Tuesday, September 17, 2013

#ThankYouMiami for Being The Gateway to the Americas - La Puerca, Panama 2013

Miami is the perfect home-base for people who love to travel by plane, especially to the Americas. We have two international airports in close proximity, including Miami International Airport (MIA) which currently serves 56 domestic destinations and 77 international destinations in Canada, Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean (MIA, 2013). While our access elsewhere is much more limited, we make the best of it. Because, why go elsewhere when the universe has handed Miami a skeleton key to the Americas?

Since I arrived in the 305, I have taken full advantage of our easy access to that which lies beyond our borders. My latest travel exploits took me to Panama for the second time this year - this time, as the only female in an all-male surf and exploration quest along the Pacific Coast. Unfortunately for the guys, we arrived during the only week this surf season that didn't have particularly enticing waves so the trip was more exploration, less surfing.

The highlight of our trip was our one-night stay at Reserva Ecológica Privada Cerro Hoya, a privately-owned ecological reserve in the Azuero Peninsula of Panama. Locally known as "La Puerca", this 70 hectare paradise is one of only a handful of private properties inside the limits of Cerro Hoya National Park and is literally in the middle of nowhere.

Redefining remote. "La Puerca" is a private nature reserve located within the limits of Cerro Hoya National Park on the Pacific Coast of Panama and is a 6-hour drive and 2.5-hour boat ride from Panama City. Credit: La Puerca

Our 8-hour journey to "La Puerca" was purely a labor of love, fueled by a moment of insanity. The trip started with us renting a car with four-wheel drive at Tocumen International Airport and ended with a guy named Chichín beaching us in his panga on the shores of "La Puerca" in between sets of head-high waves.

Our adrenaline-fueled arrival at "La Puerca" set the tone for the entirety of our stay. Every moment of our two-day trip was riddled with danger, excitement, and adventure - everything I imagine a National Geographic exploration to be. And, while I don't enjoy fearing for my life so many times in one day, I loved every minute. Check out some of my favorite moments below.

Living with nature. Reserva Ecólogica Privada Cerro Hoya is in the process of reforesting its 70 hectares, which were previously used for grazing and agriculture. The humble accommodations, shown above, are further testament to their commitment to conservation and minimizing their environmental footprint.
Awe-inspiring discoveries. Even though the hikes were rough, every step was worth uncovering the beauty of the Panamanian rainforest and its many waterfalls.
Managing small miracles. Even though we were in the middle of the rainforest during the peak of rainy season, one of the guys managed to build a fire to dry my soaking clothes.
Rainforest necessities. Willy Palm, the manager of "La Puerca" was the only one in our group properly outfitted for the hikes we took around the property.
Bravery or foolishness? Chichín and his panga frequently take on Mother Nature to deliver visitors and supplies at "La Puerca".

Where is your favorite place to travel in the Americas? What was your favorite or most adventurous trip there? Is there somewhere in the Americas you would like to go, but have not had the opportunity to visit? Leave a comment below or send me a tweet @ThankYouMiami!

Monday, September 2, 2013

#ThankYouMiami for Miami Spice – August 2013

Jury’s still out in our household on whether Miami Spice is as good a value as it was intended to be. Regardless, as the resident glutton and spender in our household, I am a huge proponent of going out to enjoy Miami Spice – good value or not. As long as the food and atmosphere is promising, I’m there…and, by association, so are my husband and friends.

This year our strategy was to visit our regular haunts during August and to put off the more exclusive venues for September because it is my birthday month. So how is it going so far? Although our pace has been slower than usual this year, we almost managed to average 1 Miami Spice outing per week in August, particularly thanks to the early Miami Spice previews in July. And, of the restaurants we've visited, so far we have no complaints

660 at the Angler’s (660 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach)
I fell in love with 660 the first time I walked in – which is frustrating because I had a culinary haven a block away for almost a year before I even realized it was there. And, if you’ve ever been to South Beach and you’ve never heard of 660, I bet my piggy bank savings that you, like me, have either been too distracted by the lush wall of vegetation surrounding the Angler Hotel property or by the traffic on Washington Avenue to notice 660 is there. So next time you're in the area, stop by. The service is excellent, the food is delicious, and the ambiance is much more serene than what you'd expect in the heart of South Beach.
This year for Miami Spice Chef Carlos Torres is featuring the restaurant’s most consistently delicious dishes in a 3-course prix fixe menu, as well as a 3-mojitos-for-$10 special. My husband and I tried everything but the Cuban Wrapped Pork. I know, Miami sacrilege. Our favorites were the Crispy Gulf Shrimp, the 8-hour Braised Short Rib, and the 3 cilantro mojitos that I downed with my dinner.

If you've ever had 660's Jalea, their Crispy Gulf Shrimp is just as crunchy, just as sweet, and every bit as exquisite.

The 8-hour Braised Short Rib was the perfect entree served with a sweet potato mash, scallions, roasted garlic, gremolata, and demi glaze.

Seasons 52 (321 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables)
I inherited my love for Seasons 52 from my parents, who are huge fans of “chain restaurants” (a taboo phrase with my self-proclaimed foodie husband and friends). Growing up, my family lived, breathed, and ate nothing but Sysco-based food from chain restaurants. Then, one day, my parents discovered the one national chain I am proud to frequent: Seasons 52.

Seasons 52’s claim-to-fame is that their menu is seasonally-inspired and that all of their dishes are under 475 calories. The former makes me excited to visit year-round, the latter offers little dietary comfort because I eat at least 3 dishes every time I visit. The benefit of choosing Miami Spice this time of year is that it gives me an excuse to explore their menu beyond my usual choice of shrimp chipotle flatbread and tuna roll. During my visit, I opted for the Roasted Shrimp, Spinach, and Crab Stuffed Mushrooms, the Vegetarian Tasting, and the Blueberry Cheesecake Mini Indulgence. While they were all satisfying, they did not compare to my normal selections.

The Roasted Shrimp, Spinach, and Crab Stuffed Mushrooms tasted like your run-of-the-mill stuffed mushrooms. Nothing to call home about, but good nonetheless.
If you like tofu and veggies, everything but the grain salad is worth choosing The Vegetarian Tasting.

Essensia at the Palms Hotel and Spa (3025 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach)
I have yet to try a single food item that I do not like from Essensia. Even worse, I suffer food envy every time I visit regardless of how much I am enjoying my meal. I love Essensia because they not only highlight fresh, seasonal food, but also focus on eco-friendly practices like using locally sourced ingredients. And, the result has thus far been consistent deliciousness.

Our entire party opted for the Miami Spice menu so I had the opportunity to try all of the menu items, except for the Fettuccini with Shrimp and Summer Vegetables. The Kale Caesar was my absolute favorite, but I love all things kale so I consider myself biased. The group favorite was the Thai Lemongrass Soup. I only had one spoonful, but I have craved that soup every rainy day since our dinner because the hot coconut milk and Thai spices made it the ideal comfort food. Our advice: skip the dessert, in my opinion, it was not worth the extra calories.

Whether I'm biased or not, this Kale Caesar was excellent. It was the perfect mixture of crunchy, creamy, and nourishing.
The Thai Lemongrass Soup is the perfect comfort food for a rainy day.

One month down. One to go. Which have been your favorite Miami Spice menus thus far? Leave a comment below or send me a tweet @ThankYouMiami!
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