–Winter Break 2015 Trip Notes Part 2: Cancun And The Riviera Maya
–Trip Notes: Miami. A Trip Of Firsts (2011)
–Trip Notes: Miami 2012.
–Trip Notes: Miami 2014.
-Find dozens of trip notes like this one by clicking on the “Trip Notes” tab on top of the DansDeals banner at the top of this site.
A few weeks ago we took a trip to South Florida and Cancun.
Here are some notes from that trip.
A couple of months ago my mother-in-law called me for help finding a place to rent in South Florida that would work for 4 families.
We settled on a 5 bedroom home in Hollywood, FL that had ample sleeping space for everyone and was 1.6 miles away from a Chabad house.
Such rentals are far less expensive in vacation destinations like Orlando or Palm Springs, CA, but the weather and kosher scene are much better in the Miami area.
Of course, the winter break that others in the party had didn’t coincide with the winter break that Rafi had from nursery school. And we weren’t about to run back to the tundra only to have him off for a week stuck in the house, so we made a 2 week extended trip out of it.
This was our first trip since Talia outgrew her infant carseat. Infant carseats are a pleasure to travel with as they snap into a stroller which can also hold other bags as you trek through an airport.
Although Talia is just 16 months old, we always redeem miles to get an airplane seat for everyone. It’s safer (would you hold your kid in a car that was prone to turbulence?) and it allows her to take a nap as well, something she wouldn’t do if she was being held.
On this trip we used 2 Cosco Scenara lightweight convertible carseats and 2 GoGo Babyz Travelmates. Both are lifesavers when flying. The travelmate makes it easy to navigate through the airport with kids and the lightweight convertible carseats are the only way to go when bringing them onboard.
We checked our new and significantly improved 2015 Vista and rumble seat (thanks BB&B 😉 ) in a suitcase. Our Babybjorn Travel Crib also gets checked in its included travel bag. Just mention to the airline that it’s a stroller and crib and they both fly free.
With 4 seats on a 737 with a 3-3 configuration I did my usual window-aisle seat selection and as luck would have it we had 2 empty middle seats. There was DirecTV onboard though the wifi is more my style. It’s amazing how much easier flying is with a toddler once they can be distracted with a tablet playing some Shalom Sesame and 8th day songs…
We rented a minivan from Sixt on the cheap. They are off-site at Fort Lauderdale, but it’s just a short ride in their Sprinter to get to their location. They do make a hard push for their upsells (gas, sunpass, insurance) and of course they have a Town & Country and not their advertised Sienna, but for the price you can’t complain.
The house we rented had a wonderful heated pool and hot tub:
Nicely lit up at night, too:
Kitchen with a self-cleaning oven:
Hollywood is home to Levy’s, an excellent Israeli style restaurant.
They make the best Felafel I’ve had in the US:
Their non-Israeli food also shines.
Ribs melt in your mouth and are delicious. Be sure to call first as they don’t make these every day:
For dessert they have some of the best chocolate babka you’ll ever try:
Thanks to Groupon we had $15 tickets to Lion Country Safari with free parking, a steep discount off the regular price.
Everything is included in the price of admission including paddle boats:
Ferris wheel and other attractions are free as well:
There is also a water park as well as several shows that are included in the cost of admission.
There are 2 sections of the safari, one that you walk through and one that you drive through. It’s a nice way to spend a day with kids, but the shows and the drive-through safari are completely outclassed by the African Lion Safari between Niagara Falls and Toronto.
One thing it did offer that we didn’t see in Toronto was a Giraffe feeding platform which was awesome:
The kids ate dinner at the house and once they were asleep some of the adults slipped off to 26, a sleek new restaurant in Surfside with a dairy Peruvian Asian cuisine
I had heard they had a bit of a rough start, but that’s often expected in the first few weeks of a restaurant opening. I was sorely disappointed at Ditmas grand opening in LA in December of 2013 but fell in the love with the place when we returned in July of 2014.
As for 26, the owner was on hand and was making the rounds to ensure everything was going smoothly and indeed the service we received was far superior to anything I’ve ever experienced in Miami.
There’s no connection between 26 and the defunct restaurant of the same name in Los Angeles.
The Cream of Mushroom soup was phenomenal:
The Passion Rita drink has Cayenne pepper along the rim. A bold move but it’s awesome:
Sushi Pizza may even be better than Shallot’s famous rice crackers.
Ever had sushi with fried Mozzarella in it? Neither have I, but it’s good!
The sushi is excellent overall, perhaps just one small notch below Montreal’s Yakimono and Chicago’s Shallot’s:
The trio of different types of fries and dips are a must-try:
I can’t pronounce most of the items from the Tapas samples plate, but most of it is awesome including the tostones, tacos, and edamame.
Passion fruit cheesecake and caramel brownies are awesome as well:
We stopped at Serendipity for some of their yummy ice cream. I only wanted a small cup and asked if I could get 2 flavors in it. The employee said sure but then the grumpy owner came over and said absolutely not.
I mean how do grumpy people even get into the ice cream business?
When the employee finished giving me 2 scoops of 1 flavor (peanut butter cup) she mouthed “I’m sorry” to me. Honestly I just felt sorry for her having to work under those conditions…
We’ve already done speedboat tours, Vizcaya, Everglades, amphibious ducky tours, stand-up paddling, and more on previous trips. This was the first time we had our own pool though and the kids took full advantage of that all day long.
For dinner the next night we had reservations at Kosh. Alas when we got there there was not an empty seat inside or out. And it didn’t help that the Maitre D didn’t speak any English.
People have given very mixed reviews for Backyard BBQ across the street and there was a line out the door there as well. So I called up Rare in the 41st neighborhood and they said they would save a table for us.
Rare Steakhouse used to be on 41st but they moved into Tower 41 before downgrading to Rare Bistro.
No wonder they were able to save a table for us, while every other restaurant that week had been full beyond capacity, Rare was empty.
Unfortunately with the downgrade the place feels more like a cafeteria than a nice restaurant. The food has gone downhill as well.
Popcorn chicken was the highlight of the night:
Beef tacos are bland and forgettable:
BBQ Brisket egg rolls were out of stock so we got the BBQ brisket sliders. The meat was good, but the BBQ sauce was so overpowering that it took away from the dish:
Truffle fries are delicious, much better than the standard fries:
Onion rings are a soggy tasteless disappointment. Shameful.
Ribeye steak was charred and tasted like rubber:
The Bistro Burger comes loaded with brisket and short rubs and is a better choice than most of the steaks:
Steak Frites was unremarkable as well:
By far the best steak option was the Churrasco steak:
For dessert we stopped at The Frieze for some of their incredible sorbet. Don’t miss Champagne or Peanut Butter.
The next day we drove up north to meetup with my grandparents and other cousins at the incredible Sugar Sand Park in Boca Raton:
A $1 carousel ride:
An addictive free outdoor hand-eye coordination game:
Free water games:
A free mini science museum with great exhibits. Rafi just loved the suction unit exhibit on the ceiling:
Always good when a science museum has its own R2 unit.
For lunch we ate at Asia. It had intrigued me for a while as some people say this is their favorite restaurant while others have said it’s their worst. Not too many places that are that polarizing, so I had to try it for myself.
My grandparents insisted that everyone had to try the lettuce wraps. Now anything on a menu that says “lettuce wrap” would normally be the last thing I’d order off the menu.
And boy would that have been a mistake.
They were out of chicken lettuce wraps so we got the beef lettuce wraps. And they were awesome!
You get about a dozen slices of lettuce to make wraps with around delicious beef stir fry that’s served with a a spicy sauce and a peanut butter sauce:
The egg roll on the other hand is just a dry ball of bland cabbage:
The General Tso and Sesame Chicken have a really strange sauce that’s quite atypical for those dishes. I wasn’t a fan:
The Pad Thai was pretty good through:
Sweet and sour chicken was a big disappointment:
But the garlic beef and broccoli was very good:
In short, some dishes are very good, others are terrible. Which is probably the reason for the polarized views on the place.
For dinner that night it was off to a 9 course Hassid+Hipster event on the stunning rooftop of Chabad of Downtown’s building. It’s the perfect place for a dinner like this and from what I understand the space is available for anyone to rent out as well.
They had 2 Hasid+Hipster dinners last month that sold out and they are doing an encore performance next week.
The food is very upscale and not like anything you’ll find at a typical kosher restaurant.
Would I want it for dinner every night? No. But it is fun to try the unique flavors and you’ll leave full even if you only taste parts of each course.
Best of all many varieties of wine were free-flowing throughout the night.
Course 1: Tuna Belly. Fried Guacamole. Roasted Yellow Gazpacho.
Course 2: Poached Salmon, Golden Beet Foam, Miso Glazed Eggplant, Beet Leaf Pesto.
Course 3: Tuscan Kale Salad, Shaved Fennel. Fire Roasted Corn. Sun Dried Tomato. Squash Aioli. Carmel Nuts. Sourdough Crouton & Port Shallot Leek Marmalade.
Course 4: Soup: Parsnip. Pear. Celeriac Maple. Lamb Bacon. Spiced Nuts. Edamame.
Course 5: Poached Duck. Beet Veloute. Duck Skin Chicharone. Thyme.
Course 6: Compressed Watermelon. Lavender. Lychee Granita. Mint Melon Slaw. Citrus & Pomegranate Glaze.
Course 7: Veal Belly. Spinach. Truffles. Orange Root Vegetable. Starfruit. Balsamic.
Course 8: Saffron Coconut Polenta. Crispy Pulled Brisket. Egg.
Course 9: Blueberry Apple Tart. Maple Bourbon Ice Cream. Chestnuts.
For Shabbos we davened at Chabad’s Shul of the Lakes which had an awesome lunchtime spread with deli rolls, chicken, cholent, salads, cakes, and more.
On Sunday morning we flew to Cancun using a British Airways 4.5K Avios award which I’ll cover in the next installment.
Definitely an interesting trip, having been pulled out of my rental car by a cop within 15 minutes of leaving the airport.
We flew back from Cancun to Miami on Thursday and thanks to someone booking a 5th night free award at the S. Regis Bal Harbour but only staying from Sunday-Thursday we got to use the 5th night, well, for free 🙂
I used 4 Avis Daily Getaway coupons and got a massive Lincoln Navigator.
The stay was booked out of a Starwood Platinum account so the room was upgraded to a Oceanfront Luxe suite. Normally the base room goes for 30K points per night, but SPG.com wasn’t showing any available point rooms for the stay. However a quick online chat revealed award space for a junior suite for 32K points per night, and the room was upgraded from there to a full suite.
Booking the 5th night free award makes sense even if you won’t need the 5th night as it effectively locks in late checkout. Just beware before giving away the 5th night to just anyone. Several years ago when there was an SPG promotion to stay at the hotel for just 12K points per night I actually gave away the 5th night to a DansDeals Twitter follower and the person allegedly re-gifted the room and that person ripped off the $800 minibar which was then charged to my credit card. It was fixed in the end, but never again will that happen.
The hotel offers free shirt pressing and a shoe shine. The suites offer butlers who take care of those services. When I called to get a shirt pressed the butler came to the room and asked how soon I needed it. I asked if it would be done within half an hour and his response was that normal turnaround time was several hours, but he could see what could be done if I would show him a “generous gesture.”
Awkward much? I mean I would’ve given the guy a couple bucks for pressing the shirt, but that was altogether too weird for me and I said thanks but no thanks. Unsurprisingly the toothpaste and toothbrush I requested afterward from butler services never made its way up in the room after that.
That night we finally did make it to Kosh, just a short walk from the S. Regis.
Service throughout the night was not great. Our waitress was fine, though hard to find at times. The rest of the staff didn’t seem to speak any English and were rarely able to bring over our waitress.
The strawberry champagne is a real treat:
The Lychee Martini is not:
Korean beef appetizer is fantastic:
Skip the bland taco trio of beef, duck, and meat.
The sushi was good, just not in the same league as 26:
The Filet Mignon is excellent:
As was the rib-eye:
The steaks come with a choice of 5 different sauces. 3 of us ordered steaks, so we shared the mushroom sauce, the red wine sauce, and the peppercorn sauce. Everyone agreed that the peppercorn sauce was incredible and the only way to go.
Alas Kosh is stingy here and they only provide a small dish of each sauce. We wound up ordering another dish and were nickled and dimed $3 for another small sauce dish.
The burger is very good as well, but I’d still stick with the filet mignon which isn’t that much more expensive than the burger.
At this point someone at the table next to us started asking for recommendations so I chimed in and told him to try the Korean Beef. Then he asked about the Creme Brulee we has just received and I told him it was quite possibly the worst I’ve ever tried.
Well, he said he was a big creme brulee fan, so he would be the judge of that. So I gave him the leftovers and he couldn’t take more than 1 bite before handing it back to me.
After that JJ alerted me to a DDF post about $38 round-trip tickets from NYC to Miami. I told my Creme Brulee fan about the deal and he asks if that was “a DansDeal”. I said not yet, but it’s about to be as I took out my Note Edge and got the post up. Within seconds the entire restaurant was getting texts and were talking about the deal…which made for an interesting end of the meal. Meanwhile the Creme Brulee fan was getting a kick out of the fact that I still find this stuff surreal as we watched the Google live view of the thousands of people jumping online to check out the deal…
The warm chocolate cake souffle is one of the best around:
The next day we went to Shemtov’s for lunch. They were packed but they made the food surprisingly fast.
Yummy smoothies and Frozen Macchiatos:
Onion rings are of the frozen variety, but not the typical skimpy ones, these ones were a definite upgrade over those:
Garlic knots are decent:
Rafi enjoyed pancakes:
Fetuccine Alfredo is good:
Ravioli in a pesto sauce is excellent:
Eggplant Parm is very good as well:
Afterward we stopped for some of the world’s best cholov yisroel chocolates at Miami Beach Chocolates.
Don’t know what to get? My favorite milk chocolates are their sea salt caramel, key lime caramel, white cheesecake ganache, peanut butter cup, white chocolate oreo bark, and smores bark.
They also have delicious gelato:
For Shabbos we picked up food from Sarah’s tent in Aventura to bring up to my grandparents in Boynton Beach.
They work on a DMV style ticket system and it actually takes just as long to get food on Friday afternoon, but their prepared food is really good. Amazing shnitzel, roast, dips, etc. Their challah and their cinnamon rugeluch are awesome as well.
When we got to Boynton my grandfather noticed that the car had sustained some heavy scratches on the passenger side. There was no accident and the only place that the car was ever not under someone’s eyes was at valet parking for the S. Regis. Wasn’t even worth calling the hotel to fight it, I’ll just deal with it thanks to primary credit card insurance.
After an awesome Shabbos that my kids got to spend playing with their great-grandparents we went out to Lenny’s Pizza in Boca:
Garlic knots were pretty mediocre:
The pizza itself is pretty good though and they were very accommodating with trying out different toppings:
The next day we went swimming yet again at my grandparent’s pool before ordering food (delivered via Uber on the cheap) from House of Dog Boca for a Super Bowl party.
They offer good and greasy fast food from a menu that takes quite some time to figure out.
Beer-infused hot dog loaded with pulled short rubs, fried onions, and more goodies:
Chimichurri, short ribs, fried onion dog:
Holy Cow Burger is good, but not on the level of a Milt’s Burger:
The best thing from House of Dog was probably their Fried Chicken which is excellent. 6 pieces and Belgian fries were $15:
After clogging up our arteries it was finally time to head back to snow covered Cleveland. We picked up some decent bagels at Boca Kosher Bagel and said adios to sunny South Florida until next time. Well to be fair, it started pouring as we were driving to the airport…which helped make the transition back home just a little easier.