretto by Colby and music by Gerald Jay Markoe, received three Drama Desk Award nominations and was critically lauded as “adorable, strange and delectable” by the New York Times,”

The book also reveals how the Bodnes turned the hotel into a haven for victims of 1950s McCarthyism and a home away from home for such Black Americans as Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Wilkins, and Maya Angelou. I could not put the book down and finished it before checking out. Colby is an excellent storyteller. Colby grew up on Long Island. He, his parents, and two younger brothers, Douglas and David, looked forward to those weekends with the Bodnes who made room for them in their huge suite on the 10th floor.

The Bodnes made a fortune in the oil business in South Carolina. In 1946 they bought the Algonquin for $1 million, pouring $300,000 in for renovations. Michael’s dad, Sidney Cohen, wanted a career as a broadcaster and changed his last name to Colby. That career never panned out and he reluctantly accepted the post of general manager of the hotel. He was an unhappy man and Michael pulls no punches in telling his sad story, passing away at the age of 43 after falling down the stairs at home.

In the book it is astonishing to see the stars who stayed at this hotel, from Maya Angelo, Ella Fitzgerald and Julie Andrews to Whoopi Goldberg (who registered under her real name Caryn Johnson), Anthony Hopkins, Dick van Dyke, Joel Grey, Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier, Eva Gabor and so many more.

Michael had an extraordinarily close relationship with his grandparents, who owned and lived at the hotel for more than 50 years. If you have never stayed at the Algonquin before, this book will make you want to. It is available at www.amazon.com and www.michaelcolby.com.

“My grandparents gave me an incredible gift,” recalled Colby. “They turned an unused portion of the hotel into a studio. I got to work with a lot of stars. I think they came because they knew they’d get a free lunch at the Algonquin.”

DINING OUT: New York City is indeed the place to dine, with an endless array of choices to please your palate.

We enjoyed our first experience at Benjamin Steakhouse (www.benjaminsteakhouse.com), located at 52 East 41st Street, one block from Grand Central Station. From their juicy cuts of dry aged beef, to old world charm and elegant ambiance, Benjamin’s ensures that only the best USDA prime beef is used, and every cut is carefully dry-aged in specially handcrafted aging boxes, chilled to the precise temperature and humidity level, for a minimum of 28 days. The key effect of the dry aging process is the concentration of flavor. There is another locale just north of the Big Apple in Westchester County.

Benjaminfromabove

Since its opening in 2006, it is easy to see why this place has established itself as one of the Big Apple’s premier steakhouses, attracting business professionals and celebrities alike. In fact there are wall to wall framed photos of owner Benjamin Prelvukaj with A-list celebs, from talkshow host Jon Stewart to well known athletes. Prelvukaj and Chef Arturo McLeod have combined their 30 plus years of experience into a menu complete with amazing selections.

Chef McLeod personally patrons New York’s top meat markets to carefully select prime USDA meat that fits his highest-level of criteria. Benjamin also features delectable non-red meat dishes; such as rich and buttery Chilean sea bass or grilled Norwegian salmon, with its mild and delicate flavor. Diners are also passionate about the extravagant seafood platter, which consists of fresh oysters on the half shell, jumbo shrimp, half-lobsters and juicy lump crabmeat. We absolutely loved that item and especially appreciated the care our waiter Charley took in recommending exactly what to order. Alberto Belegu, one of the managers, is very hands on with the customers and paid a lot of attention to our table. He personally portioned out the contents of the seafood platter for each of us and recommended a white wine to have with the appetizers and a red to go with our main course. General Manager Mario Buqaj is also very present in the restaurant.

Platter

Our waiter Charley had started us off with some warm onion rolls and butter, followed by the extraordinary seafood platter and some baked breaded clams. The three of us then shared a delicious Benjamin’s salad. For the main course we let Charley steer us in the right direction. We shared porter house and rib steaks, both of which cut like butter and were cooked to perfection at medium. We decided on three sides: the Benjamin home fries, steamed asparagus and sautéed mushrooms. It was a meal fit for a king! Did we have room for dessert? The choices were pretty difficult to ignore. We settled on the decadent chocolate mousse cake and the tantalizing creme brûlée. I have been to a number of steakhouses in New York. My favorite for years was Ben Benson’s, which closed down a few years back. Benjamin’s combination of amazing food, service and ambiance brings it right to the top.

The restaurant has three levels. It is handicapped accessible from the street level. An elevator goes down to the lower floor where the washrooms are. For reservations call 212-297-9177.

And now for another culinary experience. Having dined for the first time last summer at Maison Boulud at the iconic Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Montreal last summer, I was anxious to try one of famous chef Daniel Boulud’s eight restaurants in the Big Apple. My choice was db Bistro Moderne (http://www.dbbistro.com/nyc), home of the famed “db Burger ” and literallu right next door to the Algonquin. It is located at 55 West 44th Street. The bistro is considered Boulud’s contemporary interpretation of the Parisian classic and a restaurant where traditional French cuisine meets the flavors of the American market. The seasonal menu highlights the quality of fine ingredients served in a casual setting. This is one of New York’s top-rated bistros offering easy going, and delicious dining at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and is a favorite pre- and post- theater destination.

I dined solo on this occasion and received a friendly welcome from general manager Rachel Ossakow who went over the menu for me. I started off with a plate of smoked salmon, with bagel chips and cream cheese and sampled the roasted mushroom crostini, featuring house-made butter, garlic confit and chives. Before the main course I enjoyed a delicious bowl of fall squash soup, which contained spaghetti squash and pumpkin seeds. There were so many mouthwatering selections to choose from, but I went for the house specialty – the original db Burger. This is a sirloin burger, served medium or rare, and filled with braised short ribs, foie gras and black truffle inside a parmesan buns and pommes frites on the side. I will have to go back as the seafood dishes, the duck, lamb, chicken, steak, salads and side dishes looked very appetizing. The dessert menu was not too shabby either. I settled on the Toasted Sesame Bavoiroise, a flourless chocolate biscuit with blood orange and mandarin sorbet. As well, a nice cup of chamomille tea concluded my order. The restaurant has a very extensive wine list and an on-site sommelier. Log on to www.danielnyc.com to see this menu and the others from the Boulud group. You can call 212-391-2400 for reservations.

If you are headed to South Florida anytime soon, Café Boulud Palm Beach at the Brazilian Court Hotel now features an expanded and relocated bar, sleek contemporary design, and an exciting new menu featuring the French cuisine Boulud is known for, with a lighter approach. Boulud and Executive Chef Rick Mace introduced a menu that balances signature Boulud dishes and French favorites inspired by his restaurants around the world with a spotlight on the region’s incredible seafood and produce.

At its core, the menu showcases classic French dishes synonymous with Boulud himself, but modernized to suit the cosmopolitan palate of Palm Beach: local Blackened Mahi with squash gratin and buttermilk; and Swordfish with sweet corn succotash and sauce diable, as well as beloved seafood dishes like Dover Sole Meunière, fileted tableside. Appetizers like Beet and Endive Salad, Pheasant Pâté en Croûte, or Pumpkin Velouté highlight the season’s freshest bounty. Main courses include 14 oz Grassfed Beef Striploin, Slow Cooked Pork Shoulder, Roasted Farm Chicken and a luxurious Chateaubriand for two, and all come with seasonal and local accompaniments. A raw bar-style menu highlights favorites like Local Rock Shrimp, Florida Stone Crab Claws, and Oysters on the Half Shell.

At the center of the new renovation is the enlarged bar area–at 15 seats, it is three times the size as before. Already drawing crowds, the bar’s menu includes an inventive new cocktail list, craft beers on tap, and food served throughout the day allowing guests to drop in at any hour for a quick bite or a relaxed meal.

The Bar Menu features dishes perfect either for sharing, a selection of soups, salads and sandwiches, and perennial favorites including a Cubano with house-cured pork, pickles and mustard, Maine Lobster Roll, and the CBPB Burger named ‘Best of Palm Beach’ by the Palm Beach Daily News. In a shift away from tropical and traditional Palm Beach décor, the new design is lighter and elegant, achieved with unique touches like a shimmery ceiling made from sea shells and Pecky Cyprus, improved lighting, and warm wood flooring surrounding the glowing bar.

The lounge at Café Boulud’s entrance sets the scene to see and be seen while enjoying an evening of excellent food and drink. Or relax and enjoy great conversation in our inviting, upholstered seating areas.

The Courtyard Terrace at the Brazilian Court, a longtime favorite place to dine among Palm Beach locals, remains untouched.

“Our goal was to create a contemporary design for this classic restaurant that retains its elegance while providing a refreshing and accessible modern look in harmony with the hotel,” said Lauren Hastings, Senior Designer of LSI Designs, a division of Copperline Partners.

Café Boulud’s Ballroom and Conservatory, among Florida’s most popular private venues for weddings, celebrations, and corporate events, have been similarly transformed. The French doors separating the two spaces have been removed allowing contiguous seating for parties up to 150. The Ballroom’s high-drama, glass skylight has been tripled in size, allowing an attractive glow of natural light into the room.

The conservatory has been freshened up and lightened to showcase the sun-drenched, open and airy room.

Executive Chef Rick Mace rejoined the Daniel Boulud team in 2013, but his ties date to 2007.

Finally, a note on what is becoming a traditional stop for us while in New York. I am talking about TAO Uptown on East 58th Street near Madison Avenue. This spectacular Pan Asian restaurant specializes in authentic Hong Kong Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisines. Save room as well for their amazing desserts. There is also a downtown location and another in Las Vegas.