Showdown at Sawgrass III

A rematch at TPC Sawgrass nine years in the making.

The Beatles Suite at The Edgewater Seattle

For a hotel and Beatles junkie, this was pretty much as good as it gets.

Skagway and the Laughton Glacier Hike

Perhaps the most incredible day of my entire travel career.

My Top 8 Bucket List Golf Courses

After a year of incredible golf travel, it was time to revise the bucket list.

The Villas at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort

Tell me if you've heard this one before... A new Disney Vacation Club wing has recently opened at one of the deluxe hotels at Walt Disney World. Sound familiar?

It should. 

From the Contemporary to Beach Club, Wilderness Lodge to Animal Kingdom, Disney has slowly but surely brought DVC to each of its upper-tier hotels. The most recent byproduct of this DVC-ification... The Villas at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort.

When the addition to Grand Floridian was announced, I was a bit skeptical. Call me weird, but I'm very, shall I say, protective of my favorite hotels. My fear was that this addition would turn out like the Kidani Village at Animal Kingdom Lodge... A cheap, tacky knock-off of the original. Those fears eased a bit as I observed the construction for months from the passing monorail. As soon as I stepped inside the new lobby, they vanished entirely.

Although not nearly as grand as the original - pun intended - the lobby for the Villas certainly makes a nice impression. Where the original is more of the "grand dame" flavor, the polished marble and understated furnishings bring a more up to date feel to the neighborhood. Check-in is a seated affair, something I've never been a fan of, but after a quick programming of our MagicBands we were off to the room.

MJ and I always book a studio room when staying with our DVC points, which offers the two of us plenty of space, though usually not much more than a glorified hotel room. Not so at the Grand Floridian...

From a rainmaker shower and TV in the bathroom mirror, to the expansive balcony overlooking the monorail, I was absolutely astonished at the quality of this room. In fact, I'd go so far as to say they are the best on Disney property.

But all gushing aside, easily the coolest thing about our studio was the trundle bed built into the armoire. While I wouldn't dream of sleeping on it myself, I'm pretty sure my nephew, Old Sport, would be a fan.

So how does Grand Floridian stack up against the other DVC resorts? In terms of the quality of room and easy access to great restaurants at all of the monorail resorts, it is head and shoulders above the rest. However, my ranking of Grand Floridian comes down to that old rule of real estate...

Location, Location, Location.

We crashed at the Grand Floridian Villas the night of our recent anniversary dinner at Victoria & Albert's. Obviously, the location couldn't be beat in this case, however my one fault with the resort is the same as Bay Lake Tower... You're reliant on the monorail to get to Epcot, and only one park can be accessed easily. Because of this, and the fact we spend most of our time at Epcot and Hollywood Studios, I still give an edge to Boardwalk or Beach Club, but certainly not by much.


In the end, it's clear those old fears of Disney doing the Villas at Grand Floridian on the cheap were totally unfounded. They spared no expense in getting this one right, which isn't something that can be said very often these days. Although the Grand Floridian may not be our first pick simply because of location, it's a great choice for anyone whose primary park will be the Magic Kingdom. And if nothing else, it also gave me a good reason to be excited for the final chapter in the DVC-ification of Disney's deluxe resorts... The soon to open Polynesian Villas & Bungalows.

Enjoy Your Stay

Victoria & Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian - Revisted

Good evening Mr. & Mrs. Jones, welcome back and happy 6th anniversary.

Ah yes, that moment every other year that reminds me of why Victoria & Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort is such a remarkably special place. Israel's warm welcome, remembering us on sight some two years between visits, is always both wildly impressive and entirely genuine. And yet this time around, there was an added twist that I would never have expected...

Mr. Jones, I read your blog just the other day...we are all so very appreciative for your kind words.

Wait a minute, you're telling me the Maitre d' at the only Five Diamond restaurant in Orlando....reads my blog?

As Israel led us to a primo table in the center of the dining room, I scrolled those old blog posts in my head attempting to remember exactly what I had written. Feeling both astonished and slightly embarrassed, I soon realized that this really should have been no surprise at all. Attention to detail in service is what Victoria & Albert's does best, and I suppose one could argue that also includes reading obscure blog posts from past guests.

Still, it's nice to know someone out there is reading besides mom and dad.

Our relationship with Victoria & Albert's began 6 years ago, when MJ and I dined here for the first time the day after our wedding. That night, we established the first tradition of our new marriage: a pact to return to V&A's every other year on our anniversary. After enjoying the intimate 10-course experience in the Queen Victoria Room two years ago, which by all accounts is nothing short of spectacular, we decided that for future visits the 7-course offering in the main dining room was just the right amount of overindulgence.

As the champagne was popped and the harpist broke into the theme song from Game of Thrones, our server, Mike, who was with us back on that very first visit, kicked off the festivities...

There's a couple of reasons I always get excited when a meal begins with an amuse bouche. First I just like saying amuse bouche. And second, this plate designed to get the tastebuds ready for the meal ahead is usually quite sinful, with things like smoked salmon and caviar, or in this case...both.

With my palate and tastebuds properly primed, next out was a sumac crusted tuna alongside a black radish slaw. While the tuna was exquisite, the real highlight here was the wine pairing - a Sauvignon Blanc from Jules Taylor whose floral aroma was a party for my outsized nose. Turns out I'm not the only one that loved it...the vintage earned a top 100 ranking from Wine Enthusiast.

Next out for yours truly was an Alaskan king salmon, while MJ went with the masago crusted Maine scallop. The salmon was exceptional, but as I gazed across the table it was clear that MJ had won this round...

As Mike returned to the table in preparation for our next course, the same wine being poured for us both should have been a sign that something was amiss. Sure enough, a surprise course of Wild Turbot arrived for each of us, and a welcome one at that given that I had nearly ordered it to start. The turbot is line caught off the coast of Portugal, where very tight catch limits are imposed on the fish, making its appearance on the menu all the more rare. The dish was easily the highlight of my evening and really should have been my main course...somehow I had to find room for two more plus dessert.
Seriously...if this is on the menu...order it.

I was up for the challenge.

The next course is one that always leaves me with a little bit of "entree envy" every time we visit Victoria & Albert's. I went with the Palmetto Farms Quail, which offered a nice break from all of the seafood, but MJ's gnocchi along with black trumpet mushrooms and truffles always steals the show. Every visit I say I'm going to order this on our next one, and every year I manage to forget... Perhaps I should ask Israel to put a note in his file to remind me next time. Or...maybe I just did?

After a few minutes spent mesmerized by the sounds of the harp, the main courses arrived with a bit of flair. It's amazing how something so simple as lifting two domed dish covers at the same time can build so much excitement. But then again, the Australian Kobe had already done plenty of that just on its own.

Finally, following a brief intermezzo of gelato and cheese, it was time for the good stuff. By good stuff, I of course mean the Tanzanian Chocolate Timbale, and coffee courtesy of the coolest brewer you'll ever see. I know its just simple chemistry...or maybe its physics...either way, I'm always delightfully entertained by this thing.
OK, so they're both pretty entertaining.

Each of our visits to Victoria & Albert's has been memorable in its own way, and this time around was no different. Specifically, this was our first time doing late seating (8:30-8:45) which had us at the restaurant until just after midnight. Not that we had anywhere else to be, but anyone like yours truly that's of the "early to bed, early to rise" mentality would probably best be served by the early seating. Of course, the one benefit of being the last ones in the dining room was it gave us the opportunity to snap a few pictures. 
Photobomed by our server, Beth.

As we said our goodbyes and made our way to the frosted glass door, that familiar sense of anticipation returned once more. Only this time, that feeling won't be quenched in a matter of minutes, or days, or even months. However, in two short years we will be back, yes for the incredible food offered by Chef Scott, but more for the warmth of home provided by Israel, Mike, Sharon, and everyone at Victoria & Albert's that night in and night out manage to make so many feel a little like royalty.

Enjoy Your Stay

Golf Shots - The Best of 2014

At risk of sounding like a braggart, 2014 was one heck of a great year for me and the game of golf. The previous 3 years have taken me to many major championship and bucket list courses, and while I didn't come away from 2014 with bag tags from Pinehurst or Pebble Beach, I close out the year with an abundance of something far more valuable... Great memories of great golf with great friends and family.

The year began at TPC Sawgrass, home of the Tour's self proclaimed "5th Major," where I joined seven other golf geeks for a weekend at one of the great venues of the game. The round was filled with several bright spots - birdies at holes 7, 8 & 11 - before the Stadium course eventually took its due. A pair of ProV1s found the water on the iconic 17th hole leading to a quintuple-bogey 8. The card was wrecked, so too were my dreams of a career round at a world-ranked course, but the rest of the festivities soon washed away the pain I encountered at the island green.

Highlight: Dinner and ping pong in the Champion's Locker Room.

A Weekend with The King

From the home of the PGA Tour to that of The King, the next stop in 2014 was a father-sons outing at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge. We teed it up at Arnie's place just a few weeks before the Tour came to town, and the course could not have been in any better condition. Of course, that also means it was playing exponentially harder, and my scorecard reflected it. In the end, I was soundly defeated by my brother, RJ, however given the glorious day that we had, it was hard to be too upset over the loss.

Highlight: RJ clanging his tee shot off a grandstand on #17 and bouncing nearly onto the green.

Black Diamond Ranch

Next up was the Quarry Course at Black Diamond Ranch. A mainstay on my list, but an invite I had never been able to score, Black Diamond's Stay & Play package made this infamous Tom Fazio design available to me for the first time.  My regular foursome made the trip to tiny Lecanto, Florida and spent the better part of an afternoon with our jaws wide open. The quarry holes at Black Diamond are unlike anything else in the state of Florida, and made for easily the most memorable round of golf we had experienced together. Naturally, I lost to RJ again, but at least I didn't get the label of "thumbs up guy."

Highlight: A 6-iron to 6 feet on the 13th (See: thumbs up pic).

Sawgrass Re-Dux

In April it was back to Sawgrass, where RJ and I hoped to settle a score that was nearly a decade in the making. We split our two previous matches here with one win apiece, and 9 long years had passed since the two of us had teed it Sawgrass together. I came into the round confident, assuming my two rounds on the Stadium within the last year would give me a decided advantage. The match came down to the final putt on the final hole, but one of the best birdies of my life could only earn me a tie.

Highlight: French toast and Starbucks on the clubhouse terrace, and the birdie on 18th.

A Trip to Sam's Farm

Back in the mid-1980's, carpet baron Bob Shaw purchased a dramatic piece of property in the hills of north Georgia so that his Golden Retriever, Sam, would have a place to get some exercise. The property was called Sam's Farm, and after the faithful retriever retired to that dog park in the sky, Shaw decided the property - now called The Farm - would make a perfect location for a golf club. He was right...

After hearing story after story about The Farm from my dad following his regular trips to the area, it was finally my turn to tag along and experience the club first hand. At first, it seemed the trip would be a bust thanks to roughly 12 hours of solid rain. But the Golf Gods tossed me a bone and cleared the skies just minutes before our tee time. To say Tom Fazio's course is spectacular is a definite understatement, but it's the property itself which will prove most memorable.

Highlight: A post-round chat with Bob Shaw after watching the last flecks of daylight over the 18th green.

At long last...Streamsong.

I can remember as if it was yesterday the press release announcing the Streamsong Resort arriving to my inbox. A luxury golf retreat in Florida featuring courses by Coore & Crenshaw and Tom Doak built on an abandoned phosphate mine sounded like my particular brand of vodka. When I pulled up the location on Goggle Maps, however, my opinion quickly changed. Frankly, I thought they were nuts...

A golf resort 40 miles from the nearest thing resembling civilization sounded like a bad idea. But the developers charged ahead, and with every unbelievable update on the construction my fascination with the resort grew more and more. At long last, some 4 years after reading that first press release, I was finally able to experience Streamsong first hand. Let's just say, it didn't disappoint.

Highlight: All of it...literally.

The Snake Pit

The finale of sorts for the year took my foursome of golf buddies to the Innisbrook Resort, home to the Tour's Valspar Championship. We were there to celebrate RJ's 30th birthday, and I planned to give him his first loss of the year as a gift. 

After a tune-up round on the surprisingly awesome Island course, the next morning's bleary eyed trek for iced coffee was met with a gorgeous sunrise and high hopes for that long awaited victory. Let's just say I'm still waiting. Not only did I lose yet again to RJ, he managed to beat me with an eleven on his scorecard. In the end, I finished the year 0-3-1 in our golf travels together. On the bright side, that's probably good enough to earn a Captain's Pick at the next Ryder Cup.

Highlight: Gathered around the resort's firepit with glasses in hand and exaggerated stories at the ready.

Finally, no telling of my year in golf travel would be complete without a mention of those memories made close to home. First, I started walking my home course more as opposed to taking a cart, many times with just 5 or 6 clubs. It's amazing how many new things you see on a course you've played your entire life when you're on foot as opposed to driving by it all. In addition, by leaving half the bag in the car it forces me to be more imaginative in what shot I hit, instead of the same old boring shots round after round. Whether either of these will help improve my record against RJ in 2015 remains to be seen.

As much as I enjoyed seeing my home course in a new light, it was even more fulfilling watching my nephew, Old Sport, see it for the first time. He tagged along for many late evening matches between his dad and I, and I'm pretty sure his indoctrination into the game is going just as planned. 

Although I didn't come away from 2014 with bag tags from a host of major championship venues, this year in golf felt every bit as fulfilling. As I look back on the year and what made it memorable, a pair of common themes seemed to be at work. The first is my brother's "lucky shirt"...  Make no mistake, that faded sage green polo he's wearing in most of these photos strikes subconscious fear in my golf game every time I see it. The "lucky shirt" only makes an appearance when we play at renowned courses, and my strategy is to get it so much use that it eventually falls to shreds. 

The real common theme to the year, however, is really quite simple... People. Aside from Streamsong, all of these experiences involved family and friends, both old and new. As memorable as my visits to places like Pinehurst, Kiawah, and Pebble Beach might have been, they were all done alone. Golf at its core is a social sport, and this year I learned that few things that can top a great course paired with some of the people that mean the most to you.

Cheers to you, and here's hoping your 2015 is filled with plenty of fairways & greens.

Enjoy Your Stay

Key West - A Walking Tour of Family History

Key West... For some, it's that place where they bought the Mile Marker 0 magnet for their car, or where the last halfway decent season of The Real World was staged. For others, it's where Hemingway wasted away at the local bar, long before Jimmy Buffet arrived and created a cult following out of lousy music. But for yours truly, Key West is an odd mixture of both a place that's completely foreign and, strangely enough, sort of like home.

That foreign feeling was evident the minute we stepped off the Brilliance of the Seas and into the sweltering subtropical November heat. At first glance, Key West feels like every other cheesy port found on a Caribbean cruise, with a number of tour operators and shops selling useless trinkets, along with the occasional dude literally walking around with a parrot on his shoulder. 
Never have understood the attraction here..

Some would argue that Key West actually is a foreign port of call, having (sort of) seceded from the Union to form the Conch Republic back in the early 1980s. It doesn't take long, however, for that Twilight Zone feeling to pass and for the Key West that I love to emerge in its place. The one that's filled with an endless supply of rich history... specifically, my own. 
I wonder how many of those 0s have been stolen over the years.

Although I can barely relate to Key West's margarita drinking, flip flop wearing, independence seeking ways, 1/4 of the blood in my veins is native "Conch." Long before Florida really seceded from the Union, my ancestors made their way to Key West for a variety of reasons. The cigar trade brought some to the island, while others were shipwrecked by pirates - yes, pirates - en route to Tampa and apparently just decided that Key West was close enough. 
I'd have stayed too...

Fast forward a couple of centuries, MJ and I found ourselves face to face with the matriarch of that Conch heritage while roaming Mallory Square. There we found a bronze bust of Elizabetha Knight - my great-great-great-great grandmother. I'm not entirely certain, but there may actually be one more "great" in there. What we do know, however, is that she didn't have the best of luck in the husband department. 

From Mallory Square we set off down Whitehead Street, which runs parallel to notorious Duval, and soon came across another famous piece of family history. The Banyan House is impossible to miss and a regular highlight for anyone that explores the city via the uber-tacky Conch Train. It also happens to be the birthplace and childhood home of my grandfather, as well as an enormous opportunity missed. You see, most visitors just gaze at the towering banyan tree and historic B&B and move on, but I linger a little longer, pondering what might have been an early retirement for everyone in my family.
Why oh why didn't we keep this?!?

A little further down Whitehead one will find the Hemingway House and a few of his famous cats, but our next stop is actually found directly across the street. The Key West Lighthouse was decommissioned by the Navy nearly 50 years ago, but the beacon still stands as a landmark in the heart of town. My great-great aunt and uncle once called the historic lighthouse and its adjacent quarters home, which definitely would have made them the coolest aunt and uncle ever if I had been around during that time.

All of this walking helped us to work up an appetite, and thankfully I knew just the place for a quick lunch nearby. El Siboney is something of a Key West institution, serving perhaps the most authentic Cuban food outside of Havana. I can remember coming here as a kid and going through roughly 4 baskets of their mouth-watering Cuban bread. Thankfully, not much has changed in 25 years, including my degree of bread consumption.

Back outside in the sauna, MJ and I made our way over to Duval Street, stopped in for a slice at the Key Lime Pie Company (Note: Don't believe the hype. Go to Kermit's instead) before arriving at the next stop on our makeshift tour. St. Paul's Episcopal Church has to be one of the most ironically located houses of worship in the world. Multiple generations of my family were married here and all of the doors entering the church bear a plaque in remembrance of once ancestor or another. And yet today, St. Paul's stands as a gleaming white edifice surrounded on all sides by the debauchery of the Duval Street area, no doubt casting a bit of shame on those stumbling by in the small hours of the morning.

Of course, no telling of our family history in Key West would be complete without a mention of the game of golf. It was here that my connection to the game was born, with my grandfather and great-grandfather both serving as head professional at Key West Country Club. When he wasn't at Augusta or running the country, President Eisenhower would join the two quite often for a few rounds of golf. Before his arrival, the President would famously call and inquire about the severity of the mosquitos. If they were bad, an Air Force jet would arrive soon thereafter, drenching the course with a layer of insecticide. An abuse of power? Maybe, but golf is just that important.
Pretty sure it didn't look like this during their day.
Photo Courtesy KWGC.

The final stop on our tour of Key West is, somewhat morbidly, the same for many of my ancestors. The Key West Cemetery is well known for its stacked grave sites, and many generations are at rest within the gates of our family plot. To stand beside the grave of my great-grandmother, remembering the countless games of gin rummy she purposely lost to me as a kid, with her great-grandmother just a few feet away, always feels just a little bit surreal. But there is simply no better place to grasp how deep our family history runs on this tiny island than by stepping inside that gate.

And yet, the story of that history has largely come to an end, with most of our family having moved on from Key West - literally and figuratively - leaving behind a legacy that's a source of pride for us all. But just as all politics is local, all history is personal. Key West remains a very special place filled with equally special memories. It was here that I caught lobster by hand with my grandfather, and proposed to MJ at sunrise some 20 years later. Perhaps one day I'll share those stories with an inquisitive niece or nephew, adding a few more chapters to their own story of Key West.

Enjoy Your Stay