Friday, August 6, 2010

A Day, A Night and A Day In Miami: Two Gay Gentleman of Fort Lauderdale Venture Out

My partner and I now live almost full-time in Fort Lauderdale.  My partner is pretty much full-time, and I live here about two-thirds of the time, with the rest of the time in NYC (Park Slope, Brooklyn to be exact).  Despite having a home here for over four years, we have spent very little time in Miami, just a little time in South Beach, and one venture to the Design District.
So, having just had a nice vacation in Argentina, but being in the mood for more, we decided to take the half-hour trip to Miami and have an "overnight vacation".  It was a wonderful idea, and I have to credit my partner for thinking of it.
This is the summer-"out of season", and so incredible deals are available.  For those of you who are thinking "Florida in the summer??????", I've gotta tell you that having just come from NY, Florida is way-better--the ocean, the openness, the air-conditioning----way better.  At any rate, we were able to secure an incredible room through Hotwire at the Hyatt-Regency in Coral Gables for just $69 a night (a Thursday).  As might be expected, the room was excellent, the sheets magnificent, and the king-size bed fantastic.
On our way down, we had planned to stop at The Spanish Monastery,  but had paid scant attention to the posting on their website that said to call, as there is a possibility of it being closed for "special events".  Who thought of a special event on a Thursday in July in Miami?  Needless to say, they were closed for a "special event", but it still looks like a great place to visit, especially if you call ahead.
Not to be thwarted in our attempt to have our Miami vacation, we proceeded to drive to The Vizcaya Museum and GardensVizcaya was built by the International Harvester heir James Deering in 1916, and is an Italian Renaissance-style villa with over ten acres of formal gardens and looks out on Biscayne Bay.  Not having done much research prior to our visit other than to find that Frommer gave it three stars, I was intrigued to find a statue in the gardens of Ganymede,(unfortunately badly in need of a good cleaning) the mythological gay youth who was Zeus' lover and taken up by him to Mount Olympus to become cupbearer to the gods. I became further intrigued after discovering that James Deering was a "bachelor".  Indeed, James Deering was gay, as was the chief architect of Vizcaya, Paul Chalfin, who was fairly "out" for the era..  Despite the chastity implied by the single bed in James Deering's bedroom (guest rooms have double beds), it is certain that Deering hosted gay soirees, and it is likely that Chalfin and he were lovers.  John Singer Sargent, who was almost certainly gay and an intimate of Deering's,  painted a series of male nudes while staying at Vizcaya, using the African-American workers on the premises as models.  Gossip aside, Vizcaya, displays the opulence of the upper classes in the beginning of the 20th Century and is definitely worth a visit.
I guess all that opulence made us hungry, and we headed towards our hotel in Coral Gables for lunch.  Not enticed by the lunch menu at The Two Sisters Restaurant at the Hyatt,  we decided to take a walk in the neighborhood.  We stumbled upon Graziano's Market, and found just what we were looking for.  This casual but upscale market/winestore/restaurant selling Argentine and other Latin American specialties is a real gem.  There was a nicely varied menu for lunch, but we opted for simple--a pizza with artichokes, prosciutto, mushrooms and olives. It was the best pizza we had since our trip to Argentina.  The chief element of the decor was dozens of wine bottles, all for sale, ranging from inexpensive to quite high end, and specializing in Latin American wines.   The service was quite attentive, especially in view of the fact that we placed our order and then were escorted by the hostess to our table with a number card.  Once seated, the waitress was able to fulfill our request for more drinks.  By the time we got back to the hotel, it was time for a late afternoon siesta, and we took advantage of the opportunity to crawl into the king-size bed and re-energize.
Having gotten a taste for opulence at Vizcaya, we thought that The Biltmore Hotel would enable us to experience it first-hand.  Built in the 1920s, this hotel is magnificent.  After doing a bit of strolling around the grounds, cocktail time called, and we went into the smaller of two bars, the other being taken up with a "baby shower" (another Thursday special event!).  The "secondary bar" was wood-paneled, with comfortable chairs, and two handsome and engaging young bartenders.  We were not disappointed. The vodka martinis were quite generous, and there were complementary crackers, cheese, and fruit available as accompaniments.  Needless to say, we enjoyed ourselves.
Needing a little exercise prior to dinner, and wondering what the hotel would look like at night, we decided to take a stroll to see what the pool, reportedly a favorite of Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams, was like.  We regretted that we had not brought bathing suits and/or that the pool was not "clothing optional".  The pool experience must be exceptional, as it is extremely winding and beautiful.
At 9:30 we left The Biltmore and went to Talavera Restaurant for dinner.  Talavera is an upscale Mexican restaurant, with reasonable prices, named after 16th Century Mexican pottery.  Quite modern in decor, but with pottery pieces perfectly placed, the atmosphere is simple but elegant.  This is not Tex-Mex, and be warned that if you are doing research on this restaurant, do not go to their website which seems to have a very incomplete menu.  We started our meal with a chopped Mexican salad with green and red peppers--simple, flavorful and subtly dressed.  My partner had a seared tuna "huarache" which was perfectly seared and rare  (it can be cooked to order) on a cornmeal bed.  My duck mole was incredible--juicy, tender, and rare (the chef's and my choice) and accompanied by rice.  We shared a flan for dessert which couldn't have been better.
The next day we had planned a trip to the Rubell Family Art Collection located near the design district.  Again, we should have done our homework, as the museum has sharply curtailed hours during the summer, and we were there at the wrong time.  Our alternative plan was to go to Lincoln Road and look at the shops down there, with a visit to CB2 (after all we would do a little decorating exploration on our trip to the Big City).  On the way, and looking to escape the South Beach summer heat, we serendipitously found the Peter Lik Gallery.  Peter Lik is an accomplished landscape photographer, originally from Australia, who currently has twelve galleries around the country devoted exclusively to his work.  His photography captures the excitement of nature, the photographs pop, and the curator of the gallery was quite friendly and informative--definitely worth a visit.  After one more search to find the "perfect chair" for our livingroom, it was time for lunch.
We got to Michael's Genuine Food and Drink Restaurant at about 2 pm.  Michael's was packed on this Friday afternoon in the summer, but we were lucky enough to secure seats at the bar.  Michael Schwartz, the chef/owner says he "set out to create a neighborhood place that feels like the real deal - where there's always something you want on the menu and what goes into the dishes is simple, fresh and pure" and he has accomplished his goal.  We had stumbled on Michael's a few years ago when it opened and had been quite impressed, as had The New York Times which had listed it as one of the top ten new restaurants of that year.  It has maintained excellent and fresh food quality and great service in a very happening but homey atmosphere.  My partner and I shared the Tuna Nicoise with pickled red onion, fingerling potato, heirloom tomato, green beans, hard boiled egg, greens, balsamic vinaigrette & saffron aioli and the House Roasted Sliced Turkey Breast Sandwich with cave aged gruyere cheese, lettuce, local heirloom tomato & herb mayo and french fries.  The Tuna was $16 and the Turkey Sandwich was $12, both well worth it.  Both Brooklyn boys, we were thrilled to find that the restaurant had Brooklyn Summer Ale on tap, this light beer being a refreshing accompaniment to our lunch.
We returned to tranquil Fort Lauderdale in the late afternoon, happy to have ventured out, with plans to do it again. We promised ourselves that next time we would do our homework just a bit more thoroughly, but I must confess that we were very pleased with how lucky we were.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Costa Rica - A Paradise for Gay Men and Others

If you're interested in natural beauty--environmental, fauna, flora, and male homo sapiens, Costa Rica is for you.  Volcanoes, rainforests, and beaches on two coasts , make it an exciting place to visit.  We visited Costa Rica at the end of April, just at the end of the "high season" which runs from the middle of November till the end of April.  Our trip was relatively short, just about a week, with just an overnight stay in San Jose, the capital, and the rest of the time divided between Arenal and Manuel San Antonio.
Colours Resort in San Jose was our first stop in Costa Rica.  Extremely friendly and attentive staff is the primary asset of this very comfortable gay hotel.  Rooms are simple but comfortable, but don't expect Palm Springs, Fort Lauderdale, Provincetown or Key West.  There is a small pool, as well as nice patios conducive to meeting and getting to know other gay travelers.  We were fortunate enough to meet two other gay couples, with whom we had lunch just down the street at a very local establishment where the food was surprisingly excellent.  Although the hotel is located in a safe and fairly upscale neighborhood, with many embassies within easy walking distance, you wouldn't know it, as all the houses are walled, topped with barbed wire, and barely visible to the casual stroller.  I may not be doing San Jose justice, but we found it to be a very unpretty city.  However, the men were nice-looking, not homophobic and cruising (illustrated by a more experienced San Jose visitor) fun.  However, we were not looking for a sophisticated city scene when we chose Costa Rica as a destination.
So, after a day and a night in San Jose, we took NatureAir to Arenal to see the volcano and experience the hot springs.  Our choice to fly was a good one.  The small plane truly gave us a "bird's-eye view" of the Costa Rican countryside.  The roads in Costa Rica are not good, and what was a half-hour flight would have probably taken over four hours by car.  NatureAir is relatively inexpensive, especially if booked in advance.
Our destination in Arenal was Tabacon Grand Spa.  Our feeling was that this resort, although not cheap (check the rates on their website) was well worth it.  The room was quite well-appointed, the service was five star quality, and the resort was quite beautiful.  Our surprise was how terrific the food was.  The food was impeccably prepared and the service was top-notch.  The dishes were prepared with an awareness of Costa Rican cuisine, but the emphasis was truly on preparation of gourmet quality meals.  Not only was this true of dinner, but breakfasts were an unbelievable treat, with choices of Costa Rican as well as "English Breakfast" fare.
Visitors to Tabacon are entitled to free admission to the Thermal Hot Springs.  The Hot Springs extend over several acres in an incredibly beautiful setting, with pools varying in temperature.  There is a restaurant, as well as a "pool-bar" that has been constructed but is fed by the natural springs.  You can sit on bar-stools in the water and order drinks and sandwiches.
Of course visitors come to Arenal to see the volcano.  Unfortunately, the volcano is often covered in clouds, with visibility difficult. I have tried to research the best season to see the volcano, but really believe it is more a matter of luck than anything else. Although we were unable to see the volcano at night, we were able to get a feel for it during the day, when we were able to see the smoking lava slide down the side of the mountain.
Eco tours and hikes are quite nearby the resort, and rides provided by the resort are readily available.  We took a nearby hike in the rainforest with an incredible guide who was not only knowledgeable about the rainforest, but whose powers of observation were so acute that he was able to hear a "poison-dart" frog which was only about an inch long and point it out to us.
 We also were lucky enough to spot a coral snake, a very unusual occurrence, but he had apparently come in from the forest and was visible in a field.  However, as exciting as these events were, they were surpassed by our visit to Manuel Antonio.
We took NatureAir again from Arenal to Manuel Antonio.
Our hotel there was The Falls  which had been a "gay" hotel, but is now "gay friendly".  We did not find this to be at all problematic.  All the guests were quite friendly as was the manager.The bar was a great place to congregate and the drinks were great as well.  We met two nice couples there, one, a straight couple from Canada, the husband of which had a gay older brother, and a young lesbian couple from Philadelphia who were bright and friendly.  The room at The Falls can best be described as "Tropical" in decor, roomy, and adequate--the air-conditioning was especially welcome.  The resort is in a portion of forest, and so there are plenty of birds, and occasional monkey visitors. 
Of course, the highlight of any visit to Manuel Antonio is the national park.  The park encompasses both the rainforest and the beach.  Guides are readily available and are well worth the very nominal fee.  The flora and fauna are extremely varied (as you would expect)  Sloths are in abundance although not that easy to spot, but of course the biggest attraction are the monkeys.  After a hike in the rainforest the beach is a great place to just relax and cool off.
To our surprise, the food in Manuel Antonio was also excellent.  We did not expect to be eating Thai food there, however, on the recommendation of other guests at The Falls, we wound up eating at KapiKapi one of the best Asian fusion restuarants restaurants I have eaten at, the fare apparently prepared by an ex-pat California surfer and chef.  Fortunately, for the visitor to Manuel Antonio, KapiKapi is not the only good restaurant there--every restaurant we ate at was both reasonably priced and good and the service was always friendly towards two middle-aged non-Spanish speaking gay men.
No trip to the warm waters of Central America would be complete without a boat and snorkeling experience, and in an effort to ensure that our trip would be complete, we took a sunset cruise from Quepos which is just down the road from Manuel Antonio.  The sailboat cruise was excellent, with food and drinks, as well as snorkeling equipment provided.  It was a perfect end to our Costa Rican adventure.