By Thomas Swick
City & Shore Magazine
The City Beautiful is automatically associated with Walt Disney World (even though the resort is located in Lake Buena Vista) but it is becoming a destination in its own right. How many cities have a lake downtown? Bordered by a trendy neighborhood – Thornton Park – that hosts a monthly wine and art walk? Colonial Drive – or the Mills 50 neighborhood – boasts what is surely the highest concentration of Vietnamese restaurants and markets in the state. The less than two-year-old Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts showcases ballet, theater, pop concerts and lectures, while The Plaza Live theater is the new home of the Orlando Philharmonic. The Morse Museum in nearby Winter Park has the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. And if you can’t stay away from amusements – and who can? – there is the new I-Drive 360 entertainment complex on International Drive consisting of shops, restaurants, clubs, Madame Tussauds, the SEA LIFE aquarium (featuring more than 5,000 creatures and a 360-degree ocean tunnel) and the Orlando Eye, a 400-ft. tall observation wheel. From the top of it you can (almost) see Cedar Key.
A number of years ago Garden & Gun magazine ran a series of arresting, black-and-white photographs of young water women. They seemed to be of another place and time, and in a way they were: They were the female clam farmers of Cedar Key. Situated off the west coast, south of the Panhandle, Cedar Key is quintessential Old Florida. Once a source of red cedar for American schoolchildren’s pencils, it became a thriving fishing village. When net fishing was banned in the mid-1990s, clam farming took its place, and is today a multi-million dollar business. Which means that visitors experience a working community and not an ossified museum of a town. That said, the historical museum is excellent, as are the kayaking, birding, fishing and eating of said fish (and seafood).
For years, people who weren’t fishermen just passed through here – or stopped for lunch – on their way to Key West. But Islamorada has become a hip destination. Bud N’ Mary’s still has a big presence – one of a number of marinas in what is called “The Sportfishing Capital of the World” – but now after a day on the water you can quench your thirst with a Starvin Marvin Dunkelweizen in the taproom of the Florida Keys Brewing Company, the first microbrewery in the Upper Keys. (The beer, named for a local lobsterman, carries notes of banana and clove.) Restaurants have long been a draw here – from the Green Turtle Inn to Pierre’s – and now they’re joined by Chef Michael’s, oo-tray, and Oltremare Ristorante at the beautifully renovated Amara Cay Resort. Two other tastefully refurbished lodgings are Pelican Cove and the 16-suite Casa Morada, where you can feel as if you’re on an island in the Caribbean.
In the USA
It used to be that trends started in California – surfing, meditation, vegetarianism – and then made their way east. Now they seem to start in Portland (microbreweries, commuters on bicycles, legal marijuana). The city is so hip it’s a meta-sitcom (Portlandia). But it’s more than a bastion of trendiness, political correctness, and slackerliness (“It’s where 30-year-olds,” someone once quipped, “go to retire”). Portland is home to innovative cuisine (including a lively, if sometimes drizzly, street food scene), the International Rose Test Garden (featuring over 500 varieties of the beloved flower), and the greatest bookstore in America – Powell’s “City of Books” – which covers an entire block, shelves the new with the second-hand, and features readings and signings most days of the week.
The Low Country
It’s an easy run up I-95 to Brunswick, Georgia, where – driving down Newcastle Street – you may think you’re in Ybor City. (Some façades were retouched last year for the filming of the Dennis Lehane novel, Live by Night.) You can stay in town – in one of a couple of Victorian B&Bs – and eat well at The Southern Table and Bar; or you can head over to St. Simons Island or the quieter Jekyll Island (with the historic Jekyll Island Club). Heading north you’ll hit Savannah, with its gracious squares and excellent restaurants, including one, The Grey, situated in the old Greyhound station. Before you reach Charleston, it’s worth spending a night in Beaufort – another town that’s attracted Hollywood – to admire its antebellum houses and explore the Gullah culture on nearby St. Helena Island. In Charleston, you can take time out from historic tours and she-crab soup and pay respects at Emanuel AME Church, the sanctuary in which nine people were killed last year and, a few days later, President Obama sang Amazing Grace.
Downtown, which a few decades ago was said not to exist, keeps adding attractions. Now, in addition to the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, the dynamic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the Staples Center (home of the Lakers), and the Museum of Contemporary Art, there is The Broad, containing 2,000 works of contemporary art from the private collection of Eli and Edythe Broad. And of course there are the old standbys like the 99-year-old Grand Central Market (selling everything from tacos to currywurst), LA Central Library, Little Tokyo, Olvera Street (Little Mexico), Angels Flight (the Bunker Hill funicular), the old movie palaces along Broadway, and of course Clifton’s, the inimitable 80-year-old cafeteria-in-a-forest that reopened this past October after a five-year, $10 million renovation. Faux trees and taxidermy are still a large part of the restaurant’s appeal, but added to them have been evening performances, bars (one garnished with a meteorite), and a loving restoration, on the third floor, of Ray Bradbury’s corner booth.
In the World
Canada has a new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and a new sense of confidence (swagger’s not really a Canadian thing). And nothing embodies it more than the country’s largest city. The heart of Toronto is steel and glass (its once iconic city hall, built in 1965, almost gets lost in the middle), but the streets are spacious and clean and the people who walk them come from every corner of the world. (Though they all seem to flock to Bay Street for Uncle Tetsu’s Japanese Cheesecake.) But the soul of Toronto is in its neighborhoods, many of them, not surprisingly, ethnic: Little Portugal, Little Italy, Little India, Chinatown, Roncesvalles (Polish), The Danforth (Greek). The food is as diverse, and sometimes as sophisticated, as the people. And, this being a northern city, there are excellent museums, including one, Bata, devoted to shoes. The Art Gallery of Ontario has an impressive collection that includes the whimsical wintry paintings of William Kurelek. Niagara Falls is an easy day trip, and you’ll pass through something you don’t automatically associate with Canada: vineyards.
This Basque city is the 2016 European Capital of Culture (along with Wroclaw, Poland), but when the festive year is over it will still be what it has long been: a nearly perfect city. It has a bay, a beach, a seaside promenade, a tree-lined main street gladdened with buskers, a river (crossed by pretty bridges and lighted by elegant streetlamps), two green hills, and, at the foot of one of them, an atmospheric old town, where you’ll find the requisite plaza, churches, shops and cafes whose counters fill in the evening with the world’s most beautiful (and delicious) tapas. My guess is that this is where the custom of photographing one’s food originated. Summer is a popular time to visit, but if you come in late September you’ll catch the famous film festival, which fits in nicely with the city’s year-long title.
The one we’ve all been waiting for. What may surprise first-time visitors, who’ve only seen photographs, is the scope of the place. Havana itself is much more than ’50s Chevys driving past crumbling colonnades. There is Spanish colonial architecture in the old town, classical in the Centro (which is where you’ll find the capitol, modeled after our own), Art Deco and Midcentury Modern in Vedado and Miramar. The streets are filled with movement and music and, finally, a feeling of time being unfrozen. Outside the capital more treasures await, from the cobbled streets of Trinidad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to the country’s second city, and center of its Afro-Cuban culture, Santiago de Cuba. (Buena Vista Social Club’s Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer both hailed from here.) Nature lovers can head west of Havana to Valle de Viñales, which is surrounded by mountains and studded with spectacular rock formations. And of course there are the beaches of Varadero, which may now become as famous as Waikiki. ω