More On the Little Havana Scene

In my travels I have noticed food tours are becoming increasingly prevalent. Ever since we returned from Spain it seems they’re booming. Maybe that’s the case, or maybe I’m more aware of them. That said, last year there was no food tour of my neighborhood. Now there is.

The question is: Why not? Besides language, food is a differentiator among cultures and a common denominator among travelers. Everyone has to eat, and it is the easiest “most adventurous” element of travel.

A good food tour will include history, influences, and cultural relevance in addition to good food. It’s also a great way to cover ground and find good restaurants. Many ‘traditional’ recipes are rooted in a locations heritage so food tours are also a great way to learn something about your host city or country.

Still, with so many food tours available, look for the ones that promise something beyond food. That’s one reason why I chose the Little Havana Food Tour. It really is two tours in one.

I started my tour at Agustin Gainza Gallery. The working gallery is owned by someone said to be one of the earliest defectors from Cuba, Mr. Gainza. He was a young conservatory artist when he left and continues to paint with a colorful “refined voluptuousness” of dreamscape scenes from the United States. His works are typically done in a series such as the umbrella series or the black monias series, his most famous. Check out his portfolio for samples.

Our guide, Ralph, made arrangements for Mr. Gainza, and his wife who runs the gallery, to speak with us at the start of the tour. He was a humble and charming man, who greeted each of us in turn and told us a little about his paintings.

Seasoned travelers may understandably be cynical about this. Of course, the tour starts in a gallery where you are encouraged to buy something. That was my initial thought, too. But we were never encouraged to buy anything. The visit was a starting point for a food tour, but as a brief cultural immersion it quickly set the tone and to some degree helped to transport us to a different, Cuban Miami. It was an honor to meet someone who actually left everything—an entire life—in Cuba to come to begin again. It was an opportunity to understand the pressures to do this, and the hardships of starting over, beyond the history to the emotional experience.

Of course I bought some small pieces. However, art aside, I think hearing his story helps to ensure that part of Cuba’s history isn’t forgotten.

After stopping at El Pub, we visited the Cuban Tobacco Cigar Company. This is a fifth generation shop; the third generation statesmen sits outside smoking and clearly enjoying…you guessed it, a big cigar. He happily poses for photos with visitors. The Cuban Tobacco Company hand rolls all its cigars on premise.

Stamps on my Passport
The elder statesman outside the Cuban Cigar Company.


Interesting fact about these cigars and Cuban cigars. The cigars sold at the shop are all leaves grown from Cuban seeds. There is a loop-hole in the U.S. embargo. Cuban tobacco seeds are supposedly purchased by the U.S. government from the Castro Regime. The seeds are then sold to Costa Rica or Nicaragua to grow tobacco. And that is how this shop in Miami can sell “Cuban” cigars.

Another historical point: the practice of buying the seeds and growing them is diminishing so shops like this are in danger of becoming relics. Although by then we’ll probably lift the Cuban embargo anyway.

Stamps on my Passport
At the Cuban Cigar Company you can watch the cigars being carefully wrapped.


We also had the opportunity on the tour to visit Tower Theater. Opened in 1926, this theater’s claim to fame is that it was the first theater in America to show Hollywood movies with Spanish subtitles. “Old timers” used to wait outside for their family, playing dominos to pass the time. You can’t play dominos outside the theater anymore. But, across the street is “domino park,” an area where about 50 men gather and play dominos. And, as I said in my previous post, Miami dominos is practically a contact sport.

Stamps on my Passport
A serious game of dominos going on at domino park.


The tour included much more than this. But if I tell you everything, there is no surprise for you when you make a reservation. Which you should absolutely do when you visit Miami. If you missed my first post, the tour is billed at $59 and 2.5 hours long. However, our tour was much closer to 3.5 hours and there is a tip on top of the $59 (and worth every penny). Ralph was a great guide, knew the area in and out, and was a wealth of great stories.

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Eating Our Way Through Little Havana

Little Havana, is a neighborhood in Miami, Florida. For those who might not know, it is home to a significant number of Cuban immigrant residents. There is a tremendous Cuban influence in Miami, and it makes the city much more interesting and vibrant. The neighborhood of Little Havana is a huge shift from the glitz of Miami Beach. Off of the central drag, Calle Ocho, you’ll find it’s much more “down home” with lots of family owned fruit stands, art galleries, Cuban restaurants and shops.

Doing my planning to visit Miami Beach I found the glossy magazines and e-zines, like Conde Nast Traveler, said that Little Havana was not worth visiting. Gentrification has shrunk the area. As first generation immigrants left, Little Havana slowly slipped from the sprawling cultural oasis it once was to become more of a tourist destination.

These criticisms are accurate and valid. Still, I personally disagreed that it’s not worth the trip. Miami is more than nightlife and five-star restaurants. Cities are ultimately an amalgamation of neighborhoods, large or small, that are rich with culture. And even if it’s smaller, Little Havana is brimming with a culture not easily found anywhere else in America.

On a whim, we booked a Little Havana Food Tour ($59/person and roughly 2.5 hours even though our tour much closer to 3.5 hours) for our last full day in Miami. As a frequent traveler and food lover I always try to combine the two. In my past travels I’ve done food tours (and walking tours). Based on those, I’d rate this one top-notch. It rivals the four-star experience I had with Madrid Food Tours in Spain.

In fact, just like my experience in Madrid, it’s inadequate to think of this one as just a “food tour.” We certainly ate delicious Cuban foods, but we also saw a lot of small businesses and got to hear a little bit about the story behind each location. Really, it was two tours in one. So let’s start with the food portion of the tour.

After a brief introductions and an overview of the Little Havana area, we stopped at El Pub, a family owned “traditional” Cuban restaurant. What makes it traditional? According to our guide Ralph, traditional restaurants feature a sandwich station (think 50s style diners) and a separate more formal dining room. 

Here we sampled empanadas. In case you haven’t had an empanada, it’s a protein -in this case ground beef- wrapped in wheat flour dough and fried. Empanadas are more of a South American dish than Cuban food. What makes these uniquely “Cuban” are the spices used when cooking the beef. It’s blend of Cumin, olives, bay leaves among others that leaves you with a flavorful, Creole-like taste. It’s important to point out that Cuban food is spiced, but not “spicy.” Think flavor explosion in your mouth more than four-alarm fire.

The Beef Empanada at El Pub in Miami, FL.
The Beef Empanada at El Pub in Miami, FL.

After El Pub’s Empanada, we sampled molded plantains stuffed with chicken. The plantain was molded into a cup like shape and baked (or fried, I’m not 100% certain). Whenever I’ve tried plantains in the past, the result has not been good. But wow, these were delicious and so filling! Overall, the plantain had a more “starchy” feel compared to the empanada but the chicken, featuring more of the Creole seasoning, was an excellent combination.

"Molded" plantain with chicken was the second food we sampled on our tour of LIttle Havana.
“Molded” plantain with chicken was the second food we sampled on our tour of LIttle Havana.

One fun feature at El Pub was that the recipes are posted on the walls. Some were slapped on, others framed but they are all pre-Castro recipes that the family uses as a foundation for their cooking.

Some of the recipes you'll find on the wall at El Pub.
An example of the recipes you’ll find on the wall at El Pub.

We walked a few blocks and went to Exquisito Restaurant for a Cuban Midnight sandwich. A traditional Cuban sandwich includes sliced ham, sliced roast pork, swiss cheese, pickles, mustard and is served on a baguette. The Midnight version is served on a yellow bun that is similar to challah bread. The result is a slightly sweeter sandwich. All I have to say is: wow, wow, wow. I will never think of a Cuban sandwich the same way, and it was worth the trip just to bit into a Cuban Midnight.

This might be heaven on a plate: the Cuban midnight.
This might be heaven on a plate: the Cuban midnight.

After so much food, some Cuban Coffee was in order. Cuban coffee is basically a darker espresso roast that is more finely ground. It’s a very, very bitter and an acquired taste. With a tablespoon of sugar, it’s not bad and certainly worth at least trying. It’s got a jolt to it.

Our itty, bitty samples of Cuban Coffee (I had three).
Our itty, bitty samples of Cuban Coffee (I had three).

I was wondering how Ralph could top the food selections we’d already tried, but he didn’t disappoint. We walked, stopping by a local park to watch some feisty games of dominos—in Little Havana, dominos is a contact sport—and then headed to Yisell Bakery for a guava pastry. The shop is unique because most restaurants outsource their bread making… to Yisell. The pastry is a filo dough-like pastry filled with guava paste and cream cheese. Again, amazing. It’s sinfully delicious, and you won’t realize you ate the entire square until it’s too late. Luckily you can get another, and it pairs nicely with the bitter sweet Cuban coffee.

You can get guava pastry almost anywhere in Miami but if you want the best, I strongly recommend Yisell Bakery
You can get guava pastry almost anywhere in Miami but if you want the best, I strongly recommend Yisell Bakery.

After this sensational treat, we stopped at Pinareos Fruteria, a 112-year-old fruit stand. Being in the south, you’ll see much more tropical fruit. In fact, I was introduced to mamey and brought one home to try. Note: if you take the tour, get the mamey and try this recipe. I wouldn’t eat it every day, but I thoroughly enjoyed getting to bring some of Miami home. 

A mamey fruit.
A mamey fruit.

Ice cream has to be one of my food weaknesses so it was perfectly fitting that our final stop was Azucar Ice Cream Company. The shop is run by a second generation Cuban-American who strives to make ice cream like her grandmother did. We were all offered tastes of any flavor. Ralph highly recommended the Abuela Maria ice cream. Since he hadn’t gone wrong yet, I figured it was a solid recommendation. I was right. Abuela Maria is cream cheese, guava, vanilla and maria crackers (similar to a sweet biscuit served with tea) . Simply amazing.

Pictures will never truly do this Abuela Maria ice cream justice.
Pictures will never truly do this Abuela Maria ice cream justice.


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Art Deco: Miami Style

It’s nearly impossible for me to travel and sit still. A “relaxing weekend away” is difficult because I love to explore—I love the adventure side of traveling to new places. If I want to sit, I have a couch at home.

Not that I’m a snob about it. For some people, that’s the recipe for a perfect vacation. Still, for me there is just a finite amount of time that I can lounge before I’m thinking about when I might ever get back to wherever I am, and then before you know it I’m clamoring about for things to see, places to go, and foods to try.

That is how I found myself on an unofficial Art Deco Tour of Miami Beach.

The tour covers, probably a 10-block radius of Miami Beach, and runs just over two and half hours. It starts with an overview of the city and its history. I loved hearing about the Miami connection to the mafia. Apparently its not all Boardwalk Empire fiction that Florida, and Miami especially, was popular because the ports allowed mafia to import alcohol and then transport it North. Unfortunately, in 1926 the Great Hurricane destroyed a huge part of the city. The mob, as it was explained, had a significant hand in Miami’s redevelopment. They funneled money into hotels but that alone wasn’t enough return on investment. The result? Many of the old, art deco hotels had secret gambling rooms where the ROI was at its peak.

Stamps on my Passport
This door was strategically placed next to a hotel check-in desk. However, it really led to a mob gambling area.


A little history on Art Deco “Miami Style”*:

In the United States, Art Deco was a modern form of architecture inspired by early 20th Century design styles like Cubism, French Art Deco, Dutch de Stijl and others. But the actual term “Art Deco” wasn’t used until the much later, in the 1980’s, when interest in the style was renewed.

In Miami “Art Deco” is synonymous with lots of pastel colors (as seen on the 80’s hit show Miami Vice). But I learned that’s a bit of a myth. During scouting trips, the crew painted many Miami Beach buildings so they would look better on television. Real art deco colors are muted, more white, beige and grey—the design relies on machine or industrial forms. Art deco came to life after “Black Friday” (no, not the annual day-after Thanksgiving shopping splurge, but the market plunge) and the onset of World War II. Architects used machine or industrial forms of design to inspire people and underscore that things would get better despite how it felt at the moment.

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The pastel color on the Tudor Hotel exemplifies the Miami part of Art Deco. Other traditional traits include: the “eyebrows” over windows and symmetry.


Pillars of Art Deco. You can identify if something is “Art Deco” in Miami by looking for some of these key design characteristics

  • Symmetry
  • Ziggurat (that means “stepped) roof lines
  • Elements in groups of three
  • Terrazzo floors
    summarized from Miami Design Preservation League’s website (and my unofficial Art Deco tour)
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An example of art deco terrazzo floors. I love the use of color.


*Although artists and art lovers will find flaws in this, my theory is that Art Deco has many off-shoots and Miami Style is just one. The tour offered great exposure to this while also a lot of history about Miami Beach.

My tour was booked through the James Royal Palm for $30.00 (tips are encouraged at the end). You can book your own online. My guide was a longtime Miami resident who was fantastic. If you don’t want to leave Miami Beach, or just want something interesting to do for a few hours, I highly recommend this.

An Almost Perfect Spa Experience

I love an afternoon at the spa. Realistically, it doesn’t take much for me to feel pampered. A glass of wine waiting for me after a long meeting? Pampered. Walking a dog in the rain so that I don’t have to? Pampered. I’m comparatively low-maintenance, but that doesn’t mean I can’t spot a luxury spa with the best of them.  Renew the Spa at James Royal Palm Hotel is pure luxury.

So, after sleeping in late, a causal breakfast and commensurate lounging around, we visited the Spa for some real pampering. As with many luxury hotels spas the staff makes a point of checking you in immediately. I was brought to a small but comfortable changing area. After getting settled in a thick, fluffy white robe, I was offered a glass of champagne and given the opportunity relax in a lounge area, where there was also water and light snacks like dried apricots or almonds.

Why anyone would sit inside is beyond me, because of the Spa’s enormous outside patio that overlooks both of the James Pools. It’s serene, but also makes terrific people watching. Depending on where you sit, you can even see the beach. With a glass of champagne, it was a great way to relax!

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Don’t sit inside while waiting for your treatment at Renew the Spa. Sit outside and soak up the sun while enjoying this view.

Whether the staff was clocking our wait, or just had naturally impeccable timing, they nailed it. We had enough time to sit outside and relax, sipping champagne. But not so much time that we had a noticeable wait. All three therapists came out simultaneously, introduced themselves and identified who was treating whom. As we were escorted to our individual treatment rooms, warm lavender rests were placed on our necks. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a massage but I’ve never had this done before. It was a nice touch. The lavender was soothing and the heat was perfect to help loosen tense neck muscles.

Now, having a therapist who doesn’t understand muscle structure, pressure points and therefore doesn’t really create the relaxing experience I’m looking for is a personal pet peeve of mine. Thankfully, I didn’t have that problem. Once in our individual rooms, my therapist started the massage with a salt foot soak. While my feet sat in soothing warm water, getting massaged by my therapist, she went over the massage basics and treatment options. What type of massage did I prefer (e.g., Swedish, deep tissue, etc.)? Did I want aromatherapy, stretching, bamboo or reflexology?

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The salt foot soak doesn’t look like much here but it was heavenly.

I’m still working through a knee injury, so I selected to incorporate stretching. My therapist* was very attentive, asked significant questions about my knee injury such as how it happened, what my current rehab was, etc. She did some specific stretching and manipulation that I am convinced accelerated my recovery. It could have been a placebo effect on my part, but that’s how good she was. I left feeling like I could do a triathlon (even though I can’t even swim).

I would say fly to Miami just to visit Renew BUT… there is one small and unfortunate caveat. After the massage was finished my therapist came back with an arm full of recommended products for me to “consider picking up to continue my treatment.” BOOM, Zen-killer.

I don’t know about others, but when someone is in a blissful state, it’s poor timing to up-sell. I thought maybe it was me but my friends had the same complaint of an up-sell experience and were equally dismayed. We agreed spas are a business but the approach was so off-putting it left us with a kink in our otherwise relaxed bodies.

Not even this amazing post-treatment salt scrub “bar” could overcome the frustrating up-sell experience.

Travel Tip: Renew the Spa is a luxury spa and has corresponding luxury prices. Keep an eye on GiltCity for specials to offset the expense. And, maybe, at the beginning you can let them know you don’t like to talk after a massage, or be sold anything.

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Lincoln Road, Miami

While in Miami, almost anyone who learns you’re visiting—or identifies you as a tourist by the pale pallor of your ski—will steer you to Lincoln Road. Reasons to visit range from general shopping, to boutique shopping, to eating, drinking and just plain old people watching. Maybe, but I cannot fathom the appeal. Lincoln Road of today lacked any charm and just plain run down and sad.

Stamps on my Passport
The once bustling Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.

Allow me to explain. Looking closely at several of the buildings one can tell this pedestrian footway between Alton Road and Washington Avenue was perhaps spectacular once upon a time.

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This art deco theater on Lincoln Road is a tip of the hat to the what the area used to be like.

But now it lacks character or anything I couldn’t fine at King of Prussia or Short Hills Mall. It’s mostly just chain store after chain store (Express, Zara, Gap, Bisou Bisou…) with a few “pop-up shops” sprinkled in.

Don’t misunderstand me these stores serve a purpose. But that purpose doesn’t jive with what Miami has to offer, albeit relaxing in my case. The place feels like a bad mixture of New York City’s Times Square with musicians, dancers eager to perform for a tip, and Barcelona’s Las Ramblas; totally overrun with tourists who are there because someone told them to go. I often think this is simply a city’s way of corralling tourists. In DC we also call it “The Mall” although ours is filled with museums.

While I loved this woman dancing and the joy she exhibited, the skeptic in me felt she was part of the act: more dancing joy for more tips.

Unless you are going to go to Juvia for dinner or a cocktail, I say bag Lincoln Road and find a different adventure. A tip from the locals: if you don’t want to spend mega bucks on dinner, visit Juvia for an early happy hour and you’ll be treated to a stunning sunset.

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James Royal Palm Hotel

I don’t normally write about (or review) hotels. There are folks who do that—entire magazines, websites, and even other bloggers who are better at articulating why one location is superior to another. TripAdvisor is a website that provides a lot of “nitty-gritty” details and when we were in Spain, every hotel referred us to the site.

So, the last thing people need is another hotel review, right? True, but I did say I don’t “normally” review hotels. My stay at the James Royal Palm Hotel in South Beach was exceptional, and so spectacular that I want to share the experience.

The James Palm
Serenity at the James

The James is located on Collins Avenue, which is also right on South Beach. It’s conveniently-located close to the uber-popular Lincoln Road as well as many other restaurants and clubs. And, it is steps from the beach.

The hotel itself is a strikingly beautiful art deco building. It’s decorated in mostly white with accents of brown and green, resulting in a very soothing vibe. I felt my troubles ease away the moment I walked through its doors, and was pleasantly surprised when the check-in service maintained that “chill” feeling with a friendly yet professional atmosphere.

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The lobby at the James is decorated in earth tones and uses art to add splashes of color.

For the most part, once you close your eyes in a bed, a hotel is a hotel is a hotel. So what really sets apart the James has to do with its staff and the personal touches—all those little things. While checking in, guests are offered bottled water and a damp towel to cool off. We mentioned offhandedly that we were in town to celebrate our friend, G’s, birthday. The front desk person made a point of stopping the check-in process, looking up and speaking directly to her to say, “happy birthday, we are so happy you are celebrating with us.”

Maybe it doesn’t seem like much, but stopping her work and acknowledging G’s birthday set the tone and set the bar for what we could expect. After check-in we were asked if we would be having lunch and when we indicated that we would a bottle of Prosecco was sent “on the house” to help celebrate G’s birthday.

Because we arrived earlier than anticipated, our room was not available. The front desk offered to give us a call when the room was ready. In the past I’ve opted for this at other hotels without such a call ever reaching my mobile. But sure enough, ten minutes after lunch, just as we were leaving the hotel for a walk, as promised, my phone rang.

All rooms in the James tower feature a balcony that overlooks either Collins Avenue or South Beach. Both views are stellar. Our room continued the white with brown and green accent themes and overlooked Collins Avenue. The bathroom was huge and featured some of the best sundries I’ve seen in a long time: the body wash was a heavenly scent and a great moisturizer. It was so good that I went to the gift shop to ask if they sold the shampoo and bodywash. (They do but to no surprise, they were sold out)

As anyone who’s read my blogs probably knows, I’m a person who doesn’t function well without coffee. But I’m particular about my java, to the point where I prefer a dysfunctional morning to bad coffee. Having said that, I loved the James’ coffee bar. What I loved even more, refills are free when you bring your cup and lid back to the barista. Folks, if you love coffee, you’ll love Miami, but even in a coffee town, James Royal Palm stands out.

Even the coffee bar carries out the color theme of the James Hotel.


This being South Beach, the hotel features beach chairs, or cabanas for interested guests. Two chairs are complementary for each room. A third chair can be rented along with an umbrella for roughly $35/day. If the beach isn’t your thing, the hotel has two beautiful pools. One pool is on the main level, right off the beach. The second pool is smaller by comparison and tucked away on the second floor, under the spa (more on the spa later). Both the beach and pools offer guests free towels, water and fruit. While these are free, remember that these employees earn most of their money off tips. The hotel does have a gym, and it looks stellar. However, this was a ‘rest and relax’ trip it looked stellar but I didn’t bother packing my workout clothes.

Early morning at the main pool is so peaceful.
Early morning at the main pool is so peaceful.

Obviously, this type of service and these kinds of amenities come at a non-bargain price. Yes, you get what you pay for—more so than other comparable hotels. So, if you don’t have a budget and want to feel like royalty (pun intended), the James Royal Palm is what I’d recommend to be your place to go the next time you make it to South Beach, in Miami.


Finally, Officially… Heading to Kilimanjaro

Question: How many conference calls with your BFF does it take to book a trip to Tanzania, Africa and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro (especially when your family and friends are worried about the risk of Ebola and suggesting you not go)?

Answer: Four. One for us to discuss pro’s and con’s of the trip. The second to learn about travel insurance from the travel agency. The third to go over follow-up questions about travel insurance. The final, fourth call to finally book the trip, and begin preparing for “wheels up” go time.

If nothing else is true about me, let it be known that when I commit to something I am ALL IN. And let me tell you, I am ALL IN when it comes to my Missing Stamps list.

The number one item on that list is to visit Tanzania and climb Kilimanjaro, or “Kili” as it’s affectionately referred to. While it’s been stuck in the number one spot for a while, it is not for lacking of planning. I have been reading up on gear, training, and had long-standing plans to make the trip several times—the latest being this year. But, life happens, and the trip had to be postponed.

A month ago, in the midst of the Ebola outbreak (but before all the media hypochondria) the Yooner (for new readers, this is my BFF and travel buddy), decided it was a now-of-never kind of moment. We officially booked the trip for early 2015.

Of course after we told friends and family that we’d finally decided to pull the trigger, reactions ranged from, the more casual “What?” to the more direct “Are you <expletive deleted> nuts!?” The common question about why involved one question. What about Ebola?”

As of this publication, Mr Os has gone the way of New York and New Jersey, and declared that I will have to quarantine myself for 21 days upon my return. Where is yet unclear. And, mind you, Tanzania is nowhere near Nigeria or Sierra Leone.

Also, consider that Tanzania has not had a single case of the virus. Certainly, things could change between now and March regarding the crisis. But as of now, I don’t buy into the fear mongering and think this succinctly sums up my risk of catching Ebola.

Instead, I’m focusing my energy on the things that actually matter: gear and training. I’m starting an inventory this week to assess what equipment and clothing I already have from previous treks, and what I will need. It’s better to accumulate equipment and clothing over time. Not only can you watch for sales, it helps avoid the last-minute crunch of buying crap you don’t need. And importantly, if you collect gear over a few months, you have plenty of time to break it in and get used to it—that’s especially important with hiking boots. It’s even more important for longer-term hikes.

Candidly what I am a bit worried about is physically preparing. I injured my knee riding in the Trek Across Maine this summer; who knew you could over train? I’ve been sidelined from any cardio workouts beyond a simple walk for two months. It’s driving me a bit nuts. I’m still hitting weights at the gym and physical therapy is starting to have an impact. But, having asthma, I know reaching the summit (and, heck yeah, I WILL summit Kilimanjaro) will come down to training. So, I’m anxious for clearance to start doing more strenuous exercise. Wish me luck! And if you have suggestions, I’m all ears!

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