Ogunquit, Maine and Perkins Cove in a Day

Footbridge Beach is located at the northern end of Ogunquit Beach
Footbridge Beach located at the northern end of Ogunquit Beach.

Ogunquit, Maine is gay. I don’t mean that flippantly or as an insult–Ogunquit has been a well-known LGBT destination for decades. It’s considered to be a milder version of Provincetown minus the sex shops and transvestite street-performers.

And that’s fine with us because Ogunquit literally translates to “beautiful place by the sea” in Abenaki–one of the Algonquian-speaking tribes of the northeast.

This town is top-shelf material. It has all of the benefits of a family-friendly community (it’s clean, sophisticated, and fashionable) without the headache of endless traffic on the Sagamore Bridge or a stupid expensive ferry ride to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket.

Unlike Cape Cod, generally speaking, Maine is far less crowded and cheaper by comparison. It maintains all the beauty and amenities of its larger, more popular Massachusetts counterpart without many of the negatives.

There are no college fraternity douchebags vomiting in public parking lots. You can actually find parking unlike the time Laura and I visited Newport, Rhode Island and searched for parking for nearly two hours. There are significantly fewer yuppies in salmon-colored pants. The locals are genuinely friendly. Almost suspiciously so…

ogunquit-beach2
Ogunquit Beach is 3.5 miles long, so there is always plenty of privacy if you’re willing to carry your luggage and pee in the ocean throughout the day.

A (Refreshing) Day Trip

One of the keys to having a good time on any vacation, no matter how small, is a getting off to a good start. If you get pissed off at the beginning, you might as well pack it in and sleep under your desk at work. So, leave early. It’s that simple. Beach towns are notorious for being cramped and Ogunquit is no exception–one-way roads, small lots, no street parking, and pedestrians everywhere. Traffic builds quickly and there is little relief.

Roll down the exit ramp from I-95 onto historic Route 1 in Kittery, Maine and cruise by the Kittery Outlets where my parents used to drag my brother and I to buy winter coats in August. Take a minute to admire the countless antique stores, clam shacks, and local souvenir shops as you go through York.

Imagine yourself retiring here: coffee by the ocean every summer morning, afternoon walks in the sun, and seafood dinners with Georgia O’Keeffe’s ghost. In the winter, there would be cozy wood fires, creamy hot chocolate, and extra-thick blankets in the living room.

As one might expect, there are dozens of world class seafood restaurants with the world’s freshest lobster and clam chowder competing for your dollar. But there are also some great Italian joints, new American bistros, bakeries, cafes, and coffee shops. Between the great food, relaxed atmosphere, and stellar beaches, we fell head over heels in love with York County and Ogunquit specifically.

ogunquit-parking
All-day parking lot on Beach St. A 5-minute walk from the beach and cheaper than parking directly at the beachfront. There are parking lots all over Ogunquit at varying prices.
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Miles and miles of clean, sandy beaches.

Ogunquit Beach is incredibly flat. At low tide, nearly 100-yards of pure sand extends between the protected dunes and the edge of the water. Plenty of room for rambunctious beach activities without kicking sand on the loungers and tanners that just want to relax in the sun. There is minimal seaweed, virtually no rocks, and decent swells for body surfing.

At high tide, the shore becomes rather narrow in certain areas, but the beach stretches down the horizon for about 3.5 miles into the neighboring town of Wells, so you can always find a place to set up camp.

ogunquit-shops
A typical t-shirt and souvenir shop in downtown Ogunquit.

After you get off the beach, rinse your feet at the foot-washing station and head downtown to grab a snack and do some shopping. There are plenty of cheap boardwalk-style stores to pick up refrigerator magnets, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats. There are also classy art galleries, studios, and some interesting craft stores like Spoiled Rotten–one of our favorite home decor & gift stores loaded with tons of cool items, some made locally, most made in the U.S.A.

Meander down Shore Rd. past a few more hotels and restaurants to find the entrance to Marginal Way–a gorgeous 1.25 mile scenic trail along the coast of Ogunquit. The entrance is marked with a sign that is easily missed. Start across the street from the Seacastles Resort. Look for a narrow path that travels between two hotels, past a few tennis courts, and eventually opens up to the ocean.

Dahlias in bloom along the Marginal Way.
Dahlias in bloom along Marginal Way.
The view of Footbridge Beach from Marginal Way at high tide.
View of the Ogunquit River on the left as it joins the Gulf of Maine at high tide.

Marginal Way is neatly paved and well-kept. The fencing appears to be brand new and in good condition. The flowers and plants are in excellent shape and the views are astonishing. You can venture onto the rocks at your own risk.

Plenty of benches along the way to rest and soak in the views.
Plenty of benches along the way to rest and soak in the views.
A couple weds at the famous Beachmere Inn.
A couple weds at the famous Beachmere Inn.

Laura and I saw a couple celebrating their wedding on the lawn of the Beachmere Inn. They took wedding photos on the nearby rocks while waves crashed against the cliffs. Coincidentally, I had mentioned to Laura many months ago the various wedding packages offered by the Beachmere. When we saw the happy couple, Laura almost cried. We hope to get married here someday.

A very rare sight--new construction along Marginal Way. A placard on the wall reads "Dreams Do Come True."
Any new construction along Marginal Way is a rare and expensive undertaking. A wooden plaque on the wall reads “Dreams Do Come True” in red lettering.
Perkins Cove
The Basin at Perkins Cove.

At the end of Marginal Way lies Perkins Cove–an idyllic Maine fishing harbor that shares turf with fashion boutiques, jewelry shops, and some kick-ass seafood shacks. Dine next to the water, explore the quaint village shops, and indulge in homemade candy and ice cream.

Take pictures on the fully functional drawbridge and watch as the operator opens and closes the hinges to let the sailboats into the cove.

The Lobster Shack at Perkins Cove. Stay for a lobster roll with chips and coleslaw. Don't forget the clam chowder.
The Lobster Shack at Perkins Cove. Have a lobster roll with chips and coleslaw. Wash it down with a cold beer or six and don’t forget the clam chowder.

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ogunquit-tea
Coffee, tea, and pastry with a view from Breaking New Grounds.

You can book all types of sailing tours and cruises that launch from Perkins Cove–everything from cocktail cruises on sailing yachts to deep sea fishing for haddock and cod with crusty old Robert Shaw types.

ogunquit-perkinscove2

 

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The blue-ish boat that looks like a child’s bath toy is actually the Bunny Clark–a deep sea fishing charter boat.
Homemade chocolate and candy from Perkins Cove Candies.
Homemade fudge, candy, and other sweet confections from Perkins Cove Candies.

The peaceful towns York County, Maine will continue to be a source of inspiration and relaxation for years to come. Our next summer day trip will be several miles north of Ogunquit to the presidential town of Kennebunkport, where the Bush family famously established a secluded yet beautiful compound on the rocks in the 1980′s.

Hello, Mr. Boosh!
Hello, Mr. Boosh!
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Salt Your Way to the Perfect Eggplant

So, that's why they call it an "eggplant!"
An eggplant before it matures and ripens. Still not sure how they got their name. (Photo: Steve Albert)

Eggplant, or aubergine as it’s known in England, is not incredibly popular (at least not in America). It has a poor reputation of being bitter and soggy at times. That notoriety often leaves the lowly eggplant cast aside in favor of more familiar produce like carrots and green beans–the whores of the vegetable kingdom.

Eggplants also look weird. What the hell am I supposed to do with a deformed purple football?

The answer: cut it up and salt the hell out of it.

But, It Looks like Grimace, the McDonald’s Character…

I didn’t mean that violently. When prepared and cooked properly, eggplant is incredibly smooth, soft, and creamy–think zucchini on heroin. However, the older and larger the eggplant, the more likely it will be bitter. Mature eggplants also contain more water which makes them prone to sogginess when cooked.

To overcome this obstacle, salt the eggplant heavily prior to cooking. The salt draws out the bitter liquid and leaves less moisture inside. It also seasons the eggplant at the same time. The end result is a fantastic bitter-free vegetable that should make more frequent appearances on American dinner tables.

It should be noted that smaller eggplants, like the Chinese versions available in many Asian restaurants and groceries, generally do not require heavy salting as they are more tender and less bitter. They do, however, cost significantly more.

Preparation

One-inch cubes are ideal for sautéing–the eggplant maintains its shape better in cube form. For grilling, roasting, and frying, go with slices about 1/4″ thick.

Tip: If you plan on grilling, don’t peel the eggplant! Leave the skin in tact so the soft flesh stays together on the grill or you’ll be left with a puddle of vegetable matter. You can easily remove the skin after it’s roasted if you desire.

Place the cubes into a large mixing bowl (or place slices onto a large tray) and hit all sides with salt. I usually use about 1/2 cup salt or more per whole eggplant. Coat each piece thoroughly and let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes.

eggplant-closeup

After a while, you’ll see some brownish liquid on the surface. When you’re ready to cook, wipe off the bitter liquid and excess salt with a damp paper towel.

Tip: I prefer wiping away the salt instead of rinsing. Running it under water re-introduces too much moisture and washes away some flavor which sort of defeats the purpose. The eggplant has to be relatively dry before cooking. Rinsing makes that more difficult.

At this point, feel free to add more seasonings, like cracked black pepper, fresh chopped oregano, and some olive oil, perhaps. Maybe a little crushed red pepper flake if you like-a-da-heat.

Cooking

Eggplant doesn’t take very long once it hits the heat, but you must cook it thoroughly. Undercooked eggplant is crunchy, bitter, and downright unpleasant. Keep it over medium heat until soft and cooked through but not mushy. If it turns into the consistency of mashed over-ripened bananas then you’ve gone too far.

Don’t overcrowd the pan when sautéing, but keep in mind that you have some wiggle room as the eggplant will shrink slightly while cooking. Toss occasionally over medium-high heat.

Before grilling, brush the slices with olive oil to prevent sticking. Grill each side over medium-high heat until soft and tender. To achieve those beautiful grill marks, don’t mess with the slices after you put them on. Let them cook and only flip once.

 

Recipe: Eggplant Parmesan

Now that you have all this eggplant prepared, here’s my favorite recipe for eggplant parmesan. Laura and I look forward to this meal each week on Prince Spaghetti Day which non-Bostonians will recognize as Wednesday.

Ingredients:
  • 1 medium eggplant (about 1 to 1.5 lbs) sliced and salted
  • 1 lb dry spaghetti
  • 4-5 cups tomato sauce*
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tbsp black pepper
  • 2 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tbsp dry thyme
  • 4 cups Panko bread crumbs
  • olive oil
  • 1 cup mozzarella cheese
  • 1 cup parmesan cheese

*Note: 1 jar of store-bought tomato sauce is 3 cups (24oz). That isn’t nearly enough sauce for my taste, especially if I’m using delicious homemade sauce. I typically use at least 4 cups, so adjust accordingly.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While you wait, combine the flour and dry spices in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. In a second bowl, scramble the four eggs. In a third bowl, add the Panko bread crumbs.

Mise en place
A snapshot of my mise en place — a French culinary term for “putting in place.” It refers to the organization and arrangement of all the ingredients that a chef will need throughout a shift. It’s an essential aspect of any professional kitchen and an incredibly useful habit in any home kitchen as well.

Take a slice of eggplant and “dredge” (completely coat) it in the seasoned flour. Then dunk the slice in the egg mixture until it’s coated. Finally, dredge it in the bread crumbs. Do this “dry-wet-dry” process for every slice.

Once the eggplant is breaded, it’s time to employ the classic shallow fry technique. Add about 3-4 tsp of olive oil to a large saute pan over medium heat. There should be enough oil to coat the pan but the eggplant shouldn’t be completely submerged in oil.

Fry it up. A second pan in the background to get ahead.
Fry it up! Note the second pan in the background to stay ahead of the game.

Cook for about 2 minutes on each side or until golden brown on the outside and soft in the center. Do not overcrowd the pan! Break out a second pan if you need to capitalize on time and space. Place finished slices on a cooling tray or a baking sheet lined with paper towels to drain excess oil. Hit them with a little sprinkle of kosher salt before they cool.

Note: Depending on how much you end up frying, you may need to change out the oil after a while. Frying food in dirty oil is bush league. Carefully discard the old oil and burned bits. Replace with fresh olive oil.

Golden brown and delicious!
Golden brown and delicious!

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a 2-inch baking dish, begin with a layer of sauce on the bottom then add half the fried eggplant slices. Add another layer of sauce and sprinkle on half the cheese. Add the remainder of the eggplant and top with more sauce and the rest of the cheese. Bake until hot and just starting to brown on top–about 20-25 minutes.

Add the spaghetti to the boiling water and follow the instructions on the package–anywhere from 7 to 9 minutes for al dente. Drain the cooked pasta, return it to the pot, add the tomato sauce, and put it back on the stove over high heat for less than a minute. The sauce will thicken ever so slightly and the noodles will absorb the sauce’s flavor.

Never present a bowl of dry pasta with some sauce poured in the middle!

To be honest, Laura and I usually skip the baking step entirely and just eat the fried eggplant with spaghetti. That’s exactly what happened tonight. It’s funny–when I first met Laura she didn’t eat many vegetables. Today, my eggplant is the number one requested dish in our apartment. Try it out and leave a comment!

Monks in Spencer, Massachusetts Brew The First American Trappist Ale

St Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, MA
(Photo: John Phelan)

“We really brew, on a practical level, to sustain a way of life. Plus, it kind of brightens up Sunday suppers. (laughs)” — Father Isaac Keeley

St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts has always been known for two things: fruit preserves and Trappist monks in long robes.

For more than 60 years, the humble monks have sold fantastic locally sourced jams and jellies of all varieties (branded as Trappist Preserves) to maintain their monastery and support their quiet way of life. It’s available in many grocery stores throughout New England and also online. But, even stoic monks with kick-ass jelly are susceptible to economic downturns and inflation.

A few years ago, the monks realized that the rising costs and expenses of maintaining an aging monastery slowly exceeded the income from their regional jelly operation. Cutting back on those wildly extravagant jelly parties didn’t seem to help, so the monks started researching other ways to generate income. They eventually settled on a truly legendary and potentially lucrative part of their heritage: beer.

A Rich History

Let’s begin by saying: Trappist monks don’t fuck around when it comes to beer. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years in Europe and keep a close watch on the brewing process. To date, there are only ten monasteries in the world that are legally allowed to brew and label their product as an official Trappist beer. St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer is the only monastery in the U.S. with that privilege. That’s an impressive start. (No pressure, guys!)

In 2010, the Abbey dispatched two monks on a fact-finding mission to get educated on the history of Trappist beer, the art of brewing, and the legalities of distributing on a smaller, regional scale (much like their jelly operation). They rubbed elbows with brewers and distributors at the Belgian Beer Fest in Boston, MA–an event that I attended but only vaguely remember.

Word of the monks’ interest in the real family business traveled fast. Their European counterparts grew concerned. What did jelly makers know about Belgian beer? And, furthermore, what did Americans know about Belgian beer?

Hit The Books, Kid

In December 2010, Father Isaac Keeley, a former potter at St. Joseph’s, and another monk moved to Belgium to learn how to brew directly from their brew-master brothers in the motherland. They also had to convince the Europeans that they were indeed serious, capable, and committed to establishing the first Trappist brewery in America.

Eventually, the Europeans warmed up to the idea of an American Trappist counterpart. However, their initial fear was that St. Joseph’s would go too big too fast and ultimately fail–a common concern for any new business. The Euros offered three key pieces of advice that any brewery (or small business for that matter) should take:

  1. Identify what you don’t know. New to brewing? Hire a skilled, experienced brewing engineer to oversee the operation. Don’t try to do it all yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing!
  2. Do it right. Build a modern, state-of-the-art facility. Don’t cheap out on vital parts, equipment, and infrastructure for your operation.
  3. Baby steps. Start with a single beer for the first five years. Focus on that product, perfect it, build a reputation, and grow slowly but steadily.

Meanwhile, back home, the monks debated over what would be the most expensive project St. Joseph’s Abbey had ever undertaken. Jelly-making was easy and familiar; brewing was an unscouted monster. But, everyone agreed that something had to be done about the aging buildings and condition of the grounds. In the end, over 85% of the brothers voted in favor of opening a brewery.

The First Sip

Thanks in part to the established success of Trappist Preserves, the monks were able to secure a bank loan for an amount they won’t disclose. They built a multi-million dollar brewery in Spencer and hired Hubert de Halleux, a highly qualified Belgian master brewer who has helped breweries across the world, to oversee the operation and offer valuable consultation. Father Isaac became the Brewery Director and currently runs the day-to-day production. He can be seen walking around the brewery in his traditional robes–the rest of the monks on the production staff wear normal work clothes.

Over 20 different test batches later, the monks finally settled on a recipe they are proud to call Spencer Trappist Ale (6.5% ABV)–a slightly cloudy, golden brown, sweet ale that traditional Trappist fans will surely recognize.

monk-beer
After years of studying, testing, and tasting, St. Joseph’s Abbey proudly presents Spencer Trappist Ale (Photo: Stephan Savoia/AP)

In December 2013, Father Isaac returned to Belgium with a suitcase full of freshly brewed Massachusetts beer hoping to receive his brothers’ blessing. He delivered a PowerPoint presentation, answered questions, and poured glasses. Spencer Trappist Ale was approved unanimously and there was even an applause after the vote. It was enough to bring a tear to a slightly buzzed monk’s eye.

Spencer Trappist Ale went on sale this year and is currently only available in Massachusetts. Unlike jelly, alcohol is regulated by the ATF–a government agency notorious for having their underwear tangled up in vicious bunches most days. They get a little grouchy.

The monks plan on slowly expanding in the U.S. with the hopes of eventually selling their beer internationally. It will take steady sales over a few years and some degree of cooperation from the government, but so far, the skies look promising.

For more about the monks, the brewery, and St. Joseph’s Abbey, check out this video from CNN Money.

A Day at The Breakers Mansion, Newport, RI

The rear and northern corner of the mansion. Beautiful arches, huge windows, and lush greenery everywhere.
The Breakers mansion in Newport, RI

As we crossed over the Newport Bridge and entered the gorgeous seaside town of Newport, Rhode Island, hundreds of yachts and sailboats greeted us as they slowly drifted across the harbor. Lighthouses, docks, and beautiful beach homes lined almost every inch of coast as far as the eye could see. A wonderfully salty, briny sea breeze floated through the car windows and kept us cool even as the mid-morning sun gently baked our skin through the windshield.

It was an idyllic approach to the coastal New England paradise. Then, we hit traffic. I expected it to be bad on a holiday weekend, but getting through town was a total debacle.

The tremendous influx of cars and pedestrians battling for territory was only exacerbated by the fact that Newport is most certainly an historic New England maritime town. That means lots of small, narrow one-way roads and very few traffic arteries. All of the streets seem to connect with each other in small loops or segments so traffic has nowhere to disperse. Tight quarters also means less room for parking and, in turn, heavily inflated prices for what little parking is available.

But, on the bright side, sluggish traffic through town meant Laura and I got to inspect each storefront and landmark in great detail before moving forward in ten foot increments. Newport is fucking beautiful. I wasn’t surprised to learn that JFK married Jackie Bouvier here. The whole town smells of Kennedys.

Eventually, we passed the harbor & the wharf and made it through the congested downtown areas. If the yachts, high-end boutiques, and International Tennis Hall of Fame weren’t clear enough indicators of a wealthy town, the colossal mansions along Bellevue Avenue should do the trick.

Bellevue Ave starts in the heart of downtown Newport (right at the corner of the famous Hotel Viking) and runs south all the way to the ocean. Along the way, there are dozens of amazing privately owned homes on both sides of the street juxtaposed with publicly-supported mansions open for tours and viewing.

And the grandest and most opulent of all the Newport mansions is called…

The Breakers

The rear of the estate faces the ocean.
A rear view of The Breakers mansion which faces the Atlantic ocean.

The Breakers, named after the crashing sound the waves make as they break against the nearby ocean cliffs, is the 17th largest home in the U.S. and is open daily to the public (for a fee). It was built in the 1890’s by the prominent Vanderbilt family and, from my understanding, the Vanderbilts dedicated all of their free time and money to building gigantic houses to piss off their neighbors.

They built numerous other homes in states from Massachusetts down to Florida, including the largest house ever built in New York City.

A front corner of the mansion and pathways through the gardens.
A front corner of the mansion with pathways through the gardens.

As you step inside the massive wooden front doors, a friendly host scans your ticket and hands you a headset. The tours are self-guided and photography is prohibited inside which explains the lack of interior pictures in this blog post. Sorry! I tried to snap a few photos and was quickly reprimanded by watchful attendants.

You can skip parts of the tour or repeat the audio guide as many times as you’d like. Laura and I spent more time studying the sections of the estate nearest the ocean as they were the most impressive to us.

The view from an incredible open-air living room on the second floor. There is so much detail in every inch of the estate, from the columns to the tiles and the fixtures.
The view from an open-air living room on the second floor accessible from two of the bedrooms.

Every single room of this French-inspired mansion was a display of absolutely ridiculous wealth. Fifty-foot ceilings, marble & abalone columns, gold trim everywhere, platinum-coated walls, thousands of rare stones & gems…

I mean, the first fifteen minutes in the Great Hall were legitimately dizzying–there was so much to process that I actually had a difficult time focusing at first. I had never been in the presence of such wealth and immensity before. The level of detail in every fixture and every inch of space was incredible. You could spend an entire month locked in each room and still miss some intricacies.

The Billiard Room opened up to the lawn revealing a remarkable ocean view. A salty breeze wandered through each enormous bedroom window. The bathrooms even had saltwater pumps for therapeutic spa-like treatments and saltwater baths.

The massive kitchen with a single 21-foot coal-burning cast iron stove and a zinc work table.
The stunning kitchen with a single 21-foot coal-burning cast iron stove and a zinc work table.

My favorite room in any home, the kitchen, was beyond breathtaking at The Breakers. I was able to evade the attendants and hide in a security camera’s blind spot long enough to snap a single photo. Yes, I said security cameras. The Breakers is fully wired for electricity and has been that way since its construction. As you can imagine, electricity was not a cheap option in the 1890’s, but fuck it, they’re Vanderbilts.

There was an enormous cast iron stove which was heated as a single unit with coal fires, and a zinc work table for the chefs (who lived on site along with 40 other staff members). The adjacent room was used as storage for mountains of glasses, dishes, and cutlery–so much that it had to be split up into two floors. Interestingly, the entire kitchen facility was built as a separate section away from the rest of the main house to protect it in case of fire.

Just a portion of the massive backyard which drops into the ocean. Visitors relax in the grass and listen to the sound of waves crashing against the rocky cliffs. The peaceful sound gives the estate its name, "The Breakers."
Just a portion of the enormous backyard which drops directly into the ocean. Visitors relax in the grass and listen to the sound of waves crashing against the rocky cliffs.

At the rear of the mansion sits a huge patio and a staircase descending to the backyard which is almost big enough to be a professional baseball field. The grounds are lined with flowers, exotic trees, and pebbled paths that wrap around both sides of the estate.

As Laura and I relaxed in the shade of a very old oak tree, I entertained the fantasy of growing up a Vanderbilt child–spending summers at The Breakers, chasing dragonflies around the lush grounds, and getting grass stains on my new breeches.

It’s funny how indescribably different the life of a Vanderbilt must have been despite the fact that we all start as innocent, pie-eyed children–nothing more than fleshy sacks of water & bone just trying to have a little fun in the summer sun.

Fireworks and Hurricanes

America’s most patriotic holiday is here! And, for most of the eastern seaboard, so is Hurricane Arthur. Laura and I kicked off the celebratory weekend in true American style by sleeping in late on a Swedish-made bed and rolling around in Egyptian cotton sheets. Then I made some delicious dark roasted Ethiopian coffee in a Chinese-built coffee maker and prepared for more rain, thunderstorms, and strong winds.

Beach goers and vacationers around New England must be enraged. Prices for the already costly hotel rooms in coastal madhouses like Nantucket, Cape Cod, and Newport, Rhode Island jump exponentially during Fourth of July weekend–the absolute most popular time for visitors and tourists. And we willingly pay those outrageous prices! That tells you how shitty the weather in New England is the rest of the year.

For once, my negligence pays off, though. I failed to check my schedule weeks earlier and didn’t book our summer beach trip in time inadvertently saving us from wasting our Fourth of July stuck in a small, yet outlandishly expensive, hotel room with flat pillows and basic cable. Score one for procrastination!

So, thanks to hurricanes and negligence, instead of sitting oceanside with clumps of sand between my toes, sun in my face, and a cold drink in my hand… I’m sitting window-side with two mischievous cats, watching the rain fall, and sipping a bottle of fine Kentucky bourbon whiskey courtesy of Angel’s Envy. (Twitter: @Angels_Envy)

Angel's Envy -- It’s “nectar of the gods,” as they say. Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey finished in port barrels. 750mL 43.3% ABV / 96.6 Proof
Angel’s Envy — It’s “nectar of the gods,” as they say. Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey finished in port barrels. 750mL 43.3% ABV / 96.6 Proof

An incredibly smooth finish. Like butter doing the moonwalk on ice while complimenting a super attractive woman smooth. When it comes to bourbon whiskey and making love, let’s face it, it’s almost always about the finish. It’s no surprise considering this stuff comes from master distiller Lincoln Henderson whose name is proudly etched on the front of the bottle. Henderson is responsible for two other whiskey products I know and love: Gentleman Jack and Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel.

Vanilla, berry, and spicy notes hit the front palate right away. There is a pleasant lack of woodiness that many bourbon whiskeys have. Whiskey aged in small oak barrels tends to have that over-oaked and tannic quality that can be overpowering and a turn-off for some. Overall, Angel’s Envy is a remarkable balance between wood, oak/tannins, and spice with a finish so smooth that Laura didn’t even furrow her brow after tasting it from my glass.

A Silver Lining

When a hurricane passes, it sucks all of the nearby storm cells up and takes them along for a ride out to the northern Atlantic. That means the weather after a hurricane is typically dry and warm. Good news for those poor beach bums that were forced indoors today.

Happy Fourth of July! May your weekend hold plenty of warm, dry weather and cold, stiff drinks.

Grande Plans: Big Sur, California and The Pacific Coast Highway

Dreaming of the Pacific... (Photo: Medhat Ibrahim, My Shot)
“California Love.” The Bixby Bridge sits in the distance surrounded by cliffs and ocean waves in Big Sur, California (Photo: Medhat Ibrahim, My Shot)

It’s a bittersweet time for us. A dear friend of ours recently accepted a position at a brewery in northern California and leaves in a few days to explore other side of the country. While it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity for him, it will be sad to see an empty seat in the canoe when our crew ransacks the lake house in New Hampshire this summer.

On the bright side, his relocation opens up an opportunity to visit California for the first time and possibly complete a very high-ranking item on my bucket list: drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a rented convertible.

That’s right. This New England boy has always dreamed of a legendary On The Road departure–a quarter-life crisis. Just “go Kerouac on everyone’s ass” and disappear in the middle of the night for San Francisco in search of adventure, intoxicants, and any life experiences that may come. In my head, I glamorize the vagabond beat-poet lifestyle: fending off dirty dealers & booze-addled women, sipping coffee at 24-hour diners, and huffing down Marlboro reds.

However, at this point in my life, I’d gladly settle for a fresh fish taco with jalapeno, avocado, and a killer sauce.

The Bixby Bridge spans across the creek along Route 1 on Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, California. (Photo: Douglas Croft)
The Bixby Bridge spans across the creek along Route 1 on Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, California. (Photo: Douglas Croft)

Early Stages: Planning the Road Trip

The Pacific Coast Highway runs from California to Oregon and is a truly exhilarating, cliff-hugging experience, so I’m told. Perhaps the most famous section is Big Sur, a sparsely populated coastal area named after the Spanish translation for “Big South.” Ironically, LA is nicknamed “Big Sewer” and is farther south.

There are no specific borders or boundaries, but Big Sur stretches along miles of mountainous coastline, epic cliffs, vast bridges, and winding roads with views that make even native Californians gasp in awe. It’s an all-American road, if such a thing exists, ranking among the nation’s most scenic and must-see drives. National Geographic included the route in their book, Drives of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Most Spectacular Trips.

Ready to “go Kerouac” yet?

The Pacific Coast Highway is a gorgeous stretch of road running hundreds of miles along the coast from California to Oregon.
The Pacific Coast Highway is a gorgeous scenic road stretching over 1700 miles along the coast from California to Oregon. (Photo: National Geographic)

The Big Sur scenic route starts somewhere in San Luis Obispo and travels north up the coast to Monterey (I’m assuming that’s Californian-speak for “one small surf town to another small surf town”), but Laura and I plan on starting farther away in LA and ending up slightly north of San Francisco to visit our friend. Avoiding all highways turns a leisurely five-hour drive into more than nine. But, we’ve always dreamed of doing this together. We imagine it would be like that movie Sideways except awesome.

Either way, we need a car.

The first thing to do before renting a car is to check for coupons, deals, and promotions. That’s obvious enough.

Rental cars are significantly cheaper away from the airports, so we plan on site-seeing in Hollywood, dry-humping Tom Cruise’s front gate in Beverly Hills, and getting shot in Compton before picking up a car elsewhere. One-way trips always cost more per day, so only reserve a car for the actual road trip, not the entire vacation. Public transportation in LA and San Francisco are far less horrendous than whatever Boston puts forth, so getting around town is not an issue.

It’s no secret that convertibles will cost more to rent than economy cars (in my recent searches on Avis, Budget, and Enterprise up to 400% more in some cases). So, be prepared to pay a premium or settle for something less extravagant.

Fuel up before leaving civilization. Gas on certain parts of the Pacific Coast Highway is notoriously expensive because, well, it’s so god damn remote. Sparsely populated is not hyperbole. Recent reviews and posts on TripAdvisor report gas as high as $7/gallon. I suppose being so isolated has its perks and its pitfalls, so make sure to gas up before leaving. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to pack a gallon or two of water, some energy bars, and a fire-starting tool… just in case.

Don't die out there, kid. Photo: Les Stroud, Survivorman
Please, don’t die out there, dude. (Photo: Les Stroud, Survivorman)

Our first foray on the west coast is still in the works. More research and planning needs to happen to make sure the good stuff isn’t missed and the bad stuff is avoided.

To me, the anticipation that comes from preparing for a big trip is almost as exciting as the actual trip itself. I love researching different restaurants & attractions and getting to know the lay of the land before ever stepping foot on it. I thoroughly enjoy discovering and sharing local hints & tips that the average tourist overlooks.

I also love it when everything goes to shit and you end up wearing a poncho and eating hot dogs in the rain, laughing, trying not to let too much rainwater fall in your beer.

The Infamous Slum of Old San Juan

They say the body acclimates to warm weather over time. A three-hour flight was not enough for this lifelong New England native to prepare for the wilting heat of Puerto Rico. Laura, on the other hand, was born and raised on the enchanted island. She handled the climate much better with her thinner Caribbean blood.

Beads of sweat rolled off my forehead as we wandered through the historic cobbled streets of Old San Juan. The occasional droplet ran down my back. Heat and humidity have a way of breaking me down ruthlessly– my biggest weakness. I toughed it out. Puerto Rico is hot, but it’s absolutely beautiful as well.

A typical colorful street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
A typical street in Old San Juan lined with colonial buildings and colorful walls.

Old San Juan is the historic section of Puerto Rico’s largest city, San Juan. Fortified by Spain in the 1700’s, the city is loaded with beautiful colonial buildings and historic monuments. Steep cliffs and concrete walls were built along the shore as protection against invading forces. Every calle (“street”) has remnants of history, religion, and Caribbean traditions. Generations of families with deep African and Spanish roots still live here. Churches and cathedrals are everywhere.

There are also plenty of bars, theme restaurants, and souvenir shops on every street catering to tourists and locals alike. You can take a walking tour through a colonial-era military fort, buy a computer, and fill a prescription on the same block. The old seamlessly blends with the new.

Under every blue Spanish cobblestone hides a dirty secret.

On our first night in Old San Juan, we met two of Laura’s cousins at a popular restaurant near the harbor. They lived in the neighboring town of Carolina a few minutes up the main strip. They were polite and looked like any other fellows in their early 20’s–flat-brim baseball caps, matching Jordans, and surgically attached smartphones. We introduced ourselves, ordered a few rounds, and discussed island living over plates of roast pork, fried plantains, and white rice. An idyllic start to our Caribbean getaway.

After dinner, they drove us around San Juan to check out the sights and sounds. We passed a few clubs along the harbor that were stuffed to the gills with middle-aged tourists dancing on the open patios, sipping fruity umbrella drinks, and wearing bright summer linens. Police details were on nearly every corner. Luxury resorts were stacked along the beach in orderly rows like Monopoly pieces. As were more cops.

“Avoid people that look like us,” said one of the cousins.

He was referring to a certain breed of young Puerto Rican males–flashy ones with nice clothes, bright jewelry, and expensive cars. They were most often well-connected drug dealers or gang members looking for trouble. Lots of legitimate money runs through these bright and elegant avenidas, but San Juan has a much darker side–a serious criminal underworld lurking in the shade from the palm trees.

That night was the first time I’d ever heard of La Perla.

It’s a hidden slum within Old San Juan. Legendary among locals, it inspires countless stories and rumors about drugs and murder. It’s location outside the city walls secludes its cogs and inner-workings from the curious gazes of nosy tourists.

A cemetery sits between Castillo de San Cristobal and the monument of El Morro in the distance.
On the left, a car exits through one of three main access points into La Perla slum. To the right, a cemetery sits outside the city’s walls.

These two guys knew all about it. They witnessed the plethora of gang activity, drug trafficking, and violent crimes that permeated the streets of San Juan. Shootings and stabbings were incredibly common. They described which sub-barrios to avoid while site-seeing and stressed the importance of self-awareness in Puerto Rico. They warned us about local gang members and their penchant for violence.

About 80% of crime on Puerto Rico is drug-related. The island’s geographic location and political ties with the U.S. make it a critical jump-off point for drug cartels and smugglers looking to sneak their products into America. Cocaine is still a big seller. In recent years, traffickers from Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico have started funneling drugs through Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic at much higher rates.

Most of the cocaine is destined for major cities along the eastern U.S. seaboard, like Miami, Atlanta, and New York. The rest of it remains on the island leaving gang members to wage violent wars against their rivals over money, drugs, and control of the local drug trade. The sky-high murder rate in Puerto Rico is a direct result of the major increase in drug traffic.

New-Old San Juan

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Old San Juan was in a state of disrepair. Prostitution & drugs plagued the streets, crime was rampant, and the infrastructure was in really poor shape. It was Detroit with palm trees. Politicians started pushing legislation to revitalize local businesses, clean up the neighborhoods, and turn the city into a Caribbean hotspot for tourists and honeymooners. They modeled the redevelopment of San Juan after the wildly successful Disneyfication of Manhattan (which still continues to this day).

The government created tax incentives to attract businesses and eliminated rent control to drive out poor folks. They started building endless hotels, clubs, and restaurants. The poorer segments of society were pushed away from the community–banished to the outskirts of the city where the cost of living was more affordable. That made plenty of room for hotel magnates and restaurant conglomerates to demolish and rebuild.

Overall, the government’s efforts to rejuvenate San Juan (particularly Old San Juan & the colonial neighborhoods) were successful.

Except for La Perla

The next day, Laura and I toured the fortress of Castillo de San Cristobal. A street vendor persuaded us into trying a Puerto Rican delicacy known as piragua (Spanish for “snow-cone”). How exotic! The pineapple flavored one was the best. We stopped to enjoy our frozen treats on a grassy hill as a group of students gathered nearby to eat their lunches.

Then, Laura pointed it out.

La Perla sits between two historic Spanish forts in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The micro-slum of La Perla sits against the ocean, nestled between two historic forts in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Four hundred feet from snow-cone-eating tourists and students on field trips sat La Perla.

The infamous drug-infested slum was smaller than I’d imagined. It stretched about 600 yards or so along the rocky coastline. It was completely secluded and tucked away between the ocean waves and the old fortress walls that once protected the city from invasions. An ideal location for anyone wishing to partake in illegal activities in private.

And it was certainly the most picturesque slum I’d ever seen.

A basketball court on the outskirts of La Perla. Concerts and gatherings are held here. We could hear chickens squabbling nearby.
A basketball court on the outskirts of La Perla where weekly concerts are held in an effort to change the community’s poor reputation.

La Perla originated in the 19th century as a zoning area for cemeteries, slaughterhouses, and slaves to stay outside the city walls away from the community center. Over time, farmers and the city’s poorer residents established their homes there.

With Old San Juan under the scrutiny of a clean-up effort by local government, the drug dealers and gang members moved to La Perla in droves to lay low and begin new enterprises. The DEA estimates about $20 million worth of drugs are sold within the slum each year. Drug traffickers, arms dealers, and slumlords control the neighborhood with impunity.

Laura’s cousins explained that, for the most part, law enforcement leaves La Perla alone. Aside from an incredibly rare police raid in 2011 spurred by international criticism due to record-breaking murder rates, the cops simply hang back and make sure violence doesn’t spill into areas where tourists frequent.

A self-governing system of illegal activity operates within the slum–a real-life Puerto Rican version of The Wire. With cops looking the other way, the black market can thrive out of plain view which keeps crime off the busy streets and away from tourists. The city maintains a safe, positive image and the criminals continue to rake in big profits. Everyone is happy! Except the residents of La Perla

So, is it safe..?

Generally speaking, outsiders and tourists are not the target of violence in Puerto Rico. It’s a safe place to visit and I recommend it to friends and family.

It’s even safe within the boundaries of La Perla, relatively speaking, of course. Outsiders only enter La Perla for one reason: to buy drugs. Dealers don’t want their customers harmed or scared away–that’s bad for business. So, outsiders are usually allowed to enter and exit unscathed during the day.

However, flashy unsuspecting tourists can easily find trouble. Unless you’re desperately trying to feed a bad dope habit, I’d reconsider venturing into the slum for an adventure.

Tourist maps posted in the city often omit the existence of La Perla’s streets to deter tourists from accidentally wandering into the high crime areas. Even though it sits mere steps from major tourist attractions, there are only three main access points to La Perla. Each one is clearly marked with plenty of graffiti and grime–the international symbol for “this is a bad neighborhood.”

We chose not to breach the inner walls of the slum during our stay and only explored the outskirts during the day. We were not willing to take the risk of ruining our rare opportunity for a romantic Caribbean getaway in the name of spontaneous journalistic adventure.

All of the same “Rules of Street Smarts” in the U.S. (or any other country for that matter) apply in San Juan: Don’t flash your cash, look like you belong, walk with confidence, and know exactly where you shouldn’t be.

Catnip Junkies: Getting High With Your Cat

Drooling, sleepiness, licking, and purring–my cats and I act the same way when we’re intoxicated. Laura and I are the caretakers of two beloved felines: Colonel Whiskers & Little Shinobi.

Colonel Whiskers & Little Shinobi watching you sleep, plotting your demise, and waiting for the automatic pet feeder.
Colonel Whiskers (left) & Little Shinobi watching you sleep, plotting your ultimate demise, and waiting for the automatic pet feeder.

These two miscreants love eating, sleeping, and re-enacting battle scenes from Saving Private Ryan at 4am. Other hobbies include sitting on laptops and attacking window shades.

They also love to get high on a regular basis thanks to an organic compound called nepetalactone. No jobs, no responsibilities, 16-hour naps… I’m basically supporting two useless, greasy teenagers.

Life is tough.
Life is tough.

And we all get toasted together!

Nepetalactone is the active attractant found in catnip–a common perennial plant belonging to the mint species. Many cats like to sniff and chew dried catnip clippings; gently bruising the leaves releases the nepetalactone and gives cats a quick, innocent, euphoric “high” feeling. They typically spend the next fifteen to twenty minutes pawing, licking, purring, and rolling around. I exhibit similar behavior under similar conditions.

Catnip has been shown to have behavioral effects on larger cat species like tigers and leopards, too.

Colonel Whiskers is completely wasted on catnip. He'll be in a happy place for the next couple of hours.
Colonel Whiskers is completely wasted on catnip. He’ll be incapacitated for the next 20 minutes or so.

Not all cats are affected by catnip. The phenomenon is hereditary.

As a child, my family had an adorable demon kitty that was completely immune to the stuff. Not even the slightest interest or effect. He was a prolific hunter, though. And I suppose getting stoned all the time would have distracted him from hunting. He loved to catch small critters and leave them on my pillow as presents. Coming home from kindergarten to a bed full of dead animals was scarring to say the least.

It took me a while to understand cats…

Rehabilitation not Incarceration!

Catnip is not addictive. Cats don’t stress out when they’re coming down from a catnip high. They don’t crave more and more. You won’t catch your kitty sneaking out in the middle of the night to score a jar of ‘nip from his dealer or lifting twenty bucks from your wallet when you’re sleeping.

However, catnip can cause some cats to behave aggressively. Typically, the aggression stems from an elevated level of excitement and euphoria, so watch your cat to see how it reacts to getting high. Some cats have sensitive stomachs, too. Excessive amounts of catnip can cause vomiting and diarrhea.

Cats, like humans, can get paranoid or anxious. Not everyone can handle the trip. Make sure to have plenty of soft pillows, chill music, and cold water on hand. You know, for your cat…

From Naples With Love

Worcester is a city that is quite rough around the edges. It’s like a cannoli coated with thumbtacks and arsenic; if your system can somehow handle the rough exterior you’ll be rewarded with a wonderful variety of flavors in the center.

“Restaurant Row” is the tasty center of the filled pastry. It’s a famous stretch of Shrewsbury Street where many of the city’s top restaurants and bars live. There is a healthy mix of new and old here; modern conglomerate-owned bistros sit just steps away from classic diners and family-owned restaurants. Take a walk down Shrewsbury Street on a summer night and you’ll come across young bar patrons & revelers getting liquored up next to middle-aged professionals out for a gourmet cocktail and a well-cooked snack. You might even see a drunk girl yelling at her boyfriend and searching for her cellphone.

There is always an interesting crowd.

Death of a Car Salesman

The newest member in the pack of Italian restaurants in Worcester is Volturno. Bringing passion and cuisine straight out of Naples, they arrive onto the scene to thunderous applause and critical acclaim. Recently, Volturno was chosen as Best New Restaurant of 2014 and Best Pizza 2014 by Worcester Magazine. They are constantly featured on local television and numerous other food publications, too. Deservedly so. We’ll get to that.

Volturno was built inside the old Buick dealership on Shrewsbury Street near the I-290 overpass. My father bought a car here in the late 90’s: a classic old-man white Buick LeSabre complete with luggage rack, fake convertible Presidential roof, and silver hood ornament. I distinctly remember being a kid, sitting on an uncomfortable metal chair waiting for him to finish haggling with the car salesman over white-wall tires and stain-resistant floor mats.

Out of the Wood-Fired Ashes…

It’s really pleasing to see how Volturno transformed the space. Parking in a freshly paved lot and walking along smooth concrete feels strange at first, but entering the restaurant will make you forget a car dealership ever existed here.

Incredibly high ceilings, bright atmosphere, super clean, and very spacious.
Incredibly high ceilings, bright atmosphere, super clean, and very spacious.

“Open” is a great way to describe it. Fucking gorgeous is even better. The windows stretch from floor to ceiling and there is a large, deep square bar in the center of the dining area. During the day, sunlight hits every corner. At night, the hanging lights give off a warm glow that you can see from the highway.

The tables have that reconditioned wood thing going on which gives the place a very natural and relaxed vibe. If all car dealerships looked like this, then I’d be in big trouble financially.

The bar is remarkably deep and spacious which makes it perfect for eating and sharing multiple plates.
The bar is remarkably deep and spacious which makes it perfect for eating and sharing multiple plates.

The back of the restaurant is home to two large wood-fire pizza ovens; the most essential piece of equipment for making a true Neopolitan pizza. Workers shuffle pies in and out surgically every few minutes.

One of the wood-fire pizza ovens. The oven itself is a work of art, but what it can create is even more special.
Wood-fire pizza oven. The oven itself is a work of art, but what it can create is even more special.

Volturno fires the oven up to 900 degrees as per master pizza-making guidelines set forth by the Italian government. The owner, Greg Califano, traveled to Italy to become a certified pizzaiolo. The intense heat nearly scorches the pizza giving it that signature leopard-spotting which makes Neopolitans so recognizable. It also imparts a fantastic smokey flavor that no other pizza style possesses.

Potato pizza with crema, potatoes, sausage, caramelized onions, and mozzarella.
Potato pizza with crema, potatoes, sausage, caramelized onions, and mozzarella.

Here’s the deal: I’ve tried pizza in Boston, New York, Rome, and the motherland of modern pizza herself, Naples. Volturno pizza is right up there at the top with the best of the best. The dough was phenomenal. Soft, slightly charred, a delicate chew, and great flavor–I almost fell off my bar stool and I was rather sober.

The toppings (sausage, potatoes, onions, mozzarella) were all homemade and fresh, but frankly, you could put a homeless guy’s sock on that pizza and I’d still gladly eat it. It was that good.

I thought world class American-made pizza was only available in places like Brooklyn or the North End. Now, you can get legitimate pizza in Worcester that can impress the pickiest of big city pizza snobs around the globe.

Pasta Carbonara: bucatini pasta, guanciale (fancy bacon), onions, soft-boiled egg, and grana padano cheese.
Pasta Carbonara: bucatini pasta, guanciale (fancy bacon), onions, soft-boiled egg, and grana padano cheese.

To round things off, and because I want to be super fat, I had to get some homemade pasta. The carbonara with homemade bucatini, fried guanciale (a fancy type of bacon), onions, and a gooey soft-boiled egg topped with a mound of salty grana padano cheese was excellent. A very clean, simple, modern spin on a classic.

Volturno has something special going on. Passion and quality like this don’t come along often anymore, especially in a place like Worcester that sometimes feels forgotten. We’re incredibly lucky to have this gorgeous spot in our front yard. I look forward to coming back and trying all of their pizzas.

Sequels, Remakes, and The Death of Cinema

Paramount Studios recently revealed their movies slated for 2016 and it’s no surprise that only one of them is an original concept: Project Almanac. But, it’s a Michael Bay flick about time-traveling teenagers and explosions. I wish I was joking.

The rest of the list is comprised of remakes and sequels without any improvements aside from a little polishing and waxing:

Transformers 5
G.I. Joe 3
Star Trek 3
Beverly Hills Cop 4
Mission Impossible 5
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The stars of these movies are entirely interchangeable, too:

Dwayne Johnson
Mark Wahlberg
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Tom Cruise

It’s not necessarily the actors’ fault. The story, the writing, the character development, the acting–everything is designed to be formulaic. It almost seems like Hollywood intentionally gathered a group of statisticians together to develop bland, generic, white-bread-and-mashed-potato movie concepts in order to guarantee some level of box office sales at the expense of originality and innovation.

Wait a minute… That’s exactly what’s happening.

Paramount isn’t the only guilty party. Every studio is busy firing up another reboot or sequel with a famous name stapled to the poster.

It’s all about the easy sell. A shiny product with a famous face and a simple, translatable story can be marketed and sold to a much larger audience. Hollywood studios rely on international box office sales to supplement a stagnant domestic market. The results are movies with lots of punch, minimal dialogue, and easy-to-follow stories. They translate better and they’re cheaper to make.

And they do fairly well here, too. While bloggers, film critics, and talk show hosts complain endlessly about the lack of variety or originality in movies (I’m no exception), the general public still ends up in the seats. Americans still spend hundreds of millions every year at the movies even if what’s on the screen is the equivalent of diarrhea.

That’s what you call a “Hollywood” move.

Hollywood blames the easiest of targets–pirates. The kind that be stealin’ me movies and downloadin’ me music, yarr!

Studios often like to remind us that making movies is incredibly expensive. And it is. They say illegal downloading hurts their bottom line and, as a result, they’re less able or willing to take chances on edgier films with smaller niche audiences that might not generate enough money to break even. That’s what they like to say, anyway.

It’s hard to sympathize. Instead of rolling with the punches and adapting their business model, Hollywood decided to go after their own customers in court. They fought kicking and screaming against the internet and copyright infringement as if bootlegging is a modern enterprise unique to Hollywood.