The sweetest festival in Florida

by Sonja Stark on March 3, 2015

A string of starring roles in great movies hasn't slowed down actor, producer Kevin Costner from fronting his own band and singing to sold-out crowds across the country.  His band performed at the Strawberry Festival in Park City, Florida, Saturday evening.

A string of starring roles in great movies hasn’t slowed down actor, producer Kevin Costner from fronting his own band and singing to sold-out crowds across the country. His band performed at the Strawberry Festival in Park City, Florida, Saturday evening.

Kevin Costner and Modern West

Parksdale Booth

There’s something sweet happening in Plant City, Florida. All this week through March 8, the Strawberry Capital of Florida is celebrating 80 years of all things red, ripe and delicious.

Strawberry shortcake, chocolate-dipped strawberries, strawberry jalapeno jam, even strawberry French toast burgers are always a big hit with crowds. Whether it’s deep fried or served on a stick, concession stands also carry many signature fair favorites: corn dogs, candy apples, funnel cakes, glazed donuts, and, here’s one I never heard of – chocolate-covered bacon.

Strawberry Fest

The festival is a cross between a Six Flags Great Adventure and our own country-flavored New York State Fair. For 11 days, the event features headlining entertainment, parades, midway rides, livestock events and agricultural exhibits. The event attracts about a million people including the four of us.

We donned umbrellas on Saturday to avoid the unforgiving deluge. The rain lifted just in time for actor, producer and now singing sensation, Kevin Costner, fronting his band Modern West, to take center stage. The performer couldn’t have been more grateful for a smitten audience willing to sit in wet chairs and listen to unfamiliar heartland rock.

“These tunes may sound new to you but many were written while filming movies over the last several years,” said Costner.

Strawberry Fest


Holy Smokes! BBQ is king in Tampa

by Sonja Stark on March 1, 2015

Holy Hog BBQ

Last month the Pigz in Z’Hills BBQ & Blues Fest drew a huge crowd to the Greater Zephyrhills area. The Florida Bar-B-Que Association holds sanctioned competitions looking to crown the maker of the most tender and tastiest pulled pork sandwich. Dad and Bev attended and feasted on samples of meat from all over Florida and the country.

“BBQ is king in Florida,” says Bev. “Nearly every day, you’ll come across a portable pit on the side of the road selling smoked meats of all kinds.”

BBQ is to Tampa what pizza parlors are to Manhattan or lobster shacks are to Maine. Home barbecuing supply stores and drool-inducing BBQ joints are everywhere. Sonny’s, Snooties, Al’s Finger Licking Good, Hank’s, Sarge’s, Cally’s, Jimbo’s, Ribit’s – the list of honky-tonk names goes on forever.

So, in honor of that tradition, we enjoy lunch at one of Tampa’s most popular, a fifth location retrofitted under a parking garage on Kennedy Blvd, called Holy Hog. Yelp just declared their jalapeno mac and cheese best in side category. We were enticed by the old time corn fritters and black eyed peas with our “Red Neck” version of the “Tampa Classic” – Pulled Pork, Country Ham, Swiss, Mustard & Pickles.

Before leaving, I read about a delicious multi-million dollar expansion for the Tampa International Airport. The airport is revamping its concessions, setting off an intense competition to land a coveted spot there in 2017. The shortlist of bids come out next month (Tampa Bay Times). Holy Hog hopes to make the cut.


The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

by Sonja Stark on February 28, 2015

Oatmeal with Chia Seeds

The first day of my longevity quest in Florida begins not with stretching out on a pristine white beach as waves lap my feet and a cocktail is served every hour. Instead, my first wacky pseudo-cure for aging begins with a bowl of homemade oatmeal loaded with fresh strawberries and sprinkled with a spoonful of chia seeds.

“Chia seeds are rich in Omega-3, more than salmon!” announces Bev. “And, if Dr. Oz recommends them, they must be good.”

Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial

Breakfast is followed by a review of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s new website on award-winning state parks. We download an app called the Official Florida State Parks & Beaches Outdoor Guide or Pocket Ranger® and hit the road.

An hour later, we arrive at an antebellum mansion once home to Major Robert Gamble and headquarters of an extensive sugar plantation. The only surviving plantation house in South Florida has a line out the door waiting for the one o’clock tour.

Fredrick Tillery

Our volunteer guide, the bearded Fredrick Tillery, plays a whimsical game of ‘show and tell’ while touring the furnished mid-19th century home. Can anybody tell me what this historic kitchen utensil was used for? It’s a butter churn, of course! Cast iron cookware, washboards, dutch ovens and heavy metal flat irons suggest that the women of 1850’s must have had mighty big arms.

But, did Dixie’s finest ever harvest chia seeds, also known as salvia hispanica? Maybe sprinkle a little on their Johnnie cakes along with spoonfuls of raw sugar coming from the plantation? We migrate outside to the garden where herbs and vegetables used to grow. Turns out, the grain was grown in ancient Mexican during the pre-Columbian era for use in tea and powders and migrated into America shortly thereafter.

Tillery goes on to explain the origins of catchphrases and expressions like “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” and “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” His summary of Confederate hardships – before, during and after the civil war – leaves little to be desired. In 1925, the house and 16 acres were saved by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and donated to the state.

The tour is followed by watching the latest IMAX release at the Mosi museum and a seafood smorgasbord at a popular Oyster Bar. More on tips of the Floridian lifestyle in the next blog entry.

19th century coffee maker


Videos: Island time and night hike in Belize

by Sonja Stark on February 20, 2015


Here now are two videos, with three more pending, of our recent trip to Belize. The best is yet to come though when we dive the Great Blue Hole! In the meantime, I hope this gives you great ideas for an extended weekend sojourn, be it some island time on Ambergris Caye at the La Belize Resort or a night hike in the Mayan Mountains at Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge.

Since I cannot embed the videos into this blog (for some strange reason), click these two links: ISLAND TIME and NIGHT HIKE.


Day hike at Santa Rosa Plateau

by Sonja Stark on February 17, 2015







Before leaving California, my guests treated me to a day hike around the Santa Rosa Plateau. The hidden gem offers a fascinating glimpse into the history and ecosystems of the area. Of the 9000 acres, we only had time to explore a little over four miles however our loop included riparian wetlands, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, bunchgrass prairie and vernal pools.

Vernal pools are temporary basins of water that are at their highest in the spring. It’s been a dangerously dry winter in California and most of hypersaline water has evaporated from habitats usually teaming with life – like the fairy shrimp, one of life’s oldest living creatures.

We looped around the Moreno and Machado Adobes, the two oldest standing structures in Riverside County, which date back to 1846 and once served as bunkhouses for cowboys. These interesting historical buildings, shaded by a 400-year-old tree and separated by a relaxing one-of-a-kind picnic area, provide a unique opportunity to experience Riverside County’s rich history.


Lights, Camera, Sleep!

by Sonja Stark on February 13, 2015

Eternal peace and slumber among a field of poppies...err, actually these are daisies but they'll do the trick.

Eternal peace and slumber among a field of poppies…err, actually these are daisies but they’ll do the trick.


I’m on assignment in sun-drenched Southern California this week with no need for Flonase, a winter parka or a treadmill. I ditch all three as soon as I arrive. The friends that I’m staying with tell me that it’s always this perfect, both the year-round forecast of 70 degrees Fahrenheit as well as people’s dispositions. It seems like the only possibility for hardship here is during freeway gridlock or the occasional tremble.

I’m staying in a loft above a turn-of-the-century one room schoolhouse. The schoolhouse was actually built three years ago by an owner wanting to satisfy a passion for remembering her youth. The loft is a living quarters for guests. It’s built high in the hills of Temecula Wine Country, a sprawling valley one hour north of San Diego.

Before my lids shut, I peer through several European-style sunroofs to enjoy a show of shooting stars. There’s no need for screens. There’s also no need for socks since my feet are already toasty warm under a single sheet.

My bed is neither memory foam, organic nor feather. It’s old-fashioned firm and dressed from pillow to bedpost in a simple purple flannel hemstitch.

There’s a cacophony of sounds coming from outside my window: howling coyotes, chirping crickets, even a bullfrog sings from an old bathtub basin filled with water lilies. A light breeze carries the scent of sweet orange blossoms from ripe groves planted on a steep escarpment.

And, then, suddenly, without the aid of herbs or supplements, milk or bananas, a boring book or counting sheep – I’m out. My chronic insomnia has gone to la-la land.

I haven’t slept like this in years! This isn’t just a restful sleep, it’s sleep nirvana. The kind that even a full bladder ignores the urge to go. The kind that requires an alarm clock and several 7-minute snoozes to achieve consciousness. The kind of sleep that scientists prep subjects for so they can study the stages of deep REM.

I’m convinced. Those desperately seeking peace and slumber need the mind-body state that only Southern California can provide.


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