Did I book a flight in Basic Economy?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently had to book flights for us on routes that offered Basic Economy fares. After studying up on what the restrictions were for each airline and taking into consideration the details of each trip, I decided to book the basic fare for one of the trips and paid the extra money for “regular” economy for the other.

The following is a breakdown of how I made my decisions:

Continue reading “Did I book a flight in Basic Economy?”

Our Favorite Central FL Restaurants Off Disney/Universal Property

We know that lots of theme park fans don’t like to go off theme park property when they vacation in Central Florida. We used to be like that, too. Eating at a theme park is usually faster than traveling off property to dine, it keeps you immersed in the theme park experience, etc. And we get it – there are indeed some really nice places “on property” that give you awesome food and/or theming, and you get to maximize your time in the parks. But if you limit yourself to just eating on property, you are denying yourself some incredibly good eats that usually cost a fraction of Disney’s and Universal’s prices and often taste even better than anything you can get in the parks or on property.

These are some of our most favorite “off property” restaurants. We’ve listed them in alphabetical order, since it would be almost impossible to put them in order of which is best, second best, etc., and they run the gamut in terms of price point, food type, dress requirements and distance from the parks. Many offer meals throughout the day (i.e. breakfast, lunch, brunch, high tea), although we’re specifying our experiences with them for dinner. Most are places you can’t find anywhere else (or at least have only limited locations), they’re all “not to be missed” and some, we admit, are really just for adults (we’ve included level of “kid friendliness,” based on our observations, in each of the narratives).

ARTISAN’S TABLE
22 E. Pine St.
Orlando, FL 32801
(407) 730-7499
Approx. distance from WDW: 17 miles (via I-4 East)
Approx. distance from Universal: 10 miles (via I-4 East)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zagat

Restaurant-ArtisansTable
Photo courtesy of Artisan’s Table

Located in Downtown Orlando, this modern, trendy restaurant opened in 2014 and has been growing their following ever since. The food is fresh and delicious, with a menu that changes frequently. They have a fully stocked bar and a wide variety of cocktails. We strongly recommend the ox tail dinner and the apricot sidecar (a fruity house-invented drink which is usually no longer on the menu but most of the bartenders can still make it). We have seen children at Artisan’s Table (albeit not regularly), and those that we have seen were very well-behaved.

BERN’S STEAK HOUSE
1208 S. Howard Ave.
Tampa, FL 33606
(813) 251-2421
Approx. distance from WDW: 71 miles (via I-4 West)
Approx. distance from Universal: 79 miles (via I-4 West)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zagat, Wikipedia

BernsRed
Photo courtesy of bernssteakhouse.com

Yes, it’s far from the parks. It’s also, by far, the most fancy and expensive restaurant on our list. However Bern’s Steak House, 61 years old and going strong, is an experience you will never, ever forget as a special night out for the adults in your party. The decor of its various dining rooms screams 1960s and 1970s, but the service and food are old school and impeccable. The menu is huge (and the wine list even moreso! Bern’s has the largest wine list of any restaurant in the world!) and can be a bit overwhelming for first-timers but your waiter can walk you through it with ease. Anything you get at Bern’s will be incredible and cooked exactly as you request. Don’t forget to take the tour of the wine cellar and kitchen after your meal, and save room for dessert in the Henry Waugh Dessert Room, upstairs – because how often do you get to eat dessert in a wine barrel?

CHEF’S TABLE AT THE EDGEWATER
AND/OR!
TASTING ROOM AT THE CHEF’S TABLE
99 W. Plant St.
Winter Garden, FL 34787
(407) 230-4837
Approx. distance from WDW: 20 miles (via FL-429N)
Approx. distance from Universal: 15 miles (via Florida’s Tnpk N.)
YES! Two different (VERY different) awesome restaurants, with the same owners, at the same establishment! Chef’s Table became so popular that the owners opened The Tasting Room a few years later.
Read what other people say about Chef’s Table at the Edgewater on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zagat

Restaurant - Chefs Table at the Edgewater
Photo courtesy of Chef’s Table at the Edgewater

Housed in the historical Edgewater Hotel (which now is run as a B&B), Chef’s Table opened in 2008 and has been winning award after award ever since (as per owners and married couple Kevin and Laurie Tarter: “We just won the Orlando Sentinel Foodie Award for ‘Central Florida Gem’ from their food critic, the Dec 2016 Open Table dining award put us in the top 100 restaurants in the USA based on our diner feedback, Florida Trend gave us the golden spoon which only goes to the best restaurants in Florida, Orlando Magazine honored Kevin in 2015 with a Culinary Hall of Fame award, Orlando Magazine also awarded us in 2016 with Best Service, Best Chef’s Table, Most Romantic and Our Tasting Room won best appetizers and best cocktails.”) A small establishment with just a handful of tables, they offer a nightly three-course prix fixe menu, with options of a cheese course and wine pairing, that rotates regularly. Laurie is a skilled sommelier, Kevin has worked in the kitchen of WDW’s Victoria & Albert’s and New Orlean’s Arnaud’s, and both have worked front of house of WDW’s California Grille. If you visit Chef’s Table, expect a full evening of deliciousness for the adults in your party.

Read what other people say about Tasting Room at the Chef’s Table on Yelp, TripAdvisor

Restaurant - Tasting Room at the Chef's Table
Tasting Room at the Chef’s Table

Meanwhile, in 2011, Laurie and Kevin opened Tasting Room at the Chef’s Table just adjacent to Chef’s Table at the Edgewater. This is a much more casual restaurant, with a focus on tapas (small but shareable plates), much of which has a Creole influence, thanks to Kevin’s past work of living and working in New Orleans. Our personal favorites are the asian beef, lobster mac & cheese and the duck fat fries (oh, the duck fat fries!) – let us know what you and your kids like best!

COLUMBIA
649 Front St.
Celebration, FL 34747
Approx. distance from WDW: 8 miles (via World Dr.)
Approx. distance from Universal: 14 miles (via I-4 West)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, TripAdvisor

Restaurant - Columbia (PC- The Columbia)
Photo courtesy of The Columbia

The original Columbia restaurant opened in Tampa’s Ybor City in 1905, making it the oldest restaurant in Florida. It’s also been owned by the same family for all that time. Now expanded to 5 restaurants through the state (Tampa, Sarasota, St. Augustine, Clearwater and Celebration), the Celebration location opened in 1997 and is the closest to the theme park corridor and only about a 10-minute drive from the southern parts of WDW property. The menu features Spanish fare and I can never decide if I like their chicken, pork or shrimp dishes best, but I can tell you that their white sangria is to die for! Definitely a kid-friendly establishment!

4 RIVERS SMOKEHOUSE
874 W. Osceola Pkwy.
Kissimmee, FL 34741
Approx. distance from WDW: 8 miles (via W. Osceola Pkwy.)
Approx. distance from Universal: 13 miles (via I-4 West, FL-528 R & John Young Pkwy.)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zagat (Zagat review is for Winter park location – no reviews seen for Kissimmee location, sorry)
We know, we know – there are lots of places that offer good BBQ. And we realize that you may want to stand by your Texas, Louisville, North Carolina or Kansas City BBQ and that’s absolutely fine. But 4 Rivers is still darn good ‘Q. Established in a single location in Winter Park (about 20-25 miles from WDW) in 2009, hour-long lines were almost immediately out the door. Since then, 4 Rivers have expanded to 7 locations within Central Florida, 6 locations in further-out locations in Florida and, as of this writing, are expanding to Atlanta any day now. What can we say? It’s BBQ, it’s delicious, and we love it. So will you and your kids. Give it a try! Heads up that all 4 Rivers locations are closed on Sundays.

HANAMIZUKI
8255 International Dr., Suite 136
Orlando, FL 32819
Approx. distance from WDW: 8 miles (via I-4 East)
Approx. distance from Universal: 3 miles (via International Dr.)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, Trip Advisor, Zagat
We’ve been to Japan 4 times and love when we can find a stateside Japanese restaurant that is what we would call “absolutely authentic and traditional.” Hanamazuki is most definitely the epitome of that. Tucked into a strip mall shadowed by the Orlando Eye (it’s the same strip mall as Sleuth’s dinner show, which is also a good landmark in terms of the 8 million strip malls in the area), you will be greeted with “Irasshaimase!” as you enter, and a menu that is written in Japanese with English subtitles. We love the shabu shabu and ishiyaki, although you can’t lose with the udon or soba noodle meals, either. Children are welcome and heads up that Hanamizuki is seasonally closed on Mondays, so check the website first.

HEMINGWAY’S
On the ground of Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress
1 Grand Cypress Blvd.
Orlando, FL 32836
Approx. distance from WDW: 2 miles (via Hotel Plaza Blvd.)
Approx. distance from Universal: 8 miles (via I-4 West)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, TripAdvisor

Restaurant - Hemingway's
Photo courtesy of Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress

The 1,500 acre Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress resort opened in 1984 and unlike several Grand Cypress restaurants that have come and gone (including our beloved but dearly departed LaCoquina – it had the best Sunday brunch EVER!) Hemingway’s has stayed around since Day One. This steak and seafood restaurant is island-inspired and the decor is decidedly Key West. It offered great food and service for the entire family.

SEASONS 52
Plaza Venezia
7700 W. Sand Lake Rd.
Orlando, FL 32819
Approx. distance from WDW: 6 miles (via S. Apopka Vineland Rd.)
Approx. distance from Universal 3 miles (via Turkey Lake Rd.)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, Trip Advisor, Zagat

Restaurant - Seasons 52
Photo courtesy of Seasons 52

Seasons 52 is the only restaurant on our list that has more than, at most, just a few locations (over 40 of them in nearly 20 states). However the Orlando/Sand Lake Rd./”Restaurant Row” location is, not only the closest to the theme parks, but also the original location, which opened in 2002. Oh, and those mini desserts there you see everywhere? Seasons 52 invented those – they call them “Mini Indulgences.” Focusing on American and generally “healthier” fare, the restaurant’s menu changes seasonally, although some items seem to remain year-round. It is, by far, our #1 “go to” restaurant and our personal favorites include the meyer lemonade (if any of you remember the Adventurers Club, it tastes like a Babylonia’s Brew, but with booze!), filet mignon, pork tenderloin and chocolate s’more or chocolate peanut butter torte desserts. Children are welcome but as the restaurant is frequently host to convention parties as well as couples on “date night,” we’d say that well-behaved children are appreciated.

These are just a few of our favorites and obviously, there are LOTS of other “off site” restaurants in the Orlando area – which are YOUR favorites?

The pleasure of changing or cancelling a flight with Southwest Airlines

I’ve written before about how much we’ve traveled on Southwest recently and even how we haven’t paid for a flight on Southwest Airlines since 2015.  Well, the time eventually came when I had to book a ticket on Southwest with cash instead of miles. I just didn’t have enough Southwest miles left to cover the cost of the flight for both of us on this trip.

Southwest_Canyon_Blue
Photo By Brian from Toronto, Canada – Southwest 737, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2271529

17761038_1121957987914685_4477871181367452954_oWe are flying to Chicago for a weekend to see Hamilton  (Again. Don’t hate us.) and I know I cleared these dates with Sharon before I booked the airline tickets. But sometimes life happens and plans change. This time we needed to change our travel dates because Sharon was cast in the choir of Encore!  for their upcoming production of Hairspray at the Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando (shameless plug – tickets are on sale here).  This did cause a bit of a dilemma as Sharon now has a rehearsal scheduled for the day we were going to be flying to Chicago, and that just wasn’t going to work.

When we realized this, I immediately was relieved because I knew I had booked the flights on Southwest and they have one of the most generous policies for changing and cancelling tickets of any airline. They do not charge any fees to change flights and will only charge (or refund) the difference between the original and the new ticket price.  If you need to cancel your ticket, Southwest will give you a full refund of your whole purchase price as a credit which would need to be used within one year from when you bought the ticket. If you used points to purchase your ticket, the points will be returned to your account and the taxes would be refunded to your credit card. Any extras purchased, such as EarlyBird seat assignment fees, are non-refundable and would be lost if you cancel the ticket. You may be able to transfer these extras to your new flights if you are rescheduling, but make to sure to call to make the changes. You will not be able to keep the extras if you make the changes online.

Not only is Southwest’s policy helpful if your plans change, but it can also save you money if the price of your flight goes down. If the prices drop on your Southwest flight, you can rebook the ticket at the lower price and get back the difference in points or cash (as a credit for future use). Here is a great post from Deals We Like that describes the entire process of repricing a Southwest ticket if the price goes down.

Chicago_north_from_John_Hancock_2004-11_img_2618
We will still be going to Chicago, just for a day shorter than originally planned.                         Photo BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=104651

Having to change our flights did make me look at prices again and it turned out that for Friday morning, Southwest’s current price was $10 more per person than what I had paid for the tickets for Thursday. However, United was also offering a flight on Friday morning that was $60 less per person. Taking into consideration the $15 in EarlyBird fees that we would be losing, it was still worthwhile to cancel the Southwest flight to Chicago and rebook on United. I wanted to make sure the return flight stayed as it was so I called Southwest to cancel the flight instead of cancelling online, just to make sure. On a side note, our flight into Chicago on United is to Chicago O’Hare and the flight home is from Chicago Midway. We are using public transport and Uber/Lyft/taxis for this trip and are not renting a car. However if we were renting a car, I would have needed to find out if there were any additional charges for using different airports when deciding if it was worthwhile to cancel the flight on Southwest and book on United.

Considering that other airlines charge from $75-$200 to change or cancel a ticket, we were lucky we had these flights booked on Southwest. If you have a ticket booked on a different airline and have a true conflict or emergency, it doesn’t hurt to try and call the airline and explain your situation. If you hit it just right, the customer service representative might be compassionate and work with you to change your reservation.  Then again, you might end up with someone who says “Too bad, so sad. Sorry, can’t help you.” Your Mileage May Vary in getting this trick to work.

Have you ever need to change travel plans after paying for your ticket? Did the airline or hotel help you out or keep your money? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

#TBT: Japan Trip, April 2005: Shinkansen, Hiroshima, Peace Memorial Park

I’m writing this on my PDA (MODERN DAY NOTE: A PDA. Wasn’t that CUTE?!?!?!) while on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) from Hiroshima back to Kyoto. If you can read it, that means I’m much more computer-savvy than I give myself credit for (grin).

Today was pretty stress-free, since we’re getting more of our bearings when it comes to trains, shuttles, scheduling, maps, etc.

After yesterday’s near-fast (grin), we made sure to make room for meals today. We took the 9:20am shuttle from the hotel to Kyoto Station and, after a quick detour to a touristy place under Kyoto Tower to buy postcards, we had breakfast at a restaurant in the Station called “Beef Stew.” And I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure that’s what Joe and/or Steve (our friend on this trip with us) had for breakfast (grin). I, on the other hand, had bacon and egg on French bread with a side of salad and Miso soup (Yeah, salad and soup with breakfast. That’s what they do here. Different culture).

So we made it onto the Shinkansen to Osaka (15 min ride), then switched trains to go to Hiroshima (90 min ride).


Waiting for the Bullet Train


Here it is!


The trains are VERY comfortable, with padded seats and foot rests. They have bathrooms, offer snack/beverage service, you name it.


This train is 8 cars long and each car has its own set of “rules”….reserved seats vs. non-reserve, smoking or non-smoking, “silence car,” etc.

At Hiroshima, we took a trolley car to the museum area that we intended to see. The first thing we saw was the Peace Park, which encases the remains of the “A-Bomb Dome.” That is a building that (sort of) survived the atomic bomb attack (“sort of” because all that’s left is the skeleton of the building and a few inner wall structurings…as opposed to all the other buildings in the city, which were totally obliterated).


The A-Bomb Dome as you approach from the trolley.


Information and history about the A-Bomb dome.


Beauty, destruction and modern times.


Information about the destruction of Hiroshima.


The Peace Memorial Park area. In the hours and days after the bomb hit, thousands and thousands of bodies floated in this river.

The park also houses several memorials (to the various thousands of people who perished), and the history museum. Here are a few of them, with explanations when possible:


Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students (middle- and high-school students who were working for the government to help make fire paths. Over 3/4 of the mobilized students died from the A-bomb.)


Close-up of the base of the Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students


Cenotaph for A-bomb victims (Memorial Monument for Hiroshima, City of Peace).


Short explanation of the Cenograph


Children’s Peace Monument. This memoriam is to Sadako Sasaki, a teenager who died of leukemia over a decade after being explosed to the A-bomb at the age of 2. Her goal was to make 1,000 origami cranes, in the hopes that doing so would cure her. She didn’t live to finish, and her grieving friends raised the money to erect this memorial to her. People from all over the world still bring thousands upon thousands of paper cranes to her memorial site.


The golden crane inside the Children’s Peace Monument.


Short explanation of the Children’s Peace Monument.


A small percentage of the thousands of cranes at the Children’s Peace Monument.


This mound of dirt is made from the cremated remains of the people who perished in the days, weeks, months and years after the A-bomb hit. Most of the people whose ashes are in the mound were unidentified.


(from front to back) Flame of Peace, Pond of Peace, Cenograph (partially obscured) and the center area of the Hiroshima Peace Museum.

The museum was amazing…it went through the history of the city of Hiroshima, the history of the invention of the atomic age, the events that led up to 8:15am on August 6, 1945, the immediate effects of the bomb, as well as the after-effects, some of which (birth defects, cancer, psychological, etc) persist to present-day time.

The museum houses thousands upon thousands of artifacts, from clothing people were wearing on the day of the bombing, to lunch boxes (melted, with burnt food still inside), to a pocket watch that was permanently stopped at 8:15am, to steps from a former bank that still had the faint shadow of the person who was sitting on them when the bomb hit and he/she was incinerated on the spot. There’s no way that my writing or our our pictures could ever do it all justice, but this website can give further information.

Besides the obvious tragedies of the loss and illness of thousands upon thousands of people, the one disturbing thing to me, as an American, is that the museum portrays not just the city, but the entire country as an innocent victim of the U.S.’s actions. Pearl Harbor and the rest of Japan’s part in WW2 was VERY minimalized in their presentation. Then again, as Americans, WE have learned an entirely different view of history. All depends on your perspective, I guess.

It was raining when we left the museum, but with umbrellas in hand, we checked out the various memorials within the park (see pictures above) and each took a turn ringing the Bell of Peace.


Me ringing the Bell of Peace


An explanation of the Bell of Peace

After that, we caught a trolley back to Hiroshima Station. In the months before we went on vacation, we had gotten a lot of “Japan advice” from someone we knew who had spent about 6 months living and working there, circa 2001-2002, and he recommended if we were going to eat in Hiroshima, to try to go to a restaurant that served okonomi-yaki style, since Hiroshima was famous for it. Okonomi-yaki is grilled ramen noodles, egg, vegetables and a batter, with meat, that you make into a sort of loose pizza in front of you (think of Benihana-style but smaller scale, the food comes all mixed together and you heat it up yourself). We found such a place near Hiroshima Station and had dinner there. VERY tasty!


Steve enjoying his okonomi-yaki.

After dinner, we got our tickets for the Shinkansen back to Kyoto (no changing trains this time!) and here we are on it (remember, I’m writing this on my PDA).

Tomorrow is our walking tour and I think it’s laundry day, as well. Until next time, sayonara!

We’re Going To Do The Pan Am Experience!

As you guys may have figured out, Joe and I like to travel. But we like to think our travel is different from that of most people. Oh sure, some people like to go to the Caribbean, or to Italy or to go hiking. And some of those are nice sometimes (well, except the hiking. I’m not a hiking sort of person). But for us, especially for me, the more unusual, the more different, the more of an adventure, the more off the beaten path, the better. And if you can add a little kitch to it, well, THEN my life is just complete. So when a friend posted an article on Facebook about the Pan Am Experience, my eyes perked up. I did some research and quickly realized we could potentially visit during our trip to Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Disneyland and Los Angeles this fall, so I learned as much as I could about it.

It sounded really cool! Here’s what their website says about the experience:

Relive the Magic of Flying Onboard a Luxurious Pan Am 747

Anthony Toth
Photo Courtesy of Danny Liao / Air Hollywood

“From its birth in 1927, Pan American World Airways was the pioneer airline whose routes spanned 6 continents and more than 80 countries. Almost a century later, the name Pan Am is still a very powerful brand, and inside this Southern California motion picture studio sits an exact replica of the airline’s Boeing 747 and everything that made it so special.

Your Pan Am Experience begins at our exclusive First & Clipper class check-in desk. where our Pan Am customer service agent provides each passenger with a 70’s style boarding pass, ticket jacket and first class carry-on tags.

Anthony Toth
Photo courtesy of Danny Liao / Air Hollywood

You’ll be invited into the Clipper Club where you’ll have an opportunity to peruse the vintage Pan Am memorabilia including authentic uniforms, airline seats, handbags, artwork, and more. You can mingle with other enthusiasts at the Clipper Club lounge, share stories, and make new friends.

Soon thereafter, you’ll board “Clipper Juan T. Trippe”, our dedication to Pan Am’s first Boeing 747, where you’ll be sprung back in time to the 1970s. As soon you set foot inside the aircraft, your Stewardesses adorned in original Pan Am uniforms will welcome you onboard with a fine cocktail of your choice as Frank Sinatra’s soothing voice will transport you back in time.

With libation in hand, we encourage you to explore the aircraft – from First Class on the main deck, to Clipper Class aft of the galley, and the Upper Deck dining room. The interiors of each cabin have all been uniquely restored to Pan Am’s original cabin décor and branding elements.

PanAmMikeKelley7
Photo courtesy of Mike Kelley / Air Hollywood
PamAmMikeKelly2
Photo courtesy of Mike Kelley / Air Hollywood
PanAmMikeKelley1
Photo courtesy of Mike Kelley / Air Hollywood

Before we “take off”, the crew will perform an in-flight safety demonstration followed by a brief welcoming message from the flight deck. Soon you will be asked to take your seat as a stewardess sets your table for a truly memorable dining event. Main Deck passengers will sit back in plush Sleeperette seats and relax in a quiet, intimate dining setting while Upper Deck passengers will climb the winding staircase and enjoy a dynamic social atmosphere. Everything from the china to the glassware is authentic with careful attention to the exquisite service delivery of the era and menu offerings of Pan Am.


In classic Pan Am style, you will be served a delightful, gourmet five-course meal, starting with bread selections and appetizer choices like shrimp cocktail or tomato and mozzarella drizzled with a pesto glaze. For the main course, we serve a traditional Chateaubriand carved from the trolley. Guests with dietary restrictions may request in advance a choice of Roasted Chicken with Peppercorn sauce or a vegetarian pasta entree that is sure to please. Each meal comes with garden fresh vegetables and roasted potatoes. Your fourth course is a fine selection of fruit, cheese & biscuits accompanied by port wine. And finally your fifth course is a dessert cart with a large selection of digestifs. Tea & coffee completes the meal.

Anthony Toth
Photo courtesy of Anthony Toth / Air Hollywood

At the end of your flight, we offer all passengers an optional tour of the various production sets at Air Hollywood, including the original cockpit from cult classic Airplane! as well as sets and props used in major motion pictures such as “Bridesmaids”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and the hit television show “Lost”.

For the first time since Pan Am ceased operations, you can now relive the magic of this golden era in travel. We cordially invite you to personally experience this unique “flying” opportunity in the tradition of Pan Am.”

DOES THAT SOUND COOL OR WHAT??? Since I got Joe to say we could try to go (it did’t take a whole lot of arm twisting at all), the last hurdle was getting a reservation…and apparently they are NOT easy to get. Like, as in “they generally only offer the event once every 2 weeks and have space for less than 50 guests per event” not easy to get. As it turned out, we lucked out and of the exactly 2 nights we could even possibly do this during the course of our vacation, one of them was one of the nights in October they were going to offer the Pan Am Experience. So reservations for the next few months went on sale last week and guess what? I GOT A RESERVATION! So yeah…we’re doing the Pan Am Experience in Los Angeles! I can hardly wait!

Stay tuned…trip report to follow this fall…

 

#TBT: Japan, April 2005 – Kyoto & Nara (Shugakuin Imperial Villa, Nara Dreamland, Nara Station)

The first part of our day was stressful because of timing factors, the second part of our day was hysterically funny and the third part of our day was, well, hungry (grin).

Well, we THOUGHT we had it all figured out…how to get to the Shugakuin Imperial Villa. You have to get special permission to go and we had gotten that the day before. Joe, who had been obsessively planning this trip for the past 9 months, had every street, bus and subway map known to man, plus how to get from Point A to Point B throughout the country…but apparently only carried SOME of the written material we needed today…so today was the day of “miss the bus by ‘this’ much and have to wait 20 to 40 minutes for the next one.” We grabbed some pastries at a local bakery for breakfast (didn’t eat them yet because Japanese people don’t eat on the streets and we were traveling) and waited for the next bus.

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A shot of the pastry shop.

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This flamingo place was actually directly across the street from the bakery, so while we waited for the bus (the bus stop was directly in front of the bakery) I wound up taking a good half-dozen pictures of the flamingo. With a zoom. Without a zoom. Trying to not get a bus or car into the picture as they were passing by (grin). I have no idea of what this store was. In fact, it didn’t even look like it was open for business yet, but with how much I like flamingos, it gave me a good giggle.

Anyway, after the bus let us off (we also had no idea of where to get off the bus. I gave the deer-in-the-headlights look to the driver and said, “Shugakuin, kudasai?” [Shugakuin, please?], so he would tell us when our stop was), we had to figure out which direction to go. Joe’s books just said to look for the place when we go off the bus. Well, it certainly wasn’t anywhere in sight. And we didn’t see any signs. Not in English, anyway. So I, being a female, was more willing to stop and ask for directions. I went into the local liquor store (I think that’s what it was) and asked the proprietor (who had like, 4 teeth), my now-obviously-helpful, “Shugakuin, kudasai?” (hey, it got us off the bus inn the right place, didn’t it?). His response was to point, give me 2 fingers, and said, “Left. Up.” OK, so when we go out of the store, we have to walk down 2 blocks that way, make a left and walk up the hill, towards the mountains. Gotcha. And sonofagun, it worked. Pity it took almost a half-hour because the “hill” was a half mile of a residential neighborhood with winding streets and a canal through the center of it.

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The neighborhood on the way to Shugakuin Imperial Villa

We finally made it to the Villa, albeit 15 minutes late and they were gracious enough to lead us to the rest of our 10:00am tour…which, as it turned out, was spoken entirely in Japanese.

Oh, great.

Well, the views of the outside/hills/farms were pretty and I guess it was an interesting tour…something about land that had been owned by the Emperor but then the emperor moved to somewhere else so the farmers took back the land and when the officials found out, they decided to allow them to keep their land because it wouldn’t be right to take it away from them. And some of the land is still used for farming. As you may be able to tell from my description, except for the English handout they gave us, I had NO idea of what this place was (grin). Since I’ve gotten home though, I’ve found this website, (MODERN-DAY NOTE: the original website I linked to no longer exists. This is a new one) which gives a decent history of the place. Not to be outdone though, here are a few of our own pictures of our visit:

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Everything on the walls were painted by hand.

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Some more hand-painted wall decorations. And “not orbs.”

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A different style of wall decoration inside of one of the buildings.

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Our tour group looking at the outside of some of the buildings.

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Me walking away from one of the ancient buildings. Or maybe it was the ladies’ room? I forget.

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A view of the rest of the property, and beyond, from the highest hill in the complex.

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A view of Kyoto from above, as seen at the Shugakuin property.

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Steve’s newest friend, who he met on the tour. Yeah, Steve really WILL talk to anybody (grin). (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Steve is a friend who went on this trip with us)

After the 90-minute tour, we stayed at the front gate and ate our pastries, then decided to go to Dreamland, which was in Nara, a 40-minute express train away. Saturdays in Kyoto are HUGE tourists days so noon was not the best time to be taking a bus. An hour and a half later, we were back at Kyoto Station, finding our express train to Nara. No time for food…we had to find our train! We eventually got it, as well as our bus to Nara, and there it was…Dreamland!

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Now, for those of you who never heard me talk about it, Dreamland (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Nara Dreamland closed in 2006, so its official page, which I had originally linked to, no longer exists. But you can read all about it with a quick search of NARA DREAMLAND) is a small amusement park that was built in the early 1960’s. It’s a total ripoff of Disneyland, complete with knockoffs of the train station, castle, Matterhorn, Jungle Cruise, Teacups, Main Street, etc., except with a budget of a carnival, with horrible upkeep and few visitors. It sounded wonderfully awful…the kind of place that you go to and just make fun of. I heard about it right after I got back from Japan in 1994 and, after learning out it, kicked myself for not going. So this was a “must see.” And see it we did…we got there at 2:45pm and the park was scheduled to close at 5pm…more than enough time, right? Here’s a photo review of the place, including the good, the so-bad-that-it’s-funny, and the ugly:

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The kiosks where you pay to park, if you drive to Dreamland. Don’t know if you can read it, but it costs almost $20.00 to park there (parking is VERY expensive all over Japan) (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Remember, this was written in 2005, when $20 to park WAS expensive). The kiosks look so friendly, so inviting, so well-themed…well, maybe if you’re going to a jail.

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The front entrance actually looks pretty darn nice, huh?

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The back of the train station. If you look carefully, you can see me doing my impersonation of Evita Perón.

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A walkabout character in the “town square.” I don’t know who he is or if he even has a name…his image isn’t ANYWHERE else in the park (whose logo seems to be a soldier). He just stands there and for about $1.00, he plays a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” with kids, who win a trinket if they outsmart the oversized Frito Bandito. He took one look at us and started picking his nose. No, really!

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The Dreamland fire department, right where you would expect it to be, on the left side of the “town square”.

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And every fire department should come equiped with a pink Cadillac and a Jeep, right? You can’t tell the angle of this picture, but the Caddy was being held up by cinderblocks.

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A view of their version of “Main Street” and their castle, far off in the distant background (it’s hard to do the forced perspective thing when the buildings and trees are all the same size).

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A closer image of one side of the street.

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Ooooooo….now THAT’S pretty. Yeah, this place really IS a DIVE (grin).

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Good emulation there, because Disney “Main Streets” ALWAYS have a utility truck parked on them, right?


Ewwwwwww!


Note the name of this restaurant on “Main Street”…Woody Garden!?!?!?

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This HUGE fountain encompasses most of “the hub” area (this view is looking towards the train station). It looks like it would be pretty nice, if they turned on more than just the one center set of water jets.

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The castle doesn’t look half-bad if you’re not CLOSELY close-up, even though it doesn’t have a whole lot of detail.

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Of course, EVERY castle in Japan should have a statue of George Washington in its moat.

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And Abraham Lincoln too!

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And a Joe (wink).

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Their “Matterhorn” looks like it’s made out of cardboard, doesn’t it?

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Or maybe it’s papier mache. I like how the Skyway goes right through the center of the thing, like Disneyland’s used to. The Dreamland Skyway was closed, by the way. It was constantly moving (maybe they were afraid if they stopped it, they’d never be able to get it started again?), but no one was on it and no one was manning either entrance.

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Here’s the monorail, with the Matterhorn in the background. The monorail wasn’t running either…just sitting there, collecting dust and dripping grease.

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I love what they did with their landscaping.


The Swan Cycle ride. You go in a molded swan boat that has bicycle pedals in the bottom and PEDAL your way around the ride! No, REA

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Teacups???

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European-made Carousel (American-made ones go counter-clockwise). The horses didn’t even go up and down.

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Sure, cuz EVERY Disney knockoff park should have an Octopus ride…

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….and swings…. (MODERN-DAY NOTE: This was before Disney’s California Adventure had  Flik’s Flyers, Golden Zephyr or Silly Symphony Wings…)


…and a Mirror Puzzle…

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…and Bumper Boats. Nice line of scum on the bottom of the boats, huh?

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We never figured out if this was the entrance to a haunted house or to the Matterhorn.


Grand Prix Raceway it ain’t!

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The Flashdance ride. What a feeling!

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Screw Coaster, huh? Well, I guess EVERYONE is screwed when they come to THIS park (grin).

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I dunno. I guess it’s the “ride that used to be there but isn’t there anymore” attraction. Joe suggested it was a UFO landing pad.

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The one GOOD ride they have there….a roller coaster called Aska. I don’t “do” coasters, but Joe and Steve said it was very, very good, with LOTS of airtime. Meanwhile, look at the throngs of people in this picture!

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They had a lot of baby rides at this park.

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I like the white fences that they put around some of the rides. Really high-tech.


Someone called this the “ride that goes nowhere” ride. Walk up the stairs, go across, go down the stairs. Fun, fun, fun!

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And we complain about poor maintenance at the Disney parks…..HA!

By 4pm or so, Steve was starting to get hungry, so we stopped off at what looked like an abandoned picnic ground with an overhang. One of the food places nearby was open…
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…and Steve saw they had some sort of meat dish for about $20.00. He picked that and the owner motioned for us to sit down at a picnic table. The guy brought over an ashtray…”Smoke? Smoke?” (EVERYONE in Japan smokes) “No thanks, we don’t smoke.” He went back to (we thought) preparing Steve’s meal. By this point, I left to go in search of Dreamland souvenirs. By the time I come back, the guys had this portable hibachi unit on their picnic bench, which is connected to a gas line coming out from under the table. And they were sitting there, grilling the food!
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They said the guy was wonderfully nice….gave each of them a plate, utensils and dipping sauce (and a set for me too, for when I came back) and there was LOTS of food. The guy came over several times, to “help” them cook…I guess he figured they didn’t know what they were doing. He even offered to take our picture…
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He started talking with us more and more, asking where we’re from and how long we’ll be in Japan, His English was just slightly better than our Japanese, but we were still able to converse, albeit in a simplified way. At one point he looked at Joe and then at Steve and said, “Your son?” We burst out laughing at that (well, Joe and I did [grin]) and I pointed to Joe and said, “No, my husband!” The guy said, “Oooohhhhh!” But then he got this really confused look on his face, looked at Steve, looked back at me and said, “Who three?” We laughed again and said, “He’s a friend.” “Ooooohhhh!” Then he pointed to the woman behind the counter and said, “My wife!” The guy must’ve been embarrassed that he referred to Joe as Steve’s son, so he gave me an ice cream cone. Hey, who am I to say no to free ice cream?

Before we left the nice, unwittingly hysterical man, Joe said, “This food was very, very good. Thank-you very much. I would like to know the name of it, so that I can ask for it again. What do you call this kind of food in Japan?” And the guy looked at him and said, “Ahhhh…in Japan, we call this barbeque!” We almost wet out pants!

We bid out goodbye to the guy and his wife and took their picture before we left:
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They were just another part of the reason that Nara Dreamland became such a strong, strangely pleasant memory for us.

The one ride that the 3 of us went on was the Jungle Cruise. I think this one had to have been the worst of all. Take a look at this:

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The entrance to the ride.

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One of the boats. It didn’t look particularly seaworthy, but we figured if worse came to worse and we sank, the water couldn’t have been more than a few feet deep and w we’d be able to walk to shore. Of course, we’d have to fumigate ourselves after being in the scuzzy water, but….

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The boat was not on a track (I guess when the Dreamland Founding Fathers came to Disneyland to steal their ideas, they couldn’t see through the murky water of the REAL Jungle Cruise ride to tell that the boats were on a track) and the driver (the guy with the red windbreaker that says STAFF) just pressed a button to start a pre-recorded shpiel so he could drive the boat uninterrupted. Note that all of the “jungle natives” are, um, “people of color.”

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Ooooo….scary tiger! Well, scary he’s in that bad condition, anyway.

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The snake is in 4 or 5 pieces. I guess it’s cheaper to buy it that way. But they sure did a lousy job of hiding where one piece ends and the next piece starts!

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Oh give me a home, where the flamingos roam, and the rhinos stand behind them all day…

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The picture doesn’t do this justice at all. You see, it’s an action shot. The cheetah is on wheels on a track. The wheels move up and down the side of the log at a snail’s pace, which therefore SSLLOOWWLLYY rolls the cheetah to and from the embankment! We almost wet our pants laughing at that one!

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Watch out for that stationary elephant with the garden hose coming out of its trunk!

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Someone must’ve used a real gun to shoot the hippo, cuz it was deader than a doornail. It just laid there, half-in, half-out, not moving.

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And here, ladies and gentlemen, is where we have a pheasant, an ostrich, 2 parrots and some toucans, all living in harmony in the same place. It doesn’t matter than in real life they’d be on different corners of the earth…in Dreamland, anything can happen!

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Oooo…the suspense is killing me more than the ride is…here comes the dark, scary, cave!

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What was in the cave? 3 sets of bats. That’s it. This picture is set #1. Only 2 of them still flapped their wings. I especially like how they hang rightside up from the stalactites.

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Another “action shot.” This alligator had a stick coming out of its tail and the stick was connected to a motor that made the whole thing spin in circles. So that, my friends was the Dreamland version of an alligator in a death spin. Us Floridians prefered to call it gator on a spit.

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Shot taken after we exited out boat (nope, it didn’t sink!). Native #1 looks like he had a stroke. Native #2 looks like he’s scared of the bamboo that’s growing in front of him. And native #3 just looks…um…very happy with his lot in life.

it really is an awful park. But we turned it into a REALLY fun afternoon. By the way, this is an article some other people wrote about their trip to Dreamland in 2004. Their website also have some nice video links of the place. MODERN-DAY NOTE: Joe is positive we have some videos of Nara Dreamland too, but we can’t find them. As soon as we do, we’ll put them up on YouTube so you can share in the so-awful-that-it’s-great -ness.

Made it back to Nara Station…a tiny train station, so no food there, but we figured we could get something at Kyoto Station when we got back there. Not. The restaurants were PACKED, with lines outside every restaurant. SO…we decided to catch our shuttle bus back to our hotel and eat something there. Shuttle arrived on time at 8:40pm and we got back to our hotel at 9:20pm…and EVERY restaurant AND room service closed at 9pm. By this time, with just a noon pastry and 2 bottles of soda (Fanta sweet grapefruit…mmmm!) in me, I was hungry and hypoglycemic. And the guys were hungry too. And so, with chowing down on the “Take Five” candy bar that I had bought during our stopover in Chicago 2 or 3 days ago, we went to bed at 11pm.

Between the walking and the steps and the lack of most snacks, I’m gonna lose a LOT of weight this trip.

Tomorrow is Hiroshima. And food. We will make sure to leave time for food .

Our favorite places to eat in Key West

We’ve been to Key West six times since 2010 (Sharon also went an additional time in 2008). It’s a quick getaway for us, within driving distance or a short flight away. We like going to places we’ve been to before because many of the stresses of traveling are diminished when you know something about where you are. I totally get that some people will be like, “You shouldn’t go back to somewhere you’ve already been. There are so many new places to discover!” I totally agree with that and we do our best to get to new places, too. But we also do our best to revisit places where we’ve had a really good time. It’s like watching a movie you’ve seen or re-reading a book you like; it’s a comfort and you know it will be enjoyable.

One of the nice things of going to a location you’ve been before is that you have a pre-made list of favorites made by the best travel consultant you know – YOU! It’s easy to remember the restaurants you like and that is what this article is about. This is a list of the places we really like to go to in Key West that fit our travel style. I’ll try and explain why we like each place so you can decide for yourself if you might like them as well. As with everything on this website, Your Mileage May Vary. I’ll work from breakfast to late night snacks.

Starbucks – 431 Front St.

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I told you this was our list, didn’t I? There has been a Starbucks on the first floor of the La Concha hotel on Duval St. for years, but that can be quite a walk from some parts of town. This Starbucks is right on the corner of Front St. and Duval. While we were very happy to see its appearance on our most recent trip, we didn’t go there because we were able to make our own coffee with the Keurig we had in our room. I find that most hotels don’t seem to get the drift that coffee is an important part of the day and providing good coffee can play a part in how good you feel your stay at that hotel was. I’ve had one too many nasty cups of coffee from a dispenser in a hotel lobby so now I just avoid them. Having a Starbucks nearby where I can get a consistent, decent (albeit not wonderful) cup of coffee to start the day is a huge plus.

Sarabeth’s – 530 Simonton St.

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I’m pretty sure that was duck bacon with those eggs.

Sarabeth’s is now our go-to place for brunch. So much so that we went there twice on our most recent trip. It’s located a bit off the tourist strip so the vibe is more laid back and less hectic. There is seating inside and outside (that can be pleasant for people watching or a bit warm, depending on the season.) They just do so many things right that it’s hard to find a fault with eating here. I mean, look at the size of the coffee cups! They have a bunch of interesting breakfast champagne cocktails with fresh juices and serve toast with their own brand of preserves. We knew we made a good choice when, after checking in on Facebook, our social media lit up with likes from our friends who visit Key West.

Louie’s Backyard – 700 Waddell Ave.

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We’ve been going to Louie’s Backyard since our first stay in Key West in 2010. We’ve had brunch and dinner there, along with drinks on the back deck. I’d say that we like going for brunch the most (reservations are recommended). We enjoy that the dog beach is right next to the deck and we spend much of our meal watching the doggies playing in the water. The menu for brunch does change frequently and we’ve not been overly thrilled with the selections the last 1-2 times we visited, but that’s always going to be hit or miss. We did come here for drinks to watch the sunset one time but since Louie’s is on the southern side of the island (near the Southernmost Point marker), there isn’t that a great of a sunset view. We did eat dinner here once and wasn’t thrilled with the experience; it’s a classier vibe and the menu was much more expensive. The food was fine but for us most of the appeal here is the view and that isn’t much to look at in the evening, once the sun has gone down. But for brunch, we’ve generally really enjoyed our experiences here.

Rick’s Tree Bar – 202 Duval St. 

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I know I said that this was a list of places we liked to eat when we are in Key West. However, this is Key West and sometimes we choose to have a liquid lunch. The Tree Bar is part of the larger Ricks and Durty Harry’s complex, which is quintessential Duval St. Think live music, cheap drinks and lots of drunk people. That’s not our style. Fortunately the Tree Bar is none of that. All the liquor is premium and the juices are squeezed fresh to order. I also understand they make one of the best Bloody Marys on the island but we’re partial to the Pina Coladas. We make sure to visit the same bartender every time. Sharon is Facebook friends with her and she remembers us from trip to trip, so besides getting a properly chilled adult beverage, we get to say hello and talk about what’s changed in Key West since our last visit.

Cafe Marquesa – 600 Fleming St.

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We’ve stayed at the Marquesa Hotel on two of our trips to Key West and we’ve eaten at the Cafe Marquesa during each of those stays. The hotel made all the arrangements and it was nice to have a really wonderful dinner and then just go back upstairs to our room. The restaurant only has about 35 seats so it books up fast. Cafe Marquesa gets consistently high ratings from Zagat guide, Travel + Leisure and TripAdvisor and is priced accordingly, with entrees going for between $30-$45. We’re not against paying that for a dinner but we’d rather save that type of money for a trip to Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa. If money is no object or you are celebrating something special, you can’t go wrong eating here.

Nine One Five – 915 Duval St.

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Besides the Cafe Marquesa, finding somewhere good to eat for dinner in Key West has proved to be incredibly difficult. We’ve gone to the best rated places on Yelp! and TripAdvisor and been disappointed time and time again. We’ve never seen ourselves as quitters so we kept trying and I think we finally found a winner this last trip. Nine One Five is housed in a classic style home right on Duval. The location on touristy Duval St. would normally turn us off but it’s far enough away from the port and Mallory Square to keep some of the tourists away. KWNineOneFiveFood

The atmosphere was wonderful and we sat at a table right on the front porch. Service was great and I think Sharon might possibly leave me for the “Absurdly Addictive Asparagus.

Our food pictures aren’t going to garner any awards on Instagram but trust me, the food here was amazing. By far some of the best we’ve ever had in Key West. We will definitely be stopping back here during our next trip.

 

Caroline’s Cafe – 310 Duval St.

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Fried something on a roll with a pile of french fries.

I can almost imagine Sharon’s jaw dropping when reading this for the first time (Note from Sharon – it did) because I’ve done almost everything I could to avoid eating here again. I just find the atmosphere bland and the food uninspiring. But you see, here’s the thing that makes me include Caroline’s to the list. The food here is consistent, the location is excellent and they are open late. I guarantee you that if you walk around Key West enough, you will eventually walk past Caroline’s at a time when you are hungry and don’t want to look for somewhere to eat. That’s when you’ll eat here. When you are borderline hangry and your feet hurt and just want to sit down. If you are in a similar situation, don’t be afraid to grab a chair and eat some unidentifiable fried fish/chicken/meat on a plain roll smothered with mayo and a leaf of lettuce. You’ll leave full, rested and ready to continue your day. Sometimes, that’s all you want to do. I’m sure that I will eventually end up eating here again when the stars align and I just don’t want to bother looking for anywhere else.  🙂

So did I leave out any of your favorites? What’s your go to place in Key West? Let me know in the comments or drop a note to us on Facebook or Twitter.