Sunday, May 15, 2011

Best Biker Bar In The World (Or How To Have A Devil Of A Good Time)

It's said the caves were once used to shelter fleeing religious refugees...

... and a Nazi weapons factory during World War II.

For my 50th birthday, I rode my motorcycle inside a cave. And no, I'm not prematurely senile.

If that wasn't enough, the cave is so large that it has its own roundabout. Oh, and it's also got a bar, where you can ride your motorcycle right up and order a drink.

Allen Harris, the chief of the Expat Bikers Club, had arranged a trip on April 24 to Pekelne Doly (Hell's Mines), in the Český ráj (Czech Paradise) area, north of Prague, between the hamlets of Svitava and Velenice. I think it was around 90 kilometers or so from Prague. You can see the exact location on Google below:

View Larger Map

It was a gloriously sunny day, but not too hot to make wearing the leathers a chore. We had a fantastic ride through the Czech countryside on winding backroads. You can watch a cool video of the ride, with me and my biking buddies, below. It was filmed and edited by Allen:

We didn't quite know what to expect once we got to the cave. In fact, at first, we passed right by it, since it's not exactly well signposted and sits well up off the road.

The day we visited, it was packed with bikers and bikes of all shapes and sizes. Everyone was as seemingly tickled as we were to have arrived at such a playground.

As Allen says, "This is the holy grail of pubs and all bikers must visit it once to call themselves a biker. This place is addictive and the trip will be repeated many times."

Inside, there are sofas and chairs and even a few mattresses thrown on the floor, if you want to spend the night, I guess. (Or maybe do other things.)

According to this website, the caves were used as shelter by fleeing religious refugees in the 17th century, and then later used for sand mining for a nearby mirror factory. It says the area also housed a Nazi weapons factory.

What's funny, though, is that we're all dressed in leather and sporting tattoos and beards and skull rings and such, and we're in the most amazing biker bar imaginable, but most of us are drinking coffee or soda or nonalcoholic beer, since there's zero tolerance in the Czech Republic for drinking and driving. And even if there wasn't, motorcycle riding in the Czech Republic is dangerous enough without having had a few.

It was a great ride and a wonderful way to spend part of my birthday. Thanks to Allen, Sam, Hayden, and Andy for letting me tag along.

Hayden Murray (left), Sam Graham, Andy Schofield, and I soak up some rays at the outdoor tables. It was just too nice to sit inside.

Allen enjoys a tall, cool half-liter ... of nonalcoholic Birell.

Sam remembers the one that got away.

Bikers can drive inside the cave, which features its own roundabout (above).

The bar, in the distance, surrounded in the cave by comfy sofas and chairs.

My Honda Shadow, getting some serious cave time in.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Best Coast -- Eating Well And Sleeping Well In Whitstable, England

Jonathan Swift said, "It was a brave man who first ate an oyster." Anyone who believes that has never eaten an oyster.

I was trying to think of a fun trip to take in honor of my 50th birthday, on April 24. My first thought was Ireland (I'm one-quarter Irish, and I dearly love the place) but I couldn't find any direct flights to Dublin that fit my schedule.

Then I remembered Whitstable.

A travel story that ran in "The New York Times" a few years ago had made a lasting impression. It was about the village of Whitstable, on England's southeast coast, and it was famous for its oysters. Which was the reason the article stayed with me, because I -- as well as Daisy -- love oysters, especially on the half-shell, she with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, me, neat.

As if the presence of tasty local shellfish wasn't enough, the village also boasts a Michelin-star gastro-pub called The Sportsman, which also left a lasting impression, because the photos of The Sportsman in "The New York Times" impressed me as much for the restaurant's utter unpretentiousness as for the food.

One of the great pleasures of Whitstable was ordering a half-dozen oysters from a shack on the beach, watching as they were shucked, and then taking them to the beach to enjoy. Emma has yet to discover the pleasure of the oyster.

Shucked while you wait.

Hard to beat the price -- about $6.50 for a half-dozen.

We -- me, Daisy, Emma, and Robin, Daisy's mom -- booked a flight to London/Luton on Hungary's Wizz Air, rented a car, and headed to Whitstable, which is about an hour and a half outside of London proper.

I can't recommend it enough.

We had glorious weather, the oysters were succulent, the locals friendly, the village full of cute shops, and the hotel -- the Hotel Continental -- unique.

Two of the fishermen's huts, converted into comfortable accommodation.

The view from the bedroom in our hut -- just steps from the beach.

One of the more comfortable beds I've ever slept in.

We splurged on one of the converted fisherman's huts -- small two-story shacks right on the beach that have been converted from stinky storage sheds into fairly posh accommodations. The bed was one of the most comfortable I've ever slept in, and it was always a thrill to peek out of the tiny upstairs window in the morning and see the sea and the fishing boats right there.

We shopped and ate oysters and mussels and drank bottles of white wine and pints of Guinness and walked along the beachfront and just basically had a wonderful time.

Robin Sindelar, Emma, Daisy, and me in Whitstable.

Oh, and The Sportsman. I'd made reservations weeks ahead of time, and then set out in our rental, the GPS programmed accordingly. But I guess there must be another restaurant called The Sportsman, for we ended up in nearby Canterbury and I thought for certain that we had missed our meal.

The Sportsman gastro-pub in Whitstable -- as unpretentious as it is delicious.

By the time I'd found The Sportsman, situated in the proverbial middle of nowhere next to the sea outside of town, it was 7:45. Our reservations had been for 7, and I felt certain that we'd blown it, so popular is The Sportsman. I would have given up on me.

I rushed through the door, expecting the worst, but the staff could not have been nicer. They had been holding our table for us all along, offered us a drink at the bar, and said our table would be ready momentarily, becalming my frazzled nerves.

I had not wanted to miss that meal, and I am so glad I didn't. I would say it ranks among the Top 5 meals of my life. I have never had such exquisite food, served in such a relaxed, unpretentious setting, by such lovely wait staff. A meal to remember, truly.

The Sportsman is reason enough to make a return trip to Whitstable.

The grand total for a three-course dinner for four, including a bottle of lovely Delta Pinot Noir from New Zealand, came to just over $250, minus tip. Money well spent.

I'll publish some photos of the food at The Sportsman on this post, and perhaps a few more pictures of Whitstable a bit later.

Go there. Now.

The offerings on the night we visited.

Poached rock oysters with pickled cucumber and avruga caviar.

Poached egg, asparagus and home-cured ham.

Chilled asparagus soup.

Braised turbot fillet with a crab bisque sauce.

Roast saddle of Monkshill farm lamb with mint sauce.

Roast pork belly with crackling and apple sauce.

Crispy duck with smoked chili salsa and sour cream.

The "pudding" board on our visit.

Cream cheese ice cream, pear puree, meringue and crumble crumbs.

Rhubarb sorbet made with Pop Rocks, believe it or not, and burnt cream, along with some simple vanilla ice cream and melted chocolate for Emma.

Warm chocolate mousse with salted caramel and milk sorbet.