Fort Lauderdale

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Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is not the sort of place one would usually expect to encounter DonQui. Yet he had a very enjoyable week there despite the vagaries of a particularly severe hurricane season.  September-October is not the best time to visit Florida but DonQui had his reasons, arriving after Hurricane Irma and dodging Hurricane Maria.

 

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The east coast of Florida managed to escape the worst of Hurricane Irma although cleaning-up operations were still going on. Piles of palm tree branches clogged the smaller streets awaiting clear-up and crews were still busy taking the sand from the roads and spreading it back on the beaches.

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Like so many North American cities, Fort Lauderdale has been concreted over to make way for the ubiquitous automobile. Wide roads and spaghetti junctions carve up the city leaving very little charm.

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Even the much touted Las Olas Boulevard feels like it is struggling to hold its own against the encroaching office blocks.

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The little strip along the beach at the eastern end of Las Olas does make for a good stroll with many bars and restaurants offering a lively atmosphere along with mediocre live music.

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The beach itself is quite wonderful with easy public access despite the many high rise hotels which line the front.  During the week the beaches are almost deserted…

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… yet on weekends and holidays they rapidly fill up.

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It is the water which makes Fort Lauderdale so much more than a concrete jungle. In addition to the beautiful beaches there are many canals which are best appreciated if you can take a boat — even if it is just one of the water taxis.

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Only a 30 minute drive to the west, the everglades begin and an airboat excursion there is very well worth it as DonQui has previously described.

 

Burgers and Beer

There was a time, not that long ago, when finding good beer in the USA was just about impossible. Now, thanks to the craft beer revolution, DonQui is able to find a decent brew in the US almost as easily as he can in Europe.

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At the marvellously ramshackle Le Tub, in Hollywood, Florida, DonQui makes the acquaintance of a rather pleasant Yuengling Lager. Claiming to be from the oldest brewery in America it has a slight amber colour and more taste than your average lager. Apparently Mr Yuengling is a Trump supporter so although he enjoys the brew, DonQui will not make a habit of drinking it very often.

 

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With its eclectic furnishings…

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…and great view over the Intra-Coastal Waterway,  Le Tub seems the perfect place for a burger and beer.

Apparently Le Tub’s burgers were at some point voted by readers of GQ Magazine as the best in America, so DonQui decides to sample one. With 13 ounces of meat, the burger is not for the faint of heart but it is truly delicious.

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Although a bit out of the way to the south of Fort Lauderdale, DonQui is very glad to have been guided to Le Tub.

It is a perfect place to while away an afternoon in the Florida sun.

Water, Reeds and Alligators

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Ever since having seen James Bond zip around the everglades, DonQui Oaty has rather fancied giving it a go for himself.

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Finding himself in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, DonQui gets his chance. At the Sawgrass Recreation Park — only 30 minutes from Fort Lauderdale — he hops on board an airboat and is whisked out over the sea of sawgrass and bullrushes (or cattails as they are called here).

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It is not long before he spies an alligator approaching.

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The curious reptile comes right up to the boat…

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…along with a snapping turtle.

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The able and informative ‘Captain Bob’ steers the airboat through the reeds. At times the boat zips over top of them, Bond-like, on a cushion of air. At other times the boat slows so that DonQui can take in the flora and fauna.

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In all it is a most enjoyable hour out.

Beyond Amalfi

Feeling in need of a bit of exercise after all the good Italian food he has been eating, DonQui decides to go off and explore the Valle delle Ferriere behind Amalfi, away from the coast.

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He is advised that it is a moderate hike which involves some climbing but that there are steps up the steeper bits. Being a fairly sure footed beast, DonQui sets out in the morning intending to beat the late rising tourists and fast rising sun.

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The steps from the end of the town lead up steeply and it is a pretty exhausting climb.

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DonQui pauses from time to time to catch his breath and take in the views as the steps go up and up over the lemon groves at the back of the town.

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A few overhanging fig trees give some shade over the 30 minutes it takes DonQui to reach the end of the steps and the start of the woodland train.

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While the views looking back towards Amalfi are quite spectacular.

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Feeling a bit like Tolkien’s Last Homely House, the Fore Porta Organic Farm is the last watering hole before the wilderness beyond. As it is still early the Fore Porta is just setting up, so DonQui resolves to stop off on the way back for a bit of refreshment.

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Then he heads off down the trail, glad that the slope has levelled off. He is equally glad that, despite the tourist crowds down in Amalfi, up here is is utterly alone.

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Passing ruined paper mills abandoned centuries ago and now covered with vines and other vegetation, DonQui feels a little like one of Conan Doyle’s explorers discovering lost cities and lost worlds.

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The trail follows a fast moving stream which cascades through, over and down the rocks.

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It is this stream — the Ferriere — which powered the ancient paper mills when Amalfi was a centre of paper making in the late middle ages.

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It is almost an hour before he encounters the first humans. A small group of them have stopped at a waterfall to splash about a bit. DonQui decides to cool off in the water for a moment or two then heads on to rediscover the peace of being alone again in this wonderful setting.

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The vegetation, the abandoned mills, the fast flowing water and the solitude set his imagination off again.

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He can almost imaging the leaves parting at any moment to reveal a Lost World dinosaur as he crosses a rickety wooden bridge.

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Unsurprisingly he does not encounter any fearsome beasts but the many smaller ones he does come across do help to fuel his imaginings of their larger cousins.

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After another 30 minutes without meeting any humans he does come across a group of indigenous people camped by the river. They seem friendly enough and DonQui reassures himself that they are not likely to slaughter him for food.

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One hour in from the Fore Porta DonQui comes to the end of the trail where a succession of waterfalls provide a magnificent vista.

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These are not huge cascades but rather various trickles and sprays of water which fall down the cliffs, creating a wonderfully primeval atmosphere of water, rock and vegetation.

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The trip back down towards Amalfi is a little faster and as noon approaches more people are to be seen along the trail.

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One most welcome group is a troop of boy scouts offering lemon water and lemon pieces sprinkles with sugar. They provide DonQui with a most needed energy and hydration boost in exchange for a donation to whatever they are collecting for.

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DonQui’s final stop at the Fore Porta is also most welcome. Here he sips on a lemon granita before heading back down to Amalfi.

In Search of the Perfect Pizza

Pizza is a serious matter in Naples — the city in which it was invented and perfected. In DonQui’s humble opinion, pizza in Naples if far better that pizza more or less anywhere else on the planet.

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Standards are maintained by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neopolitan Pizza Association), or Vera Pizza for short. It aims to promote and protect ‘true Neapolitan pizza’ in Italy and around the world.

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DonQui has a few tricks to ensure that his pizza lives up to expectations. Firstly he looks for a place that uses a traditional wood fired oven. Secondly he only ever orders pizza in Italy at night. Good pizzerias will fire up their ovens in the evening and it will take until close to 9pm before the ovens are properly hot enough to cook the prefect pizza. Thirdly he goes for simple classic ingredients, no bits of pineapple, pulled pork, curried chicken or other Anglo-Saxon atrocities for DonQui.

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The classic Neapolitan pizza is the Margarita which is said to have been invented in Naples in 1889 for Queen Margarita in the early years of Italian unification. In a clever move of political sycophancy, its creator managed to replicate the colours of the new Italian flag: red (tomato), white (mozzarella) and green (basil).

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Anchovies, capers and black olives are other traditional ingredients which DonQui quite likes. Here the local anchovies are not as salty or overpowering as tinned anchovies can be outside Southern Italy.

Finally DonQui looks for a place that is not too fancy-looking while still pulling in a substantial local crowd. The many places lining the Via Partenope close to his hotel look inviting but DonQui worries that they might be overpriced tourist traps. A quick skim through TripAdvisor seems to confirm his fears with comments about dodgy surcharges and surly waiters abounding.

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At the very end of Via Partenope, at the corner of Piazza Vittoria, sits an establishment with promise. It is just before 9pm and Sorbillo Lievito Madre al Mare is filling up with locals. Offering pizzas with top organic ingredients cooked in a wood fired oven it is little wonder that it is a popular place. There are even gluten free options, not that DonQui cares about such things.

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DonQui manages to get one of the last available tables as a queue forms behind him. Those arriving later put their names down on the waiting list and look on enviously as DonQui tucks in.

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By 21:30 a fairly large crowd has built up, all waiting patiently for their turn for a table.

The choices are interesting. Although the menu is in Italian only, DonQui is able to decipher enough to understand the basics. He had thought he might order a simple classic margarita but the Cetara catches his eye.

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With fresh tomatoes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, smoked Provola cheese, capers, olives, oregano and Alici di Cetara, it sounds most intriguing. Alici di Cetara is an oil infused with anchovies. Reminiscent of garum, the infamous fish sauce which the Ancient Romans added to just about everything, DonQui decides he wants to try it.

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To say that it is delicious would be an understatement. The thin, springy crust, slightly charred from the super hot wood-fired oven is an absolute delight. The combination of cheese, tomatoes, basil, olives, capers and anchovies are a perfect taste of Naples. The pizza is large enough for him to share with Duchess and the bill is most reasonable — far less than any of his other previous Neapolitan meals.

DonQui is unaware that Gino Sorbillo is one of the most famous pizza chefs in the world. His coastal establishment is the second of his Naples outlets and he is soon to open one in New York’s Times Square. DonQui feels quite pleased with himself that he managed to discover Sorbillo’s seafront establishment before knowing any of this.

 

A Hot Day in Naples

It is 36º in Naples. Far too hot for DonQui to consider doing much of anything at all.

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Fortunately his hotel — the rather nice Excelsior on the pedestrianised seafront promenade Via Partenope — is nicely air-conditioned. It also has great views over the bay of Naples, with Mt Vesuvius and Capri in the distance, and the Castel dell’Ovo and harbour in the foreground.

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DonQui is quite happy, therefore, to spend the heat of the day simply lazing around the hotel.

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Lunch at the hotel terrace restaurant is pretty good too, if a little on the pricy side.

The Castel dell’Ovo is worth a visit. Not only is it free but the the thick sandstone walls keep the passageways very cool — even in the blistering Naples heat. Although dating back to Roman times, the restored fortification has a distinct 15th century appearance.

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The views from the top are quite magnificent.

Once the worst of the midday heat is passed, DonQui trots out onto the Via Partenope to take a look around his immediate neighbourhood.

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Some of the locals have taken to the water but this is not something DonQui is tempted to do, knowing of the bay’s pretty awful reputation for water quality.

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Naples is not an elegant city. It is chaotic, hectic and ill-disciplined. Although not as dirty and litter-strewn as DonQui remembers it from years ago, the city is still pretty dilapidated in parts.

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Yet it has its own charm – a bit like a naughty child who gets away with mischief due to a cute smile.

Although the city may not be elegant, the Neapolitans, like most Italians, most certainly are.

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Just around the corner from apartments with crumbling facades…

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… are many chic shops and boutiques catering to the well dressed denizens of the city.

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As the sun starts to go down the streets come to life, first for a bit of early evening shopping, then an aperitivo at a favourite bar, followed by a stroll along the promenade and then maybe a little dinner.

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DonQui feels lucky to have found the Officina Bistro, just around the corner from his hotel on Via Santa Lucia for his aperitivo.

 

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Here he sips on an Aperol spritz, nibbles on the various little snacks that are offered and watches the pantomime of Neapolitan street life acted out in front of him.

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By getting here a little early (around 19:00) he and Duchess are able to secure a prime table outside. By 8pm there is a waiting list for tables with many people seated on one of the several benches awaiting their turn.

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The Via Partenope fills with people as the sun sets. Many just taking a stroll, others deciding on which of the many eateries to try out for dinner. There is even a ‘silent party’ with revellers listening and dancing to the music pumped out by 3 DJs over wireless headphones.

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DonQui only spends a day in Naples and as readers can tell he does not really do very much at all. That is probably the best way to spend a hot day in Naples.

A truly memorable meal

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Every once in a while DonQui stumbles across a restaurant which manages to combine great food and perfect atmosphere to create something truly memorable. The Villa Maria restaurant in Ravello is just such a place.

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Set on a beautiful leafy terrace overlooking the hills above Amalfi and the sea beyond, the location is truly spectacular.

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After sunset the Moon and Venus, being close together in the night sky, create a stunning effect.

The staff are super friendly and very helpful. When DonQui is not entirely sure on which dishes to order the recommendations are spot-on. The waiter gives DonQui a run-down on the ingredients and how the dish is prepared, steering him in the right direction every time.

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The wine recommendation is equally helpful, guiding DonQui through the pluses and minuses of the various local vintages. Although the waiter can no doubt discern that DonQui Oaty is a donkey of distinction, he does not linger too long on the first page of the wine list which includes some prime Bordeaux at over €4,000 a bottle!

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There are so many tantalising dishes on the menu it is hard to decide which to go for. Most of the are locally sourced with fruit, vegetables and herbs coming from the Villa’s own organic garden.

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In the end DonQui opts to start with ‘crunchy ravioli’ filled with local cheese and served on a bed of fresh herby tomatoes. The ‘ravioli’ is more like a super light pastry than pasta — hence the ‘crunch’.

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Duchess chooses zucchini (courgette) flowers also filled with cheese, deep fried in a sesame and ginger batter and served with a tomato coulis.  Both were superb, although Duchess was a little disappointed not to taste any ginger — something she is rather fond of.

DonQui decides to order Italian style — savouring each course before deciding on the next one.

Wishing something quite light after her appetiser, Duchess decides on ‘Organic garden vegetables with parmesan broth’ for her second course while DonQui tries the waiter recommended ‘Slow cooked amberjack with kumquat, sea asparagus and champagne sauce.’ Not having encountered amberjack before DonQui enquires what sort of fish it is? He learns that it is a large predatory fish with white flesh.

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“It is not as delicate as sea bass”, the waiter informs DonQui, assuring him that his local Ravello light red wine will go very well with it despite the accompanying champagne sauce.

The waiter is quite correct. The flesh has an almost bouncy constituency with deep flavour. DonQui finds it absolutely delicious, the taste perfectly set off by the accompanying quartered kumquats and champagne sauce. Sea asparagus turns out to be what DonQui knows as samphire.

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The deserts are as stunning as the previous courses. DonQui is rather tempted to try out ‘The mango and the coconuts become Italian classic like the fried egg’, if for no better reason than its enigmatic (presumably mis-translated) name. The chocolate eggplant trunk also sounds intriguing.

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On the waiter’s recommendation, however, DonQui orders the the cannolo with Aperol sgroppino (sorbet made from Aperol and prosecco), and the tiramisu. The waiter explains with pride that the tiramisu is ‘not classic’. It has been deconstructed and reinvented, retaining the coffee/marscapone/chocolate flavours served up in a very different way.

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Both deserts are incredibly good.

Dinner at the Villa Maria is without a doubt one of the best meals DonQui has experienced. At the end, the bill seems quite reasonable considering the quality and style. Without a doubt he will return one day — perhaps to stay a few nights at the villa as well as once again sampling their delicious food.