Key West {Trip Report}

After returning to D.C. after the holidays, I learned I needed to take a work trip to Miami. Since my work meeting was taking place near the end of the week, Nick decided to join me so that we could take a long weekend and drive down to Key West.

Nick and I have traveled to Miami before and explored much of the South Beach and downtown area, so for this visit we headed to Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, an area that recently boomed in popularity and one that we hadn’t yet explored. Wynwood is known as Miami’s new art district and is home to dozens of art galleries, museums and small craft businesses.

The area we visited is still very up-and-coming, with cafes and shops sprinkled in between industrial buildings. We started our visit off at Miam Cafe, where we dined outside on some very good quiche and breakfast burritos and the cutest little coffees, while soaking up the warm morning sun.

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Nick and I came to this area specifically to visit Wynwood Walls, where incredibly talented grafiti artists showcase their life-sized, colorful drawings on the exterior walls of what used to be decrepit buildings.

Nick and I were blown away by the talent of the artists; I’d definitely recommend a visit if you are in the area.

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We explored for a few hours before I had to head off to my meeting. The next morning we hopped into our rental car and started our road trip down to the Keys. The trip is about 150 miles (or 3 hours with no traffic) down U.S. Highway 1, the only major route into and out of the Keys, which can be problematic on busy holiday weekends when heavy traffic clogs the flow.

Some stretches of the highway are scenic, with bright blue water visible on both sides of the road, and some stretches are not. 🙂

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One of the most popular parts of the trip is along the scenic Seven Mile Bridge; Nick and I were able to thoroughly enjoy the view from there since we ended up behind a group of bicyclists touring the U.S. and slowly crossing the bridge with a police escort (it took us 45 minutes to cross the seven miles!).

As we’ve often done before, rather than book a hotel, Nick and I rented a small one-bedroom apartment close to the popular downtown area through vbro.com (AirBnB.com is another of our favorites).

The apartment was small, but very conveniently located, and was equipped with everything we needed.

Rental

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Our first stop was to the bike rental shop. Roads in downtown Key West are congested and parking is limited; however, the city is very bike friendly and pedaling is probably the best way to get around the small downtown.

Nick and I rented two bikes for 3 days from The Bike Shop, which was about 50 feet away from our rental, and the cost was only about $75.

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Our first stop on our bikes was to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park; it’s rocky shore on the west side of the island is a popular and peaceful place to catch the sunset. (There is a small admission fee, I believe it was $4 for Nick and me; cars cost a few dollars more.)

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One thing I didn’t realize before visiting Key West, is that the area isn’t known for its beaches, and in fact, only has a few small sandy areas for swimmers (this state park is one of them).

The following day, Nick and I booked a sailing/snorkeling/kayaking adventure with Danger Charters. I’d definitely recommend them – the cost was reasonable, the staff was fantastic and the boat only had room for about 15 guests. Key West is crowded with boat tours, but many of them are packed uncomfortably close and party-boat style (think drunk people and thumping music…something we wanted to avoid).

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The guides were very knowledgeable about Key West’s history – the reefs and shallow waters offshore (in some areas the water is measured in inches) caused many ships with valuable cargos to run aground. As a result, wrecking and salvaging soon became the island’s primary business and its shyster citizenry became very wealthy since local law allowed them to take possession of any cargo from ships they rescued.

We kayaked around a small island named Mule Key (named for a local man who often tied lanterns around the necks of mules that wandered around in the shallow waters and lured in unsuspecting boaters who thought they were heading toward a lighthouse and eventually wrecked…the man was hung in Mallory Square for his misdeeds).

We saw all kinds of birds, jellyfish, crabs and stingray on our trip around the islands. Here I am holding a horseshoe crab (Nick and I often see the skeletons of these along the Chesapeake Bay shore, but we’d never seen a live one).

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After kayaking, we sailed the boat to a nearby area and donned wetsuits for snorkeling. The water is very clear and we did see some fish and reefs, but after about 20 minutes, the cool water temperature (around 70 degrees) forced us back into the boat.

After the day’s adventures, the charter also provided us with fresh fruit and snacks and beer and wine, which we enjoyed while relaxing and making our way back to port, watching the most glorious sunset over the water.

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On our last full day in Key West, we spent the time riding around Key West and hitting all the sightseeing spots we missed earlier in our visit. Duval Street is the center of activity in Key West, running north and south from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic.

The north end of Duval Street (near Mallory Square) is where large cruise ships come into port and the thousands of passengers make their way into the city. This area is very commercialized with many t-shirt and trinket shops selling mostly the same goods and lively, well-known restaurants and bars. 

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While Nick and I enjoyed walking through the touristy area, we much preferred the quieter and less crowded south end of Duval Street, which was filled with cafes, art galleries and higher end clothing and home decor shops.

While at the north end, we stopped into Sloppy Joe’s, Key West’s oldest and most well-known bar, and a favorite of author Ernest Hemingway.

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Nick and I couldn’t resist getting our picture taken with the Southernmost Point marker. (FYI, there is a picture line that starts at sunrise and ends after dusk, so there’s no avoiding the wait, especially if a cruise ship is at port, but we only stood in line about 10 minutes).

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We also stopped at another well-known Key West landmark…mile marker 0 of U.S. Highway 1, which stretches up the entire East Coast from Key West to Maine.

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Overall, Nick and I enjoyed our time in Key West and had perfect weather (the forecast was for overcast skies and rain for most of the trip, but we completely lucked out with warm temperatures in the high-70s and not a drop of rain).

Three days felt like the perfect amount of time to spend in Key West; without beaches or a pool to hang out at our rental, we probably would have gotten bored with any more time in the city.

Here are our Key West recommendations (provided by a friend who visits often and another who lives there):

See/do:

  • Fort Zachery State Park (beach and sunset)
  • Southernmost Point marker
  • Sail/kayak/snorkel (Danger Charters)
  • Rent bikes and tour the city
  • Shop and people watch on Duval Street
  • Tour the butterfly museum

Eat/drink:

  • Blue Heaven (brunch)
  • Flaming Buoy Filet Company (dinner)
  • Sandy’s cafe (lunch – get the Cuban sandwich)
  • Sloppy Joes (drinks)
  • Louie’s Backyard (dinner/drinks)
  • Conch Republic Seafood Company (lunch or dinner)
  • La Tee Da (brunch/lunch/dinner)
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St. Michaels, Maryland {Trip Report}

I hope everyone had a great holiday weekend and enjoyed the unofficial end of summer!

Nick and I spent our long Labor Day weekend in St. Michaels, a charming little waterfront community along Maryland’s eastern shore. We had perfectly sunny weather and temps in the high-80s all weekend.

The town of St. Michaels is small and quaint and filled with boutique shops, a winery and brewery, restaurants offering Chesapeake seafoods, and cute little cafes and inns. This was our first visit, which we’ve been looking forward to all summer, and it was definitely worth the wait.

We left our marina Friday morning with light winds, but we were able to put up the sails for a few hours of the trip. We anchored our boat in San Domingo Creek, commonly referred to as the “back door of St. Michaels”, which is much quieter than the busy Miles River marina and harbor on the other side of the city.
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St Michaels
When we arrived Friday afternoon we were one of only a couple of boats in the anchorage, but by Saturday night there were nearly three dozen other boats surrounding us.
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On Saturday morning we took our dinghy into town and headed to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. The museum consists of a lighthouse and a variety of old, preserved buildings that house marine artifacts and help tell the story of the Bay’s maritime history and seafood harvesting. We even toured an old boat building warehouse where they still teach the craft of wooden boat and oar making.
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After touring a few of the buildings we made our way to the museum’s annual charity boat auction. There were probably 100 boats being auctioned, everything from old wooden kayaks to 1950s speed boats and modern sailboats.

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We helped cheer on the winning bidders of the boats for a few hours before ending our evening at the Eastern Shore Brewing Company for a pint (and a growler to go) and then making our way back to the boat. Our favorite brew was their Knot So Pale Ale.Nickbrewery

We were just finishing dinner that evening when Nick noticed out of the corner of his eye that a sailboat was headed our way. The family had arrived early evening and quickly anchored and rowed into town. Unfortunately, no one was on board and it appeared their boat was dragging its anchor (every boater’s nightmare!). Had it gotten close enough to us, we could have rafted it to our boat, but the wind pushed it closer to shore. We watched with sick stomachs as it floated toward the rocky shoreline and hoped that it would eventually ground itself in the shallow water; luckily, the winds shifted and it eventually wedged itself along a private dock, with no damage to either, where it sat until the owners returned later that night.

anchorboatWe ended the evening with a nice fireworks show that we watched from the bow of the boat.

On Sunday morning, before it got too hot, we paddle boarded around the entire creek, which is surrounded by large beautiful homes. After a late breakfast we took our dinghy back into town for more shopping and exploring. There are so many cute nautical clothing and home goods stores along the main strip.

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After a few hours of shopping and exploring the town, we stopped at St. Michaels Winery, where we bought a bottle of their summer white and sat outside to enjoy the nice weather and people watch.

NickwineryLater that afternoon, we headed to the Crab Claw, a St. Michael’s institution, for some Chesapeake Bay crabs on their waterfront patio. It was messy, even after the waitress gave us a demo on how to properly eat crabs, but we still had a great time!

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Our on way back to the boat that evening, we came across a couple on a kayak that was taking on a bit more water than they were comfortable with and so we gave one of them a ride back to their boat in our dinghy; they ended up being from our same marina!

After three days at anchor (our first!), on Monday morning we weighed anchor and headed for home (that and our low battery alarm woke us up before dawn, and we figured if we needed to start the engines to charge the batteries we might as well just head home! 🙂 )

All in all, we really enjoyed our time spent in St. Michaels, and definitely plan to visit again. If you ever have a chance to visit this cute little town, I’d highly recommend it!

Oktoberfest in Munchen: Guide and Tips

As German heritage, beer-loving Wisconsinites, visiting the official Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany and the largest beer drinking festival in the world was a bucket list item for Nick and me.

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More than 6 million visitors head to Munich for the annual festival, which runs the 15 days before the first Sunday in October. (Despite its name, most of Oktoberfest actually takes place in September). According to the official website, during this year’s festival, those 6 million visitors consumed 112 oxen, 48 calves and 6.4 million liters of beer! (Nick and I can only vouch for about 5 of those liters of beer) 🙂

We booked our travel and AirBnb accommodations in March since we read the city’s hotels and rentals fill up quickly. Our day at Oktoberfest was incredibly fun, and I’d definitely recommend a visit to the festival for anyone considering it. Here are some tips and advice that we picked up during our trip.

Where to go: 

The Oktoberfest grounds are large and filled with beer tents, carnival rides, and food and souvenir stalls. Entry into the grounds and beer tents is free. The festival has 14 official tents, which can accommodate as many as 10,000 guests each. Our tent, Hacker-Festzelt sat nearly 7,000. Most of the tents serve only one type of beer, from one of the six traditional Munich breweries. Beer is only served in the tents or their beer gardens, so it’s important if you don’t have tickets to arrive early to get a seat.

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When to go:

As I mentioned in my Munich trip report, we planned our visit to Oktoberfest for midweek, a Thursday, to avoid the hordes of tourists that arrive on the weekends. (Nick and I went back to the Oktoberfest grounds in the early afternoon the following day, a Friday, to purchase two commemorative mini beer steins that we’d admired the previous day, and couldn’t believe how busy and crowded it was. Many of the tents were already closed from high capacity, so we got our mugs and quickly left.)

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We arrived to the grounds early, shortly after the festival opened at 10 a.m. Most of the tents require reservations, which are about as hard to get as Superbowl tickets, but each tent is required to reserve a section for people without tickets. (We previously learned that it’s very difficult to buy a couple of tickets – most tents sell tickets by the table (which seat 8-10 guests) and require you to pre-purchase a certain number of beer and food vouchers for each guest.

You can sit at the reserved tables until the ticket holders arrive, which is a great strategy if you plan to only stay for a few hours, but if the non-reservation section is full when you get booted from your table, your only option is to leave since you can’t get served without a seat.

When Nick and I arrived, only about a quarter of the tables in the reserved section of our tent were taken, but they filled up within the hour. We were eventually joined at our table by a group of six friends from Austria, who made an annual trip to Germany for the festival.

One of our table-mates spoke fluent English (he and I are now Facebook friends), and he translated conversations for our table throughout the day, and we had so much fun toasting and talking with all of them. Perhaps it was just our tent, but I was surprised by the lack of Americans, who I thought would make up a large portion of the attendees; we heard a few English accents, but nearly everyone around us was German-speaking.

Oktober1After lunch, our new table friends recommended that Nick and I leave the tent and spend an hour or so walking the festival grounds and they promised to save our seats. We readily agreed and enjoyed a lap around the grounds to check out some of the carnival rides and souvenir stalls.

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They recommended that Nick and I return to the tents before 2 p.m., otherwise once the tents fill to capacity lines start to form outside and it can take awhile to get back inside.

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Throughout the day, a traditional oompah band played at the stage in the center of our tent. A few times an hour, men would stand on top of their table and the entire tent would clap and cheer while they attempted to chug their liter of beer. While many were successful, more than one man was unable to finish his beer and booed back down to his seat.

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Around 5 p.m. the oompah band was replaced by a contemporary rock band, which started out playing a mix of American and German classics. Within the hour nearly everyone in the tent was standing on the benches and singing and dancing, which lasted for several more hours. Eventually the band started playing German rock songs, and while they were catchy tunes,  we had no idea about the songs to which everyone was singing along.

The tents stop serving beer at 10:30 and the grounds close at 11:30; in our tent, the band stopped playing and the lights turned brighter around 9 p.m. and many people began to leave (us included).

What to wear:

Nick and I purchased traditional Bavarian costumes – a dirndl dress and apron for me and leather lederhosen for Nick (on Amazon) – and I’m so glad we did since nearly everyone (including all the Germans at the festival) wore costumes. Note that there is a difference between the more traditional Bavarian costumes and the revealing bar maid costumes sold in America ;).

Through some online research, I discovered that how you tie your dirndl apron represents your marital status: bow on your left side means you are single, bow on your right side means you are married, bow in the middle means you are a virgin (bow in the back means you are a widow or waitress).

How to survive the day: 

Eat, and keep eating (oh, and try not to drink too much). Our tent had a full menu of food and snacks. The tent staff all spoke English, so it was very easy to order food and drinks. (Note, since it’s only table service available, the staff only accept cash, so bring plenty: liters of beer ran about $10 euro, simple food dishes were $5-15 euro.) We also tipped $1-2 euro after we ordered.

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Nick and I ordered white sausages and pretzels around lunchtime. Throughout the day bar maids come through the area with large pretzels and other snacks.

Every time our table-mates ordered a round of beer, they bought an additional stein of water. After they drank a few inches of their beer, they’d fill the beer stein the rest of the way with the water (essentially watering down their beers), which we noticed other tables were doing as well. A great tip for all-day drinking 🙂

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Our table-mates ate dinner around 4 p.m., and while Nick and I weren’t hungry from all of our snacking, I wish we would have eaten dinner around that time. We ended up eating a half chicken and potatoes around 6 p.m. when the majority of the people around us were standing and dancing on the benches, while we sat and ate and bounced in our seats.

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One day at Oktoberfest was more than enough for Nick and me to experience the one-of-a-kind festival. If you had a larger group of friends or family a return trip could be fun, especially if you spent the time in another tent, but there is just so much else to see and do in Munich.

The music, the dancing, the authentic German food and liters of beer at the festival were incredibly fun and a near perfect end to our trip to Europe. I hope you enjoyed following along!

Munich, Germany {Trip Report}

Nick and I left Prague via train and shared a cabin to Munich, Germany with four others. Two were young Swedish women (with perfect American accents, which they admitted they acquired from watching Friends episodes), and the other two were traveling nurses from Georgia, who were on a 12-week party tour of Europe. For most of the trip the nurses regaled us with stories in their thick southern accents of their (mis)adventures across the continent.

After parting ways and wishing our new friends well, we met our AirBnb host to check into our apartment, which was a very large and well-equipped unit in an old building just north of the city center (with dangerously sloped stairs).

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Since it was already early evening, as soon as we got settled we headed out for dinner to Englischer Garten, a beautiful and vast park right in the heart of the city (much like New York’s Central Park, but bigger with several lakes and beer gardens). At the heart of the park is Chinesischer Turm, or Chinese Tower, the city’s oldest beer garden, which seats 7,000 beer lovers and was playing host to a traditional oompah band that night.

(Remember when Nick and I were the only people at Prague’s famous beer garden? Well thankfully Munich didn’t disappoint). We dined on sausages, fries and a liter of beer and enjoyed people watching while we listened to the band.

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On our first full day in Munich we headed to Oktoberfest (we strategically timed our visit during the week to miss the hordes of weekend visitors). I have a full post coming with tips for Oktoberfest, but in the meantime I’ll share this photo of Nick and me in our traditional Bavarian outfits.

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Despite a full day at Oktoberfest, Nick and I were up early the next day to begin our sightseeing tour of Munich. We only had one more full day in Europe and had a lot to see (and eat) throughout the city. Munich is very walkable, and Nick and I were greatly impressed by it’s beautiful and interesting architecture. Here are some of the highlights from our walking tour:

Near Karlsplatz is Karlstor, one of the three remaining gates of the medieval city wall. The square is bustling with cafes and shops.

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While we haven’t yet visited Rome, Munich had some of the most beautiful churches we’ve seen in our travels throughout Europe. Michaselskirche, or St. Michael’s Church, is a Jesuit church that holds the royal tomb of the Wittelbach dynasty, which ruled Bavaria from the late-1100s to the early-1900s.

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St. Peterskirche is the oldest church in all of Munich (dating back to the 8th century) and has a tower that offers one of the best views of the city. (I’ve previously mentioned Nick’s and my fondness for towers).

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Viktualienmarkt, or the Victual’s market, is Munich’s most popular open-air market. The stalls were filled with an abundance of nearly every product you can imagine, from basic produce to desserts and meats and cheeses. If we had more time in Munich, I would have loved to fill a shopping bag with produce and meats and make a gourmet dinner, but instead we just snacked our way through the market.

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With fully stomach’s we continued on our walking tour to Heiliggeistkirche, or Church of the Holy Spirit, which had the most beautiful origami paper cranes suspended from the ceiling.

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and Altes Rathaus, or Munich’s old town hall.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the compound and gardens of the grand palace Residenz.

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After a full day of walking, and because we really enjoyed our first evening at the Englischer Gartens, we headed back there again on our final night in Munich. It was a great way to toast and end our 2014 trip to Europe.  Englisher

If we had another day in Munich, I would have loved to take the train to Dachu, the first Nazi concentration camp. The memorial site is about 20-minutes northwest of Munich and offers 2-hour guided tours throughout the day. A visit would be at the top of my must-see list if we ever make it back to the area.