Discover the Charm of Old Florida at Pirates Cove Resort

Evening view on harbor from Pirates Cove Resort balcony ©Joanne DiBona

Evening view on harbor from Pirates Cove Resort balcony ©Joanne DiBona

After a few days of the glamour and glitz of Miami’s South Beach, my husband Tony and I were yearning for a more laid-back vacation experience during our visit to Southern Florida.  Eager to savor the ambiance of “Old Florida,” we made our way up the coastal road 1A1 on a leisurely drive past endless stretches of beach, stately mansions, and glistening waterways until we reached the town of Stuart, Florida (some 30 miles north of West Palm Beach).

Lovely tropical flowers and plants can be admired throughout the resort grounds. © Joanne DiBona

Lovely tropical flowers and plants can be admired throughout the resort grounds. © Joanne DiBona

Our destination was the quaint and picturesque Salerno Harbor and the Pirates Cove Resort & Marina, a 51-room property that exuded Southern hospitality from the moment we stepped onto the flowering vine-shaded veranda that surrounds the lobby. Situated directly on the waterfront, the hotel boasts spacious rooms, large balconies, an on-site restaurant and above all, a casual and laid-back atmosphere that invites total relaxation.

Welcoming and unpretentious, this is a place where everyday stress and cares are quickly forgotten. We sipped drinks at the colorful Tiki Bar on the wharf and soaked in the maritime ambiance while we watched pelicans soar in the air above us. We chatted with the friendly sports fisherman on the dock who were eager to tell us some colorful “fish tales.” Lovely tropical flowers and plants can be admired throughout the resort grounds.Fishing boats of all shapes and sizes line the wharf at Pirates Cove.

We learned from Captain Wayne of Reel Busy Charters that sailfish excursions are a favorite catch and release sport among visitors, and that Stuart Florida is the sailfishing capital of the world. Sport fishing is also a favorite activity here, and visitors can take their pick from a variety of companies that offer everything from half and full-day trips to overnight and multi-day excursions.

Eager to learn more about the fascinating nature and wildlife that surrounded us, we booked a 2-hour nature boat tour with Sunshine Wildlife Eco Tours. Led by Captain Nancy, whose knowledge and love of the waterways knows no bounds, we glided through the Indian River lagoon admiring the vast variety of plant and bird species. The highlight of the tour came when a manatee surfaced in the distance and we were able to catch a short glimpse of the gentle giant.

Evenings are magical at Pirates Cove Resort.

The rest of our time was spent in blissful relaxation. We enjoyed a savory meal at the Pirate’s Cove restaurant, took at dip in the hotel pool, and sat for hours on end watching the fishing boats glide in and out of the harbor. Each morning we enjoyed an ample complimentary breakfast on the veranda , enjoying the presence of the hotel’s three house cats who watched us wide-eyed as we dined. Pirate’s Cove is a pet-friendly hotel, and visitors are welcome to vacation with Fido or Fluffy for a small additional fee.

While our travels brought us to more excitement and adventure in Orlando, we look back with nostalgia on the few peaceful days at Pirates Cove Resort & Marina, where we discovered the gracious Florida of yesteryear.

Total relaxation is part of the charm of a visit to Pirates Cove Resort.

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Ft. Lauderdale....A Venetian Tour--American-Style

A few years ago, my husband Tony and I visited Venice, Italy.

We were on a tight budget and a personalized gondola ride, as romantic as it looked, was definitely out of reach. Instead, we opted for a multi-day pass on the Vaporetto, the ubiquitous Venetian water “bus” which provides public transportation through the city’s myriad canals and to the surrounding islands.

For three days, we traveled in this manner, hopping on and off at our pleasure to explore the wonders of Venice and its environs.

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Fast forward a few years to our first trip to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. We were on a whirlwind tour and had only two days to take in the sights of this aquatic urban wonderland which is branded as the Venice of America.  Okay, good start, since we were very familiar with the Italian version.

With the fond memories of our Venetian boating adventures still vivid in our minds, we happily took the suggestion of a friend to buy an all day Water Taxi pass. This pass, available for purchase on board, allows the holder unlimited access to the fleet of boats that sail the intercoastal waterways of Ft. Lauderdale from 10:00 am to 12:30 am on day of use.  For $26 (there are reduced rates for seniors and kids), one can float to one’s delight from one stop to another—each stop leading to a different urban experience.

We parked our rental car at a convenient (and at $10 a day very reasonably-priced) lot a few blocks from our first destination, the Riverwalk. True to its name, the waterway was never far from our path as we strolled leisurely past boutiques, restaurants, and galleries.

In what I took as a very good omen for our first day in Ft. Lauderdale, as we were strolling along the walkway, a manatee briefly raised its head out of the water before making its dive into the river. Alas, by the time I raised my camera, only his flipper was visible as he made the plunge. Nonetheless, the thrill of seeing one of these gentle, and endangered, sea creatures quite unexpectedly just a few feet away certainly made my day!

We soon viewed the yellow Water Taxi placard (the water taxi is well marked with signs at each destination) and we waited just a few minutes for our boat to arrive. Schedules are posted at each stop, with Stop #7 connecting you to all 14 water taxi stops on the route.  

Our adventure began as our water taxi glided under several bridges and entered the famous Intercoastal Waterway. We learned from our extremely knowledgeable and affable guide Matthew (whose badge identified him as hailing from Toledo Ohio) that this 3,000 mile navigable route was begun in 1919 and runs from Brownsville, Texas to the Manasquan River in New Jersey.

Being from San Diego, Tony and I are no strangers to yachts of all shapes and sizes, but I must admit, our mouths dropped at the size of the mega-yachts docked along the piers during our cruise.They actually matched the opulence of the mega-mansions we were soon to see along “Millionaire Row.” These sprawling estates were owned at one time or another by such luminaries as Tom Bodett of Motel 6, Sonny & Cher, Lucille Ball, the owners of Hooters and Wendy’s restaurant chains, and the former CEO of Blockbuster Video, among just a few of the names Matthew dropped while awe-struck passengers clicked away on their cameras to capture the moment.

It wasn’t all glitz. There were also some natural pleasures to be enjoyed along the route, too. Matthew pointed out the best spots to view the iguanas sunning themselves along the shore. Sure enough, we happened across quite a few of these plump, lazy, and colorful reptiles that co-exist with coastal residents and are definitely a tourist attraction in their own right. 

We also got a second fleeting look at the tail fins of a few manatees as they began their dive into the water, as well as stately pelicans perched on the dock posts eyeing us calmly as we passed by.

We awoke to another warm and sunny day. Being from San Diego, mild temperatures in early February are not foreign to us, but we were nonetheless delighted to have such perfect weather for our explorations.

Our first stop from the taxi was Las Olas Boulevard, the “style-mile” of Ft. Lauderdale. According to the local visitors bureau, the area was once a sleepy road to the beach but it is now “where the chic shop and people go to see-and-be-seen. “  It reminded us quite a bit of its West Coast cousins, Beverly Hills and Palm Desert, for example, with its stylish fashion boutiques, art galleries, sidewalk cafes, clubs and restaurants.

We couldn’t leave Ft. Lauderdale without a look at its famous beach. Then again, we in San Diego have our share of spectacular beaches, but I must admit, after hopping off the water taxi and walking a few blocks down some side streets, we were rightly impressed with the pristine sands and bustling activity of this “beach-chic” destination.

True again to the visitor bureau’s information, Ft. Lauderdale beach has some of the best people-watching in Southern Florida. Not only were the bathers diverse and interesting (we chatted with a family from Rome who were spending two weeks in the city), but the avenue fronting the beach is lined with impressive high-rise hotels, upscale boutiques, funky shops and restaurants. The strollers, joggers, bicyclists, and rollerblade enthusiasts were also out in full force, adding their touch of colorful beach ambiance to the scene.

Connie Francis romped on this very same beach back in 1960 filming the movie, “Where the Boys Are.”  Forty years later, it was clearly obvious why any traveler would want to spend an early February vacation on these sandy shores.

Our next adventure was to ride the water taxi to Hollywood, Florida. This 45-minute cruise is included in the price of the day pass, so we couldn’t resist.  The trip to Hollywood was relaxing and informative, taking us past Ft. Lauderdale’s cruise ship terminal, which is one of the nation’s busiest terminals. It boasts the capacity of berthing up to twelve cruise ships at a time.  

Along our way, our guide (ever present on the Water Taxi vessels with their knowledge, wit and charm) pointed out pristine state beaches, endangered flora and fauna, and other interesting facts. Alas, we were not able to visit Hollywood because of time restraints, but we promised ourselves we would return to spend a day discovering its charm on our next trip to Ft. Lauderdale. We did float past the Saloon Le Tub on the way to the dock, extolled by Oprah Winfrey as having the nation’s best burgers, and regretted the fact that we didn’t have the time to lunch in this eclectic and historic community.

Our final evening in Ft. Lauderdale ended with a sunset tour on the water taxi. The crew does invite their passengers to bring drinks on board, and I imagine a bar-hopping tour, as suggested by our guide, would be another fun adventure to orchestrate when we return. Tony and I ended this short, but sweet, trip to Ft. Lauderdale sipping Chianti as we glided once again through the city’s magical waterways, toasting to life and watching the winter sun set in a massive ball of flame over the horizon.

For detailed visitor information, contact the Greater Ft. Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau,,  (800) 22-SUNNY.

All Photos © Joanne DiBona, © Tony DiBona 


A Taste of Naples....On the Shores of Sarasota

You never know where you will find a true taste of Italy in your travels.

If my friend Bernadette hadn’t insisted on stopping for dinner at Café Gabbiano during a recent trip to Florida’s Gulf coast, we would have been denied an Italian culinary adventure that was one of the highlights of our visit.

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Café Gabbiano, located on Siesta Key a few blocks from the beach at Sarasota, transports you to Italy before the first mouthful of food touches your lips. Romantico is the first word that came to my mind as we entered the restaurant and admired the cozy tables that were placed haphazardly among the rows of wine racks and were nestled in the nooks and small private rooms that dotted the restaurant interior.  We passed a candle-lit outdoor patio and viewed the smiling faces of a bride and groom as they raised their glasses to their guests in a toast, a vignette that certainly added to the romantic ambiance of the evening.

We were seated at a round table tucked away in the corner, surrounded by a bay window decorated with small white lights that cast a warm and pleasant glow on our surroundings. Our attentive server was on hand immediately and dazzled us throughout the evening with his ability not only to narrate a list of special courses being offered, but also by explaining in great detail exactly how they were prepared—down to the country of origin of many of the ingredients.

My grandmother once said you can always judge an excellent restaurant by the quality of its most simple dish, and I had to think of her commentary as I sampled the first course, a bean soup. Who would have guessed that a rustic soup of cannellini beans in a garlic-laden chicken broth, topped with escarole and freshly-grated parmesan cheese, could taste so heavenly?

Indeed, this was a good sign of things to come. It was just the beginning of our culinary adventure, which went from heavenly to sublime as we journeyed through several courses. As starters, we shared an appetizer of the best plate of escargots this side of Paris; in fact, these moist and tender morsels were far superior to the gummier versions I had eaten while a student in France. Our server told us the secret to their size and tenderness was the result of their strict oatmeal diet, which gave a new meaning to “grain-fed” as it applied to these invertebrates.

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Each of us decided to sample a different main course. My selection was Gamberoni di Ischia, jumbo gulf shrimp sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and white wine, served over a bed of spinach and linguine. I especially love the sweet flavor of gulf shrimp, so whenever I visit the Southern states, I opt for this entrée. To clarify, Ischia is an island off the coast of Naples and is the home of restaurant owner Pietro Migliaccio and his extensive family, many of whom work in the restaurant. So while the shrimp hailed from the waters outside of Sarasota, it was their preparation that was definitely "Ischian" in flavor.

On the other hand, my husband Tony’s selection, a sea bass known as “Branzino,” had arrived by plane from the Mediterranean just that morning.  Presented on a large tray and filleted in front of us, this fish had a unique and delicate flavor unlike its Atlantic or Pacific cousins. Tony was delighted with his entrée.

Bernadette’s husband Mike enjoyed an immense Maine lobster on a bed of pasta, and Bernadette selected the Costolette di Vitello Luigi, the restaurant’s signature dish of a 14 ounce veal chop topped with a savory mushroom sauce.

We sipped superb dry Tuscan red wine throughout our repast, part of a private collection of labels offered by the restaurant. With a selection that includes more than 500 wines from around the world, and vintages that range from 1829 to the present, Gabbiano’s boasts one of the largest wine cellars in Florida.

When the dessert sampler arrived at our table as a final course, I was hesitant to indulge as I usually don’t like to end my meal with a sweet dessert. However, after hearing my dinner partners sing the praises of the various samples, I did reach out for a taste.

How glad I was that I did! Every item on that plate was light and not overly sweet, from the exquisite tiramisu, made the traditional way with real mascarpone cream and espresso-drenched  lady fingers to the “cannoli from heaven,” crispy home-made shells stuffed with impastata crème (which is the top, and best, layer of ricotta produced during the cheese-making process).

Add to that a Limoncello flute, a tangy lemon gelato presented in a champagne glass, and a variety of light Tartufi (chocolate covered gelato), and a truly memorable meal came to its close.

I'm really happy we listened to Bernadette!

Café Gabbiano Restaurant & Café is open seven days a week for dinner and reservations are suggested, especially during high season;

ALL PHOTOS © Joanne DiBona