Alligators, a Lighthouse, and the Warm Atlantic: Thanksgiving in Miami


The following post is by guest blogger Lisa (lisabay), an old friend that I met in college and fellow WordPress blogger. I asked here if she would do another guest post for me since I am finishing this blog in a few days. This is her 3rd posting on Jardin Luxembourg.

True story:  We got the idea to go to Miami for Thanksgiving, because a three year old accidentally texted me…  Let’s back up.  My husband was itching to take a vacation, since he had some temporary help with his job.   He hadn’t taken off more than five days in almost ten years.  He had his eye on Maui.  But Maui wasn’t meant to be, with the astronomical ticket price.  We had talked about going to Miami before.  Alex had been there for work on a few occasions.  But I had never been to Florida.  We had dinner with our neighbors one night who are from North and South Florida.  “You should really see Miami someday.” they said.  Yeah, someday.

Then just when we were about to book a trip to a more local West Coast spot, our neighbor’s son accidentally sent me a video text of himself.  He was playing with his mom’s phone.  He somehow made me think of Miami.  Hey, I thought, Florida is the same distance as Maui, warm, and has a much better ticket price.  And I’ve never been there.  Of course this is what excited me most.  I absolutely love to visit new places.  I believe we are only on this planet once, and you might as well see as much as you can of it.    So we took the plunge and booked the trip.  “Do you have family there?” people would ask.  “None whatsoever.”  It was probably the most random thing our family has ever done.

Now the only thing I knew about Miami before this was from CSI Miami and the movie Scarface. (I wasn’t really allowed to watch Miami Vice as a kid, though I hear it was good.)  I set out to do some research.  Along with scouring the internet, I read novels set in South Florida.  I think if you really want to get a feel for a place, find an author who loves where they live and writes about it.  Even though it might be fiction, you can get a sense of a place.  I read a couple of books by Carl Hiaasen.  He has been writing about South Florida since the 80’s.  Many of his books are funny over-the-top crime novels.  He has a line of children’s books as well.  I also read part of Stiltsville, by Susanna Daniel.  Stiltsville is a real place, which I will get to later.

After all this research, I had big plans.  I wanted to see the Everglades, go to the Florida Keys, see the lighthouse at Cape Florida, eat some good Cuban food, and go on an Art Deco tour in South Beach.  And oh yeah, spend some time on the beach and pool.  (I’m not really a lay-out, sit-by-the-pool kind of person, so eventually, I have to move around.)  With a family of four, which includes a young child, we didn’t do it all, but we did have fun.  Miami is an exciting city.  It’s also very big and spread out, with lots of traffic.  The reality was, once we got to our hotel, we really didn’t take our car out that much.  Dinner was always somewhere local, because there were so many options nearby.  We were fortunate enough to be within walking distance to Lincoln Road, which reminds me of Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, with shops and restaurants, and closed to traffic.  I can tell you where the most highly recommended Cuban spots are, but we didn’t end up going there.  We did eat some Cuban food though.  It is pretty much everywhere.  If you like pickles and mustard, that’s a good thing, because it’s in the sandwiches.  My kids and I also love black beans and tostones, which are twice fried plantain chips, marinated in garlic and lime.

P1000325One day we decided to take an airboat tour of the Everglades.  It was a perfect day, not too hot, without rain.  My Florida friend recommended Buffalo Tiger Airboat Tours on the Miccosukee Indian Reservation.  This was a great choice.  It was very informative and exciting.  I knew what to expect, since I saw some You-Tube videos, but my family weren’t expecting to get so close to the alligators like we did.  This place had an interesting story.  Buffalo Tiger was once the chief of the Miccosukee.  Back in the 60’s, the US government wouldn’t recognize his tribe, so he went to Fidel Castro, and somehow got the government’s attention.  He then created casinos to raise money and help his people.  Later he retired and wanted to educate visitors about his land and people, so he started the airboat tours.  They can go out much farther than the other tour companies, because they don’t have to worry about running into national park land.


photo (2)After our drive out to the Everglades, which was a bit tough with traffic, and the kids in the back seat, I realized I had to sacrifice the trip to the Florida Keys.  Even though, I am fascinated by them, we would be driving all day where I wanted to go.  That would not be pleasant for my husband or kids.  Instead, I suggested University of Miami.  This is only because I wanted to get out and see a different part of the city, but I knew there would be space for the kids to run around, and it would peak my husband’s interest since he is a long time college football fan.  We had a very pleasant time there.  It’s a beautiful and unique campus.  I’ve never seen so much water at a college before.  But there’s tons of water all over Florida.  It rains so much, the ground is squishy.

P1000382On Thanksgiving Day, we went to the lighthouse on Key Biscayne, about 40 minutes from South Beach.  It is in a state park, and very picturesque and peaceful.  The lighthouse is the oldest standing structure in Dade County.  Most things around it were destroyed in 1992 with Hurricane Andrew.  After that, they fixed it up for tours, and painted it white.  (Scenes from Miami Vice show the lighthouse with brown bricks.)  From the lighthouse, you can see Stiltsville, a group of seven houses on stilts, about a mile off the coast.  Stiltsville used to be a thriving party/ vacation community.  Back in the 50’s there were casinos and clubs with mob ties.  Ted Kennedy had his bachelor party out there.  As the years went by, hurricanes destroyed most of it.  Now there are only seven structures left, and are part of a preservation trust.  I think you can rent the houses for events, or be invited by a member of the trust.  You can also take boat tours out there to get a closer look.



On our last day in Miami, we opted for no car excursions, just beach and pool for the kids.  My husband played tennis in the morning at a local park, then we switched off with the kids, and I walked to the Art Deco walking tour, and learned about some of the old hotels in South Beach.  The next day it was time to go to the airport and take the 6 hour flight home.


Oh what a trip!  It was definitely something we don’t usually do, and led us somewhere very different from home.  Almost every night, we went out on the beach, ran around in the sand, and touched the water.  We were the only ones out there, by the way.  Those crazy Northern Californians couldn’t get over the warmth of the Atlantic.  Will we go back?  Maybe someday.  I still have to see those Florida Keys.

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(day 362) Guest blog by lisabay. Lisa, thank you for your contribution to my blog and I look forward to you writing on my new blog too!


Giant Ants of Indiana Go West

The following blog is a guest blog by lisabay who joined me on the trip across America that I have been blogging about for the last week. I enjoyed reading her blog on the trip- it is so interesting to see a friend’s perspective. Enjoy!!


In October of 1999, I helped my friend Tiki move half way across the country from her childhood home in Indiana to L.A. (Los Angeles).  I was still in my mid-twenties and loved the adventure of the open road. I had a break from work, so I jumped at the chance to take a road trip.

I flew into Indianapolis and stayed with Tiki’s family for a couple of days. A childhood friend, Katie, would also be joining us on the trip. In her backyard, on the grass, was the car we would use to get back to L.A. It was a mature BMW, that hadn’t been driven in a while, but was still a good car with a few good years left. We inspected the car and drove it around a bit. On one cool Indiana morning, I noticed a giant- sized ant near the back ceiling of the car. Then it was gone.

It was finally time to pack up the car. If you know Tiki, you know she does not pack light, and she needed to bring all her belongings from her parent’s house. I think the trunk had a hard time closing, but it did eventually. The seats were filled to the capacity too. Then there was her record collection and that record player, she had been holding onto since the 80’s. We had to bring that too. And one of us had to carry that big bulky record player all the way back to California on our lap. I refused to do it, so Katie and Tiki rotated.

The trip started off in a merry way, I didn’t even have to drive because the seat adjustment was stuck at a setting for the taller two of the group.  We drove south on I-65, through Indiana, Kentucky, and into Tennessee.  We had lunch out in the rolling hill country near Nashville at another friend’s bed and breakfast.  Then we took a turn down I-40, through the flat green cotton fields of the Mississippi River Valley, and were off to Memphis for the night.  And oh what fun.  I loved seeing Beale Street and listening to the blues music.

The next morning, we were drove through Arkansas.  We past Little Rock, then on into Oklahoma.  I have to say, I didn’t much care for Oklahoma.  It was windy, flat, and the trees and bushes just looked like unkempt weeds to me.  Then we spent the evening in the Texas panhandle.  We had dinner at a Sonics drive-thru, and spent the night in Amarillo.

Continuing west, on really the same route as the old Route 66, we entered New Mexico.  Right at the border, you know you have entered the desert, and you know you were going to be in it for quite some time.   The desert has never been one of my favorite places, but we had a very pleasant stay in Albuquerque and Santa Fe for a couple of days.

We finally figured out how to get me to drive.  Either the seat adjustment unstuck, or we just put a bunch of jackets and other soft items on the seat.  So I drove away from Albuquerque with the rising sun coming up over the mountains in my rear view mirror.  It was getting warmer.

That day we drove through New Mexico, and a good part of Arizona.  Somewhere maybe in Winslow, I saw it.  Another giant ant was in the back seat, near the window.  That’s strange, I thought.  Then somewhere in the middle of nowhere, the army of giant ants presented themselves in a deluge.  It was toasty warm at this point.  Maybe that was their signal to swarm.  These ants were BIG, maybe 10 times the size of a regular California ant, and they were now crawling all over the back seat.  Katie and I were starting to freak out.  Tiki in the front passenger seat said in a calm voice, “Keep driving.  Don’t pay attention to the ants.”  The situation seemed dire.  How were we going to get rid of these ants in a land of Indian Reservations and Route 66 tourist traps?  Luckily, we found a small convenience store in Flagstaff.  They actually had bug spray, and we sprayed the back seat enough so that the ants were manageable.

The rest of the trip was a detour to Vegas, then home.  I can’t remember when all the ants left the car, but they eventually did.  Maybe they have infiltrated the population of California ants.  So if you ever see some giant ants in California, you’ll know where they came from.

(day 199) Guest blog by lisabay. Lisa, thank you for your contribution to my blog and I look forward to future contributions.

Unexpected Napa

The following post is by guest blogger Lisa (lisabay), an old friend and fellow WordPress blogger.

My last trip to Napa was not what I expected.  Things did not go as I had planned, but discovering the town of Napa and other areas were a pleasant surprise.  Last March, my family and I took a trip to Napa Valley, during a rather cold and wet long weekend.

My children were 7 and barely 2 at the time, but I was determined to do some wine tasting while we were there.  We had done it before in Sonoma Valley and had a very enjoyable time.  But Napa with kids, I had never attempted.  Wine tasting is possible with children, but I guess you kind of have to lower your expectations.  The key is to have some activity for them, and probably some outdoor space to run around.  I usually like to combine tasting with lunch, so the kids can sit and eat while my husband and I sip wine.  But for all the research I did, I neglected to learn about Napa’s “no picnicking” policy, meaning, you can’t bring any food in from outside and eat it at the winery, like you can in Sonoma.  (There is only one place I know of where you can picnic in Napa Valley.  The winery is called V Sattui.)  Since my little one still needed to nap at mid-day, it limited our window for wine tasting.  However, we did go to two places that I would recommend for families.

The first one is Frog’s Leap Winery, up the valley, in Rutherford.  They specialize in organic wines and have a lot of outdoor space, including chickens to amuse the kids.  The tastings are done on a wrap-around porch overlooking beautiful scenery.


Another interesting place to wine taste is Castello di Amorosa, located in Saint Helena, about 30 minutes north of Napa.  The building is a smaller replica of a thirteenth century castle.  Though, I don’t think the wine is that good, it makes up for it with ambiance and history.  You can take an informative hour-long  tour, or just taste and tour the grounds on your own. There is even a children’s room with coloring books and grape juice.


In addition to wine tasting, we spent quite a bit of time outdoors, for being a cold and wet weekend.  We went to a cute playground at the end of the quaint culinary town of Yountville.  Yountville is known for famous high-end restaurants like French Laundry and Ad Hoc.  The well- known Bouchon Bakery is also there.  I walked in to get a latte, and behind me,  I saw a crowd of people taking pictures of the pastries and the logo on the bag.  Back at the playground, Max and I explored the beautiful old cemetery next door.  We also went to Skyline Wilderness Park, for an easy mile-long nature walk/hike.  Even two-year-old Jack kept up on the walk.  The sign at the park said to watch out for wild boars.  We didn’t see any, but some fellow hikers saw some wild turkeys on the trail.



For lunch and dinner, we had nothing but great experiences in downtown Napa.  One night we went to Uva Trattoria  for great Italian food.  The next night, I had one of the best roasted chicken I’ve ever had at Grace’s Table.  Both restaurants welcomed our children, and they had a great time.  Another place, I would go back to again and again is the Oxbow Market.  If you have been to San Francisco, it is like a little ferry building, with a bunch of local food vendors and restaurants.  An “oxbow”  is a bend in a river, and that is were the market is located, on the oxbow of the Napa River.  I had yummy interesting tacos at C Casa, a great latte at Ritual Coffee, and some organic root beer ice-cream at the Three Twins Ice-Cream stand.


Another fun thing to do in downtown Napa is to “go antiquing”.  I’m not sure why, but Max likes to do this.  I think he just likes buying stuff.  We ended up at one of those low pressure consignment places.  Max got some vintage keys, and I bought an old Folgers Spice crate.   We went back to our hotel very pleased with what we had found.  And I was very pleased with our whole trip, even though it wasn’t what I expected.

Here are some helpful links if you go:

(day 70) Guest blog from Lisa (lisabay). Lisa, thank you for your blog and I look forward to future contributions.