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FLORIDA Spring 2001

Ft. Lauderdale / Pompano Beach

The Florida sunshine sure helped to free us from the last of the jet lag from our Italy trip. What a great week this has been! We'd never have planned to leave home just a week after returning from a three week trip but our nephew in Florida decided it was time to tie-the-knot and we wouldn't have missed the occasion for the world.

When we heard about the wedding, our intention was to fly to Florida for just that week-end. But when we calculated the cost of booking air fare, hotel and car rental separately, as we normally do, it was going to be a very expensive three days. Add to that the cost of converting the hotel and car rental costs from U.S. funds to our embarrassingly low Canadian dollar and it was prohibitive. So we started looking for alternatives on the Internet and came across a terrific web site where we were able to compare the offerings of the various tour companies that put packages together from Canada. The site is called Exit.ca.

We zeroed in on Signature Vacations, which has long been a respected tour operator in Canada. They specialize in packages including air, hotel and car rental, prepaid in Canadian funds. We discovered that we would be able to stay in Florida for a week for little more than the cost of booking three days piecemeal on our own. In the cold Toronto February when we were making these arrangements, the opportunity to warm up and relax for a few extra days was too tempting to pass up.

The real reason we're sharing this with you is that we see this not only as a great deal for Canadians but a fantastic way for travelers from around the world to include a visit to Canada in their itineraries.

We were delighted with the professionalism of Signature Vacations from beginning to end. Our well-organized and detailed package arrived well in advance of our departure with all the documentation and information we would need.

Our flights aboard Royal Airlines operated on time with well-trained, professional crews. Charter airlines have more stringent carry-on baggage regulations than scheduled carriers so we were obliged to check our bags but fortunately they arrived at Ft. Lauderdale when we did.

The car rental was with Alamo and we just missed the bus to the depot. The wait seemed overly long but eventually along came the shuttle and from then on the rest was a breeze.

We chose the Four Points Sheraton Pompano Beach because its location was perfect for our needs. We drove north from the airport on A1A, which took about 30 minutes (it's fifteen minutes via I-95), so we could enjoy the coastal views.

This was our first visit to this part of the Florida coast and we were very impressed with the beautiful, clean, sandy beach. Best of all, our hotel was right on it! We were warmly greeted by the front desk staff who, in the course of our stay, were extremely helpful and considerate. The hotel is newly renovated and there are views of the ocean from every room. Our oceanfront corner room with wrap around balcony was quite large with two double beds, a sofa, desk, chairs, large TV and a separate small kitchen area with a table and four chairs. The kitchen was equipped with a microwave, refrigerator and the fixings for coffee and tea. We found an iron and board in the closet, which came in handy during the course of the week.

The heated swimming pool and lounge area leads to the beach and the beachside tiki bar is adjacent. No need to leave if you've come for rest and relaxation. The Neptune Restaurant and Lounge (with nightly entertainment) overlooks the pool and the beach. There's a fitness center and beachfront water sports are available.

We spent most of our time with relatives, soaking up the sun, and meeting the challenge of finding good food at fair prices. Anyone can find places that serve huge portions of mediocre food at low prices or places that offer fine dining at exorbitant prices.

Several members of our travel discussion group recommended Sunfish Grill, which was just a few blocks from our hotel. We dropped by late morning one day to make reservations for that evening. The place is quite small so if you're planning to try it, a reservation will prevent disappointment. The evening we were there, every table was filled - and for good reason. We enjoyed a superb, leisurely meal, professionally served by friendly waiters. The ambiance was pleasant with pastel walls and floor and an open kitchen, which added aroma and flair. We started with a delicious complimentary appetizer of eggplant dip with sun dried tomato focaccia along with an excellent Shiraz from Australia.

The menu, which is on the Sunfish Grill web site, had so many wonderful choices. Linda started with crispy, fried goat cheese with roasted yellow and red beets, mache, red pepper syrup, pine nuts and fresh basil - a wonder combo - followed by gulf shrimp bruschetta with country bread, broccoli rabe, tomatoes and white beans. I had the buffalo mozzarella stack to start, which was garnished with an asiago crisp and served with virgin olive oil and balsamic syrup. My seared rare tuna along with garlic whipped potatoes, crispy onion rings and ragout of oxtail and mushrooms was a joy to behold and eat. Everything we ordered was expertly prepared, creatively presented and tasted even better than it looked. This is the first time we have experienced good value excellent dining in Florida.

We live in cosmopolitan Toronto and have eaten our way through Europe numerous times so we've learned to seek out ethnic restaurants, usually a good bet for finding real food at down-to-earth prices. George at the front desk of the hotel to the rescue! He enthusiastically recommended two spots with authentic Caribbean home cooking. Aunt I's at 1178 N. State Road 441, Lauderhill, was our first stop. We walked into wonderful aromas and a long lineup at the take-out counter next to which is a no frills dining room. Two waitresses were happily taking care of the nearly-full room and were quickly to our table, menus in hand, with explanations where necessary. Linda had a brown stew chicken and I a curry goat. Both were served with rice and peas, fried plantain and a lettuce and tomato salad. The portions were very ample. Thank goodness we didn't get the large size. The chicken and goat were both top quality and incredibly deliciously seasoned. Each dish was $5.83 U.S., which even in Canadian dollars was a bargain.

Just down the street on the west side at number 4261 N.W. 12th Street, opposite the bus station, is Jerk Machine. They have six other locations in Florida (800-453-6960). It's cafeteria style with seating around the sides. George had told us the brown stew fish and jerk chicken were the favorite choices. The fish was not ready yet but the friendly and helpful Coretta assured us it would be out shortly and was worth waiting for. Boy were she and George ever right! She selected a large whole fish and carefully covered it with the heavenly brown sauce mixed with carrots, peppers and onion. Linda had the jerk chicken. Both were served with rice, peas and steamed cabbage. The fish was out-of-the-water fresh, crisp outside, moist and delicate inside and the sauce absolutely delicious. Linda loved her chicken. The fish fantasy was $9.99 U.S. and the chicken $5.65 U.S. - unreal value.

Sticking with our plan of bargain delights, we confidently took George's tip of Ocean, a Chinese takeout spot with a few tables at 2608 North Ocean Blvd., north of the hotel. We had typical American Chinese lunch specials, which we shared. Wonton and egg drop soups, shrimp in lobster sauce, vegetable lo mein and pork fried rice. As an add-on, Linda had to try one of their egg rolls, which was made in-house and excellent. It was as good as it gets for this style restaurant and the total bill $10.26 U.S.

We even managed to find an almost free lunch. While driving along Federal Highway, Lighthouse Point, we saw big signs for a grand opening party at Humperdinks at #4460. They were grilling hamburgers and chicken breasts in the parking lot next to their outdoor patio. The price of the half pound burgers was $2.00 and the chicken, $3.00. Kalik beer from the Bahamas was $1.00 a bottle. No wonder the place was buzzing. Total bill for lunch on a sunny patio, six bucks!

We had wonderful times with our families and thanks to Signature Vacations, we found the perfect prescription for fighting the currency exchange pain.

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