From food festivals and music on the Malecon to affordable week long book fairs, just walking Puerto Vallarta offers too many distractions from work.
A recent email from a friend living in a popular south Florida destination praised its beauty but bemoaned a culture not interested in much more than lying around a pool or beach. Although that is fine for some, for others there’s vibrancy on Puerto Vallarta streets and beaches rare in North America. Whether it’s the riot of colorful craft stalls on the Isla de Cuale, neighborhood street festivals, processions, parades or oyster vendors on the beach, there’s no lack of stimulation.
Of course that’s all beyond the major events that attract locals, expats and visitors from vacationing Mexican families to gay singles. Food, naturally, is a major focus either as a side component or on the center stage. Northwestern Mexico with its Pacific waters teeming with sea life is a veritable food market.
It’s appropriate that Puerto Vallarta and a nice selection of its many restaurants annually honor aguachile with its own festival – a native dish that can define Mexican food in the northwest. Aguachile (chili water in Spanish) is a “cousin” to ceviche. Like most regional dishes, recipes do not believe in boundaries.
Whereas both dishes include seafood and lime juice, aguachile infuses the lime juice with hot chilies. Both dishes also have variations from the most common, shrimp, to octopus, scallops, salmon or any combination of shell, seafood and fish. The single imperative is that these raw ingredients are as fresh as possible – sushi grade is not too extravagant.
Additional ingredients are both traditional and optional. Ceviche has a bit more onion and less chili. Both include cilantro, frequently other vegetables and even a combination of juices. Aguachile always includes generous slices of cucumber for the soothing qualities that vegetable provides given the spicier nature of the dish – after all, it is called chili water.
If you happen to own a molcajete for preparation, it doubles as a beautiful bowl with its black basalt contrasting with the colors of the ingredients. A number of internet sites have recipes for aguachile. Hispanic Kitchen has a good basic shrimp aguachile recipe. America’s foremost chef on southwestern Hispanic cuisine, Rick Bayless, provides ideas outside the box.
The annual January Aguachile Festival was held in Parque Lazaro Cardenas, currently undergoing a transformation with stunning mosaics.
On the same day, the annual Book Fair, a week long event, was taking place on Puerto Vallarta’s main Plaza de Armas. Dozens of book stalls sell new and used books in a variety of languages for all age levels. The prices are below reasonable.
Food for the stomach and the mind, stimulation for the eyes and the ears with enviable weather and fronting the Bahia de Banderas: no wonder Puerto Vallarta greets all with “Welcome to Paradise.”
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“A business we can do together; something we can grow together.” Alan Mundy
Just imagine light, creamy, hand crafted peanut brittle and rich aromas of organically grown Mexican coffee. Alan Mundy and Ausel Diaz Arguello did, and in the process La Fortuna Organic Coffee and PVs Finest Peanut Brittle blended their lives. Yet when Alan and Ausel met just a few years ago they were both in flux.
The date “1985” on the package of PVs Finest Peanut Brittle means more than the start of a business. It wasn’t actually the start of a business. It was Alan’s stress therapy.
In Louisiana Alan was in the real estate and electronics businesses. Yet in an urge to do something creative, he started making his grandmother’s peanut brittle in 1985 as gifts for friends. That soon turned into a marketing tool – gifts to clients at the holidays.
For thirty years Alan made upwards of 2,000 pounds of peanut brittle annually as gifts. Yet his life altered several years ago when his mother’s health started to decline. For a variety of reasons, relocating to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was desirable for both Alan and his mother.
Ausel was fresh from culinary studies at Puerto Vallarta’s Casserole Instituto Gastronomico. He was also from Chiapas, the southwestern most state in Mexico, known for its lush tropical beauty, abundant agriculture and poverty.
Ausel’s grandfather had developed a 20 acre coffee farm nearly a century before. Despite the fact that it grew to 120 acres, like many small farmers, his grandfather and father sold the beans wholesale to coffee dealers. Profits were meager.
A regional outbreak of Coffee Leaf Rust five years ago led to a downturn in both coffee production and prices, which resulted in the loss of the family farm. Prospects for Ausel’s family were dire. Then Allan and Ausel met in Puerto Vallarta and a plan that would benefit all developed.
With Ausel’s knowledge of Chiapas, family ties and traditional organic farming methods used for centuries, Alan’s entrepreneurial logic saw a way to revitalize the family by reverting to tradition. In the process they created La Fortuna Organic Coffee by elevating common Arabica beans to premium status.
Securing title to 200 acres for the family simply started the process. The densely planted acreage thrived in the mineral rich tropical mountains of Chiapas. The chaff from the roasted coffee beans was the only enrichment added back to the soil.
Planting, maintaining and harvesting coffee have always been hands-on tasks due to necessity. During harvest season in 2017 (November to March) demand for workers exceeded the local supply. La Fortuna employed four workers from Guatemala.
Alan and Ausel created a business plan for La Fortuna that relied on personal attention to every detail by those involved. Traditional hands-on techniques from sorting, roasting, packing and marketing have been essential to ensure premium quality. “It’s a labor of love,” quipped Alan, and he was correct, but not just in the common understanding of that phrase applied to business.
Coffee beans are food, and the cooking method has a major influence on flavor. Using a clay oven, the beans are hand roasted in small batches in a heavy iron bowl topping the wood fire of Indigenous pine and robles. The beans are stirred with a wooden spoon.
Subtle chocolate and spice undertones were enhanced by the gentle roasting process while hints of smoke from the pine and robles wood complimented rich, earthy notes in the beans. The coffee was smooth, medium bodied and light on acidity.
Hand packaging of the beans minimizes breakage that releases essential oils, which trap flavors. The packaged beans are shipped to Puerto Vallarta where Ausel and Alan take over marketing. Yet that’s not the end of the Chiapas connection – there are peanuts.
Peanut brittle was a Southern United States invention from the late 19th century. The South was awash with peanuts and sugar so their combination was to be expected. The recipe Alan grew up on was from his grandmother, who like many gleaned knowledge from regional variations.
Alan had the idea that once in Puerto Vallarta the peanut brittle recipe he had used the past thirty years could be turned into an enterprise that involved his mother. Unfortunately, her health soon made that an unrealistic expectation. Then culinary trained Ausel entered Alan’s life along with peanuts from Chiapas.
What makes the superlative “finest” believable was not just the taste but also the texture. Having grown up on Northern versions where the caramelized sugar was truly brittle – like breaking glass – PVs Finest was creamy. The tan brittle crumbled in the mouth becoming a smooth caramel counterpoint to the deep flavors of roasted peanuts.
Sponge peanut brittle was one variation in Louisiana that existed for well over a century. Alan and Ausel have taken note that Canadians liken it to English sponge toffee. Considering Puerto Vallarta’s popularity among Canadian tourist, that’s a good marketing connection.
Organic peanuts and small batch production are the hallmarks of PVs Finest Peanut Brittle. The peanuts are sourced from farms owned by Ausel’s extended family, which provide over 3,000 kilos (6,600 pounds) of roasted peanuts per season. No changes have been made to the recipe of Alan’s grandmother.
Enhancing the basic recipe though was always considered. Alan and Ausel are developing a recipe with the addition of coconut. Coating PVs Finest with chocolate would pair a Southern tradition with the birthplace of chocolate.
Made by Ausel in their climate-controlled kitchen, the week’s production sells out quickly. PVs Finest Peanut Brittle winter production coincides with the seasonal schedule of Puerto Vallarta farmer and craft markets. During the winter season Alan and Ausel work five major markets selling La Fortuna Organic Coffee and PVs Finest Peanut Brittle.
Before meeting, Alan and Ausel had separate desires to make a difference in the lives of loved ones. Together they succeeded – a proud mother and a revitalized family – based on centuries of tradition. What they could not have foreseen was how candy and coffee would grow their own love.
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Epirus is a rugged, heavily forested and mountainous region largely made up of the Pindus Mountains. Considered the “spine of Greece,” the Pindus Mountains separate Epirus from Macedonia and Thessaly to the east.
Even though the clothing, architecture and food may have a Balkan feel, today generally older men and women gather on benches around Metsovo’s church of Agia Paraskevi to observe life on the Central Square and speak the ancient Aromanian dialect.
Livestock grazing on the green Pindus mountain slopes and crafts are still a part of life in Metsovo. To that foundation, tourism has had a significant impact over the past half century. Winter skiing, summer hiking, vineyards, unique foods, charming hotels and restaurants with a view add to the allure of this northwestern Greek enclave.
Naxos is the most fertile island of the Cyclades. It has a large aquifer under the island in a region where water is usually inadequate. Mount Zeus at 1,004 meters (3,294 feet) tends to trap the clouds increasing rainfall. Agriculture is an important economic sector making Naxos the most self-sufficient island in the Cyclades.
This abundance is obvious in Naxos restaurants, artisan food shops and food markets. Besides produce Naxos is famous throughout Greece for its cheese, meats, fish and seafood. Simply walking along the wide, beautiful, long, crescent, pedestrian friendly waterfront of Chora (Naxos Town) is a gastronomic delight. Some of the best cafes and tavernas in Naxos are sandwiched between shops offering Naxos crafts and food products – it’s the center of nighttime social life in town.
Inspired by the allegorical 1924 Thomas Mann novel The Magic Mountain, Frederico Lazaridis takes seriously the primal interplay of mythic forces and human reality. Wine was essential to the Greek psyche and had its own god, Dionysus. In everyday life Eastern Macedonia and Thrace was its motherland.
More to the point, Chateau Nico Lazaridi sits opposite Eastern Macedonia and Thrace’s own magic mountain – Mount Pangeon. Its magic was both mythic – a favorite party mountain for Dionysus – and tangible. Its vast gold deposits funded the empires of Philip II and Alexander the Great, paid for the construction of the nearby legendary city of Philippi and, sitting on the Via Egnatia, was at the crossroads between Eastern and Western cultures for centuries.
During the Roman Empire era (100s BC – 500s AD) retired legionaries were often settled in the region producing high quality agricultural products shipped as far as Rome. The Via Egnatia spanned the length of today’s northern Greece from Thessaloniki to the Dardanelles. It was the “super highway” for the distribution of goods between the Mediterranean and Asia.
Frederico takes all of this personal. Nico Lazadidis, Frederico’s father, is from the region – the historic city of Drama. His mother was from Florence, Italy, which added a cultural influence already common in the lands along the Via Egnatia. Nico’s profession was also ancient – stone and marble purveyor. Their roots are, literally, in the building blocks of civilizations.
Nico learned to make wine during his years in Italy. In 1974 the family and business returned to Drama but continued perfecting their wine making techniques as a “garage art.” In the early 1980s Nico explored commercial possibilities and in 1987 established Chateau Nico Lazaridi.
They were one of the only wineries at the time in the Drama region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace. It’s ironic that for seven millenniums, Thrace has been the mother terroir of wine grapes. Yet wine production virtually ended in the 15th century under Ottoman Islamic rule coupled with the phenomenal profits earned from “King Tobacco” followed then by the devastation of 20th century wars.
Of course it was precisely the devastation and upheavals of 20th century wars that ended the preeminence of tobacco as an economic engine. Macedonia and Eastern Macedonia and Thrace are once again regaining the wine reputations they held since ancient days. Eleven wineries dot the Drama area while seven labels are in the nearby Kavala region.
The Kingdom of Thasos, which the region was a part in the 1st millennium BC, established the first quality control system for grapes, wine and olive oil. Today the Drama area is within the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) Agora.
Chateau Nico Lazaridi is between three mountains, which funnel steady winds ventilating the grape vines helping to prevent mold. The vineyards lay on an ancient riverbed, which provides soil rich in minerals. The region’s flat riverbed land was made arable only as a result of 1930s drainage and land reclamation projects. The famous Battle of Philippi (1st century BC) fought nearby was on wetlands.
Chateau Lazaridi proves that bigger can be better. Its 1.1 million bottle production consists of over a dozen wines and tsipouro, the classic distillation from wine must. One hundred sixty acres in the Drama area (PGI –Agora) contain the main vineyards. Thirty-seven acres are contracted from area growers.
Their Mackedon Winery in Kavala is 25 acres and a new small ten acre winery will soon open on Mykonos Island.
Neither bio-dynamic nor organic farming methods are used in the vineyards because Frederico feels they’re best in an enclosed growing environment such as the islands where it’s easiest to maintain proper conditions.
The new wine cellar, for me, is the centerpiece. It has exposed earthen walls that maintain climate and temperature with 85% humidity. French and American oak barrels fill the vast room, but acacia wood is now being used especially for the whites. Acacia imparts a floral note. An impressive curved ceiling mural looking upward at the sky through a grape arbor graces the length of the cellar.
Chateau Nico Lazaridi is a multidimensional company of several divisions today. A demo kitchen, which will feature area guest chefs, will offer cooking and wine classes. It will be the forerunner of a future restaurant on site.
A lab is on site to maintain quality control. They research developments in vinification in the quest for the next generation of Greek wine.
The Magic Mountain Art Gallery is the family’s great pride. It is both the private collection of the Lazaridi family and, in many cases, the designs for wine labels. Twenty-five years ago Nico established an artist partnership to contemporize Greek wine marketing. The Magic Mountain Art Gallery works with and patronizes contemporary Greek and European artists who express interpretations of the primal link between this drink of the gods and its role in Greek life.
Lunch with Frederico offered hearty northern Greek dishes and two of Chateau Lazaridi’s most popular wines both from the PGI-Agora. Cavalieri Lazaridi White (Assyrtiko 70%, Sauvignon Blanc 15%, Ugni Blanc 15%) has the dry yellow fruit notes with hints of honey emblematic of assyrtiko. It spends six months in acacia barrels adding floral accents.
Greek fashion designer Andria Thomais designed both labels for F- EY, a dry red of the PGI-Agora (Merlot 85%, Grenache Rouge 15%). The original paintings in the Magic Mountain collection are of two contented men and women. Ey (εὖ in Greek) is a descriptor for all that’s good and creative in a person’s life. It’s an apted descriptor for Chateau Nico Lazaridi and one that Dionysus sitting on his magic mountain would bestow.
The god would probably want his portrait on a label.
It was difficult to get lost especially armed with the well-written and informative guide “Halkidiki Inside Your Dreams” by the Halkidiki Tourism Organization.
Yet even if one did take a wrong turn on the modern well-maintained roads that hug the coastline of the Halkidiki peninsulas of Greece you would be apt to discover a small Orthodox church on the side of the road, a centuries old Byzantine tower, an archeological site from antiquity in a field, another secluded beach and everywhere the sweeping vistas of farmland and blue water.
At the photogenic seaside village of Loutra, close by Nefeli Villas & Suites, lunch at Capitan Taverna combined excellent traditional Greek cuisine with a classic atmosphere. Costas Vamvakas has maintained both its popularity and quality since 1977. An old grape arbor heavy with fruit covered the flower bedecked dining porch. Olive trees anchored the corners and a fountain burbled softly.
Just a few miles from Loutra was the Spa at Agia Paraskevi. Known for its hot sulfur springs, southern Kassandra has long been sought by people suffering bone and muscle disorders. With a commanding view of the sea, the modern spa facilities include pools, saunas, steam baths and hydro massage.
Positioned on the west coast of Kassandra, Nefeli Villas & Suites offers spacious one to four bedroom villas in a village setting. Halkidiki’s three peninsulas – Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos – have long been sun-kissed family oriented summer playgrounds. Easy access to dozens of public beaches, classic white washed villages climbing hillsides and the incomparable clear water of the Aegean attract tens of thousands of visitors annually.
Ermia Hotels and Resorts, a family owned real estate and hospitality company headquartered in Thessaloniki, develops resorts and manages villa rentals. Its portfolio includes the Premier Luxury Mountain Resort in Bansko, Bulgaria, Amaryllis Paros Beach Hotel on Paros Island and Sani Woods on Kassandra in Halkidiki. In Halkidiki as well they manage the Nefeli Villas & Suites, the Bellevue Villas and the unique Hastia Villa.
Giorgos Tsalikis and the staff of Nefeli Villas & Suites run a double operation. The units in this Ermia built complex are privately owned with the option to offer the unit for seasonal rental. It’s a resort and condo. The reception office maintains a compact shop with a nice selection of local Greek foods from cheese and wine to thyme honey and mastic liquor – especially convenient as gifts.
The four-bedroom, two-floor townhouse I enjoyed during my stay was more than spacious for the normal maximum of eight people. Premium furnishings and kitchen appliances, Wi-Fi, outdoor barbecue, washing machine, pool and beach towels are all provided. Breakfast is available at Aelia Beach Bar & Restaurant.
The compact beach and tree shaded grass lawn provides comfortable lounge chairs with service from the Aelia bar and restaurant and protected swimming in the clear Aegean.
As a chef I’m impressed when a fine dining restaurant accents the food with simplicity. Greek yogurt topped with a few almonds in a simple and attractive dedicated glass container with a serene Aegean sea view provided by nature defines chic at Aelia Beach Bar & Restaurant.
While a wedding reception was in the final stages of preparation, I was served an imaginative dinner starting with a salty white taramas mousse attractively arranged on crispy phyllo crackers. Meaty pleurotus mushrooms were marinated in vinaigrette of aged Kalamata vinegar and fresh herbs. Grilled on wood charcoal, the large mushrooms would please a vegetarian as a meat substitute.
Tender, savory lamb chops were bathed in a classic rosemary wine sauce. A rich but light chocolate soufflé rounded dinner. Thank you Maria Ntai for the warm Greek hospitality at Aelia Beach Bar & Restaurant.
At Sani Woods Anna Xafoudi, manages eleven architecturally stunning suites, apartments and a large villa. Set within a carefully landscaped yet natural arboretum the two buildings sit on a hillside that gently slopes down to the pool. Bicycles and a continental breakfast are included.
A mini “supermart” is a five-minute drive at the entrance to the large Sani Resort complex, which has popular restaurants and a marina. Fokaies village is 6 km away and has larger stores. Yet If quiet is what you crave, Sani Woods is your refuge.
Closer to the popular summer resort town of Pefkoahori the Bellevue Villas sit on a promontory with a panoramic view of the Aegean and Sithonia peninsula. The large, sleek ultra modern multi level villas each have their own private pool.
Nearby Hestia Villa is a large, unique late 20th century stand alone beach house. It has a 20th century mid-century modern look but it is of more recent construction. A long green front lawn spreads down to Hestia’s own entrance onto the beach.
For vacation nightlife, the fishing town of Pefkoahori has become Kassandra’s most popular tourist destination. On the east coast of the peninsula it’s a mere 20-minute drive from Nefeli Villas & Suites and Sani Woods – closer Bellevue and Hastia villas. During the summer season this family oriented resort town is a marriage of sun, sea and Coney Island.
A lengthy beachfront pedestrian walkway becomes a carnival of street food and vendors selling everything one expects from sunglasses to helium balloons. A small amusement park will delight children. Shopaholics will be pleased with the number and diversity of stores. Bar and restaurant hoppers will be sated with dozens of attractive beach venues and music opportunities.
Ermia Hotels and Resorts villas offer the ideal luxury accommodations for an extended beach vacation. From enviable locations, premium furnishings, fine cuisine and unique architecture Ermia is simply offering Greek hospitality. As a bonus explore Kassandra, a storied finger of fabled Halkidiki.
When you go:
In general the summer season runs from May through mid-October. Pefkoahori is an easy and picturesque 50-mile drive on modern highways from Thessaloniki Airport “Makedonia.” The gateway city of Thessaloniki is served by direct flights from a number of European cities. Numerous flights from Athens are available and affordable for the short 35-minute journey.
From artisan cheeses and wood oven baked breads, handmade ecclesiastical beeswax candles, weaving on a century old loom, bathing at another secluded beach to leisurely sipping tsipouro while enjoying meze on the waterfront, Lispi is for seekers of tradition and tranquility.
Lipsi is an island lover’s dream and a journey back to tradition.
please read my July article for the Hellenic News of America
Sure Moira Martingale, the doyenne of the French House Party, wants her guests to relax. Yes the conversation among the international gathering of participants is often scintillating. Yet when you’ve just prepped your pigeon and are reaching for the brandy to marinate, neither hand is on a notebook or adjusting the voice recorder – the pigeon rules.
As a travel journalist I like capturing the thoughts of others to illuminate articles. Yet as a chef, the pigeon held my full attention.
French House Party culinary workshops are not cooking demonstrations. They are hands-on learning experiences working alongside award winning chefs. The multi-course lunches and dinners guests enjoy are the dishes they are preparing.
Moira Martingale, British novelist, transformed her eight-bedroom en suite villa, Domaine St. Raymond, outside the UNESCO World Heritage City of Carcassonne into the French House Party over a decade ago. Small group workshops (approximately 10 guests) are offered in singing/songwriting, creative writing and the culinary arts. The experience is all-inclusive with the workshop fee covering room, meals, wine, snacks, excursions and the villa’s facilities that make this a five star party (pool, tennis, bike riding…ask Moira.)
The pigeon is still in my hand. There are seven procedures in creating Chef Robert Abraham’s Young Lauragais pigeon with sweet clover, confit of shallots, carrots and honey. It was worth every time-consuming step and even better when paired with a Domaine Le Fort Malepere.
Yet despite popular assumptions, French cuisine is rarely as complex as the pigeon. French recipes do not all ooze with butter and cream. They’re light, fresh with an emphasis on taste, texture and presentation.
Whereas it may not be easy to find pigeon in the local market, smoked haddock is in many fish markets or, as a last resort, in the refrigerated packaged fish section of larger supermarkets. If time does not allow for making the fresh buns, a good quality bakery will have a selection of soft buns – do not use a hard roll.
Chef Robert Abraham’s Smoked Haddock Burger with lime cream
A light, savory alternative on a warm summer day.
Ingredients for 6 servings:
400 gr (14 ounces) bread flour
20 gr (4 teaspoons) sugar
7 gr (1 teaspoon) salt
25 cl (8 ounces) warm milk (43°C/110°F)
12 gr. (1¾ package) active dry yeast
40 gr (3 tablespoons) soft unsalted butter
golden or black sesame seeds
Warm the milk, remove from heat and add the yeast.
In a mixing bowl slowly blend the flour, sugar, egg and salt. (Either use a mixer with a dough hook or stir by hand)
Add the milk/yeast mixture and the soft butter slightly increasing mixer’s speed (or stir harder).
Knead the dough in the mixer for approximately 5 minutes, or remove to a lightly floured board and knead by hand. Either method the dough should be smooth and springs back when lightly indented by a finger.
Cover the bowl with a slightly damp cloth and allow it to rise for 50 to 60 minutes.
Weigh out balls of dough: 50gr/2 ounces for small rolls, 90gr/3 ounces for large.
Place on a baking sheet and cover with a cloth. Allow to rise 60 minutes. Brush lightly with an egg wash (1 egg white/1 teaspoon water beaten) and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Place a pan of hot water on the bottom rack of a preheated oven and the baking sheet on the middle rack. Bake at 180°C/350°F for 10 – 15 minutes until golden brown.
10 cl (3 ounces) white wine
5 cl (1½ ounces) apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon honey
Peal and chop the shallots.
Place in a saucepan with all the ingredients.
Cook on low heat stirring occasionally until nearly all liquid is evaporated.
Zest from 2 limes
1 teaspoon salt
25 cl (8 ounces) heavy whipping cream
Heat the cream with the lime zest and salt until cream just begins to steam.
Turn off heat and infuse for 30 minutes. Chill in refrigerator 30 to 60 minutes.
If you are familiar with a siphon, add the strained cream and follow directions. If not familiar with a siphon, whip the chilled cream with a beater until soft peaks form just before serving the burgers.
Using a fish fillet knife – and I’d recommend gloves if not used to slicing potentially slippery fish – thinly slice wide haddock no larger than a couple inches in size.
Heat the milk with the herbs until steaming. Add the haddock, reduce heat and gently poach for 10 minutes. Drain.
Cut the rolls in half, lightly brush with extra virgin olive oil, return to baking sheet and heat for 5 minutes.
Place a roll on a plate and spread with a little lime cream, a dap of shallot confit, some haddock slices, more lime cream and then top with the bun.
You may garnish with baby greens, drizzle of oil, sprinkle of sea salt and a dab of lime cream.
There are several steps, but the buns can be made earlier in the day or store bought. The confit and the lime cream could be made a day in advance, just do not whip the cream until ready to assemble the burgers. The haddock can also be prepared a day in advance, arranged on plastic wrap in single layers and refrigerated.
At the French House Party creativity not time is of the essence. With two 3-hour workshops sandwiching a delicious lunch, the pool is inviting at the end of the day. A relaxing multi course dinner that you worked on will top the evening with scintillating conversation, laughter and remind you that, yes, you are a guest at a French House Party.
When you go:
The 2018 schedule of the French House Party runs from May 5 through October 1.
The French House Party, Domaine St. Raymond, is less than 50 miles (77 km) southeast from the Toulouse-Blagnac Airport and the rail station Gare de Toulouse-Matabiau. The Gare de Carcassonne is 16 miles (27 km) west. Transportation is provided for guests arriving by air or train from either Toulouse or Carcassonne to Domaine St. Raymond.
The sun glints off white sand and aqua water as I walk down the stairs to Alikes Beach. One of five major beaches on Ammouliani Island, Alikes Beach is so beautiful it’s as if a giant pool boy to the gods cleans the crystal clear Aegean Sea rock free for feet to walk on a soft sand floor and swim in pristine water.
I can assume that the god’s may have favored Ammouliani Island and wanted it for them. Its wide crescent white sand beaches are fringed with lush vegetation, wild flowers and craggy wind and wave formed rock outcroppings. The topography is gentle yet with hills of enough elevation to provide beautiful views of mist shrouded sacred Mt. Athos. Mysterious of all, rarely did a human live on Ammouliani Island for thousands of years.
For most of the past millennium Ammouliani was the property of Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos. It was used for fishing and farmland to provide for the monastery – one of 20 vast Greek Orthodox complexes on Mt. Athos. Only a few men ever lived there until 1925.
The disastrous aftermath of the First World War and upheaval caused by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to an unprecedented repatriation of ethnic groups between Greece and former Ottoman lands. Vatopedi Monastery ownership of Ammouliani Island ended in 1925 with the establishment of villages for Greek refugees.
Five hundred full time residents live on this tranquil island with great beach bars, small hotels, daily fresh seafood and relaxing restaurants. Summer tourism swells the population many times, but enough business remains open year round to attract winter visitors.
Less than two square miles in area and an easy 65 mile car or coach bus drive from Thessaloniki, Ammouliani is the only inhabited island of Central Macedonia and the Halkidiki peninsulas. It is located in the Gulf of Mount Athos two miles off the coast of Athos peninsula. In summer ferry service for the 10 minute ride from Tripiti on the mainland is regular and often. In winter the schedule is less frequent and subject to weather.
One permanent resident with a year round business is Sissy Neofitidou of Kastalia Hotel. Sissy is a calm driving force for tourism on the island. She was also my guide during my stay.
Kastalia Hotel, one of several properties owned by Sissy and her family, is typical of the comfortable accommodations found on the island. The well-appointed rooms have kitchens making them convenient apartments for extended island stays. Breakfast in the attractive split-level lobby is bountiful.
Located in Amoliani town, the ferry port, Kastalia Hotel is conveniently situated for hiking and biking. Alikis Beach is a mere ten minute stroll from the hotel. Amoliani town is a charming Greek island village of classic white stucco and blue shuttered houses, shops, the center for bike rentals and boat excursions as well as waterfront restaurants and relaxing bars.
Since many of Ammouliani Island’s first residents were Greek refugees from islands and towns on the former Ottoman Empire’s Turkish Aegean coast, they brought with them hybrid Near East Hellenic traditions and dress. The large stone paved old town square and its ecclesiastical buildings were constructed in the 19th century when the island was owned by the Vatopedi Monastery. Its Byzantine icons from Asia Minor venerated in the Church of Panagia are particularly prized.
The Folklore Museum, housed in a 1907 stone former monastery building in the old town square, is a living museum. The crafts and recipes of the past are practiced by members of the Cultural Association of Ammouliani and passed on to the next generation. Mrs. Marigo Vasiliou is an expert baker of amigdalota a traditional almond pastry formed into flower shapes, baked and served at weddings, christenings and name days. She demonstrated her skill on a Jamie Oliver TV show.
There is nothing complicated with the recipe for amigdalota cookies: finely ground almonds, sugar, eggs and almond extract. Sounds like marzipan but not as sweet. The skill required to form the delicate dough into intricate baked flowers takes years of training.
Mrs. Vasiliou demonstrated her art at the Hotel Erotokritos, owned by her daughter. The Erotokritos sits high on an island hill with panoramic views of the Aegean Sea and Mt. Athos. I was treated to what I can only describe as a Greek version of High Tea – a late afternoon treat of coffee and homemade desserts.
A buffet of classic Greek dishes and fresh Aegean seafood is available at any number of island tavernas. With an island as small as Ammouliani many are on the waterfront. At Taverna Tzanis you choose your fish from a market display of dozens of choices. A succulent grilled sargos fish with fresh lime juice was refreshing.
Taverna Glaros, another fine choice, continues the Greek love of having a number of small plates to share among guests. Cheese stuffed zucchini blossoms, fried fish balls, stuffed grape leaves, a variety of salads, raw anchovies marinated in vinegar and oil and wild sea greens gathered from the craggy rocks along the shore are just a few selections from island menus.
For a relaxing nighttime venue Dimitrias Boskos has created Aelia Summer Cocktail Bar on the Amoliani town waterfront. The American generated cocktail revolution has been slow to catch on in Europe, but Greeks have rapidly developed expertise in this art. Besides the quality cocktails and attractive modern multi-level seating on the waterfront, this being Greece, a meze (tapas sized small plate) is served with drinks.
Ammouliani Island is justifiably known for its beaches. They all have seasonal beach bars that make the experience more enjoyable. On Alikis Beach, the island’s most famous, Savana and Canteen «O Spiros» serve tasty burgers and Greek classics both on their covered terraces and under their beach umbrellas.
Mainos, the grandfather of current family owner Kostas Voutsac, founded Savana Beach Bar & Grill in 1967. Mainos started selling orange juice and candy from baskets by walking the streets of the island. Sissy remembers as a child waiting for him on his daily circuit.
In 1967 he secured a lease on a prime location at a major entrance to Alikis beach and within a 20-minute walk from town. He opened a taverna. Taking advantage of the beach for umbrellas and the rocky hillside for panoramic views of Alikis Beach, Mainos’ children renovated Savana into the beach bar in 1995. Its unique design takes full advantage of lush vegetation, rocks, wood and multi level seating made possible by the hillside.
Sissy, Mainos and Marigo are metaphors for Ammouliani Island. They work hard to create two square miles dedicated to effortless relaxation. The gods must have favored Ammouliani Island – its aura is timeless.
It’s not like the gay community has had to hide in a Puerto Vallarta ghetto. It has been welcome ever since Puerto Vallarta attracted Hollywood artists in the 60s and 70s. So the 6th annual Puerto Vallarta Pride festival is as much pride in this city as in being gay.
Being the gay friendliest city in the Western Hemisphere has advantages. Few care. There’s little stereotyping in this family friendly vacation destination.
There is a center of gay life in the city. The historic zones of El Centro and Emiliano Zapata (aka the Romantic Zone,) and they have many of Puerto Vallarta’s best restaurants, shopping, bars and nightlife but for all tastes. The general acceptance may best be summed up by the participation of the city’s policeman and mayor in the Pride 2018 parade.
If LGBT life does not have to hide it’s because Puerto Vallarta is a paradise, as its tourism logo proclaims. Yet despite civil unions nationwide and same-sex marriage approved in Mexico City, the country has one the highest homophobic hate crime rates on Earth. It’s comforting having the police part of the Puerto Vallarta Pride 2018 parade.
Invited by EnRoute Communications along with a small group of travel writers, we had a personal view of not just what makes Pride work but Puerto Vallarta tourism thrive. In 2017 over 24,000 participated in the weeklong festival. Simple math proves the economic impact of the “pink” peso.
Highlights of Pride 2018
The Pride 2018 Parade sauntered down the Malecon on a typically beautiful Puerto Vallarta evening with the sun slowly setting into the Bay of Banderas. Floats from dozens of gay-owned businesses, local organizations and participants just having fun where watched by all on the city’s waterfront.
The Fiesta en la Calle street party took over the heart of Emiliano Zapata – Boystown – stretching down Calle Cardenas. The nighttime party was a blur of sound, music and bodies as the bars and businesses of Boystown spilled into the street. With laser lights and sweet abandon the city celebrated a freedom not available to all.
Mantamar Beach Resort and Club is one of many gay friendly/owned luxury hotels in Puerto Vallarta. Located at the end of wide white sand South Beach (south side of Playa de los Muertos), Mantamar hosted two major events during Pride, the Big Top Party at Sky Top Bar and the White Party. Popular gay DJs in the international circuit kept energy flowing both high up on the Sky Top Bar and on the beach for the culminating White Party (white clothing…)
Puerto Vallarta, as a municipality, turned 100 years old in 2018 appropriately during Pride Week. Celebrations continue year long including a series called 100 Tables to Celebrate 100 Years. These events invite local businesses to display their products in a festive atmosphere.
Parque Lazaro Cardenas, recently decorated with extensive mosaics by the artists of Tile Park PV, was the site for gay businesses to show their stuff. From restaurants offering sushi to the best leather halter, the power of the “pink” peso was evident. Celebrity underwear designer Andrew Christian, who owns condos nearby, presided over a live display of his latest creations.
Sapphire Beach Club, also on South Beach, offers fresh, inviting food especially at breakfast. The open-air restaurant easily captures the cool Bay of Banderas breeze. The absence of canned music means the waves provide relaxing ambient sound to compliment refreshing cocktails.
Madregal is a new addition to Puerto Vallarta’s enviable culinary stable. Oscar Moran, who owns Oscar’s on the Rio Cuale, has created an Oxacan influenced menu. This southern Mexico state is known for unique preparations of a wide range of produce, meats and cheese. I did not see chapulines (grasshoppers) on the menu?
No Puerto Vallarta restaurant can ignore the abundant sea life in the Bay of Banderas. For Chef Fernando Sánchez Aceves fish and seafood intermesh creating the imaginative fusion of cuisines for which Puerto Vallarta’s known.
A creamy gazpacho with shrimp and citrusy seafood ceviche were refreshing on a warm late May evening. Pickled vegetables with vinegar and chili, lentil salad, guacamole and a salad with Oxacan cheese displayed the diverse abundance and ingenuity in Mexican vegetable cookery.
Madregal has an extensive mezcalito list – cocktails made with smoky mezcal, a distillation of the agave plant and aged in wood barrels. Smoke, quite literally, has become a popular cocktail ingredient. Madregal infuses a glass with smoke from a burning fresh rosemary sprig and rims the glass with smoked salt before pouring the cocktail giving the drink a smoky boost.
Garlands del Rio is a boutique luxury bed and breakfast on the Rio Cuale in Emiliano Zapata. Seventeen individually designed rooms surround a courtyard with pool that captures the river’s cooling breeze. The Rio Cuale forks around a narrow islet, Isla Cuale, before emptying into the Bay of Banderas. Isla Cuale is a mini jungle paradise in the middle of Puerto Vallarta – combination park, restaurants and crafts market.
Garlands is fully equipped 21st century hotel with WIFI in all rooms and Flat Screen TVs. The atmosphere though is that of being a house guest in a mansion townhouse. Breakfast is served and you can enjoy a poolside drink.
Garlands del Rio hosted the journalists of Pride 2018 at a riverside reception and dinner. A chilled shrimp and vegetable plate along with local wine followed guacamole and margaritas on a humid evening. A tropical setting, on a tropical evening with tropical food in the Romantic Zone does fit the logo Puerto Vallarta – Welcome to Paradise.
Vallarta Adventures explores the unique biosphere of the Bay of Banderas from it’s fleet of luxury yachts. On a trip hosting the Pride 2018 journalist, we leisurely floated along the coast of Puerto Vallarta, sipping marguerites, to the protected bird sanctuary of Los Arcos. The wave carved steep rock islets south of Puerto Vallarta are a scuba divers dream.
Many tour boats stop at Los Arcos but it never seems crowded. Vallarta Adventures is well equipped with all gear necessary for a safe scuba experience. Fishing is available in other locations during the cruise.
The beautiful, warm clear water of the Bay invites swimming, paddle boarding or just floating. Yet lunch did interfere. A sumptuous and artistic “bento box” (form follows function on a gently swaying sailing yacht) of salads made perfect sense in all respects.
Vallarta Adventures provided an experience of Puerto Vallarta that could only be had from accepting the naturalness of the sea. Pride 2018 provided an experience of Puerto Vallarta that could only be had from accepting the naturalness of human life. Economic stats prove that per capita an international gay tourist spends US$1,700 on an average trip compared to $760 per hetero tourist – the power of the pink peso. It’s nice to have it all in one place.
Disclaimer: The author was a guest of Pride 2018 including the businesses and events mentioned. Arrangements were facilitated by EnRoute Communications, New York City