ST. AUGUSTINE CITY WALKS: TOUR DE CHOCOLATE

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The time had arrived; Saturday at 2:00 PM: CHOCOLATE TIME!

After first reading about this tour in the St. Augustine/ Ponte Vedra, Florida’s Historic Coast 2013 Travel Planner, I immediately ran to the computer to look up the tour on Trip Advisor. Good news; the reviews were positive, so I was ready to book our tour( http://www.staugustinecitywalks.com )!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was very happy that Isabelle added a tour to their calendar, just for us. As it turned out, we were the only two on Ed’s tour, yesterday afternoon. Lucky us!

The reviews had all emphasized the quantity (and quality) of chocolates, chocolate desserts, and chocolate drinks that would be served during the tour. So, a strategy was hatched: Bring a thermal bag with a sheet of re-freezable ice and take my servings (except drinks) to go. We would then share Bruce’s servings.

As it turned out, it worked out to be a perfect strategy. At the end of the tour, we weren’t stuffed or sick. And, I am now enjoying another amazing serving of chocolate covered cannelloni, as I peck this out on my netbook…

Before I continue, I must pause here to thank my very willing and enthusiastic sherpa: Bruce. Without Bruce, I would have had a very sore neck from carrying and increasingly heavier bag, due to the full-sized desserts we were given on the tour, along with our packages of chocolates and bottled water.

Our guide for the tour, Ed, was a very upbeat and enthusiastic guy, who also happened to be a speech professor at Flagler College. Speech is the appropriate topic for him to teach, because, man, that guy could talk! But, he was very knowledgeable about the history of St. Augustine, so we received a good history lesson, in between our chocolate indulgences.

We didn’t have to walk far on this City Walks tour for our first chocolate stop; we went right next door from the Tours Saint Augustine/ St. Augustine City Walks office to meet Mark, owner of The Market on Granada; a specialty gourmet shop that sells a chocolate infused red wine ( http://www.themarketongranada.com ). We were poured a glass of Chocolate Rouge wine (Modesto, California) to pair with creamy Havarti cheese and Le Gruyere cheese. Wow; what a great pairing!

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Ed asked us to save half of our wine serving for our next pairing: Claude’s Chocolates (http://www.claudeschocolate.com/ ) . Located in the back of the same shop, Claude’s is a small chocolatier, selling high-end, high-quality European style chocolates. Claude’s best friend and mentor is Jacque Torres; a world renowned chocolatier and pastry chef. The two grew up together and Jacque taught and trained Claude in the fine art of making premium chocolates.

Claude learned well. His chocolates were as exquisite as what I had remembered enjoying from the best chocolatiers I visited and bought chocolates from in Belgium. We tasted three different dark chocolates and paired them with our chocolate infused wine. HEAVEN.

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We then got to select four chocolates each, as well as our preferred variety of chocolate bark to take in boxes to go. Bruce let me select his four for him. I married a great guy, didn’t I? Although, I’m sure any of Claude’s chocolates are amazing!

Next stop: Right next door (again!) to Hot Shots Bakery & Café (http://www.hotshotbakery.com/ ) . Hey, I thought this was supposed to be a walking tour! How are we supposed to walk off all that chocolate if we keep going door-to-door? We got a good laugh out of that, but it was very convenient!

Hot Shots served us a “Chocolate Cloud”; chocolate cake topped with chocolate mousse and covered with dark chocolate. Decadent! I was very happy they packed one to go, because it was quite rich and filling!

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We continued on our walking tour to Vino Del Grotto, a “Galleria Lounge” where wine tastings are offered, desserts and coffees served, wine and gourmet goodies are sold, and gorgeous art hangs on the walls (http://vinodelgrotto.com/ ).

We tasted everything pictured below; some mixed together in a decadent chocolate cocktail. I enjoyed it all, but we went crazy over the chocolate balsamic. We returned later, after the tour, to buy a bottle. (Shhhh! Don’t tell them this, but we would have bought a bottle, anyway, even if we hadn’t each been given a $2 off coupon!)

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In between stops, Ed filled us in on St. Augustine’s history; much of what we had already heard on the previous nights’ City Walks tour with Maggie. But, we didn’t mind; the history of St. Augustine is full of interesting tales, well worth telling and hearing again.

All of our stops were within the Old Town and Spanish Quarter of St. Augustine; the most historic and picturesque part of the city. And, we were fortunate to have a beautiful day to enjoy.

Our next stop brought us to Chianti Room (http://www.pizzalleyschiantiroom.com/ ); an Italian restaurant that gets very good reviews on Trip Advisor. If their chocolate covered cannoli is any indication of how good their other food is, I would highly recommend this restaurant when you visit St. Augustine. If you don’t go there for dinner, at least go for dessert; specifically THIS dessert. I have never been particularly crazy for cannoli; I can take it or leave it. But, one bite of this chocolate cannoli and I was smitten. No, I was HOOKED. Seriously. If I lived in St. Augustine, I would get into BIG trouble (both in the wallet and waistline) with that stuff!

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Needless to say, when Bruce passed on sharing the remainder of the second serving, tonight, and let me polish it off on my own, I was seriously smitten with HIM!

At this point, we waddled out of Chianti Room, staggering in a chocolate stupor to our next chocolate stop: Crucial Coffee (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g34599-d2390703-Reviews-Crucial_Coffee_Cafe-Saint_Augustine_Florida.html ) .

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Thank goodness for our thermal bag. By this point, we really needed it. (Note to Isabelle at St. Augustine City Walks: Suggest to your boss he has some thermal bags made with “St. Augustine City Walks Tour de chocolate” printed on it. You could sell them to your tour customers, specifically for this tour! And, you can pay my commission for the idea in Claude’s chocolate or Chianti Room chocolate cannoli!)

At Crucial Coffee, we were killed with chocolate (and wine) kindness. We were first poured a glass of pinot noir, to enjoy in their lovely outdoor café, while admiring the quaintness of the little hut where they operate. It dates back to the late 1700’s where a blacksmith used to work.

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Our glass of wine was followed by a frozen mint hot chocolate drink that was refreshing and delicious. We thought that would be it, which would have been just fine with us. But, it was followed by a dessert trio of homemade dark chocolate peanut butter cups, a chocolate covered strawberry, and vanilla ice cream topped with a dark chocolate garnish. Awesome!

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Now, we were on a serious chocolate high, as we buzzed up the steps to Fudge Buckets (http://fudgebuckets.com/ ), to taste various flavors of fudge. I had previously purchased four “buckets” (and got a fifth bucket free), on the recommendation of other Trip Advisor reviewers, so I am now well stocked for a fudge tasting encore, upon our return.

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Mercifully, this concluded our Tour de Chocolate. Ahhh, but I was one happy camper! My taste buds were smiling.

We had great fun on our tour and enjoyed our time with Ed. The only thing missing was not hearing more about chocolate history and facts; something I would include if I ran a similar tour. But, I did learn one thing about St. Augustine’s chocolate history: Chocolate made its way to St. Augustine’s shores in 1671; long before Milton Hershey came on to the seen!

TOURING ST. AUGUSTINE BY DAY & NIGHT

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Usually, when we arrive in a city that offers a hop-on/ hop-off Old Town Trolley Tour, we take the tour at the beginning of our stay to get the lay of the land and hear the history. We then go back and see selected stops in more detail, throughout our stay.

This time, it didn’t work out to stick with our plan, because we needed to take weather, wind, and fishing conditions into account for kayak fishing. And, it worked out better to front-load that activity, while the conditions were most suitable.

As it turned out, it didn’t matter anyway, as far as fishing goes (Bruce came up empty-handed), but it did matter for kayaking. Paddling in windy conditions and strong currents is no fun, so we were happy to avoid it and ride on the trolley, instead.

We got an early start, yesterday, to get our 1+ hour round trip on the trolley completed before the heat and humidity beat us down. Wise decision; the temperature was 88 degrees with a “feels like” of 98. So, we comfortably relaxed in our cottage during the hottest part of the day, before venturing back to the historic district for some photography, dinner at Pizza Time and our St. Augustine City Walks tour, “History, Mystery, Mayhem & Murder!” (http://www.staugustinecitywalks.com/?page_id=77 )

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More on last night’s events later…

Back to the Old Town Trolley Tour, they really do a great job filling you in on the history of the area and adding interesting and humorous facts. The commentary is always enjoyable and the open air trolley fun to ride.

This time, the same was true- except for the trolley ride always being “fun”. There were some bumpy parts of the ride that literally sent our butts flying completely off the seat- which meant having to land back on them. Ouch. Not good when you have herniated discs in your neck…

We were more than ready to bid farewell to our Old Town Trolley, after we completed our round trip and returned to our first chosen stop, Memorial Presbyterian Church.

Henry Flagler built the church as a memorial to his daughter who passed away, shortly after she was born. Flagler’s wife died a couple of days later. (This, by the way, is the same Henry Flagler, founding partner of Standard Oil, along with John Rockefeller, who built Hotel Ponce de Leon- now Flagler College.)

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What drew us to this church, besides the gorgeous architecture, were the stained glass windows we spotted from the street. A German artist by the name of Herman Schladermundt designed the 92 stained glass windows in the building. They were installed in 1902, and then restored from 2002 – 2005, at a cost of $748,000.

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The remainder of our time downtown today was spent stopping in to see some of the buildings we were curious about, when we drove by on the trolley. Casa Monica, for one, is a beautiful upscale hotel, well worth a stop in to get out of the heat and admire the interior decorating. We also took a peek around the grounds of the Lightner Museum and Villa Zorayda Museum, just to take a few photos.

 

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Villa Zorayda Museum

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I also insisted on stopping in to see Isabelle, at Tours Saint Augustine/ St. Augustine City Walks, who I had communicated back and forth with via e-mail. After reading about their “Tour de Chocolate” walking tour (http://www.staugustinecitywalks.com/?page_id=67 ), I just HAD to sign us up for the tour. But, there were no tours listed on their calendar for our travel dates. Disappointed, I e-mailed Isabelle asking if there was any way a tour might be added to the schedule for any of the 9 days we would be visiting. At first, we would need four people to get a tour scheduled. So, I wrote back letting her know that if anybody else inquired, we would happily join them, because I just HAD to take that tour. I also included a link to these blog posts to emphasize my point: https://elaineiakstravels.wordpress.com/2011/09/14/chocolate-haul-the-final-tally/ and https://elaineiakstravels.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/82/ . Well, Isabelle spoke with her boss and she added a date just for us, for this afternoon.

Isabelle also invited us to be her guest on another City Walks tour, which brings us back to last night’s walking tour…

Before the tour, we stopped at Pizza Time for some authentic N.Y./ Italian style pizza and garlic rolls. It was another excellent Trip Advisor recommendation; 266 reviews averaging 4-1/2 out of 5. How could we go wrong?

It’s just a little hole in the wall dive; eight tables and four counter stools. But, the slices of Sicilian “Lasagna Pizza” and thin crust “Four Seasons” (artichoke, ham, mushrooms, and roasted tomatoes, with basil pesto) were terrific, as were the garlic rolls with marinara sauce on the side.

We walked it off with Maggie, our City Walks tour guide, and two other couples, on our “History, Mystery, Murder & Mayhem!” tour. The tour was two hours long (she asked if we minded if it went longer than planned, so she could add some extras) and about 1-1/2 miles of walking.

Maggie was a wealth of knowledge; she definitely had the “History” part of the tour covered. And, she was a great story teller, getting in plenty of “Murder” stories in, as well.

We stopped on Treasury Street, the narrowest street in North America, so Maggie could tell us about the murder of Lt. Delaney that took place in 1785. It was another murder, but she also covered “Mystery” in her story, as this murder was the first documented unsolved murder in St. Augustine’s history. It is still unsolved; the oldest “Cold Case” ever!

Where “Mayhem” came in was when pirates came in and created plenty of it. We listened to a very interesting story about it, as the Castillo San Marco fort served as a backdrop. It was dark by that time, but the fort was beautifully lit.

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For the entire tour, we walked through the old historic part of St. Augustine; much of it on old brick streets. At the fort, there was uneven terrain best traversed wearing comfortable walking shoes which we all were wearing. That’s common sense for a walking tour, right? Wrong; at least for a past guest on Maggie’s walking tour who completed the tour wearing 5-inch stiletto heels. We learned a new term from the urban dictionary while hearing that story: Touron. It is defined as, “The derogatory term combines the words “Tourist” with “Moron” to describe any person who, while on vacation, commits an act of pure stupidity.” If the shoe fits…

Maggie was a terrific guide and her stories made the history of St. Augustine come to life. What a fun way to learn!

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ANOTHER GETAWAY: ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA

 

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You’re probably wondering why a “retired” couple living in a resort-style community would want to get away. Well, we really don’t need to get away; we are extremely fortunate to have a happy life, just the way it is. But, when the travel bug bit me in my youth (thanks to my mom and dad), it bit hard. And, thankfully, I am married to a great guy who enjoys the adventures, too!

So, here we are in St. Augustine; another road trip getaway to a place we were curious to see, being East Coast newbies.

Did you know that St. Augustine is the oldest city in the U.S.A. and is celebrating its 450th birthday? Well, I sure as heck never knew that, even with my college education. Either I missed that little nugget of knowledge while out sick one day or none of my history teachers never shared that interesting fact. Same goes for Bruce; he didn’t know it either.

So, now, as adults, that little factoid interested us enough to see what this 450 year old city is all about.

We arrived on Sunday, at our cozy 1930’s era rented Vilano Beach cottage (www.homeaway.com ), located maybe 100 yards from the beach. It’s just over the bridge from the historic downtown area and a perfect location for us. A terrific boat ramp is just three minutes down the road; perfect for launching our kayaks into the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway), for a short paddle over to Poncho Creek.

In our area of Vilano Beach, we are away from the hotels and tourists in a quiet residential area. Just like in Sanibel, beach houses- 3 stories at most- line the beach, rather than high rises; our preference over tourist beaches, such as Miami and several other Florida beaches.

It was so nice on Sunday, during the late afternoon, walking along the beach and seeing very few people. The tourists are drawn more to St. Augustine Beach, according to the reviews on Trip Advisor. Fine. The tourists can have St. Augustine Beach!

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On Monday, our day started out very much like one of our typical Sanibel days: Go kayak fishing first thing in the morning (although our “first thing” was too late; the fish had already eaten their breakfast), followed by a trip to the local pool for a swim workout.

The results were the same: No fish- yet. We set the alarm for an early rise, today, in hopes of some redfish having what was on the end of Bruce’s fishing line for breakfast. Again- nothing. But, I got to observe these roseate spoonbills eating plenty of munchies for breakfast.

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As for the community pool, it is nowhere near as nice as the one at the Sanibel Recreation Center, but it will do. I had to share a lane, on Monday, but had one all to myself, when I returned yesterday for a swim. I finished just in time before hundreds of kiddie day campers took over the lanes surrounding me. Some of them were even sitting on the edge of the pool on each end of the swim lane I occupied, with their little toes dangling into the water; a bit of a surprise, when I did a backstroke turn, pushed off, and saw their little faces staring wide-eyed at me!

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Our afternoon on Monday was pretty quiet, after a morning of kayaking and swimming. We stopped by Kyle’s Seafood Market to pick up fish for dinner, since the redfish seemed unwilling to sacrifice themselves for our meal.

Have you ever tried cobia? I had it for the first time on the Mississippi river cruise and fell in love with it at first bite. Delicious! It was locally caught and very fresh at the market, so that was our selection. Mmmmm!

Our other little excursion was to find the “castle” in Ponte Vedra. I had heard about this from Laurel, the gal who cuts my hair, and assumed she was being a bit dramatic in her description. But, she was right. Check it out here: http://www.castleotttis.com . What a trip…

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We skipped kayak fishing, yesterday, and opted to head straight to the pool, instead. The afternoon was spent at Whetstone’s Chocolates ( http://www.whetstoneschocolates.com ), for a chocolate factory tour and tasting, followed by San Sebastian Winery ( http://www.sansebastianwinery.com ), for a winery tour and tasting. Wine and chocolate; life is good! Just for the occasion, I wore my t-shirt with a graphic of a glass of red wine and dark chocolate, with a hand holding a prescription that reads: “Red wine and dark chocolate. Doctor’s orders.” It will get another wearing on Saturday afternoon, when we go for the Tour de Chocolate, a chocolate walking tour being conducted by St. Augustine City Walks ( http://www.staugustinecitywalks.com/?page_id=67 ).

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So, back to Whetsone’s, we enjoyed the chocolates and bought some of our favorites to enjoy later. Our favorite was the De Leon Blend Dark Chocolate (at 47%, it is technically a semisweet chocolate), and I also liked the Menendez Blend Dark Chocolate (72%); a European style bittersweet chocolate.

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Whetstone’s buys their beans from South Africa, a question our tour guide was able to answer. But, when I asked her if they make any single origin chocolates, she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Neither did one of the sales staff behind the chocolate counter. So, the answer to that question would be, “No.”

We enjoyed the tour and our chocolate tasting, before making our way down the street to the winery. San Sebastian was quite generous; the tour was free (Whetstone’s was $8 per person) and the tastings were plentiful. Unfortunately, the wine wasn’t our style; there was only one dry white and one dry red. The rest of the wines were quite sweet to me. Our guide even recommended one of them be used to make “winesicles”, combining the wine with blueberries and peaches in popsicle molds for a refreshing summer treat. I’ll pass, but we enjoyed the winery experience and our guide’s sense of humor!

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After a late afternoon walk on the beach, we enjoyed another Cooked Creation by Bruce Cook: Fresh shrimp from Kyle’s ($9/lb. for 30 VERY fresh shrimp), sautéed in garlic, olive oil, and red pepper flake. The shrimp was served over pasta with steamed broccoli and tomatoes with a little pesto sauce stirred in; perfect with my glass of bubbly. Ahhhhhh…