Cuban Coffee in Miami

I’m back in Miami and I’ve been craving an afternoon espresso. While in Paris I had at least one each afternoon, so I guess you could say I’m having a little bit of caffeine withdrawal.

It comes as no surprise that the best coffee in Miami is Cuban coffee. I don’t usually put sugar in my coffee, but there’s something about that ultra sweet taste and supercharged shot that really packs a punch. I’ve survived many late nights and early mornings at work because of Cuban coffee.

Thanks to Miami’s large Cuban community, there are great Cuban restaurants and cafés all over the city.

My favorite is a no frills hangout and takeaway spot on Northeast 1st Street, one block west of Biscayne Boulevard, right in downtown. I actually thought it didn’t have a name, until I saw “Café Manolo y Rene” on their takeaway menus. The cafe is open 24 hours a day – and you’ll see people hanging out there 24 hours a day. It has just enough room for a bar and a handful of stools, so the crowd often spills out to the sidewalk.

My favorite drink there is café con leche. Their version is the perfect mix of creamy and sweet, like thick hot chocolate minus the chocolate flavor. And like anything creamy and chocolaty, you may want a drink of water at the end to wash it all down. The combination of caffeine and sugar is just the jump start you need to be going strong for hours.

If you’re hungry this corner café is one of the most wallet-friendly places to eat. There’s a wide variety of sandwiches costing $5.50 or less. My recommendation: skip the Cuban sandwich and go for the medianoche instead. You’ll get a generous serving of ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese, along with that traditional pickle, all toasted on yummy semi-sweet bread. It’s the sweet taste of that bread that I’ll find myself craving. The sweet plus the saltiness of the meat and the acidity from the pickle always makes for a delicious combination.

I’ve found medianoches seem to taste better around medianoche – or midnight, for non-Spanish speakers. When you’re hungry after a night of barhopping or clubbing it’s the perfect snack.

A Shellfish Feast

One of my favorite meals was lunch on our final day in Paris. I had spent the entire week roaming all over the city, in search of the best restaurants and cafes in each arrondissement. So it was a surprise to find one of the tastiest spots right in our own hotel!

We stayed at Hotel Lutetia, on the corner of Boulevard Raspail and Rue de Sevres, in the sixth arrondissement. It’s a very nice hotel in a great location, with small but comfortable rooms and real showers. The bonus is free wi-fi all over, including in the downstairs bar that serves coffee and aperitifs until late.

We didn’t want to search for a lunch spot in the rain, so we opted to walk downstairs to Brasserie Lutetia. It was 2pm, and the restaurant was packed. Some diners were tourists, but many were local businessmen and women having lunch. While waiting at the bar we decided to celebrate our final day in Paris with a glass of champagne. After our drinks arrived we were told the raw bar was closing in 15 minutes so we should order soon. Feeling good after half a glass of champagne, we decided to do all seafood – and there was plenty to choose from on the menu. Seven types of oysters, snails, shrimp, mussels, clams and crab claws, and I think I may be leaving other crustaceans out. We placed our order just in time for our table to be ready.

We slid into our booth and ordered a half bottle of white wine to complement our shellfish. Then our spectacular assortment arrived. We ordered 4 different types of oysters, all from France – one each from Normandy and Brittany to the north, and two from Marennes, to the west. The menu listed them as being medium in size, but all four were some of the biggest oysters I’ve ever eaten. They were bigger than blue point oysters from Long Island, which most Americans would describe as large. My favorite was the Claire de Marennes. It was thick and meaty, with a buttery and almost sweet taste. Hands down the best tasting oyster I’ve had in recent memory, perhaps the best I’ve ever tasted.

We also ordered bulots and bigorneaux, which are translated into English as winkles and welks. I tried them for the first time three years ago during a trip to Normandy and Brittany, but haven’t had them since. I’ve been unsuccessful at finding them on menus in the United States. Winkles are sea snails. They’re different from escargot in color, taste, and the way they’re prepared. The escargot I’ve had this week were cooked with lots of butter and garlic. In a word – delicious. Winkles are prepared much more simply. They’re cooked in boiling water like you would with clams or mussels, then served chilled. You carefully take out the animal from the shell using a small metal rod that looks almost like an unwound paper clip. It’s yellowy-brown in color and kind of slimy looking, but tastes great. It’s a burst of flavor when you bite in. It has just a hint of salt and is surprisingly not too chewy. Welks are much smaller, about the size of a dime, with black shells. You use the same thin metal tool to take out the tiny animal. For its small size it has a bigger taste than the winkle. It’s saltier and a bit tangy. It does seem like a lot of work for such a small bite, but I always find food tastes better when you have to work to eat it!

After we finished our shellfish feast I did have a couple regrets. The first, that we hadn’t tried this brasserie earlier in our stay. The second, we had a late lunch. If that raw bar wasn’t closed I would have definitely gotten another round!

A Cafe Culture

In London you have pub culture, in Paris it’s the café culture. Hundreds of cafes line the streets of the city. They’re great spots to meet friends for coffee or to sit by yourself and people watch.

It’s my last day in Paris and I’m feeling like a real Parisian. It’s a rainy afternoon, I’ve got my French newspaper, and I decide to stop in to Café de Flore. It’s a well-known café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, right next to Les Deux Magots. Years before I was born, this was the place for artists and intellectuals. Sitting at the small table by the window I imagined I could be in the same spot where people like John-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus discussed philosophy.

An older waiter came over carrying a silver tray. “Un café, s’il vous plait,” I said. “Oui,” he responded. Somehow I felt he could still tell I’m not a real Parisian. Minutes later my espresso arrived, along with a small piece of solid dark chocolate and a packet of sugar. It reminded me of my first trip to France with my family, when I was 7. My sister, who at the time was 4, and I would play with the sugar cubes at restaurants while waiting for our food. Each restaurant had its own wrapper for the sugar cubes. We’d take one from each restaurant. By the end of our trip had quite the colorful collection. The sugar at Café de Flore is in a wide, white packet, not a fancy looking cube – not worth saving. There’ve only been two worth saving so far – a thin packet with the recognizable logo from Les Deux Magots, and bright pink sugar cubes from Fauchon.

While the cups of coffee have been abundant and have always tasted good, it’s been harder to find a good tasting glass of wine. It seems most people order bottles or half bottles, so some of the wines by the glass taste like they’ve been open for a day or so.

I found my favorite glass of wine (and favorite wine of the entire trip) at a place called Willi’s Wine Bar. I thought a place with ‘wine bar’ in its name would be a good place to find a good glass of wine.

Willi’s Wine Bar is located near the Palais Royal, on Rue des Petits Champs in the first arrondissement. It was opened in 1980 and named after the owner’s dog. They had a fairly extensive list of wines by the glass from all over France, and the good vintages weren’t only reserved for full bottles. I ordered a glass of the 2001 Chateau Issan from Margaux. I wasn’t familiar with the wine, but it tasted delicious. The blend of cabernet and merlot was a dark red color. It had ripe red fruit on the nose, the taste of blackberries and black currants, followed by a finish of tobacco and cloves with soft tannins. Definitely a wine I’d like to drink again.

Strolling on the Ile Saint-Louis

It’s in the middle of Paris, yet many visitors I’ve spoken with say they’re not familiar with it. The Ile Saint-Louis is a small island in the Seine right next to the Ile de la Cite. To get there, walk around the back of Notre Dame and you’ll see a small bridge connecting the two islands. You’ll see it’s clear plenty of other tourists know about it. Many flock to the small island for the famous Berthillon ice cream. It’s easy to tell where it’s served – you’ll always see a line of people waiting to order. It’s sold all over the Ile Saint-Louis; the farther you walk from the bridge, the shorter the line. I’m a big fan of Berthillon ice cream, especially the fruit flavors. I recommend mango and pear.

My favorite place on the Ile Saint-Louis is a small cheese shop. If you’re walking down the main road, Rue de Saint-Louis-en-l’Ile, it’ll be on your left. You can’t miss it, with the hundreds of cheeses in the window. You may even smell it before you get there, if someone opens the door. When you step in you’re immediately hit with the strong smell of cheese.

The selection is overwhelming – goat, sheep, cow, round, square, white, yellow, red, blue, some covered with eastern spices or herbs de Provence. There’s also wine, saucisson, pasta, and pate; it’s a pretty big selection for a store that can fit about 4 customers at a time. It’s tough to go in because you want to try all the different cheeses, but unless you have a refrigerator in your hotel room, the cheese won’t last too long. Fortunately, if you want a small taste there are single-serving chevres – small, bite size balls of goat cheese on a wooden stick, covered with a variety of spices. It’s the perfect bite, and won’t ruin your appetite for Berthillon ice cream.

Le Louvre et Le Fumoir

It’s 2pm and I’m having a late lunch at a restaurant called Le Fumoir. I came here in February 2003, thanks to the recommendations of my mom and sister who found it the summer before. I’m sitting in the bar area, in a comfy brown leather armchair. It’s a cozy and intimate restaurant, enhanced by the music of Ella Fitzgerald. There’s a wooden bar stained a deep mahogany color near the entrance; at the back, a wide door reveals a library filled with old books. It’s a warm and inviting place to stop in for a bite to eat or a coffee on a gray afternoon.

Looking around it looks like I’m the only non-native French speaker. It seems Le Fumoir is a place where locals go, despite its proximity to the Louvre. I can see the museum out the window, it’s directly across the street. Perhaps it’s because the restaurant is on the only side of the museum that doesn’t have an entrance, that it remains a secret to tourists.

I’m at Le Fumoir because I’m one of those tourists visiting the Louvre. I’m taking a lunch break – after nearly 2 hours I’ve only seen the Egyptian exhibit, a few rooms in the Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities exhibit, and the statue of the Winged Victory. I need to have some lunch before tackling the other 95% of the museum. Fortunately I’ve chosen a day on which the Louvre stays open until 10pm.

When my lunch arrived at first I thought they gave me the wrong dish. I skipped my usual Parisian lunch of a salad, preferably one with chevre, for a sandwich that sounded really tasty (it also had chevre). After cutting in with my knife, I realized the bread was just buried under a mountain of grilled vegetables – eggplant, zucchini, red pepper and sun dried tomatoes, with a sprinkling of chopped basil and a drizzle of olive oil on top. It’s a great combination of sweet and salty, along with the fresh taste of the basil and the tanginess of the cheese. And it’s much easier to write when all I have to do is put down my fork!

This is my fifth trip to the Louvre. Each time I’m amazed at just how much there is to see. The number of statues of Egyptian gods must be in the thousands alone. The building itself is enough to look at for hours. Walking through the museum makes you truly feel like you’re walking through history – and it’s not only because of the art and artifacts inside. Each corridor has a sign by its entrance, explaining its own history. The Louvre dates back to the 12th century. It was rebuilt and expanded to become the home of Francois I and later, Louis XIV. The actual museum has been around since 1793. From the marble columns to the decorated fireplaces, to the carvings and paintings on the ceilings, there’s a lot to look at.

Sure you can follow the hundreds of visitors who make a beeline to the Mona Lisa, but I find it’s more exciting to go to that less visited corner of the museum, where you can take in the hundreds or even thousands of years of history on your own. I found an empty room at the end of the Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities exhibit that was filled with terra cotta. Walking around the small room in privacy, the wooden floor creaking with each step, you really get to take in the beauty and the significance of the artifacts. Who were their original owners? What was their daily life like?

This afternoon I’ll be traveling through time. I’ll be starting in Mesopotamia, then visiting the Renaissance, then visiting sculptures that once resided at Versailles. I’ll also make the obligatory visit to the Mona Lisa. Now that I’ve finished my coffee and paid the check it’s time to dive back in. After all, I only have seven hours until the museum closes.

Lunch at Le Grand Vefour

After a weekend of great food and great wine, I somehow found more room for foie gras at lunch Monday. We ate at Le Grand Vefour, a posh lunch spot just off the Palais Royal, where the Parisian power hitters come to eat and talk business.

The restaurant is more than 200 years old. It’s decorated in 18th century style, with red velvet couches around the walls of the small room. The tables form a rectangle around two waiter stations in the center of the room. The service is impeccable. Several waiters dressed in tuxedos attend to each table. There’s constantly a flurry of black and white, waiters making sure no water glass ever is less than half full, bread plates are never empty, and finished plates are cleared right away.

Lunch was four courses, including a cheese course. Add on all the extras, like amuse-bouches and petit fours, and you’ve got quite a meal. Before we ordered, we were offered a small bite prepared by the chef. The chilled avocado soup and fresh orange was a delicious introduction to the flavor combinations yet to come.

For the first course I ordered “pressé de foie gras de canard et petits pois au naturel,” which had a generous portion of foie gras and fresh vegetables seasoned with vinegar and rolled together to look like flowers. For the entre I ordered “dos de cabillaud cuit meunière, courgettes jaunes et vertes apprêtées aux graines de moutarde et curry.” It was delicately prepared cod, served on a bed of zucchini and yellow squash, served with an olive oil foam.

Next came the cheese course. Le Grand Vefour has one of the most impressive spreads of cheese I’ve seen in a restaurant. I counted at least 30 different kinds. It was hard to pick only three, but harder still to eat all three because I was already so full. I selected two different chevres and a fairly strong camembert. After we were served a palate cleanser – a light lemon gelatin with raspberries and candied ginger. Then came the petit fours – macarons, chocolate tarts, madeleines, and orange and grape jelly candies. After all that our dessert arrived. I ordered the “palet noisette et chocolat au lait, glace au caramel brun et prise de sel de Guérande.” It’s one of the more spectacular chocolate desserts I’ve ever seen. It had two parts – first, a round chocolate cake with layers of rich chocolate fudge and covered with chocolate sauce. Next to it was a tube made out of chocolate, plated vertically, filled with chocolate cream and fudge, and topped with butterscotch ice cream. It was so delicious and decadent but I could only manage a few bites since I had already eaten so much.

Finally came the end to any great meal in France – le café. And it was served with even more food! The waiter cut a slice of a cake called gateau de savoie. It tastes like sponge cake but is a bit more dry. It’s made without milk or butter, and baked in a bundt-style pan to give it a neat texture on the outside. The waiter then brought around an offering of caramel candies and fresh lemon-flavored marshmallows. I tried a marshmallow but didn’t have room for anything else.

After two and a half delicious hours we ordered the check. I spent the rest of the day walking around Paris, trying to work off all the food.

Beaucoup de Foie Gras

It’s my fourth day in Paris and I’m proud to say it’s my fourth consecutive day eating foie gras. I don’t like the concept of force-feeding a duck or goose, but it tastes so good! And besides, I’m in France where they prepare it best. To not try it here would be an insult to the country!

I arrived in Paris Friday morning for a friend’s wedding extravaganza. And the word extravaganza is no exaggeration – three evenings of celebrating, culminating with the wedding Sunday night at a chateau an hour outside of Paris. Each night began at 8 and ended on average between 3am and 6am.

Friday night we boarded a yacht for a cruise along the Seine – truly the perfect way to begin a week in Paris. We sipped champagne as we passed by familiar sights – the Eiffel Tower illuminated in blue, Notre Dame and the Ile St. Louis, and in the distance, Sacre-Coeur glowing white on top of Montmartre.

After the sunset, we were invited inside to eat. There were several food stations including one just for foie gras. There was sliced foie gras on thin bread, foie gras “lollipops” that you could dip in a variety of sauces, and foie gras flan served in individual shot glasses. I tried all of them – and more than once. The flan was incredible though I could only eat one; it was about ten times as rich as normal foie gras.

The next night we went to a party just outside of Paris at a former wine storage facility that now houses turn of the century carnival games and rides, even a carousel. Everything has been fully restored and we were allowed to play all the games and go on the rides. The carnival atmosphere was completed with sweet drinks in a variety of bright colors, tons of candy, and performers juggling and riding unicycles. It was updated with caviar and of course, foie gras. The highlight came after the sit down dinner with the presentation of dessert.

A woman entered dressed like a 17th century French royal, complete with a hot pink wig and hoop skirt. When she got closer we saw her skirt was made with pink cotton candy. Guests were able to come up and take off the cotton candy. The men seemed especially eager to take off the cotton candy.

The wedding at the chateau was nothing short of spectacular. We were handed glasses of champagne when we arrived, and taken to the ceremony site in the chateau’s garden by horse-drawn carriage. And in keeping with the theme of the weekend, there was foie gras in several of the passed hors d’oeuvres and in the first course.


When I imagined Bali I thought of a far away tropical paradise, a lush and luxurious escape from the ordinary. What I found exceeded my imagination – a landscape dotted with flowers in every imaginable color, their sweet smell floating in the breeze, sparkling blue-green water, a fascinating dedication to tradition, and a place where the warm sun is matched by the warmth of its residents.

Our flight from San Francisco took us through Taipei where we made quite the culinary discovery – the China Airlines airport lounge. Simply put, my usual preflight snack of a Bloody Mary and pretzel mix in the Delta Crown Room pales in comparison to China Airlines’ sumptuous spread.

We arrived in Taipei just before 6am local time. I felt pretty well rested after sleeping a full night during our 12 hour flight, thanks in part to a 1:30am departure, comfy chairs in Business Class and the flight attendants who kept refilling my wine glass (it was a nice French Bordeaux, I couldn’t say no). When we landed I was still pretty full from the surprisingly good omelet they served for the Western breakfast; yet somehow when we entered the China Airlines lounge that meal was a distant memory.

It was if we had walked into a Dim Sum restaurant – there were bamboo steamers filled with chicken dumplings, pork dumplings, shrimp dumplings, barbecue pork buns and my favorite: red bean buns. There’s something about biting through that spongy bread and tasting the sweet filling that I can’t resist. In the refrigerators above there was a full assortment of drinks, from the standard sodas, to a variety of fruit juices, to milk featuring Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang (who’s from Taiwan).

There was cold green tea and oolong tea, soda water, tonic water, and Taiwan Beer. Of course, I had to try all the drinks I didn’t recognize. The first was a soda in a shiny blue can with bubbles on it. It tasted like a mix of cherry and grape soda with some bubble gum thrown in. I was not a fan. I did however like the hawthorn berry drink. I had never tried hawthorn berry before, and found out later it’s supposed to be good for heart health. It had the sweetness of apple juice and the tartness of cranberry juice with a slight spiciness on the finish.

The best feature of the lounge was a noodle bar. You select the type of noodles you want, then a woman prepares them in one minute flat by a quick dip in boiling hot water. I got the “noodles in a tasty meat sauce” and was not disappointed. Feeling quite sated we boarded our plane to Bali, and somehow found room to fit in another meal and champagne on board.

After another 5 hours in the air and a 20 minute ride from the airport we arrived at the resort. We were greeted by a group of men who presented us with fragrant leis made with frangipani flowers. One fruity drink and a credit card exchange later, we were whisked away to our private villa. The entrance was a double door made out of wood, ornately carved and painted by Balinese artists. Inside we found more local artwork in the form of a thatched bamboo roof, its grassy and natural smell we experienced every time we walked in the door.

Behind the villa was an amazing view of the Indian Ocean, along with a private plunge pool and what the Balinese call a “bale bengong,” a raised platform with a thatched roof. On that first day we discovered it was the perfect spot for watching the sunset, or relaxing with a cup of tea and a good book.

While exploring the resort we became acquainted with some of the flora and fauna of Bali. We found the frangipani tree all over. Its flowers have a splash of color in the center, from light pink to vibrant yellow. We could smell them every time the wind blew. It was an exotic yet familiar smell; I later found out frangipani is better known as plumeria.

Two types of birds kept us company at our villa. The first was a spotted dove. These birds often seemed to travel in pairs and would mostly walk around, not fly. They’d peck at the grass and take a bath in our pool. In the early morning we could hear their coos coming through the thatched roof. The second was a small bird with grey and white feathers, black around its eyes and a black beak. It had a touch of yellow just under its tail. After some research I found it’s called a yellow-vented bulbul. It would swoop in, land on a tree branch, chirp, wait for a chirp in response, then take off just as quickly as it arrived. On one occasion I spotted a Java sparrow, which has a striking bright orange beak and a black and white head.

We got a sense of Balinese life when we left the resort property. In the villages small homes were next to empty lots littered with broken up stone and concrete, empty bottles and discarded paper. A chicken or two, and sometimes several chicks, would peck at the piles. Dogs that looked like a mix of dingo and wolf roamed the streets, unfazed by the cars and motorbikes passing by. The larger towns had a mix of family run shops and more commercial stores, and every couple of blocks there would be a larger strip mall or multiple story building.

Driving around Bali seemed to be an adventure. Motorbikes greatly outnumbered cars and the roars of their engines drowned out all other sounds. We saw families riding together on one bike; a young girl with sunglasses held on to the handlebar her father was steering, a boy no older than seven clutched the back of an older brother who was speeding down the road. It sometimes bordered on unsafe; a father in front, his young son behind him, the mother riding sidesaddle in the back, none with helmets.

Lanes on the road seemed to be merely a suggestion. The two lanes we were driving in would become three if there was a stopped car in one lane, if the stoplight was too long, or if motorbikes were clogging up one of the lanes. The same applied for the line dividing opposite directions of traffic – pretty frightening when a large truck is barreling down on your taxi! And there was an entire language of horns; drivers honked as frequently as they shifted gears. I tried to decipher all the different types of honks. There was the “I’m passing you” honk, the “you can pass me honk,” the “you didn’t honk before you passed me” honk, the “move over” honk, the “stoplight ahead” honk, and many more.

While Indonesia is mostly Muslim, more than 90% of the people in Bali follow Balinese Hinduism. It combines aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism with local beliefs in animism and ancestor worship. Ever present is the principle that all elements in nature can be a home for spirits. The devotion to tradition is reflected in Bali’s beautiful temples and abundant shrines. The stone shrines are outside stores, restaurants, markets and homes. Some have human looking figures on them, others have animals, and many have designs that look like thrones. The shrines are often covered in cloth or shaded by a parasol, both signs of respect. The cloth isn’t just for the shrines; we saw an apparently sacred tree covered in black and white cloth at its base, and the statue of an important local figure had a similarly-colored sarong. The shrines were made even more colorful by the numerous offerings. People would place offerings of pink, purple, blue or yellow flower petals in a box made from weaving together palm fronds. Both these woven boxes and the flower petals were sold at local markets.

Our first trip outside the resort took us to the fish market at Jimbaran Bay. The beach was packed with hundreds of traditional Balinese fishing boats, back from a night on the water. We’d see the boats heading out every night around sunset.

Their hard work was evident inside the fish market. Walking up and down the narrow rows we saw all sorts of fish including tuna, red snapper, skate, octopus, crabs, lobster, clams and even a small shark. Shrimp and squid were sorted by size. The sheer number of fish caught was pretty amazing. It really makes you realize why the traditional fishing methods have lasted all this time.

We wandered through another market to check out local produce. We found fruits we had never heard of or had never tasted. One tasty find – salak. It’s called snake fruit because of the color and texture of its skin. Salak is similar to a lychee; you peel off the skin to reveal white flesh surrounding a round brown seed. Its taste is almost as sweet. The texture is more solid, and feels almost like biting into a roasted chestnut, one that isn’t so mushy.

Our next trip took us north, to the town of Ubud. Along the way we passed through neighborhoods that featured a different artistic specialty. First was the woodworking area, with tons of wooden indoor and outdoor chairs, tables, gazebos and ornately carved doors. Beside the stores were men making new items to sell. Next was stone, with shops featuring everything from larger than life statues of gods, to frogs and other creatures small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. After came jewelry, then paintings.

We finally arrived at our real reason for visiting Ubud – the sacred monkey forest sanctuary. More than 300 long-tailed macaques live in the forest; we saw our first one before paying for our entrance ticket. Once inside it was fun to watch the monkeys’ playfulness and boldness. They’d walk right next to you and let you come up to them.

A sign by the entrance told visitors not to feed or handle the monkeys though we saw that was pretty much ignored. People were giving the monkeys mini bananas and taking photos with them on their shoulders. We came across a guide feeding the monkeys papaya leaves, he let us try it. The monkeys seemed to have no fear – they’d casually walk up to us, then snatch the leaves out of our hand with almost a “that’s mine!” attitude. It was really neat to see them everywhere; no matter where you looked there was a monkey climbing a tree branch, two young monkeys playing around, even a mother and baby monkey.

The rest of the time we spent relaxing at the resort. We bounced around the restaurants, sampling a variety of dishes from satay and curries in an outdoor restaurant that appears to be floating on a koi pond, to tuna and peking duck in another restaurant with sweeping views of the Indian Ocean. We relaxed by the pool with a Bintang beer or lychee martini. Everywhere the service was impeccable. We’d sit down by the pool and there would be someone with a frangipani-scented hand towel, even if we had just gotten one 10 minutes earlier at a nearby bar.

After 5 relaxing days it was time to say goodbye to our tropical paradise. Once we were on the plane reality set in, that after stopovers in Taipei and San Francisco we were going back to Miami. But fortunately we’d still have time for another trip to the China Airlines noodle bar.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica.  A country of lush rainforests and unspoiled beaches, of thundering waterfalls and miles of coffee plants.  A place where you come face to face with nature, where you can get up close to wild animals and colorful flowers you’ve only read about in the pages of travel and nature magazines.  The boundless beauty makes it the ideal place for an escape from everyday life.

One may think.

My trip to Costa Rica left me bruised, sunburned, sweaty and sore.  And I learned an important lesson — I am a wimp.  I’m not so good at roughing it.  Big bugs scare me.  I don’t like sharing my room with lizards (especially ones that choose to perch right by the head of the bed).  Bridges that look like they could crumble into the water below right as we’re driving over them are a bit unnerving.  Waves crashing on me while I’m attempting to surf – not so much fun.  And you know what?  I really like air conditioning.

Now that I’m back in my city apartment (with the air conditioning set to a comfortable temperature), I can look back on a trip I really did enjoy.  Here are some of the more memorable moments.

Our first destination was Manuel Antonio.  We spent one morning exploring the national park.  Our guide pointed out all sorts of wildlife you would never be able to see on your own.  We saw bats, birds, frogs, lizards, sloths, leaf cutter ants and crocodiles.

We hiked a short while through the woods and came to one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen.  With sparkling blue water and bright white sand, I was ready to jump in with all my clothes on.

One thing that’s pretty neat is the monkeys that roam around. All of a sudden, you’ll hear a rustling in the trees, and a group of monkeys will pass through.

We saw howler monkeys the most frequently.  And if we didn’t see them, we heard them.  They sound like a snarling dog mixed with a growling boar.  It sounds kind of frightening the first time you hear it.

One morning while having breakfast outside at our hotel, a group of capuchin monkeys came through.  They jumped from the roofs to the trees, and had the most expressive faces.  It was so neat being able to get so close to them.

Squirrel monkeys were the most elusive of the three monkeys we saw.  We only saw them once, and it was unfortunately when I didn’t have my camera.  They’re smaller than capuchin monkeys and really cute, with light orange-brown fur.  Google them and you’ll want to get one as a pet, just like I do (though I’m not sure how well they’d do in Miami).

Of course one of my favorite parts of any trip is the food.  By far my favorite meal in Costa Rica was breakfast.  Every day I ordered gallo pinto.  It’s basically day old rice tossed in a pan with black beans, a little cilantro, and a lot of this sauce called “salsa.”  It’s a brown sauce with a tangy and slightly spicy taste — not like the stuff you get at Mexican restaurants.  Gallo pinto comes with scrambled eggs and tortillas.  Add some hot sauce and it’s perfect.  My choice – a hot sauce called “Mean Green Iguana,” which is strangely enough manufactured by a company in north Florida, and can be purchased at Whole Foods.  During my trip I tried a bunch of Iguana hot sauces and they were great.  My taste buds were numb by the end of the trip.

Adventures in Manuel Antonio

If you visit Costa Rica there’s apparently an unwritten rule you’re not allowed to simply enjoy nature by basking in the sun on the beach or by sitting on your covered balcony while a fierce rain storm passes through, listening to the sound of howler monkeys.  No, instead you have to get right in nature’s face, throw yourself fully into the wild and hope you come out unscathed.

I threw myself in, and I came out a bit bruised.

My first adventure: zip lining

This was an activity I really wanted to try before I came to Costa Rica.  I’d heard stories from other people about flying through the canopy for an amazing view of the dense Costa Rican forests.  It wasn’t until I pulled on my gloves, fastened my helmet, and was fitted into the harness that my nerves started getting to me.

We hiked up into the jungle and with each step I tried harder to keep myself from panicking.  Once we got up to the first platform and I saw the wire leading off into the forest, it was no use.

A bit shaky, I stepped onto the platform and pulled myself up on the wire as one of the guides hooked my harness on the wire.  “Listo?” he asked.  “Espero que si!” I responded.  With a deep breath I leaned back, lifted up my feet, and released my extra tight grip on the wire above me.  I couldn’t hear anything above the sound of my heart pounding in my ears.  After about 10 seconds of whizzing by trees I landed safely on the next platform.

With the first trip under my belt, I tried to relax so I could enjoy the second one.  Each ride got easier, and much more fun.  One of the best rides came towards the end.  The platform was way up high above the canopy, and the wire stretched so far you couldn’t see where it came to an end.  By this time I was a pro – I leaned back and let go, sailing above the trees.  During the extra long ride I had plenty of time to take in the amazing view.  At the end of all the rides I felt full of energy and thrilled I had conquered my initial fears.

My second adventure: surfing

I’d like to say I felt as invigorated and alive after surfing as I did after zip lining, but that was not the case.

Just a little background – for the past four years I’ve lived in south Florida, with at most, a 20 minute drive to the ocean.  Yet somehow I’ve never picked up a surfboard.  So it seems only natural I’d travel hundreds of miles away to try surfing.

We started with a lesson on the beach.  The instructor demonstrated paddling on the board, then grabbed the sides of the board and jumped up on both feet.  We were then told to try it.  I should have known surfing wasn’t for me when I hesitated to get down on the board because it was covered in sand (maybe I should have rethought wearing my cute bikini).  After I mastered the jumping up maneuver we headed for the water.

Between the time of us arriving at the beach to actually going in the water, I swear the waves got ten times bigger.

Once we got out towards the waves I started thinking this was a very bad idea. I tried to wait out some of the bigger waves to get a less scary one. When that first big wave came I tried to jump it rather than just duck under – bad idea. I got knocked over and flipped upside down. Once I regained my footing I shot up to the surface. Why did I decide to try surfing again? After getting the water out of my nose, the instructor held the board as I hopped on. After waiting for some less desirable waves to pass (including a couple that crashed on us), the instructor gave me a push and shouted, “stand up!” I tried standing up, and slipped right off the board. I swam back out to him and tried it again. This time, I stood up and stayed up, all the way to the beach. With this newfound confidence I ran back into the water. That confidence started slipping as I got thrown around by more waves. You know what? I really don’t like it when waves crash on me. So a sport where waves crash on you is probably not the best match for me.

I did manage to stand up several more times. One of those times I slipped as I was nearing the beach – I went one way, the board went the other, and somehow hit my inner thigh. Hours later that injury turned into a bruise the size of a melon. Over the next few weeks it went from a lovely shade of deep purple, to black, to blue, to brown, then finally to yellow. And that cute bikini I was wearing? It had a wooden ring in the middle of the top, and one on each side of the bottom. Every time I jumped onto the surfboard . . . well, you get the idea. So I came away from surfing with bruises all over. Not such a great first (and most likely my last), attempt at surfing.

My third (and final) adventure: a snorkeling cruise

Ok, so this is hardly roughing it. We were picked up at our hotel and driven to a dock where we boarded a sailboat with a few other couples, and spent the morning on the water, exploring some of Costa Rica’s beaches and reefs. We sailed alongside a family of whales and got close to birds. We went snorkeling and saw some of the most brightly colored fish and coral I’ve ever seen. Then when we returned to the sailboat we were served freshly grilled fish with rice and beans, which I covered with a hefty sprinkling of Lizano salsa. Now this is definitely my idea of exploring nature!

Think all you want about my lack of a sense of adventure – there was some danger involved.  I decided I didn’t need sunscreen, and came back onshore with probably the worst sunburn I’ve ever had.  My face was peeling and covered in blisters, it was pretty gross – I spent the rest of the trip walking around awkwardly with my hands covering my face.

In search of the best wine, food and culture