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Go Foreign...In Florida

Sun is setting over the castle, playing light and shadows on the tower where King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia once slept. Around the corner are the massive walls of the fortress where brave Spanish forces held off English attack in 1702. I’ve lunched at a palace, gotten lost on narrow cobblestoned lanes and peeked at centuries-old houses tucked behind creaky iron gates. By the time darkness descends on this ancient city, so has the fragrance of jasmine and the music of the night, and I’m relishing platters of tapas in an intimate walled garden. Where in Spain am I?

Last week, I was admiring a whitewashed restaurant with Aegean blue shutters overlooking the Greek sponge-fishing docks. Its plate-glass windows reflected the timeworn fishing boats St. Nicholas and Anastasi. From their masts hung ropes of golden sponges gathered from the ocean floor. Between the reflections, I could see a Greek family inside—grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren gathered around a long dining table. It was neither lunchtime nor the dinner hour, but it didn’t matter to me.

A table at the window and the lure of fresh garlic and oil can’t be denied. Who can guess the name of this delicious Mediterranean isle?

A few days before, I had watched the deft fingers of an elderly Cuban cigar maker roll supple tobacco leaves into fat cylinders and then trim them with tools handed down from his grandfather’s day. I joined a long line of locals at the legendary La Segunda Central Bakery to score one of its iconic guava turnovers. I visited a Cuban artist who paints with tobacco juice and chatted up the former cigar factory owner who holds the Guinness Record for the world’s longest cigar. What strings did I pull for this trip to Havana?

Actually, these are trick questions. No strings were pulled on this whirlwind trip through Spain, Greece and Cuba. I never even left Florida.

It’s one of those things we think about doing but never take the time. On a typical road trip from Southwest Florida to points north, we can make it to the Georgia state line in six hours—seven max. This time, I decided to pad my trip by a few days to venture off the Interstates and explore some of Florida’s rich ethnic heritage. And, oh, what a delicious time I had.


Cigars and Café con Leche

Ybor City was carved out of Tampa Bay swampland in the 1880s by Cuban cigar maker Don Vicente Ybor. Soon came Cuban cigar rollers from Havana and Key West; aristocratic dissidents from northern Spain; Sicilian merchants; Jewish teachers and financiers from Russia, Germany and New York; and a Spanish engineer named Gutierrez with dreams of a guava plantation.

Barely 10 blocks long and three streets wide, this vibrant community eventually had 200 cigar factories to become the cigar capital of the world. Don Vicente built whitewashed casitas for his torcedores (cigar workers) and factory owners had fine literature read to them as they worked. Along the cobblestoned, lamplighted main avenue—La Setima (Seventh Avenue)—rose imposing social club buildings. There were streetcars and flamenco dances and multi-cultural cafes, restaurants and bakeries. During the Cuban Revolution, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders camped here. Cuba Libres flowed. It was a lusty, social, good life.

The Cuban embargo, the popularity of cigarettes and the economy all took their tolls. Ybor City fell into unsavory hands, including mobsters Al Capone and friends. After a brief resurgence among the pulsating club crowds, it fell into a deep and shadowy sleep.

While most of the uber-chic galleries and boutiques along La Setima are gone, many historic buildings survive, and descendants of the original families have held onto their heritage. The world’s largest Spanish restaurant (Columbia), the bakery that invented the Cuban sandwich (La Segunda Central) and one cigar company (J.C. Newman) still thrive. The morning air still carries the intoxicating, burnt aroma of chicory-laced coffee roasting at the circa-1921 Naviera Coffee Co.

Columbia is an architectural treasure of Moorish arches, heavily carved woods and hand-painted tiles. It can handle a mind-boggling 1,700 guests in 15 dining rooms. Its cellars hold 30,000 bottles of wine, and it still has nightly flamenco shows.

I feel the languid aura of timelessness here. La Segunda’s founder created the original Cuban sandwich: marinated pork, smoked ham, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, pickles and sauce. Four generations later, locals still throng in each morning to wait their turn for those sandwiches, guava turnovers and crusty, 36-inch-long loaves of hearth-baked Cuban bread.

But change is afoot. This past spring, the Church of Scientology brought in big dollars to restore Don Vicente’s original cigar factory (open to the public) and establish a headquarters here. Ybor City may be about to wake up.

EXPLOREStart at the Ferlita Bakery building, where baseball Hall of Famer Al Lopez, son of a cigar worker, once worked delivering bread. Customers wanting a loaf that morning put a nail in the outside wall and delivery boys impaled the loaf onto the nail. The historic bakery now is home to the Ybor City Museum Society. 

Besides interactive exhibits and a peek inside a restored cigar worker’s casita, you can meet Mr. Cigar himself, Wallace Reyes. The former factory owner just finished his Ph.D. thesis on the cigar culture. Also, in 2009, Wally and his wife, Margarita, masterminded the rolling of the world’s longest cigar. The Guinness World Record-holder, a 112-pound smoke, was 196 feet long.

SAVOR Cuba Libres, sangria and brain-jiggling café con leche. Ybor City blue crab croquettes. Media noche sandwiches. Black bean soup, flan and guava pastries. Italian flatbreads, pastas and gourmet fare. Original Spanish family recipes from the nine-page Columbia menu. 

StrollTake Wally Reyes’ captivating Ybor City walking tour (www.cigarsoftampa.com), or rent a self-guided tour CD at the museum. Adjacent to the Ferlita Bakery is the studio-gallery of Arnold Martinez, who sometimes paints with coffee, tobacco and wine.

SLEEPCheck into the Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn on Avenida Republica de Cuba. Designed and built in 1895 by that guava-seeking engineer, it was Don Vicente’s first office building. It was abandoned for decades before its $2 million restoration. With its iron balconies, chandeliers and staircase, Old World accents and Spanish tiles, it’s loaded with ambience. And most likely a few ghosts (www.donvicenteinn.com).

DIRECTIONSTake the I-4 exit off I-75 and follow the signs. Vintage 1940s streetcars run the 2.2 miles between Tampa’s hotel/seaport district and Ybor City.


Sponges, Baklava and Roasting Lamb

While Cuban cigar workers were fleeing Key West for Ybor City, the sponge beds in Key West were getting depleted, putting thousands of sponge divers out of work. When a Greek sponge-fishing entrepreneur discovered a mother lode of healthy sponge beds on Florida’s west coast at the mouth of the Anclote River, he relocated his operation to Tarpon Springs. By the 1930s, 2,000 sponge fishermen had flocked here, mostly from the Dodecanese Islands in his native Greece.

A Greek community grew up along the sponge docks. They brought their fine Aegean art and built a replica of Istanbul’s stunning Hagia Sophia Eastern Orthodox cathedral. Dodecanese Avenue—named in honor of the homeland—sprouted restaurants, bakeries and shops. Now, as then, the fishy smell of sponges drying in the sun is infused with the scent of garlic, Greek olive oils, slow-roasted lamb turning on spits and pans of baklava emerging from the ovens. The color palette is dominated by Aegean blues against pristine white. And English is the second language.

TOURING Take a scenic boat ride on the Anclote River hosted by descendants of founding sponge diving families. Pose for photos with a diver in vintage diving gear. Your go-to person is long-time sponge merchant George Billiris, owner of the St. Nicholas sponge boat. You’ll see his kiosk on the docks.

SHOPPINGOne can’t leave the sponge docks without a cache of sponges. Beyond sponges, savvy shoppers may be challenged to find the few notable boutiques tucked among the plethora of touristy trinket and ice cream stores. One new goodie is Wine on the Docks, with its excellent selection of Mediterranean wines, spirits and gifts.

Another new jewel, literally, is Arlyne d’Andrea’s One Life Jewelry. Inspired by the dainty three-star necklace worn by Sophie in the movie Mamma Mia, Arlyne made one for herself. Friends ordered copies; it went viral on the Internet, and the rest is history.

BEYOND THE DOCKS The spectacular St. Nicholas Cathedral downtown took 35 years to build. Nearby, check out the excellent antiques and collectibles shops and lovely Victorian mansions on Spring Bayou.

CELEBRATING GREEK CULTURE Night in the Islands is a monthly free Saturday celebration of authentic Greek music and dancing on the sponge docks. Upcoming dates are July 9, Aug. 6 and Sept. 10.

FEASTINGOne can easily do Tarpon Springs in a day, unless one comes to eat. Then we’re talking weeks. The Greek restaurants and bakeries along the sponge docks are the real deal, passed down through the generations. Moussaka, saganaki (flaming cheese), spanakopita. Hummus, gyros souvlakis and dolmades—I wanted it all. My meal of the gods was Mykonos Chef Andy’s signature papoutsaki—melt-in-the-mouth roasted eggplant stuffed with beef and drenched in a delicate béchamel sauce. Directly across the street, the hottest restaurant on the docks is Dimitri’s, just opened by Andy’s son.

GETTING HERE It’s an arduous hour’s drive from Tampa, involving a section of the dreadful U.S. 19. Staying over? Check out the Spring Bayou Inn in the Victorian district (www.springbayouinn.com).


Sensuous, Spanish St. Augustine

There will be tourists. The painful truth is, you’re one of them. More tastefully dressed, perhaps, but still. The only thing to do is get over it and immerse in the Ancient City, landing place of Juan Ponce de León. This walled city, guarded by an impenetrable coquina stone fortress that has flown three countries’ flags, retains the best cultures of each. 

As you pick your way along live-oak-shaded cobblestoned lanes, you’ll breathe the heady scents of gardenia trees (yes, trees), magnolias and jasmine, and feel the magical cadence of cathedral bells and horse-drawn carriages. You’ll stay up late and sleep in. You’ll dine on the authentic flavors of Spanish, French, Greek and Deep South cuisine. You’ll hear whispers on the wind that may or may not be the voices of long departed spirits.

If it’s romance you’re after, prepare to swoon as the moon rises over the stately Bridge of Lions; or as the strains of a street musician’s lonely saxophone reach your intimate corner table for two.

SETTLING INNCottage or castle? With one notable exception (the palatial Casa Monica Hotel), a bed-and-breakfast inn is essential to the St. Augustine experience. It’s the gift wrap that defines the treasure within. For a fleeting moment, the innkeepers become your personal concierges, gourmet breakfast chefs, tellers of tales and sharers of secrets. Some serve complimentary afternoon tea; others bake bedtime cookies. There are more than 50 B-and-Bs within the 144-block, four-square-mile Old City.

My sweetheart and I have settled in at The Westcott House, a lovely Victorian home-turned-B-and-B overlooking Matanzas Bay.

But first, a few CliffsNotes on St. Augustine:

1513–1565: Ponce de León sails in seeking the Fountain of Youth. Reluctant to return empty-handed, he claims La Florida for Spain. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés shows up to kill off some French troops and founds the city.

1565–1763: Pirates, Indians and British create annoyances.

1763: England gets St. Augustine in the Treaty of Paris.

1783: England gives St. Augustine back to Spain.

1822: Spain sells it to the United States.

1888: Oil and rail mogul Henry Flagler arrives on his honeymoon. He imagines a retreat for wealthy northerners—if only there were some opulent hotels. 

1900: Flagler builds two such hotels: Ponce de León and Alcazar, then buys another: Casa Monica. He solves the next obvious problem—transportation—by buying and connecting some small railroads.

Here’s where my B-and-B comes in: Flagler buys one of those railroads from a local doctor, John Westcott. And tonight we’re guests in what was probably Dr. and Mrs. Westcott’s master bedroom. Lounging on their upstairs verandah. Breakfasting on their patio. Owners/innkeepers Joy and Andrew Warren have retained the Old World décor, adding 21st century touches like gorgeous fabrics and Jacuzzis for two. We arrive in time for a glass of chilled chardonnay and selections of fruits, cheeses, hummus and crabmeat spreads. A delicious start to a St. Augustine escape.

THE Stroll Touristy St. George Street can’t be avoided, really. You’d miss things like the Colonial Spanish Quarter, the Oldest Wooden School House and several intriguing shops and eateries. But the lure of the Ancient City is the quiet side, south of Cathedral Street: Flagler’s grand hotels, restored and re-imagined, a historic convent, wonderful museums and centuries-old homes shrouded in Spanish moss and palmetto fronds.

TASTING Gyros at Athena Cafe on Cathedral Street: The multi-generational Chryssaidis family imports olive oils from its own groves in Greece. The Tasting Room: a contemporary take on classic tapas. (Must try the piquillos rellenos—mini stuffed peppers with goat cheese and herbs.) Now there’s Tasting Room to Go: A Spanish Deli, your source for the world’s most prized and expensive ham, the free-roaming, acorn-fed Iberico de bellota. Plus, Mediterranean olives, artichokes, tapenades, pestos, sandwiches and pastries.

Have a glam lunch at Café Alcazar, set into the deep end of the former swimming pool inside the opulent Lightner Museum, and then dine at the classy Rhett’s Piano Bar and Brasserie. Last stop: the Tini Martini at the Casablanca Inn.

GETTING HERE St. Augustine is one hour north of Daytona Beach. Take I-95 to U.S. 1. Westcott House: www.westcotthouse.com.

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