Where to eat in San Gimignano?

If you like gelato, check out the excellent gelateria in Piazza Della Cisterna (it’ll be on your right after you pass the main cathedral in town. It’s in the piazza with the well in the middle of it).  Their orange cream, pistachio & white chocolate flavors are the best.  2 restaurants inside San G walls that I would highly recommend:

1. La Bettola del Grillo 2, Via Quercecchio, 33, San Gimignano, phone: +39 0577 907081.  A cute place.  They have very good Italian cold cuts (salame, prosciutto, etc.) & pizzas.  Some of us (yes, you know who you are!) couldn’t get enough of their prosciutto.  Their pizzas are brick-oven-baked thin crust, slightly burn, crunchy and perfect.  I liked the one with mushrooms, peas and anchovies the most.

2. Le Vecchie Mura, Via Piandornella, 15 53037 San Gimignano, phone: +39 0577 940270  http://www.vecchiemura.it/ is a MUST visit.  It’s a beautiful restaurant with outdoor seating area that offers amazing panoramic views.  I suggest get a table outside on the terrace if you can, and you’ll get this view:

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Their Insalata Caprese  (Mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and basil - all fresh), eaten with balsamic & extra virgin olive oil was EXCELLENT!  The local grown tomatoes were sweet.  The buffalo mozzarella cheese was freshly made, soft and just melt in your mouth.  The balsamic wasn’t sour like in the States at all, it was sweet and tangy.  We normally don’t like eating raw tomatoes, and Thuan doesn’t even like cheese.  But their Caprese salad converted us both!  We also loved their Ravioli al tartufo (Raviolis with a truffle sauce), Agnello al forno (Baked lamb), Ossibuchi in umido (Braised marrowbone steak prepared in fresh cut tomatoes), Gnocchi tartufo e formaggio (Gnocchis - potato pasta- with a truffle and cheese sauce), tiramisu and panna cotta.  The tiramisu was just a blob on the plate, it didn’t look pretty but it tasted fantastic.  Not too sweet, just right.  The panna cotta with chocolate sauce was amazing.  We had 5 different bottles of wine here, and all of them were very good.  All less than 9 euros each!  The same caliber of wines in such a fancy restaurant would easily cost more than $100/bottle in Washington D.C.  Thanks to our friends for taking us to this wonderful place, and for making sure we tried the Caprese Salad.

Updates: We found pretty good buffalo mozzarella cheese imported from Italy.  Of course they are not freshly made like what we had, but it’ll have to do.  I gave up on finding fresh tomatoes that are as sweet.  Something has to do with the soil in the Mediterranean.  Our recreated Caprese salad at  home is a 7, compared to a 10 in San Gimignano.

2/3/12 - Found Roma tomatoes!  Let me know if you’re in DC Metro area and would like to re-create this dish.

2/2/17 - Back home, I found a place that sells 18-yr-old balsamic, a bit expensive, but worth it.  Still looking for comparable fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese :-)

Sea Day on Celebrity Summit’s Southern Caribbean Cruise

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Brunch was served in Cosmopolitan Restaurant (the main diningroom) today.  It took them 2 days to prepare all the food, 3 hours to set up and 1.5 hours to clean up.  Each table had a different ice sculpture.  There were waffle and pancake stations, fondue fountains, hot and cold selections, Bloody Mary and fresh squeezed juices, sushi, roast beef, ham, turkey, and a gazillion other dishes that I don’t remember.  It was delicious!

Galley Tour was offered less than 2 hours after Brunch.  We got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Celebrity Summit Galley.  This is where all the meals were prepared.  Nothing short of amazing.  Less than 2 hours of cooking and serving close to 2000 guests, the kitchen was spotless!

Galley Tour

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This is what we learned from this tour:

The Executive Chef on the Summit has a brigade of 114 Chefs working 24/7 to prepare our meals.  The brigade is managed by a team of 5 Chef de Cuisine and Sous Chefs.  In addition, each area of the Galley has: pastry shop 15, bakery 7, main galley 63, crew galley 5, preparation rooms (butchers, fish cooks) 7; pantry galley 25 including Sushi Cook.

On an average day, they prepare and serve over 10,000 dishes for guests and crew.  Just a FYI, some consumption figures based on an average 7-day cruise:

Pounds of beef 9,127               Pounds of lamb 1,462

Pounds of veal 1,725                Pounds of chicken 3,621

Pounds of pork 2,062             Pounds of sausage 1,092

Pounds of turkey 1,965           Pounds of fish 5,826

Pounds of lobster 825             Pounds of crab 982

Pounds of potatoes 7,000      Pounds of fresh vegetables 19,329

Pounds of fresh fruit 16,326  Liters of milk 48,270

Quarts of cream 412                Fresh eggs 3,600

Pounds of sugar 3,500            Pounds of coffee 1,125

Pounds of rice 2,500               Bottles of champagne 800

Bottles of vodka 125                Bottles of whiskey 108

Bottles of rum 108                   Bottles of assorted liquors 212

Liters of beer 9,000

I had no idea 2000 guests could consume that much in a week!

Southern Caribbean Cruise on Celebrity Summit

Celebrity Summit

Celebrity Summit

We cruised to Southern Caribbean on Celebrity Summit from 2/22 to 3/1 this year.  We sailed from San Juan, visited Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten, & St. Thomas.  Click on the links if you’d like to read about our days on each island.  Overall, it was a great trip - warm weather, awesome ports of call, good food and excellent service.  But we were very disappointed with our staterooms.

Pros: embarkation, shows, food, staff, service, ship’s public indoor and outdoor space & ports of call

Cons: accessible staterooms

There are so many positive things about this trip.  The embarkation process was quick and efficient.  We were on the ship in less than 5 minutes after dropping off our luggage.  We were greeted with water and fruit punch as soon as we entered the cruise terminal.  And champagne and orange juice when we entered the ship.  Cold towels and drinks greeted us when we come back from excursions.  The shows and entertainment were good.  We loved the Galley Tour that the ship offered.  The acrobatic and aerial duo Tibbi and Vicka were amazing.  And thank you Lisa (Cruise Director) for sharing your touching life-turning story with us.  The Cruise Director was visible, approachable and funny, without being obnoxious.  We saw the Captain quite a bit too.  He joined in some activities with guests, appeared on stage unexpected, and cracked some witty jokes.  This was the first time we saw a Captain came in person to thank guests for sailing with him on the very last day.

The food was good to very good.  There was something for even the pickiest eater.  Brunch was not to be missed.  Neither my husband and I are morning people, but we never felt like our breakfast options were limited because we woke up late.  I loved the egg stations where I could get made-to-order egg white omelettes and salsa.  Freshly made ice cream in Oceanview Cafe was a must.  Great salad bars, made-to-order pasta, stir-fry, and sushi stations were available every day.  Chef’s daily specials station in the back of Oceanview Cafe offered grill-to-order fish, steaks and veggies.  You could also get made-to-order paninis there during lunch.  There was afternoon tea service every day from 4-5pm in Oceanview Cafe, where you would find finger sandwiches, hot scones, jams and clot cream.  The food in the main dining room was quite good.  The menu changed every day.  The chocolate souffle was the best I’ve had.  And I know my desserts.

The service on Celebrity Summit was excellent.  It was the best service that we’ve experienced thus far.  The crew staff was competent.  Everyone greeted us with a smile.  Waiters went out of their way to say hi and offered help even when they were not assigned to us.  Non-intrusive sommeliers.  No one bothered us to buy anything.  At the buffet, the manager asked me if I would like him to get me something to drink with my breakfast.  And assured me it was no problem for him at all.  Another person got bananas for me when they were not put out.  And another one brought me green apples for my seasickness.  All without me asking them to do so.  It’s a pleasant surprise to find that level of service on a big mainstream ship.  At the dining room, our waiter (Cesar) and his assistant (Julio) were excellent at what they do.  They were attentive, genuinely nice, and paid close attention to our needs.  The assistant maitre’d, Olena, made it a point to say hi to us every night.  Alex the Maitre’d quickly got us a private table for 3 when he heard my request.  Even the public restroom attendants were great.  They didn’t have the most glamorous job, but they worked hard and did it with a smile on their face.

Public Restroom

Celebrity Summit Atrium

Pool Area

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The ship itself - Celebrity Summit - was originally built in 2001.  It went through a $50+ million dollar renovation couple years ago, which among other things, added new eateries, bars and aqua class cabins.  I’m not sure if carpets/flooring in public areas were replaced during this renovation or not, but they looked worn out in places.  However, overall, the ship was clean and still beautiful.  Summit has tons of public outdoor (and indoor) space to sit and relax, read, have a drink, enjoy the weather or watch the ocean gone by.  One of our favorite spots were the Sunset Bar.  Nothing beats enjoying a cold drink with the sun shining on your face, watching the ship pulling away from port.

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Live soft music was played throughout the ship.  It never felt crowded even our ship was sailing at full capacity.  Celebrity does this right.  Royal Caribbean should take notes.  We felt suffocated when we were on Oasis of the Seas.  It was cramped and noisy.  However, our staterooms were where Celebrity Summit felt short.

We booked very last minute (less than a month from the sailing date).  And were assigned 2 accessible inside staterooms.  Both were bad.  When we first entered our staterooms, we noticed big wet areas on the carpet.  When pointed out to the stateroom attendants, we were told that because the rooms were accessible, the water sipped through from the bathrooms, and there was nothing could be done about it.  In any case, knowing this beforehand, we were very careful not to let water run off onto the bathroom floor during showers.  I rolled a few towels and put them around the shower area as a dam.  And wiped off any water that managed to escape immediately.  It kept the bathroom floor dry.  But we still got wet carpet throughout the cruise.  As soon as the spots that we noticed upon check-in dried off by themselves in a couple days, another big puddle appeared in my stateroom.  Not sure where that came from.  And that puddle was still there on our disembarkation day.

Wet soggy carpet

It was apparent that both our accessible rooms have been neglected in terms of maintenance and cleaning over the years.  Torn bed skirts, saggy mattresses, stained/wet soggy carpet. The bathrooms were the worst; rusty, dirty and very run-down looking.

rusty dirty bathroom

I think our cabin attendant did try to clean up the bathroom during our stay, but a 10-20 minute cleaning could not undo years of neglect.  We had a chance to check out other (not accessible) staterooms on the same floor, and they were day and night better.  Updated bathrooms, clean carpet, better mattresses.  And THAT made me upset and sad.  Even though we did not need nor request the accessible rooms, others require it.  In general, physically challenged folks don’t have that many choices when it comes to staterooms because there are so few of them available on each ship.  I understand business is all about supply and demand, but these folks pay the same amount of money (sometimes more) to get a room that could accommodate their needs.  Don’t they deserve to have their rooms cleaned and cared for like the rest of us?

Luckily, this cruise was so port intensive that we didn’t have to spend a lot of time in our rooms.  We had only 1 sea day.  We liked all the ports that we visited.  Our favorites are Antigua, St. Maarten & St. Thomas.  We definitely want to come back and stay a few days on those islands, to explore them further.  It was a shame though, this trip would’ve been perfect had it not been for the disappointing staterooms.

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Charlotte Amalie - St. Thomas

Magens Bay

St. Thomas is one of more than 50 U.S. Virgin Islands.  An interesting tidbit - These islands are an unincorporated territory of the U.S., so the residents are not protected by the U.S. Constitution, do not vote in presidential elections, and have no vote in Congress.  They are however, subject to U.S. taxes.

We woke up late, had breakfast and then headed out by ourselves.  We docked at Havensight Pier, which was very nice.  There were more than 50 shops, all neat and airy.  Plenty of American car rental companies (Avis, Budget) right at the cruise dock as well if you’d like to rent a car.  An interesting note - they drive on the left!  We opted to have someone drive us.  So we just walked up to the taxi dispatch at port to request a private open air taxi.  The driver took us around the island, stopped at many wonderful lookouts and brought us to Emerald beach (her favorite).

Emerald Beach

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The island was beautiful and had tons of gorgeous beaches.   The tour was relaxing and took a total of 3 hrs.  Cost $75 for 3 people.

Philipsburg - St. Maarten

Planes landing at Princess Juliana International Airport (Maho Beach)

This is a very popular port of call for cruise ships.  The day we were in port, there were 6 other ships; each with at least 2,000 passengers.  Our taxi driver said it was not too bad because some days, they have 12 ships!  We like this cruise terminal the most.  Everything was clearly marked.  There were open air restaurants, shops, bars right there, you don’t have to walk too far from the ship.  We found THE best coconut smoothie here.  Even with the amount of people in port that day, it was pretty orderly at the cruise dock.

St. Maarten/Martin is only 37 square miles - the smallest land mass in the world to be shared by two different countries.  It is owned by both Netherlands and France, thanks to a treaty signed over 360 years ago.  With the Concordia Agreement (1648), the Dutch and French agreed that residents of either side of the island can be commercially active on the other side without any red tape or border difficulties.  This contract of peaceful coexistence turns out to be the oldest active, undisputed treaty on our planet.  The friendly partition of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin remains to this day, and the two separate lives coexist in contrast but perfect harmony.  Although Dutch is the official language, virtually everyone speaks English.

This is another favorite island of ours.  Last time we were here, we went to Orient Beach on the French side, loved it.  Although hubby said he was scarred for life after seeing so many naked people.  This time we wanted to do something different, so we took the taxi to Maho Beach to watch the planes land and take off.  It’s the only place in the world where you can be that close to a landing/taking off plane, and it was amazing.  We spent a few hours at Sunset Bar & Grill on Maho Beach.  Best place to watch the planes.  The wait staff there was really nice; they were pleasant to patrons who didn’t order anything.  They hooked my husband up with VERY strong long island ice tea.  I liked their mango daiquiris.  They posted the arrivals and departures of all the bigger planes of the day on a black board in front of the bar.  That way you’ll know what time to watch out for the planes.

Sunset Bar & Grill on Maho Beach

St. Johns - Antigua

Dickerson Bay

Antigua is known for its 366 beaches.  We found that there were quite a lot of Chinese restaurants and markets in St. John’s.  Our taxi drivers told us the Chinese came to Antigua a long time ago due to some kind of agreement between the two governments, and never left.

Last time we were here, we did a kayak tour and went out to Bird Island.  This time, we just wanted a beach day.  So we took a taxi to Dickerson Bay and stayed there for a few hours.  $12 each way for 3 people.  Dickerson Bay has a long, white sandy beach.  The water was beautiful, but kind of cool.  We found the area past Sandals (opposite direction with the Pier) had the best sand and less crowded.

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Sunset in Antigua

The view of Antigua’s shoreline as we sailed away was breathtaking.  Thanks to the Captain who let us know beforehand so that we had time to go to the Sunset Bar to watch.

One thing to keep in mind: like St. Lucia, camouflaged clothes are strictly forbidden in Antigua.  There may be hefty fines if you wear them in public.

Castries - St. Lucia

The famous twin Pitons

With its rugged beauty and lush tropical sceneries, St. Lucia is probably the most popular honeymoon spot in the Caribbean.  It was passed between British and French 14th times from mid 17th to early 19th century, when British took possession for good.  Traces of both cultures still remain in the language - many St. Lucians speak both English and  French Creole patois - and in distinctive place names like Soufriere, Gros Islet, and Pitons.  St. Lucia did not become fully independent until 35 years ago (on 2/22/79).  To this day, St. Lucia continues to recognize Queen Elizabeth II as titular head of state.

Note: All camouflaged clothing is strictly forbidden in St. Lucia.

We took a tour with Cosol Tours here.  $65/person.  We had been on tours with both Cosol and Herod.  Our comparison between the two can be found here.  The tour lasted 7 hours.  There was a lot of time spent in the minivan driving on super windy roads, but it was informative and we got a good overview of the island.  Food and drinks were provided.  We sampled local fish cakes, johnny cakes, coconut cakes, tamarind, soursop, etc.  A mobile bar with rum punch, water, local beer (Pitons), sodas and home-made spice rum followed us the whole time.  We visited the banana plantation, fishing villages (Anse La Raye and Canaries), Marigot Bay (where the movie Dr. Doolittle was filmed), Soufriere where we had an overlook of the pitons, Mt. Soufriere (the only “walk-up volcano” in the world, took a dip in the mud bath, Toraille Waterfall for a short refreshing swim under the cascading water, then took a water taxi to Jalousie Beach (Anse des Pitons) between the pitons for swimming and snorkeling.  We enjoyed the water taxi ride the most, unbelievable views of the coast.

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View from water taxi

Marigot Bay

Jalousie Beach (Anse des Pitons) was disappointing.  It nestled between St. Lucia’s famous twin peaks.  Noted though, the lounge chairs and shades in the below picture were available ONLY to Sugar Beach Resort guests.

Jalousie Beach (Anse des Pitons)

Although the beach looks great on pictures and it offered great snorkeling, we wish they had taken us to a different beach instead.  Maybe a stop at a natural white sand or black sand beach would have been better.  Jalousie Beach was initially made of volcanic black sand, but the resort (Sugar Beach) imports white sand several times a year to “improve” its appearance.  We didn’t even bother to swim.  We decided to go inside Sugar Beach Resort to get some information.

Sugar Beach Resort

The service at Sugar Beach resort was awesome, from the shuttle driver to the resort manager, everyone was extremely nice.  They offered us a ride up to the reception area, offered us drinks and gave us a tour of the whole resort!  Breathtaking views.  Amazing spa.  Sugar Beach has the most unique spa that we’ve seen.  A lot of the treatment rooms are treehouses.  Yes, treehouses.  Beautiful.

Tree-house style treatment rooms at Sugar Beach Spa

We are not fans of St. Lucia, but if we travel here, Sugar Beach Resort is the place to stay.  Hey, if it’s good enough for Gwen Paltrow and Matt Damon, it’s good enough for me ;-)

Cosol Tours vs Herod’s Land & Sea Tour in St. Lucia

I’ve taken both Cosol Tours and Herod’s Land & Sea Tour in St. Lucia on 2 separate cruises.  My thoughts:

– Both companies include food & drinks with their tours.  The food provided by Cosol was not nearly as good as the home cooked meal by Herod’s parents.  But Cosol Tours were very generous with their drinks.

– A lot more time spent driving in the van with Cosol than Herod.  With Herod, we got to take the water taxi to Jalousie Beach and back to the ship.

– Cosol had newer vans.  Cosol Tours is much larger than Herod, so you don’t have to worry about finding enough people for your tour yourself.  We would’ve chosen Herod’s Island Splendor Coastal tour for this trip, but we needed at least 12 people.  We booked too last minute (within a week), neither I or Herod had time to look for other cruise passengers to join the tour.

– Herod offered a more personal service; he was a lot more willing to cater around your requests.  For example, when our van wanted to try fresh coconuts and red bananas, he made 2 extra stops to buy them.  Cosol’s Tours has a set itinerary, they are not likely to deviate from it.

– We were not asked for tips during the entire day with Herod.  Both Herod and his parents sincerely thanked all guests for choosing their tour, with or without being tipped.  With Cosol’s Tours, it was suggested/obviously hinted on a few occasions that tips were expected.  Of course we tipped them at the end because the tour delivered what it promised, but the “hints” created a few awkward moments for a lot of guests.

Conclusion: we would choose Herod’s next time.

Bridgetown - Barbados

Barbados was first occupied by the British in 1627, and remained a British colony until internal autonomy was granted in 1961.  Since gaining full independence in 1966, Barbados maintains ties to the Britain monarch and greatly influenced by the UK.  The west coast of the island is lined with over 10 miles of perfect white-sand beaches with perfectly clear water.  This is why this piece of paradise has been dubbed the “Platinum Coast.”

Barbados

We took a taxi to Carlisle Bay on the recommendation of the Concierge.  It was a nice stretch of white sandy beach.

Carlisle Bay - Barbados

The water was clear, calm with small waves.  It was a beautiful day.  On our last trip, we went to Brighton Beach and the waves were bigger.  After spending some time in the sun, we went to look for the local dish - flying fish.  It was ok, nothing to write home about.

VERY IMPORTANT: Smoking in public spaces in Barbados is strictly prohibited, with fines and imprisonment chosen as punishment for illegal smokers.  Smokers found guilty of breaking the law face a maximum of $250 USD fine or a 12-month prison term, or both.

The V Virginia Eatery and Brewhouse

We ventured out to try a new restaurant last night, and chose V because it was a brewhouse and DH had a craving for good draft beers.  We left with mixed feelings about the place.  In summary, the food was good, but the beers were a big disappointment.  By the way, they are not brewing their own beers, that is not available for another few months.

Upon entering, V impressed us with their trendy but cozy decorations; lots of booths, curtains, mirrors and low lighting.  The restaurant and bar were more than 70% full, which was not an easy task on a Monday night.  They also have a huge patio with very nice comfortable lounging furnitures.  However, it was still too chilly to enjoy that last night.

Monday night’s special was $5 burgers and 50 cents wings.  Of course, we had to order them.  The burger was very good, quality meat, juicy and huge.  The french fries that came with it was excellent.  We got 2 flavors for our wings, Hot & Smoky Dry Rub, and Sweet Molasses BBQ sauce.  Both were delicious.  The dry rub wings were crispy and delicious, not too spicy, just enough to give you a tang, perfect with Ranch dipping.  Sweet molasses BBQ sauce was perfect for me, however, a tad too sweet for hubby.  We also had:

– Blackened Ahi “Nachos”, which consist of Seasoned ahi seared rare, wonton chips, pickled ginger, drizzles of cucumber wasabi cream and sweet and spicy Thai chili sauce on a bed of spring greens.  This dish was my favorite of the night !

– Kansas City Skins - Crispy fried baked potato skins with smoked BBQ pork, melted Cheddar, bacon crumbles, and a side of sour cream.  TGIF’s has much better potato skins.

– Our waitress accidentally ordered grilled sausages (an appetizer) for us.  They ended up giving the dish to us on the house.  The sausages were below average.  You get better ones from Costco…

– Chicken Carbonara - Chicken, chopped bacon, and sweet peas sautéed with garlic, white wine, and Parmesan in cavatappi pasta.  Decent, but somewhat bland for us.

DH tried 4 of their draft beers, 2 of them were ok (I forgot the their names), though too light for his taste, 1 was very bad, and the last one was undrinkable.
– “Wake up dead” Imperial Stout was their darkest and most expensive beer, and DH usually loves dark beers.  But he said “Wake up dead” had such a strong alcohol taste, as if someone had just poured straight rubbing alcohol into the glass.  Good liquors shouldn’t taste like that.  DH gave me an example to help me understand what he meant.  Good cognacs, grappa, whiskeys, though all of them have very high proof, they don’t taste like rubbing alcohol.

– Belgian White was a wheat beer, waitress likened it to Bluemoon.  But their Belgian White was so sour that it was undrinkable.  Not wanting to waste beers, DH spent 30 minutes trying to force it down.  At the end, he gave up, we left with the glass still almost full.

As of right now, as a brewhouse, The V is not anywhere near comparable to Sweetwater Tavern, Coastal Flats or Lost Rhino.  But we were told that they will brew their own beers in a few months.  We’d like to try that.  On the plus side, the food was mostly decent to very good.  And the atmosphere was pretty nice.  Will we be back?  Yes.  Husband wants to try Founder’s “bastard” beer, which was out yesterday.  And the food was good enough to entice me to come back.

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