Coo-Coo for Cocoa Beach

Yeah, regular Bunnyists know that we’re big fans of Sunshine State exploration. We’ve scoured the lower Keys, braved Orlando in season, and have contemplated a permanent hideout on the Gulf shores of Anna Maria/Longboat/Sarasota area.

But there’s more coastline in Florida than in any other state in the union, so in October we dusted off our Lewis & Clark membership cards, hitched up the Bunny Wagon, and aimed south, this time for points not yet traveled. Fall is our favorite time of year to visit Florida–the crowds are smaller, air and water temps are still in the 80s, and pricing tends to be less expensive (although that definitely seems to be trending for the worse).

Mrs Bunny’s research was stellar as usual, and we ended up on the Space Coast barrier island of Cocoa Beach. If you’re like us, your Cocoa Beach awareness comes almost solely from re-runs of the classic 1960s TV show “I Dream of Jeannie”.

Much of Cocoa Beach still holds fast to that Old School Florida look & feel, with snazzy classic beachfront properties that seem perfectly suited for a bartender who’s well-versed in proper Rob Roy, Manhattan, and Whiskey Sour mixology. You can practically hear the big brass jazz music wafting in the breeze. Like much of the mid-and upper part of Florida’s Atlantic side, the Space Coast is decidedly devoid of the South Beach glitz & glamor, which is just fine by us. They have a passion for strip clubs (we counted 4 within a few miles of our condo), barbecue joints (at least 5), and Thai restaurants (6+).

Cocoa Beach is also the East Coast’s surfing epicenter, um, dudes. Every day, dozens of boarders were out there doing their thing as the sun rose, which also lent that 1960s mood. Lessons, board rentals, and surfer lore were rampant all over town.

It’s also easy to reach. The closest airport is Orlando, about 50 minutes northwest (as are the Big O’s theme parks, if you’re so inclined). If you’re driving down, Cocoa sits about 15 minutes east of I-95, an hour or so south of Daytona.

LODGING

As usual, we steered clear of the whole hotel/motel thing, and went condo. Mrs. Bunny worked her magic, and decided on Chateau by the Sea  (5300 Ocean Beach Blvd, Cocoa Beach), a cheesy-named yet unassuming 5-story direct oceanfront property with off-street parking and heated pool that’s just steps from the famed Cocoa Beach Pier (more on that later). Our condo was a top floor end unit, with two bedrooms, two full baths, washer/dryer in unit, full kitchen, two balconies, amazing panoramic views, and free wi-fi. The unit was clean and decently furnished, and even had a walk-in closet loaded with beach stuf. With October pricing, this gem set us back just $100 per night. In our book, that’s a GB No-Brainer. In fact, it was so inexpensive that we kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: insect infestation, loud neighbors, sulfur water, poltergeists? Nope, none of the above. It really was absolutely fine. Even our bed was comfortable.

The Cocoa Beach Pier was right there, and as kitchy as we’d hoped.

Does this look like a $100/night oceanfront condo?

There were a few mildly wacky things. For one, the shower curtain/rod in the master bath fell on our heads a few times while bathing. And not that we saw a gathering of interlopers (or any, really), but in order to get to the beach, you have to do this Get Smart operation of a key-lock gate leading into the pool area, circumnavigate the pool, and then unlock a second gate to reach the sand–a juggler’s challenge when you’re laden with sand chairs, cooler, beach bag, umbrella, etc. Still, that’s nit-picking of the first degree. We’d absolutely return, and with smiles on our faces.

OUR RECOMMENDATIONS

FOOD

Mad Jacks Grillin Shack (6006 N. Atlantic Ave)

mouth....watering....

mouth….watering….

Yeah, honestly, the cutesy name scared the hell out of us. But after several locals pointed us that way, we listened. And we’re glad we did. Mad Jack’s is as real a barbecue joint as any we’ve found in NC, TX, or beyond. It’s sooo not the tourist trap we were envisioning, either. The owner was warm, laid back, and welcoming, and when he found out we were first-timers he had the server bring out samples of their pulled pork, brisket, and tri-tip for the table. Each were fantastic, and down-home authentic as a bar fight. They also make their own sauces (sorry, Aramark), which were equally amazing. But be warned: their “extremely hot hot sauce” lives up to its name. Our oldest son had it on the Maverick Burger (which also features fresh jalapenos) and was sweating when he was done. The deadly sauce is so dee-lish that we ate it til we were mouth-on-fire like Lloyd and Harry, stopped til the heat went down and, then went right back for more.

The Sandbar (4301 Ocean Beach Blvd)

We love joints like these.

We love joints like these.

Sensing a theme here? We didn’t find a preponderance of fine dining whilst in the area, so when in Rome…The Sandbar is a classic beach shack dive, with great wings, huge sandwiches, and an extensive drink menu that would even keep Ozzy busy for awhile. The “Cat 5” Hurricane is mixed with five different rums (including Bacardi 151), yet went down smoothly, although it did strip some of the varnish off the table when I spilled a bit.

Entertainment/Shopping

3ARides (210 N. Orlando Avenue 321-868-8820) 3A offers private and group surfing lessons, and board and bike rentals, and the owner was a wealth of knowledge of all things Cocoa Beach. Our youngest (the athlete) went out with an instructor, and after a few expected wipeouts he was riding freely. We rented a board for him to try for a few days for around $50. Another point worth noting–we bought a few 2-for-$10 T-shirts with their logo on them. On the first wearing, one of them tore like I was wearing Kleenex. Given the price point, I didn’t expect much retribution, but after reaching out to the owner and letting him know what happened, he explained there was an acid washing error, apologized profusely and shipped two us new shirts that so far have held up just fine. Well done, sir.

Ron Jon Surf Shop (4151 N. Atlantic Avenue 321-799-8888) Iconic Ron Jon now boasts 12 locations up and down the East Coast, but this is the very first one. What started out as a simple shack has blown up into a superstore and attached resort, kinda like South of the Border without the urine smell. Prices are high, and the place is packed with surfers, surf posers, and general tourists, but there’s plenty to see and buy, and is worth at least a brief visit. 

The original Ron Jon surf shack has grown a tad.

The original Ron Jon surf shack has grown a tad.

Cocoa Beach Tennis Club (Tom Warriner Blvd, off Minutemen Causeway 321-868-3224) Tennis in Florida is a beautiful thing, which is why so many pros and coaches call it home. The Cocoa Beach Tennis Club is owned and run by the city’s Parks and Rec Dept; a first class facility that blows away the private clubs back home. CBTC has both clay and hard courts, as well as a pro shop, stringing, lessons, and a small clubhouse.

Membership DOES get you a price break, to be sure, as does being a resident. But the price for non-member, non-resident players? A paltry $7 per 90 minutes for clay, or $4 for hard court per player!  To compare, Cross Courts in Easton, MD charges more than $30 per hour per court for non-members, with no clay. Plus, the CBTC staff was laid back, and super-easy to work with.

Cocoa Beach Pier (401 Meade Ave 321-783-7549) This is a true slice of old school Florida. Walk onto the pier, with its collection of gift shops and food spots and it’s the Nixon Era all over again. Most of the pier is free to see, but it’ll cost ya a mean $2 to go all the way out to the end and spectate where the fishermen are doing their thing (you sort of need to meander to navigate your way out there too). But there’s a sweet little tiki bar out on the tip (be sure to ask for a “real” margarita) and live music in the afternoon, not to mention a Grade A people-watching opportunity.

the pier is a throwback o old school Florida

the pier is a throwback o old school Florida

THINGS TO AVOID GB "ewww" face

Mangoes @ International Palms Resort (1300 N Atlantic Ave 800-916-4339)              We passed this place on the main drag all week long, and the “Live Reggae Music Every Sunday Afternoon” sign lured us more every time we saw it. Come on, Sunday!!!

But such is life that the expectation never came close to the reality.

Mangoes is a beach bar attached to an aging “resort” hotel that had a 1980s heyday feel to it, at least on the outside. The bar itself is technically on the water, inasmuch as there’s nothing between it and the Atlantic, which is sorta over there. Walking in, we immediately picked up the scent of Ultimate Tourist Trap, but still, margaritas and reggae music were beckoning. So we found a table (place was maybe half-full), ordered drinks from sticky menus (I hate that), and took in the surroundings. First of all, the reggae was only half-live: two guys in bad Hawaiian shirts; one with an acoustic guitar, the other playing keys, with a pre-recorded backing track that sounded a lot like the organ store in the mall. No, we weren’t expecting Toots & the Maytals, but this was as true reggae as Taco Bell is authentic Mexican cuisine.

We sat through versions of ‘Red Red Wine’ and ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ that would’ve bored Mormons, and our cocktails and server were still MIA. So I went to the bar and explained our situation to the two tenders chilling out. One of them assured me that our waitress would be “right over”.

‘Right over’ is, of course, a relative term. Ten minutes later, we were still high and dry. And done. Mrs. Bunny told the bartender to cancel the order, and we split and went to the Sandbar instead. Maybe Mangoes’ food and drinks were amazing, and maybe Damien & Ziggy Marley sat in for the 2nd set. We’ll never know.

Conclusion

Cocoa Beach is a solid go-to for a family getaway. Water was warm, and the easy waves make it a great place to learn to surf. If you don’t require fancy, or have the need to see a Bentley Continental on every street corner, Coca is nice, reasonably clean, affordable, and rife with food and stuff-to-do options. It’s also a great spot to put a drink in your hand and your toes in the sand and simply watch the surfers surf, the pelicans dive, and the cruise ships come and go.

GB

North to Alaska!

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“My glacier can kick your cruise ship’s ass.”

Yeah, normally we try to steer clear of sounding like salespeople, but the Alaskan Cruise deals we just received made us do a double-take.

Honestly, Alaska should be on every serious traveler’s bucket list. For East Coasters with a penchant for palm trees and tiki bars like Mrs Bunny and me, the 49th state was like visiting another planet; epic, breathtakingly beautiful, and perfectly pristine and undisturbed. It wasn’t quiet, but there was very little red noise–the sounds didn’t much come from anything man made. In fact, GB contributing writer Robin Heyser was so smitten, she disappeared into the landscape for three solid months, living off the land like Grizzly Adams.

We saw glaciers like giant ice mountains that popped and cracked like gunshots, lakes so clear the water was actually invisible on calm days, and wildlife from bears to wolves to caribou to eagles to seals to moose to salmon the size of a canoe.

alaskan

Pass the cream cheese.

And don’t forget the whale sightings:

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Willy’s quite free.

The ships set sail from Vancouver, British Columbia, one of the most beautiful cities in North America, so you’ll need your passport. Fly there directly, or land in Seattle instead to enjoy the amazing two hour drive north with expansive views of Puget Sound to the left and massive Cascade Mountains on your right.  

Click HERE for bitchin Alaska cruise deals.

 

 

Video

GB Quickie: Southwest Airline Video MUST SEE!

Click on the link below and enjoy this vid of a Southwest Air flight attendant adding a human element to the usually saltine-dry pre-flight announcements. And if you have friends with American, US Air, United, or other airlines, please forward this along to them. Who knows? Maybe the concept of hiring people who actually dig their job might catch on.

Southwest Style. Click here.

Commercial Airline Hell

Anyone else ready for some serious commercial airline reform? Flying is feeling more and more like kindergarten these days:

  • Line up!
  • Be quiet!
  • Walk single file!
  • Sit down!
  • Put away your (electronic) toys!
  • Pay attention! I’m giving my lesson on how your seat belt operates!
  • Snack time!

Our recent jaunt to Key West via American Airlines was a round-trip dignity mugging.

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“We’re American Airlines..Failing’s what we do best.”

For starters, it’d be great if the nice big airplane company could possibly hire customer service personnel who don’t positively hate their jobs/their life/anyone not wearing an American Airlines uni. Seriously, I’ve seen more enthusiasm in a cemetery. I’m not saying they were disparaging, but they looked at us like Hillary Clinton would regard a used condom stuck to the bottom of her shoe.

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“Why, it’s not even RIBBED! This can’t be one of Bill’s.”

First of all, the whole boarding process is ridiculous. Since they only allow one way on and off the plane, why not board from back to front, by row? You don’t fill the TOP HALF of the glass first, do you? For one, it’s easier to get your personal allowance of crap to your seat if you don’t have to navigate the elbows, knees, and asses of the folks already at their seats in the front and middle, and it saves the front-dwellers and middlers from getting bashed by Samsonites and smacked by giant plastic bags seemingly full of bricks and stones that so many people travel with these days. Nope. Instead, the First-Classers and proud holders of American Airlines Preferred MasterVisa Super Cards get on first. I’m convinced this is so that First Class passengers can enjoy sitting there, smugly superior in their starched Polo shits, poking disdainful fun as the great unwashed parade themselves back to steerage. (But there are methods of retaliation. My friend Todd loves Cuban food, and he merrily retains the related gas before he flies, only to fart without mercy while passing through the first class cabin. If you ever travel with Todd, make sure you get on the plane BEFORE him. And if the gas masks do deploy, remember to first secure your own before helping others.)

If my first sensible boarding reform plan doesn’t work, then why not attach jetways to both ends of the plane? There’s two doors, Mr. Hawking–use them. Easy on, easy off, for everyone. Airports have more jetways than they know what to do with. I think they actually breed them when no one is looking. Rows 1-20, to the left, 21-40 to the right, thank you ma’am. And it makes departing the plane that much easier, too. Let’s face it: if you’ve ever been in the back of a crowded 767 that’s just landed late and you know you’re going to have to run like Forrest Gump to make your connection, seeing the massive, slow-moving blot of bodies blocking your only way out is enough to make you wish for an Acme Insta-Vapor Death Ray Gun.

Every airline we’ve used has some zany way of separating passengers at boarding time. Southwest has their letter grade A, B, Cs that always makes me wish I’d studied more. American boards by Zones, 1 through 5. Zone 1 seems to always be reserved for people who are desperately trying to look busy and important. We are neither, hence we’ve never even sniffed the 1 Zone. In fact, we checked in a full 24 hours before our flight (as responsible travelers do), and were still relegated to Zone 5. While waiting to board, the woman at the desk announced that “anyone who does not have a zone listed on their boarding pass may board with Zone 4”).

Zone FOUR??? Exactly how far down the passenger food chain are we Fivers when we’re forced to board AFTER the people who didn’t even bother to have a zone assigned to them??? Do we get an actual seat, or are they tying us to the landing gear?

Then there’s the two boarding lanes at the gate. I love this. There’s one lane for General Boarding. It’s maybe 20 feet long, and seems to be doing its assigned job just fine. But right next to it is a separate special lane reserved for the First Class and Elite Master Express Credit Grand Poobah whatevers. It too, is about 20 feet long, and to my uncouth eye looks an awful lot like the one next to it. Actually, they’re identical, and separated only by a thin plastic belt attached to a couple of snazzy, burnished metal, thin plastic belt-holder poles. Is this really the best use of space? Does the preferred lane feature lilac-scented air as you navigate its majestic 20 feet of carpet? Are there massaging foot warmers under the flooring?

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“Oh,dahling, look at those poor slovenly creatures, forced to endure such an inadequate boarding lane. We simply MUST have a benefit on their behalf.”

On the return flight, we’re right back in plucky Zone 5 again, boarding behind mannequin parts and potted plants. As we approach the departure gate, Ms. Someone-Peed-In-My-Shoe-This-Morning informs Mrs Bunny and me that we “may” need to check our carry-ons as the flight is full, and space is limited, and of course, we’re careless enough to have allowed ourselves to be placed in Boarding Zone 5.

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Say wha?

The rules of what items passengers can bring aboard are stated approximately every 1.4 seconds in the terminal. We now know them better than we know our own pants size: one (1) carry-on suitcase that must fit in the overhead compartment, and one (1) personal item that must be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. There are a set number of seats onboard, and a specific size limit for each carry-on. So how exactly do you run out of space??? Are the Flight Attendants smuggling massive Tupperware containers to 3rd world countries?

She didn’t elaborate, so I grumbled across he tarmac with our bags, expecting to be surrounded at gunpoint by the luggage police at any moment.

As we boarded the plane, I spied vast empty space in several of the First Class area’s overhead compartments, and quickly hoisted our carry-ons up and in. About then, the flight attendant huffed “sir, these are reserved for our First Class passengers” as if I’m sitting on their laps and going through their pockets. I looked around and all the FC seats were full. No other busy+important passengers were joining us on that flight. Yet there was still enough room even after our bags went in for Warren Sapp to climb up there for a long nap. With a yak.

Now, everything behind us on the plane looked as overstuffed as the Beverly Hillbillies’ cross country travel truck. So I turned back, and gave her “the look”, which basically conveyed the following: “Now see here madam, we’re already quite dismayed at the prospect of having to leave lovely Key West and head home to a frigid, snow-smacked Mid-Atlantic. I do appreciate the gracious favor of allowing us to purchase tickets on your airline, but now you dare chide me about placing our bags in an available, designated carry-on bag compartment that STILL has sufficient room available to fit the entire cast of Les Miserables AND a mid-sized SUV? Now, either change your tune, or bring me a glass with some rum in it so that we might continue this conversation properly.”

She relented. And I still wanted my rum.

But next time, we’re giving serious consideration to selling off a few lesser-used body parts and using the proceeds to buy into one of those private jet time shares. Maybe we can look busy and important to each other?

MD/DE Beaches Odds & Ends

Offseason is an excellent time to hit the beach (area).

Just got back from our annual Thanksgiving weekend pilgrimage (ha!) downy oweshun, hon. We’ve been visiting the beach on TG weekend since the kids were small, and during that span the Ocean City/Rehoboth Beach corridor on Thanksgiving weekend has gone from semi-ghost town to mega-packed. The bloody battlefields of the tax-free outlets make Braveheart look like a Disney film.

Here’s some of the new discoveries we’ve….uh…discovered, good and bad.

LODGING

This time out, we decided to try the brand new Hyatt Place in the middle of Dewey Beach, DE (1301 Coastal Highway, Dewey Beach, Delaware Tel: 302 864 9100 $130 nt + tax). This three story ultra-modern monster is art museum slick, and sits in stark contrast to the old school, salt worn down-hominess of Dewey.

Frankfurt Germany would be proud.

Frankfurt Germany would be proud.

Hyatt Place is thoroughly 3rd millennium both inside and out, with a glass & chrome design that feels more Frankfurt, Germany than mid-Atlantic beach town. Our room was large and well-appointed, with HD TV, mini fridge, sitting area, and a unique frosted glass slider leading to a bathroom that was snazzy enough to star in a Daft Punk video.

That’s about it for the good news.

The hotel sits on the bay side of Route 1, but has seriously limited views of anything bay-related. Plus, it’s pretty clear that they cut design costs when it came to noise suppression. The place is LOUD. We were awakened at 7am this morning by random continuous banging from an undisclosed location (we were on the top floor, so it wasn’t above us, either), and the people across the hall seemed intent to see just how loud they could slam their room door–repeatedly–all morning long. So much for sleeping in and taking advantage of the 12 noon checkout time. In all, it felt very Days Inn, and not at all what we’ve come to expect from a luxury brand like Hyatt.

Other weirdness? There’s no non-emergency staircases, so apparently the Hyatt wants us all to be fat and slovenly. The place only has three floors; we’d prefer to walk up. Instead, two small elevators are the only way to get vertical, and when we headed down for breakfast this morning, we found a good 30 people clamoring in the lobby to go back up. Total cattle drive; not well-conceived, and totally unnecessary.

In all, Dewey’s Hyatt Place was mostly a swing and a miss. Decent rate for a holiday weekend, but the property felt like a cheaply-made, entry level subcompact by a luxury automaker that was long on pomp and short on execution. Our advice: spend the extra coin and book at Rehoboth Beach’s Bellmoor Inn instead. Infinitely more quiet and intimate, service that’s far more personal and less Best Buy, and a complimentary breakfast that’s miles ahead in both quality and delivery.

MORE LODGING

Back in September, we had a last minute chance to spend a warm weekend in Ocean City, and we did. As it was still summertime, all of our favorite places to stay were already booked solid, but we found vacancy at Bonita Beach (8100 Coastal Hwy, Ocean City), a small sand-colored hotel in north midtown on Coastal Highway. The mere fact that this property still had rooms available was a red flag on its own, but a bad day at the beach still beats a good day at home so posterity dictated that we go for it.

We bet this place was stellar in 1992.

We bet this place was stellar in 1992.

We never did find out what year the place was built, but it was probably quite the showplace back in the early 90s. Bonita Beach sports a true Melrose Place-era decor, but these days it’s aging and sagging, looks like its best days are behind it, and smells like stale menthol cigarettes–a lot like Keith Richards.

Mrs Bunny and I managed an ocean view room with two queen beds and a small balcony for us and the two youngins. The ceilings were stained, half of the Liza Minelli bubble light bulbs in the bathroom were burnt out, and the tub’s poor drainage led to back-flow gray water enveloping our feet when we showered. But the best moment was when we were walking through the main floor parking garage under the building, and a big, nasty dollop of air conditioner condensation slopped from the ceiling above us and right into my son’s latte (bloop!). Legionnaire’s Disease, anyone?

FOOD                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Here’s some other standouts down at the beach that we’ve never touched upon but are worth checking out.

Mother’s Cantina (2812 Coastal Hwy, Ocean City 410-289-1330 ) is small and less than gorgeous, and resides in a small and less than gorgeous strip center on the main drag, but serves up excellent margaritas and Tex Mex home cooking that gives uptown rival Tequila Mockingbird a real good run. If you like things truly spicy, the Red Hot Burrito is mouth-watering (and mouth-melting too). Their En Fuego sauce packs serious friggin heat–you’ve been warned. If you visit Mother’s on a weekend, be prepared to wait. But that’s cool; the bar is long and the drinks are good.

Fresh ingredient margarita. Take a sip.

Fresh ingredient margarita. Take a sip.

Finbar’s Pub & Grill (316 Rehoboth Ave, Rehoboth Beach 302-227-1873) is a fairly authentic Irish watering hole (for a beach resort) that does a solid job across the board. When we found our that their trendy next door neighbor Dogfish Head Brewery had a 35 minute wait last night, we gave Finbar’s a shot and we’re glad we did.  Their Whiskey Wings were a potent combination of spicy and sweet, with a fantastic house made sauce featuring fresh ginger, chilis, and Jamison Irish Whiskey. They were so good, we ordered a second round. Likewise, the Maryland Crab Chowder had a thick, chunky tomato base, and was well-stocked with crabmeat.

If you’re jonesing for Dogfish Head brews, don’t stress. Finbar’s has them, draft and bottled. And guess what: they’re less expensive than they are next door.

Don't bother going next door to Dogfish Head.

Don’t bother going next door to Dogfish Head.

The entire Getaway Bunny team wishes you and yours a very happy and festive holiday season!

-GB

Joss Cafe & Sushi Bar: Goodbye, old friend…

This downtown Annapolis mainstay continues to grow in size and popularity

Everyone has at least one: a go-to restaurant you adore, that serves as the setting for everything from special occasion dinners to a sweet little lunchtime or after work diversion.

For us, that’s been Joss Cafe & Sushi Bar in historic downtown Annapolis. Joss is Japanese seafood shanghai la; the place where our entire family lost its collective sushi virginity. (And let’s face it: we ALL remember our first time, don’t we?)
Since 1995, Joss was our setting for countless birthdays, anniversaries, and business deals, offering fresh, mouth-watering sashimi and nigiri, dee-lish rolls, tempura, and the best miso soup we’ve ever tasted. Over the years we watched Joss grow up, from the tiny little spot on Main St that previously housed French fave Cafe Normandie back in the 80s, through numerous expansions and the addition of a 2nd location in Baltimore. It’s long been our spot to impress out of town guests, as well as our top GB recommendation for anyone visiting historic downtown Annapolis.

Here in 2013, the good news is that the Joss fare remains as marvelously and consistently good now as it was in the beginning. But beyond that, Joss has sadly matured into an absolutely unforgivable mess when it comes to customer service, trending further and further south of competency on each of our last several visits.

Mrs Bunny and I stopped in recently, on our way home from an O’s game, the lure of the food and our long history with the place more than enough reason to look beyond recent disappointments there. Saturday summer evenings are always insane in Naptown, but we found parking without too much cursing, close by on State Circle, and walked over to see the usual crowd out on the sidewalk, waiting for a table. Joss has fastidiously never taken reservations, but in the old days, you could give them your name and then pop down a few doors to Castle Bay Irish Pub for a pint or two and someone would eventually come down and get you when your table was ready. The volume Joss does these days makes that concept an impossibility now, but you’d think that amidst all of their multiple build-outs they’d have added their OWN bar at some point for patrons waiting on a table. And you’d be wrong.

We were told that the wait for two would be about 15-20 minutes, and then hastily directed to the “waiting room”, as if we were visiting the dentist. Picture a back room full of hungry people all doing a Pavlovian drool stare at their menu slideshow on the small wall-mounted TV.
Cocktails are technically available before you’re seated, but you order them at this funky server stand thing on the opposite side of the restaurant from the designated waiting area, and someone eventually delivers them to you (in theory). Honestly, the whole waiting ordeal is just plain wacky, and ripe for improvement. Bear in mind that the entire original dining room now serves as just the hostess foyer, and said waiting room is now what was the first expansion’s added dining area. In other words, there’s plenty of room for a proper bar, but instead it’s a head-scratchingly dismal use of available space.

So, after what turned out to be 40 tortuous minutes of staring at delicious color photos of the food were were craving, the hostess finally came to get us. “Is the sushi bar ok?” she asked as she led us there. “Do we have a choice?” I asked. The hostess didn’t answer. Perhaps she didn’t hear me.

Joss’s sushi bar is cramped. I don’t mind intimate, but it felt like the woman next to me was practically sitting in my lap. But whatever. Just bring on the yummies.

Our server greeted us and turned our drink order around quickly. Unfortunately, that was her high moment. The 40 minute waiting room visit had been more than enough time to decide what we wanted to eat, so we grabbed a pen and filled out our sashimi and roll checklist as soon as we were seated: Spring Roll Salad (which is less like a salad and more like big hand rolls) with crab stick, avocado, and an exquisite orange yum-yum sauce that’s to die for, Key West Roll (spicy conch w/avocado), Alaska Roll (salmon, crab, avocado), and crunchy tempura shrimp roll, plus tuna, fresh water eel, and conch sashimi. Oh yeah. Our server continued to pass us by as I sat there with the ready-to-go checklist in hand. Finally, I literally held it out in front of her as she was cruising past yet again, getting her attention like a State Trooper stops a speeding Corvette, and instructed her that we wanted the salad first, as an appetizer.

spring roll

Spring Roll Salad. We could bathe in that sauce.

 

And technically speaking, it did arrive first. Not long after ordering, another server dropped it off between us and disappeared, no side plates, nothing. Yet before we could even discern how to logistically manage the appetizer our sushi showed up, but this time we were quick enough to ask for side plates before they ran off.

So there we were, cramped space and two hefty platters of food, trying not to elbow-check the diners next to us as we dug in. Once again, the food was Goddess-worthy. The sashimi was perfect, not fishy in the least, with a nice snap to the conch, and the tuna sweet and meaty. The spice of the Key West roll had real pop, but not overbearing, while our Crunchy Shrimp was lightly battered and crispy, if a tad on the salty side.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before the sodium, spice, and wasabi kicked in and we needed another round of drinks. Mission Impossible. For all we knew, our server had gone back to school for her Master’s Degree since we’d ordered dinner. We literally never saw her again after I gave her our checklist. No stop by to make sure the order was right, no check in to see how we were doing. Nada. Hell, we made it all the way through dinner and were sitting there, dirty plates and glasses before us, for a good 10 minutes with no contact from anyone, even though the dinner rush had clearly died down by then. Me, I was morbidly curious as to how long they’d actually leave us hanging, but Mrs Bunny took a more pro-active approach, stopping a passing manager and heatedly expressing our disappointment like an AK 47 burst. His response after her barrage? “Oh…ok.” And he walked off, perhaps to join our server in search of post-grad education. We don’t know; we never saw him again either.

desert

So…..thirsty…..

If we didn’t know better, we’d guess that Joss had only recently opened, and had yet to put a concerted customer service training program in place. That’s how brutally and shamefully disorganized it was.

So we headed over to that silly server stand thing where you order drinks while you’re waiting, got our check (from yet ANOTHER server), paid it, and left behind the mess that used to be one of our very favorite noshes on the planet. Never again.

RIP Joss. We shall miss you.

man woman hands holding broken heart

“Westbound & Down” Preview

Our world is c-c-c-cold.

It’s downright ludicrous. As I write this, just after 2pm on Sunday March 3rd, it’s currently 61 degrees in Miami, 63 in Key West, 54 in Longboat (eesh!), and even just 64 in Havana, Cuba. Here in the Mid-Atlantic it’s a balmy 39 with snow flurries, and it’s sadly obvious that we can’t simply motor south to get warm.

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A tad chilly here.

So, this week, we’re headed to seek the heat, since it’s refusing to come to us. Destination: the left coast.

1st up: Palm Springs for the BNP Paribas Open Tennis Championships at Indian Wells, Joshua Tree National Park, and Death Valley (hey, we’re serious about our heat!).

The World's Best make an annual trip to the California desert every March.

The World’s Best make an annual trip to the California desert every March.

Then down to bounce around LA and the Pacific, with a special visit to the Conan O’Brien Show.

We’ll show you how to experience the best of SoCal without taking a 2nd mortgage to do it.

And we’ll be fantastically, gloriously waaaaaaaarrrrrm again, at the same time our Mid-Atlantic brethren are (possibly) getting pounded by March snow. Sorry, folks.

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Welcome to Hollywoo’. Wass yo Dream?

Grand Cayman: Back to the Island

Seven Mile Beach, on Grand Cayman’s west shore.

 About a million years ago, back before grown men proudly wore Crocs in public and when “being green” just meant you were the jealous type, Mrs. Bunny and I spent six glorious days in Grand Cayman on our honeymoon. We were mere travel newbs at the time, but still managed to eat, drink, and explore a whole bunch of GCI’s indigenous offerings, even despite the fact that Mrs. Bunny applied a ludicrously inadequate sunblock level 7 on her fair skin and turned the hue of Ragu spaghetti sauce on Day 2 and didn’t feel much like moving around.

So when GB’s Chief Photographer Kathy and her fiance Dave decided on a beachfront wedding ceremony this past summer on Spott’s Beach along Grand Cayman’s southern coast, it didn’t take much convincing (or any, really) for us to check the YES box. We even brought the kids this time.

Grand Cayman is the big brother of sibling islands Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, with Cuba to the north and Jamaica just next door to the east. Its long stretches of powdered white sand beaches and luminescent turquoise waters make this an absolutely stunning Caribbean destination,  and one with a hair-sheddingly high pricetag to boot. Grand Cayman is a financial juggernaut, home to nearly 600 banking institutions and a preferred spot for those Armani-wearing, money laundering types, so the cost of goods and services is already inherently high. Add in an unfavorable exchange rate with the American dollar, and your Amex card may start to leak from overuse.

So, after a brutally early takeoff at BWI and plane change in Miami, we descended down through ginormous white clouds so thick they look like whipped cream, approaching Owen Roberts International Airport with the long strip of world-famous Seven Mile Beach stretching out on our left. We came in hot, the pilot standing on the brake pedal to land and stop on a runway that’s roughly the same length as a placemat. A live band greeted us with light steel drum music as we crossed the hot, sticky tarmac to the tiny terminal. Ahhhhhh, yes. Island time.

♥ GB Side Note: Cell Service

Verizon’s cell service and data plans are monumentally expensive on the island, which prompted all of us to leave our iPhones in Airplane Mode for the entire trip. However, as long as we had a wi-fi connection, we were able to text between all of our iPhones and even use FaceTime video without invoking the data plan. 

GOING MOBILE

Thanks to Mrs. Bunny’s insightful research, we bypassed the major rental car counters there in the airport, and walked across the small parking lot to Andy’s Rent a Car. Andy’s is local, with the lowest rates on the island. Still, weekly rate was more than $300.00 for a bad-assed 64 horsepower Hyundai i10 that was roughly the same size as a washing machine. Somehow we managed to squeeze four people and luggage into the mini subcompact, clown car-style, and set off.

Funny. The car we rented isn’t in their promo photo.

Now you’d think that finding the beach that we just flew over would be a snap, and you’d be wrong. Moments after leaving the airport, we’re lost. Maybe it was the happy little map the rental car lady gave us that was about as coherent as Keith Richards at a frat party. Or maybe the culprit was the proliferation of British-style roundabouts installed about every ten feet on all their roadways. I was on zero sleep and dealing with a steering wheel that some idiot put on the wrong side of the car, and the roundabouts truly sucked. I finally gave up, hung an abrupt and illegal u-turn on a busy one way avenue, and dove into a nearby Esso gas station for directions.

But no worries. Once you acclimate, Caymanian driving is pretty smooth. All of the rental cars on the island have exclusive white license plates, alerting the locals that you’re a tourist and therefore a liability, and most were patient with us.

If you don’t feel like renting, there are plenty of official (and unofficial) taxi cabs willing to give you a lift. Just walk along the side of the road, and soon someone  will stop and offer a ride in exchange for a few bills. Kathy and fiance Dave traveled the entire island this way on their last Cayman trip.

Mrs. Bunny Says: “Yes, even I became competent at driving on the left with steering wheel on the opposite side of our little roller skate. Just expect that you will inadvertently switch on the windshield wipers on a regular basis when reaching for the turn signal since they’re backwards on right side drive cars, much to the giggling delight of the clowns in the back seat.”

Our boys posing with the fly whip Hyundai.

ACCOMMODATIONS & PROVISIONS

Datsa lotta rooms.

A long row of exquisite resorts makes for an impressive pastel skyline along lower Seven Mile Beach. They’re all plenty swanky, so you’ll be shelling out at least $375+ per night for a standard room that may not even have a water view. Seven Mile is all glitz and glamour, so you won’t see any modestly-priced motor lodges in the area–nuthin but ultra posh.

Since we brought our two boys, and a week in a hotel room can be more than claustrophobic for four people, Mrs. Bunny hunted down condo rentals instead, along the northern bit of Seven Mile Beach, finding a good number of options available on the beach.

We ended up choosing Aqua Bay Club. For about the same price as a Seven Mile hotel room, Aqua Bay provided a superb two bedroom beachfront unit, with two full baths, almost full kitchen (full-size fridge, dishwasher, stove top, microwave, but no oven), living room with flat screen TV and satellite, daily maid service, complimentary wi-fi, and a perfect screened-in porch that opened out to the sand, with pool, hot tub, and gas grills right there. The view is pure Corona Beer commercial.

The view from our condo’s back door. You likey?

While Grand Cayman used to be slow and easy, the greater Georgetown/lower Seven Mile area is now awash with non-stop traffic and throngs of people, and becomes even worse when a cruise ship pulls into port and dumps a few thousand more souls in town. But the upper end of Seven Mile Beach is far more spread out and chill. Aqua Bay’s beach was devoid of crowds and offered excellent snorkeling just offshore, though the coal and rock underfoot was a bit of a challenge to navigate when getting in and out of the sea.

Mrs Bunny Says: “Definitely prefer the condo atmosphere. Mingling with the locals is easier, like talking to our cleaning lady while we were both doing laundry. Furthermore, when we checked out, our lovely hostess gave us hugs and kisses and seemed genuinely sorry to see us leave (us too). Try getting that in the hotel zone!”

Kathy and the soon to be Mr. Kathy were staying at the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort a few miles south of us, in the middle of all the hoopla. The multi-story showplace is impressive, and  Mrs. Bunny and I quickly realized that it’s the same place we stayed on our honeymoon back in the 90s, when the property was owned by Radisson–a very cool and unexpected revelation.

Marriott’s Seven Mile Beach Resort

♥ GB Side Note: Hurricane Ivan

The Grand Cayman we remember from years ago is essentially gone. In 2006, Hurricane Ivan’s wrath changed the island forever, with rampant destruction and devastation everywhere. Six years later, signs of Ivan’s impact are still clearly visible. And the horror stories we heard from locals who lived through it sounded like they were describing a nuclear bomb strike.

If you don’t go condo, and aren’t a fan of the high-rise tourist stackers, your best bet is to check out the hotels on the island’s East End. It’s more quiet and rural on that side, which is usually more of our speed anyway. The Reef is a really nice option, as is Compass Point Resort

Mrs. B and I headed to Fosters Food Fair for provisions. It’s a small chain where the Caymanians shop and we found local goodies like oxtail, scotch bonnet peppers (face meltingly hot!!!), key limes, and real ginger beer. Most shoppers bring their own grocery bags with them, but you can buy at the register if needed.

Mrs Bunny Says: “The Fosters near our condo us was very third world; a little culture shock. But the oxtail at the food bar was amazing and so were the jerk chicken wings.”

The cashier also gave us directions to a liquor store close by. Now, Grand Cayman has a reputation as a safe island and we were all over the place on our last visit, but this time we needed to be buzzed into the neighborhood liquor store and were quickly sized up by the armed security guard inside. Crikie! A very Southeast DC moment.

Rum is our choice in the Caribbean since it’s produced locally. But man, you’d have to be Donald Trump to become an alcoholic down there. For example, a 1.75 liter of Bacardi, which runs about $22 at the wine and spirits place back home, was a whopping $70 USD! And local brands like Tortuga and Jamaica’s Appleton’s were even more. It was at this point that I decided to simply stop looking at pricetags altogether and go wid’ da flow, mon. Plus, I was thirsty.

 GB Side Note: Drink Local

Beer fans, make sure you check out GCI’s local brews while there. White Tip and Caybrew are really nice examples of classic German pale lagers, while Ironhorse is a heavier bock with great flavor. And of course, Red Stripe is brewed and bottled one island over.

As far as liquor goes, rum is the staple. The local Tortuga brand is good, as is Appleton’s, but for a real treat that we can’t get in the States, be on the lookout for authentic Cuban product like Havana Club. The 7 anos anejo (aged 7 years) in particular is una fiesta en tu boca. 

Cayman beer. Good stuff.

LET’S EAT

Bring your appetite. Cayman food is an enticing combination of Caribbean spice and seafood, with old world English pomp, and there’s excellent examples all over the island.

Casual

Rackam’s Bar & Grill.

Rackam’s sits on the water’s edge, overlooking Georgetown Harbor. They’re famous for their Jerk Chicken, which is highly spicy and truly amazing, as well as local fresh fish served Caymanian style, with grilled peppers and onions. The Red Snapper was fantastic. For a touch of added tourism, Rackam’s does a Tarpon feeding every evening which draws dozens of those big suckers in the waters just off the bar.

Coconut Joe’s is on the Seven Mile strip, and does a credible job with fish & chips, jerk chicken sandwiches, etc on a huge palm tree-covered deck. It was fine, not  great, but we’d go back.

Upscale

To be honest, we didn’t do a lot of fine dining while on the island. Besides the sunrise wedding ceremony (yes, sunrise), we swam, we snorkeled, we drank like sailors, we relaxed, and tried to avoid tasks like shaving and combing our hair.

Having said that, we did have two fancy-pants culinary experiences.

Sunday Brunch at Ferdinand’s at the Westin Resort was top shelf all the way. The outdoor patio had a pristine tropical view and feel, and featured a loaded omelette and waffle station, as well as excellent seafood, exotic fruits, and traditional breakfast fare galore. We learned it was also a popular place with the natives when a small land crab came cruising under our table, clicking along the tile floor.

Ferdinand’s at the Westin Resort.

On the other hand, dinner at The Wharf is one that I believe our entire party would like to forget. When the best thing you can say about an upscale dining experience is that the service was good, that’s an issue. Mrs. Bunny is a huge fan of conch chowder, and always orders it at every restaurant that has it on the menu. Everywhere else, the Conch Chowder was really good, like MD Crab Soup. But The Wharf’s chowder was lukewarm, bland, and tasted like it came from a can. Likewise, the rest of the food was meh at best. In all, a disappointing meal that didn’t come close to matching the fat price tag.

Dining In

If you do feel like cooking, we highly recommend stopping by the Open Air Fish Market in Georgetown. It’s on the waterfront near Rackam’s and Eden Rock, and features fresh catch coming in all day long. Mrs Bunny and I hit them up one morning around 9, a bit too early to have a wealth of choices, but we did pick up some Amberjack and Red Snapper that was just pulled out of the sea an hour before. We waited and watched while a big guy with a thick accent cleaned and filleted them like a ninja. No fishy smell whatsoever, which is always a good sign of seafood freshness.

Fresh catch for dinner that fed all six of us hungry fools = $35. Nice.

Cayman Fish Market. It’s the real deal, and it’s cash only.

The Golden Bunny Award Goes To…

Our top choice  for sustenance in Grand Cayman is a very cool, off-the-beaten-path gem on the island’s Northwest coast. Macabuca is an open air tiki bar that is, hands-down, the best bar we’ve ever visited. Period. Macabuca was so good, once we found it we ended up going back the next day, AND the day after that.

Their food comes right out of the upscale Cracked Conch restaurant next door and it’s GOOD. They do fresh conch three ways: fried fritters, ceviche, and cracked conch, and they’re all amazing. So are their sandwiches and salads. There’s a big selection of beers and a wide choice of cocktails, including several signature frozen and non-alcoholic concoctions. Frozen Bananas Foster was fantastic.

The music was a perfect mesh of reggae and old school country, and our Canadian bartender was both friendly and clairvoyant with refills. Turns out he and his wife owned a restaurant on Seven Mile that was destroyed by Ivan, and now he’s content to mix cocktails and let someone else take the risk.

My view from the bar at Macabuca.

Sitting at the bar, staring at the crusty limestone coastline and infinite blue water with a Scotch Bonnet Bloody Mary in hand and the beautiful Mrs. Bunny in a bikini next to me, there was no place on the planet that could have been any better. In fact, I’m truly surprised that I’m not still there.

But I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet.

Macabuca has a large stepladder maybe 25 feet from the bar that descends down into a tiny cove, with a reef that’s teeming with marine life just offshore. So, you eat, have a few drinks, and then grab your snorkel or scuba gear and go diving for a while. When you’re done, come back up the ladder, drop your wet gear by the rail, and your bar stool is still waiting for you.

Mrs. Bunny Says: “He ain’t lyin’! Out of the two of us, Mr. Bunny is certainly the bar connoisseur. BUT I fricking love Macabuca! I am still craving the food. Combine that with the cool atmosphere and the snorkeling (with amazing underwater stuff to see) between drinks and I want to go back to Grand Cayman for this bar alone.”

Macabuca Bar & Grill. That stepladder descends into total Jacques Cousteau-ness.

 

STUFF TO DO

As you might expect, most of the doings there are water-based. And that was fine by us. I mean, if you don’t like the water, what the hell are you doing in the Caribbean in the first place???

Diving/Snorkeling

Grand Cayman is awash with great opportunities to check out the underwater world, no matter your experience and skill level. Our advice: don’t leave your hotel or condo without your snorkel gear. You never know when you’ll stumble upon the perfect place to get wet.

Eden Rock sits right in the heart of Georgetown and has a fully stocked dive shop onsite. Jump in off the rock wall and get busy. There’s a shallow shipwreck just offshore on your right that’s only in about 20 feet of water and loaded with fish. And the coral formation that gives the place its name is about 1/4 mile out and 50 feet down. Go a few hundred feet south, and you’ll find Devil’s Grotto. Snorkelers and divers alike will love it.

As you swim along, don’t be surprised if you quickly develop an entourage of black and yellow sergeant majors and other cool little fish. They’ll simply cruise along with you, happily protected by your size in the open water. Great time to have a Lifeproof case for your iPhone for pics and video.

If you’re a serious scuba type, there are incredible offshore dive sites that are among the world’s best, with excursions departing from every corner of the island, and several resorts wholly dedicated to scuba. Check out DiveCayman.com for more info.

Spott’s Beach is a small and secluded stretch of sand on the south shore that’s a locals favorite. Like many other beaches and reefs on the island, it’s adjacent to a small cemetery. The coral and rock walls that drop down to the beach are incredible.

After Kathy and Dave tied the knot on Spotts pier, we dove in and swam with loggerhead sea turtles, which was pretty danged amazing.

On your way there from Seven Mile you’ll pass the Old Shoe Tree, which is exactly what it sounds like: a tall tree adorned with footwear of all sizes. It was originally started years ago by a local artist who was tired of seeing people’s garbage carelessly dumped all over the place. So he gathered up all the old shoes he found, and started nailing them to a roadside tree. People have been adding to it ever since.

The happy couple on Spott’s Beach pier, just after their beautiful sunrise wedding.

Stingray City

Sorry, but this is a must-do. We very rarely make statements like that, because we’d rather that you make your own choices based on our “suggestions”, but yes, it’s that cool. Stingray City is on an open water sandbar at the top of the Sound in the island’s center. Apparently commercial fisherman used to cut up the day’s catch and dump the guts overboard, and the rays flocked to the smorgasbord. Eventually they got used to being around people and now it’s somewhat of a stingray petting zoo. Last time, we took a boat trip there and swam with them in about 15 feet of water. It was amazing.

For this trip, we decided to try a jet ski tour there instead, and rented gleaming new Waverunners and a tour guide from Ebanks Watersports (a far cry from the beat-to-crap hooptie watercraft we’ve booked in Florida). Cost was $175 USD per Waverunner for the 2.5 hour tour, and IMO worth every penny.

Blazing across the open blue, Waverunner flat out in Sport Mode, the sun huge and heavy overhead, it was pure elation. And it’s futile to try to explain it, but believe me when I tell you that just when we thought the water couldn’t get any more beautiful, it did. The colors became even vibrant and clearer, the small, dancing waves gleaming to the point of luminescence….I lifted off the throttle, came to a stop, and just drank it all in.

After a 20 minute ride, we rafted up the Waverunners together and jumped in. The area was semi-crowded with other jet skiers and a few tour boats, and at first we didn’t see anything. But then dark shapes were moving, sweeping their side fins like birds and gliding along. These weren’t those little things in the city aquarium, they were huge! We found footing on the sandbar, and they were all around us. Our tour guide gathered one the size of patio table in his arms, and everyone petted her smooth skin and kissed her for good luck.

Them dark things underwater sure ain’t rocks.

Yes, stingrays can be dangerous, and a few people were freaking out as the rays swam towards them. But apart from having to hop over a few as they floated under us, it was all very calm and easygoing. Our whole crew loved it; especially the kids.

After hanging with the rays, we followed the guide to nearby Barrier Reef for snorkeling, loaded with huge sea fans, colorful coral, and fish galore.

Mrs. Bunny Note: “Yes, Stingray City is a must. While you can get cheaper deals going on a tour boat, the intimate jet ski tour was an amazing, once in a lifetime experience for our boys. How often do you see looks of amazement and wonder from a 17 and 20 year old? Exactly.”

Road Tripping

You just don’t get the full experience of Grand Cayman by staying drunk and pampered on Seven Mile Beach the whole time, so we piled into our mobile Washing Machine and set off for Rum Point on the Northeast coast of the island.

I love a good Island Road Trip.

Along the way we passed cool stuff like Chester’s famous Fish Fry Stand, Blackbeard’s Caves in the southern port of Bodden Town, and countless other indigenous sights that we didn’t see in the tourist zone.

Rum Point is a favorite of the locals. And since it was Sunday, the day off for most Caymanians, the parking lot was packed.

Dave at Rum Point. What’s amazing about this pic is that the beach was packed, yet there’s nobody in the photo!

We grabbed chaise lounges near the palm tree covered beach, and mixed and mingled.

Rum Point is home to the Wreck Bar, and it’s said that this is where the frozen Mudslide cocktail was conceived. Whether it’s true or folklore, they were tasty on a hot day.

With so much foot traffic, the  water was actually murky, which didn’t help when my sunglasses slipped off my face and <ploop!> out of sight. Thankfully Kathy’s probing foot saved the day.

When storm clouds began to gather, we packed up and rolled to Over the Edge, a little North Shore locals joint just down the road for a drink. We walked into the bar, and EVERYone was glued to the Olympics on TV. Moments later, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt smoked the other runners and won gold, setting a new world record. The place went absolutely bananas, celebrating a victory for their (semi) local hero. What a moment.

Night Life

No idea. After a full day of swimming, snorkeling, tennis, and cocktails, none of us had the energy to check out the bar scene. I know; we’re lame. We did hear what sounded like quality live reggae music coming from a few different places on our way back from dinner, if that helps.

GB Side Note: Critters

Just so’s you know, there are some interesting animals both in and out of the water that might catch you off guard if you don’t expect to see them. Lizards are all over the place, including some pretty big iguanas. Pretty cool to see. Just don’t leave the door open, or they’ll come right on in. 

Then there’s the aforementioned land crabs, one of which popped out of the bushes and chased my Uncle Charlie down West Bay Road one night, a long time ago. And just like Key West, chickens run wild, cock-a-doodle-doodling in the distance whenever they feel like it.

Chicken at the airport.

In the water, keep an eye out for barracuda. They’re much more aggressive than sharks (which are obviously there too, but typically stay further offshore) and will quickly chase any shiny thing they see. Remove all jewelry before diving, snorkeling, and swimming or run the risk of becoming a chew toy.

One diver told us that a barracuda even took a chunk out of one of her flippers because it was clear and shiny.

When checking out coral, look but don’t touch. You don’t want to get too close anyway, as those dark holes can be the home of moray eels. Morays are naturally mean and nasty, and their teeth are sharp as needles. Don’t give them a reason to taste you. 

 

Other Stuff

Other notable attractions on the island include the Cayman Motor Museum, which has a formidable collection of classic Ferraris and other exotics, and the Turtle Farm, which is an exploration center that’s especially cool for the little ones. There’s also a black limestone formation just off the main road called Hell, which is free of charge, and cool to check out for about two minutes, and has its own post office so you can send a postcard to your friends from Hell. It was a lot more rundown and junky than we remembered. And if you’ve seen the island’s northwest coast, it ALL looks like that.

 

 GB Side Note: Safety

As far as islands go, Grand Cayman is considered to be one of the safer destinations in the Caribbean. And we did feel truly comfortable exploring all over the place, away from tourist hotspots.              

Having said that, there’s rising concern over the increase in drug trafficking and other organized crime from Jamaica. And at the same liquor store where Mrs. Bunny and I saw the armed security guard, Kathy was hassled by an aggressive guy a few days later who demanded money and tried to get into her car while Dave was inside buying beer. She quickly locked the door and got him to leave, but scary to say the least. Just be smart–it ain’t Disneyland. 

(SADLY) LEAVING ON A JET PLANE

Our flight home was scheduled for early afternoon, so we made it a point to sneak back to Macabuca one last time for lunch. Yum.

It was easier to find the airport than it was to leave it the week before, and before long, we were sitting in the departures terminal, each of us mentally struggling to hatch a plot that will allow us to stay longer. A LOT longer.

And in a twist of fate, Mother Nature grants our wish, in the form of a 2.5 hour delay due to storms in Florida; a problem since we were connecting in Miami once again. I used the time wisely, buying rum at the duty free shop and hitting the bar.

I can’t stress this next point enough: DO NOT CONNECT THRU MIAMI ON YOUR WAY HOME! Connecting in Miami from an international flight means you also go through Customs in Miami, and we found ourselves in a snaking line that HAD to have 3,000 people in it. We were already running late because of the flight delay, and we didn’t need this. We made it through Customs, ran through a massive sea of people to find our luggage pieces spread out all over the baggage claim area, yanked them over to a disinterested airline rep, BACK through security, and hustled to our gate, only to find out that the flight to BWI was delayed as well. Ugh….bienvenidos al Miami.

Our last sunset on the island, on the beach at Aqua Bay Club.

SUMMARY

Grand Cayman remains a stunningly beautiful Caribbean vacation spot that’s suitable for all ages. They’re genuinely friendly, they speak English as their primary language, and you’re not trapped inside some all-inclusive compound the entire time. Just know that your hard earned US dollar is worth about 80 cents there. Further, Caymanian cost of living is so high that several locals we spoke with said that it’s actually cheaper to fly to Miami a few times a year and hit our big box stores to buy clothing, household items, and other goods for their families. Expensive? Yes. Unforgettable? Definitely.

If it’s an island destination you seek that’s a step apart from the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, etc, without the safety restrictions of Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, Grand Cayman awaits.

GALLERY

Mrs. Bunny snorkeling at Stingray City before the rays showed up. (is that water incredible or what?)

Morning on the beach at Aqua Bay Club.

Cruise ships in the harbor might LOOK cool, but it means thousands more tourists underfoot.

We loved the lizards.

Macabuca’s Frozen Bananas Foster was very tasty and very STRONG.

Rum Point.

Mr Bunny, on the sea wall at Eden Rock.

Waiting for our flight home. Kathy’s expression summed it up for all of us.

Rackams nightly Tarpon Feeding.

Mr. Bunny.

Chilling on the beach with the boys at Aqua Bay Club condo.

© 2012 Getaway Bunny. All rights reserved.

A Gearhead’s Euro Dream Come True (Part One)

I always thought that weekend jaunts to Europe were reserved for nitro-fueled rock stars, self-destructive offspring of industrial billionaires, and diamond merchants (like this guy).

Sadly, I don’t find myself falling into any of those categories these days.

Yet here we are, shuffling through security at Dulles International on a muggy July afternoon, bound for Western Germany’s Rhineland and a flat-out, 4-day automotive-nirvana, including Formula 1 at the Nurburgring, hot laps (in a rental car) on the legendary Nordschleife, and high-speed autobahn barnstorming.

On the excursion is my 17 year old son Derek, a lifelong racing fan who just graduated high school and is headed to study engineering at Lehigh University in the Fall. My father is aboard as well, himself a former sports car racer, and the one who’s responsible for implanting the motorsports bug in yours truly, pretty much at birth.

Three generations of speed freaks, jetting off to the birthplace of internal combustion. Um, Hell yeah.

The flight is an overnighter, and since it’s easier to teach trees to sing than it is to sleep in coach, we watch in-flight movies instead, drink bad airline coffee and stare at the black Atlantic below.

FRIDAY

9:00 am 

We land in Frankfurt, and blow thru customs like the wind. Hit our first (and very rare) batch of  Teutonic attitude at the Avis counter, when their customer service rep completely ignores us, chatting nonchalantly with a co-worker, then argues about the validity of the reservation confirmation I have in my hand. Grampa vehemently opposes the tiny Citroen subcompact they’re thrusting upon us, and we end up in an Audi A4 diesel wagon with the S-Line trim package that’s slick, sturdy, and comfy, yet has roughly the same acceleration rate as an insurance seminar ($151.00 US per day, plus tax. Note: tiny Euro hatch was over $100 per day on its own).

Comfy and stylish, yet slower than an MVA line.

The Audi has built-in navi, but it’s nearly impossible to figure out, and even more difficult to comprehend once we do. Luckily I’d also brought along my Tom Tom, and spent the $30 to download Germany before we left. This is a gift from the Gods. While Tom works marginally at best in the States, here in Deustchland it’s a native tour guide, with knowledge of every alley, speed limit, and shortcut. Beauty.

10:14am

We head west, out of the city into a light gray morning mist on the A66 autobahn, and I fall in love with Germany’s focused, purposeful, no-bullshit driving style immediately. No cell phoners, no left lane blockers, zero meatheads.

A few miles into the countryside, we hit our first free-speed zone. I coax the Audi up to 180 kph (about 110 miles an hour), and we move freely with the traffic, faster than the trucks and sub-compacts on our right, yet still watching 4-door luxo sedans and sports cars powering by on our left at regular intervals. The Audi’s 0-60 time may be measured in minutes, but once at speed it feels very sure-footed and capable, with no drama.  Outside, lush green countryside flashes by that looks a whole lot like Pennsylvania.

No that’s not the PA Turnpike, it’s the Autobahn at 180 kph.

11:48am

We reach the tiny hamlet of Nurburg, not far from the Belgian border in the Eifel Mountains. It’s a classic German village surrounded by Hansel and Gretel-bait pine forests, with the obligatory castle at the top of the nearest hill, and home to one of the planet’s premier motorsports complexes. Nurburg is absolutely oozing with racing goodness, from the BMW Motorsports training facility in the center of town, to flags and engine sounds and classic racing signage everywhere. Their official year-round population is 159, yet on Sunday’s F1 race day Nurburg will swell to more than 400,000, arriving from all corners of the globe.

Nurburg town center, before I swatted the guy.

They’ve been racing here for nearly eight decades, first on the famed Nordschleife (North Loop), a notoriously difficult, 170+ turn, 12.9 mile course that blasts wildly through the countryside, past farms, forests, fields, and villages. Nordschliefe was nicknamed the “Green Hell” by former world champion Jackie Stewart, and was finally deemed too dangerous and closed to Grand Prix racing after Niki Lauda’s fiery crash in 1976. A few years later, a new 3.2 mile Nurburging circuit was constructed on an adjacent stretch of land, and F1 racing resumed.

These days, the historic long course still sees its share of sports car racing, and has also become THE proving ground for automobile manufacturers the world over, from Ford and Chevrolet, to Porsche, Cadillac, Nissan, and a host of others. You can even take your own street car out and run it at speed, merely by signing up and paying per lap (more on that later).

It’s still misting and cloudy, temp in the low 60s. Yet, in true, travel-mensa fashion, I’m in t-shirt, shorts, and flops. It was 97 degrees when we left DC, but somehow it didn’t occur to me that where we were going was somewhat more north (further north than Montreal, actually). Duh. I’m wondering how many Europeans are playing “Spot the American Idiot” right now.

We enter the supremely shiny, high-tech complex, and find dry seats under an overhang at the end of the front straight. The F1s are just coming out for practice, and it’s our first chance to see the fastest road-racing cars on the planet driven by the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, and a bunch of other mega-celeb athletes that most Americans have never heard of. The sight is amazing, but the sound is even better: a 12,000 rpm wailing whoop that’s both pulverizing and magnificent,  and giving me rampant goosebumps. It takes me a few minutes to regain the ability to form coherent words.

1:15pm

Lunchtime. We hit up one of approximately 130,000 food stands for some bratwursts mit (with) mustard and pommes frites (french fries) mit ketchup. Most of the folks around us are getting THEIR pommes frites mit mayo, Pulp Fiction-style. And instead of using our fingers for the fries, they give us this nifty little plastic fork thing for stabbing. Brats are pretty damned good. Fries are meh. Euro ketchup doesn’t help. Still, you gotta love a country where beer is cheaper than Coca Cola, especially at a sporting event. Since I’m driving, I grab free bottled water from a sponsor display (Well, I think they’re free!)

Instead of paying with cash, we’re forced to use a ‘Ring Card’, which is handed to us while standing in line by a semi-hot German blonde. There’s a bit of a communication barrier, but soon I pick up that it’s basically like a debit card that we use cash or credit card to add points to, in order to buy stuff. She does the whole transaction electronically from a cool little box-thingy in her hand–another example of German efficiency.

3:11pm

Having a blast, but the temp is dropping, and we’re starting to turn blue. So we head back to the car to go track down our hotel. While walking along the main street in town, I’m using my hands to describe something and accidentally pop a guy behind me in the head like a spastic oaf. Now, back in Daytona or Talledega, we’d probably have been instantly throwing elbows, even WITH my quick apology. But in Germany, he simply shrugs it off with a smile, and we shake hands and move along, thus avoiding an international incident.

4:30pm

En route to hotel. Mrs. Bunny spent several weeks making our travel arrangements for us, and as usual, they’re stellar. Same with Tom Tom’s guidance.

We pop off the highway and enter an absolutely mind-blowing stretch of narrow, winding, two-lane Euro roadway. We’re dropping down the mountain to the ancient town of Boppard, and the asphalt, dips, weaves and curls before us, switchback turns and S-curves aplenty. I’m pushing the Audi pretty well,  the all-wheel-drive and 6-speed manual gearbox assisting are great allies (fact: many cars in Germany are still stick shift, mainly because they know how to drive), and we’re all “ooh”ing and “wow”ing and grinning like mental patients. The road has a beautiful, artful appearance, from the brick underpass for the train tracks, to the expansive view of the Rhine River Valley down there that’s at times devoid of guardrails.

The road down the mountain to Boppard was tight and narrow, with great corners. What a rush!

A few minutes later, we touch bottom and enter Boppard. It’s so perfect, it’s almost stereotypical. I’m convinced that Pinocchio has a summer cottage here.

We slip through a maze of tiny streets and even tinier alleys, hang a left, and find ourselves on the Rhine Allee, a line of beautiful old inns, hotels, and biergartens to our left, the Rhine’s black water and strong current there on the right. The sun is finally shining, and there’s people everywhere.

(photo courtesy of Rheinhotel Bellevue)

We find the Hotel Bellevue Rheinhotel, ($174.00 per night US, with breakfast buffet) an elegant grand old lady built in 1887, and now strangely part of the Best Western chain.  They’re expecting us, and before we can even say “David Hasselhoff” we’re checked in and warmly whisked off to a clean, modern 3rd floor semi-suite with three beds, full private bath (not a given over here), massive TV, wet bar, and river-view balcony.

Grampa and I go back out to move the car (no hotel parking, all street. Hate that, but also expected it). Just like most US metropolitan areas these days, the meters are history and we need to instead buy a time ticket to stick in the windshield.

Simple, right? Uh….no.

Oh, the machine is easy enough to locate. But in a country that has so far had English printed as a second language everywhere we look, and here in a popular tourist town, the parking machine is an alien contraption, completely non-intuitive, and with instructions only in German. AND it doesn’t take credit cards. First passerby we flag down is French (just our luck). Pierre tries using hand gestures to explain the machine, then gets annoyed and stomps off when we don’t understand. Next passerby is a woman who simply continues to pass us by. Finally, an older gent sees us struggling, hustles over, and mercifully explains what is a ridiculously complicated process. When I tell him thanks, he laughs heartily and strides off, presumably in search of more good deeds to perform.

The view of the Rhine Allee from our hotel’s front steps.

5:20pm

Checked in, unpacked, showered, dressed, quick call to Mrs. Bunny to let her know we made it… now I have but one thing on my mind: beer.

I’m talking REAL German beer, not the hack-kneed factory seconds they import to the States. See, with the country’s strict beer purity law, the grog you’re served is ultra-fresh and 100% preservative-free, and almost always from a brewery that’s not more than 10-15 kilometers from where you’re ordering it.

We head down to the ornate, wood-paneled lobby bar (it’s empty), and take a seat at the rail. Our bartender is Marco; he’s Italian, but his English is pretty good, and he’s an F1 fan. We ask for his recommendation, and Marco brings us cold Bitburger pilsners from the nearby town of–you guessed it–Bitburg.

Local beer is good beer.

Derek is pleasantly astounded to be legally served a cold draft from a smiling bartender who’s not asking to see ID, (legal drinking age for beer is 16) but it doesn’t stop him from digging in like a sauce king.  It’s soooo good; well-balanced, light, and full of flavor. One soon becomes three.

We’re chatting with Marco about the weekend’s upcoming race, and then he asks what part of England we’re from. We’re stunned at first, but then it makes sense. Boppard sees more than its fair share of British tourists on a regular basis, and since English isn’t his native language, Marco can no more hear the difference between the England and USA accents than the average American can discern Barcelona Spanish from Argentinian Spanish.

Once Marco learns we’re from the US, he starts peppering us with “what’s it like over there?” questions. Grampa and I are giving him the 411 as Derek signals for another beer.

6:35pm

It’s been a loooooong day,  one that actually started 30 hours and more than 3,000 miles ago. We’re hungry, but have neither the remaining energy nor the inclination to hit the streets in search of a restaurant, so we lazily grab a table on the front deck of our hotel, and dine from their menu.

My view from our table, looking across the Rhine.

The Rhine stretches before us across the one way street, with small mountains behind it that are adorned with grapevine terraces on the steep slopes, a reminder that this is Reisling country. There’s some interesting offerings on the menu (just what in the hell IS Weiner Art anyway? Sounds like something by Mapplethorpe). We order schnitzels and soup, and dig in. Derek gets lost en route to the bathroom, due to beers, exhaustion, or both.

Apparently artist Robert Mapplethorpe was guest chef that night.

As we’re waiting on our food, a colorful line of classic sports cars is forming down the street in front of us. MGs, Triumphs, Morgans, Austin Healeys, old Porsches, Renaults, even a Mustang, all with competition numbers on their sides. We head over for a closer look, and find out that they’re in the Berlin to Rome Classic Road Rally, and Boppard is an overnight checkpoint. Nice.

After dinner, exhaustion hits us like a runaway refrigerator truck. I actually doze off while still sitting at our table.

What a day. And tomorrow will be even better.