Monday, May 31, 2010

American Beach

Located on northeast Florida's Amelia Island, American Beach is a dreamy stretch of 200 acres that was established as a beach resort for African Americans in 1933, during the Jim Crow era when most beaches were segregated. American Beach remains an undeveloped historical gem, brimming with cultural history. The very first thing that caught my eye on the beach was the bottle tree above, glistening between two palms.

Bottle trees are a hallmark of Southern gardens but the tradition reaches back further, centuries ago in the Central African nation of the Congo.  Bottles were slipped onto tree branches to catch spirits trying to enter a house. This tree shows the customary sea green and "haint blue" bottles that whistle like captured ghosts when the wind blows.

The other thing that immediately grabbed my attention was this swirling 60 feet sand dune called Nana, a West African term for  great mother.  Nana is the tallest sand dune in the state of Florida and is protected as the state's last undeveloped dune system.

Unlike most resort towns, American Beach displays a charming, uncommercialized impression.  The pearly-sand beach is pristine and quiet and the streets are unpaved and lined with palm trees, flowers and wild garlic, pictured above.

Historical houses that in American Beach's heyday, hosted luminaries like Zora Neale Huston, Joe Louis, Ossie Davis and Mary McLeod Bethune are another hallmark. This notable house above is constructed of coquina, a substance made from the crushed shells on the beach mixed with concrete.

Newer houses like this one, built in 2004 and called Turtle Dreams  because of the turtle theme in every room, are being constructed as weekend getaways for families who continue American Beach's legacy as as a welcoming  beach community steeped in culture and tradition.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Escaped Turtle Stew

This is the turtle that ambled in front of me as I started a tour of  historic American Beach on Amelia Island.

He crossed Ocean Blvd casually and confidently, as if he wanted to be part of the tour too.

But he got spooked when I moved close to snap his photo. Or maybe he heard my tour guide, Marsha Phelts explain that the only reason he was so big was that the women who live on Ocean Blvd are too old to catch him and make turtle stew!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Next Stop : Amelia Island

This week, I'll be on a press trip to Amelia Island, one of the southernmost of the Sea Islands, located off the coast of Florida.  Steeped in history, this 13-mile island is also called  the "Isle of Eight Flags"  since it has flown the flags of France,  Spain (twice), Great Britain, the Patriots of Amelia Island,  the Green Cross of Florida,  Mexico, the Confederate States of America and the United States, since 1562.  I'll be staying in a charming inn on Fernandina Beach, pictured above, complete with rocking chairs to watch the blue herons. My activities will include delving into all that intriguing history as well as horseback riding on the beach, a segway tour of the Amelia Island Plantation nature center and a walking tour of American Beach, a storied African American enclave  frequented by legends like Zora Neale Hurston, A. Phillip Randolph and Joe Louis during the Jim crow era of the 30s-60s.   Of course, I hope to sneak in some beach time too. Stay tuned for posts next week.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Savoring St. Thomas

If you crave local creole cooking in St. Thomas, two names will always come up.  Cuzzin's and Gladys' Cafe are the two eateries that specialize in spicy and hearty Caribbean cuisine.   Located in a former 18th century stable on  bustling Back Street, Cuzzin's attracts lots of travelers.  Frothy drinks like the Green Iguana above, cater to touristy tastes but locals go for Virgin Islands home cooking like island style mutton, conch and curried anything.

Saltfish happens to be my favorite so I ordered this overflowing platter of it slathered with peppers, dumplings, plantains and cassava.

Cuzzin's is an intimate spot accented with vivid tablecloths and  brick walls.

The dancing lady logo on the Cuzzin's signs always looks to me like she's trying to shake off all the food she's just inhaled.

Gladys' Cafe is ensconced in a lovely  stonework courtyard, inside of what used to be a 17th century pump house.  The menu above, features a host of Caribbean favorites like roti, conch chowder and curried goat, as well as dishes that I've never seen, like jerked pork chops.

I sampled the curried chicken with rice and peas, macaroni pie and more cassava. You can't avoid starch overload on most islands so I just pretend that there's a vegetable or two on my plate and go for a long walk later.

Gladys' is bigger than Cuzzin's, with checked tablecloths and the gregarious Gladys, who actually hails from Antigua. 

Hot sauce is Gladys' real claim to fame, she makes a mustard version and a tomato based selection that's super hot. There's a rivalry between these two St. Thomas spots, some say that Cuzzin's  is more authentic and that Gladys' focuses too much on tourists and vice versa. Personally, I prefer Cuzzin's food and Gladys' ambiance.  I think both restaurant's offer important elements to  the St. Thomas experience.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Kiss The Sky

This is the view from the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.  I peeked out on the 110th floor and yes, I felt dizzy.  Willis Tower or Sears Tower, as it will always be known to Chicagoans, soars 1,450 feet high and offers the perfect view of Chicago's iconic sky line.  The skyscraper also supplies a stunning panorama of four states-Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. I typically visit Sears Tower every year for a leisurely Easter brunch with my family and never really contemplate just how high up we are (except when my ears pop in the elevator.)  But this year, I was faced with the eye-popping reality when my husband and kids rushed out to the new Skydeck Ledge.  The Ledge consists of glass boxes that extend out 4.3 feet from the Skydeck on the 103rd floor.  You can gaze down at your feet and see the entire city. I passed on this opportunity and do not regret it one bit. I think I prefer my views more conventional and a little less scary.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hassel Island Clean Up

Most of my time in St. Thomas was spent on eco excursions and the first was to historic Hassel Island.  From the lovely Frenchtown Harbor pictured above, I kayaked with my trusty St. Thomas expert Karen, to  Hassel Island.

Now a part of the Virgin Islands National Parks, Hassel Island was originally a peninsula with a narrow isthmus between it and Frenchtown. The St. Thomas Harbour formed on the west by Hassel Island, was the major entry point for vessels sailing the Caribbean.  There was once a coaling station for ships to refuel and a marine railway.  Today, Hassel Island is a picturesque strip lined with crumbling 17th century forts and  because of its tradewind heavy location, lots and lots of trash.

Our group of 10 volunteers spent an hour picking up the bottles, cans,straws and cigarettes that wash up on the island's shore. The sun blazes down on the sand and there's little shade.  It was definitely a task of eco love made more lively by the talents of our guide Frank.

A self-taught harmonica player who ripped out hearty blues tunes, Frank knew just the right accompaniment for toiling under the sun.