SEE YOU LATER, ALLIGATOR!

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Three years ago, we rented a beach cottage in Vilano Beach, just on the other end of the bridge from St. Augustine.  We enjoyed it so much that we decided to return to the area.  (Check out my blog posts from that trip in the “Domestic Travel” section.)

One of the things we enjoyed most during that visit was kayaking (and kayak fishing for Bruce) at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve.  (Geez, couldn’t they come up with a shorter name?)

Today, we returned to see if Bruce would have the same good luck catching fish like he did last time around.  As it became apparent that he wasn’t having any luck, I decided to wander off and paddle along the shoreline to take in the beautiful scenery.

As I headed north, I visually took in the details of the various trees directly to my left, not paying attention to what was up ahead.  Just when I reached a little beach and contemplated taking my kayak ashore to get out and stretch my legs, I happened to look straight ahead where the beach curved out toward the lake.  “WHOAAAA!” I bellowed out to nobody except for the huge alligator catching rays on the beach just twenty feet in front of me.  I froze.  Then, like any photographer would do, I grabbed my camera and shot a few photos before back-paddling the heck out of there!  See ya later, alligator!

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CLAUDE’S CHOCOLATES: A DELICIOUS DISCOVERY!

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When one thinks of the best chocolates in the world, French, Belgian, and Swiss chocolates are usually what come to mind. And, in the U.S.A.? New York City would be a safe bet for finding the best American chocolates. St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra, Florida, are probably not even on the radar.

One taste of Claude’s Chocolates ( http://www.claudeschocolate.com ), in St. Augustine, had me asking, “How does an amazing chocolate like this end up here?”

I contacted Nicole Franques, Claude’s wife, to inquire about touring their Ponte Vedra location, where Claude makes his exquisite creations. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, although they do not give formal tours, she would be happy to show us around the kitchen of their chocolate shop.

On our way back home to Georgia, from our St. Augustine vacation, we stopped in to meet Claude & Nicole Franques, and their assistant, Suzy.

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One step inside through the front door (and a very deep breath to take in the euphoric smell of chocolate), and I felt like I was back in Europe, visiting a French chocolate shop. The chocolates were beautiful, as were the displays; it was a feast for the eyes.

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Nicole welcomed us warmly and ushered us back into the kitchen, behind the large glass window, where we met Claude and Suzy, preparing for the days’ production.

Claude was as warm and welcoming as his wife; very open to showing us the equipment he uses to assist in his production of fine French chocolates. Between Claude and Nicole, each step of the chocolate production was explained in such an interesting and engaging way that I suggested they add chocolate tours and tastings to their business. They answered every question so graciously, even the one question most chocolate makers are too secretive to reveal: “What brand of chocolate do you use for your ganache base and coatings?” (That would be Belcolade, from Belgium: http://www.belcolade.be )

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But, the most burning question I just had to ask was how a French chef like Claude ended up in Ponte Vedra, Florida?

In 1973, Claude came to the U.S.A., from Toulouse, France, to work as a French chef. He was sponsored by Nicole’s father to work in his restaurant, in Manhattan, New York. And, that is how Claude and Nicole first met- and, where they fell in love.

Ultimately, the two continued the legacy of Rene Pujol Restaurant for 20 years, before Claude and Nicole decided it was time to retire to their chosen locale, St. Augustine.

Claude wasn’t the type to retire to a rocking chair, however; he wanted to pursue his dream of making fine French chocolates, following in the footsteps of his close friend, Jacques Torres, a well known French pastry chef, who has become a successful chocolatier, in New York City.

The two met in 1989, working as French chefs in New York City. In 2000, Jacques pursued his dream and opened his first chocolate shop. When Claude decided it was also the path he wanted to follow, Jacque invited him to work at his shop and learn the process of making fine French chocolates. So, for six months, Claude trained under Jacques, back in the kitchen, while Nicole worked in the front of the store, learning about packaging and selling chocolates.

In 2005, they opened their first chocolate shop in their original downtown St. Augustine location. Recently, they moved their main shop and production kitchen to Ponte Vedra, as well as a smaller shop at their Granada Street location, near Flagler College.

Although any of Claude’s chocolate creations can be purchased at their St. Augustine location (6 Granada Street), one visit to their Ponte Vedra location (see below for details) and a taste of one of Claude’s exquisite chocolates will convince you that Claude and Nicole learned the fine points of the entire chocolate business very well. From the Chewy Caramel with Sea Salt to the Mayan Spicy, Claude’s bonbons and truffles are decadent, delicious treats!

Visit Claude’s Chocolate at:
The Shoppes at St. Johns Oaks
145 Hilden Road
Ponte Vedra, FL 32081
Tel: (904) 829-5790

Hours:
Mon – Sat 10 AM – 6 PM
Closed Sunday

SCENES AROUND ST. AUGUSTINE

Before our chocolate tour, on Saturday, we were able to get in a trip to the St. Augustine Beach Farmer’s Market, a visit to the lighthouse, and some photography back in the Old Town and Spanish Quarter sections of the historic district. Here are some scenes from those places:

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Check out the palm tree growing out of the center of this tree trunk!

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We also stopped by to see Café Alcazar, located in the deep end of what used to be the swimming pool of Alcazar Hotel!

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Alcazar Hotel, opened by Henry Flager in 1888 across the street from his Hotel Ponce de Leon (now Flagler College), was the hotel where guests could stay for shorter periods, rather than paying to stay across the street for the entire high season. It was also the location for all of the entertainment and recreation facilities for his guests: A bowling alley, billiards room, casino, concert hall, and several other amenities- in addition to the 120’ x 50’ indoor swimming pool. It was the largest indoor swimming pool in the world at the time; no big deal for Henry Flagler who managed to get Thomas Edison to install electricity in his hotels before the White House even had it!

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On Sunday, we returned to the waterfront to explore the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the U.S.A. It was constructed from coquina, a type of shell stone indigenous to the area, by the Spanish between 1672 – 1695. Ultimately, the U.S. assumed control over it in 1821.

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We then headed over to the community swimming pool; a normal 75 foot outdoor swimming pool NOT frequented by the wealthiest of wealthy; quite the contrast to what used to be the pool of the Alcazar Hotel.

And, finally, before a nice walk on the beach, we had an early dinner at Mediterranean Shish-Kabob Restaurant (http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g34599-d3840651-r152265838-Mediterranean_Shish_Kebab-Saint_Augustine_Florida.html ). If it hadn’t been for Isabelle, at St. Augustine City Walks, we would have never found this place. But, she recommended it highly, so we made our way to the other side of town to give it a try.

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Walking into the restaurant was a nice surprise. The place was as clean and spotless as could possibly be. It was cheery and very pleasant to sit, relax, and enjoy a meal in.

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We started with the spinach pie appetizer and I can honestly say that was the best spinach pie I ever had. I thought the same about my falafel sandwich, particularly enjoying the spices in the falafels and the flavorful tzatziki sauce. And, the pita must have been just backed that morning, as it was as fresh as it could be. Everything is made from scratch by the husband and wife, who serve as the wait staff, cooks, and managers. Even their young daughter gets in on the action, answering the phone and a assisting her parents.

Thanks for the recommendation, Isabelle!

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!

Exploring St. Augustine’s Flagler College, Old Town & Spanish Quarter

After this morning’s swim, we headed back into the historic district of St. Augustine to tour Flagler College ( http://www.flagler.edu ) , formerly Hotel Ponce de Leon. This gorgeous centerpiece of St. Augustine was built in 1888 by railroad magnate (and Standard Oil co-founder), Henry Flagler. Completed in only 18 months, thanks to running 2-12 hour shifts of workers non-stop, it was built as an exclusive and opulent playground for the world’s most privileged elite. The hotel was only open during the three nicest months of the year (and guests had to pay to stay the entire season), so only the richest of the rich could afford to stay there to enjoy lavish balls, gourmet meals, music, and art.

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Today, the hotel is Flagler College, founded in 1968. $54 million was spent to restore and preserve the buildings that now house 2,600 students getting a college education to the tune of $25,000 per year, including room and board.

Our tour was conducted by John, a second year history student at Flagler College. It was quite interesting; especially the stories about when it was a posh hotel. No expense was spared to construct the hotel; there is 24-carat gold leaf on the rotunda’s ceiling and Tiffany stained glass windows throughout the dining hall. And, yes, students who live on campus dine in this hall every day, three meals per day. How would you like to dine here?

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The ladies parlor of the hotel, still used today for special college functions, was quite posh. There were several ornate crystal chandeliers and a fireplace with an Edison clock, surrounded by a white onyx work of art; the second largest white onyx piece in the world.

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I hope those 2,600 college kids appreciate where they are getting their education!

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Lunch was at another Trip Advisor find: Gaufres & Goods ( http://polishgreekrestaurant.com/ ), where we split four different types of perogies and a spinach pie. This is one of the restaurants on a food walking tour, so I knew it would live up to its great write-ups. We were not disappointed.

Along the way, in between our tour and lunch, we strolled more of the streets of Old Town and Spanish Quarter; the oldest, most interesting and picturesque areas of St. Augustine, in my opinion.

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It was another burner of a day, so we broke it up with a stop to split a piece of frozen key lime pie on a stick, dipped in Belgian Chocolate ( http://www.keywestkeylimepieco.com/ ). HEAVEN.

On the way back to the cottage, we stopped back at Kyle’s Seafood Market for another fresh catch for dinner. This time, we picked up some very fresh yellow tailed snapper, and enjoyed it for dinner after our evening stroll on the beach. We didn’t enjoy it as much as the cobia, but it sure was good!