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On the Cocktail Trail – Chile’s “Pisco Sour” es Pecado!

February 8, 2012

For those of you wondering what “pecado” means, it means “sinful” in Spanish. As I typed out the title of this blog entry I had to pause for a few moments to pick the perfect word to describe my favorite cocktail from South America. The only word that can really describe my short, passionate, and adulterous (Grey Goose and tonic is my cocktail of choice stateside) love affair with the pisco sour is “sinful.” See Exhibit A.

Exhibit A – “What Happens in Santiago, Stays in Santiago,” Si?
Disclaimer: I cannot claim nor deny any of my (or your) actions while under the influence of this cocktail.
 
Even the origin of this cocktail is sexy. The Spainards brought the pisco grape to Peru in the 17th Century. About this time the locals in Spain needed a different kind of beverage to make from the grape when the King of Spain banned wine in the region so they developed a brandy-like liquor to replace traditional wine – poof, pisco. There are variations of the pisco sour between Peru and Chile as well as an ongoing debate as to who invented it. To make the pisco sour the pisco is mixed with lemon juice, sugar and bitters. Egg whites and an intense shake give it that frothy cap.
 
The above picture was with some very new friends on my first night in Santiago, Chile. Those of you that know me can attest to the fact that I like my cocktails… often and in excess. It would come as no surprise that when I met a Dutch tour guide hours after my arrival I asked her what the beverage of choice is for the Chilean people (it’s 12 o’clock somewhere, right?). She hardly had time to tell me what was in it before I was finishing my first glass. The flowing pisco sours night after night did make for a wicked hangover and a terribly acidic taste in your mouth the next morning, but it guaranteed some memorable evenings.
 
You can find plenty of pisco sour recipes online although I have yet to see pisco sold in liquor stores in my home state of Florida. The only times I’ve enjoyed a pisco sour since my time in Chile was with a friend that brought some pisco back from Chile and at a wonderful South American restaurant I found in the Lower East Side of NYC (Macondo is the name of the place and it’s fantastic). You can definitely order pisco online and get the rest of the ingredients just about anywhere. Nothing beats an authentic pisco sour in its region of origin though. Using a cocktail as an excuse to plan a trip? I’ve done worse.
 

My First Pisco Sour

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Mallory Square, Key West – Inspiration for tourists and artists alike

February 2, 2012

I believe that when most people think of Key West, Florida, they imagine laying on the beach with a frosty margarita listening to Jimmy Buffet and smoking some illegal Cubans. While that isn’t entirely inaccurate, the quirky city of Key West in the Florida Keys has so much more to offer. Key West is full of expats, artists, nomads, activists and just all-around happy, people-loving citizens. This is a little town that offers a big punch. Most people don’t know that Key West seceeded from the United States in 1982 and formed the independent “Conch Republic” in protest of a border control station placed North of the Keys to regulate drug smuggling and illegal immigration. The excessive amount of time it took Police to search vehicles traveling to the Keys kept people from heading South and severely crippled Key West’s tourism industry. They declared war on the United States, deemed the mayor “prime minister,” created their own flag, and asked the U.S. Government for one billion dollars in foreign aid. Needless to say, the roadblock was soon removed and Key West “surrendered.” Locals still call themselves citizens of the “Conch Republic” and celebrate their Independence Day every year in April. Does this place have some spunk and a sense of humor or what?

It goes without saying that Key West has an independent spirit with a rebellious streak – my kind of people. The town has since attracted artists and activists alike seeking the laid back island lifestyle and free love mentality. Twelve years ago a local artist even went as far to create the ONE HUMAN FAMILY (www.onehumanfamily.info) campaign that encouraged the coming together as one human race and absolving ourselves of racism, sexism, ageism and the like. It has since been adopted as the official philosophy of the city of Key West.

Something else that goes without saying is that Key Wests knows how to PARTY! They take “island living” to a whole new level (no wonder Jimmy Buffet and Kenny Chesney call this paradise). When I heard that artists, musicians and street performers gather EVERY night at Mallory Square at sunset I knew this was a party I had to attend. Mallory Square is a plaza that overlooks the Gulf of Mexico and is known to be the best place to watch the sunset from Key West (other than on a boat). It may be one of the biggest tourist destinations in Key West, but for good reason. About two hours before the official setting of the sun, artists of all types line the plaza with anything from tents to a single banjo.

Street Performer in Mallory Square

All in about two hours time I watched a guy juggle (and breathe) fire while standing on a very brave Canadian’s shoulders, gave a dollar bill to a street performing dog (who subsequently placed the dollar into his tip jar), and had a drunken conversation with a Jack Sparrow impersonator – while I wasn’t quite sure if he was truly drunk or if it was part of the act. I’m not recommending Mallory Square for the cheesy acts or touristy trinkets, I think it offers incredible insight into the people of Key West and what the city stands for.

Sunset View from Mallory Square

 As I always like to do when traveling, I began talking to the locals. I spoke with a socially awkward artist who could do some amazing things with silver wire and got a great dinner recommendation – best dinner I had during my trip. I even went back the next night for a good breakfast recommendation and can thank him for the incredible strawberry and cream crepe I had the morning I left. I sat down with a henna artist to get a tattoo and she told me all about her travels to India and how she learned her art from the local women there. Everyone has a “story” and hearing about other’s experiences adds to my experience. Key West is a place that people find refuge in away from the “rat race” and corporate America – where they can focus on the people and their art. While Mallory Square is often deemed as an overhyped tourist destination, it gave me an entirely different perspective on Key West and its locals.

Me and Creepy Jack

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The Nassau “Fish Fry” – A foodie’s excuse to get off the beaten path

February 2, 2012

Being a Floridian I have the advantage of being able to take short weekend cruises out of Miami to the Bahamas. As much as I do enjoy the “all inclusives,” you typically do get what you pay for. Being the foodie that I am, usually the cuisine leaves quite a bit to be desired. That being said, by the time we reached Nassau on the third day of my weekend cruise, I was ready to get the low down from the locals on where to find the good grub. The fact that I’m a native Floridian also makes me a seafood snob and I was dying for something fresh and local.

Every local that I talked to in the touristy district near the ports said the “fish fry” was the place to go. I didn’t know if this was an area of town or a specific restaurant, but it was pretty much the consensus. I always recommend asking at least a few locals for recommendations to make sure that things add up since tourists are always targets for scams or petty theft. Take that advice from a blonde gringa! I’ve found that in general people are helpful and honest, but it’s always better to take a little extra time when traveling to ensure that you are being safe and sensible.

I told the cab driver to take me to the “fish fry.” It was about a ten minute drive away from town center and the ports. The driver pulled up to a strip of about six or seven “shacks” away from the action with very few tourists roaming around. I instantly knew this was a local spot which I was stoked about because the one thing I’ve learned as a traveling foodie – the locals almost always eat better than the tourists (and for less $). The cabbie was very adement about me going in one particular restaurant, but when I took a look in the place it looked like an aftermath scene from 28 Days – the place was a dump and there wasn’t a soul in there. Another thing to keep in mind when traveling is that typically cab drivers will recommend places based only on the fact that they are buddies with the owner, waiter, cook, or they get some kind of kickback for bringing in business. Use the same judgement you use in your home country when making these types of decisions – Is the place crowded? Does it smell like rotting fish? Does it look like it couldn’t pass a food inspection even if the inspector were deaf and blind with no sense of smell?

The Bahamian “Fish Fry”
 
I decided on a place called Twin Brothers Seafood & Steakhouse mostly because the place was PACKED (with locals, which is always a good sign) and it smelled amazing. The Bahamas are well known for their abundance of conch. It’s essentially a sea snail that makes its home in the beautiful conch shells found on the sea floor. Being a Floridian, I can best describe the consistency and flavor as similar to “gator tail.” It’s also similar to calamari. Bad conch is REALLY bad. It will be fishy and chewy. GOOD conch is a chewier but still fairly delicate and only has a slight fish flavor. Bahamians put conch in everything – conch fritters, conch gumbo, conch burgers, deep fried conch (cue the obvious Forrest Gump reference). I knew what I wanted the minute I sat down – conch fritters! Conch fritters are similar to what us Southerners call “hush puppies.” They are essentially deep fried dough balls with spices and bell peppers – with some conch thrown in of course. I ordered a “small” and by the photo below, it was anything but. Those were the best damn conch fritters I’ve ever had and I may just book a weekend cruise down to the Bahamas JUST for round two of the fritters. Moral of the story? Step outside of your comfort zone and dine with the locals. As I mentioned in my previous post, Eat as the Saint Lucians Eat, immersing yourself in the local culture AND cuisine will provide an unforgetable experience for you, your travel companions and your palate.
 

Conch Fritters!!! Nom! Nom! Nom!

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How to Snorkel Like a Rock Star on a Groupie Budget

January 24, 2012

One thing I knew for sure in Saint Lucia was that I wanted to go snorkeling. Some adventurers could find this activity a little touristy or lackluster, but it’s a quick and inexpensive alternative to scuba diving that doesn’t require any training or certifications. Most travelers resort to the large group snorkeling excursions set up by their hotel or renting equipment and going solo off the beach. Both of these choices have their downsides. The large group excursions set up by the hotel are typically overpriced (my hotel was asking 60 USD per person for a two hour snorkeling trip) and you will be accompanied by 30 of your not-so-closest friends. This isn’t a bad concept for something like a boat tour or ziplining, but what do you think happens to the beautiful fish you want to see when you throw 30 people in the water at the same time in the same spot? Yeah. This is again where befriending a local or doing a little networking comes in handy. Once I made friends with “Big Red” (see my previous blog post, Eat as the Saint Lucians Eat, to learn how I fell in love with Big Red), I knew he’d have the hook-up on snorkeling. He said he’d do a private transport to a great snorkeling spot for the same price as being bused over to a public beach with 20 other hotel guests… sounded like a win/win. From my discussions with Big Red and the small amount of research I did online, I knew that the best snorkeling in Saint Lucia was at the foot of the Pitons. The Pitons (comprised of the “Gros Piton” and the “Petit Piton”) are two volcanic plugs on the Southwestern coast of the island. This is also the site of some of the luxury, and most expensive, resorts on the island.

The Pitons

The beach at the foot of the Pitons, Sugar Beach, is owned by The Jalousie Plantation. Jalousie is a very exclusive luxury resort with private villas and nightly rates starting in the thousands (definitely not in my working twenty-something budget). Big Red also says that Oprah has a house in Jalousie Plantation (of course she does). Most of these locals are happy to do just about anything to make an extra buck and boy did Big Red deliver. He knew the guy at the gate at Jalousie, knew another guy with a smaller van that could take me down to the water, and knew the guy renting out snorkel equipment to the hotel guests. This last guy did initially refuse to rent out snorkel equipment to a non-guest, but Big Red walked him behind the hut for a few minutes and he came back very willing to give me the equipment. Perhaps Big Red offered him some of Saint Lucia’s finest ganga that he kept telling me about.

Sugar Beach at the Foot of the Pitons

Needless to say, it was the best snorkeling experience I’ve had thus far. The lagoon was free of loud tourists and kids that smell like Coppertone. I saw vibrant fish and coral as well as some sealife that I hadn’t seen in other snorkeling excursions (like an octopus). Big Red even sat on the beach and took pictures with my camera. It was an amazing snorkeling experience that will be tough to top.

Obviously, getting into these types of situations are sometimes a toss of the coin when traveling. Some of you may be much happier going with a the easy, safe option of signing on with a reputable tour company. I do agree that trying to find a local that can hook you up can be a gamble, but like the Black Jack tables in Vegas, they can generate great return. To get yourself into a situation like mine with Big Red you just have to keep your eyes and ears open the minute you arrive at your destination. Make coversation with everyone. Big Red was merely a cab driver but he was knowledgeable and passionate about his country. He also had a lot of friends. If you aren’t a social butterly or don’t like to make dealings with the locals, you can still negotiate. Call up the tour company you had planned to go with and see if they do private tours. A lot of times the company will want your business regardless and will offer alternatives or refer you to someone like Big Red. Don’t be afraid to negotiate prices either. The United States isn’t a huge negotiating country but most other countries are and you should take advantage of it. Also, never be afraid to walk away. This is YOUR experience. If you ever feel uncomfortable or like you’re getting ripped off, take a hike. The key is to immerse yourself in the culture and not only experience the landscape, but the people as well.

A Beautiful Day at Sugar Beach

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Eat as the Saint Lucians Eat – Your stomach and wallet will thank me!

January 23, 2012

I would consider myself a bit of a “foodie” or more realistically, a food snob, so in the past I’ve hesitated to “do as the locals do.” In my recent travels to the beautiful country of Saint Lucia, I wanted to experience something out of the ordinary. The minute you touch down (or pull into the port) in Saint Lucia it becomes very obvious that this is a country of the “haves and have nots” and the haves are mostly the pasty Americans and Europeans at the resorts. The resorts are very Americanized and while the scenery is beautiful, you won’t get much of an experience past that of a Carnival cruise at one of these all inclusive resorts that are scattered all over the island. One important lesson that I’ve learned throughout my travels is that you need to find a LOCAL that you TRUST if you want to venture outside the gates of the resort. Most locals in countries like this are often happy to make an extra buck and I’ve generally found them to be very proud of where they live (and happy to show it off to ignorant tourists). Find someone fun and trustworthy, keep ’em around for the week… month… whatever, and hook them up (show me the Eastern Caribbean Dollars, mon!!!).

For me, this person was “Big Red.” I’m assuming the “big” referred to his size and the “red” perhaps the shade of what should have been the white of his eyes. I’m guessing it was the result of the “best ganga on the island” that he offered me. This guy was in charge of transporting the tourists from the resort to the site for ziplining. For a small fee he was willing to take me to his favorite restaurant (ya know, the type of place I would take me lady for a nice dinnah) and even drove me to the top of one of the mountains to the island’s only lighthouse to watch the sunset on the way there. I was staying on the Southern tip of the island in the Vieux Fort area. He took me to his hometown of Laborie, a place I’m sure is rarely seen by the tourists. He pointed out his house (essentially four cement walls and a tin roof) and his local bar (a couple of tables on the side of the road with several local men playing dominoes). This was real Saint Lucia.

"Big Red" Giving Me a History Lesson

Big Red pulled up to a place called “Debbie’s Home Made Food and Brown Sugar Cafe.” It was completely open air with only a tin roof and some ceiling fans. After taking a glance at the menu and doing some quick currency conversions in my head I decided on the lobster and shrimp combo. Is it possible to get a lobster and some beers (“Piton” lager, their local offering, was actually pretty damn good) for 40 USD in the States? I don’t think so. Apparently the lobster also comes with an entire spread of local vegetables and starches to include their infamous “breadfruit balls” which is a fruit that is mashed up, fried, and seasoned to taste like a potato. Let’s just say I ate my fair share during my stay in Saint Lucia.

This is as Local as it Gets

The "Side Items" That Come with Every Meal

Then the lobster comes out and I’m instantly convinced that our waitress walked to the waterfront and snatched it out herself during her cigarette break. This was the freshest, most delicious lobster I have EVER had and look at the size of that thing! It was downright the highlight of my trip. I’ve had lobster tail from fine restaurants and freshly caught from the Florida Keys, but nothing compared. I was in foodie heaven. If you visit Saint Lucia you absolutely must go to this place and order the lobster. Your stomach… AND your wallet… will thank me for years to come!

I. Eat. You.