Blogs > News-Herald Food and Travel

Food and travel captivate Janet Podolak, who chronicles both for The News-Herald. Get the back story of her three decades of stories here. Guest bloggers and fellow News-Herald staffers also periodically share details of their trips.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Adventure Tuesday

Peter Grubb poses with a statue of Petar Hektorovic, an early Croatian poet.
Peter Grubb, founder of ROW International, was the genius behind my September voyage among the Adriatic islands off Croatia . For nearly 30 years he's forged relationships all over the world and has developed many unusual trips like this one. Whether the destination is Croatia, Jamaica, Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, France, Ecuador or Algeria his guests are connected with the people and culture of places they visit. And through every trip runs a commitment to honor and respect those cultures and to travel responsibly. Those who follow The News-Herald's Travel Section will get to know Peter and a little more about his company on Dec. 12.

Meanwhile, in quirky take on Black Friday, Peter has established Adventure Tuesday, a day on which some of the adventures offered by ROW will be deeply discounted. Most of the trips are on or near the water - no surprise from a guy who got starte3d in the business with white water rafting trips in Idaho and Montana.

Here's how Adventure Tuesday works. Email Peter to get on his newsletter list. ( Monday night you'll learn about the deals that will be available first thing Tuesday. Then get on the phone first thing Tuesday  and call toll-free 800-451-6034. Because he's in Idaho, "first thing" will be noon here or 9 a.m. Pacific Time. First come, first serve is the protocol and messages don't count.
Good luck. Perhaps you'll be the one sailing among the Croatian islands in spring.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Octopus, oysters and creatures of the briny Adriatic

An octopus is pulled from the sea. See it wiggle on the video.
Shipmate Dave Legge helps open oysters so we can taste them.
Fish in Croatia are served with their heads intact, even when they have an overbite.
Shipmate Wendy Andary braces herself for a raw oyster

Just before joining the Romanca we stopped at a tiny roadside stand in Mali Ston, which is known for its oysters. There, within sight of the buoys that marked where they were harvested, we tasted briny oysters fresh from the sea. A few miles away we arrived in Ston, where salt continues to be harvested although its economic importance is not nearly as vital as it was before refrigeration when it was the world’s major preservative.
Our guide Josko shows us salt that still is an economic mainstay in Ston.

The salt stores were so important in Ston that in 1333 a 3-1/2-mile-long wall was built around the town — becoming the longest fortification in Europe. The walls, which still stagger over the mountainside, were the staging route for a running competition the Saturday of our visit.
Being on the sea meant, of course, that we had plenty of seafood with lots of octopus and squid served at our meals. Throughout Croatia, fish are served with their heads still attached — an experience that is shocking to many Americans but taken in stride by Europeans.

At port stops the ship’s crew members could often be spotted dropping a line off the seawall where the ship tied up. The water everywhere was so clear one could see the creatures living beneath its surfaces. On two occasions we saw octopuses pulled up.
One night our chef Ivo Boshinjak served a truly amazing black risotto, which was honestly one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted. Turns out he’s worked on several islands in the French Caribbean and once was a partner at a restaurant on the Dutch island of Bonaire, where my brother had a home for 12 years. We concluded that I’d probably eaten his cooking before — another of the astonishing coincidences that followed me from the planning stages to the conclusion of this amazing voyage. If you’re interested in booking a trip like this one next year, contact ROW Adventures, 800-451-6034;

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Figs to pomegranates, olives to oskorusa ripen in Croatia's sun

href="" imageanchor="1" style="clear: left; margin-bottom: 1em; margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto;"> The figs weren't quite ripe but we passed plenty of them during our hikes on Croatia's islands.
Mediterranean fruits and vegetables were commonly encountered during our harvest season voyage among the Adriatic islands off the coast of Croatia. Even though we set sail from Dubrovnik in the middle of September, when tomatoes were at their delicious peak, there were lots of things not yet ready to be picked. Olives and figs still had a few weeks, at least, before becoming ripe enough to use but since I’m not familiar with growing either, I’m not a good judge. We saw both fruits growing abundantly as we passed farms and gardens on our hikes.

Every morning on board the ship, our chef put out fresh ripe tomatoes layered with freshly made mozzarella cheese and drizzled it with the most delicious olive oil. Eggs with the almost-orange yolks produced by free ranging chickens also were a part of every breakfast. There was not a single meal aboard the Romanca that overlooked the wonderful produce that surrounded us on land and in the sea.

This is what the local market vendor called an oskorusa
My love of outdoor markets was easy to indulge in villages we visited. At one of them, I discovered a fruit the vendor called oskorusa, a small reddish brown fruit resembling a small apple but tasting much different. The vendor gave me a taste and it wasn’t like anything I’d tasted before. I didn’t buy any but wish I had since the lore surrounding it claims it improved concentration and memory and aids in digestion.
It almost tastes like an apple.
Luscious olive oils were sold from farmhouses found along our hiking routes.

We also were able to engage in an olive oil tasting at one market, where the grower had oils arranged from mild to more peppery tastes. Croatian olive oils have gained some real acclaim among foodies in recent years and it was quickly apparent why. Several of my shipmates bought olive oils to pack and take home with them.
These grapes were among the few that weren't yet picked during our mid-September voyage among Croatia's islands.

Grapes were being picked by hand — usually by women — everywhere we went. Most Croatian vineyards are small — 10 to 15 acres— and only Grgch Winery buys from several growers to make wines. Grgch Hill Estate Wines in Napa Valley are extraordinary wines developed by Mike Grgch who moved there from Croatia years ago.

A decade or ago he returned to help Croatian winemakers develop their wine industry and has created some remarkably good wines by making wine blends from Croatian grapes. Research he did has pretty well proven that the Zinfandel grapes so successfully grown in California today originally came from Croatia.
This pomegranate certainly looks ready to pick.

Pomegranates hung heavy on their trees, growing redder and riper in the warm Croatian sunshine. Although the part of Croatia we visited is on about the same parallel as Rome it seemed hotter and drier than that Italian city. It was a very pleasant dry heat and not at all uncomfortable. At night it cooled down beautifully and the Romanca only needed to run its air conditioning a few times at night. We all had porthole style windows in our rooms and I’d packed a battery-operated clip-on fan that brought the cool outside air into my room, which was below decks. It was important, however, to remember to close the port hole window once we got underway or risk bringing the Adriatic waves onto my bed.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Life's a Beach Vol. 3

They have a sense of humor at Alligator Alley.

Wesley Moore has more than 200 American alligators at his refuge in the Alabama Gulf Coast. Visitors can hold a young gator (they feel like wet shoes...)

or watch Moore feed them.

But the greatest pleasure to be had in Alligator Alley is to watch these cold-blooded carnivores act like themselves. Granted, in the autumn, that means a lot of lethargic sunbathing.

I also had the opportunity to kayak in Graham Creek today, a brackish creek that leads into Wolf Bay. A north wind and low tide combined to make the water so shallow that one of my cohorts could see a stingray swim across the floor of the creek.

Mullet (a freshwater fish common to the area) would often jump from the water, but I wasn't quick enough to photograph it despite my best efforts.

-Jason Lea,


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Life's a Beach Vol. 2

I love photographing glass blowers. It's difficult to make someone look cool when they're painting or sculpting because the physical process tends to be subtle.

But glass blowers, they're kinetic. They wield blow torches, long rods, clamps and sand that's hot enough to melt your face. It's difficult to not make that look cool.

I visited the Orange Beach Art Center on the Alabama Gulf Coast and got to watch visiting artist Sam Cornman work.

 And what could make this moment of artistic creation more photogenic? How about adding an adorable child or four?

I also went on a dolphin-watching cruise. Captain Bill Mitchell of Cetacean Cruises promises you will see dolphins on his tours. He can do this because the bottlenose dolphins of Wolf Bay are homebodies and will live most of their lives in a 10-mile area.

Granted, just because you see a dolphin (and we saw a lot) doesn't mean you'll snap a good photo of them.

Captain Bill is also a repository of useful dolphin facts. For example, male dolphins don't help raise the babies. But females will have another female that acts as a "nanny." She helps with every aspect of the child rearing, even lactating so the child can also feed from it.

Final thought: King Neptune's is an unassuming shrimp shack that borders a Domino's Pizza, but it has the best gumbo I've ever eaten in my life. It also has some stellar Royal Red shrimp...

and a dangerously delicious fried cheesecake.

Yeah, fried cheesecake.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Today is the 50th anniversary for two of the journalists with me on this press trip.

Happy anniversary Susan and Marshall. Keep shinin', you crazy diamonds.


Life's a Beach Vol. 1

Once again, Janet Podolak has graciously allowed staff writer Jason Lea to borrow her blog while he visits the Alabama portion of the Gulf Coast.

The Gulf Coast oil spill was a calamity, no doubt. It flowed for three months, released about 185 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and, lest we forget, killed 11 and injured 17.

But what hurt Alabama portion of the Gulf Coast even more than the oil spill was the perception of the oil spill.

Kim Chapman, the public relations manager from Kim Chapman, said from May to August (normally, their peak season) tourism business dropped 41 percent. It did not matter if they had actual oil flowing in or just the occasional tarball.

Chapman said most of the struggles with encroaching oil were finished by the end of July, but people still avoided the area, expecting to find petroleum-choked beaches.

"We went to YouTube to show people. Every morning we would shoot video of the beach and have it uploaded by every afternoon, so people could see what it actually looked like," she said.

Chapman and I spoke in Dinner at LuLu's, a restaurant owned by Jimmy Buffett's younger sister, Lucy. We ate fried oysters and blackened shrimp. (Both caught in the gulf, both tasty.)

(Only fried oysters, French fries and jalapeno hush puppies are pictures. The blackened shrimp got eaten before I could photograph it.)

The restaurant also features live music...

and this beauty. It's called a three-layer margarita. It's lime, strawberry and tangerine flavors tiered in a single glass.

I only arrived in Alabama yesterday evening, so I didn't have much of a chance to see anything but LuLu's, but here's the view from the condominium (provided by Young's Suncoast Realty) in which I am staying.

-Jason Lea

P.S. I love flying through the Charlotte airport for one reason. It has a Jamba Juice. I became addicted to Jamba smoothies when my wife spent a summer in New York. Sadly, the closest one to Cleveland is in Indianapolis.

Trust me, it's not a smoothie. It's Jamba Juice.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Sunny Hvar for lace, jetsetters, lavender

The 100-foot Romanca, a wooden sailing ship, was our home during our Adriatic voyage among Croatia's pristine islands.

We head for Hvar , sunniest place in Croatia, aboard the ship's dinghy

This map shows our three port calls on the lovely Croatian island of Hvar.

Hvar Island, the sunniest place in all of Croatia, is a study in contrasts.
Most “discovered” among the Adriatic islands offshore between Split and Dubrovnik, it’s easily reached on routes plied by the Jadrolina ferry.
The scents of lavender and fresh baking reached us even before our ship’s dinghy carrying us ashore had reached the landing. To my mind, the salt air acts in much the same way as winter does at home: a deprivation of scents makes those encountered more profound.
Those of us from the Romanca felt little kinship with the elegant beautiful people who make Hvar’s shops, bars and waterfront strolls a see-and-be-seen destination. It reminded me of Monaco and other glamor-drenched towns along the French Riviera.
We’d been together aboard the 100-foot wooden sailing ship for a week and had bonded into our own small community of explorers. We ogled the Seven Sins motor yacht moored nearby and, once back aboard, one of us Googled the Seven Sins to learn that it, too, was a charter, going for 129,500 euros (about $200,000!) a week.
But we had UNESCO World Heritage Site lace on our minds. Watching the clock, we headed uphill to visit the lace-making nuns at a Benedictine convent established here on Hvar in 1664. We needed to get there before noon because the nuns shut their doors to the public then.
In the early 1800s as the sisters taught domestic skills to young women of the town, they developed a unique handcraft framed around the raw materials available to them. They figured out how to make lace from the dried strands of agave leaves — a widespread succulent plant growing wild throughout the island. Agave is, in fact, the same plant from which tequila is made in Mexico, and I’d seen its tall flower, which blooms every hundred years, used as a Christmas tree on several Caribbean islands.
The nuns harvest the fat green, thorn-edged leaves of the tropical lilies and carefully draw the fiber from them to make thread. The technique, along with their lace-making skills have been passed down through generations of sisters. The patterns are of their own creation.

This lace, created by nuns in a Hvar convent, is crafted from fibers drawn from the fat leaves of  agave, the same plant from which tequila is made in Mexico.
The lace and the tools used to make it are seen carefully preserved under glass in a small one-room museum. It is also sold by the nuns.
Our shipmate whipped out her credit card as she approached the small counter where handmade lace items were displayed. A small sign noted the lace is not to be washed, dry cleaned or ironed. It’s obviously lace meant to be framed, not used on chair arms as my grandmother did with hers.
A brief conversation ensued as the clock began to strike the noon hour. Reluctantly, it seemed, our shipmate put her credit card away and we prepared to leave, shepherded through the large arched stone door by the stern-faced sister.
“The prices for the lace start at about $700 and go up from there,” our colleague explained. “I love the lace but not that much.”
Jet setters and other beautiful people stroll the Hvar waterfront.

The day was heating up, so a few of us stopped for a cool drink along the waterfront promenade, where we watched the beautiful people. The shoppers among us meandered among shops and stalls and everyone bought lavender, which grows all over Hvar and several other Adriatic islands.
We wandered up to the other side of town, where a guided tour had been arranged for us at a 15th-century Franciscan monastery.
A striking Last Supper painting filled a full wall of the monks’ refectory.
“The artist, who was sick, was thrown ashore from a passing ship when its sailors feared he would infect them,” our guide said. “The monks took him in and nursed him back to health early in the 17th century. He was so grateful he did this painting for them.”
The courtyard outside is presided over by a nearly 500-year-old cypress tree also believed planted by the same artist.