Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Best of 2019

This is the ninth in my “Best of the Year” series, dedicated to reflecting on the best experiences of the year. Thirty-six items made this year’s list, about an average number, and as usual it takes some time to decide what makes the top ten and even more time to force rank them to select the best of the best.

Without further ado, here’s 2019’s recap.

10. Tour to Virgin Gorda Baths

Our excursion while docked in Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, started with a 45-minute catamaran ride to the northeast island of Virgin Gorda for the start of the “Tour to Virgin Gorda Baths”. A small, open air bus, driving on the always-disturbing left side of the road, started the scenic adventure, taking us to a parking lot for a short walk to Devil’s Bay, where we got into the water for a short time. From Devil’s Bay, we walked paths, through openings between huge rocks while trying to keep our footing in the many slippery spots. We had to duck under rock overhangs and turn sideways several times to get through some very narrow openings before arriving at Back Bay. There we spent 45 minutes in the water bobbing up and down and being shoved around by the warm waves, chatting with folks from our’s and other tours. The trip back to the bus took a much easier, albeit less scenic route, finishing with a return catamaran ride to the cruise ship.

9. NCAA Tournament Games In Jacksonville

The culmination of our 15-day cruise/Florida vacation was attending the first and second round NCAA basketball tournament games in Jacksonville. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Downtown on the St. Johns River, about a fifteen minute walk to VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. When you make plans months in advance, you don’t know which teams you’ll watch, but we’re college basketball fans and there is no better way to get psyched for March Madness than attending the games in person. Seton Hall, Yale, Abilene Christian and Belmont lost their first round games on Thursday, but a couple of them went down to the wire. In Saturday’s second round Kentucky beat a surprisingly scrappy Wofford team by six and LSU downed Maryland by a single bucket.

8. San Juan Food and Culture Tour

Our excursion while docked in San Juan was a food and culture tour, with Stephanie as our guide. She walked us through historic districts explaining their significance, which included a block with a hundred pink umbrellas hanging overhead, a tradition that started after hurricane Maria and its horrific destruction. The food portion included island coffee, meat and cheese sandwiches on a buttered croissant at Cuatro Sombras, plantain with butter and garlic, that we mashed ourselves, served with a side of rice and beans, and a Mojito, at Cafe El Punto, and a flan at Vaca Brava.

7. Lunch at Mango Mangos

We hope to spend a winter month in Florida in 2020, so as we traveled from Fort Lauderdale after leaving the cruise ship and heading north along the east coast, we checked out a few possible areas and it ended up being an easy decision: Saint Augustine Beach. It’s not a spring break destination, not having many hotels, and the main road, A1A Beach Blvd, has minimal thru-traffic, as it’s only useful to access this coastal area. The final selling point was a little Caribbean & American bar/grill a block from the beach named Mango Mangos. We ate a late lunch there both days and their fish tacos are the best. We tried a couple other places, but this is the one we’ll go back to time and again.

6. New Deck, Doors and Roman Shades

The wooden deck was falling apart, the French doors were worn and leaky, and the screen covering doors never worked as well as we wanted. The deck was replaced with two-tone TimberTech composite decking and black railing with lighted caps. The doors were upgraded with a unique venting style that have screens in the bottom and glass that’s raised when fresh air is wanted. To afford more privacy, roman shades were installed over the doors and can be lowered to whatever length desired. While the deck was only extended five feet, the extra space came in very handy for our yearly party, allowing all the food and beverages to be put there, freeing up more space on the patio for guests.

5. Kinzeler Newsletter

Friends of ours own a realty company and wanted to restart a program of mailing quarterly, six-page newsletters to clients and prospects. They had previously purchased a fairly generic newsletter but wanted something better, and I was excited to volunteer my time to design and write its content. We decided what each page would cover, focusing on useful and interesting content covering our community, time and money-savings tips for homeowners, local history, a seasonal article and information on buying and selling homes. Besides satisfying my love of writing, I learned so much as I researched topics to write about. This is a great retirement gig!

4. Digital Filing Projects

Shortly after the beginning of the year and several months into retirement, my previous employer asked if I would be interested in writing an application to save customer purchase orders that arrive in emails to a local share drive, eliminating their need to acquire more filing cabinets. As I had written a similar application before retiring for damage claims documentation, I knew this would be a fun and learning experience. After that one was completed, I was asked to write an application to store invoices after annotating (i.e. stamping) them with vendor, budget and approval information. While the cost of extra filing space was the initial driver, these applications save on paper and printing costs, lost productivity walking back and forth to the printer/scanner, and the time it takes to file invoices and retrieving copies for audits and other business purposes. Besides picking up a little extra spending money for retirement activities, I really love learning and watching an application come to life.

3. Celebrity Edge Cruise

The Edge was the newest addition to the Celebrity cruise line and we enjoyed a week aboard one of its first sailings, leaving out of Fort Lauderdale with three ports of call in the Eastern Caribbean. We had sunny, hot weather all but one day, and we made a lot of use of the running track that spanned two floors and the abundance of deck chairs, never having a problem getting enough for our gang. The Edge featured new staterooms with their Infinite Veranda design that allows the room to go all the way to the edge, merging the balcony with the room. We saw three shows in the Theater, comedian Rondell Sheridan, The Ravons playing rock and roll and Marcus Terell & The Serenades performing Motown delights. The Martini Bar was the highlight of the party scene, spanning three decks, with multi-story, music-synchronized LED lights and bartenders filling a line of fifteen martinis in a single pour from sixteen interconnected cocktail shakers. It seemed like everyone on the ship came out to see the Edge sailing into San Juan Bay, on the north side of Puerto Rico, with its colorful, historic buildings. And if that wasn’t enough, the hot dogs at the Mast Grill were awesome.

2. America’s Cup Sailing Regatta

The final port of call on the cruise was Sint Maarten and we docked at the capital city of Philipsburg on the Dutch-owned, southern side of the island. We boarded a small catamaran for the short trip out to the sailboats where we learned we would be active participants in a racing competition. The crew, headed by Captain Morgan of Jamaica, divided us into two groups, with my wife and I being assigned to the American “Stars and Stripes”, the others to the “Canadian” yacht. My job was being the “back grinder”, where during our into-the-wind changes between port tacking and starboard tacking , I inserted a metal crank in either the port or starboard winch, turned it counter-clockwise until it gave a lot of resistance, then back clockwise many turns to complete the operation. It was about 30 seconds of intense upper body exercise each time, leaving me sweating and breathing hard. A minute or two later the boat would change tack and I was at it again. Fortunately I caught a break during the downwind runs, getting a chance to drink some water and recover. While our boat lost the competition by two lengths, it was an absolute blast sailing in the most perfectly clear blue-green water imaginable.

1. Half-Day Private Catamaran Ride

We traveled to Turks and Caicos in June to celebrate my wife’s youngest sister’s upcoming 60th birthday, staying at the Ocean Club at Grace Bay. It was a great week in the sun and at the Cabana Bar, but the highlight of the trip, and 2019, was a half-day private catamaran ride. Our group loaded onboard at 1:30 pm and the boat visited several islands traveling over beautiful blue-green waters. We had a demonstration of how to remove a conch from its shell and I snapped an up-close picture of a dolphin breaking the water while chasing our boat. But the best experience took me back to my youth. After we headed back towards the Ocean Club, we anchored for a half-hour where we were invited to jump off the boat from its upper balcony or take a curved slide down and get dumped only a few feet. You didn’t have to ask me twice! I was up that ladder in no time and leaped into the water, feeling that long ago, but still familiar rush as you pick up speed before smacking the water. I was a kid again, if only for a few jumps!

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