26 September 2009

Homeward Bound (Almost!)

Sunset light on San Juan Cathedral

Travel Day 3

Though we actually enjoy periodic rain when on vacation, we perversely feel better when it rains on the day of our departure, and I’m pleased to say that Anguilla’s weather obliged us with an actual storm midmorning. We packed up, ate a late breakfast, spent a last few precious moments enjoying the views on Meads Bay, and checked out of Carimar around 11:45. We drove from there to Avis, and an employee there then drove us to the airport. After checking in we opted for lunch at the canteen in the airport, sharing a chef salad and a couple of Tings. A cricket match between West Indies and Sri Lanka was playing on television, much to my delight. I’ve never seen cricket being played, but Bill Bryson’s descriptions of it have always amused me, and after reading Netherland on vacation I had grown interested in knowing more about it.

Our Favorite Hotel in Puerto Rico

Our flight to SJU was uneventful, as was making it through immigration & customs. However, we were low on cash for the taxi to the hotel and finding a working ATM proved to be much more difficult than it ought! About 45 minutes later we finally settled into a cab to El Convento, one of our favorite oases in the Caribbean. Whenever it’s feasible we try to spend our last night on vacation there. The hotel is lovely in its own right, as is Old San Juan in general, but spending a night there has the added benefit of easing us back into the faster pace of our lives back home.

Interior shot of El Convento

Upon check-in we were informed that they had upgraded us to a presidential suite. I almost wasn’t sure if I had heard him right, so I asked him to repeat himself. With a grin he handed us the room key and confirmed that we were, indeed, upgraded to that level. The regular guest elevator was out of order, forcing us to use the service elevator instead, but honestly, we couldn’t care less since we were on our way up the Vanderbilt Suite. God, I love staying in a room with a name. Don’t you?

Our presidential suite!

The room was spacious and lovely, with the bathroom alone being larger than most standard hotel rooms. We had a foyer, a huge bathroom, king size bed, a walk-in closet, and two balconies with views of San Juan Bay and the San Juan Cathedral. Rejoicing in our great good fortune, we paused to freshen up and check in with our families at home before heading out for the rooftop wine & cheese reception. This is one of the many reasons we love El Convento – it’s included in the room rates and it’s a very nice touch. They put out several different wines (I counted nine that night), cheeses, crackers & fruits, plus coffee & tea. They also have an honor bar if your tastes are more toward the liquor. So we fixed a couple of plates, grabbed a beverage, and scoped out a table on the patio to watch the sun go down.

Usually we go to Aquaviva for dinner in Old San Juan but we were pretty tired and not very hungry after the wine & cheese, and feeling gratefully inclined toward the hotel for our upgrade, we opted to eat at El Picateo, the hotel’s tapas restaurant. Sharing small plates of Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, and some sautéed cuttlefish was just the ticket. A mojito, a glass of sangria, and a tres leches cake brought our total to around US $60. The food was good, our server was outrageously cute, and we were happy to be back in place where we could drink the good ol’ tap water.

Day in Old San Juan/Homeward Bound

Enjoying an al fresco meal in the courtyard

Since our flight back home to Hartford wasn’t until early evening, we requested and were granted a late check out. We had an early breakfast at Café Nispero, the courtyard restaurant at El Convento and it was very good. I opted for the yogurt, granola & fruit crepes while DH had the Eggs Benedict. Two cappuccinos and a freshly squeezed orange juice brought our total to US $30. After breakfast we walked to the San Cristobal fort to explore. We had both been there before, but we wanted to see it again since all of the pictures that I had taken there two years earlier were lost when I lost my camera. It’s easy to forget how hot it is down in the Caribbean when you’re on the beach because the constant breezes keep things comfortable, but that’s not the case in Old San Juan. All of that concrete radiates heat upwards while the sun beats down from above, and we were both sweaty messes by the time we got there. At least I was wearing a long-sleeved loose shirt over a light tank top, which kept the worst of the sun off my skin!

I love this archway in the fort!

In front of the fort entrance

The obligatory turret shot

The fort was as interesting as we remembered and we used up most of our collective battery power shooting hundreds of photos throughout. If you have the time to visit either of the forts (or both!), I highly recommend them. (Fun fact: though I cannot be sure, I would be willing to bet small amounts of money that we saw Andrew Zimmern doing part of a tv shoot while we were at the fort. We were up top on the highest level of the fort looking down, and they were in the courtyard, but there were several people with film cameras and a couple of booms surrounding a man who looked very much like Zimmern. Alas, by the time we wandered back down to the courtyard, the crew had vanished, so who can say?)

The bayside walk back to the hotel

The streets of Old San Juan

We made our way back to El Convento along the bay, which is a very pretty walk, offering respite here & there in the forms of shade trees, benches, and a large fountain that was spraying squealing children. We stopped to cuddle a couple of kitties in the square outside the hotel and then headed up to the room to shower. Then it was back downstairs for lunch at Nispero. It is so refreshing to sit there in the cool of the courtyard. We had our books with us, so we lingered over our hamburger, Cuban sandwich and two sangrias. Everything was very tasty and the total came to around US $40, including tip.

Funky sculpture on the bayside walk

Original doors in the wall surrounding the old city

Another street shot

Almost every square in the old city has a fountain.

25 September 2009

Holy hammerhead, Batman!

Hammerhead just offshore at Carimar

We got up with heavy hearts, knowing it was our last full day on the island. The night before we had talked about setting up for the day at Rendezvous Bay since we hadn’t really seen it yet, but when it came down to it, neither of us felt much like stirring away from Carimar. So DH commenced to frying up some bacon & eggs for breakfast while I hied myself back to Christine’s to buy another baguette since the remnants of the one we bought earlier in the week had already molded. Lucky choice we made, as we would have missed the great hullabaloo on Meads Bay otherwise. While placidly dipping my spoon into a passionfruit to scoop out the last of its seeds, the downstairs neighbor shouted up to me, “Look—dolphin!” What we both thought was a dolphin at first turned out to be a hammerhead shark so close to shore that I was afraid it would beach itself permanently. A crowd gathered around while it was thrashing to get unmoored from the sand—two staff members had to hold back a couple of guests who got stupidly close to it. I watched it all from the balcony, so I was a little distance from it, but my best guess is that it was about 6 feet long, perhaps just a tad longer (somebody who saw it up close later estimated at more like 8 feet, so who knows?). Once it freed itself and got back into the water, it circled around a few times about 20 feet off shore before heading out to sea again. From my guess it had been chasing another fish and was so intent on catching it that it didn’t pay attention to the depth of the water and came aground. The other fish, a very narrow one, maybe 2.5-3 feet long, swam hurriedly away toward Frangipani, parallel to shore, only a couple of feet from the beach. After we lost sight of the big one, though, I saw a much smaller shark circling offshore—I couldn’t see what kind it was, but my neighbor who had gone down to the beach said that it was also a hammerhead.

What a commotion that shark caused! People were pouring onto the beach from the gardens and the office and possibly from the street outside, just to get a glimpse of it. It’s the first time I’ve seen a shark without an aquarium wall between us and it was just beautiful, glistening like pewter in the sunlight when it was stuck halfway in the sand. Still, I’m thankful that I wasn’t actually in the water with it! Someone from Malliouhana declared that in his 20 years of working there he had never seen a fish that big in that cove.
The pleasant bar at AGH

Later that afternoon we drove over to Anguilla Great House so that we could have a drink and see more of Rendezvous Bay. The place was empty of guests but they were getting busy for a wedding to be held there the next day. We each had a couple of drinks (I don’t recommend the rum punch) and read our books and enjoyed the strong breeze coming off the water. I think the beach at AGH is a much nicer section than what we saw outside Dune Preserve the day they were closed, and in fact was nicer than the beach at Shoal Bay West. Despite the lukewarm reviews for food at AGH, we would definitely consider planting ourselves there for a day in the future.
Windy day at Rendezvous Bay

For dinner we debated between trying someplace new and returning to Veya, and Veya won out. It was a very pleasant evening, despite our melancholy for having to leave the next morning. DH ordered the conch carpaccio and I ordered the fish soup for starters after making sure that it didn’t have cilantro in it. The amuse-bouche was a conch fritter with a mango sauce, but when my husband asked about the Thai lemongrass soup that had been served earlier that week, they brought us out some of that, too, and were kind enough not to add the cilantro garnish to mine. It was excellent, spicy but well-balanced. Unfortunately, when my fish soup arrived, it did have cilantro in it. Or at least, I can attest that I tasted it in there. To make sure I even isolated a small green piece to taste on its own and sure enough, the unpleasantly familiar soapy-ammonia taste was very strong. However, the chef had personally assured me that there was no cilantro in it at all, that most of the green matter was, in fact, scallions, so who can say? I definitely know the difference between scallions and cilantro, as I love one and loathe the other. Could it have been my imagination? Possibly. Could the chef have been mistaken? Possibly. But it was an awkward situation when I sent the soup back and ordered a simple green salad instead. In fact, my embarrassment hung over me for the rest of the meal. God, if only I were part of the normal population who can embrace cilantro!

Fish soup. With cilantro? Who knows?

Anyway, as it turned out, halfway through the first course the owner came out to inform me that my second small plate, the Moroccan shrimp cigars, couldn’t be made without cilantro, so I ordered the steak lettuce wraps with avocado and pickled onion. It was just as good as it had been on our first night. DH took a chance on the vanilla cured duck and it was simply amazing. The vanilla was certainly a dominant flavor and the rest of the seasonings balanced it out to perfection so that it didn’t come across as sweet at all. We ordered two desserts this time: a chili chocolate cake with caramelized bananas and banana ice cream (yum!) and mango served three ways as a sorbet, a mousse, and then sliced in a minted ginger syrup (double yum!). Two cocktails and one bottled water brought the total to about US $150. Despite my discomfort re: the great cilantro debate in the fish soup, I felt that Veya was again the best meal I’d had on Anguilla, and by the time dessert was finished, even DH agreed that it was tops in his mind, too.

Self-portrait at Rendezvous Bay
Pretty pool area at AGH

23 September 2009

More Anguilla trip report

It's only another two weeks or so before we head to Anguilla again, so clearly I have to finish up my old trip report before posting 'bout our new adventures.

 Got up and drove to Tasty’s this morning for breakfast and found it cute despite the heavy noise from the road. We both ordered the Grand Marnier French toast, plus some coffee, orange juice, and water. I wish it had been better but it did satisfy our basic breakfast needs. We lingered with our books during a brief rain shower before heading back to Carimar to pack a beach bag.

Cove Castles resort, Shoal Bay West, Trattoria Tramonto

Trattoria Tramonto on Shoal Bay West was our destination for the day, since they offer complimentary beach chairs with the purchase of lunch. The beach there was much wilder looking than anyplace else we’d visited on the island and the water looked a little rough in spots. I walked the beach up & down and was amazed at how deserted it looked. I didn’t see a soul at Cove Castles, which, despite their many architectural accolades, have always looked a little strange to me. In the other direction, there was only one couple at Blue Waters.

Dining at Trattoria Tramonto

We went up for lunch around 1:00 and were both taken with how cool the blue & white of the restaurant made us feel. I ordered a grilled chicken salad while DH opted for one of the specials, wild boar prosciutto over spinach, drizzled with truffle oil and topped with grated pecorino cheese. Mine was very good, but his was wonderful! We each had a cocktail and then shared a dessert. All of this, plus a bottled water and one iced tea brought the total to a whopping US $80. Yikes! But it was sooooo good, and it felt so damned pleasant to linger there, looking out over the water to St. Maarten, that we just shrugged it off. One of the many reasons we chose to stay at Carimar was for the good value it offered, thus enabling us to splurge on our meals out.

Finished P. G. Wodehouse’s Carry On, Jeeves. I’ve not read him since I was in high school, so it was a real treat to revisit him. This time, though, I kept seeing Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in my head, which made the reading even better. Started and finished Christopher Nicholson’s The Elephant Keeper.

Dinner was at Straw Hat, and though we could have walked there, we opted to drive since we chose that night as our gussied-up night and I didn’t want to walk that distance in heels. What a marvelous experience! The staff here was more congenial than anyplace else we dined, full of warmth, good humour, anecdotes, and in general more interaction with the guests, which contributed to our declaring this experience overall our favorite dinner. From the ‘ti punch onward everything was just terrific. I ordered the crayfish, DH had the curried goat (boneless), and we shared the bananas Foster bread pudding. I am so disappointed that Straw Hat won't be open when we're there again next month!

22 September 2009

More mini book recs

Here are four book recommendations that are new (or new-ish) in paperback. Good reads at a good value!

HOME by Marilynne Robinson. Set in the same small Iowa town and peopled with minor characters from her Pulitzer prize-winning Gilead, Home is another powerhouse of a novel. Quiet but intense, she gives us a generous portrait of one family and the ways they deal with loyalty, desertion, and betrayal, set within the particular framework of the patriarch’s faith. Robinson takes a harder look at religion and simultaneously treats it with more generosity and respect than any fiction writer I know. A very fine piece of work. I was very pleased when Robinson was awarded the Orange Prize for this novel.

TWENTY CHICKENS FOR A SADDLE by Robyn Scott. This wonderful memoir tells the story of a girl and her family who move from New Zealand to Botswana so her parents can renew their childhood ties with Africa. Robyn and her siblings are homeschooled by their iconoclastic mother, much to their society grandmother's dismay, with occasional visits with their father to his medical clinics in the bush to round out their education. She chronicles her family's (mis)adventures with warmth and humor, and it's clear to see that the daily frustrations of living in such a remote area (in rather close quarters) are more than balanced by the fierce love the family has for each other and for their adopted country. A fantastic read for armchair (or real) travelers!

GOURMET RHAPSODY by Muriel Barbery. This new novel from the author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a foodie's delight. The gruff, pretentious food critic from the previous novel is on his deathbed in this latest offer, and chapters alternate between his own memories of food that changed his life and his family's not-so-charitable memories of him. From reading of his first taste of oysters to his reminiscences of a summer spent on a remote Greek isle, I don't think I've ever drooled over a book so much. Be sure to have something yummy on hand while reading to satisfy the intense food cravings that Barbery's writing evokes!

I couldn't resist sharing part of the oyster passage: "I bless the day my tongue discovered the intoxicating, almost erotic, velvet-smooth caress of an oyster slipping in after a chunk of bread smeared with salted butter...Between these two extremes--the rich warmth of a daube and the clean crystal of shellfish...the divine mouthful has become a religious act for all."

THE CONDITION by Jennifer Haigh. Haigh's newest effort showcases her special talent of peering deep into familes, dysfunctional or otherwise, to explore their inner workings and complicated bonds. Her clear-eyed perception gives the reader a double portrait of the McKotch family, both in their early days and after the children have become adults themselves, unmasking family secrets along the way. Nobody is better than Haigh at depicting the ties that bind or the myriad ways they can unravel, and she shows with heartbreaking accuracy just how childhood misunderstandings and grudges can harden over time to breed resentments that might be beyond forgiveness.

01 September 2009

Anguilla Day 3

Our cabana at Elodia's

Woke up early to get to Geraud’s Bakery by 6:30 am to get best selection of pastries. Brought them back to eat on the balcony where we saw a large storm go by and then a vivid rainbow. Packed up and headed to Shoal Bay East around 9:00. Chose Elodia’s to hunker down for a few hours, but nobody was there. A passerby said someone would be there around 10:00, but by 11:00 with still nobody there, we started to fret about our chair & umbrella usage. Eventually somebody came and we started a tab with her. Around 1:00 we broke away from our reading to have lunch. $10 hamburger and $8 hot dog, plus a couple of Presidentes. Good food, nice & casual, barefoot atmosphere. After lunch we walked up toward Madeiriman’s and were glad we weren’t staying at Ku because it looked so busy with chairs & umbrellas. I think we would consider Shoal Bay Villas in the future, though, if we didn’t want to return to our home on Meads Bay. Then we retraced our steps and walked toward Upper Shoal Bay and enjoyed the wilder waves and the wind. Very castaway feeling around that point.
Relaxing with a book at Elodia's for lunch

The unbelievably gorgeous Shoal Bay East

After that we headed to Bankie Banx's place, Dune Preserve,on Rendezvous Bay and got there around 3:00, but though there were lights on, we didn’t see a soul. According to the Carimar book they should have been open until 4:00, but perhaps they’ve added Tuesdays to the “closed” roster. Oh, well. Remembering that a few people on various travel forums had declared the rum punches at Ferryboat Inn to be the best on the island, we backtracked back to Blowing Point instead. We sat there for a while, drinks in hand, admiring the view across to St. Maarten. The rum punch was very, very good. In fact, I'd say that it was the best I'd had on Anguilla and perhaps second only to the superlative rum punch served by the Long Bay Hotel on Antigua, where we were married.

For dinner we selected Blanchards. Like most other Caribbean-philes, I’ve read A Trip to the Beach, which I really enjoyed upon first reading but with distance from it, I feel much ambivalence. Honestly, I think the tone in that book is just short of being patronizing to Anguillians. But I also knew I probably wouldn’t consider my first trip to Anguilla complete without eating at the place that brought the island so much notoriety (plus they were offering the US $45 prix fixe, too!). The atmosphere was truly lovely (once you get past the distractingly bad art from their son hanging on the walls) and our table was pleasantly situated on the level closest to the beach. Service was gracious and attentive. For ambience, I’d have to rate it second after Veya, in fact. The food, however, I’d have to rate behind every other place we had dinner on the island. It wasn’t bad, by any means. It’s just that every place else was so much better in comparison, and when you take into account the price, I’d have to rate Blanchards overall at the bottom rung of our dinner experiences on both Grenada and Anguilla (except, perhaps, Roy’s). DH went with the prix fixe: spring rolls, Calypso chicken, and Key lime pie in a glass. All were good. I opted for two small plates – a salad and the samosas, which were both good – and the cracked coconut, which is their signature dessert. Again, good, but not special.

So what was noteworthy about the meal? The staff was very warm and accommodating, the garden atmosphere was cool & pleasant, and the rum list is, apparently, the most extensive in the world. We were much surprised to learn that there is a rum from Tennessee, my husband’s home state, on the menu. However, we were shocked and displeased to note that the same rum, El Dorado, aged 12 years from Guyana, that we ordered for US $10 at Veya was US $22 at Blanchards! I’ve read more than once that people think that the food is not as good when the Blanchards are not on island, and I can’t speak to that, but I do suspect that the restaurant is resting on its laurels a bit, and that compared to other places we’ve dined on Anguilla, the prices felt, well, extortionate. US $200 for one prix fixe meal, two appetizers, one dessert, bottled water, and three cocktails. However, and I can’t stress how much I loved this, Blanchards was the only restaurant that bans smoking. I never thought of myself as a cigarette Nazi before, but I may have to re-evaluate. If there’s one thing that can ruin a meal faster than anything for me, it’s having cigarette smoke waft in my direction while I’m trying to eat. Big, big kudos to Blanchards for taking the plunge and making the smoke free commitment.

Finished reading Netherland. Interesting for the most part.

Also, right before we left for dinner, security dropped off a package for us that had been left for us by a friend whose advice on various travel forums has always been indispensable. Though we’ve not yet met, HowardC has been extremely generous in his time answering my endless questions about Anguilla. He and his wife left for us a bottle of wine to enjoy as well as an out of print book that he thought I might like. Howard, thanks! You’re the best!

Another beautiful sunset