[SPONSORED] A Long-Overdue Miami Weekend

Though I’m a Florida native, I haven’t spent much time in Miami, so I was thrilled when I got a chance to go this summer on assignment for a local magazine.

I started the weekend in Little Havana, Miami’s famed Cuban neighborhood, in search of the obvious: a Cuban sandwich and a fine cigar. On Little Havana’s main drag, Calle Ocho, I stumbled upon Versailles Cuban Cuisine, and judging by the crowd and a sign proclaiming it “The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant,” I knew I was in the right place.

Inside the laid-back diner that was just a bit dirty, I ordered the Galician White Bean Soup made with ham, collard greens, turnip and potatoes; the famous Cuban Sandwich; and the essential Café Con Leche. I was not disappointed. The food was simple and delicious, a quick and solid no-fuss meal I would definitely have again.

Versailles Cuban Cuisine

 

After lunch, I headed to the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co., the oldest cigar factory in Little Havana, to speak with the owners. I wanted to get a sense of this family-owned business so I went straight to the source. After saying hello to Don Pedro Bello who was smoking a cigar next to a wooden American Indian outside the store, I met with his son, Peter Jr., the fourth of five generations in the family business.

He offered me an espresso, gave me a tour of the store, and answered my many questions like why some of the cigars were green. (The answer: it’s a candela cigar which is cured quickly with high heat, preserving the green color of the tobacco leaf.)

Then he told me all about the Bello family history, how they left Cuba for Miami in 1959, and how they fought to keep their family tradition alive. Before I left, Peter Jr. recommended a cigar for me, a mild Bello cigar that was light and smooth, and he introduced me to the v-cut which he says gives better airflow and a more even burn.

Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co.

 

With my v-cut Bello in hand, I left the cigar store and began walking down Calle Ocho hoping to soak in more of this vibrant neighborhood. But it was mid-July and the heat was just unbearable, so I made it a short tour.

Little Havana

 


From there, I headed to Miami’s oldest bar to grab a drink and cool down. Established in 1912, Tobacco Road is a hole-in-the-wall with a rich history (it served as a speakeasy during Prohibition!). But sadly, this Miami relic will soon become history itself; the property has been purchased by developers and the bar will be demolished to make way for new construction.

I went in for a beer and about eight glasses of water to battle the heat. Though it was Saturday afternoon and pretty dead, I could tell it was my kind of place: laid-back and unpretentious. I’m glad I got to see it before it’s gone.

Tobacco Road

 


After a day of seeking the old and historic, it was time to switch gears. I headed to the South of Fifth neighborhood in South Beach for the chic, shiny and new: The Lord Balfour Hotel and Red, the Steakhouse.

As soon as I entered the Lord Balfour, I knew what all the fuss was about. It is truly the most interesting hotel I’ve visited. It’s artsy, quirky and unique, part hotel and part art museum. Quotes from British Prime Minister Lord Balfour adorn a wave along the ceiling, and behind the hotel bar there are dozens of hands holding mirrors that protrude from the wall. Most famously, each room features portraits of tattooed women on the wall.

After settling into my room, which was a bit small but compensated by a clean, modern design that effectively uses each inch of space, I grabbed a “Tea Time” cocktail at the bar and headed out for the evening.

Lord Balfour Hotel

 


I was thrilled to enjoy a chef tasting at Red, the Steakhouse by Executive Chef Peter Vauthy who stopped by my table before each course. How many courses? I lost count. He basically threw the menu at me! We started with the tuna tartare, sashimi tuna, and homemade sausage in tomato sauce, all of which I highly recommend, and then moved on to the enormous “main course”: Aged Certified Angus Beef® cooked medium-rare, green beans with pine nuts, Alaskan king crab, corn casserole, fried potatoes with cheese and a fried egg, and my absolute (off-the-menu) favorite of the night: flash-fried burrata with wild berry balsamic and Iberico ham (I’m still drooling over this one).

And, believe it or not, I stuck around for dessert: New-York style cheesecake (the recipe to which the chef received as a young boy) and homemade doughnut holes with three dipping sauces. I have never eaten so much food in my life! Of course, much of it was brought home in doggy bags.

Red also has fantastic cocktails (try the South of Fifth made with Ciroc coconut) and a lovely ambiance with white table cloths and candlelight. However, the lighting did not bode well for my pictures which turned out kinda dark … which is a good excuse to go back and try again the next time I’m in Miami.

Red, the Steakhouse

 

 

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Exploring a Montana Ghost Town: Bannack State Park

After visiting Yellowstone, I headed out to see Montana’s best preserved ghost town, Bannack State Park.

Bannack is the site of the first major gold discovery in Montana (1862) and was the first capital of the Territory of Montana. Once gold was found, Bannack followed the pattern of many boom and bust towns of the West: the population exploded and then dried up, transforming Bannack from a gold town to a ghost town.

Fortunately, the town was purchased and donated to the state in the 1950s and now runs as a state park. There are no commercial features inside the park and Main Street features more than 60 original structures, most of which you can enter and explore.

At the visitor’s center, purchase the $2 guide that provides info on each of the town’s structures, describes gold mining techniques, and tells stories of the town’s rough and tumble history (including stories about the Road Agents, Vigilantes and “soiled doves” of the time).

The buildings are mostly empty inside with the exception of the Masonic Lodge/school which has chalkboards and rows of student desks. There’s also an antique merry-go-round out front. (I tried it—it still works!)

When I visited in July, I practically had the park to myself which made the experience a little creepy (in a good way!). I walked up and down Main Street imaging the lives of those who once lived there.

Particularly unnerving was walking up to the gallows on the hill after reading about the men who were hanged there, and entering the Bessette House which was used to quarantine residents with contagious diseases like scarlet fever. Some believe the house is haunted by the children who died there. The house has even come to be known as the “Crying Baby House” due to reports of visitors hearing the sounds of crying babies. I didn’t hear a peep during this visit … but maybe next time.

For more information, visit stateparks.mt.gov/bannack.

Bannack State Park Bannack State Park Bannack State Park Bannack State Park Bannack State Park Bannack State Park Bannack State Park Bannack State Park Bannack State Park Bannack State Park Bannack State Park Bannack State Park Bannack State Park
Bannack State Park

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Bannack State Park
Bannack State Park
Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park

 

Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park

The 8 Coolest Things to See in Yellowstone

When planning a last-minute trip to Yellowstone National Park, I was overwhelmed by all there is to see—there are more than 10,000 hydrothermal features including 300-plus geysers. But with 3 solid days inside the park, I saw all the highlights and then some. And while most Yellowstone guides describe each feature as “one of the best,” I can easily narrow it down to the best 8.

1. Grand Prismatic Spring
Walk along the boardwalk through the Midway Geyser Basin to get a close view of this iconic warm spring that gets its crazy vibrant colors from heat-loving bacteria. Getting an aerial view of the spring, however, requires a steep climb up an unofficial trail over fallen trees and slippery soil—not an easy trek, but definitely worth it.

Grand Prismatic Spring Grand Prismatic Spring Grand Prismatic Spring

 

2. Porcelain Geyser Basin (of Norris Geyser Basin)
In most of the park, you have to keep an eye out for buffalo and grizzlies (in fact, you should always carry a can of bear mace with you). But at the Porcelain Geyser Basin, I was looking for T-Rex and pterodactyls. Every inch of the Porcelain Geyser Basin is oozing, bubbling and hissing with misty geysers, milky blue pools, and green swirls of something-or-other that make this place look straight up prehistoric. (Bonus: There’s no gag-inducing sulfur smell like the Mud Volcano Area.)
Porcelain Geyser Basin

Porcelain Geyser Basin

Porcelain Geyser Basin

3. Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces
The National Park Service website describes Mammoth Hot Springs as a “cave turned inside out.” Enough said.
Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

4. Old Faithful Inn
This 110-year old, seven-story log structure is simply gorgeous. Take the 45-minute tour to learn about its features and the history of Yellowstone tourism. To get the full old-timey experience, you can book a room at the Inn, though you’ll need to plan in advance or hope for a cancellation as these rooms are in high demand. Note that some rooms have shared bathrooms and the Old House, as opposed to the slightly newer east and west wing add-ons, is said to have “thin walls.” The Inn also gets very crowded with tourists (they gather right outside to witness the Old Faithful geyser), so staying at the Inn gives you a more intimate experience since you can walk around at night once the crowds have gone.

Old Faithful Inn

Old Faithful Inn

Old Faithful Inn

Old Faithful Inn

Old Faithful Crowd

Old Faithful

5. Firehole Lake Drive
Though Old Faithful is the most popular geyser in the park (perhaps famous for being famous), there are better geysers throughout the park. Two are located on Firehole Lake Drive. The Great Fountain Geyser has calm pools of water which reflect the sky. Before eruption, the pools begin to fill, overflowing the terraces like gentle ocean waves. And once the geyser erupts, it lasts a while (1–2 HOURS as opposed to Old Faithful’s 1–5 minutes.) Right up the road is the White Dome Geyser, which is simple, but frequent and predictable, erupting about every 35 minutes.
Great Fountain Geyser

Great Fountain Geyser

Great Fountain Geyser

White Dome Geyser

6. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Often noted as the park’s most popular feature, The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is pretty impressive. The Yellowstone River flows through the canyon for 20 miles between the Upper Falls and the Tower Falls area. Though the best waterfall along the canyon is the Lower Falls, a green waterfall that drops 308 feet. Trails along the canyon, as well as Artist Point, allow visitors to find the best view of the canyon’s pink and orange highlights.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Lower Falls

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone


7. Wildlife, Wild Flowers and Wide Open Spaces

Simply driving around the park is awe-inspiring. Scenic pullouts allow you to park and sit for a while to admire the natural beauty of the park, most of which is in the state of Wyoming. If you only have a day in the park, just drive around the Grand Loops and enjoy the peaceful scenery, particularly Lamar and Hayden Valleys which can be observed from the roadside.
Mule deer

Warm stream

Wildflowers

Wide open spaces

Elk

 

Wide open spaces

Grizzly bear

Lamar Valley

Lamar Valley

8. Mud Volcano Area
Yes, I earlier called this area gag-inducing (and it is), but it is also a great representation of what makes Yellowstone unique. This area features smelly, muddy, bubbling pools of steam and water that remind us of the Earth’s awesome power—underneath Yellowstone is one of the world’s largest supervolcanoes! Though the water isn’t actually at boiling temperature at many of Yellowstone’s features, heated gas and steam violently force their way upward, creating many of the park’s thermal features including those that resemble boiling pots of water (hence one feature’s name, the Churning Caldroun).
Mud Volcano Area

Mud Volcano Area

Mud Volcano Area

Mud Volcano Area

BONUS! Beartooth Highway
Located just outside the Northeast Entrance, this scenic road weaves you through icy lakes and snow-capped peaks to Bear’s Tooth Mountain.
Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway