Monday, July 30, 2018

Airing it out in The Everglades


It's been almost exactly a year since the last time we were in the Sunshine State. If you recall, some of our activities were washed out because of the weather. There was the accessible snorkeling trip we had scheduled and the air boat tour we tried to take also. But if there's one thing that never changes about Florida is that the weather is sketchy at anytime. We'll see how we do this year.

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While accessible snorkeling is not in the cards this time, I see no reason we can't do an air boat ride. Googling shows up some very expensive private options so I head down to the hotel lobby to see if they have better options. I see a brochure for Everglades Holiday Park and take a look. A 60 minute air boat ride is offered here for about thirty bucks each.

This is much less than the offers I've seen online. The only problem is that it's a little less than an hour away, there's no transportation, and we don't have a car.

To solve this, I rent a cheap car for the day and we head out to the Everglades. With our phone's GPS, it's not a problem to find. After parking, we head into the ticket office and I ask about the wheelchair. I'm told they'll help us out so I buy the tickets and we wait for our number to be called.



In just a few minutes it is, so we head to the dock. I find a spot near the rear of the boat where we can board without the other passengers crowding around us, take Tim out of his chair, and..with a little effort...transfer him down to the bench on the boat. Do note, however, that Letty and I had to do this by ourselves. No help was forthcoming from any of the staff.



We pop  in some earplugs for Tim, the giant propellers start to buzz loudly and we pull slowly out of the dock. It's a gentle float around a bend in the channel, near a little dam. As our captain maneuvers into the main channel, he's giving us the information on the Everglades, the ecosystem, the weather, and what kinds of animals live here and what we might see.

Once we've cleared far enough away, the command comes over the speaker, "secure your belongings, we're about to go on a speed run."

The engines whine up to a deafening road. The loaded boat lifts a bit out of the water and soon, according to our captain, we're whizzing along the swampy, grass-filled water at 65 miles per hour. 



It is quite a thrill and, honestly, he could have just done this for the hour and I'd have been happy. But, that's not what we're here to do. After a few minutes, the engines die down and speed quickly dissipates and the local flora and fauna are pointed out.



At this point, it's mostly flora. After a couple of more short bursts of speed, we drift in close to an island while the captain points out vultures lounging on the shore.



Gallinules, a flowery plant growing in the water, litter the landscape.



As we're drifting through a patch, I notice a dark blob in the middle. It moves. It has eyes. I soon realize I've seen my first alligator of the day. The lady sitting in front of me notices too but the captain misses it and soon it dives under the surface.

Another speed run takes us to another pond in the swamp and the captain points out another gator. This one is curious and swims straight toward the boat, almost posing.



About 10 feet away, it turns back. Soon, there's another on the other side of the boat and then a couple more. This is not water I'd want to be swimming in but it's fascinating from the boat.



After our close reptilian encounters, the gators seem to have had their curiosity satisfied and we see no more. Now, the biggest thing we see are other air boats.

A few more speed runs and we make it back to the dock just as the rain starts to fall. Somehow, we got Tim out and back in the chair while getting soaked.

Our admission includes a live gator show, so we crowd with about a hundred other people under a tarp until they let us into the arena.



A young woman comes out, surrounded by a dozen, large and lethargic gators where she explains trivia about the animals. No they don't like you but, no, they're not interested in hurting you or interacting with you...especially on land.  In the water, they might attack but usually just spit you out and move on after taking a taste.



She demonstrates some moves on how to handle alligators when you're hunting them

She explains how people like here are licensed by the state to capture 'nuisance' gators (i.e., the one you find on your back porch) but they are not paid, nor to the charge the homeowner. For compensation, they get to keep the gator...either killing it and selling the meat and hide, or putting it in a sanctuary like this one.

Mercifully, the show is short. Not because it's not interesting but because the rain is now coming down pretty hard and there is no roof on this arena.

Wet, soggy, tired but glad for the fun we had, we make our way back to Miami to dry off at our hotel.

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 29, 2018

THE COCKTAIL HOUR: The Runaway


Greetings from Jamaica! This week's cocktail is our latest invention, the Runaway.

A little background...when we travel, and especially if we have a comped in-room minibar...we like to play around with it and invent a cocktail from the ingredients within.


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This week, we're at the all-inclusive Luxury Bahia Principe resort in Runaway Bay, Jamaica. Our minibar includes a massive bottle of rum, some Coke, Sprite, orange soda, and beer. We augmented this by visiting a nearby market to get some coconut water, lime juice, and orange/pineapple juice.

Using our resort's location for the name, here's what we came up with.

INGREDIENTS

splash of lime juice
splash of coconut water
1 oz. gold rum
1 oz. orange/pineapple juice
top off with orange soda

Mix all ingredients in an ice-filled cup and enjoy.

Cheers!

Darryl

Friday, July 27, 2018

Death and Libations in South Beach


Years and years ago, I used to do a tour, strictly for family and friends, called the 'Death Tour' where we'd visit sites where the famous and infamous left this mortal coil. It was a Christmas Eve tradition, evolving from ways to keep everybody from getting bored until midnight, when we'd open presents.

I no longer do that, but today's chapter of our Florida adventures covers a stop that would have made the tour...


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South Beach is another of those Miami locations that's a bit harder to do via public transit. There is a bus which goes there from downtown, it would take a few transfers to get to it so it's not the easiest one to make. Especially since it goes right over the crowded MacArthur causeway, getting stuck in that traffic.

Instead, we book a ride on Lyft. It's doable if you have a light, folding wheelchair and can transfer into a car seat. We can do that with Tim, as we've practiced for emergencies without the chair before.

Now, we get taken directly to Lincoln Avenue, at the south end of South Beach, and don't have to worry about finding a place to park.

Lunch today is at a French place, La Provence, which is supposed to have some of the best croissants in the area. Actually, they're a bit heavier than I'd like and the place is buzzing...with flies. Seriously, they need the help of a pest control specialist here. Other than that, the food wasn't bad but nothing to go out of your way for.

Across to a Walgreen's to pick up a few supplies and then over to the water.

While Letty is off taking pictures, Tim and I strike up a conversation with another wheelchair user from Argentina who's here with his wife. She's out on the sand but he can't get his chair out there.



We do find some mats that let chair users go out to the beach but they don't get you too far.

He tells us about Argentina and it's accessibility (buses pretty good, trains not) and that Buenos Aires can be a bit dangerous.



Speaking of dangerous, it's been a bit over 20 years when the day got very dangerous for designer Gianni Versace. Across the street from us now is he mansion he lived in when he was alive.

On the morning of July 15, 1997, Versace was returning from his morning routine of grabbing something to read from the local newsstand and having a cup of coffee. As he approached the entrance of his house, Andrew Cunanan came up and gunned him down with a gun he'd stolen from a friend.

Now, it's an upscale hotel and restaurant.



We wonder if the hostess standing at the podium of knows she's standing on the spot where this fashion icon's life was taken from him.

Moving on to happier touring, we go to Mango's Tropical Cafe, which is more of a bar, really, to have a cool mojito.



Tim is happy to get his.



We're all happy as we cool off with this minty cocktail.



Another hour is spent enjoying the amazing art deco architecture on one side of Ocean Drive...



...and exploring the beach via the wheelchair mats on the other.



At the end of the day, we catch another Lyft ride back to the hotel.

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

FIELDS OF DREAMS: Marlins Park, Miami, Florida


One of the newer stadiums in baseball, this retractable-roof facility was built a little outside of downtown, closer to Little Havana. It's the home of the Miami Marlins, who have won the World Series twice in their short life but are also known for shipping off their expensive players once that plateau has been reached.  


The team is owned by Bruce Sherman and former Yankee shortstop, Derek Jeter.



Previously, the team shared open-air Joe Robbie stadium with the NFL's Dolphins. The team began as an expansion team in 1993 and went on the win the 1997 World Series under owner Wayne Huizenga. Claiming the team lost money on their championship season, Huizenga trades some of his best players...such as Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, Bobby Bonilla, and Gary Sheffield...in what became known as the 'fire sale.'


After their 2003 season, new owner Jeffrey Loria did the same but on a smaller scale.  

Let's take a look at the stats:


Opened: 2012
Surface: Platinum TE Paspalum
Construction cost: $634 million
Capacity: 36, 742 (37,442 with standing room)
Field dimensions: Left field - 344 ft; Left center - 386 ft; center field - 407 ft; right center - 392 ft; right field - 335 ft.
Home team: Miami Marlins (National League - MLB) 2012 - present
Events attended: 1 game

Marlins Park is a noisy stadium. Cheerleaders, a marching drum band in the stands, multiple loud cheers from the PA system mean you're not going to have a quiet night at the game. Beer and food prices are among the most expensive we've seen. There is a weird policy of not allowing any fans, except those in the premium Diamond Club seats behind home plate, into the main team store so if you want souvenirs, be sure to visit it from the outside before going in.


There is good access all around the entire stadium. Wheelchair seating is plentiful all around the seating bowl. Decks overhead may block some of your views from the accessible seats.


Ticketing is easy, just go to marlins.com to click 'Tickets' at the top of the page, choose a game date, and click on on 'real time ADA seating.'  We had no problem getting seats for the wheelchair and two companions.  Dynamic pricing means there are no set ticket prices but our seats behind home plate were around $40. 

Public transit via the city's rail system will get you within a mile of the stadium. From here, you can catch a ride on the free trolley system or public bus, which are both accessible. We walked the last mile to the game and took the trolley back to the station after the game.

There are very few lodging options in the immediate area but many more in downtown Miami.

Food choices are not as extensive as you'd think and prices are very high. $14 for a beer was quite a shock but there is a tent outside the main entrance called the 5th Base, where you can sit in air conditioned comfort sipping $6 Modelo beers before and after the game.


The concessions concourse is open and there was no issue with lines at concession stands, mainly because there are very few fans attending games here these days. In fact, I think there were more Dodger fans in attendance than those for the home team.  

A security guard told me it was his opinion that Derek Jeter is running the team into the ground and that's why fans are staying away. I couldn't ask anyone else because I never saw an usher in our section the entire game, we were only guessing that we were in the right seats.

This is one of baseball's newest stadiums but lackluster service and weird fan policies make this a rather humdrum place to watch a baseball game.

Copyright 2018 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 23, 2018

The End of the Quest: Gameday in Miami


Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Diego, Phoenix, San Fransisco, Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Chicago, Chicago again, Pittsburgh, New York, New York again, Philadelphia, Seattle, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Denver, Oakland, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, and St. Petersburg.

That is our trail and our route, as best as I can remember. For the past decade and a half we have been on a quest to see every Major League Baseball stadium. There are 30 teams...29 in the U.S.A. and one in Canada. There are 24 outdoor stadiums, 6 with retractable roofs, and 1 indoor stadium. 28 feature natural grass, two use artificial grass.  20 are downtown stadiums while 10 are a bit more removed from their city centers. 15 play in the American League...where a designated hitter bats for the pitcher...and 15 in the National League where pitchers come up to bat like everyone else.


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Some are good, some are bad, and others are squarely in the middle. Most have great customer service while one wasn't so nice to us. And, at the end of it all, each one is unique and his it's own personality.

If you count that list of team cities at the top of this article, you'll notice there are 29. We have one more to go, tonight we will cross the last team off of our list as we go to see the Miami Marlins host the Los Angeles Dodgers.

After spending a mostly delightful afternoon in Little Havana, after a little rest we gear up for the game. When we arrived here last week to take our Bahamas cruise, we turned in the rental car and have been relying on public transit and Lyft while here in the city. That poses a bit of a quandary because Marlins Park, although near downtown, is not what I'd call a transit friendly stadium.



Pouring over Google Maps and local transit sites, we decided we'd take Miami's Metro...basically an elevated subway-like system similar to Chicago's...to the Civic  Center station. This would put us about a mile north of the stadium where we could take a bus or one of Miami's trolleys.

Once we arrived at the station, we checked the online bus locators, which told us that it would be about 40 minutes before the next one arrived.

"It's not really that far, let's walk," my wife said.



A half hour and a gallon of sweat later, we arrive.  The stadium still has about 20 minutes to go until the gates open. Just outside is a party tent called the Fifth Base. The stadium security guards tell us we should wait there. It's air conditioned and the beer is cheap.



Sounds good to me.

The a/c felt very good after that walk in Miami's hot and fetid air. The tall, ice cold Modelos at $6 also helped to take away the heat and to replenish all that we'd sweated off. 



Inside, we find our seats near homebase after perusing the park's bobblehead museum, basically a large display case filled with hundreds of little bobblehead figures that are occasionally given away at sporting events. The shelve even vibrate so that the heads bobble.



It is kind of amazing we did find our seat, if indeed we did. We kind of took a guess. The section was right on the sign but none of the seats were numbered. Maybe if we could have found an usher nearby, we could have been sure, but none were to be found.

Then, there was the case of the t-shirt.

For background, about halfway through this project, Tim decided he wanted to buy a t-shirt from each park to commemorate it. That is usually accomplished by a quick visit to the team store after finding our seats. 

In Miami, there was a store called "Team Store" behind our seats. It was about a quarter the size of any other team store we've seen and had a very paltry and generic selection of shirts (Tim likes to get one featuring the name of his favorite player on the team). 

I asked the clerk in the store, "is this all you have? It seems very limited."

"There's a bigger store downstairs that has what you're looking for, it's directly beneath this one," he tells me. 

Since it's kind of a pain to take Tim back downstairs, I ask him who he wants on his shirt and then walk down the stairs of our section towards the field, where a tunnel leads to the concourse below ours.

An usher (!) down there stops me. "May I see your tickets? Do you have tickets to the Diamond Club?"



I tell her no, I'm sitting a few rows up from where we're standing. I point to Tim and Letty to show her.

"I'm trying to get to the team store," I tell here.


"You need to have Diamond Club tickets."
Thinking she's misunderstanding me, I tell her what the clerk at the store by our seats said.

"You need to have Diamond Club tickets."

Now I'm thinking that I just can't go through the Diamond Club seats to get there so I ask in there's another way, "maybe if I go down the escalators behind our seats?"

"You need to have Diamond Club tickets."

I tell her I not trying to get into the Diamond Club, just the store.

"Sir, you need to have Diamond Club tickets just to get into the store."

"You've got to be kidding me," I tell her. "The Marlins don't want to sell souvenirs to their fans?"

"That's all I know, you need to have Diamond Club tickets to get into the store."

I left and went back to the clerk in the store near us and tell him what happened, "That's right, you need to have Diamond Club tickets to get in there."

I tell him again, "I cannot believe the team does not want to sell merchandise to it's fans. There's what...30 people sitting in the Diamond Club? That's enough to support the team store?"

Seeing my frustration, he walks Tim and I to guest relations and tells them what we're trying to do. 

"You need to have Diamond Club tickets," I hear the guest relations person say. 

I basically launch into the same spiel with her, she calls upstairs to the main office. 

"What we can do is escort you downstairs. The head usher will have to sign your tickets, saying you can re-enter the stadium. You'll be escorted to the outside entrance of the store," where anybody can enter from the outside, "and then you'll need to go back through security and be escorted back to the elevator to return to your seats."

And, that is just what happened. We spent five minutes buying the shirt and a half hour negotiating with the powers that be just to make that happen.

Even a nearby security guard told me, "This team and management is the worst in the league."

Hard to disagree.



So, now, we can relax and enjoy the game. Which we do with very expensive snacks and beer.



It's a good game, the Marlins went on to beat the Dodgers 4-2. The crowd was very thin, so the noise level from the PA system and a roving band of drummers was very high trying to rally the crowd.  It didn't work...even though their team was winning, the few people that were there were very quiet.

All in all, kind of a disappointing stadium to finish off our quest in. Probably should have made Tampa Bay's stadium the last one, it was a lot more fun, but it is what it is.

This massive undertaking, which overall was a great blast to accomplish, will finish not with a bang but a whimper.

Take heart, though, the rest of Miami is fantastic and we'll be experiencing more of it next time.

Darry Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 22, 2018

THE COCKTAIL HOUR: Caribbean Sunset


You ever go on a tropical vacation and the bartender keeps making really good, kick-ass, tropical drinks? You go home, try to make them yourself, and...although they may be good...but there's just something missing.

I know I do.


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Luckily, I found this recipe that's spot-on for what we'd get in the Caribbean.

INGREDIENTS (2 drinks):

2 oz. spiced rum
2 oz. white rum
1 oz. amaretto
6 oz. pineapple juice
juice of one fresh lime
dash of grenadine

Put all ingredients, except the grenadine, into a shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain into two highball glasses, 2/3 full of ice. Dash each one with grenadine to complete the sunset effect.

Cheers!
Hand Picked Wines straight to Your Door- Exclusive member discounts

Darryl

Friday, July 20, 2018

Calle Ocho: Little Havana - Miami, Florida


"Cuban food, I want to try Cuban food."

This was Tim's refrain when we ended up in Miami. Last year, we went to Little Havana on Calle Ocho (8th Street) in Miami - the heart of the Cuban American community. We made the mistake of going on a Sunday when this heavily Catholic neighborhood shuts down and almost everything is closed.


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We could find nothing but a bakery open that day but it was a good bakery and we got this box of delicious desserts.

Also, here in Los Angeles, we tried Cuban food (and tried another local Cuban place just before writing this to make sure our memory was correct) and it was pretty dry and tasteless. OK, Tim, we'll try it but I can't say I'm thrilled at the prospect.

We board a local bus near our hotel that will take us to the far end of Calle Ocho. From here, it's about another twenty minutes of walking in that Miami heat. Soon, we're at our destination.



Versailles is the most famous Cuban restaurant here and I think it can give us a good idea of what the Cuban food here in Miami is like as compared to back home. On arriving, we see the bakery next door to the main restaurant, then a take-out counter, and then the restaurant proper where we are seated promptly.

Perusing the extensive menu, Tim goes with a Cuban sandwich, I go with a corn chowder with pork (the day's special), and Letty had the sampler plate with such delicacies as fried plantains, pork chunks, ropa vieja, and cuban tamale.



Tim loves his Cuban sandwich. I take a taste, pressed like a panini with sweet ham, pork, mustard and pickles, it's a moist and juicy explosion of taste. Excellent, nothing like the Cuban sandwiches back home.



Letty is enjoying everything on her plate...



...and my stew is a hearty, tasty, and cheap lunch that, somehow, fails to leave even a drop left over.



We hit the bakery afterward...



...and pick up a few treats to finish off this delicious meal at Miami's landmark Cuban restaurant. We are all very satisfied when done.

The only bad thing about Versailles is that it's a ways from the center of the action in Little Havana proper. Luckily, there's a trolley stop where the Little Havana Trolley stops, across the street at the Woodlawn cemetery. One is pulling up now...

I point out Tim to the driver, he opens the door..."yes."

"We have a wheelchair, can you deploy the lift?"

"You need to wait for the next one."

"Why? Is the lift broken?"

"You need to wait for the next one."

"But we're here and need a ride now. It's hot and humid, please open up the ramp."

"Next trolley is five minutes," the driver finished as he closed the door and drove off.

Now, let me give you transit drivers a bit of advice...you don't want to deny boarding to someone in a wheelchair just because you don't want to deal with the hassle. Especially if they have a phone on them. Especially if there is a sign at the bus stop saying "Problems with access? Call..." with a number to call. 

Especially if that guy standing next to that sign holding a phone is me.

While we waited for the next trolley (which showed up 20 minutes later, not 5) I called the number, talked to a friendly rep and...thanks to the Trolley's mobile website with a live map...was able to give them the exact bus and driver who refused to pick us up.



The next trolley shows up, the driver hopping out and opening the ramp..."why didn't the other driver pick you up?" she asks without prompting.  I'm guessing the dispatcher broadcast the reprimand to all driver over the radio.

"Don't know," my wife answers.

"He's in big trouble," the new driver says.  Hope so, I think.



The trolley drops us off in the heart of Little Havana at 17th Avenue. Today's a Tuesday, it's very lively. My wife checks out the souvenirs in the "visitor's center," actually a trinket shop, where's she's trying to get the clerk's attention to buy a coffee mug as about 60 passenger of a tour bus walk in. Finally, she's able to get her item bought and we can move on.



It's hot, muggy, crowded, and we could use a drink after our trolley follies so we check into the Ball and Chain, an old bar anchoring the avenue.  Mojitos are a cheap seven bucks in the midday sun, so we each have one. 



They're delicious and refreshing as we move on.



A walled mini park nearby hosts a few tables of domino playing locals. They don't seem to really enjoy that they've become a tourist attraction but they try to ignore the tourists snapping away.

After kicking around a few more shops, having a little ice cream to cool down, we wait for a trolley to come by to take us back to the hotel. Guess who the driver is?



That's right, the same guy who refused us the first time but now, maybe with his tail between his legs after getting it chewed off by his boss, he is very helpful, friendly, and eagerly deploys the lift to take us back to our hotel.

Remember, my friends, don't let them push you around...push back when needed.

The air conditioning of our room feels good. We'll rest up, dry off, and get ready.  We've got a very big game to go to tonight which we'll cover in our next installment.

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved