I was one very lucky guy in 2015, checking out magical places all around the world from Easter Island to the beaches of Lake Huron and tea plantations in The Azores. It takes a lot of work to travel this much, and there are a lot of people in the business who make it all happen for me; tourism boards and airlines and hotels and tour guides and more. So thank you to those folks.
I’ve been compiling some of my favourite travel moments for year, and here’s another version of the annual Jimmys; awards for just about anything from momentous key lime pie meringue to a crazy good Ontario concert venue to hiking and driving ludicrously powerful cars in Las Vegas.
This is a look at some of my key memories for 2015, limited for space to Canada and the USA. My “rest of the world” Jimmy awards will go out on my blog tomorrow, Dec. 31.
Cheers, and thanks for reading.
MOST ROMANTIC DINING SPOT: It’s a bit of a cop-out but I don’t know how to separate Merriman’s and Mama’s Fish House, two of Maui’s best restaurants. They’ve punched up the food presentation at Mama’s but thankfully left the grounds alone, which allows couples to mingle amid coconut palms and tiki torches and an old outrigger canoe on the shores of a small beach outside the town of Paia. Merriman’s has a fantastic menu and a huge patio perched on a point of land between two of the world’s prettiest beaches; Napili and Kapalua. The sunsets are beyond magnificent.
NICEST SERVER: Christine at the Elm Hurst Inn in Ingersoll was a delight to chat with over coffee one morning. I can’t recall her last name but she’s originally from the Liverpool area of England, I believe. A lovely place to stay.
MOST MEMORABLE BOAT RIDE: A trip up Western Brook Pond in Gros Morne National Park in western Newfoundland. Always a huge treat.
BEST CRAFT BEER USA: The Grunions Pale Ale, served at Ballast Point Brewing Co. in San Diego, one of America’s best beer towns.
COOLEST ISLAND: I love the colour and the greenery and the slapdash feel to Captiva Island, just north of Sanibel. Be sure to take a ferry ride to Cabbage Key, where some say Jimmy Buffett got the inspiration for the song “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
MOST ANNOYING HOTEL HABIT: When did it become customary for hotels to blast music over loudspeakers? I can kinda see it in Vegas, but I found it hugely annoying at my hotel in Phoenix. If I’m sitting by the pool, the only music I should hear is what comes over my headphones. Mind you, if kids are playing Marco Polo perhaps a loud rendition of Metallica or AC/DC isn’t such a bad idea.
BEST KEY LIME PIE: Blue Heaven in Key West. I’m not wedded to having Key Lime Pie with meringue, but that’s the way they do it here. The meringue is thick and light and perfectly golden. But it’s the tartness of the pie that gets my vote.
BEST HAWAII FOOD BARGAIN: You can eat like a king for just a few bucks at Sam Sato, an Asian noodle spot in an industrial park in Wailuku, Maui. Great food. Great people. Great prices.
TOP CELEBRITY SIGHTING (MALE): At Marker 88 restaurant in the Florida Keys, a friend and I ran into Kyle Chandler, an actor on Bloodlines and the guy who played Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights, one of my favourite shows.
BEST MARGARITA: They do a sensational job at El Catrin in the Distillery District of Toronto. There’s a fine patio with very good tacos, but the interior mural is perhaps the restaurant’s most distinguishing feature.
BEST CANADIAN RESORT: The JW Marriott Rosseau Muskoka Resort is a fab spot on a small hill overlooking Lake Rosseau. You’ll find outstanding cuisine, tons of activities (everything from hiking to golf to boating) and a magnificent setting some two and-a-half hours north of Toronto.
BIGGEST WINE SURPRISE: I didn’t expect a lot from a winery so close to the Atlantic Ocean in a rural part of Virginia, but the red wines at Chatham Vineyards at Church Creek were rich and wonderful.
BEST ROOFTOP BAR: I don’t love the Standard Hotel in L.A. as it’s a bit too trendy for my taste (and my age). But the rooftop bar is fantastic, with great views of downtown Los Angeles, ping pong tables and a beer garden with German sausages.
MOST ENJOYABLE FOOD FESTIVAL: The annual Food and Wine Festival in Maui was simply fantastic, with top chefs from all over the place serving up fresh seafood, Asian cuisine and delicious cocktails steps from some of the world’s best beaches.
NICEST RESTAURANT EXPERIENCE: At Zazu in Sonoma County, California, I was lucky enough to dine with owner/chef Duskie Estes, who’s competed on some of the top TV cooking shows and is one of the most pleasant and fun people you’ll ever meet. Killer food, too.
BEST OYSTERS: I did a Virginia trip and tried dozens and dozens; many fresh out of the sea. They’ve set up a new Oyster Trail folks can follow so they can taste some of the best around.
BEST BEACH TOWN: Grand Bend, Ontario. A wonderful mix of surf shops, nice restaurants and a great beach.
CANADA CITY ON THE RISE AWARD: Sarnia has a fine new art gallery downtown and a terrific craft brewery called Refined Fool. There’s also some nice shopping and an increasingly pretty waterfront.
WILDEST NIGHT OF ENTERTAINMENT: They did a wildly inventive circus bit in Montreal one night this summer. It was put on by the group Barbu Foire Electro Trad, with naked people, pie-throwing, juggling and more. Only in Montreal. And I mean that in a good way.
NICEST HOTEL AMENITY: I checked into the Peninsula Hotel in New York City during the baseball playoffs and found a “Go Blue Jays” cupcake on my desk. A very sweet touch, notwithstanding Toronto’s loss to Kansas City in the American League Championship Series, dammit.
SURPRISE USA CITY: I had an inkling that Pittsburgh was on the upswing, but I wasn’t prepared for the fantastic food, shopping and overall cool feel of the city. Definitely worth going back to. And not expensive.
BEST BURGER CANADA: The Elk Burger at the Mill Street Brewery in Toronto is savoury and moist and delicious. Try it one of their great beers, such as the recently released Tankenstein Ale.
BEST DRIVING EXPERIENCE: The folks at World Class Driving in Las Vegas let a bunch of travel bloggers, including me, take some wild vehicles out on the highways and back roads of Vegas. The Lamborghini was fun but I felt like I was driving the Batmobile. Far better to my taste was the Porsche 911 Carrera convertible; to me the perfect blend of power, performance and luxury. Did I mention it was a convertible? It was maybe 16 degrees but that was plenty warm enough for a Canadian to roll the top down and enjoy the desert air, even at 80 mph.
DUMBEST SANDWICH: I like the atmosphere at Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh, but stuffing a nice Italian sandwich with French Fries is a very bad culinary concept. The fries get all soggy and gross very quickly.
SURPRISE CONCERT VENUE: Located on the road from Highway 11 into downtown Gravenhurst is a small spot called Peter’s Players. I’d seen it several times over the years but had never stopped in until this year, when I caught a performance by an utterly amazing Steely Dan cover band out of Toronto called Pretzel Logic. It’s a great venue, with perhaps 80 to 90 seats in five rows. No seat is more than a few metres from the stage, so be prepared for a LOUD but fantastic show.
BEST CROSS-DRESSING ACCORDION PLAYER: They had a guy onstage at The Anchor Pub in Rocky Harbour who had an amazing, rubbery face and played a mean accordion. He got dressed up in women’s clothing for at least one number. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
TOP CELEBRITY SPOTTING (FEMALE): I spotted celeb chef Giadda De Laurentiis at the New York Wine and Food Festival in the fall. She has the purest, whitest, largest teeth of anyone I’ve ever seen. She’s also a great cook and very attractive, if you like that sort of thing.
BEST BREAKFAST SPOT NAME (AND BIGGEST PORTIONS): I’d never been to a Hash House a Go Go, a small chain in the U.S. Their branch in San Diego has a nice patio and serves the most obscenely large (and delicious) breakfast I’ve ever had, including fantastic, Indiana-style fried chicken.
BEST ONTARIO BOAT RIDE: You simply can’t beat a trip on the R.M.S. Segwun on Lake Muskoka, a restored and beautiful steamship. To ride the blue waters of Muskoka on a fine summer’s day is as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
FAVOURITE NEW BREWPUBS: I loved the range of beers and the interior décor at Toboggan Brewery in London, Ontario. Ditto for the brewskies at Sawdust City in Gravenhurst.
BEST SUNSET: On the beach north of Kincardine, Ontario. It would be a beautiful spot for a wedding.
BEST BAR: Bitter and Twisted, in downtown Phoenix, is built in the lobby of an old high-rise and has fantastic ambience and a great menu made by dedicated bartenders who don’t pretend to be Zen Master mixologists (I HATE that word) but are instead happy to just make a damned good drink.
BEST CROISSANT MAKING LESSON: Master pastry chef Christian Faure of Montreal came to Toronto in the fall to show folks how it’s done. He not only makes wonderful, flaky, capital B Buttery croissants, but he’s also one of the funniest, most engaging people you’ll meet. He’s on the lookout for a Toronto restaurant, which is great news.
FINEST FAMILY TRAVEL MOMENT: Thanksgiving Week with my Dad and family in Northern California. As always, a great time for relaxing, eating (my Dad does the Thanksgiving turkey outside on his Weber kettle) and football.
BEST CHOWDER: The version they make at San Francisco’s Blue Mermaid (steps from Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf) has corn and cilantro and is utterly fantastic.COOLEST FLORIDA DISCOVERY: Until this year I’d never been to Winter Park, a small city just outside Orlando. But it’s a fantastic spot, with a great, walkable downtown, fine galleries and museums, pretty lakes and canals that you can explore on a boat tour and very good restaurants, including Prato. The Alfond Inn is a lovely boutique hotel in town, and said to be a spot where Paul McCartney sometimes stays.
BEST CANOE RIDE: The Four Seasons Hotel on Maui has a lovely ride you can take along the shores of Wailea, where you can learn about Hawaiian culture and perhaps (although not for me) spot a turtle or a whale.
BEST RESORT FOR GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL: There are no TV’s in the room at the stunning but simple Travaasa Hana on Maui. And the main pool is a simple, rectangular affair surrounded by acres of grass, towering palm trees and old-fashioned hammocks. But there’s probably no place better I know to unplug and connect with what matters.
BIGGEST TRAVEL STORY: Obviously the Paris attacks. It’s almost impossible to describe the horror. But let’s hope folks continue to rally behind this most beautiful city and don’t let the terrorists win.
BEST MOTORBIKE RIDE: An electric cycle (hey, to me it’s as good as a Harley) ride through the streets of Montreal on a great food tour. It’s a fun way to get up Mont Royal and enjoy the views, too.
BIGGEST BAR SURPRISE: I was in Phoenix last winter and a group of us stumbled on a gay cowboy bar called Charlie’s, which was quite entertaining. And very surprising for Arizona.BIGGEST MUSEUM SURPRISE: The Palm Springs Art Museum in downtown Palm Springs is a lovely, bright facility with great exhibits from around the world and a sophisticated ambience.
BEST FOOD TRUCK: The Big Beach BBQ truck, usually found near Makena Beach on Maui, makes great fish tacos and pulled pork. And you can’t beat the weather.
BEST CRAFT BEER NAME: Belching Beaver IPA, also found in San Diego.
COOLEST USA HIKE: A fantastic and short walk through Andreas Canyon just south of Palm Springs. You’ll pass towering overhead rocks and small streams lined with stately palm trees. Go early in the morning or late in the day to avoid the heat and to get the best photos.
CRAZIEST TOURIST EXPERIENCE: Feeding sharks through a small tube at a place called Aquarium Encounters in Marathon, Florida. Definitely a wild experience with more than a small rush of adrenaline.
BIGGEST RESTAURANT SURPRISE: Located just across the river from downtown Tampa, Oxford Exchange features a bookstore and café as well as shopping and a beautiful, sunny space for dining. I had one of the best salads ever during my winter visit, with kale, cranberries and feta. Not to mention a sinful burger with bacon, arugula, blue cheese and date preserves for a marvellous salty/sweet combination. BEST RESORT AMENITIES: The Four Seasons Hualalai at Historic Kaʻūpūlehu on the Big Island of Hawaii doesn’t have a great beach. But they more than make up for it with a great, relaxed style, utterly sensational food, a romantic atmosphere and such freebies as ukulele lessons and swimming in a saltwater pool with reefs and dozens of colourful fish.
BIGGEST TRAVEL LOSS: Losing Keli’i Brown of the Maui Tourism Board just before Christmas was a huge blow to the Hawaiian Islands and to his friends and family. One of the nicest people I’ve ever met in the business, and already sorely missed.
BEST TRAVEL QUOTE: At a roadside pizza spot outside the town of Hana on Maui, I overheard a young, scraggly guy talking to a pretty blonde, where he made this comment: “It’s like the microcosm and macrocosm thing. It’s like whatever is going on inside your body is going on in the universe.” And all this time I thought I was the only person who felt this way.
BEST USA HAMBURGER: I’m slightly biased as I grew up in the area, Val’s Coffee Shop in the suburban San Francisco Bay Area city of Hayward has flat-out the best burger you’ll ever taste. Great, fresh meat and a high-heat broiler combine to make this classic-looking diner spot the best place for a hamburger I’ve ever found.
MOST HISTORIC BOAT RIDE: Getting to ride in – and pilot for a minute – the original African Queen, used in the movie with Bogart and Hepburn. It’s not available for the public to ride in Key Largo. Highly recommended.
BEST SMORES: In Orlando, the Rusty Spoon does a Smores-like dessert with chocolate, kahlua, crème de cacao, charred marshmallows, a graham cracker crumb, a drizzle of Frangelico and a cinnamon sugar crisp on top. Be thankful you don’t live here and aren’t tempted on a daily basis.
COOLEST HOTEL POOL: I love the swimming pool at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, where towels are dispensed from an old school bus.
BEST B AND B: The Hope and Glory Inn in Irvington, Virginia is a
visual stunner run by a pair of fine and friendly people. A cute little town (very little) but very much on the upswing. One local referred to the number of New Yorkers and big city folks moving into the area and jokingly calls the town “Manhattan meets Mayberry.”
BIGGEST HOTEL STORIES: Marriott purchasing Starwood, which runs Westin, Sheraton and a whack of other brands, makes them the largest hotelier in the world. Marriott also now has Delta Hotels in Canada, and might expand the Delta name into the U.S. I’m not sure it’s good for consumers, but that’s the way it is. With Expedia purchasing Orbitz and Travelocity, it also means huge consolidation in the On-line Travel Agent biz. And then there’s the rise of Air BnB…..
BEST ECO TOUR: Hawaiian Legacy Tours runs a marvellous program on the slopes of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii, where I planted a small tree in my Mom’s memory and learned how they’re re-foresting the island with native species.
BEST MAI TAI: The Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea, Maui. Not too sweet but not sour either. Great presentation.
MOST INVENTIVE DRINK: The Conrad Hotel in lower Manhattan has a rooftop spot called the Loopy Doopy Bar, itself a name worthy of a Jimmy. They serve (at least in summer) a fantastic drink that features a local ice pop (they can’t call them Popsicles as that’s a trademark) infused with alcohol and cool flavours and drop it into a glass of sparkling Prosecco, where it slowly melts and creates almost a new drink. Wonderful stuff.
BEST SNORKEL MOMENT: I was up at 7 a.m. in September at the Napili Kai Beach Resort and took my mask and snorkel over to quiet Kapalua Bay next door. I hadn’t been in the water more than 10 seconds and was spitting distance from shore when a giant turtle floated six inches in front of my piece and then motored out to sea. Magic.
BIGGEST SURPRISE HOTEL: The Bonne Bay Inn in Woody Point is a smart, sophisticated property with good food and crisp, lively décor.
FAVOURITE CFO: As always, I couldn’t make any of this work without my best friend and the best wife a man ever had. Thanks for all your hard work this year, Barbara. And here’s to more great travel in 2016!
FAVOURITE SPOT 2016: If I can’t be at home in my backyard on a warm evening in summer, there’s no place I’d rather be than the Napili Kai Beach Resort on Maui. It’s the perfect blend of beautiful surroundings, nice but not over-the-top furnishings, killer views, fantastic sunsets and warm, friendly people; all set on what I still say is the best beach on the planet, Napili. Toss in their weekly Slack Key Guitar Show with Grammy Award winner George Kahumoku Jr. and the free, weekly children’s hula and music show and you’ve got one remarkable combination.
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