Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Key West - Paradise at the end of the road

Key West, Mile Marker 0, you've arrived at the end of the road, as far south as you can go in the US. Key West conjures up images of rum drinks, Hemingway, many-toed cats, roosters and Jimmy Buffett. It is all of that and so much more.

The Keys are a chain of islands that hang out at end of Florida. They are known for many things; fishing, snorkeling, sailing, boat races, all manner of water sports and activities. I never do any of that. Let's just say that I'm there for the OTHER things Key West is known for, fun and sun.

Key West is home to the Southern most point in the US. They have a big marker pointing that out. A very popular tourist attraction that features prominently in many vacation pictures. Taking your picture with the Southern Most Point marker is like a Key West visitors right of passage. We've done it and when you get there, you will too.

Key West is also known for its Sunset celebration. Yes, the wonderful folks of Key West celebrate the sunset with a crazy, quirky party. Folks gather on the docks at Mallory Square and watch street performers, sip drinks and wait for the sun to set. How can you not love this? Drinks, sunset, cats jumping through flaming hoops? What's not to love?

The island's history covers everything from pirates to politicians, treasure hunters to famous writers and everything in-between. A colorful past that lends an air of mystery and the exotic to this little corner of paradise. Where else can you walk in the footsteps of pirates and presidents, authors and smugglers, artists and crazy eccentrics? You can here, and we love it.

Key West has always been home and refuge to a motley, and not so motley crew of visitors. It was the location of Harry S Truman's winter White House and also the home of writer Ernest Hemingway. To this day Ernest Hemingway is celebrated with a festival in July called, what else, Hemingway Days. Sloppy Joe's bar, said to be a favorite hangout of Hemingway, holds a Papa look alike contest. No need to blame one too many rum runners if you see packs of Papa Hemingways making their way around town. You're not seeing things. Tennessee Williams was another literary figure to make frequent visits to Key West. It's said that he wrote the first draft of A Streetcar Named Desire while staying here.

We've visited many times. It's that kind of place, one you want to return to again and again. Each time will be a little different. You can stay in a five star resort or a cute and homey bed and breakfast. No matter where you stay you'll never be too far from a wonderful meal, a fun place to meet people and have a drink or a spot to sit and enjoy the sights and sounds of Key West.

 There are many ways to get around the island. If you stay in the Old Town area and plan to stay there for you visit you won't even need a car. Almost everything is within walking distance in Old Town or just a short cab ride away. You can also rent bicycles, scooters or electric cars (think golf cart not Tesla) to make your way around town. Generally we prefer to stay in Old Town and be in the center of all the action. Duval Street is the main tourist area and is lined with shops, bars, restaurants and galleries.

A nice way to see the sites of Old Town is to take a Conch Train Tour. You'll get a leisurely tour of the area, the tour guides are a fun group and you may learn something.

The New Town area is very nice as well. There are several beautiful resorts located in the area and many have shuttles to Old Town. There is also public transport to the older part of town as well. No matter where you stay, resort or B&B, the people of Key West are warm and knowledgeable and happy to share that knowledge with visitors.

Another very popular area is know as the Bight, also the Historic Seaport. It is located in Old Town and is home to many popular restaurants and bars.

There is a lot of information available about traveling to the keys and Key West. A quick Google search will yield a ton of information on where to stay, what to eat, what to see. A great source of information are the Key West travel forums at Tripadvisor. There are "destination experts" there that are a wonderful resource for all things Key West.

If you plan to visit Key West there are a  few things to keep in mind:

There are a few nice beaches but there aren't long stretches of white sandy beach like in most of the Caribbean. Most of the resorts, if not all, have beautiful pools and a few have nice, small private beaches.
Key West has a reputation as a party town and it is BUT it can be a nice family destination too. Many people travel here every year with children and have a great time. That's the beauty of the island, it offers something for just about everyone.

Key West is a great food town. There are so many great restaurants to choose from. From high end to more affordable you will easily find a great place to eat. The hard part, if you're like us, is that there are only so many meals you can eat in one day. Just walk around, most restaurants have their menus posted. See what looks good, talk to a local, follow the crowds. You'll find a great meal and maybe make some new friends.

Have you been to Key West or other places in the Keys? Are you thinking about visiting or planning a trip? Please share your thoughts below. I'd love to know what you think.

Florida Keys & Key West

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Blue Cobblestones and Pina Coladas - Travels in Old San Juan

Columbus discovered the island of Puerto Rico in 1493. It took us a little longer but eventually we got there too.
After watching a travel show about Puerto Rico we decided we should get there sooner rather than later. Being the designated travel coordinator here I immediately booked a seven day trip to La Isla del Encanto, the enchanted island, Puerto Rico.
There were a few things we wanted to do on our visit; take a walking tour of Old San Juan, visit Barrachina (birthplace of the Pina Colada) and spend some time in Guavate visiting the lechoneras and eating their famous whole roasted pork.

Strolling around Old San Juan you're immediately struck by the bold colors, blue streets and amazing colonial architecture. The houses and commercial buildings are painted in beautiful bold island colors. Just so gorgeous and vibrant. The famous blue cobblestones streets get their color from old ballast stones off of 16th century ships. Ships sailed over from Spain loaded with these stones made from the iron slag of Spanish foundries. Instead of being discarded they were put to use as street pavers and have been in place ever since.

The old San Juan area is filled with tree shaded plazas, restaurants, shops, museums and much more. There are lovely boutiques in which to shop for designer goods side by side with simple restaurants and vendors selling flavored ices out of a street cart. The whole area was named a UNESCO World Heritage sight in 1983.


This is also where the San Juan Cathedral is located. A rare New World  example of medieval architecture, the cathedral is the final resting place of famed explorer Ponce de Leon. The church has been located on this spot since 1521 and is the second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere.

 One of the best ways to experience Old San Juan is a guided walking tour. We arranged a walking tour through our hotel. David, our guide, took us all over the old city from the government buildings to the walls of El Moro. David was fun, knowledgeable and entertaining. We had a great morning and would highly recommend a walking tour as part of your stay. Segway tours are also offered. It's on my list of things to do on my next visit.

After all that walking around you'll need to find a place for lunch. Not at all difficult as there are lots of good places to eat. I love to stop at El Parnaso on Calle de Christo. It's a great place to grab a drink and some tacos. Yes, tacos. Not traditional Comida Criolla but very good. Try the local Medalla beer. You'll only find it in Puerto Rico so drink up! Or try the sangria made with rum and brandy. Lets just say that a nap might be in order after lunch.
Definitely try the local cuisine while you're here. One noted place to do so is at El Jibarito located on Calle Sol. They specialize in local Puerto Rican and caribbean food. The food is simple and authentic, worth a stop for sure. Another place for local atmosphere is La Bombonera located on Calle de San Francisco. Established in 1902 it is an Old San Juan icon. Stop in for the mallorcas and coffee.

Puerto Rico is the birthplace of the Pina Colada. The official home of the Pina Colada is Barrachina located on Fortaleza St. Stop in, sit at the bar or at a table on the patio, have a Pina Colada and enjoy the gorgeous courtyard. The food at Barrachina  is good too, so maybe stick around for dinner.

Rum. Nothing conjures up thoughts of sunny beach days spent in the caribbean quite like it. If you like rum you'll be happy to know that Puerto Rico is home to the Bacardi Rum Factory. You can take a tour and sample some rum. (Sadly we didn't take the tour) From Old San Juan you can take a ferry from Pier 2 to Catano and then a taxi to the factory. The island is also home to Don Q rum, a local favorite. Across from Pier 1 is the Don Q museum. It's a small space that highlights rum making and its history. There are also bartenders to offer samples and discuss the various Don Q rums. A quick but informative stop and there's rum!

One other thing, Puerto Rico has really good coffee. If you love coffee like I do then check out some of the local coffee shops. Cafe Cola'o located at Pier 2 in Old San Juan is a favorite. Really great coffee.

The town of Guavate, located 45 minutes from Old San Juan, is known for its lechoneras. (Lechoneras are restaurants that serve lechon asado - roasted pig). On weekends and holidays it's where locals come to meet up with family and friends, listen to music, dance, relax and enjoy some really good food.
Because we wanted to enjoy the scenery on the drive and because our Spanish is muy malo, we hired a local driver/guide to take us to Guavate. Manny was a great resource. On the drive out he told us stories about Puerto Rico's rich history, he  pointed out various points of interest and took us places in the city we might not have gone. Despite it being a rainy day we had a great time visiting the lechoneras of Guavate. With an assist from Manny we ordered lots of delicious food and some cold Medalla beers. Surrounded by happy, festive families, we had a memorable afternoon. If you're a fan of good food and fun times you really have to visit Guavate. It was easily the highlight of this trip.

After all of the running around, eating, drinking and sight seeing, it's a pleasure to return to the peace and quiet that is the Hotel El Convento. Built in 1646 as a convent, the Hotel El Convento is history brought to life. An amazing property, listed as a small luxury hotel of the world, it is one of my favorite places to stay.
From the beautiful courtyard, amazing architecture, to the world class service, I can't recommend it highly enough. It's a great place to stay. The location can't be beat, the service is top notch, personal and caring. The whole experience is worth it even if you only stay for one night and then move to a place near the beach. I can't imagine staying anywhere else when I'm in Old San Juan. Check some of the online booking sites as they list this hotel at times as part of a package deal. Worth looking for. The Hotel El Convento is an experience like no other.

If you are the adventurous type you can book a tour of the El Yunque rainforest and ride a zip line or take a kayak tour of a bioluminescent bay. Whether you prefer shopping and sunning or more adventurous pursuits Puerto Rico has you covered. There is so much to do and see one visit can't possibly cover it all.

Old San Juan is a mix of old world charm and new world amenities. English and Spanish are both spoken and US currency is the standard. There are many great places to visit in Puerto Rico. Old San Juan is just one of them. If you're looking for a fun, low hassle caribbean get away Puerto Rico is just the place. No passport required.

Hotel El Convento