September 2010


We said goodbye to Puerto Rico by exploring Old San Juan on our last morning. After a redeeming breakfast at Caficultura, we strolled the town and consulted Fodor’s, which told us that if you only have 1 day in Old San Juan, head to Castillo San Felipe del Morro.

Built between 1540 and 1783, this six-level fortress was designed to protect the harbor and San Juan. We wandered all of the open levels and even got caught in a quick downpour which was a nice relief from the incredible heat. Here are a few of my favorite shots from the day!

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Thanks for letting me relive this great, spontaneous vacation! I’ll be back soon with my latest challenge — making two new recipes a week. I’ve already discovered some good ones!

On our last full day in Puerto Rico, the boy asked what I’d like to do most, to which I responded, spend some time at the beach. I know, I know, I can do that anywhere, BUT in my defense, typically the sand isn’t white, the ocean isn’t bathwater warm, and there isn’t someone bringing me tropical drinks.

I should have been more specific, because the boy decided we need to find the best beach, and rather than simply walking outside our hotel, we hopped in the car and drove back to Fajardo. We tried to catch the ferry to Culebra, a small island off the coast that’s only 7 miles long. We failed and I started to panic but the boy found Ceiba’s Aeropuerto Jose Aponte de la Torre (try saying that 5 times fast!) nearby and we took a speedy 15 minute flight to the island.

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Here’s proof of my first small propeller plane experience! Luckily my terrible motion sickness stayed at bay and we took a few photos. We entertained the two locals flying with us who take this route daily, I’m sure!

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After we landed, we headed to the island’s only real town, Dewey, for food and snorkel gear. We grabbed lunch on-the-go at Pandeli, considered the spot for sandwiches, but unfortunately this was one of those times where I ate just because I didn’t know when I would eat again. Turkey, cheese, mayo and hot, ick. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by California’s version of a “classic” turkey sandwich, with avocado and sprouts.

We had much better luck renting snorkels, where the enthusiastic woman who likely owned the place described where to find the best reefs. After parking at the beach, we walked through a gap in the chain link fence at the back of the lot and hiked about 20 minutes along an unmarked path. Despite the lack of signs (and people), we finally stumbled upon the hidden beach.

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It was beautiful and literally deserted.

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We found a pale blue spot in the ocean (light = sand = good entry; dark = reef = bad entry) and geared up.

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I wish we had had an underwater camera, because we saw so many different fish! I especially loved the ones with funky stripes and polka dots. The boy saw one camouflage itself right before his eyes. Maybe you can tell from my huge grin how awesome it was?

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On the wet and sandy hike back to the main beach, we were a little more curious and made a few stops to check out the scenery. I couldn’t resist picking up this hermit crab; I had so many as a kid!

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Then we walked over to Playa Flamenco, which is considered one of the top ten best beaches in the world. Our guidebook said we might have to expect crowds, but thanks to the rainy season and the fact that it was a Monday, the beach was almost empty.

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We managed to figure out the ferry system and bought tickets to take the cargo boat back to the mainland. From dock to dock, the trip took 2 1/2 hours, while the plane ride was only 15 minutes. But, the tickets were only a few bucks each and we had a great view.

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We had time to kill before setting off and wandered into a bar near the docks. The boy had a drink and I scored some Dramamine — resulting in a sleepy yet pleasant boat ride.

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We docked and the boy literally sprinted to grab a cab. Transportation is spotty anywhere outside San Juan, and we didn’t want to be stranded. Luckily a nice woman who spoke English grabbed a guy to take us back to the airport a few miles away, where the car was parked. His cab was housed for the night (at 8:30 PM, yes), but he took us in his personal Crown Vic. We were grateful for his Spanish when we got to the airport and found the gates closed (at 9 PM, yes). My heart was racing, but a few hopped curbs and sharing of licenses later, we made it out. Only in Puerto Rico!

Oh, and for dinner, we headed back to Lolita’s. Nothing like mole chicken enchiladas to curb a growling belly.

It was just as good the second time around!

Okay, I’ve got a few more days in Puerto Rico to share , and they couldn’t have been more different! For some reason, many of the spots we wanted to visit were closed Mondays and Tuesdays, so we decided to squeeze in a trip to Hacienda Buena Vista, a coffee plantation. Unfortunately, both the GPS and iPhone neglected to tell us that the road we ended up taking was actually a very narrow, unpaved path for 4×4 vehicles only. We were in the middle of nowhere…lost.

We saw a few abandoned, rusting cars along the way and hoped we wouldn’t suffer the same fate.

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Other sightings included banana trees (which I desperately wanted to eat after hours of driving)…

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…and many interesting signs of civilization, like this parking garage housing brightly painted buses located in the middle of vast fields.

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Headed down steep, winding curves, I literally had to jump out of the car at points and run ahead to make sure we could clear through the mud. Luckily we were stopped by a few really nice locals who helped direct us to the main road. Also small and steep, but paved!

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Sadly our mini adventure meant we missed learning how coffee is made, so we ended up backtracking a bit and stopping to check out Rio Camuy Cave Park. The third-largest cave system in the world, Camuy is the site of huge caverns carved by water over one million years ago. Tours are first come, first served, and since it looked like it was about to rain, we scrambled to join a departing group. Luckily there was room for two more! We took a tram to get closer to one of the entrances.

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Only a small part is open to the public, so I wasn’t sure how much we would get to see.  We hiked down from the tram and were immediately in awe of the 170-foot ceiling and the hundreds of stalagmites and stalactites that sat before us. The caves are full of bats but since they are sleeping during the day, we didn’t see any…which I wasn’t too disappointed about. The caves were pretty dark, so it was hard to get clear photos, but thanks to sunlight streaming through the tunnels and some artificial help, we got a few great shots!

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I especially loved the places where it almost felt like we were underwater.

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Everything deep inside the cave was very softly lit, producing a faint red glow. Cool, huh?

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After the tour, the rain started, so the boy tried to score some vending machine goodies for lunch (key word, try. The bag of popcorn he bought snagged and split as he was pulling it from the slot!). I entertained myself by taking pictures of the cat. Side note, cats and dogs are roaming the streets EVERYWHERE. On our last day, we were seriously talking about shooting a whole montage of “the cats of Puerto Rico.” But, I decided to spare you from my crazy cat lady antics.

When the rain let up enough, we got back on the road and drove to Ponce, only getting a little sidetracked for scenic tourist shots.

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Ponce is the country’s second largest city, and known for many different things, but I was most excited to see the red and black, century-old wooden firehouse. Both this building and the lovely pale blue cathedral are located in Plaza Las Delicias, the town’s main square.

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See the boy scoping out the guidebook above? He was investigating dinner options, as it was now late and I’d only eaten oatmeal, a Fiber One bar, and some potato chips to this point. Food was definitely #1 on the agenda. We ended up eating at Archipielago, which claimed to have the best view in the country. Almost sweeter than the windows overlooking the city was the fact that the restaurant was empty and we had the whole floor to ourselves.

Us + our glasses of wine of course.

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We started with the fried cheese balls & tomato jam. Fried + cheese isn’t normally what interests me on a menu, but I tried one and was pleasantly surprised. The not-too-fruity jam was such an unusual but delicious pairing that I had to have another!

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For dinner I ordered the mahi mahi fillet breaded in corn meal, served with dill hollandaise sauce and sweet plantain gnocchi and sauteed spinach.

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My favorite part was the chewy, squishy gnocchi. They were really fat and while I couldn’t specifically pick out the plaintains, they tasted much different than the usual potato-style.

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The boy won the best dinner prize though with his meat and root vegetable stew served with white rice and fried plantains. Surprisingly, my favorite part was the broth! It was rich and thick and reminded me of winter meals as a kid.

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We skipped dessert at the restaurant to check out King’s Cream, a local favorite. Even though the employees only spoke Spanish, they were very helpful and I was able to order two cones, one tamarind and one coconut.

The ice cream tasted like a cross between Italian Ice and sherbert, and it melted fast. I adopted an ice cream stance to avoid dropping it all over myself.

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Both flavors were good, but we liked coconut the best. It was so cold and creamy and didn’t taste artificial or syrupy. I could have eaten another cone right then and there.

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We lucked out with live music in the town square. Apparently a band plays on Sunday nights and there were a lot of people just sitting and enjoying themselves.

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We may have been the only two people dancing, but it was just one of those moments. Aww.

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Only two more Puerto Rico posts to go. I know, I got back two weeks ago but I am still reliving the vacation through the blog. I’ll get back to real time soon enough :)

Speaking of real time, summer has finally hit LA. This weekend, I read on the beach, went surfing, and tried paddle boarding for the first time. It was fabulous!

On our second day in Puerto Rico, the boy and I headed out to El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the US National Forest System. Of course, it started pouring when we got there, but the temperature was balmy and the rain wasn’t icy, so we walked anyway and got soaked to the bone within minutes. It was kind of cool to hike in the rain though – definitely not something I’d normally do.

We ended up hiking for a few hours, taking a few different trails that lead to an old lookout tower and finally the El Yunque summit. Luckily the rain cleared as we were nearing the top, so we got some great photos. Here are a few of my favorites!

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Sadly we didn’t see any animals, but we heard a ton of birds. That counts, right? After hiking, we were both HUNGRY and had time to kill before our next adventure. Thank goodness for my guidebook! I grabbed a copy of Fodor’s the night before leaving LA and it really came in handy.

You have to imagine being in the middle of nowhere, not speaking the language (Spanish) and passing three-walled, tin-roofed roadside spots to grab food, one after another. I’m sure some of them were great, and likely some of them were awful. But how do you know? Which do you pick?

This guidebook led us to a little place in Luquillo called Lolita’s. Situated on the second floor amongst apartment buildings, we never would have chosen this place ourselves but the food was great. Fodor’s told us to try the mole con pollo, and I got it served enchilada style. I wouldn’t have typically ordered this meal (I’m a boring fajitas girl), but I’m so glad I did.      

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Check out that spicy sauce, laced with chocolate! The sauces here elevated a standard Mexican dish into something delicious. Even the spicy salsa was so good that we used it to douse both our chips and rice.

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The boy had some sort of chicken chimichanga, another first for me. Yes, of course I tasted it (and avoided the sour cream). Definitely a winner!

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Not only did we lick our plates clean, we also had two big margaritas, on the rocks with salt. Actually, mine was a small but two glasses this size was more than enough for me.

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After a very long and leisurely dinner, we drove out to Lagunas Grande in Fajardo to visit the bioluminescent bay! It’s estimated that there are only about a dozen bio bays in the world, and 3 are in Puerto Rico. The water contains microscopic algae called dinoflagellates which soak up sun throughout the day and then emit tiny flashes of light energy when agitated.

Basically, we got together with a group at dark, headed out in kayaks through mangroves, where we were surrounded on both sides and above with thick tree branches. Once you start approaching the bio bay, every stroke of the paddle, every splash of water, every tiny movement stirs the algae and creates tiny bursts of teal-blue light. It was by far the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

Even though I couldn’t take pictures, I am posting this one I found online so you can see what the light looks like. Honestly, this doesn’t even do it justice. I felt like I was in some kind of Avatar movie!

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Have you ever seen a natural wonder that’s literally taken your breath away? I’m determined to visit another bio bay someday!

On my first and last day in Puerto Rico, we hit up Caficultura in Old San Juan for food. Since it was our one and only recommendation, we figured it had to be good, right?

Day 1, the boy was the clear winner with his brioche french toast covered with a pineapple sauce, shredded coconut and powdered sugar. Check out that maple syrup drizzle!

Luckily for me, he is a good sharer and gave me a nice big piece to taste.

For some reason, I was craving savory over sweet, so I went with a sandwich filled with brie, mushrooms and grilled chicken. Both sides of the bread were coated in olive oil which ended up being way too heavy for my belly, but my Diet Coke and long afternoon nap kicked my shaky feeling to the curb.

The sandwich came with fried plantains on the side, which I was expecting to LOVE but didn’t. I think I was just on oil overload!

We had a great time relaxing and people watching at our little corner table. The restaurant was decently busy for it being the middle of the day during the week, and it was nice to just sit and soak up the “real” Puerto Rico.

Unfortunately, we weren’t overly impressed, although the boy’s french toast really was worth returning for. So we came back on our last day to give it a second chance. This time it was pancakes for the boy, covered in the most amazing carmelized bananas. Maybe the best cooked bananas I’ve ever tasted!

I attempted to order the brioche french toast but sadly they were OUT! Instead I gravitated to my breakfast stand-by: fruit, granola and yogurt. I’m so glad I did, because this bowl was anything but boring. The yogurt was thick, the honey drizzle (which I’ve never tried before, can you believe that?) added a wonderful light sweetness, and the tropical fruit was very fresh. I remember the mango was great, the papaya exceptional. I guessed the fruit in the top left corner to be lychee, but I could be wrong. Anyone recognize it?

Whatever it was, I had a lot of fun eating it!

The granola was spot-on, especially with the addition of chewy raisins. This dish definitely could have been a hit or a miss, but I was happy I ended up ordering it, by default! Also, it didn’t hurt that this was my first real bit of fruit in 5 days. Can you say craving?!

We also enjoyed some great iced coffees. One was coconut, the other caramel. We accidentally ended up with switched cups, but they were both so sweet and decadent, I was happy to sip on either one.

With the exception of these two breakfasts at Caficultura, we ended up eating on our balcony every other morning! Since our room had a microwave, we popped into Rite Aid for instant oatmeal packets on the first night. It ended up being a great way to save a little money, not waste precious vacation time, and fill up on something healthy and satisfying.

Of course, having this beautiful view didn’t hurt :)

Intro to PR…sounds like one of my COMM classes in college :)

Well, I’m back! I had such a great time in Puerto Rico; I don’t know how I can possibly recap all our adventures but since the boy has most of the photos, I’ll just start with the pictures I have from my first day.

The flights were long (LA to Miami, Miami to PR) but I was on VACATION so I didn’t mind. And if I was a little sleepy after being awake for almost 24 hours, flying over the island woke me right up!

After landing and grabbing our car (which proved to be very inappropriate for Puerto Rico’s tiny roads!), we headed to La Concha in San Juan.  The boy told me he’d gotten an amazing view…and he was so right. Waking up with a cup of coffee on this balcony every morning was perfect.

Of course, we immediately hit the beach for some swimming, reading, sunning, and tropical-themed boozing. The ocean was clear down to your toes and warm like a bath. After frolicking a bit (yep, we really were giddy), we kicked back and ordered what would become our signature drink of the trip — the aptly named Under the Coconut Tree — which includes coconut rum, peach schnapps, orange juice, mango puree, coconut cream and a grenadine splash. Can you tell how much I loved this moment?

I read the new Lauren Weisberger book, Last Night at Chateau Marmont, on the plane ride (wasn’t kidding about not sleeping), and luckily brought Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists for the beach. Each chapter is dedicated to a different person tied to a struggling English language, global newspaper based in Rome. All of the characters are innocuously tied together, and each story reads like a mini-novel in itself. Here’s a great review in The New York Times if you’re interested!

Okay, back on track. After a relaxing morning, we headed into San Juan for a late afternoon lunch at Caficultura, which made it into our restaurant rotation twice. We wandered around town for a bit after. I really loved all the brightly colored buildings that dotted the streets. Wonder if you need to confer with the neighbors to make sure everyone chooses a different loud, vibrant color?

After a big afternoon nap, we decided to stay in the neighborhood for dinner at Perla, a luxury seafood spot in our hotel. The restaurant is shaped like a huge shell. You have to see it to believe it…

Kind of neat, huh? For dinner, I got the seared sesame crusted tuna with Szechuan peppercorn sauce and red lentil stew. I’m not the biggest lentil fan so I wasn’t sure I’d like this side dish, but the lentils were unusually crisp/crunchy and I really enjoyed it!

Of course, we started with Chardonnay…

…and ended with dessert! When I see “soft,” “warm,” and “chocolate” on the menu, you can bet I’ll be all over it.

SOFT CENTER WARM CHOCOLATE CROQUANT CAKE
Hazelnut Infused Vanilla Sauce, Cocoa Nib Tuiles and Gianduja Ice Cream

Interestingly, it was the nuts that made the dish. They were so perfectly roasted and I made sure to get a few in every bite. I finished up Friday happy as a clam and ready to hit the road for the rest of the weekend. No more lazing for us. Stay tuned for hiking, kayaking, exploring, snorkeling and all around craziness!

I’ve been itching to get something posted before I leave tonight. Yes, hitting the road for the fourth consecutive weekend…more on that in a minute! Luckily I have a little time to spare and photos of a great breakfast saved in my emails. Anyone else worry about leaving your blog in the dark for too long? It nags me sometimes, especially when I have so much to discuss!

This past weekend was really great. I hit up First Friday on Abbot Kinney and discovered a new-to-me bar, The Brig. I am definitely adding this one to the rotation! I also may have found a new go-to drink, bourbon and ginger…although, I think that might get old pretty quickly. Lately I’ve been anti-vodka and I need something easy to order when there aren’t any fancy-pants cocktail menus. Thoughts??

The rest of the weekend was spent shopping, dancing to cover bands, and relaxing in Laguna Beach to celebrate KJ’s birthday. Oh, and running errands of course. When am I not running errands is the real question. The boy’s phone camera did make an appearance to capture a great breakfast we ate at Stefan’s on Montana Ave, the brainchild of Top Chef season five runner up Stefan Richter.  We’d gone there once before and I wasn’t a big fan, but since I had ordered a boring make-your-own omlet, we gave it another shot.

We decided to maximize the yummy-sounding dishes and split two. The House Benedict came with egg whites, spinach, and avocado, and we added Canadian Bacon. I’m not a fan of hollandaise but apparently it was tomato flavored and quoted, the best part of the dish.  

We also got an order of french toast, which comes stuffed with banana and nutella and sprinkled with powdered sugar. I ate each bite with a nice fresh berry and it was absolutely delicious!

So, the end of the summer has picked up and today I leave for my fourth weekend of travel. The destination? PUERTO RICO! This trip was extremely last minute (as in, my flight got booked Monday night) so I’ve been running around like mad — no big surprise there. Today it hit me though — I’m going to Puerto Rico! — and I had a nice, leisurely lunch outside at my favorite pizza place while highlighting/flagging the guidebook I picked up last night.

According to my research, I can expect lots of outdoor adventures, from hiking in a tropical rainforest to kayaking, including trips through three of the world’s 10 bioluminescent bays (!!!).

Plus gorgeous beaches…

…and amazing food. Any country that has a website with an extensive section labeled “Gastronomy” is a-okay in my book.

I get back Tuesday night and I promise to take lots of pictures. Until then, hasta luego!

California might have the market on frozen yogurt…but Strollo’s Lighthouse in Jersey has the best Italian ice, hands down!

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I couldn’t even wait to taste :)

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