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FLORIDA & CARIBBEAN WI N T E R 20 1 7

AQUATIC ART Stunning island waterfalls await

MAGICAL RAINFOREST Explore America’s El Yunque

SHOP, DIVE & DINE Sunshine State has it all

Winter Getaways

Warm waters, sandy shores beckon


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CONTENTS

FLORIDA & THE CARIBBEAN

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FLORIDA & THE CARIBBEAN

FLORIDA

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park in Key Biscayne BARBARA UNDERWOOD DAY

FEATURES CUBA

HAITI/ DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

PUERTO RICO

CURAÇAO

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PARADISE BEACHES USA TODAY 10Best readers’ top choices for Florida’s sand and surf

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EL YUNQUE Bask in the beauty of an American rainforest


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" is is a product of

Cannon Beach at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Fla. BOB CARE/FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU

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CREATIVE DIRECTOR

Jerald Council jcouncil@usatoday.com MANAGING EDITOR

Michelle Washington mjwashington@usatoday.com EDITORS

VICTORINOX

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DIRECTOR

Jeanette Barrett-Stokes jbstokes@usatoday.com

Elizabeth Neus Hannah Prince Sara Schwartz Tracy L. Scott

TECH! SAVVY BAGS Smart suitcases make travel easier

DESIGNERS

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CROWD CONTROL Tips to cope with vacation throngs

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THEME PARKS Newest Florida attractions wow

Miranda Pellicano Gina Toole Saunders Ashleigh Webb Lisa M. Zilka CONTRIBUTING WRITERS

Matt Alderton, Vanessa Caceres, Lisa Davis, Allison Entrekin, Stacey Zable

FLORIDA

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ADVERTISING VP, ADVERTISING

FLORIDA LIGHTHOUSE TOUR Iconic buildings guide you through the past

Horseback riding in the Caribbean Sea on St. Croix CRUZAN COWGIRLS HORSEBACK RIDING TOURS

DISNEY CRUISE Mickey and Co. entertain aboard revamped ship

FRESH FARE Restaurants excite with local food options

FLORIDA KEYS Islands o! er plenty of paradise

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER @USATODAYMAGS FACEBOOK Facebook.com/usatodaymags

Julie Marco

WATERFALL WONDERS Take in breathtaking aquatic beauties

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ARTSY CURAÇAO Island abounds with color and culture

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HORSING AROUND Experience the ocean on an equine adventure

ACCOUNT DIRECTOR

Justine Goodwin | (703) 854-5444 jgoodwin@usatoday.com FINANCE BILLING COORDINATOR

CARIBBEAN

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Patrick Burke | (703) 854-5914 pburke@usatoday.com

ISSN#0734-7456 A USA TODAY Network publication, Gannett Co. Inc. USA TODAY, its logo and associated graphics are the trademarks of Gannett Co. Inc. or its aÿ liates. All rights reserved. Copyright 2016, USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. Editorial and publication headquarters are at 7950 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, VA 22108, and at (703) 854-3400. For accuracy questions, call or send an e-mail to accuracy@usatoday.com.

PRINTED IN THE USA

ON THE COVER

An aerial view of Florida’s picturesque coastline | Thinkstock

All prices and availability are subject to change.


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GET SMART

Bags with brains put the tech in travel By Quinn Kelley

From zipperless closures to GPS technology, these new “smart suitcases” will send your old bags packing

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COURTESY OF THE COMPANIES

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Charge your phone up to six times — and charge any other device — using the Bluesmart carry-on bag. The bag also alerts you if you ever leave it behind. $449, bluesmart.com

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Andiamo iQ smart luggage provides travelers with two of their top priorities: a removable battery and a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. Eliminate excess baggage fees with a built-in scale. Prices start at $395, andiamoluggage. com

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Unlock the PlanetTraveler Space Case 1 carry-on with the touch of your fingerprint. Its global tracker allows you to know your luggage’s location at all times. $750, planet travelerusa.com

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The sliding rolltop door on the Trunkster 22-inch carry-on allows for zipperless entry. Charge, weigh and track on the go with integrated scale, GPS and charging technologies. $295, trunkster.co

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The collapsible design of the Barracuda makes storage and travel easy. The hardside suitcase also boasts a built-in tray, USB charger, a proximity sensor and location tracking. $299, barracuda.co

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Lojel Octa’s 29.75-inch large hardside spinner upright suitcase contains multiple compartments to keep your belongings organized, as well as a TSA lock system that keeps them secure. $191.95, overstock. com

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The Delsey Pluggage’s overload indicator helps avoid overweight bag surprises at the airport. And the suitcase will let you know once it’s safely on board the plane. Prices start at $600, delseypluggage. com

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With the one-touch handle system on the Victorinox Spectra 2.0 29, you can choose easily from three different handle positions. The 100 percent pure Bayer polycarbonate bag comes in four colors. Prices begin at $275, amazon.com


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CROWD HACKS Ways to outwit the hordes everywhere By Suzanne Wright

TIMING IS EVERYTHING Tap special membership offers. Sometimes a small shift can help you ditch the lines. Lissa Poirot, editor in chief of Family Vacation Critic, TripAdvisor. com’s family-focused travel planning site, recommends:

Check the weather. Grab an

Credit card companies often partner with theme parks to offer VIP treatment so cardholders can sneak past admission lines through a special entrance.

When visiting theme parks, destination specialist Anita Covic of TripTogether. com suggests the following strategies:

umbrella and visit outdoor attractions on days when the weather is not perfect.

Skip school vacations and holidays. Visit Disney World in December — after Thanksgiving and before Christmas — when lines are shorter and the weather is still good.

SIDESTEPPING MELTDOWNS

Gretchen Mominee, a visitor use assistant at Yosemite and Joshua Tree national parks, shares tips to keep kids — and parents — smiling:

Keep 'em busy. At national

Stay juiced.

parks, check out Junior Ranger programs, which have activities to do while waiting for buses or in traffic. Many adults love them, too.

Many parents rely on electronics to occupy kids. Be sure all items are fully charged and remember to pack chargers and extra batteries.

Plan a “wow” moment. Pick a trail with a payoff, like a waterfall, rock art or a killer view.

When it comes to tantrums, technology is a boon. Poirot recommends travelers:

RETREATING FROM THE MADNESS Set a “sanity budget.” Bring funds that Travel writer Amanda Castleman has a foolproof plan:

can be used to replace forgotten gear or to seek out less manic spots in airports, like sit-down restaurants or day-use lounges, which can be lifesavers.

Sometimes you gotta get Zen. Thea Chassin, founder of the organization Bald Girls Do Lunch, offers tricks for staying sane in a throng:

Eyes ahead. Don’t even allow other people into your visual field. Care about yourself and the people you are with, period. Take shade. Chassin wears a big, floppy hat to block out passengers and crew.

Silence is golden. Travel with small earplugs to tune out the world. THINKSTOCK; COURTESY OF THE CONTRIBUTORS


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DISCOVER ORLANDO Attractions in nation’s theme park haven create year-round fun By Stacey Zable

If your idea of the perfect vacation involves roller coasters, movie characters that come alive and attractions and shows that last into the night, then head to Orlando! The longtime favorites at Orlando’s theme parks are still there for you to enjoy, but new and exciting highlights are waiting to be discovered. the Star Wars live stage show or the fireworks, laser and light show that illuminates the skies nightly.

▶ disneyworld.disney. go.com/attractions/ hollywood-studios/ star-wars-launch-bay Frozen Ever After

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Visit the kingdom of Arendelle from Disney’s immensely popular film Frozen at the Frozen Ever After attraction at Epcot in Walt Disney World. The royal sisters, Anna and Elsa, also do meet-andgreets in Epcot.

▶ disneyworld.

disney.go.com/ attractions/epcot/ frozen-ever-after

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Fans of the iconic movie Star Wars should head directly to the Star Wars Launch Bay at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World. Meet classic hero Chewbacca and conflicted newcomer Kylo Ren, play interactive video games and check out replica props, costumes and artifacts from all seven films. Don’t miss

Star Wars Launch Bay

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Once the sun sets, there is more to enjoy at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park in Walt Disney World. Live performances, floating lanterns, water screens and swirling animal imagery come together at the after-dark Rivers of Light show. And the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction includes a new nighttime adventure.

▶ disneyworld.disney.

go.com/attractions/ animal-kingdom/ animal-kingdom-night

Skull Island

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For more movie characters that

come alive, Universal’s Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando Resort this year debuted Skull Island: Reign of Kong. This King Kong-themed attraction combines 3-D technology, ancient temples and the big ape himself.

▶ universalorlando.com

Mako

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Discover more animal-themed fun at SeaWorld Orlando on Mako, a new 200-foottall hypercoaster that made its debut this summer. It’s a true adrenaline rush for riders of what SeaWorld boasts is Orlando’s tallest, fastest and longest roller coaster, reaching speeds of 73 mph along an almost mile-long track. Mako is the centerpiece of a new shark-themed area.

▶ seaworldparks.com/ en/seaworld-orlando

DISNEY; DAVID ROARK; UNIVERSAL; SEAWORLD PARKS & ENTERTAINMENT


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION FLORIDA

Bowman’s Beach

JUST BEACHY Take your pick from these Florida locales for sun, sand and surf

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OR SOME TRAVELERS, a trip to the beach is a near-religious experience, letting them commune with nature and revel in the wonders of ocean and sand. For others, it’s a chance to frolic with family, leaving

their cares on the shore. Whether you’re looking for peaceful solitude or a sun-filled adventure with the kids, you’re sure to find a favorite among these Florida beaches chosen by USA TODAY 10Best readers — sites as diverse as they are beautiful.

PHOTOS BY LEE COUNTY VISITOR & CONVENTION BUREAU


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BOWMAN’S BEACH Located on the island of Sanibel just off the Gulf Coast from Fort Myers, this is a beachy haven to be sure. Bowman’s offers up some of Sanibel’s legendary shelling, as well as isolated and beautiful spaces from which you can see the water. Amenities at the beach, which has seen little of the major development seen on nearby islands, include picnic tables, grills, bathrooms and bike racks. Note to fishers: You’ll need a license to catch saltwater fish from shore. ▶ 1700 Bowman’s Beach Rd., Sanibel; 239-4726397; leegov.com/parks/ facility?fid=0103


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BILL BAGGS CAPE FLORIDA STATE PARK This 1.25-mile stretch of white sand in Key Biscayne borders gentle Atlantic Ocean waters protected by an offshore reef. Chairs, umbrellas, kayaks and hydro bikes (for a spin atop the ocean) can be rented. From the seawall along Biscayne Bay, you’ll be able to take part in what the park’s website calls “some of the best shoreline fishing in the region.” The Lighthouse Cafe, with an ocean view, and Boater’s Grill, from which diners can see Biscayne Bay, both offer casual dining in an open-air setting. ▶ 1200 S. Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne; 305-3615811; floridastateparks. org/park/cape-florida

JANET GARRETT

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MARIA ELLS

BAHIA HONDA STATE PARK

In the Florida Keys, the three soft sandy beaches at Bahia Honda — Sandspur, Calusa and Loggerhead — wow with their natural beauty. At Sandspur, the largest of the three, dump your gear at a table in one of the picnic pavilions, grab a floatie and hit the shallow, clear water. On the northwest side of Big Pine Key, Calusa Beach (the smallest of the three) rests in the shadow of a steel trestle railroad bridge, left, a

remnant of the railroad system destroyed in a historic 1935 hurricane. Loggerhead, the shallowest beach, is known for the large sand bar just offshore. Hot- and cold-water showers, beach wheelchairs and rentable umbrellas (but no lifeguards; obey the warning signs) are available on all three beaches. ▶ 36850 Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key; 305-872-2353; floridastateparks.org/park/ bahia-honda


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PASS A GRILLE BEACH The quirky community of Pass-a-Grille, just south of St. Petersburg on St. Pete Beach, has been a tourist attraction since the late 1800s. Today, its public beach welcomes families with expansive widths of sand, a gradually sloping sea bottom and mellow Gulf waves. Local vendors, artisans and musicians descend on the beach on weekends. Kayak tours, deep-sea fishing excursions and a shuttle to Shell Key island are available. â–¶ 727-403-6136; visitpassagrille.com

PHOTOS BY CHRIS SANCHEZ


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LOVERS KEY Every bit as romantic as it sounds, Lovers Key in Fort Myers Beach boasts a gorgeous gazebo on the sands, where hundreds get married each year and hundreds more renew their vows on Valentine’s Day. The beach is rich with wildlife, everything from bottlenose dolphins and West Indian manatees and marsh rabbits. Take a tram or stroll the boardwalk to the 2-mile long beach, where you’ll be able to hunt for shells, picnic and swim. Rent bikes, kayaks, paddleboards, beach chairs, umbrellas and more on site. ▶ 8700 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach; 239-4634588; floridastateparks. org/park/lovers-key

HOW ABOUT A LITTLE SKINNY-DIPPING? For beachgoers with an edgy sense of adventure, Playlinda Beach has a reputation as a place where you can swim in the nude. It’s not legal, but the laws are apparently enforced only sporadically. The most easily accessible beach along the Space Coast’s undeveloped Canaveral National Seashore, Playalinda requires a drive through the wildlife refuge and gorgeous sand dunes that buffer the nearby NASA space complex, which is visible in the distance. 321-267-1110; nps. gov/cana THELMA PROCTOR; PAMELA JONES; MARTI TEMPLE

THINKSTOCK


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THE LIGHTHOUSES

FROM EAST TO WEST

Soak up Florida’s maritime history on a lighthouse tour

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By Stacey Zable

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1. ST. MARKS 2. CARRABELLE 3. ST. GEORGE ISLAND 4. PORT ST. JOE

ST. MARKS LIGHTHOUSE ST. MARKS

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XPLORE FOUR HISTORIC lighthouses on the “Forgotten Coast” that date back to the 1800s in the 100-mile span from St. Marks to Port St. Joe in Florida’s Panhandle. All four can be visited in one long day, but there is no need to rush your

discovery of the lights and their maritime heritage. Slow down and return to a time when these beauties helped to guide vessels along this scenic and slow-paced part of the state’s northwest coast. Visit each lighthouse’s website for the most up-to-date hours of operation.

TERESA DARRAGH; THINKSTOCK

Located in the 70,000-acre St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge overlooking Apalachee Bay, St. Marks Lighthouse is the oldest of the four and the second oldest lighthouse in the state. Rising to 88 feet with 85 steps, the whitewashed masonry tower was built in 1842. It replaced a lighthouse originally completed in 1831. Although the lighthouse is not currently open for public viewing, it’s worth visiting this lovely wildlife refuge. A Keeper’s House is being renovated and is slated to open by early 2018 as a museum. The lighthouse’s historic Fresnel lens, which was installed in 1867, is temporarily on display in the refuge visitor center. At the refuge, you can hike, bike, fish and birdwatch. ▶ stmarkslighthouse.net


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CROOKED RIVER LIGHTHOUSE

CARRABELLE

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 103-foot iron and steel Crooked River Lighthouse near Carrabelle Beach was built in 1895. It replaced the lighthouse on Dog Island that was destroyed by a hurricane in 1873. Its light helped guide crafts through the challenging waters between Dog and St. George islands. After the lighthouse was decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1995, the city of Carrabelle and local citizens saved it by taking it over in 2001. If you’re 44 inches or taller, you can climb all 138 steps to the top. A Full Moon Climb provides the chance to glimpse a spectacular sunset and the moon in all its glory and enjoy light refreshments, weather permitting. An annual Lantern Fest takes place in October. Also on the grounds are a historic museum and gift shop, a reproduction of the original Keeper’s House, the station washhouse and a playground for kids. ▶ crookedriverlighthouse.org

LOU KELLENBERGER

CAPE ST. GEORGE LIGHT

ST. GEORGE ISLAND

LOU KELLENBERGER; THINKSTOCK

The newest of the four lighthouses on the Forgotten Coast, Cape St. George Light, located in the center of St. George Island, is the last reconstruction of a lighthouse that was originally built on the west end of what is now Little St. George Island. Its predecessors were ravaged by storms, with the first lighthouse built in 1833, and subsequent lighthouses moved to Cape St. George in 1848 and 1852. Each newly constructed

lighthouse used materials from the prior one. After the structure collapsed in 2005, the current Cape St. George Light was rebuilt in 2008 using 22,000 of the original bricks, thanks to community support. A museum and gift shop serve as a reproduction of the Keeper’s House. You must be at least 40 inches tall to climb the 92 stairs to the top. Full moon climbs are offered and include light snacks; reservations are suggested. ▶ stgeorgelight.org CO N T I N U E D


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MORE TO DO ON THE FORGOTTEN COAST Use the lighthouse tour as your dedicated route and the start of your exploration, with overnights and further discovery in these three destinations: TALLAHASSEE Florida’s capital city is about 30 minutes from St. Marks Lighthouse, the easternmost of the four lighthouses. Spend some time in this city and discover more about the state’s history. The 20-acre Goodwood Museum & Gardens (goodwoodmuseum.org), on the National Register of Historic Places, was originally a 1,600-acre cotton plantation that ultimately grew to 2,400 acres. The site includes the main house, plus 20 structures dating from 1835 to 1925, as well as live oaks and gardens. The Museum of Florida History (museumof floridahistory.com) boasts more than 45,700 artifacts and permanent exhibits. The city has several lodging choices from bed-andbreakfasts to chain hotels. ▶ visittallahassee.com ST. GEORGE ISLAND In the middle of the tour, opt for a beachfront rental home close to the Crooked River Lighthouse and Cape St. George Light and simply relax and enjoy the pristine white sands and scenic sunsets. ▶ seestgeorgeisland.com

BILL FAUTH; THINKSTOCK

CAPE SAN BLAS LIGHTHOUSE PORT ST. JOE

Built more than 130 years ago, the Cape San Blas Lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in May 2015. A predecessor survived an attack by Union troops in 1862 and the present structure was completed in 1885. Numerous storms over the years ultimately led to a temporary closure of the 98-foot lighthouse in 2012. It was relocated by the city of Port St. Joe

to George Core Park on St. Joseph Bay in 2014 to protect and preserve it. One of two keeper’s quarters has a museum that highlights the lives of some of the lighthouse keepers and their families. A second keeper’s quarters is being renovated and is expected to open by spring 2017. Possible future uses include a wedding venue, business retreat or short-term rentals. You can climb the 130 steps of the lighthouse as long as you are at least 44 inches tall. ▶ capesanblaslight.org

PORT ST. JOE The end of the tour near the Cape San Blas Lighthouse lands you in this region filled with outdoor adventures. Snorkel or fish St. Joseph Bay, take an ecotour of the area or kayak on the Dead Lakes. Stay overnight in the Maddox House, located a couple of hundred yards from the lighthouse. The former home of Captain Fred and Miss Zola Maddox, pioneer residents of Port St. Joe and Gulf County, was built in 1937. The captain was one of the first harbor pilots for Port St. Joe. ▶ visitgulf.com/port-st-joe


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CRUISE CONTROL

Aboard the newly renovated Disney Dream, sit back, relax and let the staff work their magic By Allison Entrekin

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E ARE ON A cruise ship. A Disney cruise ship. With a giant statue of Mickey Mouse dangling from the stern. He’s dressed as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and he’s directing paintbrushes to write the ship’s name: Disney Dream. We’re sailing from Port Canaveral, Fla., to Nassau, Bahamas, then on to Castaway Cay — Disney’s private Bahamian island. The trip will take four nights — four nights of sleeping in a 203-square-foot stateroom with my husband, 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. There are also 12 all-you-can-eat buffet meals, with pink shrimp on ice and fruit salad in little bowls and chocolate chip cookies piled high on doilies. Three days in which my very young children can access a kids’ club from 9 a.m. to midnight. Yes. You read that right. It’s not just any kids’ club — oh, no. This is Disney’s Oceaneer CO N T I N U E D DIANA ZALUCKY/DISNEY CRUISE LINE


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FLORIDA Aboard a reproduction of Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon, young passengers take part in Jedi “training.” Below, grownup guests relax at the Quiet Cove Pool.

KENT PHILLIPS; TODD ANDERSON/DISNEY CRUISE LINE

Disney does what Disney does best: make you feel like you’re in a magic kingdom.

Club for children ages 3 to 12. Last year, it underwent a major renovation, and its new centerpiece is a giant Millennium Falcon that would make Star Wars creator George Lucas proud. My kids can sit in the cockpit and fly through hyperspace while a life-size R2-D2 looks on. My husband is so impressed, he tells me he kind of wishes he could stay in the kids’ club with them. And that’s before he hears that a Jedi master will be dropping by to teach the kids lightsaber moves. I get him out of there by reminding him about the adults-only pools we should check out while the kids are engrossed in intergalactic travel. There are two; we opt for the brand-new Satellite Falls on the top deck, complete with a curtain of gentle rain that blocks the noise from the family pools nearby. We lie on cushioned lounge chairs beneath a shady canopy. I close my eyes. Mickey is my personal hero. Disney cruises have a reputation for being different from other cruises. On this 1,250-room ship, the passenger-to-crew ratio is roughly 3:1 — and Disney keeps the

crew happy. Not only are workers paid well, they get complimentary tickets to Disney theme parks; there’s a crew-only beach on Castaway Cay and they have their own bar on the ship. It all translates into remarkable service, as it well should — Disney cruises are considerably pricier than most of their competitors, about 70 percent more. And worth every penny, if you ask me. Perusing the cruise’s “Personal Navigator” newsletter (choose a paper or online version) with the day’s activities, I’m astonished by the options. First-run films play all day in the Buena Vista Theatre, while live original productions are performed in the Walt Disney Theatre at night. Sixteen characters from princesses including Cinderella and Elsa to Pluto make 30 scheduled appearances all over the ship. From 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., the AquaDuck, the world’s first shipboard “water coaster,” takes passengers on a fast and wet 765-foot ride. CO N T I N U E D

1,250 ROOMS ON THE DISNEY DREAM


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Castaway Cay

TRIP TIPS: uPrepare to disconnect. During your cruise, cell phone service is practically nonexistent and Wi-Fi is slow and pricey. Prepare your boss or your nosy relatives for your departure, and plan to sign off.

uBring your own water. Don’t feel like buying overpriced bottled water? Pack your own. You can include a case of water with your checked luggage; just place a Disney-provided luggage sticker on it.

DAVID ROARK

There’s so much to do onboard, and we only have three full days to fit it all in. But we still disembark at Disney’s Castaway Cay, because, come on, it’s Disney’s private island. Once known as Gorda Cay, it’s a 1,000-acre private oasis in the Atlantic Ocean that Disney purchased from Castaway the Bahamian government in 1996. If you like movies, you’ve probably seen it before: It’s home to the beach Cay island is where Tom Hanks meets Daryl Hannah in the mermaid a 1,000-acre movie Splash, and scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl were filmed there, too. oasis with Nowadays, it’s the spot where Disney does what white-sand Disney does best: make you feel like you’re in a magic kingdom. beaches and The waters are vivid shades of aquamarine and first-class turquoise and the sand is blazing white. The stingrays in the snorkeling area are trimmed of their barbs hospitality. (it’s just like cutting fingernails); a sunken statue of Minnie Mouse attracts colorful fish. We swim to a floating platform and race down waterslides; we make sandcastles as crew members stop by to offer piña coladas. It is the Bahamas. It is Disney. It is pretty darn-near perfect. We return to the ship and our cruise continues. And far sooner than I expected, our four nights are over. My 6-year-old is crying; she doesn’t want to leave. She’s convinced if she pleads hard enough, we’ll stay onboard. My son seems a bit more stable, so as I pack our bags, I ask him to tell me his favorite part of the trip. “That’s easy,” he says, his lips curving into a smile, his sun-kissed cheeks pink. “The child care!” Well played, Mickey. Well played.

KENT PHILLIPS; MATT STROSHANE

While visiting Castaway Cay, families can spend untethered leisure time away from the ship; popular activities include cycling and paddleboarding.

uPlan for princesses. Seriously. Apparently, if you want your princessobsessed 6-year-old daughter to meet them all once you’re on the ship, you need to reserve a ticket on the first day of your cruise. And, if you don’t, make sure to avoid the lobby atrium when they’re taking pictures with all the kids whose moms are more responsible. Oops.

uSplurge on Palo or Remy. Send the kids to the Oceaneer Club (they probably want to be there anyway), and enjoy a grownups-only dinner at Palo or Remy, Disney Dream’s two specialty restaurants. We opted for Palo, which offered an incredible four-course Italian meal and panoramic views. The $30 charge per person was well worth it.


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION FLORIDA

FRESH FEEDING FRENZY Florida restaurants serve up locally sourced food that wows diners

By Vanessa Caceres

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OTS OF RESTAURANTS CLAIM they serve dishes made with locally sourced ingredients — but some restaurants in Florida have raised the bar. In the Sunshine State, farm-to-table has a unique angle. Because of its warm weather, farmers can grow produce nearly year-round, and their bounty is especially abundant in the winter, when most U.S. farmland is between crops because of the cold. With Florida’s location between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, fresh seafood naturally also plays a role when sourcing local food. “In all areas of the state, there is a close exchange between the coastal and agricultural communities,” says Genie McNally, co-owner of The Floridian restaurant in St. Augustine. Another advantage Florida diners have is the influence of various cuisines — deep South, Caribbean, Latin American, African and Creole. All of that translates into great potential for farm-to-table and sea-to-table dishes, with menus that are updated seasonally. Here’s a list of seven Florida restaurants that focus on locally sourced meals — and why they’re so yummy:

Escargots, Restaurant Orsay

HIGHBALL & HARVEST

ORLANDO Ingredients don’t get much fresher than the ones at Highball & Harvest. The restaurant, part of the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes complex, prepares vegetables, fruits and eggs produced at Whisper Creek Farm, right on the hotel property. All of that growing — and the restaurant’s relationships with central Florida farmers — contribute to menu specials like chicken and waffles with spiced watermelon and bourbon maple syrup; Florida grouper with toasted farro and kimchee; and shrimp and grits with roasted tomatoes, watercress and spring onions, says chef Nathan Hardin. ▶ 4012 Central Florida Pkwy.; 407-393-4422; ritzcarlton.com/en/ hotels/florida/orlando/dining/highballand-harvest

THE RUSTY SPOON

ORLANDO The Rusty Spoon, in downtown Orlando’s Church Street district, earned attention for its farm-to-table focus before farm-to-table was trendy. Some signature dishes include the remodeled lasagna with local and wild mushrooms, wilted spinach, roasted butternut squash, shaved pecorino and Italian broth. Rob Adler of San Francisco says The Rusty Spoon would fit right in to his hometown, with its great service and commitment to locally sourced food. He still daydreams about the slow-braised lamb and refreshing watermelon salad. ▶ 55 W. Church St.; 407-401-8811; therustyspoon.com

RESTAURANT ORSAY

JACKSONVILLE Expect high-quality French food with a Southern influence at Restaurant Orsay. The restaurant’s fans say it has a classic feel with a modern twist, and they praise dishes like melt-inyour-mouth braised beef shortrib and oysters roasted with bacon, spinach and Parmesan cheese. Orsay also has a separate vegetarian and vegan menu. Patron Brian Searl of Ormond Beach, Fla., says everything he’s ordered at Orsay has been delicious: “We seek it out for the quality of food they provide, the way they source their ingredients

and the way they care about what people eat.” ▶3630 Park St.; 904-381-0909; restaurantorsay.com

JENSEN HANDE

CO N T I N U E D


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Seared natural chicken, Essensia

J.KEVIN FOLTZ

ESSENSIA RESTAURANT + LOUNGE

MIAMI BEACH Amidst the glitz and glamorous beachy feel of South Beach, you’ll find Essensia, on the lobby level of The Palms Hotel & Spa. When the former Sea Isle Hotel was relaunched as The Palms in 2010, its owners wanted to give guests the idea of a vacation experience inspired by nature, says executive chef Venoy Rogers. That naturally led to an ideal venue for seasonal and locally inspired dishes. Rogers uses more than a dozen local vendors from south Florida and the restaurant’s own garden to prepare dishes like the kale Caesar salad and the Grass Clippings cocktail, which uses muddled cucumber, tequila, cilantro and chipotle liqueur. ▶ 3025 Collins Ave.; 305-908-5458; essensiarestaurant.com

THE FLORIDIAN

ST. AUGUSTINE St. Augustine is the oldest continually inhabited city in the U.S., with history that extends back to the early 1500s. The city has a distinctly European feel, but The Floridian’s down-home Southern vibe still fits right in. Genie and Jeff McNally opened the restaurant in 2010, sourcing produce, livestock and dairy products from vendors in Florida and Georgia. Try the Company’s Coming appetizer, made with housepickled tomatoes, fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese and buttermilk herb on toasted bread. There’s Brisket Posole and the Fresh Catch Floridian for meat and fish lovers; vegetarians can enjoy dishes such as the cornbread stack stuffed with tofu and cheddar and served with pickled veggies. ▶ 72 Spanish St.; 904-829-0655; thefloridianstaug.com CON T I N U E D

Barbecue pulled pork and waffles, The Floridian SEAN KELLY CONWAY


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Candied bacon maple ice cream, Ulele

PHOTOS COURTESY OF ULELE

ULELE

TAMPA The folks at Ulele focus on native food, using ingredients that Florida’s original Native American inhabitants may have used. Think “native chili,” made with alligator, wild boar, venison, duck, ground chuck and cranberry beans. They also serve charbroiled oysters, barbacoa whole shrimp and okra fries. Ulele sources its meat from nearby Strickland Ranch. Tampa resident Joe Sale starts with Ulele’s alligator hush puppies and raw oysters, followed by the gouda grouper or seafood risotto. He also enjoys the art displays and the scenic view of the Hillsborough River; the restaurant is located next to Tampa’s Riverwalk. ▶ 1810 N. Highland Ave.; 813-999-4952; ulele.com

Ulele's dining room

THE BEACH HOUSE RESTAURANT

BRADENTON BEACH Located in the middle of Bradenton Beach — with stunning sunset backdrops — The Beach House attracts tourists and locals for weddings, date nights and special events, says resident Matt Humphrey. Yet Beach House owner Ed Chiles doesn’t want diners to forget about the restaurant’s commitment to locally sourced food. The Beach House and nearby Sandbar and Mar Vista Dockside restaurants, all owned by Chiles, use produce seasonally available from nearby Gamble Creek Farm. In addition to the sumptuous Gulf shrimp and grouper, The Beach House seasonally serves mullet, an oily fish well known to native Floridians and Europeans. Tourists may give quizzical looks at first — but once they try the chargrilled mullet with stone-ground grits and cole slaw, they’re sold. ▶ 200 Gulf Dr. North; 941-779-2222; beachhouse.groupersandwich.com

The Beach House Restaurant

Gamble Creek zucchini PHOTOS BY DARA CAUDILL ISLAND PHOTOGRAPHY


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F

KEYS TO PARADISE Explore all that ‘America’s Caribbean’ has to offer By Lisa Davis

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in Key Largo BOB CARE/FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU

ROM CONCH FRITTERS AND key lime pie to snorkeling, kayaking and feeding sea turtles, the Florida Keys are home to one of the best island vacations in the United States. For many travelers, it isn’t just an area’s scenic beauty and access to activities that turn it into a repeat getaway destination, but also how the place makes them feel. Did they feel welcomed? Were they relaxed while vacationing there? Were there plenty of things to do to keep them entertained? The Florida Keys’ small-town charm and laidback culture makes the 120mile island chain, referred to by many as “America’s Caribbean,” a refuge that delivers on relaxation, adventure, scenery, culture, history and good eats. To get to the Florida Keys, start in Miami and drive south along U.S. Highway 1 to the tip of the Florida mainland. From there, the road becomes the Overseas Highway, which links each of the Florida Keys (a string of tropical islands located between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico) and is the state’s only federally designated All-American Road — an honor shared with the historic Route 66 in Arizona, Illinois, New Mexico and Oklahoma. “To earn All-American Road status, a thoroughfare must possess characteristics of national significance and features that don’t exist elsewhere, making it a visitor destination in itself,” said Carol Shaughnessy, an account executive for NewmanPR, the public relations agency for the Florida Keys tourism council. One of the Overseas Highway’s features has been described as the “eighth wonder of the world”: the Old Seven Mile Bridge that starts in the city of Marathon in the Middle Keys and goes south to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys, with views of both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. “Crossing the bridge is as close as you will ever get to driving over water,” said Shaughnessy. Another distinct tourist attraction found along the highway is something fans of Humphrey Bogart will appreciate: the original steamboat from the 1951 movie The African Queen. The vessel of the same name was restored in 2012 and is now available for canal tours in Key Largo. Speaking of Key Largo, that’s where your Florida Keys vacation will begin, concluding more than 100 miles later in Key West, the southernmost destination in the United States. Consider this your road map to the perfect Florida Keys getaway. CO N T I N U E D


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MARATHON

Turtle Hospital in Marathon ANDY NEWMAN/FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU

Also situated in the Middle Keys area is the town of Marathon, where the Old Seven Mile Bridge starts. Eco-tours through the mangrove forest at the Boot Key Nature Preserve, home to native birds like herons, egrets and cormorants, are recommended, as is a visit to Marathon’s Turtle Hospital that rehabs sick and injured sea turtles, which can live up to 100 years and grow up to 500 pounds. The hospital even has a turtle ambulance. History fans will want to spend time at the 63.5-acre Crane Point, which contains ancient ocean fossils and evidence of prehistoric Indian artifacts, and was once the site of a Bahamian village. Crane Point also has the Crane Point Museum and Nature Center, which includes a Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys, and the Marathon Wild Bird Center. ▶ fla-keys.com/marathon

BIG PINE KEY

While Marathon has its sea turtles, Big Pine Key has its deer. Located in the Lower Keys south of Marathon, the 9,200-acre National Key Deer Refuge is where dog-size deer roam freely. Early morning and dusk are said to be the best times to spot deer. Bahia Honda State Park is also located in Big Pine Key and is rated as having one of the most beautiful beaches in America. Divers and snorkelers can take an excursion to the 210-foot wreck of the Adolphus Busch Sr., and to the Looe Key coral reef, where the annual Underwater Music Festival takes place each July. The Lower Keys also has the uninhabited Saddlebunch Keys, a network of sandy lagoons and mangrove islands ideal for kayakers, located about 7 miles east of Key West, between Lower Sugarloaf Key and Shark Key. ▶ fla-keys.com/lowerkeys CO N T I N U E D

Christ of the Abyss statue in Key Largo STEPHEN FRINK/FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU

KEY LARGO

Key Largo, located at the top of the Florida Keys, is known as the dive capital of the world because of the living coral reef located a few miles offshore. Dive or snorkel at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which is the first undersea park in the United States. The park and the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary cover approximately 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps. At the park, the Spirit of Pennekamp, a 65-foot, high-speed glass-bottom catamaran, allows passengers to cruise by sunken ships and shallow reefs filled with multicolored parrotfish and other marine life. Stay overnight at the park’s Jules’

Undersea Lodge, located 30 feet below the water’s surface, and watch fish swim pass your bedroom window. Art enthusiasts will enjoy Key Largo’s historic Christ of the Abyss statue, an 8.5-foot bronze casting based on Italian sculptor Guido Galletti’s work. A local favorite for breakfast is Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, known for its biscuits and gravy and key lime pie. (Chocolate lovers can head to Key Largo Chocolates, well-known for its key lime white chocolate truffles.) Other notable Key Largo eateries include Key Largo Fisheries for smoked fish dip and conch fritters; and the Hideout for grouper sandwiches, Friday night fish fries and probably not surprising, key lime pie. ▶ fla-keys.com/keylargo

National Key Deer Refuge in Big Pine Key ANDY NEWMAN/FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU


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LONG KEY

Located in the Middle Keys, Long Key is where you’ll find Long Key State Park on the Atlantic Ocean. Recommended activities here include fishing, kayaking through the park’s connected lagoons or hiking the Golden Orb Trail to an observation tower. (Tip: Be on the lookout for rare birds such as the Key West Quail Dove.) Spend the night camping at one of the park’s oceanfront campsites. ▶ floridastateparks.org/ park/long-key

Long Key State Park BOB KRIST/FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU

KEY WEST

DID YOU KNOW?

And last, but not least, along your drive is Key West, the most famous area of the Florida Keys, and once the richest place in the United States, because of offshore reefs that wrecked ships carrying gold and other treasures during the 19th century. Some of those goods can be seen at Key West’s Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. The town’s wealthy history is also prominent in its historic Victorian buildings, including

In Key West, you will probably see T-shirts that read, “The Conch Republic.” According to some Key West residents, since April 23, 1982, Key West has been a “micro-nation,” and has its own prime minister, flag and motto: “We seceded where others failed.” An annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration is held in April.

the Southernmost House built in 1896. The landmark was once a speak-easy, a Cuban nightclub and now a hotel. The Harry S Truman Little White House, built in 1890 and where six U.S. presidents vacationed, and the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum where the famous writer lived in the 1930s are other notable historic buildings to visit. (Tip: Rent a bicycle and pedal around Key West’s historic Old Town neighborhood.) For a more modern-day experience, head to the

lively Duval Street and check out the Salty Angler, where you can try “thunder thighs,” marinated and then barbequed chicken thighs, or Kermit’s Key West Lime Shoppe, for, you guessed it, key lime pie. Blue Heaven on Thomas Street is known for its shrimp melt sandwich and jerk chicken. And for the best conch fritters, which are just as popular as key lime pie, go to the conch fritter stand in Mallory Square. ▶ fla-keys.com/keywest

The Southernmost House in Key West

Why are there so many chickens roaming the streets of Key West? Story goes that more than 200 years ago, when grocery stores had produced enough poultry and eggs to feed residents, the remaining chickens were set free. Today, 2,000-plus protected chickens walk among tourists.

THINKSTOCK

ROB O’NEAL NEWMAN/FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU


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Jamaica’s Dunn’s River Falls

CHASING

WATERFALLS Dive in to the Caribbean’s most beautiful aquatic wonders

THINKSTOCK

By Mark Rogers

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IKING TO A WATERFALL in the Caribbean is an exercise in pure joy. The hikes usually lead explorers through beautiful tropical landscapes in the company of a guide, who along the way points out details about the local flora and fauna. The best hikes take effort and may demand clambering over boulders, hopping from rock to rock across a stream or negotiating slick and muddy patches that threatens to send adventurers rear end up. If hikers begin to sweat, reaching their aquatic destination is even more rewarding, as diving right in may be very tempting. But because each waterfall is different, it’s best to first get safety pointers from your guide. Those with limited mobility (or limited interest in sweating) will be glad to know that not all excursions to Caribbean waterfalls require hiking. Some are as easily reached as parking your vehicle and ambling over to the water’s edge. Whichever CO N T I N U E D


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Argyle Falls

Diamond Falls

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO TOURISM COMPANY

trail travelers choose, once they dive into the waterfall’s pool, stress will melt away as the falls cascade down to envelope their shoulders; or they might enjoy a romantic moment wading in the current with their significant other.

is permitted, and there are even changing rooms available — a perk not seen at many Caribbean waterfalls.

DUNN’S RIVER FALLS

Concord Falls consists of three cataracts. The great majority of visitors are satisfied only reaching the first one, because arriving at the other two requires a time and energy commitment. The first cataract at Concord Falls is accessible by car and can be easily enjoyed by travelers of all fitness levels. Even if they can’t get out of their vehicles, they can still enjoy the sight. The second waterfall, called Au Coin, can be reached after a 45-minute, moderately challenging hike on a well-marked trail through a nutmeg plantation. Travel to the third fall, named Fountainbleu, requires climbing over boulders or tromping through a stream. Adventurers might want to take along a walking stick to serve as extra support to help navigate the terrain. Fountainbleu’s cascades fall from a dramatic height of 65 feet. And swimming is allowed. There are often a few locals willing to execute daring dives for tips.

JAMAICA

Dunn’s River Falls is one of Jamaica’s iconic attractions. No hiking is required to reach the falls, which are located in Ocho Rios, a popular tourist locale on Jamaica’s north shore. Waterfalls are often thought of as romantic and secluded, but Dunn’s River is the flip side of the coin. The falls can get crowded, especially on days when a cruise ship is in port. This is all part of the fun actually, because it’s a tradition to form a human chain and climb the falls linked together, led by a local guide. The group activity could be a great bonding experience for families, and corporations might even find it an effective team-building exercise. The falls drop 180 feet and are one of the few Caribbean falls that actually cascade into the sea.

DIAMOND FALLS SAINT LUCIA

SAINT LUCIA TOURISM BOARD

Saint Lucia is one of the most romantic islands in the Caribbean, and is a popular choice for honeymooners. On most must-see lists is Diamond Falls, a part of the Diamond Botanical Gardens and Waterfall. When visitors set off along the path to the falls, they may catch a harmless whiff of rotten eggs from the nearby underground sulfur springs, which bubble up to the surface. On reaching the falls, travelers will find a cascade hurtling down from a height of 50 feet. Swimming

CONCORD FALLS

GRENADA

ARGYLE FALLS

TOBAGO

Although Tobago is one of the Caribbean’s most laid-back islands, its Argyle Falls brings the drama. The thunderous cascade tumbles over a series of rocks, forming a deep pool perfect for a swim. Reaching the 175-foot falls is an easy 15-minute hike along a shady trail. Visitors should note that there’s a fee to visit the falls, with half of the admission price going to the local guide who accompanies visitors along the way.


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Handelskade waterfront in Willemstad

COLORFUL CURAÇAO Beyond its gorgeous beaches, this Caribbean island boasts an unexpected art scene worthy of exploration By Alexis Korman

C

URAÇAO’S NAME IS BELIEVED to reference the Portuguese word for “heart” — and it’s easier to fall in love with the island now than ever before. Undergoing a cultural renaissance that encompasses expanded gastronomic offerings, an abundance of live music festivals and an outstanding arts scene, Curaçao has wide appeal for visitors. The modern Avila Beach Hotel in Willemstad is a fine base for soaking up the island’s culture. Peppered with bronze sculptures and in-room art created by local painters, it plays host to numerous musicians for onsite classical concerts. Stop by its Blues Bar & Restaurant — a

CURAÇAO TOURISM BOARD

wood-paneled structure decorated with prints of vintage album covers — for jazz on Thursday nights. Within walking distance of the hotel is the up-and-coming Pietermaai District, a historic neighborhood chock-full of whimsical street paintings, music venues including the Miles Jazz Café (named after Miles Davis) and eclectic restaurants. Visit the funky, Cuban-inspired Mundo Bizarro; its plates are as artfully decorated as its dining rooms. And aim to sit under the Che Guevara mural on the upstairs balcony to catch a breeze and live tunes. CO N T I N U E D

Curaçao’s cultural melting pot and naturally vibrant vistas seem to attract creative types to live, work and play.


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IF YOU GO Blues Bar and Restaurant

Gallery Alma Blou

Avila Beach Hotel Penstraat 130, Willemstad; 800-7478162; avilahotel.com Miles Jazz Café Nieuwestraat 42, Willemstad; facebook. com/milescuracao Mundo Bizarro

Street mural Angelito Negro

Nieuwestraat 12, Willemstad; mundobizarro curacao.com Nena Sanchez Windstraat 15, Willemstad; nenasanchez.com Gallery Alma Blou Frater Radulphusweg 4, Willemstad; galleryalmablou.com Den Paradera Seru Grandi 105 A, Banda Ariba; dinahveeris.com (in Dutch)

CURAÇAO TOURISM BOARD

BERBER VAN BEEK

MARK YOUR CALENDAR FOR THESE NOT-TO-MISS FESTIVALS Flavors of Curaçao: Oct. 28-29; curacao.com/ en/dont-miss Plein Air Curaçao International Art Festival: March 9-18, 2017; pleinaircuracao. com/en

All visitors to the island should budget a full day to explore Willemstad on foot; its historic areas, inner city and harbor were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1997. Rich in history and cultural influences derived from its Dutch colonization and trade with Spain and Portugal, the cityscape is a riot of color and personality. Accented by pastel buildings dating back to the 17th century and surrounded by turquoise waters, Willemstad offers photo opps at every turn. Don’t miss the floating market for shots of rustic wooden ships that sail from nearby Venezuela and where vendors hawk tropical fruits and handmade crafts. The capital city may be a hub for galleries, but art in Curaçao manages to spill out onto the streets. Nena Sanchez’s work, for example, can’t be contained to her store. Her bird and leaf motifs climb the walls of the nearby public 7 square,

and her iconic, oversized Chichi doll sculptures — which symbolize the love and care of an older sister — stand watch on sidewalks. Visitors catch glimpses of the island’s inventiveness in unexpected places, too, such as the walls around parking lots, where Garrick Marchena paints realistic murals with an urban twist. Curaçao’s cultural melting pot and naturally vibrant vistas seem to attract creative types to live, work and play. “My art is absolutely inspired by the island’s landscape, colors and textures —like coral,” says local artist Ellen Spijkstra, whose photography can be seen at Gallery Alma Blou, said to be the island’s oldest gallery (it’s located inside a stately former landhuis, or plantation house, and offers a selection of local and Caribbean pieces). “We have an eclectic art scene here,” says Spijkstra. “Curaçao has only 150,000

inhabitants, but visitors are usually surprised when they find out how many good visual artists we have in all fields, including painting, bronze, ceramics, graffiti, sculpting, textile, jewelry, collages and even trash art.” Add healing arts to that growing list. In between gallery-hopping, soaking up tunes and hitting the island’s sparkling white sand beaches, visitors shouldn’t miss a stop at Den Paradera. Run by celebrated herbalist (and local TV star) Dinah Veeris, travelers can stroll through the sculpturefilled gardens, learn about the healing properties of the island’s herbs and even pick up a “love potion” or two. On these beautiful grounds, workers can be heard singing ancient folk songs thought to encourage plants to grow. With any luck after a trip to Curaçao, your appreciation for the island’s culture will grow a bit, too.


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Waterfalls and wildlife abound at Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest

By Matt Alderton

T

HE BLUE! GRAY COBBLE! STONE STREETS of Old San Juan are scorching hot, searing the bottoms of sandals like skillets cooking bistec encebollado — steak and onions. Some 30 miles east, however, the ground is cool and damp. Here, thousands of trees form a verdurous parasol that

blankets the earth in shade. It’s not just the temperature that’s different in this slice of Puerto Rico, however. It’s the ethos. Instead of colorful colonial architecture, these vistas burst with brightly colored blooms, including pink impatiens and red orchids. Instead of chlorinated swimming pools, there are refreshing waterfalls. And instead of traffic, the air echoes with sounds of San Pedritos — tiny,

plump green birds that exhale distinctive “beeps” from their long, needle-nosed beaks. Welcome to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System. Encompassing more than 29,000 mountainous acres in northeast Puerto Rico, the area that is now El Yunque was sacred to indigenous CO N T I N U E D

View from El Yunque

WILL RODGER


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A laurel sabino tree found only in El Yunque

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Tiny lizard in El Yunque

Colorful blooms abound

people, who believed it to house one of their deities, the good spirit Yokahú. It remains sacred today — albeit for scientific instead of spiritual reasons. Celebrated for its biodiversity, the forest houses 240 native tree species, 50 varieties of native orchids, more than 150 species of ferns, 50 types of birds, 11 species of bats, eight kinds of lizards and 13 species of coquí, or tree frogs, whose nocturnal, bird-like chirping echoes through the trees each night like a Puerto Rican lullaby. “We have a lot fewer species than, say, the Amazon, but 20 percent of the species we do have are endemic — meaning they don’t exist anywhere else,” notes El Yunque tour guide John

“Rubio” Druitt of Rubio’s Tours. That makes Puerto Rico in general — and El Yunque in particular — a hotbed for ecological research. And for tourism. “El Yunque is our most visited attraction outside of San Juan,” explains Luis Muñiz, deputy executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. Although the terrain in some parts of the forest is challenging, there are trails for people of all ages and abilities. “El Yunque offers something for everyone,” says Sasha Rodriguez, president of RST Puerto Rico, the onsite tour operator for the nearby Wyndham Grand CO N T I N U E D

Yokahu Tower PHOTOS BY ELIZABETH NEUS


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El Portal Rain Forest Center

“El Yunque offers something for everyone. And if trails are not for you, you can still drive through the rainforest.” — Sasha Rodriguez, RST Puerto Rico president

Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa. “And if trails are not for you, you can still drive through the rainforest.” Indeed, many travelers choose to access El Yunque by rental car, although most catch tour buses from their hotels. Either way, the forest is less than an hour from San Juan via Highway 66. Your first stop should be

El Portal Rain Forest Center, where you can learn the forest’s history, preview its plants and wildlife, and plan your itinerary. Popular destinations include Yokahu Tower, an observation tower with views all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, and La Mina Falls, a breathtaking waterfall and swimming hole tucked at the end of a 45-minute stroll along the paved path known as Big Tree Trail. Although gorgeous scenery dominates, so do throngs of fellow visitors. For that reason, Druitt prefers hiking the Baño de Oro. A less-traveled trail, it takes you past an abandoned swimming pool from the 1930s, over the La Mina River and through an especially lush part of the forest. If you go slowly and look carefully, you’ll spot the aforementioned San Pedritos and one of the world’s smallest orchids, which flowers CO N T I N U E D

La Mina Falls PUERTO RICO TOURISM COMPANY; WILL RODGER


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MAKE A WEEKEND OF IT Despite their ramshackle appearances and cheap prices, the 60 or so Luquillo roadside food kiosks serve some of the island’s best cuisine. You’ll find pizza, burgers, barbeque, beer and more, but the highlight is the traditional Puerto Rican street food. ▶ Highway 3, Luquillo For a delicious, affordable and completely unassuming breakfast or lunch, check out La Familia Bakery 2, which specializes in Puerto Rican sweets and sandwiches. ▶ Calle 1 A9, Río Grande; 787-888-2320

The Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa borders El Yunque and has 500 acres of recreation. Every room offers a balcony with views of the resort, the rainforest or the ocean. ▶ 6000 Rio Mar Blvd., Río Grande; 787-888-6000; wyndhamriomar.com The Rainforest Inn is a tropical take on the bed-and-breakfast. Consider booking the two-person Jungle Suite, which offers a unique swinging bed perfect for resting after a day of hiking the rainforest. ▶ PR-186, Río Grande; 800-672-4992; rainforestinn.com An El Yunque hiking trail PUERTO RICO TOURISM COMPANY

beneath a large leaf as protection from the frequent rain. “It’s a beautiful trail; it’s a little bit rustic, but it’s not difficult,” says Druitt, who recommends visiting the forest as early as possible — it opens at 7:30 a.m. — in order to beat the heat and crowds. Although the temperature at El Yunque is typically 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the temperature in San Juan, heat and humidity still reign supreme. So, dress appropriately and bring plenty of bottled water and snacks. “We usually suggest comfortable

clothes — T-shirt and shorts — and comfortable walking shoes, like tennis shoes,” says Rodriguez. “You can also wear a bathing suit underneath your clothing in case you want to take a refreshing dip in one of the waterfalls.” Mosquitoes aren’t too much of an issue, thanks to the bats and coquí that eat them. Still, insect repellent is a good idea, along with sunscreen. If possible, choose DEET-free bug spray and all-natural sunscreen, as harmful chemicals can easily transfer to the water when you go swimming. That affects not only aquatic life, but also

local Puerto Ricans, who source 20 percent of their potable water from El Yunque’s rivers. “Affecting one of the species in the forest will affect the whole area,” says Muñiz, who also recommends carrying a garbage bag. “If you bring any snacks or beverages, take them back with you and dispose of your trash.” Even on the busiest days, when the tourists at La Mina Falls are as thick as the foliage around it, El Yunque’s beauty is pure and unspoilt. In the name of Yokahú, its champions implore: Please keep it that way.

Just 15 minutes from El Yunque is Luquillo Beach, one of Puerto Rico’s most beloved beaches. Rent chairs and umbrellas, take surfing lessons or just stroll the pillowsoft sand. Visit Yunke Zipline Adventure in Luquillo for a dose of adrenaline. Tours consist of an interpretive hike through the rainforest, five vista-rich zip lines and a 50-foot rope descent from atop a West Indian locust tree. ▶ 787-242-3368; yzapr.com


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E L D D SA UP gh u o r h ht s a l p S ean b b i r a the C seback r o h n o fun d e d for ad

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CT OF PLE A a horse IM S E H on g up to it. gettin me magic Pam o t has s r and poe d Autho describe n n e h w o w r B grace the h t i w rse is eling ms the fe rote, “A ho ples’ drea , o g w e n p e o of sh str t ction es — proje themselv ul — and i f i t t g u u n o i a e iv ab rful, b y of g ne powe e capabilit ur munda o h t s m a o h fr ta e tha p cape us es nce.” Mak ddle-dee a n e s t a s e e i d b x i r e ib a back e Car horse h the blu just have g y u a o r m h u t m, e. nd yo Sea a come tru it may see n i s dream antastic a ack rides ty b i f l e a s s e r A ar ho bean e become opular b i r a C ore p a hav a the se e of the m ioners at t n a o and ts for vac n islands. et g i a pursu of Caribbe options to e range re several adventur c a i t e a r l u a He aq tropic uine an eq your next f ix on ay. getaw ED TINU CO N

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ISLAND ROUTES CARIBBEAN ADVENTURES


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Tropical Trail Rides in Isabela, Puerto Rico

“A horse is the projection of peoples’ dreams about themselves — strong, powerful, beautiful — and it has the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence.” — Pam Brown, author and poet

TROPICAL TRAIL RIDES

Cruzan Cowgirls Horseback Riding Tours on St. Croix CRUZAN COWGIRLS HORSEBACK RIDING TOURS

CRUZAN COWGIRLS HORSEBACK RIDING TOURS on the island of St. Croix helps finance Cruzan Cowgirls Horse Rescue, which has come to the aid of more than 50 neglected and abused horses. “Our tours go into the water, so it’s a good idea to wear clothes you don’t mind getting wet,” advises founder and owner Jennifer Olah. “On St. Croix, our beaches are not heavily used, so there are many times that only our horses and riders are on the beach. Horses love the water, so it’s a fun experience for the horses as well.” Olah has some tips for riders. “Take along a small backpack with mosquito spray, sunscreen and a bottle of water; pack a camera and take precautions to protect your electronic devices.”

One point may be obvious, but still merits mentioning: Alcohol consumption prior to a ride is ill-advised. “Some tourists might be nervous if this is their first ride and may decide to have a drink or two to relax,” notes Olah. “It’s best to avoid this as it can make it more difficult to keep your balance.” Also, as embarrassing as it might be, riders should be honest about their weight, since some operators observe weight limits for the horses’ protection. It’s also important for riders to be upfront about their experience level; this will allow staff to match riders with the horse that suits them best. ▶ cruzancowgirls.com EQUUS RIDES owner Stephen O’Dea

brings an extra level of authenticity and a fascinating backstory to his horseback riding operation on St. Croix. O’Dea grew up on a dairy farm in Ireland, where horses were part of his daily life. He then immigrated to the U.S. as a Roman Catholic priest working in South Florida. From there, he headed west to live the life of a cowboy on a Texas ranch. The final move was to St. Croix, where he’s lived for more than 25 years. Equus Rides concentrates on trails that explore St. Croix’s north shore. In addition to a beach component, the rides include a stop at a hilltop sugar mill with beautiful views of the sea. If a rider is game, O’Dea will guide them through the process of standing on horseback in the sea. Equus Rides has horses for all riding levels and can accommodate novices to the most advanced equestrians. ▶ horsebackridingstcroix.com ISLAND ROUTES CARIBBEAN ADVENTURE TOURS offers horseback rides and swim adventures on Jamaica and St. Lucia. In Jamaica, customers have the option to also go zip lining and river kayaking. In St. Lucia, expert riders have the option to canter, or allow the horse to trot at a faster pace. ▶ islandroutes.com TROPICAL TRAIL RIDES is located in Isabela, the westernmost town on Puerto Rico’s northern coast. While the company offers day rides, it’s espe-

cially known for evening rides along the sandy beaches of Isabela and through several nearby trails. ▶ tropicaltrailrides.com PROVO PONIES RIDING STABLE can be found on Providenciales, a major island in the Turks & Caicos islands. There’s a heartwarming component to the Provo Ponies story. On Grand Turk, another island in the region, there were many abandoned or neglected horses. “Most of them are descendants of the horses brought by the Bermudian saltrakers in the 1700s and some were imported from the States to pull carriages in the last 10 years,” explains Camille Slattery, owner of Provo Ponies. “Over the last 12 years, we’ve brought many underweight and overworked horses from Grand Turk to Providenciales and nurtured them back to being healthy, happy working horses.” A typical Provo Ponies ride meanders down back roads and trails about a mile to the beach. “The horses love to walk at least shoulder-deep in the water,” says Slattery. “If you are an experienced rider and booked your ride at low tide when the beach is firm, we will take you on a canter down the beach while the less experienced riders stay with another guide walking in the water.” Provo Ponies plans to add a separate trail that combines horseback riding with the island’s history, by taking riders through plantation ruins from the late 1700s. ▶ provoponies.com


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