Category: Road Trip

Of Geese and Apples – Touring Phuket

 

One of the fixtures of my lodgings during my first 10 days in Phuket was Alex, a shaggy Russian from Novo Sibersk with an aversion to wearing shirts unless absolutely necessary.  As he is shredded like a the crucified Christ, I am not particularly bothered by this. Despite his limited English and my profoundly non-existent knowledge of Russian, we managed to communicate exceptionally well. The dividends paid were extraordinary

A blurry picture of this tale’s hero

Day 1

 

One day, he offered a beach trip. I am down.

 

“How are we getting there,” I ask? 

‘Scooter!

 

My eyes widen, as I don’t know how to do 2 wheels, Thai driving are what you’d expect for a society that widely believes in reincarnation, and “farang road kill” is a terribly trite way to die.

 

That’s OK, as I can ride as his passenger.  For some reason, I acquiesce to this.  I just can’t refuse shredded foreigners offering a ride. I figure that a Russian hippie semi-resident in Thailand absent bandages is probably capable of handing the roads.

 

I still downloaded my insurance docs onto my phone in case I ended up at a local hospital.

 

After a quick google search of how to be a decent passenger, I grabbed onto a helmet and tried to make my peace with mortality.  Off we went.

 

“This isn’t so bad.”

 

My curiosity got the better of me soon enough, and moving my head to look at everything we passed earned a gentle reproof “no move, only sit.”  I focused on the printed pineapples on the back of Alex’s shirt.

 

In abut 35 minutes on the scenic route, we ended up at Nai Harn beach, at the southern tip of Phuket island. As soon as we hopped off the bike, rain began. We also were low on fuel.  As my brain hemispheres and subsidiary lobes were still contained in their original packaging, this trip still qualified as a success.

 

We retreated to shelter for beer while we waited out the showers. When the weather improved about an hour later, we went a-hunting for fuel.  We stumbled on small self-service pump.  I handed him B40, and we were good to go for a bit longer.

 

Alexey needed a bite, and you don’t need to ask me twice to enjoy some Thai grub, so he took me to Tony’s Restaurant just outside of Phuket town.  He was fond of it for the cheap Pad Thai and beers at 10 baht over the 7/11 price.  Pineapple fried rice for me and a Singha, and life was looking good, until another downpour befell us.

 

Realizing that it wouldn’t let  up, we donned plastic ponchos and slowly made our way back.  Heavy rush hour traffic, a downpour, and flooded roads – what could go wrong?!  Miraculously, very little.  As we rode through inches-deep water, I joked that I hoped Alex was up to date with his shots (putting his foot down in the filthy flooded water when stopped for a light.)

 

By some unknown grace, we made it home only moderately soaked.

 

Pros: We survived, had food and beverages. Cons: Soaked like bilge rats; no beach time.

 

Day 2

 

Given his imminent departure from Thailand, Alexey decided that more beach time was needed.  I didn’t need to be asked twice.

 

After pulling on trousers and a long-sleeved shirt (sun protection, slightly more protection in an accident versus shorts/t-shirt/tank), we were off again.

 

Today’s destination was Surin beach, and there was barely a cloud in the sky. After a ride across the island and over the mountain, we arrived at Surin, one of the cleanest beaches I have seen in Asia. The lack of plastic garbage was refreshing.  I can’t overstate how marvellous the water was – cool enough to refresh, warm enough to frolic in for hours.

Surin Beach

At around 4pm, I managed to communicate to Alex that it would be a perfect time for a beer.  In emphatic agreement, we were soon on our way to a 7/11.  An old hand at Thailand has already discerned the problem with this plan.  Thailand’s sports its own version of a blue law that prohibits the sale of alcohol between 2-5 pm.  I cursed myself for making a rookie oversight before retiring to the beach to wait out the hour.

 

There are far worse purgatories!

 

In time, we had a pair of Singhas in hand. Those who drink with me will attest that this is the point where the “respectability quotient” of the banter heads south faster than a retiree sensing the arrival of winter.

My sexiest shot
Comfortable

We were discussing food. I relayed a story of my grandmother stuffing a chicken who alternated between muttering something about “impure thoughts” and singing/humming the tune of “The Girl I Left Behind.”  His first reaction was asking via a mix of google translate and google images if we in the West stuff geese with apples.  I stared, blinked, and communicated that, regardless of Siberian custom, we do not sodomize geese with apples in the Anglophone West. And so was born the joke of the month.

 

I’ll leave it to your imagination where the conversation went from there.

The sunset was spectacular
The sunset was spectacular!

In time, it was time to return.  Stash had received a new guest who was keen to hire a scooter for an evening run into town, so Alex had to dash back to facilitate the transaction.

 

If nothing else, the beer made me somewhat more relaxed about the safety of zipping around on a scooter.

 

Day 4

 

After a Day 3 that looked much like Day 2 (hence its absence), Alex decided to bring me along again for his last day in Thailand, for the foreseeable future.  I strapped on my old familiar helmet, hoped for good luck on the road, and we were off again.

 

Our first destination included a visit to Big Buddha, probably the most famous cultural attraction on the island. “Uncle Sid” (as one friend calls him) commands a magnificent view of the island.  Fortunately, we had a clear, sunny day and low season tourist levels, so the visit was quite pleasant. Note: Women do have to dress relatively modestly, though men don’t appear to (e.g. a man can wear a sleeveless shirt, a woman cannot).

View from the Buddha
View from the Buddha

Souvenirs and snacks are available, if you wish to indulge.

Pet the temple kitties

After the Big Buddha, we made our way on the scenic route, and we blew out our rear tire just as we arrived at the beach on Promthep Cape.  Alex went off to have it fixed, as this exact setback befell him at this same beach a few months ago. I decamped for lunch (I hadn’t yet eaten that day).  He returned in need of 40 baht.  The front tire blew on the way to the shop, but it could be patched.  Lucky us!

Around Promthep Cape
People bring their cats to this beach. I saw three with their owners.

My custom was to buy the beers for us, as 50-60 baht for his libations seemed worth all the fun. I begged him to get a second for his troubles. After the tire fiasco, I didn’t have to try too hard.  After all, that tire was the apple in his goose.

 

All good things must come to an appointed end, and so did this arrangement.  I found myself missing my Russian driver, my late-afternoon beer, and the inevitable goose-apple banter that followed. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide of the island. Such is the traveller’s life – these sort of brief, happy encounters are a defining feature of the lifestyle.

 

I’ve also realized that I haven’t eaten an apple in almost a month.

 

Review: Conrad Miami

1 night, points & money rate of $137 + 46,000 Honors points. Peak season pricing. 

The Conrad Miami was an unusual choice for a 1 night stop on a road trip. Typically, I eschew hotels in the urban core in favor of peripheral properties for a variety of reasons, like extortionate downtown parking.  That said, I wanted to compare a Conrad property with the Casa Marina Waldorf Astoria in Key West. This seemed like  agreat way to compare Hilton’s luxury brands head-to-head.

 

The process of navigating from I-95 to the Conrad was…surprisingly painless for what I expected for Miami. Perhaps going into downtown at 5 P.M. helped. Eager to get out of my car, I left it with a valet, gave him a couple of bucks (the guys on the check-in shifts can get a bit short-changed).

 

The street level houses the concierge and valet desk.  You go up the elevators to the check-in desk on the 25th floor (also where you’ll find the bar and restaurant).  I was given an upgraded Bay (of Biscayne) view room on the 18th floor.  Down I go in a separate bank of elevators.

 

My room was quite small for a US hotel room.  Size-wise, it’s what you’d find at a 4.5 or 5 star (business) property in Hong Kong. That said, the room’s appointments were of high quality. I loved the espresso machine, Shanghai Tang amenities, and the deep bath tub separate from the rainfall shower.

 

The view can speak for itself. The view from the Conrad Miami hotel over the Bay of Biscayne.

Next errand: go to the pool. This is something of an adventure at the Conrad.  From my room on the 18th floor, I took an elevator to the lobby on the 25th floor, crossed the check-in lobby, went down on a separate elevator to the ground floor, crossed the driveway where cars arrive, and took a third elevator to the top (8th or 9th) floor of an annex building.  After a walk outside and up to the pool deck, my odyssey came to an end. 

 

After lap swimming in the invigoratingly cold pool, I decided to take a stroll around Brickell. The neighborhood is very pleasant, and in an alternate life, I would not object to living there.  After a little repast of sushi at Doraku in the nearby and bustling The Shops at Mary Brickell Village, it was time to unwind and sleep.

 

The bed was excellent, as I seemed to fall asleep immediately and woke up in good form. 

 

The next morning, I decided to see how the breakfast spread was. It pleases me to report that it is quite a cut above the usual Hilton-family fare.  The fruit spread included dragon fruit (OH HELL YES) and kiwi fruit in addition to melon, pinapple, berries, et al. We’re off the a roaring good start, as you might have intuited.  Japanese-style gyoza dumplings (steamed) and American breakfast proteins rounded out my plate.  I might have tried a croissant, which may have been superb. For as often as I eat calorie dense carbs (rarely), I want them to be of the best quality.  Finally, the wait staff deserve praise.  I enjoyed their efficient, friendly service that didn’t fall into the trap of obsequiousness (I find that dynamic of esteemed patron/obsequious server cringeworthy when I encounter it). 

 

Check-out that morning was effortless. I texted the valet to have my car readied, took care of the formalities at the front desk, and arrived downstairs to find my car waiting for me.  

 

Pros:

  • Walking distance to most everything in Brickell downtown including restaurants, banks, and a CVS pharmacy. 
  • Short drive/taxi/uber to South Beach, if you don’t want to stay in South Beach proper. 
  • Easy freeway access for road trippers; straight shot for those flying into/out of MIA
  • Highest quality, albeit not most expansive, hotel spread I have seen in the USA. 
  • The morgue-cold pool incentivizes you to swim laps intensively to fight off hypothermia – yay exercise!
  • Unimpeachable service. 
  • Great standard room reward availability for Honors members. 

 

Cons:

  • Without a B&B rate or Honors status, breakfast will be $40 per person including tip
  • Weird layout would get tiresome for going to the gym/pool. 
  • That pool is *very* cold. 
  • Many will find the room to be small.

 

All in all, this was an excellent stay. If this is a middling Conrad per what I parse on Flyertalk, I can’t wait to try the outstanding ones (helloooooo Asia…). 

 

– James out

 

Miami & Key West – Trip Report – Part II

Congrats on making it to the Key West portion!

 

Note: For brevity, details about the Casa Marina have been written as a separate hotel review post here.  

 

As I left Homestead behind, civilization abruptly faded from the rearview mirror, and eventually I came to the beginning of the Overseas Highway that connects the Keys with the Florida mainland.  Fortunately, traffic was light on this Saturday, particularly after I passed a popular boat show on Key Largo.

 

Overseas Highway Florida Keys

My excitement only grew as the picture-perfect islands and seas unfolded before me.  I wanted to jump in and never get out. [Presumably, the mer-folk would adopt me? I didn’t think that through much.] The anticipation and average speed of 45 mph meant that the mileage didn’t quite tick down as fast as I would have liked, but I eventually settled on just enjoying the view.  The Keys were in surprisingly good condition post-Irma, and the most poignant reminder of nature’s destructive power wasn’t recent damage.  Rather, it was the remnants of Henry Flagler’s railroad.

 

When I eventually crossed onto Key West, I easily navigated to the Casa Marina – originally built as a resort for Flagler’s railroad passengers. As it’s on the southern coast, I just turned left onto A1A and followed that for a couple of miles.  I pulled around by the porte cochere and checked in. I was instructed to not go to the room quite yet.  No problem! I wanted to check out the beach.

 

After washing up from the beach, I put on my boots and began the 45 minute walk to Shrimp Daddy’s to meet B.  I wanted to see a bit of Key West, I didn’t fancy figuring out parking, and I am too cheap to pay for a taxi when I have a perfectly suitable car AND pair of legs. Lucky me, as I saw a Thai-Japanese restaurant where I could get some sushi en route.

 

Even with the dinner stop, I arrived in time.  Shrimp Daddy’s is a local dive bar, complete with all-you-can-breathe secondhand smoke and a dim lighting that hides all flaws. B’s stories were fascinating. While he did data analytics now (is the universe trying to tell me something?), his past included a stint in Hawaii and English teaching in Korea. My liver quailed in fear as he described the apparently ritualized sadism of drinking with one’s boss. “This will be a self-study day everyone,” because Teacher is hung-over to the point of death was (still is?) apparently a thing.

 

B’s transition to being a digital nomad was interesting to me. His company decided that his team was non-essential and could work from anywhere. He chose Key West.  He was looking to move on soon though, as Key West could be difficult socially.  I understood, as Hawaii was like that. The transient nature of the transplants (aggravated by very high living costs) and the constant flow of here-today-gone-tomorrow tourists can grind one down.

 

After two of the cheapest beers in Key West ($3.25 each) and by now smelling like an ash tray, it was time to call it a day. I caught an uber back to the Casa Marina to make a – personal appointment (oh, Grindr!).  But, you won’t hear a word more about that.

 

The next morning, I used my $15 Honors diamond voucher at the Casa Marina’s breakfast buffet.  I was happy. I indulged in a few extra carbs given that I’d be in the water snorkeling today!

 

I had booked myself on a Blu Q all-male, clothing-optional snorkeling/kayaking catamaran trip!  I’ve never been snorkeling, so I looked forward to swimming with the sashimi…I mean fish.

 

I put together a bag including a towel, various sunscreens (because I’m a ginger), and hunted for something bandana-ish. I guessed that a hat would blow away.  Eventually, I found what is used by the Key West boat crews for sun protection. It’s a synthetic fabric “tube” – a Buff – that can be manipulated into various uses.  $10 – why not? I came to like it. In classic James McCormack form, I bought it 4 minutes before boarding time @ 10:45 AM.

 

At the boat, I chatted a bit before boarding with my fellow guests before we all kicked off our shoes for boarding. Yay!  The first mate Thomas offered us water or soda. Ice water in hand, a brief safety demonstration was given, and we were underway.

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Tom was a great first mate!

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It wasn’t long before patrons stripped down to swimwear or nothing at all.  As is usual in such gay environments, age and quantity of clothing worn are inversely correlated. I bucked the trend for being the youngest on board and in my commando print Budgy Smugglers. The early 30s couple had boardshorts – booo!  The oldsters gave us a lesson in body confidence with nary a stitch on. (My gingerness doesn’t let me expose ‘those’ areas)

 

When we were within a few minutes of the snorkeling spot, I put on yet more sunscreen and got my snorkeling mask ready. A nearby boat advised us that the spot they just left had fish, was clear, and had no current. Yay for us.

 

The strangest navy ship I have ever seen

After a few seconds getting used to the flippers, I found them wonderful. My diving speed versus non-augmented feet was impressive. The sights down below were marvelous – bright (but not optimally health – far from it) coral and many-colored fish were in abundance.

 

When Thomas, our leader into the open water, led us back to the boat, we found that the captain had carved up a pineapple, put out some grapes, and was serving adult beverages. I opted for a white wine and water.  I noted the exceptional flavor of the pineapple, to find out that it was fresh from his front yard!  That’ll do it.

 

After some chatting and noshing, the Captain furnished lunch.  Pulled pork, rolls or gluten free tortillas, cole slaw, and pasta salad were on offer. I opted for pork and cole slaw. Delicious!

 

Due to the not-much-fun that is costochondritis, I opted out of kayaking in favor of another dip swimming in the 81 degree (Fahrenheit) water.

 

By now, our time was coming to an end.  The Captain passed around cookies (I declined), and we were soon heading back to Key West.

 

After a brief stroll around the neighborhood by the docks, I made my way to the Island House. Non-hotel guests can visit the bar and enjoy the facilities for $30. I decided to give it a go. The locker room, sauna, and steam room were decidedly bath house-like in vibe.  I decided to let the steam room patrons in particular have some privacy and decamped to the pool to relax. Overall, it wasn’t bad, but I think my $30 could be spent elsewhere.  Then again, I am not part of “generation bathhouse.”

 

After a run and yet another sushi dinner, it was time to call it a day, make a decaf espresso, vomit at the news, and go to bed.  As I drifted to sleep, I contemplated if all of this sushi had made me of interest for commercial mercury extraction. What’s your side hustle, fellow serf?

 

The adult-only pool at the Casa Marina

I arranged for a late check-out on Monday 3/18. Mostly, I spent it on a long breakfast and lounging by the pool in my yukata, a Japanese summer robe.

 

At last, I had some time to wander around and explore Key West a bit. I donned my boots, wandered around, and mailed some post cards to friends in Honolulu and New Zealand, before meeting B again for another drink.

Digital Nomad Bar humor
You can’t beat the juxtaposition

 

 

For my final night, I checked into the Seashell Motel.  As this night was paid with cash, I found the cheapest private room I could – $174 + taxes.  It was clean and basic, though the aircon was arctic strength. Score!

 

The next morning was my last in Key West. I decided to enjoy it at Fort Zachary Taylor, a historic fort and home to what I think is the best beach in Key West.  There’s some pebbled bits, but the water is more suited to swimming and frolicking in the low waves.  Yay!

After changing, it was time to head north with a stop to see my grandparents. More to come.

 

 – James out!

 

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Miami & Key West – Trip Report – Part I

Behold, my inaugural post!

 

On a sunny March morning, I began my trip to south Florida – I was booked for a long weekend in Miami and Key West.  This particular trip mixed a bit of the old and the new.  I cashed in a stash of Hilton Honors points for a night at the Conrad Miami downtown and the Casa Marina resort in Key West. Further, I looked forward to meeting B – a digital nomad temporarily resident in Key West. How would St Patrick’s in Key West be?

 

My drive down to Miami was quite uneventful. The Florida Turnpike, while visually uninteresting, is never boring. The uninhabited stretch between Kissimmee and Fort Pierce usually sees traffic moving at 80-90 mph, versus the speed limit of 70. Mein Chariot (named Duncan) eagerly obliged.

 

Whenever I pass through Palm Beach County, I make an effort to stop at an Indian restaurant for lunch, Aroma. They specialize in southern Indian cuisine, and their lunch buffet is always excellent.  Chicken 65, baigan bharta, veggie biriyani, and kheer is the lunch of the gods. After 4 hours of driving, the lunch is a great little reminder that the end of the journey is near.  Miami is another 2 hours away.

 

I hop back on the turnpike and then merge into I-95, taking advantage of the express lanes (yay Sunpass!). As always, I had written down the directions on paper. While I can refer to my shorthand-directions, I find that the act of physically writing them commits them to memory.  Why do I bother? I religiously avoid using a mobile phone while driving (seemingly unique, especially in Florida), and I lost the navigation disks for the car. C’est la guerre.

 

I managed to not utterly cock up the process of getting into the Brickell neighborhood. In short order, I had off my car to the valet.  For an extra $9, I’ll let them deal with the parking garage at rush hour (it was now 5:30).

 

The Conrad Miami sports an interesting configuration. The street level houses the concierge and valet desk.  You go up the elevators to the check-in desk on the 25th floor (also where you’ll find the bar and restaurant).  I was given an upgraded Bay (of Biscayne) view room on the 18th floor.  Down I go in a separate bank of elevators.

 

After unwinding in the invigoratingly cold pool, I decided to take a stroll around Brickell. The neighborhood is very pleasant, and in an alternate life, I would not object to living there.  After a little repast of sushi at Doraku in the nearby and bustling The Shops at Mary Brickell village, it was time to unwind and sleep.

 

The next day, I went for a pleasant walk with Andrew, a fellow I met on Grindr.  I grabbed an Earl Grey tea for myself and a coffee for him from the self-serve complimentary coffee bar at the Conrad. We seemed to click. It’s rare I can talk cogently with anyone on about Venezuelan economic-collapse-politics, data analytics/methodologies, and hilarious sights around us.  Such is the joy of meeting other gay internet strangers.  The farewell smooching on US-1 was nice.

 

Thoroughly perked up by such PG-hijinks, I summoned my car, tipped the valet, and was soon off towards Key West.  I took the Turnpike towards Homestead, FL where it connects with US-1.

 

 – James out!

 

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