Category Archives: United States of America

Life on the Ocean Waves

Ahoy there!
Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum, shiver me timbers and hoist the mainsail me hearties…it’s a sailors life for me!

Our 18 month adventure is coming to an end (boo hoo..) as of tomorrow we arrive back in England. For the past two weeks First Mate Sarah and Cabin Boy Mr E have been guests on the 4000 nautical mile transatlantic crossing from Fort Lauderdale USA to Southampton UK on the Royal Caribbean cruise liner The Independence of The Seas.

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Rather than flying home, we thought this would be a fun way to end our trip and try out a new holiday experience. The decision was an easy one as the cruise cost was the same as 2 single economy seats on a plane. The reason for the lower cost, is that it’s a one way repositioning cruise. Having completed the winter Caribbean cruises, the ship now moves over to the UK to start the run of Mediterranean summer cruises.

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We’re a bit of an odd couple as we like our own company. We definitely avoid package holidays and forced entertainment, preferring to make our own plans and we generally stay away from other holiday makers, weird hey?! So we were a little unsure if cruising would suit us. But I can happily report it’s been wonderfully relaxing and a great value way to return home.
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Our first impressions were that the ship was huge and that there were a lot of people from all different nationalities. So it was a bit of a shock to be with 3500 people and to hear a variety of UK accents again, especially after being in Spanish speaking countries for so long. But our fears were quickly surpressed, as we found we could do loads of activities if we wanted to and that we could find quiet spots if that suited us too.

So if you’ve never been on a cruise, here the rundown of what’s on offer –

Food and Beverages
Everyone told us you can eat 24/7 if you wanted on a cruise! This is certainly true for some, as the amount of food available is immense and varied, we witnessed people piling their plates really high in the buffet, you can eat pizza any time up to 3am (we didn’t!) You can fuel your heart attack by eating badly or you can eat a balanced healthy menu, which we aimed to do but…those oatmeal raisin cookies just kept appearing with our afternoon cuppa!
For breakfast there is a buffet in the Windjammer self-service restaurant, it’s horribly busy, you struggle to find a table and for me was the worst thing about the cruise – jostling shoulders to get food. We found the seated service in the Romeo & Juliet restaurant was much more refined but then it was a bit stuffy for first thing in the morning.
As soon as breakfast was over, within half an hour lunch was served – too much food!
The Promenade Cafe served smaller filled rolls and this was perfect for us.
Dinner was in the Macbeth restaurant, food quality was very good and there were loads of choices on the menu. If you didn’t want the seated or formal dinners you could eat in the Windjammer from the evening buffet.

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Our waiters Malachi from Vincent & The Grenadines and Rosario from India were fabulous and took excellent care of us during dinner service. These guys work super hard and really made a difference to our cruise experience.

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Our Select Cruise Package included all meals, beers, wines to the value of $8 and soft drinks. This week I’ll mostly be drinking champagne..Thank you Simon for bringing us bubbles!

Entertainment and Sports
OK there is something for everyone on ship all coordinated by Entertainment Director Bobby. Right here we go, we’ve got – iceskating, dancing, quizzes, musical shows, comedians, bars, pool olympics, card games and bridge sessions.

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There’s a library, pub, casino, hot tubs, swimming pools, H2O splash zone for kids, movies, enrichment lectures and there is a fabulous gym. There’s an art gallery and you can bid for fine art in the auctions – who knew they did this kind of thing on board?

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On the upper deck there is crazy golf, flo – rider surfing, golf simulator, rock climbing wall and ball court.
Then there is also ‘The Hard Sell’ – crikey no wonder Royal Caribbean are so successful.
You can book your Next Cruise on board before you leave, deals are to be had!
In the promenade marketplace you can buy duty free, jewellery, handbags and gifts. Got cash to splash? Why not pay for spa treatments, teeth whitening, non surgical facelifts, shoe implants, acupuncture and wine tasting. It’s full on, sales pitch.

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My motto for the cruise was ‘not to go home fatter than I left’ so with Jawbone trackers on our wrists to monitor our 10,000 step target and record set daily calorie intakes, we got sweaty in the mornings. Even in the gusty wind topside on the latter few days as we got nearer to the UK, we did our laps on the running track and I took my big old bum to the gym. It was good to share the gym with all ages and abilities.

Getting Around and Facilities
For our first few days we got a bit confused finding our state room – were we Port or Starboard side? But then we found the carpet colour guided us back to our rooms, pink for starboard and blue for port. The artworks on all the stairs also guide you back to where you needed to be, Starry, starry night for us on level 2! There are handy maps everywhere detailing if the location you need is forward or aft. If you forget what day it is, don’t worry-  you’ll be reminded in the elevators!

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We chose a stateroom with a window rather than balcony based on cost and we were pleasantly surprised. Showers are hot and roomy, beds are big and super comfy, all cases fit underneath of them, so they are out of the way. Carlington our stateroom attendent was lovely, kept our room super tidy and provided quirky towel animals to amuse us! Last night’s Monkey was the winner!
Going two weeks without Internet was going to be a killer for The Evans…Mr E would have the shakes without the sports news! But thank goodness, as Royal Caribbean changed their Internet system on May 1st. So instead of $25 per day per device, the new rates were $13 per day for 2 devices. So as we knew we wouldn’t be spending any other money for 2 weeks, we signed up. In the middle of the Atlantic it worked just ticketyboo!

Shore Excursions
As this was a repositioning cruise there were just 3 stops; Nassau in The Bahamas, San Juan in Puerto Rico and Philipsburg in St Maarten. 3 different Caribbean Islands in 3 days.

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Although time on shore was limited it gave us a nice feel for the Caribbean and reminded us how lucky we’ve been to take time out to travel. We got some final snorkeling in, did a little nail varnish shopping (you can never have too many!) and wandered around these historic ports imagining pirates landing in these safe harbours.

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Crew and Staff
All and I mean all the staff are just super friendly. They work ridiculously hard and are away from family for many months at a time. Totally professional, these guys really want to make sure you have a great vacation. All our gratuities were included in our cruise rate but for those staff that make the wow factor, we had some dollars left over to leave a little extra. If you go on a cruise – tip these guys they really deserve it.

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As the sun sets on our last day, our bags are packed, we’re slowly passing the south coast to dock in Southampton Port in the early hours ready for disembarking in the morning. Our lovely little old parents will be at my sister’s house ready to meet us and of course I’ll try hard not to cry when I see them…but as I’ve already had the waterworks at dinner knowing this is the last night of our adventure, I think the chances are pretty slim!

Thank you Independence of The Seas, it’s been a fun trip!

Life is like a box of chocolates…

Utility is when you have one telephone,
luxury is when you have two, opulence is when you have three
….and paradise is when you have none.
Doug Larson

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Got a few millions to spare? Then why not buy a super yacht and waterfront mansion to park it next to! Unfortunately we don’t, but it’s always fun to sit on the Water Taxis that transport tourists up and down the Intracoastal Waterways in between Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. It’s a great way to travel around the area where you can hop on & hop off, but the Captain also gives you snippets of information on who lives in the properties and own these luxury yachts. We saw Amphitrite the $22 million yacht previously owned by Johnny Depp and recently purchased by JK Rowling, Harry Potter definitely is a girl’s best friend for JK. Sleek and luxurious the Azteca is owned by the Mexican Salinas Piego family, we know the department store Elektra well from our time in Mexico and this $83 million super yacht certainly sparkles in the water.

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One of the fun stories is about US business man Wayne Huizenga a multi – billionaire. He was having trouble with his neighbours complaining about his helicopter landing, so he bought their house, knocked it down and built a designated landing pad – problem solved! Then there is the story of the house now owned by 2 former High School teachers who decided to open a chicken wing restaurant. Their well endowed waitresses in tight vests and short shorts proved to be a big hit, Hooters restaurant chain has ensured the teachers now live that luxe lifestyle we all dream of. Back in the heyday Sonny & Cher, Lucille Ball and Jonny Weismuller all owned properties in this stretch of prime island lands.

After a day on the water it was time to wave Liz and Derek off from our two weeks in Florida together. They were driving upwards to visit St Augustine and Savannah before flying home. It was a fun time and even nicer to be able to say to them “We’ll see you in two weeks!”

For the last part of our Florida trip, we were staying in Fort Lauderdale in preparation to board The Independence of The Seas. After 18 months away our travels were coming to an end and it was time to head home to the UK.
Now I’ve mentioned a few times in my blog posts what a genius Mr E is at finding travel bargains and once more he surpassed himself! . When he knew last year we’d be travelling home in May, he booked a two week repositioning cruise with Royal Caribbean, get this – It was the same cost as 2 economy seats with British Airways. From the window of the Courtyard Marriott we could see the ship in Port Everglades ready for 3500 people who would all be travelling to Southampton.

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But before we tried out cruising, we had a couple of days to make the most of the Florida sunshine.We rode the water taxi down to Hollywood Beach from Fort Lauderdale. Along the way we passed Port Everglades home to south Florida’s thriving cruise ship industry and port of call to thousands of merchant ships from around the world.

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It’s a busy port and provides thousands of jobs for the region. We disembarked at the mammoth hotel resort of Margaritaville and wandered along the Hollywood Broadwalk.

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There are 2.5 miles of pristine white sandy beach, restaurants and nightlife, old style beach front motels and it’s a popular destination for sunbathing. Back at the  Margaritaville water taxi stop we hummed the lines ‘Wasted away again in Margaritaville’ and was glad I hadn’t ‘blew out my flip flop’

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For some old time charm we took the free trolly north to Lauderdale-by-the Sea. This cute beachside town is located on a barrier island just north east of Fort Lauderdale. We had stayed in a motel here back in 2002 it’s now been replaced by a large swanky condo building, the fishing pier remains and of course we had an ice cream sat on the beach for old times sake.

For our last night in America, we didn’t go far and ate dinner in Bubba Gump’s next to the hotel.
Forrest Gump “My momma always said, “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get”

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In all our 18 months away we certainly didn’t know what we were going to get, but I can honestly say it’s been far sweeter than we ever would have hoped for!

And now it was time to cross the pond…home was calling.

Shelling & Shopping in Gulf Coast Florida

For the second part of our Florida trip with my sister Liz and Brother in law Derek, we left The Florida Keys and crossed Alligator Alley to spend a night in glamourous Naples with its white soft sandy beaches, millionaire mansions and rather gorgeous sunsets. In Tin City we perused the gift shops and ate at one of the seafood restaurants where Derek who doesn’t do fish, tackled the first large plate of ribs of the holiday!

We have visited this side of Florida many times before, but usually staying on Sanibel next to the beach. For this trip we had booked through Airbnb to stay in a great value inland property in Cape Coral. The Tropical House was excellent with plenty of room, outdoor seating next to a covered pool and located right next to the canal where Brad & Derek made use of the kayaks. It’s a location we didn’t know but was only a 30 minute drive from most places we wanted to visit for days out.

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To reach the Gulf, the Cape Coral area is closest to laid back Pine Island with its fishing boat marinas and water taxis that transport day trippers and campers to one of the many nearby islands and Cayes. To reach Pine Island you cross the bridge, driving through the tiny stripland of quaint Matlacha where shrimp boats dock, old fishing shanties have been converted to rustic B&B’s and an arty community sell their creations. We stopped for drinks and supper at legendary Bert’s Bar which dates back to the 30’s.

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As we were out of season, we reviewed the upcoming weather reports and headed out on what looked to be a rainy day for shopping! So we’ve eaten noodles, made picnic lunches and generally tried to not spend too much money over the last year whilst travelling, but then the Evans literally went nuts spending on the credit card in the Miromar Outlet Shopping Centre. For the last 2 weeks of our trip we would be taking a Royal Caribbean Cruise to get us home to the UK (more to come on this snippet of excitement later..) so Mr E was in need of trousers, shoes and a jacket. Birkenstocks and shorts probably wouldn’t meet the formal dinner requirements! I purchased some sandals and OMG!..a pair of high heels ready for work, my flip flop wearing feet are not going to like being squished into shoes once again. Between us all we packed our purchases into The Town & Caravan and headed home, exhausted from the excess of spending, too tired even for a round of Adventure Golf!

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Time for a picnic! With a well packed cool bag we drove down through Fort Myers and into Lovers Key State Park. For just $8 we parked up and took the land train across the mangroves to find a spot on a very white sandy beach. Once our day camp was set up we did the stoop..bending over walking the Lovers Key Beach looking for top notch shells. At the end of the beach in the fast flowing inlet, we were utterly delighted to watch a group of fishermen in their boat catching tilapia, while two dolphins practically held their flippers out for cast offs and handouts as the guys were just copiously reeling the fish in, of course it was the one time I didn’t have my camera in hand!

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I totally love these desolate outer beaches where plovers and sandpipers probe for food along the waters edges huddling together in their respective groups. Herons and Egrets just hang out, paddling in the soft waves waiting for their next big catch.
Washed up bleached tree trunks are now organic beachy art installations, long gone leaves have been replaced with jangly white shells that resemble white blossom from a distance. We hung shells on high branches and made wishes that we’ll return again one day.

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Away from the beaches we spent a pleasant morning at the Edison Ford Estates located next to the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers. These beautifully restored craftsman houses were the family winter destinations for Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. The museum, laboratory and houses exhibit their lives and inventions. Edison, Ford and Harvey Firestone formed a botanical research corporation to research a natural source of rubber that could be grown in the US and remove dependence on foreign rubber being imported.

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The Botanical Gardens flourish with a massive Banyan Tree still growing today that was one of the original 17,000 plant samples that were tested for the rubber research. Edison spent time in his laboratory and study perfecting his inventions. One of his most famous patents was for the long lasting electrical light bulb. The estate is in a beautiful spot looking out over the river and I’m sure the creativity of two of the finest American minds was fast flowing here.

One of our favourite holiday spots to visit is on Sanibel & Captiva Islands. So we were keen to show Liz & Derek where we have spent many happy holidays. We packed a final picnic and headed over the Sanibel Bridge to spend a lovely day on these perfectly formed Floridian islands. We started out at the south end of the island at Lighthouse beach. On this corner of the island people fish from the pier, there’s plenty of shells to collect, sandcastles to be built and a couple where getting married.

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Posing for photos, two baby Osprey watched as Mum & Dad soared over the waves swooping on unlucky fish destined to become Osprey lunch. After a wander on the beach we stopped at Pinnochio’s for yummy ice cream topped with one of their signature animal crackers. From there we drove north through Sanibel up to Captiva. This tiny island feels totally tropical, with its pink and green Florida coloured houses nestled in the palm trees. We stopped at Jensen’s Marina hoping to see Manatee in the sheltered bay, we got lucky and Liz nearly did a ‘Sarah cry’ when they popped up their cow noses to take a breath. The whole Manatee family bobbed up and down for our amusement.

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After picnicking on the beach, we headed down to drive through the Ding Darling Refuge. Lots of winter snowbirds have now left Florida, so the park was pretty quiet but we still enjoyed this sanctuary and the fresh air.
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Our day was completed by a visit to one of our favourite spots The Island Cow for dinner. Derek tucked into more ribs and opted for additional ribs instead of shrimp, boy he loves his meat!

Soon enough it was time to move on and over to Fort Lauderdale for the last part of our trip. I know our wishes will come true and we’ll definitely return to this wonderful part of Florida in the future or until we win the lottery when we buy our own spot of paradise in Captiva!

It’s five o’clock somewhere..

“An’ pour me somethin’ tall an’ strong,
make it a “Hurricane” before I go insane.
It’s only half-past twelve but I don’t care.
It’s five o’clock somewhere”

Throughout our 18 months away, the line from the Jimmy Buffet song ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere’ has pretty much accompanied us as we contemplate whether it’s too early for a boozy frozen concoction!  Good job I enjoy a Margarita as we were heading for Southern Florida where its always ‘five o’clock somewhere..’

By now if you’ve been reading my blogs you’ll know I cry far too much, so you can imagine my tears leaving our super hosts Billy & Mel, good neighbours Dale & Libby and our fabby friends Susan & Keith and Willie & Susan. But most of all I cried leaving Puerto Escondido knowing our 18 month trip was coming to an end and we would be heading back to reality of life in the UK and work all over again, our travel purse was empty. Yes, yes, I know I’ve been ridiculously spoiled by not working all this time but I’ve gotten rather used to it!

But before our return home, we had another month of travel to enjoy. Flying from Puerto we waved to the Interjet staff lined up on the scorching hot runway, flew the quick 1 hour to Mexico City and then changed for a pleasant 3 hour jaunt to Miami. My sister Liz and brother in law Derek were meeting us for a 2 week Florida vacation. Although we have had Skype calls while we’ve been away, I was very excited to see my big sister again. We amused all the arrivals crowd as we hugged, laughed and of course had some happy tears as I abandoned my luggage for our reunion.

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Derek had already picked up the hire car – a huge Town & Caravan big enough for all our luggage and passengers. After a night in Miami we headed down to stay in the Florida Keys for a few days. Although the sun didn’t shine on us that day and the sea wasn’t quite as bright green, we still enjoyed the view of fishing boats, stunning houses on the waters edge and counting down the miles to the next t-shirt outlet mall!

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The beautiful Florida keys are 120 miles of islands of various sizes, connected together like a string of shiny pearls by bridges, including the famous 7 mile bridge and the US1 highway runs all the way to the end of the road at mile marker 0 in Key West.

Hotel prices in the Keys are ferociously expensive but with Airbnb we had found a great value, quirky place to stay called Secret Garden House located on Big Pine Key, where tiny deer run free and there are funky places to eat like the No Name Pub. It’s all very laid back in flip flops and days in the Keys are totally relaxed.

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On a gorgeous sunny day we visited Bahia Honda Park for sunbathing, swimming and a Brits on holiday picnic. The sand was white, the sea was all sorts of luminous shades of green and it was a perfect beach day.

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Key West at the very bottom of the continental US, was a short 30 minute drive south and we spent a glorious day on the beach with a picnic where the snorkeling was cloudy but the water was lovely and warm. Key West is the place to party, the action takes place on Duval Street where there are plenty of bars, restaurants ( including the original Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville) and an anything goes club scene, some are clothing optional! Even the Cock a Doodle Doos roam free here.

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Ernest Hemingway lived here in his latter years for a while and every year Key West hosts a looky-likey Hemingway contest, I saw couple of bearded salty dogs that would place in the top 3 for sure! At sunset, tourists congregate at Mallory Square where artists perform, stalls sell crafts and people watch the sun go down as yachts and party boats cruise by.

From the Keys we drove across Alligator Alley through the Everglades to East Florida, but not before stopping off for an speedy airboat ride.

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At Everglades City we got the wind in our hair as we whizzed through red mangrove corridors and our airboat captain expertly negotiated the glades, stopping to show us wildlife along the way. We only saw one alligator, she looked pretty hungry and we kept our arms firmly inside the airboat, as in her time it’s always ‘five o’clock somewhere!’

Coming up Cape Coral

Do The Ribs!

“Grip it and lick it!”

*Piggly Wiggly Klaxon Alert*
Vegetarians, this is a blog post you will definitely want to avoid!

Sampler ribs or slab of ribs, pulled pork sandwich or a full pork plate with cowboy beans, it was a porkfest and we ready to eat some BBQ.

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Our rib-loving Californian friends Big Willy and Margarita drinking Susan had taken us to visit the lip smacking, meat eating, saucy finger extravaganza that is the ‘Best In the West Nugget Rib Cook Off’

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This annual event is held in Sparks, Nevada and takes place every year in September over the Labor Day weekend. (American holiday – American spelling..)
It’s a gigantic BBQ culinary event, with a side of craft stalls, a good portion of carnival rides and plenty of good ol’ American blues, rock and country music to get your piggy butt jiggly.

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The barbecue belt that runs through Southern America, has a rich smoky history and it’s own set of traditions for each state. In days gone by, pigs were a cheap option for a low maintenance set of livestock. The tougher cuts of meat however then required slower methods of cooking to provide tender platters that would fall off the bone – hey presto! BBQ was born. Nowadays pigs are fed well and are much fatter, but the southern style of cooking is just as popular and rivalry to produce the best barbecue is hotly contested.

Local Sparks casino the ‘Nugget’ sponsors the event where 24 bbq rib stalls from all over America compete for a total cash purse of $14,500.

These talented rib cookers are total BBQ masters of grill. Each team have their own recipe for perfecting the tastiest rib. They will carefully choose the type of wood to smoke the racks of rib overnight, some teams prefer to add a dry rub of spices into their pork before grilling over the flames and some slather shiny BBQ sauces that vary from sweet, mild, hot to pyro hot when the rib rack is on the grill. It’s scorching labour intensive work but each team wants supremacy to win the coveted title of ‘Best in the West’.

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Nugget officials estimated that more than half a million people visited during the six-day event, eating about 200,500lbs of ribs. That’s a lot of pig!!
Willy and Susan’s tried and tested annual method for the ‘cook off’ is to sample a couple of ribs from 3 stalls each day and then vote for their favourite at the end of the 3 days we visited. Their top 5 choices this year were:
Just North of Memphis
Back Forty Texas BBQ
Carson City
Famous Dave’s
Porky n Beans

I’m not that keen on eating bone in meat, but I really enjoyed sampling succulent pulled pork from Texas Outlaws and Porky n Beans. Mr E voted for Butch’s Smack Your Lips BBQ ribs as his overall favourite, but the pyro sauce proved just too darn hot for his tastes.
We even saw rib eating veterans wearing blue medical gloves, while tucking into huge piles of ribs with extra hot sauces on the side, that would be lip tingling for sure!

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An esteemed panel of judges get to savour the ribs from all the 24 teams to award the overall winners and prizes.
Congratulations to the 2015 winners:
1st – Bone Daddy’s BBQ they also scooped the crowd voting award of Peoples Choice.
2nd – Famous Daves BBQ
3rd – Uncle Bub’s
4th – Back Forty Texas BBQ
5th – Texas Outlaws BBQ

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Best Sauce was awarded to the Aussom Aussie team for their popular fruity based sauce.

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During our visit to the Rib Cook Off, we also got to watch in open mouthed horror but with gobsmacking hilarity something we had never seen before and something we probably won’t want to see again…it was the 10th annual ‘Nugget World Rib-Eating Championship’ with $5000 up for grabs to the most competent consumers.

You might have seen similar events on TV, where the most unlikely contenders eat as much food as possible in a set amount of time or a ‘who can eat the most’ capacity based eating event. Contender Miki Sudo, with her blond hair swept up is ranked no 3 after eating 40 hotdogs in one such competition!

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There is an actual world governing body for professional eating contests – the MLE!
The Major League Eating official MC, was quick witted tongue jockey Sam Barclay. He was quite the orator and showman, pure entertainment under a natty straw boater hat. He expertly whipped the crowd into a frenzy introducing the contestants to this ‘Mount Sinai of mastication’!!

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Joey “Jaws” Chestnut the reigning 8 year rib eating champion was beaten by the MLE’s No.1 ranked best competitive eater Matt “Megatoad” Stonie. This teeny tiny food athlete hardly came up for air eating 10.5lbs of ribs in 12 minutes. You could see the technical prowess as they stripped meat from the bone, swallowed and just kept on scoffing. For us the first 6 minutes were full of shock and amusement, but then the remaining 6 minutes really did turn your stomach as the contestants greasy faces just kept on chomping…

We decided after applauding the winners, we would not be eating ribs that evening for dinner!

Where it was Heavenly

“The best view the whole world affords” – Mark Twain

See he pops us everywhere! I found out more about Mark Twain in Calaveras County than I ever knew, then at 9123ft on Malcolm’s observation deck looking out over glorious Lake Tahoe, we see a plaque displaying another of his affable quotes that is oh so appropriate.

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Hugging the 72 miles of pristine lakeshore are sandy beaches, cabin style accommodations, outdoor activities, watersports galore and plenty of hiking paths.

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We visited spectacular South Lake Tahoe on our recent trip, staying in Stateline just on the edge of the California/Nevada border where you can gamble while sipping $1 tequila’s.

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We stayed at Montbleu, which is small casino reminiscent of an old town Vegas Freemont Street hotel but with much nicer rooms.

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Mr E was celebrating his birthday when we took the Heavenly gondola to the top of the mountain. If you halve him he’s still in his twenties… but one Mr E is quite sufficient!

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During the winter months Lake Tahoe is a very popular skiing destination, where there are plenty of organised ski lifts, that will take you up to pure mountain air at 9580ft.

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It felt great up there, I’m sure if we had gone off hiking though, we would have definitely been out of breath. We didn’t take our trainers with us and Birks aren’t really made for wandering on tops of mountains!

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Lake Tahoe is simply gorgeous with emanating colours of aqua, turquoise and emerald blue waters.

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The lake is fed fresh, healthy waters from mountain streams, which keep the lake so clear and clean. With northern California experiencing horrendous wildfires, the skyline from the west was tinged with hazy smoke.

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Even in winter months the lake never freezes due to water movement from bottom to top. At its deepest point the lake is 1645ft to give you some context (as so nicely displayed in the information centre!) Chicago Sears Tower is 1450ft – so yes that’s deep!

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But just to bend your mind the deepest part of the lake is actually lower in elevation than nearby Carson City at 4802ft.

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No wonder the air is so fresh, the ponderosa pines are so green and the cocktails taste so good…

What’s the time? – It’s Wine O’Clock!

Gold fever gripped California in the 1850’s, along with those who flocked to the area hoping to strike it lucky were many European immigrants. They bought carefully transported vine cuttings from France, Spain and Italy plus the knowledge to implement new wineries using old vines in the Californian promised land. Italians likened the rolling Sierra Nevada foothills to wine growing regions of Tuscany.

With a temperate climate and volcanic decomposed soil, wine making flourished in California until the Gold Rush era was over at the end of the 19th century and was put on hold during the prohibition years of the 1920’s. But in the 1960’s new wine makers migrated to the region, now there are progressive evolving family owned vineyards transforming the regions wine country.

The area is famous for Zinfandels, Italian varietals of Sangiovese and Barbera. Other classic French varieties such as Syrah and Viognier are also popular.

We visited Amador County, which has a reputation for producing robust medium to full-bodied Zinfandels. These small berried, extra-ripe wines have flavours that are jammy, berrylicious and spicy, there are also subtle hints of aromas of the dry soil the vines grow in. Sun drenched vineyards are lined with great oak trees providing a blast of green in the Californian dry parched golden fields around them.
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When in the Sierra Foothills it’s practically the law to sample some of the local grown wines and we had a good go at tasting quite a few..

My novice connoisseur tasting tips:
1. Don’t be scared to sample, all the tasting rooms we visited were super friendly and there wasn’t any trace of wine snobbery exhibited to us!
2. Don’t go when hungry – nibble on the complimentary crackers especially when sipping dry wines.
2. Easy tasting directions: Sniff for aromas, swirl for airing, sip taking in the flavours and then repeat!
3. Dump bucket any you don’t like – they won’t be offended.
4. Buy any you like or if none take your fancy don’t feel you have to buy. Some tasting rooms charge a tasting fee, which is deducted from bottles you purchase.
5. Absolutely have a DD – thanks Willy for being our designated driver!

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In Amador Wine Country, Willy and Susan our excellent Californian hosts took us to visit tasting rooms in Sutter Creek, Amador City and the Shenandoah Valley.

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In Sutter Creek our first stop was at Avio, estate wines. In the Mediterranean bright tasting room, Kristen was super friendly and helpful. She explained the Zinfandel grape is bigger than the Cabernet Sauvignon grape that they grow and provided grape samples for my photos. As expected on this Tuscan styled estate,  Avio wines were smooth Italians. We bought a raspberry champagne to drink by the pool under the Californian sun. We also purchased the 2012 Zinfandel Estate, well when in Zinfandel country why try anything else!image

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During our visit to gorgeous Amador City we visited Feist Wines, sampled a few wines and chatted with the lovely, knowledgeable, owner grower Susan Feist. The Feist family is producing innovative award-winning, small lot artisan wines from the region’s vineyards. Their wine tasting room is situated in a 150 year old building that was once a saloon. I’d like to think that  maybe they served whisky and sarsaparilla with piano Johnny playing the tunes! We enjoyed sampling their fruity bold Barbera and their punchy rich fruity Cabernet Sauvignon, which we of course purchased.

Our big wine tasting day was in the Shenandoah Valley where we visited 3 tasting rooms and were beyond tipsy!

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First up tasting a flight of wines with Samantha at Wilderotter Vineyards in their stunning Tuscan style estate. Fee tasting was $5 with refund on any purchases. We pretty much liked all the wines we sampled here and enjoyed the complimentary sampler cheese plate. We purchased a tasty Estate Syrah with flavours of cherries and chocolate.

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Next stop was to Terra D’oro Winery the largest estate vineyard in the region with over 500 acres. Their Montevina wines are produced on site using grapes sourced from outside the valley, specialising in Barbera and Sangiovese grapes. They also have a great selection of delicious Italian estate wines including an old Italian Aglianico which is 99% Zinfandel and 1% Barbera, which was originally grown on the volcanic soils from Mount Vesuvius.
Complimentary wine tasting with Linda with no tasting fee was a joy. We all voted Linda the most informative and friendly wine concierge of the day.

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When sampling wines it’s great to ask questions to learn more about this vast subject. Susan was intrigued why growers in the region plant roses at the end of the row of vines. Linda gave us a few explanations:
1.They look pretty with choice of roses down to growers preference.
2. The roses are a good indicator of any localised bugs or mildew on the leaves which could be cause vine damage.
3. The 3 rose colours symbolise the Italian flag giving respect to the 150 year old Italian vines.

As we were coming to the end of the tasting afternoon, Linda suggested trying a creamy blue cheese with their Zinfandel Port and we were blown away, it was delicious! We kind of lost track of what we liked, however between us we purchased White Zinfandel, the Port and a sweet Moscato dessert wine.

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Our final stop of the day was to the family run Deaver Wineyards they have 300 acres with 150 year old Zinfandel vines and 1854 mission vines. We tasted wines with Norina, who was very friendly and informative. Although we enjoyed the Orange Muscat Port paired with caramel sauce, we didn’t make a purchase. I’m guessing this was as we were a tad tipsy at the end of the day. Sorry Deaver we’ll have to return.

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On another day, Willy drove us down to Calaveras County, while in Murphys we sampled wines from Zucca Mountain Vineyards in a mining cave styled cellar tasting room. There was a $5 tasting fee with refund on purchases , so we put all our Zucca fivers together to purchase a bottle of 8 month oaked creamy Touriga Port. We sipped this at home with tasty dark Brookside chocolates.

While wine tasting (as I’m a nerd) I jotted down a few notes of how they tasted. To finish up my Californian wine tasting blog and so I don’t forget the wines we sampled here they are:

Red wines:
Zinfandel – full-bodied, hearty, raspberry fruits, oaky, vanilla flavours. Red dirt and hot sunshine.
Cabernet Sauvignon – hearty, vanilla tones, spicy and delicious.
Barbera – dry hearty wine from aged grapes.
Sangiovese – dry wine, cherries, spice & berries. We didn’t find any we liked to purchase.
Primitivo – Dry smooth wine, flavours of fruity ripe plums with a spicy finish. This grape is a Zinfandel clone.
Estate Syrah – yummy cherries, tasty chocolates and cloves.
Malbec – dry wine with hints of vanilla, cocoa and tobacco.
Grenache – Smooth, light red with flavours of blackcurrants, hints of vanilla, smooth.

White wines:
Pinot Grigio – Very light, creamy & refreshing. Cut grass, citrus lemons & hints of apple.
Chardonnay – smooth buttery oaky, lemon citrus with tropical flavours.

Rose wines:
Grenache rose – bright & fruity with hints of strawberries.  A dry wine nice to drink on ice by the pool in the summer.

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And if you’re wondering what we did with our purchases…we drank them of course, so cheers, chin chin, salud and bottoms up!!

(I started to write this wine blog in California, but had to abandon it a few times…hic)