Friday, February 19, 2016

Irish Eyes Are Smiling in St. Augustine

Memories of last year's Celtic Music and Heritage Festival in my beloved St. Augustine make me yearn for a return visit. This year's festival takes place March 11-13 and celebrates Celtic culture in the nation's oldest city.

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Ready to get my Celtic on with some pirate garb. Later, I got me a kilt.


Celtic culture is dear to my heart and it's in my blood; my ancestors hailed from Northern Spain, one of seven Celtic nations. The Spanish Celts share many traditions with Scottish and Irish Celts, the most common being music, costume and dance, as evidenced in the gaita (bagpipe), falda escosesa (kilt) and jota (jig).

St. Augustine's Spanish roots are intertwined with Celtic connections and some historical ties began early on: Florida's first Spanish Colonial Governor Don Pedro Menendez and his 800 colonists were from Northern Spain. In 1784, 460 Irish soldiers were stationed in St. Augustine with the Hibernia Regiment. Father Miguel O'Reilly arrived in St. Augustine in 1777 to minister to the colony's Menorcan residents. He later became the Hibernian Regiment's chaplain and vicar of the entire colony.

St. Augustine, so rich in history, comes alive with Celtic culture during the festival. I attended last year with my friend Michelle Marcos, a Miami-based historical romance novelist whose trilogy Highland Knaves is set in Scotland. Her beautifully written novels serve up sexy romance, to be sure, with even more to love -- historically accurate storylines draw the reader into page-turning adventures.

It was only natural to talk about about sexy Celts and history all weekend long!


Throughout the weekend, we also enjoyed observing men in kilts ... oh pardon me, I meant men playing Highland games in kilts. There was still occasion to blush a little; the athletes mustered up quite a bit of strength and dexterity to impress the ladies, for sure, especially in the caber toss.

For musical pleasure, we heard many acts, but none so rousing for me as the bagpipes and drums of Albannach and the sound of bagpipes in the morning as I sipped coffee on the balcony of the St. George Inn facing St. Augustine's old city gates. We had the best view of the parade and the vibration from the instruments stirred the cool, crisp air that morning.

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Bagpipes everywhere! 

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The best view of the parade is from the balcony at The St. George Inn.

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With the friendly musicians from Albannach.

Many clans were present to represent their lineages proudly. They paraded with bagpipes and drums throughout the day.

I stepped out in my pirate garb with makeshift Celtic variations. If fashion is your thing, the festival's vendors offer beautiful merchandise.

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Several clans were representing at the festival.

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Because beer wenches.

I asked Michelle, who traveled to Scotland to research her novels, to join me on this trip because I knew she'd enjoy traveling back to another century in St. Augustine. That's my usual modus operandi for heading up north: "I'd like to spend some time in the 18th century this weekend, how about you?"

That's how beautifully St. Augustine captures its rich history and even more so during the spring time when the Celts invade the city. My eyes may not be exactly Irish, but the Spanish Celtic heart in me shines when I think about this memorable trip.

The St. Augustine Celtic Music and Heritage Festival takes place March 11-13, 2016 and features a whiskey tasting, Celtic performers, Highland games, Celtic clans, food, merchandise and children's entertainment. For more information, visit Celtic St. Augustine.

More photos on Flickr.

Disclosure: this historical travel experience was supported in part by Florida's Historic Coast, The St. George Inn and GM Southeast. All opinions my own.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Traveling in Florida with Red Coach USA

Red Coach USA is a comfortable and convenient bus service for tourists, commuters and locals who want to staycation in the Sunshine State. I love traveling in Florida and finally found a nice alternative to driving or flying. 

Yours truly traveling on Red Coach USA.


Remember my Greyhound adventure from 2009 during which I flew to Atlanta only to wend my way back to Miami on buses and trains? That was the beginning of my journey as a professional schlepper, which in my book of life, is someone who manages to get everywhere and do just about everything without a car. A few years later, I would master the skill of schlepping in Miami as #miamischlep. Today, I can confidently add #floridaschlep to my list of schlepping accomplishments.

“Where have you been all my schlepping life?” is the only question I can ask of Red Coach USA, a transportation service connecting major Florida cities. If I had known about Red Coach USA sooner, I would've taken advantage of it to hit some of my favorite Florida destination hubs like Naples, Jacksonville and Tallahassee -- easy departure points from which to find adventure: fishing on the gulf coast, enjoying St. Augustine's historical charm and exploring north Florida's nature trails, to name a few.

Heck, with the right fare, I’d even consider Red Coach as an alternative to Uber or Tri-Rail for tri-county schlepping from Miami to Broward or Palm Beach and would recommend it to travelers considering transportation options between airports.


The Red Coach USA stop in Tallahassee.

On the afternoon I started writing this post, I had been sitting on a Red Coach USA bus since 7:30 A.M. It was a tremendously productive work day for this writer; so much so that I wondered why I didn't use Red Coach more often as a mobile office just to get work done, see friends who live in other cities and fulfill my insatiable Florida wanderlust.

"I don't care how long it takes to get from Kendall to Brickell," my friend Bohemian Babushka said. "Get your ass on the bus and meet me in Tallahassee for happy hour." Babushka, who schleps often between Tallahassee and Miami, was serious.

“It’s an upgrade from Greyhound,” she told me. "You'll love it."

I was incredulous and the schlepper in me was curious, so I gave Red Coach USA a try.

First, sped off to the Naples area (about two and half hours) where I spent a week writing while visiting some of those friends I rarely see because of distance; soon after the gulf coast sojourn, I headed to Tallahassee (about eight hours) where I spent a few days covering a cultural event, tooling around Wakulla County and enjoying the aforementioned happy hour with my friend.

Red Coach’s parent company Grupo Plaza began as a service in South America 57 years ago and came to Florida’s roads in 2010. In South America, it’s quite common to schlepear using coach services to travel long distances between countries or to destinations where flights are either cost-prohibitive or simply unavailable.

Until I heard about Red Coach, I had only considered Greyhound, which gets a bad rap as a po' folks travel option. But not everyone who uses it lives in a slum or just got out of prison. Never mind the irony that flying these days feels like prison.

Call me crazy, but unless you're flying baller style in a private jet, bus travel is, in many ways, more zen than traveling in the airline passenger cattle call. There's schlepping to the airport and then there's schlepping to the gate from check-in to boarding time. Let's call a schlep a schlep. Flying, while faster, is still a schlep.

Red Coach USA is more like a shared ride service; you schlep to the bus, then chill until you arrive at your destination in about the same amount of time it’d take to drive.

And then there's the comfort. Both business class and first class feature leagues of leg room, leg rests and wide, leather seats that recline 140 degrees. While business class seats 38, first class transports 28 passengers with wider seats and detachable seat trays. Wi-fi, electric outlets and a clean toilet make the ride practical.

Wired-in while traveling on Red Coach USA.

While a little pricier than economical Greyhound, it's definitely worth a few more clams to travel in a swankier bus.

The company claims to be a luxury bus service, but Paris Hilton types will miss the champagne and cashmere blankets. For the rest of us budget-conscious folks with good taste, Red Coach is just fine. They say health is wealth. Here's something luxurious to me: I didn't feel like a frazzled mess by the time I arrived at any of my destinations.

My rides were so comfortable, I even slept on the way to Naples. For me, sleeping while schlepping never happens. And on my way back from Tallahassee, I scratched a few writing assignments off my to-do list.

The wi-fi was spotty at times in the more remote areas of my Florida routes. Ask the driver to reset the router if logging in becomes an issue.

The only drawback to Red Coach, if we can call it that, is that it doesn’t have its own central terminals, save for Orlando. In Orlando, however, you can arrange for a shuttle to local drop-off points.


This lady, a snowbird and part-time Florida resident from Maine, traveled from Palm Beach to Orlando to meet other friends vacationing in Florida.

On one of the Tallahassee legs of my trip, I met two folks who actually use Red Coach USA to commute between the state capitol and other cities in South Florida -- not on a daily basis, but on a week-on, weekend-off rotation. They both told me that the amount of money they save on gas is worth the investment, not to mention the enormous advantage of being able to sleep during the ride in a reclinable seat.

Another passenger told me she was visiting her grandchildren in the Naples area and that the service was ideal for her to relax without having to worry about driving at night.


miami intermodal center
The Miami Intermodal Center connects Miami-Dade buses, Metrorail, Tri-Rail and Miami International Airport.

In Miami, Red Coach can also pick up at area hotels but all buses make their final departure from the airport.

 So yes, you still have to schlep to the airport. Here's how I did it avoiding all manner of Miami traffic using Miami-Dade buses and Metrorail.

For my Tallahassee trip, I took the dedicated South Dade busway from Palmetto Bay to Dadeland South station and then hopped on the orange line Metrorail to the Miami Intermodal Center, where an electric rail delivers passengers to the airport terminals. A walk to the H gate at the departure level was all I needed to find the Red Coach bus.

For my Naples trip, I took the Metrorail from Palmetto station to Earlington Heights station, where I switched to the orange line train. Both rides were seamless, fast and enjoyable. Total time for each schlep: a little less than an hour. Cost: $4.50. Stress: zero.


Find this North Florida delicacy at the gas station by the Orlando stop. 

If you try Red Coach USA, make sure to check their web fares, which are lower. (On the day I traveled to Naples, a one-way ticket was priced at an unbelievable $16.) Regular users of the service can join a free membership program for incentive points.

To make your experience even more comfortable, bring a neck pillow, a blanket, hand wipes, snacks or light fare. Food is not available on the bus and if there are any pauses at rest stops, they are very brief. The Orlando stop usually lasts 15 to 30 minutes but there's only a snack machine in the terminal and one food truck parked in the lot. A gas station within walking distance offers snacks and light fare (including the North Florida's ubiquitous boiled peanuts).


The Naples arrival point is at a McDonald’s at a major crossroads off I-75 and Collier Boulevard. There’s a Dunkin Donuts next door where I waited for my friend to fetch me. Several chain hotels surround the stop, including the closest, a La Quinta Inn. To get to the city of Naples proper, you have several options.

Call ahead to rent a car, place a taxi pick-up request or use Uber. Enterprise Rent-A-Car offers pick-up and drop-off service for travelers who make advanced reservations at 239-643-3332. Arkway Taxi offers a flat rate $25 trip to downtown Naples. Call 239-777-0777.

For more information about the Naples area, visit Paradise Coast.


The drop-off and pick-up point for my trip to Tallahassee was a Comfort Suites surrounded by many conveniences and restaurants. Comfort Suites is true to its namesake and was the ideal place to stay before my 7:30 A.M. departure. The hotel offers 15% off to Red Coach USA customers who book a room. Even if you don't stay at the hotel, you can sit in the comfortable lobby as you wait for a ride. The front desk is happy to help you call a local taxi service. Passengers who arrive during the day can call local car rental companies to arrange a pickup. Enterprise Rent-A-Car is a nearby option at 850-877-8929.

For more information about this destination, see Visit Tallahassee.

To reserve a trip, visit Red Coach USA.

Disclosure: Red Coach USA provided me with complimentary fare in support of my travel writing projects. All opinions about the service are my own.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Celebrate Valentine's Day in Miami For Under $50

Seven tips from local expert Manola Blablablanik for celebrating Valentine’s Day in Miami without breaking the bank.

Kisses on the Beach

Filled with love but not with cash? No worries, you’re good. Love’s the important thing that money can’t buy. Love should be celebrated every day, even if your ass is broke.

Remember: you’re just broke, not broken-hearted.

Even if you can afford rent in Miami, get off your Downton Abbey high horse and have sex like the rest of working-class Miami, bro. Take your sex life down a notch in class but not in fun and experience the glory of Miami’s world-renown motel rows, where the elite meet to cheat! Whether it’s Okeechobee Road or Calle Ocho, Miami’s skankalicious motels range from church-mouse modest ($25) to ultra tacky luxe ($50 +) with everything you need to bump uglies for two hours. You haven’t screwed like a proper porn star until you’ve done the deed surrounded by mirrored ceilings, disco lights and cheap porn in your sacred, Lysol-scented sex cave.

Miami boasts beautiful outdoor spaces that are especially enjoyable in the cooler month of February. Yet playboy ballers spend a big wad for a room with an ocean view when the average parejita can see the same shit and swap spit for free in the city's loveliest playgrounds. Do the world a favor, if you've got those Benjamins, donate them to charity and smooch at these cheap not-so-secret spots instead: South Pointe Park, Matheson Hammock Park, Thalatta Estate Park or anywhere along the entire freakin’ east coast of Florida with a beach. Vete pa la playa y ya!

Access to Matheson Hammock and Thalatta Estate is through gorgeous, lush and dreamy Old Cutler Drive, where you’ll never find Miami’s iconic billboards advertising butt implants. If gawking at a gigantic culo is your idea of romantic, stick to the Palmetto Expressway and thank the board of plastic surgeons for providing every Miami come pinga with cheap thrills during rush hour.

Ever wonder why restaurants raise their prices on Valentine’s Day? Because fools rush in … not just to love, but to the same damn eats at higher prices. How about a picnic at one of the smooch-friendly parks or on the beach instead? Skip Sedano’s or El Presidente for stocking up the picnic basket. I’ll bet you a set of 5 thongs for $5 from Valsan that you’ll walk out of The Fresh Market with delicious food and a bottle of wine to make your heart sing for under $50. You can call it a “bespoke gourmet experience” but don’t say that within earshot of your Hialeah cousins because they’ll call you a come mierda.

Image: Cartoonstock

Why spend hundreds of dollars on a luxury hotel room when you can give your home a despojo from football season and turn your bedroom into a love nest? Yes mujeres, there’s a reason why Valentine’s Day happens after the Superbowl. Now is the time to redeem your football widow points and exchange your viuda black dress for some lingerie. Throw out the sports paraphernalia and bring some real Miami heat into the bedroom with scented candles, soft sheets and sexy lingerie – all of which you can find at ño que barato for under $50.

Roses are beautiful but priced-gouged to bleed your pocket book on Valentine’s Day. Buy some cheaper flowers and spray the room with Agua de Rosas, the kind you’d buy for abuelita. Smells lovely, like Chanel minus the L. If you want to fengshueisar your bedroom, make sure the man cave is in a different part of the house. Ponte las pilas and be creative!

When was the last time the two of you actually relaxed at home? There’s nothing wrong with Netflix and chill between couples. It’s when a cheap ass tacaño douchebag thinks of it as a first date that you know ese huevo no se merece ni la sal.

On Valentine’s Day, it’s easy to find chocolate-covered strawberries and a decent bubbly for under $50 – even at a gas station. Or maybe you prefer to indulge in something that isn’t a Valentine’s Day cliché, so pick up a jar of chocolate dipping sauce and buy a fresh bag of churros from the guy on the street corner in Hialeah. Whatever it is, do it with love. Maybe even turn your bathroom into a spa. Take a chocolate bath … but be careful, because la malanga resbala!

Our buddies at Miami on the Cheap have their own list of Miami Valentine’s Day activities for the budget-conscious.

And remember … the important thing is to love, respect and honor each other every day. Your life doesn’t have to look like a Hallmark greeting card to feel like one. The best gift you can offer is your heart. Get your love on every day.