Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Pickle Ball in the Caribbean!

The beach at Club Med (Grace Bay)

Greetings, dear readers!

Is it spring yet where you live? The calendar officially changed to spring the day we returned from the Caribbean, but it sure doesn’t feel like spring here at the Jersey shore! Gray, chilly, rain, rain, rain. It was a rude awakening landing at Newark Airport on a bone-chilling windy night after spending seven glorious, sun-filled days on the beautiful island of Turks and Caicos. 

Some of the folks who play pickle ball in the community where I live got together last fall and decided to take our pickle ball show on the road. And in mid-March what better place to do it than in the Caribbean? Our terrific travel agent recommended the adults-only Club Med with its’ ten PB courts, three of which would be reserved exclusively for our group every morning. 

I had never been to a Club Med and wasn’t sure what to expect. It was founded in the 50s by a Belgian entrepreneur named Gerard Blitz, who envisioned it as a “wholesome, community atmosphere of an Olympic village.” It was based on a simple philosophy:

“The aim in life is to be happy. The place to be happy is here. And the time to be happy is now.” Who could argue with that? Certainly not me during my time at Club Med. If you’d like to read more about the history of “le Club,” this is a great overview.

Dessert Offerings

A few past guests had told me that all the meals are served “cafeteria” style, and that the house wines served at lunch and dinner were “meh.” If you know anything about me, you know I am all about the food experience when I travel so I was a little apprehensive after hearing this. But we were really going for a week of pickle ball with our group not so much for a fine dining experience. So I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food offerings and the presentation at this Club Med. There is a very nice wine bar with more high end offerings, and the availability of doing wine tastings. We bought bottles there a few nights to complement our dinners, and one night had dinner at the wine bar, which was lovely. In addition, there were options for every dietary need, vegan, vegetarian, etc. Every meal had soup, fresh fish, pasta, incredible bread, great cheeses, and gelato for lunch and dinner. One evening, during the "White Night" event, they served beef Wellington, which was outstanding. Another night, they offered several varieties of sushi. In the mornings, you could get made-to-order eggs, omelets, or choose oatmeal, cereal, granola, waffles, fresh fruit - you get the idea. 

After a day or two, we fell into a rather comfortable routine: breakfast, a couple of hours of pickle ball, followed by a healthy smoothie at Sharkie’s Beach Bar, then off to loll on the beach or lounge at the pool until, say, 4 or 5pm, when we’d return to the room for a shower (or sometimes a nap!), meet at the lobby bar for a sunset cocktail, dinner, then dancing! This was on repeat for seven days and nights! 

Our favorite, Tropical Martinis

You may know that Club Med is famous for its’ nightly entertainment, which are a bit like variety shows put on by the team members (or Gentle Organizers, in Club Med parlance).  Again, I was skeptical at what the quality of these shows could be; and again, I was bowled over by the talent of these folks. Singing, dancing, acrobatics - it was very close to the Cirque de Soleil I saw many years ago in NYC. Right after the show, the club’s general manager and the performers would race over to the lobby bar where a stage had been set up, music was blaring, and they would whip the crowd into a dancing frenzy! It was wild, and I loved every minute of it!

Club Med Acrobatic Performer

One evening we took a cab to Da Conch Shack, which had been recommended by friends. Conch is the national dish of Turks so I knew I’d want to sample it while there. I had been introduced to conch fritters many years ago on St John USVI. Da Conch Shack is simply picnic tables on the beach, about 20 feet from the water, with friendly servers, great cocktails, and of course, fabulous conch! We loved the fritters, the conch stew, the fresh blackened grouper, and especially the rum cake with drunken raisins. Highly recommend if you are on the island.

Conch Fritters

Da Conch Shack

I think what I really loved about our experience at Club Med is that you can do as much as you want and be busy all day, or do nothing. The options for activities are endless - sailing, snorkeling, paddle board, tennis, bocce, trapeze (which one of our friends did!), spa, Zumba, yoga, etc. This Club Med is one of the few adults only locations on Turks and its all-inclusive so you can leave your wallet in the room safe and just enjoy everything the resort have to offer! We are already planning to return next year!

I do hope “real” spring arrives soon here and where you live! In the meantime, eat well, stay warm, and be happy!

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

A Midwinter Escape!

During the cold, gray days of a February winter in New Jersey, I was lucky enough to escape for a few days to the sunny, warm, & beautiful west coast of Florida. The last time I visited Florida’s gulf coast was in February, 2022, when a good friend and I rented a home on Marco Island. This year, I stayed at the Naples Grande, a lovely hotel in Naples. Read on for my review of the resort and area restaurants.

I know there are “hotel” people and “house rental” people. There is a time and place for both venues, but for this most recent trip I definitely needed a hotel. And not just any hotel, but a resort with a lobby bar, restaurants, room service (‘cause you never know when you might need/want it), spa, pool bar, etc - you get my drift, I’m sure. The Naples Grande delivered on all accounts. 

After an uneventful, pleasant flight from EWR - RSW on United, and landing in rainy Fort Myers, the first order of business after picking up the rental car, was lunch at the Lake Park Diner. I had been there in 2022 and loved it, so this was the perfect stop. This is such a cool diner with great food that I always find myself wishing there was something like this in NJ. I had the Grilled Mahi Sandwich with pickled cucumber, arugula, cilantro-line slaw, tartar sauce on a brioche bun - absolutely fabulous! My traveling companion couldn’t resist the Miami-style Cuban Sandwich - mojo-marinated roast pork, sweet ham, raclette cheese, dill pickles, and yellow mustard, pressed perfectly on Cuban bread - he loved it, & of course, I had to taste it - delish! Even though we were “officially” on vacation, we declined a cocktail since we were still en route to the hotel, but thoroughly enjoyed their specialty lemonades. If you find yourself in the Naples area, visit this very unique, mostly outdoors, diner.

Grilled Mahi Sandwich
Miami-style Cuban sandwich

Whenever I am in a location near water (ocean, bay, lake, etc), I do everything possible to reserve a room with a water view. When I am in vacation mode, there is nothing as relaxing as sitting on the balcony gazing at the water and our gulf view room did not disappoint. Furnished with a loveseat, club chair, and small table, the balcony was the perfect setting for morning coffee, reading, or a nap when the afternoon sun was in just the right spot. 

We decided to stay at the hotel for dinner the first night as we just wanted to relax after traveling. We had a terrific light dinner (shrimp tempura and chicken dumplings) with cocktails at Mantra, the hotel’s lobby bar with an Asian flair. 

The hotel’s private beach is a 3/4 mile walk away along a lovely boardwalk through a mangrove forest. On a day that was overcast and too windy to sit at the pool or beach, we walked the boardwalk and discovered the hotel’s beach bar/restaurant, Rhodes End, where we enjoyed their hummus platter. 

Thankfully, the weather gods were on our side for the last two days of vacation, and we slugged at the adults-only pool in beautiful, bright sunshine.  Of course, for me, a resort hotel with a pool bar is a bonus, and besides a great poolside bar to sit at, the Gulf Coast Oasis Pool Bar has roving wait staff to tend to your every food and drink needs from your lounge chair (chips and frozen concoctions, please!). 

On our last morning, we took advantage of the available room service and ordered breakfast al fresco - coffee, juice, delicious muffins and croissants, enjoyed from the balcony.

I definitely wanted to explore the area restaurants, and with limited nights, we went with a recommendation from two different friends to check out Seed to Table Market, the most unique grocery store I’ve ever seen. On my return home, I described it to friends as a “Wegman’s on steroids!” From beautifully displayed produce, to fresh pasta, full service butcher and seafood departments, ice cream, tacos, sandwiches, bakery, and a liquor/wine store, it’s a foodie delight. But the kicker here are the restaurants, bars, and live entertainment all going on within the store! You can sidle up to the craft beer bar, or the wine bar, get a glass of whatever you like, and walk around drinking while you shop. We loved the ability to order a gorgeous steak from the butcher shop (or fresh fish from the seafood department), along with a variety of sides (we got sautéed mushrooms, green beans, and roasted potatoes), to be delivered to your table anywhere in the store. After ordering, we scouted out a table, got a glass of very good house Pinot Noir for me, and a great local beer for my dining partner. The steak was grilled perfectly and the veggies were fresh, crisp, and seasoned just right. This place was definitely sensory overload, but we loved it.

Seed-to-Table Grilled Steak

The next night we sought the recommendation of the hotel concierge to guide us. I told him I did not want anything touristy and asked him where he goes for dinner. He recommended The Hampton Social, a restaurant within the Mercato, a high-end all day/night dining, drinking, shopping, entertainment complex. All the restaurants and bars have indoor/outdoor space, and there is upbeat music playing from discreet speakers throughout the streets. This place has a great vibe. Again, I found myself wondering why there is no place like this in NJ.

I have found, throughout my years of traveling, that a good hotel concierge will not steer you wrong, and David at Naples Grande certainly did not in steering us toward Hampton Social. We started with the Bang Bang Chicken served over a delicious seafood salad, with house BBQ and bang bang chili sauce - definitely a spicy winner! I loved the Ahi Tuna Bowl, grilled rare, served alongside quinoa, sweet potato, edamame, avocado, kale, with cilantro cream; complimented by a terrific new find - Dashwood Sauvignon Blanc from NZ.

You know you’ve had a great vacation when you don’t want to go home, and that’s how I felt as we packed to leave. The only drawback was the lack of pickle ball courts at the hotel. We were surprised that in Naples, the pickle ball capital of Florida, this hotel had fallen way short. We voiced our disappointment to management and they told us they’ve had countless requests for PB courts and they are in the works, so hopefully next time we visit we can bring our paddles. 

It was a gorgeous 64°F yesterday here in NJ and I have seen crocus starting to sprout, so I am optimistic that Puxatawney Phil was right in his prediction that spring is close at hand! I hope you are enjoying a bit of warmth and sunshine wherever you are.

I’ll be back at the end of March with a recap of my upcoming visit to Club Med in Turks & Caicos! In the meantime, stay warm, eat well, be happy.