Of course, the Great Lakes are great; they constitute the world’s largest above-ground freshwater system in the world, containing about 18 percent of the world’s supply.
However, beyond its scale (larger than all the Eastern seaboard states combined), what about all the other awesome attractions that border its shorelines? Are they equally as great, or big, or best, or exclusive?
Let’s take a look:
Given the many possibilities for food around the Great Lakes, the area’s largest hamburger rests atop Burger King in Niagara Falls, ON.
And the largest hotdog can be found in Mackinaw City at Wienerlicious.
Both can be purchased with the world’s largest nickel…
the brainchild of Dr. Ted Szilva,
and on display at Sudbury’s Dynamic Earth.
Only one mile away, Inco’s superstack–the tallest chimney in the western hemisphere–rises 1250 feet atop Vale Inco’s Copper Cliff processing facility–the largest nickel smelting operation in the world.
Nowhere as tall, Castle Rock (commonly referred to as Pontiac’s Lookout) is a natural 200-foot limestone sea chimney…
overlooking Lake Huron and Interstate 75,
and considered the oldest lookout in St. Ignace, Michigan…until the Mackinac Bridge was built in 1957.
Spanning the Straits of Mackinac, and connecting the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, the Mackinac Bridge is hailed as the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere.
Although less of an engineering feat, the upside-down house, built in Niagara Falls, measures up to 1200 square feet of topsy-turvy, making it Canada’s most unusual landmark.
Nearby, at Niagara on the Lake, locals can tee up at Niagara Golf Club, the oldest existing golf course (albeit, nine holes) in North America.
In Midland, Ontario, a grain elevator looms over a Georgian Bay harbor, featuring North America’s largest historic outdoor mural created by Fred Lenz.
History also abounds at Colonial Michilimackinac–
a reconstructed 18th century frontier fortress originally garrisoned by the French during 1715, and later controlled by the British.
After 60 years of excavation, valuable relics from fort living continue to be unearthed, making it the longest ongoing archeological dig in North America.
One of the many buildings discovered and recreated inside the fort belonged to Ezekiel Solomon, a fur trader who has been celebrated as Michigan’s first Jewish settler.
And then there’s Niagara Falls, a natural wonder that needs little hyperbole.
While not the highest, or the widest falls, its combined falls (Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls) qualify Niagara Falls as the most powerful, forming the highest flow rate of any waterfall in North America.
While this “Great” list may not represent the best of all gilded attractions in the Great Lakes area to date, it’s the only list I’m likely to compile
When KT took the radio call alerting him of leopard tracks in the vicinity, my heart raced. Of the “Big Five” (elephants, lions, buffalo, rhinos, and leopards), leopards can be the most elusive, and consequently, the most challenging to “spot”. For one, the rosettes across their bodies make the perfect camouflage as they stealthly move through the tall grass; secondly, leopards are equally as comfortable in trees, and have been known to drag their kill into the branches to avoid any competition; and lastly, they are solitary animals, usually hunting solo unless the mother is raising her cubs.
KT quietly withdrew from the sleeping lions, and set the Land Cruiser on a new course. We off-roaded across the savanna with little regard for fields and streams, until KT hit the brakes and pointed to a patch of scrub about 100 meters to our left.
“Is it a leopard?” someone asked anxiously.
“No, but just as interesting,” he asserted. “Look through your binoculars and cameras and tell me what you see.”
I had trouble identifying the animal–even at 108mm focal length–although, KT’s telephoto vision was “spot on”. “Is it some kind of dog?” I asked.
“No,” answered KT. “Actually, this animal is more closely related to a cat. It’s a young hyena, and for some reason it’s by itself, unless the mother is nearby. And just as interesting, these animals are typically nocturnal, but this one is not. Let’s see what he’s up to.”
The Toyota crept toward the hyena causing it to retreat into higher grass. But eventually, curiosity got the better of him, and he slowly revealed himself.
KT killed the engine, and waited for our hyena cub to step out from his lair. It was an African stand-off. We sat patiently for minutes–both sides seemed unwilling to give an inch until KT started up the Land Cruiser. “We need to find our leopard,” he stated, and shifted into gear.
The moment we started to roll, the hyena slinked out of the grass,
finally showing his spots…
and seemingly “laughing” about his hide-and-seek victory.
We continued to track leopard prints through the savanna for another 15 minutes, when we happened across a pack of five African wild dogs prowling through the bush in search of their next meal,
led by its alpha male,
and alpha female.
As if on cue, a young lechwe leapt out from the cover of the brush in front of our truck…
followed by a wild dog chasing at its heels. The lechwe bounded away–zigzigging as it ran for its life. Soon after, we lost sight of it behind a mound of trees. KT gave chase. He gunned the Toyota and plunged it deep into the marsh till the front wheels lost traction. But he saved face by rocking us to-and-fro and eventually releasing us from the muck.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the mound, the alpha male was finishing off the lechwe…
with the help of his pack, who were waiting in the brush, ready to strike once the prey was delivered.
Wary of a crocodile attack, the wild dogs worked together to drag the carcass out of the water, all the while feasting on their kill…
(video is rated carniverous)
until the last traces of lechwe were consumed.
For many, what we witnessed was more than enough. It was an amazing morning filled with terror and excitement. Our hunger to locate a leopard was largely overshadowed by the wild dogs’ appetite. KT summed it up, stating, “What you are seeing here is very rare, indeed!”
“Which is exactly how the wild dogs like their lechwe prepared,” I mused.
But the day was far from finished. During our afternoon game drive, KT, acting on a tip, drove us to a different wild dogs’ den, where the alpha female of the pack had just given birth to a litter of four pups. Finding the den was easy, but would the mother let down her guard long enough to nurse them with us in the vicinity?
KT jockeyed for position. He cut through brush and mowed over saplings with the Land Cruiser to get us close enough for a decent view of the den, although partially obstructed by the wild dogs’ protective habitat.
And then the unexpected happened…
She leaned into the burrow and beckoned her younglings with a song of high-pitch yelps. She persuaded her brood by pulling out the first pup firmly at the scruff. The others followed willingly…
for a place at the dinner table,
while the vigilant dad growled and glared at us, showing us he was in charge.
Now, if only KT could get us to the hippo pond before sunset. Suddenly, there was little regard for all the ruts and sand grooves his tires found, or the sharp turns around the brush, and through a thicket with switches sweeping the sides of our canopy. We held on with our lives.
We could see the sun sinking below the grassline, and we knew it would be close, but thankfully, the hippos were still at play.
And then it was lights out for the rest of the Kalahari.
KT, our guide at Kadizora Camp gently rapped on our tent door at 6:30 am to accompany us to the dining tent for a continental breakfast. It was still dark, hence the escort. We were following a verbal command from camp personnel requiring us to stay put during darkness due to a heightened risk of encountering wildlife in our area.
Only last night at 11:20 pm, an elephant known to the camp as Franklin startled me awake by rubbing against the outside of our tent.
“Do you hear that?” I whispered to Leah.
“What is it?” she yawned, seemingly annoyed that I had interrupted her sleep.
“I think it’s an elephant.”
“What?!” she snapped awake.
“Whatever it is, it’s right outside our tent,” I said in my softest library voice.
As if on cue, Franklin’s massive silhouette lumbered along our raised deck, grabbing and tearing tree leaves with his snaking trunk as he filled the zipped screening with his immensity, leaving us paralyzed in awe until he was gone.
Damn! Where was my camera?
Grabbing my arm, “Oh my God!” Leah gasped, “Did you see that?”
It was thrilling yet alarming to watch. Adrenalin pumped through our weary bodies, wiring every nerve and depriving us of much-needed sleep. Eventually, the continuing soft grunts of snoring warthogs under our tent provided the white noise we needed to lull us back to a peaceful slumber until our 6:00 am wake-up.
“Are you ready to see big cats today?” asked KT, his flashlight in hand.
“Absolutely,” I answered eagerly, as we followed him down the illuminated path to the safety of common ground.
“Did you have a visitor last night?” he wondered, already knowing the answer.
“We did,” I shared. “How’d you know?”
“An elephant bull-dozed the contractor’s tent last night. Turned it into a heap of broken sticks and canvas,” he said.
Once out in the bush…
cruising along rutted ribbons of sand separated by tall grass,
we came across a small herd of Cape buffalo grazing…
that appeared to be pulling closer together, adopting a defensive posture.
“Those buffalo are nervous,” asserted KT. “Do you see how they all stare in the same direction? Most likely, they have picked up the scent of a lion or leopard, and they are closing ranks for protection.”
“I think something may happen here, so we should stay for a bit and see what develops.”
KT repositioned the Toyota in the shade of a large ebony tree, and we patiently watched the herd from a distance, scanning the perimeter for predators in the hopes of encoutering a potential kill.
“There!” he exclaimed.
A young male had emerged from the bush to the right of the herd, and just as quickly disappeared into the thicket for a closer look at the buffalo and to assess the situation.
Wow! This was exactly what we came for, but it was a fleeting moment which left us somewhat deflated.
Undeterred, KT started up the Land Cruiser and cautiously followed the lion, who reemerged on the other side, and relocated on a shady slope upwind of the herd.
“This is where it will happen,” asserted KT, as he drove even closer to the resting young male.
No doubt, the lion was fully aware of us, as it turned in our direction.
“He knows we are here. Aren’t we intruding by being this close?” I asked KT.
“The lions really don’t see us; they only see this truck–not the people inside,” he replied. “They don’t sense the truck as threatening, and it doesn’t smell like food. From the time they were cubs they have grown up knowing this vehicle, and they have become desensitized to its presence in the savanna. So as long as we respect them and do not interfere in their business, we can get very close to them. However, you must always remain seated, and for obvious reasons keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.”
“Why can’t we stand?” I asked.
“The moment you stand, you change the dynamics and the lion no longer sees the truck as a familiar object, which may make him uncomfortable and put you at risk,” explained KT.
And then another lion materialized from the brush.
“Ahh…this makes complete sense to me now,” KT surmised. “They may be brothers, and they are working together to isolate one buffalo from the herd before the herd disappears into the brush.”
KT restarted the Toyota and pulled closer yet, thinking the timing was right and the attack was imminent. We pulled within a few feet of the new male, who made himself very comfortable beside us…
while the first lion remained vigilant on the mound.
By this time, the herd had keenly sensed the pair of lions around them, and moved into the protective thicket nearby, preempting the attack.
Realizing the chase was over, one beckoned the other…
to a family reunion.
OMG!!! We held our breath, wondering what was next for the brothers. It had been an exhausting morning of hunting without a victory.
Hence, it was time for a nap!
Just then, KT answered a dispatched call on the radio alerting him that a colleague had spotted fresh leopard tracks a few klicks away, so off we went in search of another adventure.
Much of Cape Town radiates with modern appeal, brandishing its abundance of fashionable and trendy shops, galleries, cafes, restaurants, and hotels throughout the city. However, the crossroads where residents and tourists travel to find it all is Cape Town’s waterfront.
Leah and I took a walk through the waterfront district to see for ourselves, and found that one day was not enough to cover it all.
The heartbeat of the waterfront is the Victoria and Albert Wharf, where the city meets the sea.
Grounded by a two-story mall, the Victoria Wharf Shopping Centre bustles with 450 retail stores, and over 80 restaurants and eateries.
Beyond a swinging bridge and a capsule of specialty malls stands the Clock Tower, where a ferry (calm seas and weather permittting) awaits to shuttle intrepid visitors to Robben Island…
the one-time prison of Nelson Mandela from 1964 to 1982, but now a museum and World Heritage site. Unfortunately, high swells prevented us from visiting.
His importance to the city and country cannot be underestimated, as his name and face is omnipresent throughout the region.
Visible from all points of the city, and looming over the wharf is Table Mountain,
accessible by cable car, with commanding views of the city below. Unfortunately, Leah and I never made it to the top because of gusting winds at the time.
Continuing south, we mounted a set of stairs…
directing us to the Silo District, where a 1920s grain silo…
has been repurposed into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art,
having opened on September 2017, and boasting the world’s largest collection of African art.
The building also houses the Silo Hotel, occupying the top six floors within the one-time grain elevator. Daily rates during low season range from $900 for a luxury room to $5000 for a 1-Bedroom Penthouse. Leah and I thought we’d have a look around.
The elevator carried us to reception on the sixth floor, where we spoke to an attendant who eagerly escorted us to the eleventh floor open-air restaurant, lounge and pool.
Having missed out on a Table Mountain overlook because of weather, our surrounding views of the stadium,
the ship terminal,
and the courtyard below were spectacular, and made up for our disappointment.
Once back on earth, we headed past the shipyards…
and along the canal…
to Battery Park, a greenspace where families gather to skate and picnic.
After reaching City Hall in the distance, we doubled back to the waterfront, eager to continue the next part of our journey in search of wild animals.
Peering into shop windows along the streets and canals of Amsterdam…
…presents many an oddity that will surely arouse the senses. Although, considering Amsterdam’s predilection and distinction for legal marijuana and prostitution, it would seem unlikely that there could be any room for other surprises.
Yet oddly enough, despite the merchandising overload of everything cannabis,
and the city’s penchant for 24-hr flesh peddling,
there is more to Amsterdam than just kink and circumstance.
There are also plenty of museums,
and enough al fresco cafés and frites stores to support a cultural and gastronomical battalion.
Amsterdam is a place for eyes behind your head, because two eyes in front is not enough to sidestep all the oncoming cyclists coming from every direction,
but also to catch all the head-turning outrageousness of an unrepentant town that still embraces Easter.
Amsterdam is a place to relax. Heck, half the population is already stoned, and the pungent waft of weed is a strong reminder to kick back and enjoy the scenery.
Amsterdam is a tolerant town, where all kinds of people gather and co-exist without judgement or little reservation. Citizens are proud and expressive, at times aggressive, but mostly helpful–although they smoke entirely too much, and regard the street as their personal ashtray.
As a laissez-faire society by practice and design, it appears to work. Quite simply, Amsterdam is a libertarian’s delight!
And that leaves plenty of room for rubber duckies and vaginas, and everything between.
Brussels loves its folklore. And its citizens are unabashed about it. They show it off around town, and celebrate it with a flourish.
Belgians are world renown chocolatiers, and proud of their invention. Case in point–Jean Neuhaus…
…a one-time chemist who realized that a chocolate coating around a pill helps the medicine go down. His pharmacy in Galerie de la Reine…
located in a glass-covered mall of pilasters, arches, and windows…
was converted into a chocolate shop in 1912, when he replaced his pills with praline, giving rise to an international addiction, and no doubt, a tooth decay epidemic.
On this particular day, the theme of chocolate carried over to Brussel’s most famous fountain–a 17th century pisser known as Manneken Pis–who was undergoing a celebrated makeover with yet another costume.
The pomp and circumstance surrounding the event was palpable. A singing society of Manneken Pis enthusiasts had crowded the corner of the Incubator and Oak Street,
just south of Grand Place…
in anticipation of the grand reveal.
Outside the circle of importance, a fringe show delighted the onlookers.
Eventually, the Nation’s colors were pulled away to expose the little exhibitionist dressed as a chocolatier–one of 1000 different costumes he has worn throughout the ages.
But Manneken Pis has some able-bodied company. Located a short distance away, his counterpart, Jeanneke Pis is a fine squating specimen.
It is believed by Belgians that the fountain was built in honor of loyalty. An old custom states that a coin tossed into the basin will bring good luck and is an expression of fidelity.
Of course, what could be more loyal than man’s best friend, symbolized by Zinneke Pis…
…thus completing the pee pee trilogy.
Dogs are a common site and symbol around Brussels, and represented throughout history, whether at the foot of Everard t’Serclaes, a 14th century legend, embodied in thestatue of his reclining corpse–
which is believed by locals to bring luck to all passers-by who rub it.
And then there’s Tintin’s dog, Snowy,
a comic sensation created by Belgian cartoonist Hergé (aka George Remi).
There is a framed beauty and whimsy about the city of Brussels.
While it never takes itself too seriously,
there is just enough richness…
and Old World charm…
…to compete with any of the other great European capitals, while never forgetting its role as de facto capital of the European Union,
There was a time when slamming back Jose Cuervo tequila shots defined my notion of drinking socially and irresponsibly. When attending college mixers and parties, it was the perfect way to act cool and behave stupidly at the same time. The time-honored tradition of licking salt before swallowing a rim-topped shooter glass and finishing with a limon bite was a pattern of behavior that I remember clearly, but can’t recall with any accuracy.
It was also my surrender to the fiery pepper that typically accompanied the alcohol. While the raspa would rocket through my gastric canal, I often wondered how I survived the taste of jet fuel laced with vanilla extract. But those negative thoughts always melted away after the third shot. That’s the magic of tequila; sometimes it makes you question your own sense of reality.
As we aged, so did our palettes. Drinking buddies flush with more disposable income succumbed to the lure of unblended Scotch or reveled in the crisp bite of French vodka. But not me. I saw no reason to search for a better bitter. It seems I was too emotionally attached to tequila to switch to a competing liquor.
My mission was to find a tequila that didn’t taste so nasty. Move over Jose Cuervo, and say hello to Patrón.
Apart from all the trusted distilleries in Jalisco, Mexico, the one tequila that resonated in America debuted in 1989, and soon captured a coveted 30% market share–not because of Patrón’s unique flavor profile or quality control standards, but because shampoo mogul and co-founder, John Paul DeJoria positioned Patrón’s top-shelf status through its hand-numbered bottles, silk ribbons, and round-top corks. Late-show tequila was now dressed up and ready for prime-time.
It wasn’t long before other celebrities jumped on the brand-wagon to use their cache to cash in. While Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo supported the aging baby boomer sub-culture, George Clooney’s Casamigos courted the endless summer sect, and P. Diddy’s DeLéon catered to the crowd behind the velvet rope.
Tequila’s makeover has generated record-breaking sales since 2012. According to the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS):
…tequila volumes [in the U.S.] have grown by 121%, at an average rate of 5.8%. In 2016 alone, 15.9 million 9-liter cases were sold. What is even more impressive is that while the volumes of value and premium tequila grew by 93% and 72% during the aforementioned time frame, those of high-end premium and super-premium shot up by 292% and 706%, respectively.
And spirit producers are betting big that the current wave continues. Last year, DeJoria released his remaining 70% of Patrón shares to Bacardi for $5.1bn, and Diageo secured Casamigos from Clooney for $1bn to stand beside its Don Julio brand acquired from Jose Cuervo in 2014.
With my head spinning from all the stats, I needed a drink…or more. And I needed clarification and historical perspective to make sense of it all. Fortunately, when at our resort South of the Border, Leah and I were introduced to Socrates, our waiter at Vidanta’s La Cantina on the Riviera Maya, who was eager to share information about his culture, and the connection between tequila and Guadalajara, his family’s home for the past 200 years.
Ordinarily I’d order a margarita before my meal, like so many times before…
but on this night, Socrates offered me a turn at the tasting table…
and a briefing on the distillation process of tequila and its significance to the Mexican economy.
“Tequila has been produced in Mexico since 1726, but mezcal has been distilled by the Toltecs in clay pots for special ceremonies since the year 600. My family has been growing blue agave and producing spirits before my abuelo was walking,” stated Socrates, “so it is my honor to present you with our wonderful heritage and the drink of my people tonight.”
He continued, “Tequila is a very special drink that requires lots of patience–from the ten years the agave tequilana plant grows to maturity in the sandy hills of my country–until it is harvested. Once all the leaves are stripped from the agave plant, the piña is roasted, and the juice is released by running the tahona over the piña. This is true for all the varieties of tequila you will sample tonight.”
“What makes it clear and what makes it golden-colored?” I asked.
“Ah, that is all about the aging,” replied Socrates. “Silver tequila or blanco is tequila in the purest form with the most natural taste after the distilling process–a little bit of sweet with a taste of citrus and pepper. It is preferred when making margaritas.
“And the golden color?…” I reiterated.
“That is the color from the barrels to age the tequila. Usually 6 months resting in an oak barrel, sometimes already flavored from bourbon or wine, and we call it tequila reposado. The taste is a balance between the agave and the wood–more smooth with hints of caramel and spice,” Socrates continued.
“But for me, the real tequila is the sipping tequila called tequila añejo. This is tequila aged for at least one year in the barrel, which now darkens the tequila to an amber color. It is very smooth like fine wine or whisky, and is to be enjoyed at room temperature,” he concluded.
I pointed to the tequila table. “But there are bottles that are marked ultra and extra añejo. What about them?”
“That’s the newest tequila category that’s been added since 2006,” remarked Socrates. “It refers to tequila that’s been aged more than 3 years. So it tends to be darker still, unless the color has been filtered out, and looking like a blanco. But what’s left behind is tequila that is incredibly smooth and complex and rich, with very little alcohol taste.”
“How rich?” I asked.
“This tequila can cost over $300 a bottle,” he exclaimed.
You may recall from The Other Side of Cozumel that sometimes vacations don’t always turn out as expected. However, since my first taste of Mexico in 1975, subsequent trips south of the border were much more enjoyable and fulfilling. I returned again and again to celebrate the culture and bask in the balmy weather. I ate my fill of fresh fish, tacos and tamales, and always managed to melt my stress away with the help of good tequila.
My status improved in 1988 when I earned my diver certification at a casual Playa del Carmen resort, and thereafter, got spoiled enjoying the drift dives in Cozumel along Santa Rosa wall, or deep diving Devil’s Throat in Punta Sur, or floating through the aquarium of sea-life that is Palancar Reef.
Past Mexican vacations have been spent exploring neighboring hotspots in the Quintana Roo vicinity:
Holbox to the North …
Chaccoben to the South…
and Tulum in between…
But the one thing I never got around to doing over the past 45 years was explore the eastern shore of Cozumel. Not that I was avoiding the prospect; it’s that the opportunity never presented itself…until lately.
Rather than rent scooters for the day–which Leah would have never agreed to–I rented a modest Nissan sedan, and the two of us made a day of it.
We started out in Centro by the Iglesia de San Miguel, a charming Catholic parish…
that always draws a queue of cruise ship passengers on shore excursion,
to fill out laborious paperwork at a tucked-away Thrifty satelite office across the way, but that was the medicine we were willing to swallow to save nearly 60% from the rental fee quoted by our hotel concessionaire. From there it was a race to escape 1.5 miles of pedestrian madness between the Ferry Pier and the International Pier Cruise Terminal.
As we left city life behind, the jungle returned with thickets of mangroves and saw palmetto. Occasional glimpses of coastline were visible through a string of scattered beach club parking lots that offered access to rows and rows of lounge chairs, palapas, inflatable water slides, and cocktails for all the cruisers fresh from duty-free shopping or the San Miguel Church tour.
We settled on Playa Palancar for its no-fee beach access, tasty tacos and snorkeling activity. Unfortunately, the fish had reservations at a different beach club at the time, so we were forced to relax before moving on to the southern tip of the island, and a stop at the Rasta Bar at Punta Sur…
for views of the ocean,
some old-time religion,
and window shopping…
for Mayan medalians.
Back in the car, we continued around the horn to the backside of the island…
until we reached Playa San Martin, a cozy outpost with a sparse sandy beach…
and a population of lazy iguanas.
The two-lane road continued North to an island mid-point, where we reached the Transversal crossroad that transported us back to the population center, dodging scooters, trucks and taxis all the way to the leeward side hotels…
On the surface, Palatka, FL appears to be an antiquated town that time has left behind. As the county seat of Putnam County, there is legal commerce aplenty,
but Main Street bears the battle scars of a once-vibrant retail scene.
Far too many vacant store and empty sidewalks along St. Johns Avenue suggest that downtown Palatka’s panache has been replaced by big-box retailers like Wal-Mart (only three miles away)–jokingly confirmed by a hand-painted directional crossroads sign…
beside an empty storefront.
In fact, it would seem that much of Palatka is FOR RENT…
or simply un-rentable…
Palatka sits on the west bank of St. Johns River offering strategic access into Central Florida, which is what made Palatka a once-thriving pre-Civil War trading post after land-hungry American settlers eliminated the Seminoles, driving them west of the Mississippi.
Equally important to Palatka’s economy at the time was its mild sub-tropical winters–extending farmers’ growing season and making the area a popular tourist destination for the hoi polloi, whose wealthier counterparts enjoyed a luxury haven in nearby, coastal St. Augustine (read The Poshest Campus in America, and Otto’s Collections).
Unfortunately, a historic fire in 1884 and deep-freeze in 1894 sealed Palatka’s fate as a favored destination, as most tourists migrated South. The city rebuilt, and eventually re-emerged as a manufacturing hub, with Georgia Pacific currently holding title to the largest private sector employer.
But what of downtown today for its nearly 11,000 residents, and how can they possibly compete with St. Augustine to the North, Orlando to the West, and Daytona Beach to the South?
The city, when considering its redevelopment needed a gimmick–something to breath new life into it.
It needed a serious makeover, or maybe some divine intervention.
Driving traffic back to the beat of the city was important. The Bingo Palace added some well-deserved blue-collar cache and shabby chic to the area,
and preserving Angels Diner for future fans of Guy Fieri has also become a go-to venue.
One look around the interior of Angel Diner, and it defies the gravity of its standing as Florida’s oldest diner.
By any law of nature, it shouldn’t be standing, but this tin-skin dive is a testament to the wire and glue that seemingly holds its walls from caving. Stepping through its Hobbit-like entrance is like being transported back to a time when shiny greasy spoons offered up Happy Day burgers and shakes, while we listened to the jukebox soundtrack of our Growing Pains.
Leah and I shared a hefty order of Fish and Chips. The check came to eight bucks, and it was tasty!
A walk around downtown after our meal left the impression that Palatka is much like a collection of rusty charm pieces; although it boasts a historic district with a melange of classic architectural styles, it’s still fighting to remain relevant.
While there is ample nostalgia here, and a story to tell of old Florida, perhaps all that’s really needed is a broom and a fresh coat of paint.
Enter the Conlee-Snyder Mural Committee in 1998, which has opted to:
…accurately depict the historical, cultural, and natural riches of Palatka and Putnam County in larger-than-life murals. In sharing these pictorial renderings with visitors and citizens, appreciation of the heritage of the community will be enhanced and developed.
The city’s plan of commissioning a plethora of tribute murals over the past twenty years has given rise to a tourism rebirth, notwithstanding the city’s longstanding and dedicated art scene and attention to local culture.
Self-described as the City of Murals,
Palatka now boasts a swath of bright colors depicting lively time capsule markers, and always helping to defib drab building back to life.
What follows is a photo essay of just a few of them in no particular order:
on South Third Street at St. Johns Avenue
on South Seventh Street at St. Johns Avenue
on South Seventh Street at St. Johns Avenue
on North Eighth Street at St. Johns Avenue
on City Hall, Reid Street at North Second Street
on South Third Street at St. Johns Avenue
on Ninth and St. Johns Avenue
on North Fourth Street at St. Johns Avenue
on North Seventh Street at St. Johns Avenue
on South Fifth Street at St. Johns Avenue
on North Tenth Street at St. Johns Avenue
on South Third Street at St. Johns Avenue
on South Fourth Street at St. Johns Avenue
on St. Johns Avenue between North Tenth and Eleventh Streets
on South Eleventh Street at St. Johns Avenue
on North Second Street at St. Johns Avenue
Other merchants have joined in, beautifying the exteriors of their retail establishments…
with mixed messages.
After canvassing the town with my camera for the afternoon, I dropped my work façade,
Hiking along New Jersey State and County Park trails the day after Thanksgiving made a lot of sense to Leah, who orchestrated our first return to New Jersey since moving to St. Augustine five months ago. She promised a whirlwind week and a-half of personal appointments and commitments packed with a variety of doctors, friends and family members, all laced with an emphasis on over-eating.
And so, during the course of our visit, as advertised, our food-centric itinerary always included a meal punctuated by scintillating table conversation on family history and folklore–touching on recipes, obituaries, and kin outcasts, with politics and religion occasionally creeping into the dialogue.
But mostly, everybody seemed to be preoccupied with their health. And God help the person who would innocently ask, “So, how are you feeling?” Because this question would open the floodgates for respondents to freely reassign their HIPAA proxy on the spot so they could casually discuss their current condition down to the last agonizing ache and pain, notwithstanding the severity surrounding their prognosis and course(s) of treatments, always followed by a couple of random doctor-horror stories.
It seemed like everyone had a health-related story to tell–whether it was about themselves or someone they knew–not unlike my parents and their friends, who would gather at holiday occasions to compare notes about their medication intake. It was uncanny that the of crux of nearly all of our relationships was now firmly rooted in our faded glory and eventual demise.
Any outsider, after eavesdropping on any of our sessions of non-stop kvetching might be surprised to learn that we are still breathing and have more than one day to live.
And so, it was predictably refreshing to carve out some time to clear our ears of prescription patter, and find an activity that combined friendship and calorie burning. Of course, our opportunity to hike was completely weather-dependent, considering the prior Nor’easter and the Arctic chill that had settled on the Atlantic states.
Like many Northern transplants to Florida, Leah and I had become preoccupied with weather-watching, so we might bask in the warm glow of knowing that we had finally escaped the unfriendly winters by relocating to St. Augustine. But now that we were back in Jersey, it was time to face the hard cold facts of winter; Ramapo Valley Reservation (NYNJTC_RamapoValleyCountyReservationMap-2017) was 18°F at the Reservation trailhead, and expecting to peak at 23°F by the afternoon.
MacMillan Reservoir was partially frozen and dreary…
with the exception of distant water reflections.
Trails were camouflaged…
by crispy fallen leaves–densely packed and slippery–despite the assortment of Skittles-colored trail blazes nailed to forest saplings.
Brooks were running fast and high…
making each water-crossing challenging and hazardous.
We continued our four-hour excursion with the winds picking up across Campgaw Mountain.
And it became clear to me that marching through the New Jersey woodlands was not the best birthday present I could have given myself. The cold had already taken its toll on Arlene’s arthritic fingers. Leah, who had recently succumbed to lower back pain and acute Achilles tendonitis was now complaining about her knees.
My knees were also aching from sliding down one too many slippery slopes. Even Doug, the youngest of all of us by at least eleven years had to admit that his right knee was locking up occasionally. The ladies cut their hike short, taking a quick detour to the parking lot, but Doug and I wore our intrepid hats. We continued to the feature waterfall along the Brookside Trail with few delays or complaints…
giving us bragging rights to a 7.5 mile accomplishment,
and leaving me more than ready for my true birthday present to myself: a one-hour Swedish massage at a local day spa, if only to rub my aches and pains away for another day.
the Thanksgiving meal that takes days to prepare,
and the ease of slipping into a digestive coma
just from the aroma–
of roasted turkey, the stuffing, the cranberry relish,
and all the assortments designed to embellish.
But the moment our family sits down to feast the hunger takes over with no time to savor the melange of food flavors, and sooner than later, there’s none left to eat.
The Frontier flight was 15 minutes early, arriving from Jacksonville to Philadelphia in under 1½ hours–
just ahead of the Nor’easter that would ultimately drop 6 inches of snow and ice on the region, creating a classic commuting catastrophe.
Yet despite the nail-biting adventure of driving through icy lanes of traffic moving sideways, and the total disregard of STOP sign awareness, there was a calmness to the city that I had never noticed before, giving the illusion of Walking Dead abandonment.
First order of business was food. Move over Pat’s and Geno’s, because there is a rival cheesesteak to adore at John’s Roast Pork in South Philly. Fortunately, the lousy weather short-circuited the out-the-door line that is almost always guaranteed during lunchtime.
My son, Noah ordered two 12-inch sandwiches with mushrooms and onions that could easily feed a family of four, but proved worthy of two consecutive lunches for each of us.
Then, we were off to his apartment in Fishtown, an up-and-coming gentrification project that is locked between empty lots boasting scattered mattresses, and hastily-erected, fresh-bricked row buildings that contradict the broken sidewalks–all within viewing distance of Ben Franklin bridge…
and walking distance to Reading Market.
After an overnight stay in Germantown, a walk around the neighborhood revealed only remnants of the shot of winter that overwhelmed the area during the past 48 hours.
While enjoying my morning breakfast, and catching up on some classic poetry, I decided on a mash-up, which seemed entirely appropriate at the moment.
Inspired by Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Old Ironsides*
So, eat my toasted bagel now!
Soon may I reach thru wrap.
‘Cause many a tooth awaits to chew
this morsel from the sack;
Inside, I whiffed the buttered carbs
And yearned the content’s nut;–
But the paper bag in my eager hand
Revealed a tear somewhat!
My meal, once hot from oven’s heat,
Which baked the risen dough,
Where yeast was bubbling through the mix,
And grains were ground. Ergo,
Constant kneading the rubb’ry mass
And proof the crusted skin,
The bagels of the batch shall rise–
The essence of a win!
Oh, woeful that my ragged bag
erodes against my touch;
Construction dooms my marv’lous meal,
And so, becomes my crutch;
Drops through the rip, my toasted roll
Damn every filthy crime!
And gift it to the trove of germs—
The goodness and the grime.
The towering Tannenbaum on the snow-dusted platz was a magnificent specimen to behold. The balsam fir rose twenty-five meters to the heavens and stretched fifteen meters across the plaza to form a perfectly proportioned arrow. All its weighty boughs pointed upwards, carrying full and fluffy branches, making it a remarkable holiday centerpiece for the city plaza from any angle–especially the approach to the Hauptbahnhof. However, the Tannenbaum, despite its natural beauty, was infected with garish red lights and glistening Nazi ornaments from bottom to top,
and crowned with a giant Germanic sun wheel–transforming the setting into a propaganda postcard.
Tragically, the accompanying nativity scene of baby Jesus and the Magi was replaced by a winter solstice display of heather, hay and holly, with candles arranged in the shape of a giant swastika. Boys from Hitler Youth and girls from the League formed an outside circle around the tree, serenading family, friends, and bystanders with their harmonious rendition of Exalted Night of the Clear Stars. It was a disgrace.
There was a time as a young boy, when my favorite holiday of the year was the day before Christmas. Papa always waited until the day before Christmas to cut down a tree of our own, because “the customer always comes first!” he would say. On the day before Christmas, I would wake early and wait for Papa to walk with me into the wald, although I was usually one step behind him, struggling to carry an axe as tall as me.
We would cross the empty patches of forest together in search of the perfect tree that would satisfy Mama–not too big, and not too small. If I came upon a tree that I liked, I would drop the axe and run to it. “Is this the one, Papa?” I’d ask. At which point, Papa would indicate his answer with either a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down.”
I figured Papa to be a very particular man, because most of my early choices were often rejected. But he taught me what to look for when selecting the perfect Tannenbaum. Papa would eventually approve my pick of tree, and always gave me the first whack at it with his axe–although in the beginning, I hardly ever made a dent in the bark.
When we got the tree home, the house would smell just like aBäckerei1, because Mama was usually in the middle of baking her special Bethmännchen2. But she always stopped whatever she was doing at the time to evaluate our selection and deliver her ruling, even though she always awarded Papa with a “thumbs up.”
Once Papa secured the tree, he could retire to his chair by the fire for a snooze, while I sipped hot cocoa and glazed the cookie tips with shokolade–deliberately managing to get my fingers as dirty as possible, just so I could lick them clean. Then it was time to string garlands of popcorn and cranberries together until my fingers were sore from being pricked so often.
An hour before dinner, Papa was usually awake, which gave our family plenty of time to trim the tree. When the last ornament was hung and the final garland was draped across the tree, it was my job–sitting astride Papa’s shoulders–to place the Star of Bethlehem atop the tree.
After enjoying Mama’s amazing Christmas dinner of roasted squabs stuffed with apples, dates and sausage, and served with giant helpings of sweet red cabbage and spaetzle3, we would attend Christmas Eve vigil at St. Lambertus, where I was an altar boy, and sang carols in the choir. And when we returned from church, Mama would serve her Christmas Stollen4 with spiced cider for dessert, and I would open presents.
But today it’s completely different–to the point where I no longer crave the need for a family tree–realizing that the sanctity and meaning of Christmas has been replaced by Hitler’s hatred of Jews. Collectively, the Aryan nation has effectively and systematically stripped Christ from Christmas. For Christ’s sake, they even rewrote the words to my favorite and most sacred Christmas hymn:
Silent night, Holy night, All is calm, all is bright. Only the Chancellor steadfast in fight, Watches o’er Deutschland by day and by night, Guiding our nation aright. Guiding our nation aright.
“That fir may have come from one of Papa’s earliest seedlings,” I lamented to Ilse.
“If he only knew what the Nazis have done to his finest tree, he would roll over in his grave,” answered Ilse.
“Heil, Hitler!” I heard from behind.
Riding horseback and approaching on my right was Oberpräsident Terboven, astride a stunning black gelding with an oversized swastika button on its bridle.
Ilse greeted him with a cautious nod. “Frohe Weihnachten5, Herr Terboven!”
1bakery 2marzipan cookies 3dumplings 4traditional fruitcake 5Merry Christmas
Henry Flagler’s Hotel Alcazar opened its doors in 1888 to fête the upper crust who rode his rails to St. Augustine to escape the harsh northeastern winters.
Designed in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style, the hotel was an elegant getaway that boasted every convenience and amenity for its guests, including the world’s largest swimming pool at 120 feet long by 50 feet wide, and depths ranging from 3 feet to 12 feet.
The pool was constructed as the centerpiece of the hotel casino annex that also featured a workout room, therapeutic baths, a steamroom, and bowling lanes. An artesian well fed a constant flow of fresh sulphur water to the pool to sustain moderate temperatures and assure clarity. The roof featured louvered glass panes that opened for ventilation.
The hotel was shuttered in 1932, and laid dormant until Otto C. Lightner purchased the building in 1947 to showcase his extensive Victorian Era arts collection.
Today, the Lightner Museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the pool is home to Café Alcazar, a subterranean eatery serving lunch off the deep end.
The moment I entered the room, I felt I was in the middle of a Downton Abbey episode. It was easy to imagine a tony troop of aristocrats parading in their top hats and arm length evening gloves.
After surveying the room, I had a notion to create an Escheresque puzzle that could tease the viewer into questioning whether the following composition is a mirror image of itself, or a pool reflection, or both.
Or is it just a deception?
There are subtle clues in plain sight that may aid in deciphering the composition. The proof is in the putting.
Leah and I travelled with fishing rods strapped to the Airstream’s interior for one-year, cross-country. The constant sight of them was a nagging reminder of the possibility of learning a new sport together, and the unrequited taste of something “fresh” to grill, for we never found an opportunity to cast a line. However, now that we’ve become middle-aged Floridians, we felt the timing was right to immerse ourselves–hook, line and sinker.
After closing on our St. Augustine house in February, our realtor presented us with a gift certificate for a half-day charter with Captain Robert, his son, but our date on the water would have to wait four additional months to fulfill until we returned as full-time residents, and eventually settled in.
Leah had two immediate concerns with being out on the water: what to do for her new-founded sea sickness, and what kind of potty provisions would be provided. I, on the other hand just wanted reassurance that there would be space for my son Nate, who was temporarily residing with us in Florida after his apartment lease and job contract in suburban Albany, New York expired at the end of May.
A phone call to Captain Robert two weeks ago reserved our place, and addressed Leah’s anxieties: taking one tablet of Dramamine the night before and the day of the boat ride should allay her nausea; and a toilet seat placed atop a five-gallon Western Marine bucket should provide maximum comfort and embarrassment. And yes, bringing Nate along would be fine.
On the day of our trip, a newish Pathfinder 2500, a true fishing machine was waiting for us dockside…
at the Conch House Marina…
We headed out on a picture-perfect morning…
with sea swells gently lullaby-rocking us in our search for bait a couple of miles from shore. Robert pulled up near a flock of diving birds in search of breakfast, and cast a net.
Moments later, he emptied a bulging swarm of pogies…
a delicious snack for lurking king mackerel.
We cruised about nine miles out from shore to an area already brimming with half a dozen fishing boats.
I wondered about the wisdom of competing with the other boats, but Robert had a hunch. He set up three lines–two shallow, one deep, and we waited…
but not very long. In an hour’s time, we each took turns reeling in our target. First, Leah and me,
and then Nate,
bringing his trophy home.
We pushed out another three miles in hopes of landing a sailfish, or wrangling a redfish, but after a couple of fights, we came up short–minus the bait and hook. Robert postulated that it was probably a shark or a barracuda making a meal of what was already on the line, but we’ll never know.
We trolled around for another hour looking for activity, but the sonar was quiet,
and Leah was pensive…
perhaps wondering how awkward it might be if she needed to use the bucket.
“Do you need to go?” I wondered.
“I can hold it in,” she asserted.
It was decided that we should start back, but stop mid-way and resume our search. Again, the kings were biting, one for me,
and one for Leah,
but we had already agreed that we had enough meat for the day, so both were released. Nate was determined to even the score by catching his second fish of the day, but his time had run out, and we headed for shore.
Yet there was no need for disappointment, since Nate had reeled in the biggest catch of the day.
Robert was equally adept with a knife, making short time of filleting our king mackerels…
which generated about 20 pounds of steaks.
Egrets of all sizes were standing by, ready to take advantage of all scraps that might come their way.
On Robert’s advice, we ate grilled mackerel that night.
I prepared a marinade made of: ¼ cup orange juice, ¼ cup soy sauce, 2 tbsp. canola oil, 1 tbsp. lemon juice, 1 tbsp. ketchup, 1 clove of garlic, oregano, parsley, salt and pepper and soaked our fillets for 2 hours, which rendered a rich and smoky taste when cooked.
Kudos to our Skipper, and thanks for a meal fit for a king mackerel.
It’s hard to imagine going away to a resort to relax, and then being sidelined because of a cold. But after a day of Ubers, planes, and transport vans, we finally arrived at Hacienda Tres Rios–north of Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya–for a week of fun,
and all I could muster was a trip to the hotel convenience store for antihistamine pills before I was ready to collapse. It seems that running around the continent for nearly ten months had compromised my resistance, and was now threatening to compromise my vacation.
Saturdays at the resort have always been a busy day of transitioning, as the staff warmly welcomes new arrivals with chocolate-covered strawberries and mimosas, while firmly ushering last week’s guests through the check-out process and out the door.
After checking in, we killed time at the buffet, waiting for our room to be ready. It was an excellent opportunity to people-watch and predict who among us would be the chosen people we see again and again throughout the week. Of course, it’s always the loudest guests who make a lasting impression, and this week would be no exception. Sitting at the farthest end of the room, three overweight, middle-aged woman were easily heard above the dining room din, kibitzing with the waiter, and on their way to getting shit-faced with yet another round of drinks.
Eventually, a bellman escorted us to our accomodations–a top floor room with an ocean view, or so we were told.
Standing on the balcony, I strained my eyes past the clearing where the last building stood, and that’s when I discovered the deception; the hotel had determined that the miniscule ribbon of gray beyond the mangrove canopy qualified as a view of the ocean.
But I was in no shape to argue. All I could think about was getting into bed with a small hope of shaking this nasty hand that was reaching past my scratchy throat and squeezing my sinuses. That’s when our next-door neighbors arrived, and headed straight for the balcony. I immediately recognized the drunken cackling and the pitchy singing. Standing on my side of the dividing wall, I peered around the other side unnoticed to have a peek, and sure enough, each one held a drink in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, confirming my worst nightmare.
“This can’t be happening!” I quickly re-entered the room, and shut the terrace door to keep the cigarette smoke from seeping through the opening. “With 272 other rooms spread out through the resort, this is where they’re staying?” I moaned in resignation.
“Well, not if I have something to say about it,” declared Leah.
She grabbed the phone, and dialed the front desk downstairs.
“Tell them about the smoking,” I coached, “because obnoxious is too subjective.”
Leah asserted, “I’m calling from 1307. We just arrived, and already the cigarette smoke from the people next door is drifting into our room from the balcony, and it’s intolerable. So you need to find us another room.”
“I’m very sorry that you are being inconvenienced, ma’am” the desk clerk regretted, “but we are unable to accomodate you because of the volume of registrations at the moment. However, if you could be patient with us, we should be able to make other arrangements tomorrow after check-out time, when we’ve had a chance to review our room inventory,” the advised.
“What time, tomorrow?” Leah zeroed in.
“If you come to the desk at 9:00 am, we will be happy to help you,” she elaborated.
Meanwhile, a slurred rendition of Shape of You vibrated through the shared door between the rooms.
“Damn! I used to like that song,” I aired, “and now it’s ruined forever.”
The clatter of their high heels on marble floors resonated throughout the night, and imprinted on my sinus headache. As I lay awake in bed with a box of tissues by my side, I wondered how many costume changes they could go through in one evening, and cursed the day Ed Sheeran had become popular.
A new day for a fresh start, Leah and I packed the last of our belongings and shlepped our bags to the front desk. We previewed a room on the top floor of another building and unconditionally accepted the exchange.
Not too shabby–an ocean view with a whirlpool tub on our new balcony, and a chance to reboot our vacation. Ahhhh…
Feeling sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, Leah and I consulted the concierge to schedule enough activities through the week to balance my boredom with my recovery.
After settling into room 4302, we met up with Salvador, our trail guide who escorted us through the Nature Park on mountain bikes.
We wove our way around the mangrove forest through a labyrinth of sandy trails recognizing white, red, black, and buttonwood mangroves–the four distinctive varieties that flourish in this tropical environment. On the way to the many cenotes,
we identified a plethora of termite burls, several songbirds, a vulture and an iguana.
Of the ten cenotes on the property, we visited Cenote Tortuga;
and Cenote Orchideo…
where we were greeted by a small school of Garra Rufa,
eager to perform ichthyotherapy for free.
On Monday, we spent our morning with sales agent, Ricardo (At Your Service, Too), and our afternoon with Manuel, who guided us from Cenote Aguila,
down the Rio Selva…
to the ocean.
On Tuesday, we took a behind-the scenes-tour of the kitchen with Celia, the kitchen supervisor. She invited us into her casa to showcase the operation and preparation of all food within the hotel:
Celia’s staff works hard–six ten-hour days every week–and is committed to ensuring a healthy and tasty experience with fresh ingredients and a variety of international cuisines. She acknowledges us by placing her hand on her heart–a sanitary salute of sorts to thank us for the opportunity to serve.
On Wednesday, we travelled by hotel shuttle to Playa del Carmen,
for a stroll up and down 5th Avenue–a pedestrian marketplace stretching 20 blocks, and lined with fashionable shops,
eateries, tequilarias, t-shirt mills, modern malls, massage stations, tchotchke kiosks, tourist stands, Mom-and-Pop Mexicana, and pharmacias, etc.
By Thursday I was dying. After five days of dosing Sensibit D (an antihistamine decongestant), my body had betrayed me, turning my free-flow nose into a gripping sinus headache.
But that didn’t stop me from touring the Cancun Brewery with Leah and The Ed Sheeran Trio. Hiding behind the green wall of an unassuming building,
a shiny brewery has taken shape in the middle of Tres Rios jungle. According to Brandon, brewmaster from Michigan,
a Sunset Group partner bartered a warehouse, utilities and unlimited clean water in exchange for craft beer supplied to all Sunset Group hotels.
Additionally, production runs of Pale Ale, Hefeweizen, and Pilsner are crafted in short batches of kegs and cans to satisfy Riviera Maya’s thirst from Cancun to Tulum.
To some extent, I felt sorry for Brandon, as he was peppered with ridiculous comments, questions, and suggestions from my ex-neighbors, yet good-naturedly responded to everything that came his way. Then I stopped myself when I realized that here is a guy who otherwise, would still be living in Michigan, but instead comes to work in shorts and flip flops, and gets to drink cerveza for a living.
Adios, Cancun Beer.
Friday was a good day to lay low and do nothing in preparation of an early departure on Saturday.
Lounging by the pool, I reflected on the past week, thinking about the activities I’d missed out on: snorkeling at Yal-ku in Akumal; diving Santa Rosa reef at Cozumel; and exploring the ruins of Coba or Tulum. While all of that would have made for an exciting itinerary, it wouldn’t have made for a relaxing vacation, and maybe that’s what my body was really craving.
Every day discovering something brand new
The sun felt good on my face, as I moved in and out of consciousness–half awake, half-asleep–my body floating through a cenote abloom with fragrant orchids,
In the distance, a hypnotic song was playing–a lilting melody of love that grew louder and louder with every new verse–until I snapped awake. The Three Little Mermaids were at it again, wading in the pool with a drink, and killing me softly with an execution of Shape of You.
No matter. It was time to rise, and the perfect segue to a late-afternoon hot-stone massage we had scheduled as our reward for enduring Ricardo’s two-hour spiel (At Your Service, Too).
By evening, we were totally relaxed and ready to celebrate our mock 13th anniversary over a langoustine dinner and a special treat from the pastry chef.
It was everything I needed to forget about the miserable cold that plagued me through this vacation.
Many have asked, “Why on earth do you call it a vacation, when you’ve been on a vacation for the past ten months?”
To which I answer, “Who cares what it’s called!”
Come on now, follow my lead I may be crazy, don’t mind me…