Introduction to Jewish Tannersville and Hunter, NY

Hiking above Kaaterskill Falls

Hiking above Kaaterskill Falls

I wrote about the Hunter Kosher Bed and Breakfast previously when I visited a few years ago for a weekend – I finally returned to really check out the Jewish community which was hiding in plain view.  The secular world knows the town of Hunter for the Hunter mountain ski slope, but it turns that for more than a century it has been home to a large Jewish community.  In fact, Hunter mountain was owned by a Torah observant Jew and it’s still in his family today.

Hunter, NY is a actually a city in New York made of two villages – Hunter and Tannersville.  The respective village centers of Tannersville and Hunter are about five miles apart along the same one-lane highway.  The population of the 91 sq mile town today (2016) is about equal to what it was in 1840.  While founded in 1790 with a tannery, since the arrival of railroad in the late 1800s (demolished in WWII because the metal was needed) there has been a large and continuous Jewish presence.  It is “the other Jewish catskills.”  While there a ridiculously large summer Jewish community in the Woodridge-Monticello area (about a two hour drive away; ask me how I know that), there is a smaller, but still quite large summer Jewish presence in the Tannersville area.

Where to Daven / Synagogues of Tannersville and Hunter

Anshei HaSharon in Tannersville, NY

Anshei HaSharon in Tannersville, NY

Tannersville has about four fully functioning synagogues, with one having daily year round minyanim.  You can find Tannersville, NY minyan times here.  Basically, Shachris is at 8:00am – you won’t find earlier or much later; Shabbos is always a late Shabbos.  Tannersville is the summer retreat of the Washington Heights / Breuer’s community.  Anshei Sharon (pictured to the right) is a 100+ year old synagogue which was and is still the place of famous Rabbeim from Washington Heights.  Right behind it, one can find a new synagogue,  Bnai Hayeshivos which, as one would expect, is yeshivish.  The building is very modern, large, and could be straight out of Lakewood.  I didn’t get to the chassidic shuls, but there are those too.

In nearby Hunter, there is one shul – the Hunter Synagogue, situated very close to the entrance to Hunter mountain.  There you’ll find Shachris at 8am as well as a daily Minchah and Maariv, though we had to get some people together for a zman Maariv minyan rather than wait for the late one.  Every one of these shuls was very well attended.

Where to Get Kosher Food / Kosher Restaurants

Country K Supermarket in Tannersville, NY

Country K Supermarket in Tannersville, NY

Kosher food is limited to Tannersville where the much larger Jewish community exists.  There are now not one, but two kosher supermarkets.  You can find an interesting assortment in these supermarkets, both just off the main street.  There’s cholov yisroel milk, kosher meat, and a variety of other products including non-food items such as yarmulkes and tzitzis.  Country K has tables with service where you can order pizza, ice cream, and some other foods.  In the same area they have pool table and ping pong table.  All this, including the “supermarket” and “restaurant” are on carpet for . . . a country experience.

Down the road a bit towards the edge of Tannersville and towards Hunter is the Tops supermarket.  This is more of a standard supermarket with everything you’d expect from a supermarket minus a specific kosher section.

What to Do with the Family in Tannersville, NY

A house with a pool is all my kids really need for happiness, but it turned out to be too cold on or trip most days … this was in August!  It’s in the mountains.  In other places we’ve rented houses, they were immaculate.  Here, we’re dealing with a rural area full of ‘for sale’ signs making it a clear buyer’s market and an area of relatively low industry and income so the houses seem to be more … rustic and full of character.  Still, that has it’s charm too.

Kaaterskill Falls after the 1/2 mile hike

Kaaterskill Falls after the 1/2 mile hike

Kaaterskill Falls was, by far, the highlight of our family activities and we think it will be yours too. Detailed information is available over here.  You can enter on the upper side [GPS coordinates] or lower side [GPS coordinates].  From the upper side you can take a back and forth gravel path (stroller accessible) to a viewing platform, looking down the top part of the waterfall.  It’s nice and enjoyable . . . but from the lower side, that’s where the fun is.  You have to park in a too small parking lot about 500 feet up the one lane road (I dropped the family off at the entrance first – recommended).  Then you see some of the waterfall, but a 1/2 mile trail up and down steep hills, trees, rocks, and stairs brings you to a pond being fed by a high waterfall above you.

It’s really a trail for, say, six years and up but let’s just say with some help and carrying at parts, even four, two, and one year olds love it.  (Ask me how I know that.)  Further between the top and bottom sides of the falls are a very steep set of staircases and other paths with large “danger” signs where people really have died, including quite recently.  We didn’t do that part for some reason.

Hunter Mountain in the winter of course has skiing.  They also have year round zip lining.  We did the dinky zip lines (100 to 600 feet or so) so the kids as young as eight (60 lbs) could join.  They’re short and there’s a lot of waiting.  For adults there are 3000+ foot zip lines with 65 MPH travel which are probably amazing, but I couldn’t tell you because I decided to spoil my kids instead.

Hiking Down Hunter Mountain

Hiking Down Hunter Mountain (note how far I’ve fallen behind my daughter, 1/5th my age)

Hunter mountain also has hiking.  There are two ways you can do this – well, three.  You can walk up the mountain (ouch).  You can take the chair lift to the top of the mountain and hike down.  Double black diamonds, it turns out, are easier to ski down than walk down . . . unless you’re a seven year old girl, in which case you’re way out in front of your parents the entirety of the hike.  (Ask me how I know that.)  So yes, I can say I’ve actually walked down the entirety of Hunter mountain . . . and that my seven year old can do it faster and would have gone back up and done it again had we let her.  There are also higher points to start from along the road, such as this five mile hike which was second on my list.

Howe Caverns

Howe Caverns

Howe Caverns is about an hour fifteen minutes away.  It’s a big cave with walking tour (stroller’s not allowed) and boat ride.  It’s worth seeing once and really fun if you’ve never been there.  It’s in the middle of no where even by our tour guide’s assessment.  Once, I went from there to an Eerie Canal boat ride where they take you in a loch and lower your boat down, and then do it in reverse.  The kids loved it, but that’s an extra hour to the northwest.  (If you’re on your way between New York and Ontario, however, both are good choices to breakup the car ride.)

Balliwick Ranch is about half hour from Tannersville.

Camel at Balliwick Ranch

Camel at Balliwick Ranch

Here they have horseback riding ($65/hr; a bit steep but no reservation required), a farm, and paintball.  While the older kids and some adults go horseback riding, the younger kids can see the camels, lions, turtles, goats (lots of goats), and play in a very nice playground with a trampoline and huge sandbox.  Be warned – they only take cash and the staff, both times I was there, had something of middos issues but the number of animals and proximity to each other is great, as was the horseback riding.

North-South Lake, right next to Tannersville, is a state park with great camping, swimming in the lake, and boat rentals.

The playground in Tannersville is also known to be quite nice with a lot of fun toys for kids.

Ziplining at Hunter Mountain

Ziplining at Hunter Mountain

One thing we want to do but haven’t had a chance to yet is inner tube riding which can be found in nearby Phoencia, NY, about a half hour away.  Problem: minimum age is 12.

Bear in our Tannersville, NY backyard

Bear in our Tannersville, NY backyard

There is also a train ride on weekends on a stream train right next to the world’s largest kaleidoscope.  I drove past, but sure…it’s… something.

That should be enough to keep you and your family busy!  It’s a trip we would certainly do again.

 

Introduction

No shortage of mangoes in South Florida

No shortage of mangoes in South Florida

Miami – a city full of New Yorkers who hate winter.  Well, that’s not all.  There are also New Yorkers there who don’t like the intensity or taxes of New York.  Combine this with a mix of people from Spanish speaking countries who came to the United States, and you’ve got yourself a very beautiful city, albeit with some interesting cultural nuances.  For example, people there think it is perfectly normal to have a front lawn full of crabgrass, supermarkets that don’t sell fruits and vegetables but have excellent wine selections, and instead of squirrels filling the trees, they’ve got lizards.

We almost went back to the kosher resort in the Dominican Republic again this year, but you know, I already wrote that blog article.

Where to Stay

Our house rental in North Miami Beach - not much from the outside, but beautiful inside with 3 bedrooms, kosher kitchen, pool, seforim, game room, and central air.

Our house rental in North Miami Beach – not much from the outside, but beautiful inside with 3 bedrooms, kosher kitchen, pool, seforim, game room, and central air.

We no longer stay in hotels if we can avoid it.  Thanks to the internet, you can find very reliable information and ratings about houses for rent which usually cost about the same or sometimes less than a hotel with the same number of beds.  Plus, in many rental houses you get your own pool.  It turns out that in the Miami area, there is a conspicuous absence of house rentals near/in Jewish communities on sites like Homeaway and AirBNB.  This is probably because housing is more expensive in these areas.  No problem – you can either choose to stay in a hotel, say, in the Bel Harbour area where there is a Jewish community very close to the beach or rent a house from the Jewish equivalent of Homeaway in Miami.  If you’re into Bel Harbour / Surfside and being in a hotel near the beach, then there’s a Young Israel in the area with daily minyanim and some Chabads.  Young Israel and Chabad both seem to be very big in the Miami area.

Renting a House in North Miami Beach

Pool at our house rental in North Miami Beach.

Pool at our house rental in North Miami Beach.

Instead of a hotel, we rented a house in North Miami Beach from “Florida Kosher Villas“.  There are others who do it, but this person had the largest selection of houses and most professional website.  I don’t do ‘heimish’ on my trips – I want professional.  It’s the same idea and same feel as HomeAway – you get the whole house with a pool, the garage is converted into a game room, washer, dryer,  . . . it might as well have been a Homeaway.com rental.  There were two important differences: 1) price, 2) Judaism.  You pay a premium over the same sort of house that you’ll find on Homeaway, but the service was just as excellent as we experience renting on Homeaway.com and you can’t match the location.  We were right in the middle of the North Miami Beach Jewish community with a synagogue across the street and four more within five blocks of the house.

Beach in Miami at Dusk

Beach in Miami at Dusk

The house was further equipt with a kosher kitchen (and cameras, not on when you’re there, to ensure it stays kosher), everything you need for Shabbos (candles, kiddush cup, benchers, hot plate, urn …), washing cups, seforim, and the whole deal.  The house was just redone and the experience was great.  You don’t have to feel like you’re “compromising” on your Judaism when you’re there and get all the amenities of a typical house rental.  I’d highly recommend this option to anyone.

The North Miami Beach Community

North Miami Beach is one of many different Jewish communities in South Fliorida, all in the right 1/4 of the state.  The left 3/4 is reserved for the birds – the Everglades is huge.  It’s a non-pretentious community of almost exclusively one floor, three bedroom houses.  They’re kind of like Jerusalem apartments in house form.  Originally, it was a winter retreat for Northerners.  (Now it’s an all year retreat for Northerners.)  The community hasn’t quite figured out the internet thing yet, but walk into a few shuls and have some conversations with people and you can figure out most of the minyan times.  The North Miami Beach Kollel website is the only place I have found many minyan times for the community listed together.

Gangster, Meir Lansky treated his shul in Miami well. (Now a museum.)

Gangster, Meir Lansky treated his shul in Miami well. (Now a museum.)

The community is made up over about seven different kehillas, almost all right near NE 10th ave.  Here’s a link to a map of Sharray Tefillah, one of the synagogues in North Miami Beach which I point you to because it’s about in the “center”.  To the South, is the Young Israel and to the North is Torah V’Emunah and soon to be the Kollel.  As an over-generalization, the further south, the longer the mishaberachs and shorter the shemonei esrei.  As you go north, the shorter the mishabereachs and the longer the shemonei esrei to give a sense of the nature of the different synagogues.

What to Do?

Surfside, Fl – After you get done basking in the fact that you have your own house with your own pool, it’s about a 20 minute drive from North Miami Beach to the beach in Surfside, Fl.  The beaches are beautiful with high rise buildings lining the shore.  North of the high rises are some parks with beach access as well.  Midweek, the beaches were not very crowded and we were able to find places where immodesty wasn’t so much of an issue.  Florida is literally flatter than a pancake so you have to go quite far out in the water until it covers you. Further, Surfside, which the local Jews consider part of the Bel Harbour Jewish community, has a plethora of kosher restaurants (see next section).

Anhinga trail, Everglades.

Anhinga trail, Everglades.

Parasailing @ Caribbean Water Sports, Key West, Fl.

Parasailing @ Caribbean Water Sports, Key West, Fl.

The Florida Keys – Drive south until Rt. 95 ends, then keep driving south down Rt. 1 until it turns into one lane and cross some bridges and you’re in Key West, the first key.  That’s as far as we made it, where we found more beautiful beaches with water so calm it was warmer than a bathtub.  To cool off, you had to get out of the water, not in it.  We also found Caribbean Water Sports, behind a beautiful Hilton Hotel.  There they have parasailing (see our picture above), jet-skiing, snorkeling, and so forth.

Walking/Biking Trail in Oleta River Park, Miami

Walking/Biking Trail in Oleta River Park, Miami

The Everglades – Go to Anhinga trail, the internet said.  It’s the highest rated trail in the everglades, the internet said.  So we went the 1 hr 50 min drive to find it.  It’s I’m sure it must be great but i couldn’t tell you – it was almost all closest for construction so we went to the adjacent trail – the Gumbo Limbo trail.  This is a short paved path trough a part-jungle/tropical forest, part-Northern forest.  Tropical trees and rhododendron grow next to each other.  That’s kind of interesting until we ran out as fast as we could watching a Berenstein Bears / cartoon style cloud of mosquitoes chase us out and bite us.  We were still finding and killing mosquitoes in the car an hour later.

Beach at a picnic site in Oleta River Park, Miami

Beach at a picnic site in Oleta River Park, Miami

Fine, so we went to the visitors center to see what else we could do.  We could drive 35 miles in the wrong direction from where we wanted to go to take a pontoon boat (we’re the hiking type, no thanks) or a few more miles to find another trail where we were warned the mosquitoes were much worse.  Wait, what?  Now I know why Spanish explorers had so much trouble making it the Pacific Ocean and the Panama Canal was delayed for hundreds of years, largely due to mosquitoes and disease.  So much for the Everglades.

 

We saw the best wildlife found next to the everglades in some animal havens.

We saw the best wildlife found next to the everglades in some animal havens.

Animal Rehabilitation Clinics – I didn’t drive 1 hr 50 minutes to the Everglades to just give up on having fun.  It turns out there are interesting things outside of the Everglades.  It’s mostly a sparsely populated area with large farms, but along the route a small tourist industry has popped up.  We stopped in one of a few “animal rehabilitation” places – where they take in wounded animals from the wild or which have been confiscated from people who acquired them without permits and didn’t know how to take care of them.  E.g. they had two lions that a female dancer thought she was going to use in her routine.  I can think of worse ideas, but this one goes in the top 10%.  I went to the Everglades to see animals (not just mosquitoes, thanks) so I got my fix in – lions, turtles, bears, birds, cats, snakes, and of course lots and lots of alligators.  It was $12/person to enter as a “trial member” to this “members only” place and I’m pretty sure the worker just pocketed the money after the “credit card machine was down” but whatever.  We liked it.

 

Robert Is Here – This is a fruit stand which started out when a kid was sent to sell vegetables along the road.  The story goes that it didn’t work until the father added big signs saying that his son “Robert is here”.  Anyway, today it sells tropical fruits.  Looking to get your schechiyanu fix [prayer connecting with G_d for the opportunity to experience something new, such as a fruit you haven’t eaten]?  There’s plenty here – raw guava are amazing!  I had no idea.  Sapote are interesting – it’s like if sweet potato were a fruit.  Warning: the place isn’t

If sweet potato were a fruit, it'd be this.

If sweet potato were a fruit, it’d be this.

cheap . . . but the fruit is excellent.

 

State Parks with Activities – There are a lot of these with kayaking, boating, and the like.  We made it to two – one in Key West and one in Miami – Oleta River Park was recommended to us by a local (well, a NY transplant) with some nice hiking, biking, and kayak trails (not the same trails) as well as a beach and camping sites.

 

Jewish Museum – The Jewish Museum is n downtown Miami (read: traffic area), converted from a synagogue dating back to the 1930s.  Upon entering, I noticed the stained glass window with the name of Meyer Lansky, a famous member of the mob.  Apparently, he treated the shul nicely.  The Jewish community has moved to other areas of town and is huge, but this shul has seen better days.  Shuls have turned into better or worse – this one now gives some history of Jewish settlement in the area and when we were there, the adjoining building had two things: an empty aron hakodesh and idolotry – naked statutes of ‘biblical’ women as interpreted by a local sculptor having no respect for the women represented or the place this building once was.  It was … no, is, painful.

Where to Eat

Not to be confused with "Amazing Savings" supermarket, also in Miami. (This is why you should file trademarks.)

Not to be confused with “Amazing Savings” supermarket, also in Miami. (This is why you should file trademarks.)

The Miami / Fort Lauderdale area an absurd number of kosher restaurants.  I’m told most of them are fairly new and this hasn’t been a long-term phenomenon.  We made the most of it, trying as many restaurants as possible. We only covered a small fraction of them –

At the corner of 95th and Collins Ave in Surfside, Fl is “Isaac Bashevis Singer Blvd” with mostly Jewish stores.  This includes about eight kosher restaurants – the cafes were decent, especially Cafe Vert which has many gluten free options.  The restaurants vary from Asian to italian and are more ‘up scale’.  We always found good service, but the food didn’t always match. Kosh was the priciest of them.  For $28 the “linguine beef” was hamburger meat and plain pasta with no spices and no salads et al if that’s your sort of thing.  For desert, head over to Kosherland supermarket on the same block.  Five dollars buys you a paerve pastry better than any deserts we had in the restaurants.

$28 "Linguine Beef" (plain noodles and hamburger meat) at Kosh Restaurant.

$28 “Linguine Beef” (plain noodles and hamburger meat) at Kosh Restaurant.

In North Miami Beach you can find a Carvel which was a whole a lot better than we have up north – I bought the same thing in both places to test it.  Florida’s Carvel had real strawberries and better ice cream.  The one in New Jersey used syrup.  Pita hut, a middle eastern style shwarma place was very professional and the food was pretty good and at 2:15pm on a Friday it was packed … with non-Jews.  That’s always a good sign for a kosher restaurant.  Holy Bagels and Pizza was our breakfast choice one day.  It was a pretty solid breakfast in a sit down restaurant and not expensive at all.

In Hollywood, Fl, we only hit up one restaurant on our way to the plane – flying into Fort Lauderadle is much less expensive than Miami and the airports are all of a half hour drive from each other.  The restaurant was Levy’s Kosher, another solid choice with pita/laffa-type foods.

 

Walk Into New York City for Free

Want to pay no toll and no bus or train fare into New York City?  There is a way – walk.  There is only one way to walk from New Jersey, however.  This is over the George Washington bridge.  There is actually a decent amount of parking to be found in Fort Lee right near the bridge on many of the side streets.  Don’t worry about having to park 0.2 or even 0.5 miles from the bridge itself, because you’re about to walk a little under a mile across the bridge itself and then about another mile for kosher food.  This is actually quite short – compare to the Verrazano bridge (connecting Staten Island to Brooklyn) at about 2.7 miles long and the Tappan Zee bridge (crossing the Hudson 25 miles north of the George Washington Bridge) at over 3 miles long.  Fun facts: The Verrazano is a suspension bridge for which the towers at each end take into account the curvature of the Earth which is a factor at this length.  The Tappan Zee is actually at the widest spot on the Hudson river which is a silly place to build a bridge … but it just so happens to be just over 25 miles from New York City which is just outside the jurisdiction of the Port Authority which refused to build another bridge in order to protect their tolls and investment in the George Washington Bridge.

walk-over-george-washington-bridge_imagelargeDetails of the Walk

After finding a parking spot near Fort Lee park on the one side, you follow the signs up to the south side, upper level of the George Washington Bridge where there is a foot path.  This is the only foot path that is open and traffic goes in both directions.  It’s about the width of four people comfortably walking … though bikes come at you from both directions.  It’s closed from midnight to 6 am and it’s a very straight path … except for slight detours around the side of each tower.  Along the way, the bridge will give you the bright idea of committing suicide with frequent reminders that if you’re going to do it, here’s a good place to try.

At the other end you enter New York City and upper Manhattan … well, Washington Heights to be precise.  You can now enjoy the park on the other side of the bridge – Fort Washington Park.  Both of these parks have significant revolutionary war history where taxation was seen as a pretty good reason to characterize a few very provoked deaths as a “massacre” and in turn, cause death and disease (causing more death) in hundreds of thousands of people through a war.  (Ends justify the means?)  (Now Hamilton is an amazing musical, but I’m the side of Rabbi Avigdor Miller and lean towards Bishop Samuel Seabury on this one – fight for your freedom without, you know, killing people.)

You Can Walk All the Way from New Jersey to Brooklyn

gwbKeep on walking to the East and you soon encounter a subway.  The 175th street station has the A line which will take you all the way to Far Rockaway as well as Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan including Penn Station where you can change to a myriad of other train lines.  You might think it’s pretty brave of you to do this trip and arrive at your friend in Far Rockaway, telling him you walked from Fort Lee but you’d be mistaken.  True story: we were out for a seudah on the last day of Passover so my friend, a recent ba’al teshuvah instead accepted an invitation in Brooklyn.  Leaving at 3am from Passaic with plans to arrive at the bridge at 6am opening, he made it there at 7am.  It was also Shabbos so he wasn’t carrying a map and we’ll let it slide that he didn’t yet know the laws of techumim.  Then he walked down town, stopping to pray Schachris in the upper west side being the 10th man for a minyan.  I have to find which minyan this was because they’re probably telling stories about how Eliyahu HaNavi came to complete their minyan on Passover before disappearing right after they were done.  Then he arrived in Brooklyn in time for ‘lunch’ by 2pm.  Can’t make this up.  (Maybe he can, but I don’t think so.)  His chief complaint?  When he took the bus back after Shabbos, it dropped him off two miles away.

Kosher Restaurants in Washington Heights

Suppose you don’t decide to take the subway (or walk to Brooklyn) – keep heading east and go about half a mile north, up to 181st and you’ll hit Yeshiva University.  There, you’ll find the famed library where so many matches between young Jewish boys and girls are made and some college-style kosher restaurants.  (As opposed to kosher-style college restaurants, these are, in fact, college-style kosher restaurants.  I don’t think you’d have a business meeting in these places, but if you want to find oil for your menorah, it’s all here)  You have your choice of:

Meat – Golan Heights – Shawarma, falafel, Israeli-style salads & more in a kosher storefront setting with counter service.”

Pizza – Grandma’s Pizza (?!?! Don’t grandmother’s make kneidel?) or Lake Como

Chinese – Chop Chop – “Classic Chinese dishes & sushi with kosher modifications, all served in a colorful space.”

Then you enjoy your 2.5 mile walk back to New Jersey . . . or hail an Uber.

 

 

The description of my Orlando vacation from five years prior is over here.  This is an update in 2016.

Introduction

Orlando is a great place for a family vacation – we love it.  It’s designed for vacations with typically great weather around the whole year and lots of inexpensive flights and places to stay.  Plus, the people seem to be mostly transplants from the New York area so their ‘cultural’ ways are familiar to many of us.  They drive a whole lot slower though and their traffic lights are long.  The downsides are that there’s not much to speak of for kosher food and minyanim and the entertainment is expensive.

Where to Stay

If you want to be near a minyan, Chabad of South Orlando recently moved to a new larger building down the road from where they used to be.  Their at 7347 W Sand Lake Rd, Orlando, FL 32819 and their website is www.jewishorlando.com.  They have regular Schachris, Minchah, and Maariv minyanim.  They are no longer as close to the hotels but if you’re willing to walk .5 to 1 miles, there are plenty to come by.  It’s in the ‘north’ with respect to the parks, near SeaWorld and Universal Studios.  Update: It turns out also near this area is the Orlando Torah Center which is in a residential area with vacation house rentals, is building an Eruv at the time of this writing, and also has three minyanim a day.  I did not know about this before my current trip but a comment below informed me.  There’s always next time!

The heated and fenced in private family pool with jacuzzi was the star of the vacation.

The heated and fenced in private family pool with jacuzzi was the star of the vacation.

That’s what we did on our earlier trip.  However, it no longer makes sense for us to stay in hotels and I’m not sure it makes sense for most people to do so . . . especially not in the Orlando, Fl area.  About a half hour drive to the south in Kissimmee are hundreds of houses for rent – they’re within 30 minutes of the larger parks and for the same price as a hotel room, you get an entire house with kitchen that you can kasher and your own private family swimming pool and game room.  Our kids liked our house better than the Disney parks.  (One child said it tied with Magic Kingdom – only a ticket just for one child at Magic Kingdom cost about the same as the house rental per day).

I know people who’ve stayed at Disney hotels and get packaged Kosher food brought to them … there are no minyanim (well, see below) and it’s quite expensive but you can hop on a monorail to get to the parks.  If you’re only going to Disney parks and can fit everyone into one hotel room, maybe it’s worth it to you.

Where to Buy Tickets

This is what I found – Walt Disney World tickets are no cheaper anywhere else.  There are no discounts that are worth it.  Just buy your tickets at the gate.

SeaWorldUndercovertourist has the best deal – about 20% off.  They are also a pleasure to do business with.  They have a calendar telling you how busy a park is on a given day, presumably based on ticket salses and if you don’t use your ticket, they’ll refund 95% of the cost.

Universal Studios – Chabad of South Orlando had the best deal here.  You can pick up your tickets when you go to daven there, or you can pay to have them mail you your tickets.  I do not think they are refundable.

Where to Get Kosher Food

The British section of Epcot - sadly, my kids didn't know how to hang up a pay phone when they were done.

The British section of Epcot – sadly, my kids didn’t know how to hang up a pay phone when they were done.

The Publix supermarkets have some amount of kosher food.  Each Disney park has a restaurant with pre-packaged kosher food.  It’s gotten a bit better in quality, but still nothing too great.  If you call ahead at least two days, they will have kosher food brought to any restaurant in the parks for you.  Warning: I moved a reservation from one day to another and the kosher food request did not transfer.  I did, however, get a free dessert ticket for all of us (the pre-packaged Mickey Mouse ears ice cream around the parks is kosher) and a “fastpass” to cut the line.  Totally worth it.  Lines were up to two hours at some rides that day!

Medieval Times – you do not have to call ahead your kosher food order.  Just show up and tell them you want kosher food and they’ll heat up some double-wrapped kosher food for you.  We did not end up going on our trip, but this is what they told me on the phone and is the same for any of their locations, including East Rutherford, NJ.  (See what Tosofos says about jousting at Jewish weddings in the middle ages – it’s quite interesting.)

There is no kosher food (beyond the typical pre-packaged sodas, et al.) at any of the other parks for which I am aware.  However, Orlando parks do actually strive to not give you a hard time – despite signs at various parks, we had no trouble anywhere bringing our own food in.

During yeshiva break week there are also sometimes more kosher options at some hotel or another or a food truck at the Chabad.  There’s also one restaurant http://koshergourmet.biz/ but I have not been there to tell you about it.  The restaurant next to the Chabad’s old location lost it’s hashgocha.  I have no further information on this. It is certified by the Orlando Vaad which is recognized by the CRC

Where to Find Minyanim

See the first paragraph of ‘Where to Stay’ above.

The nod to Jews in the "It's a Small World" ride.

The nod to Jews in the “It’s a Small World” ride.

Further, you can usually catch a minchah/maariv minyan in Disney parks.  Someone has apparently been reading my blog because on my post of five years ago, I told how three of us with yarmulkes were in the same place at Epcot and we decided on a time and place for minchah and every frum Jew we saw (man or woman) we told about the minyan and so it spread.  We had about 50 people show up for minyan based on that!  During yeshiva break week, there’s no shortage of Jews for a minyan at the parks.  This past time, sure enough others were doing same and I heard from every Jew I passed “5:40pm in Mexico for minchah/maariv”.  Until someone comes out with a “minyan app” to start these electronically (maybe it’s a security problem?) just use this word of mouth option to start or promulgate a minyan at Disney.  It works really well!

When to Visit

Go during yeshiva break week (late January).  Your kosher food options are much greater and, as above, you won’t have a hard time finding a mincha/maariv minyan.  Another benefit: January is the slowest month for Orlando tourism.  The rest of the country gets off from school in late December and then not again until mid-February.  In January, it’s a bunch of Jews and Europeans (including some Jews we heard speaking French) in Orlando.  The lines are also shortest.

Where to Visit

Random outbursts of song - just like the movies.

Random outbursts of song – just like the movies.

Walt Disney World – Your number one choice is Magic Kingdom.  This is the epitome of theme parks.  It is the best in the world and people come from all over the world.  It’s Disney’s first and main park with the iconic castle.  I find reading about it’s construction (you’re actually on the second floor above tunnels) and design (vacuum cleaner garbage cans) and thoughts about everything (point only with two fingers because some cultures consider one finger rude) to be the most fascinating part.  They really strive to make you happy.  If a child drops and ice cream cone, they replace it free of charge.  If they mess up your kosher meal, they give you free food tickets … and in my case, a “Fastpass” to cut the line.  They want no one to leave unhappy, no matter the cost.  You will not find a crack in the pavement anywhere and everything is bright and immaculate.  It’s also huge.  I’ve never been able to do the whole park in one day.  (Some of that has to do with the long lines, but…).  There are live shows all over the place and the rides are just professional.  There are flume rides and roller coaster rides all over, but there’s something just better about Splash Mountain and Space Mountain – there are no jerky movements and everything flows.   It’s best for ages 3-9 an then 30-90.

That's the Epcot.

That’s the Epcot.

Epcot Center – This is Disney’s #2 park meant to showcase new technology and worldwide cultures.  I have to say it’s lost it’s luster for me.  My favorite ride, Test Track, has been neutered.  No more extreme heat and extreme cold and going fast into a door that only opens at the last second.  I don’t know what they did to it.  The fast outdoor part at the end is still good, but everything up until there … I’m just shaking my head.  They’ve replaced a lot of the indoor amusement with very young kid things and I have some of those but it just wasn’t that appealing – I expect more out of Disney than put the right shape in the hole or spin the shape until it fits right.  My 3 and 5 year old do more sophisticated things with our own building toys and computer games.  Then the world showcase … well, my son ruined that for me when he pointed out that you go to Italy, Germany, Japan, wherever … it’s all restaurants and gift shops.  Canada has a 9-screen movie advertising itself and there’s some live shows at the United States area (where the kosher food is, by the way) but eh.

Hollywood Studios – Haven’t been there.  This is on my list for the next trip instead of Epcot.  Have a review of it?  Please add it to the comments.

Magic Kingdom Parade - that's Merida who doesn't turn into a bear.

Magic Kingdom Parade – that’s Merida who doesn’t turn into a bear.

Characters are also at the Disney World theme parks … my sons don’t really care but one of my daughter’s does to an extent.  You wait on line so they can meet the character.  Some mother’s make a religion out of it with their daughters … they know where every character is and when and have an autograph book where they collect as many autographs as possible.  My daughter’s best friend doesn’t even let her watch princess movies!

(Fun side note: At one of these I asked people, “Which princess is this?”  They said, “Merida” and I turned and said to my daughter, “Do you want to see Miranda?”  Everyone in line gave me these looks of disgust like I just committed some terrible sin of not only not knowing who I was looking at, but speaking words of apocrypha to my daughter.  Like I’m supposed to remember which one’s the bear and which one’s the mermaid.  Whatever.)

One of the aquariums at SeaWorld.

One of the aquariums at SeaWorld.

SeaWorld – Our visit the first time during great weather was amazing.  This past time it was raining and the performances were very off.  The girl didn’t make it onto her dolphin and worse, they’re no longer allowed to go in the water with the killer whales making the show pretty lame now.  I’d still go back, but only in better weather!  (This is how I know undercover tourist will refund 95% of your unused ticket by the way … I was a die-hard and went in the rain, but not so for all of my group.)

Universal Studios – I loved it twenty years ago.  This was my first time back since then.  Eh.  I did the entire park with one of my daughter’s after the rest of my family went back to the swimming pool (thank you Uber).  It’s broken up into sections by movie which is sort of problematic because my kids don’t know many of the movies and some of them are really dated … Men in Black … ugh.  Some are just stupid … they took out the stunt show and put in a physical game show where they catch squid and dare people to eat sheratzim.  Why?  That’s better than a stunt show?  I come to a movie studio for explosives and you took that away from me!  There’s not even a studio tour anymore and Nickelodeon Studios is completely gone for some guys pained in blue with no entertainment there the entire day when it’s just dead space.

Line to the Harry Potter ride.

Line to the Harry Potter ride.

My kids wanted to see Harry Potter world so we went there first.  At first, it is really amazing … you walk through a wall and there’s the entire set of the Harry Potter movies.  Then you realize it’s all just traif restaurants and over-priced gift shops – $50 for a thin little plastic wand.  I’m waiting for mine to come from Malaysia for $3 off Ebay.  There’s one … count it … one ride in Harry Potter world.  It was a good ride, I’ll give it that … just very short.  They take you from one large screen to the next in your roller coaster thing.

The rides in general are really good – they really are.  The problem is that you only need to go on about two of them.  After that, they’re just variations of the same … mostly some type of individual coaster through movie scenes except this one is on rails, that one is held from above, this one can spin, that one can spit water at you.  My favorites were probably the Mummy (neat effect with the roof being engulfed in fire) and Harry Potter (more neat fire effects – maybe I just like fire and explosions).  The ET ride had the best line – it’s pretty dark and you’re between redwood trees, but it’s not clear to me which rides they decide to keep and which they decide to update.  ET is incredibly out of date with a video intro by Steven Speilberg about how great the ride’s technology is … they type your name in and ET speaks it out at the end of the ride … it’s so 1990.  I showed the movie to my daughter once we returned home so she got it.

Other rides, they changed out.  They changed Back to the Future for the Simpsons?!  That was their best ride!  It’s now corny as anything with not a memorable thing about it.  It was far from canonical making me further cringe.  (The ride outside, the “non-threatening time waster” that spins around in circles was cute.)  Clearly they did not realize what a big deal “Back to The Future Day” would be in 2015 (my birthday).

My daughter got to "control the weather" at this show.

My daughter got to “control the weather” at this show.

They had a cute Curious George section for the real young kids where you walk through as you read pages of the book.  Otherwise, if the trip is for your kids, I’d say skip this park.  Most frum kids, and for that matter, many non-frum kids won’t know most of these movies and the park is just not staying in the present.  It’s an answer to Disney for older kids, but Disney has this way of making movies and entertainment which much better stand the test of time.

Gatorworld – I didn’t make it here, but it was on our short list.  It’s far less expensive than the big parks but probably also only a half-day activity.  You see alligators and stuff like that I think.

Kennedy Space Center – I went on my last trip.  Don’t bother unless you have a child really interested in seeing space shuttle history and that sort of thing.  Nasa isn’t doing the kind of interesting cutting edge stuff they used to be doing either.

Medieval Times – I loved this as a kid.  I’m not sure how kosher this is, but they do serve pre-packaged kosher food.  It’s a live jousting show with a lot of different teams.

Legoland – This was on our list but was quickly cut.  It didn’t get such good reviews and was largely described as being like any other smallish amusement park with the same rides, just Lego-themed.

Conclusion

My kids liked the private house with heated pool best.  I wasted a whole lot of money on tickets!  Our next vacation: a house with a private pool anywhere in the United States and I take day trips only with the kids who want to come with me.  The house and Magic Kingdom were the biggest hits this trip.  On our last trip, Seaworld probably impressed us most.  When you go during yeshiva week break, you’ll find plenty of frum Jews, more kosher food and minyan options, and shorter lines.  If you read this whole article – sorry about my Universal Studios rant.

Comments are appreciated.  Please also feel free to use this as a point on the internet to discuss the topic in general.

Hotels Have a Problem – Internet House Rentals

A few years ago, there was only one answer to this question – get a hotel room.  You know, more or less, what you’re getting.  If it’s a Hilton or Holiday Inn or even just a single local hotel, you can figure out roughly what they have to offer and expect to get that more or less.  Does it have a pool?  Does it have breakfast where you can find kosher fruit, cereal, and milk?

If you wanted to find a house or apartment to rent instead, that would be an ordeal.  You could look at a five line ad in a newspaper (remember those?) or the equivalent on Craigslist or even websites where you can see some pictures … but you’d have no idea if you were dealing with an honest person, whether you’d find bed bugs or termites, or if you’d ever see your security deposit back . . . and it used to be very expensive.  We once ended up in a former warehouse converted into a tiny house and were expected to stay in the back room only.  It was an experience.

New websites have changed all this.  We’ve now had experience with both airbnb.com and vrbo.com / homeaway.com and our next booking in the United States or Israel is much more likely to be with them rather than a hotel.  Here’s why plain and simple: You get a whole lot more for the same price and have a whole lot more detail about what you’re getting.  Plus, you get pictures of every room, details of the amenities, reviews from others with detailed comments, and know what to expect from top to bottom.  and Here are three actual examples.

Orlando Kosher House Rental

houseorlandoOrlando, Florida – the first time we went circa. 2009 or family was smaller and we stayed at The Westgate Palace.  Don’t get me wrong, this place is very, very nice.  They give you a two bedroom suite with kitchen for, when all is said and done with taxes and fees, about $160/night.  There’s an outdoor pool … fairly shallow, but very big.  It’s also very close to Universal Studios and Seaworld as well as the Chabad 1.5 miles away with minyan.  On our more recent trip, even this wasn’t going to cut it.  We’d need two hotel rooms and still be cramped plus have to exit one hotel room and enter another to check on the kids.  So we’re talking $320/night and have to deal with crankiness over the arrangement … from us or the kids.

So instead, we looked into house rentals.  It’s not what it used to be.  We rented this house which I’m happy to share publicly and tell everyone to do it because it was so great.  Or, even go to the owner’s website – Florida Gold.  For more-or-less the same price as a single hotel room even if your security deposit isn’t returned you get a whole house.  For even just two people traveling this a better deal!

We’re talking five bedrooms with most of the kids upstairs away from the two master bedrooms downstairs and a heated pool.  On our first trip to Orlando in January, we used the pool once … after that, it was too cold.  On our most recent trip the kids literally wanted to leave the parks early to go swimming.  It’s $100/ticket/person at Disney parks, and the nice house for which we paid half price for is upstaging Disney for all except one daughter who loves princesses and said the house tied with Magic Kingdom.

in addition to having a private (heated) pool, which solves tznious issues in a major way, the house rental websites have started an arms race.  You can find houses with game rooms – pool table, shuffle puck, foos ball.  On top of this, your own washer/dryer, your own kitchen fully stocked (we kashered the oven and microwave), and in our case, complete with high chair, umbrellas, beach chairs, towels, soap, strollers, and more than I would ever even remember to think about.

There were only two downsides: 1) location – the area with the minyan and parks are about 30 minute drive away to the North and we wouldn’t stay there for Shabbos; 2) as mentioned above, my kids didn’t want to stay at the parks which I paid a whole lot more money for.

Other Experiences: Modiin and NYC Kosher House Rentals

Modiin, Israel – Here, we used airbnb.  Hotels simply aren’t near residential areas here and that’s okay … so instead we found a room in someone’s house.  It’s not nearly as fun as having the whole house to yourself and you have to, you know … be social with strangers in their house.  Like Orlando, again, the price was cheaper than a hotel.  Unlike Orlando, this was about location.  Zoom in on the map and find the location where you want to be (in this case, near relatives) and then look at the closest options, prices, and availability.  With such rentals your geographic options are much improved over zoning ordinances limiting locations of hotels.

New York City – You cannot, practically speaking, find a hotel room in Manhattan less than $400/night.  The taxes and expenses there are simply too high.  My German business colleague (he handles my patent filings in Europe), meanwhile, was in the New York City for a conference.  He found a room for $80/night just off Wall Street in lower Manhattan – we meet at Reserve Cut and each pay about that much for our two courses of appetizers we order for dinner.

Final Thoughts on Technology Making Our Lives Better

houseorlandopoolThus, if you’re like me, you embrace what technology has to offer you for the good.  Smartphones brought taxi rides from anywhere to anywhere, apps telling us the nearest minyan and kosher food on our way, and places to stay anywhere for a whole lot less than a corporation can charge.  Those who can provide the best service and most information prevail and that is what this blog is all about, besides – fostering the exchange of this information for the kosher traveler.  It has further helped me immensely in business.  Search for New York Patent Attorney or variants thereof on the internet sometime.

P.S. I don’t own a smartphone.  How do you do pay attention to life when you have one of those in your pocket?

P.P.S. One more tip: If you find a house you like, go to images.google.com and search to see if you can find the image on another website – you might find the same house advertised for a different price elsewhere.  I also saved about 40% on a bathroom vanity this way.

What’s a Live Room Escape Game?

Looking for a kosher, fun, adult activity?  The ‘room escape’ genre started as puzzle-type video games.  Very large maps with puzzles to solve actually had their beginning with text adventure games, followed by graphical games where you entered text commands, followed by more point-and-click type games.  Then with the internet and “flash games” allowing easy programming and distribution of smaller-type games, puzzle games were placed in “smaller” settings.  Instead of escaping an island, a mad man’s castle, or traveling through time to play three different time lines with three character which effect each other, the cut scenes and different settings are removed and the game is reduced to puzzles within a single room.   (Extra points given to the person who can identify each game I referenced.)  The typical “room escape” computer game (a very large list sorted by rating is here: http://jayisgames.com/tag/escape/rating) has you look at one of four walls and solve puzzles.

room-escapeThen, someone got the bright idea – why don’t we do this “for real”?  My wife dragged me to the first one where I didn’t really know what it was.  Now we’ve been to three different such rooms.  They’re a lot of fun.  Unlike the less than social video game versions, the live games are meant to be played as a team.  In some places, you bring the team – minimum of two.  In other places, the room or rooms are larger and if you don’t bring a large group, they have you join with strangers so the groups are about 6 to 10 in size.  It’s great for a couple or a family with older kids (minimum age is usually 12 or 16).  Post high school / college aged kids are often seen at these places as well, as well as younger adults.

The Rooms We’ve Tried

Having a larger group can be helpful as the puzzles can be very difficult.  Sometimes the puzzles intuitive, sometimes they’re just strange.  For example, a puzzle might require you to put dipsticks in holes and see what number aligns with the top for a code, you unlock a drawer with the code and find a radio.  You use another code to figure out the station to tune to which then gives you yet another code.  Or, in another case, you figure out that symbols tell you the position of coordinates on a map which point to a country.  That country then has pictures which tell you something else only one of the pictures is of Greece, but that’s not one of your choices.  Turns out it has to do with the actor in the picture who’s from Australia (a well known probable anti-semite which made the puzzle easy for me, and again, extra points if you tell me who I’m talking about in the comments).  Use of polarizing lenses, ultraviolet light, erasers or transparency overlaps, and that sort of thing also seem to be fairly common.

We’ve found the games vary in quality and types of puzzles depending on the place you go and who’s putting the game together.  We liked some better than others.  Our favorite so far was “The Remedy” where you search for your way out of a doctor’s office to find a cure.  The puzzles where intuitive, varied, and required both the skill sets of myself and my wife.  Different ways of looking at things help solve different puzzles (e.g. my analytic patent attorney way vs. my wife’s … I don’t know … she does this for a living … it’s something different than analytic, but I don’t have the skill set to describe it).  By working together, we were able to get through all of the puzzles but got stuck juts before the end.  Why?  Mis-communication.  I thought my wife already used a code, she thought I used it, etc, etc.  Another time (with a different room escape), we sat down all but ready to give up and I tried a code on a lock and it turned out we skipped half the puzzles and got to the end in a way we shouldn’t have been able to … that one wasn’t so well designed.

In “The Senator’s Manor” we joined a larger group in what was a fairly large space.  This allowed people to split up and the alpha males not to step on each other’s toes.  Sometimes, the others found things and others times you have to take the initiative.  This was just fine with me and I had a lot of fun (between the inevitable periods of frustration that they games bring), but that’s because I’m one of those alpha males who did everything.  My wife wasn’t as happy here, so therefore, I wasn’t as happy here.  Still, I think a variety can be nice … sometimes go with your spouse, sometimes go with others too and form a larger group, go with friends, etc.

Time, Cost, Finding Them

The escape room games usually are one hour games.  Including introduction time (5 to 15 minutes) and “decompression” afterwards, you can expect to spend about 1.5 hrs.  That might not seem long, but when you’re “on” and alert for the entire time, it’s quite sufficient.  The games usually cost about $30 – $35 per person.  It’s worth a try at least once to see if you like it.  You can find them throughout the country – Montclair, NJ has two such places at the time of this writing, New York City has one or two, Orlando has at least four . . . just type into Google “Room Escape” or “Adventure Room” or the like. Enjoy. Please add your comments below.

In this article, more details about a trip to the Lifestyle resort with kosher restaurant and synagogue will be explored. If you haven’t read the first article, you probably should go over there now and read it.

Map

A map of the resort is available here with the landmarks spoken about below.  Here’s a small embedded version.  Zoom in to the cluster of pointers in the upper left to find the resort itself:

Beaches of Peurto Plata

NV Beach - one of the VIP beaches in Peurta Plata

NV Beach – one of the VIP beaches in Peurto Plata

NV Beach - one of the VIP beaches in Peurta Plata

NV Beach – one of the VIP beaches in Peurto Plata

[Click any image to enlarge.] The resort breaks up its beaches into fairly deep and narrow strips.  Depending on the beach, there are various beds with mattresses, canopies, hammocks, swings, and so forth on the beaches along with a bar and non-kosher food at almost every beach.  (More on the bars in the below section.)  There’s no way of getting around this issue: tznious [modesty] is an issue at the entire resort including even in the kosher restaurant.  Even the synagogue itself has windows along both sides, though it’s away from most foot traffic.  Back to the beaches – we never found them empty but the VIP beaches were usually less crowded and in the morning there were few people on the beaches, and by about 4pm they began to clear out again.

Serenity Beach, Lifestyle Resort, Peurto Plata

Serenity Beach, Lifestyle Resort, Peurto Plata

Serenity Beach, Lifestyle Resort, Peurto Plata

Serenity Beach, Lifestyle Resort, Peurto Plata

The pictures on the right were taken about 10:30 in the morning … if you look closely, you’ll see the one person I covered up, but as you can see, it was mostly empty.  No one at all was in the water in this section (NV Beach) so we had some nice swimming.  Serenity beach was the same way, except much, much wider so there was room to be alone there as well.  Most of the people who were at the beach tended to hang out by the bar.  If you want a drink, you can also go to the bar … or staff comes to you.

Pools and Bars

Pools also ubiquitous at the resort.  If you want a private pool, rent a house.  If you want your own time in a public pool for reasons of modesty … again, morning hours or late afternoon is best.  If there are people in one pool, you can simply find one of many other pools by walking around.  Many also have cabanas where you can have privacy.

Pool @ Presidential Suites, Lifestyle Resort, Peurta Plata

Pool @ Presidential Suites, Lifestyle Resort, Peurto Plata

Bar @ Serenity Beach, Lifestyle Resort, Peurto Plata

Bar @ Serenity Beach, Lifestyle Resort, Peurto Plata

Bars are situated near a lot of the pools and most of the beaches.  The staff is very friendly but Spanish is their first language.  My suggestion is to bring with you a list of approved kosher alcohol, such as the Star-K kosher alcohol list so you can figure out what you can drink.  You don’t pay anything extra to drink as much as you want (or your wife lets).  The beer on tap was quite good, the rum is local (so long as it’s unflavored, it doesn’t need certification), Jack Daniel’s is good anywhere, but their mixed whiskey drinks … eh.  (Cold sodas and water are also available . . . but we all know the soda is better when you add rum.)

Ocean World

Sea lion show @ Ocean World

Sea lion show @ Ocean World

Macaws @ Ocean World (for a 'tipo' you can get your pictures with them on your head)

Macaws @ Ocean World (for a ‘tipo’ you can get your pictures with them on your head)

Parakeets @ Ocean World ("tipo" suggested, but they'll put food all over you anyway)

Parakeets @ Ocean World (“tipo” suggested, but they’ll put food all over you anyway)

Ocean World Dolphin Show

Ocean World Dolphin Show

Slides @ Ocean World, Peurta Plata

Slides @ Ocean World, PeurtoPlata

About a ten minute walk away is “Ocean World” which is owned by the same group.  It’s included with your “VIP bracelet” ($25/person) and it’s sort of like a minature SeaWorld without the killer whales which hasn’t been attacked by lawyers and government over regulation.  You can go snorkeling in their artificial reef (equipment cleaned with Listerine between each use), go in the parakeet cage and have the birds swarm all over you, watch animals shows, and for $10 extra, go down their water slides.  The place isn’t so large, but again, very friendly and you can have a great time.  It’s maybe about a 3 to 6 hour activity.

Off Site Excursions in the Peurto Plata area

Fortress of Peurta Plata, Dominican Republic

Fortress of Peurto Plata, Dominican Republic

Brugal Rum Factory

Brugal Rum Factory

After our next trip, I fully intend to expand this section.  However, as we found out most excursions run midweek and you need to reserve the day before.  If you’re going to spend a whole week, go Sunday to Sunday.  If you’re going to spend part of a week, go Sunday to Thursday.  For obvious reasons, Shabbos isn’t an option and on Sunday a whole lot less is available to do outside the resort.  In fact, many of the excursions are Tuesday, Wednesday, and/or Thursday only.

    Jewellery making with Larimar on Peurto Plata

Jewellery making with Larimar on Peurto Plata

Cable car up the tallest mountain in the Caribbean

Cable car up the tallest mountain in the Caribbean

First, find yourself a reliable taxi driver.  Sometimes you can find one just outside the entrance to the resort or you can use the tourist directory in a drawer under the Gideon’s bible next to your bed.  For about $60/day, they’ll take you wherever you want to go.  This might include the fortress (if you’ve seen one fortress, you’ve seen them all), the rum factory ($4 for a 750 ml bottle), and of course, the cable car to the top of the mountain.  [Again, click on pictures for a larger view.]  You can get a ‘city tour’ for not much more, but most of the time is spent taking you to gift shops while you wait for an American tourist to ask how much every little idol costs, all of them being within 10% of each other while having no idea how to bargain.  On that note, Larimar is a rock found only on the island and is used to make jewellery if you want to find something nice from the island.

Driving an ATV in the jungle

Driving an ATV in the jungle

Prepping the ATVs

Prepping the ATVs

Child in front of his house in a rural area of Peurta Plata

Child in front of his house in a rural area of Peurta Plata

Art store in rural Peurta Plata - my wife plays catch with a local boy

Art store in rural Peurta Plata – my wife plays catch with a local boy

Other more adventurous excursions include horse back riding, swimming and hiking at the 27 waterfalls (Las Cascadas de Damajagua), and ATV riding.  The ATV is best for one reason – you leave the tourist area and go riding in rural areas where you see how actual people live.  While there are plenty of “middle class” houses, out in the rural areas we passed many shacks like the ones to the right.  Incomes in unskilled workers are about $6/day!

VIP Wrist Band

It is highly recommended to get the VIP wrist band.  The lifestyle resorts have many different classes of visitors.  At the lowest end were the locals who rented rooms in the not so nice section of the resort for $30/night to fill up space during the down season when we were there.  At the highest level are those who own property at the resort.  Somewhere in between are the “members” and guests of those members.  Different classes of people get different wrist bands.  My wife managed to collect four on one wrist.  Make sure you have a VIP wrist band.  This gets you: a) pick-up / drop-off from the airport at no extra charge, b) shuttles around the resort, c) access to the nicer, more private, and more secluded beaches which are a must to mitigate the tznious problems in such a place, d) more respect from the staff.

My wife won the band collection - pink: Ocean World; purple: kosher food; gold: VIP guest @ Lifestyle Resorts; blue/green: slides @ Ocean World.

My wife won the band collection – pink: Ocean World; purple: kosher food; gold: VIP guest @ Lifestyle Resorts; blue/green: slides @ Ocean World.

One of the houses @ LIfestyle Resort, Peurta Plata.  Many are available for rent very inexpensively.

One of the houses @ LIfestyle Resort, Peurto Plata. Many are available for rent very inexpensively.

VIP Transportation around the resort (including for $25/person for your entire stay)

VIP Transportation around the resort (including for $25/person for your entire stay)

One warning / the worst part of our trip – the have guys who work on commission who try to sell you “membership.”  If you want it and you’re into that sort of thing (pay fees for cheaper room rates in the future), go for it.  Otherwise, they act just like timeshare salesmen with free “gifts” and gimmicks to get you to pay.  When you check in, they ask you to choose free bottles of alcohol.  Then they tell you “okay, go pick it up at the ‘VIP’ building.”  Then there are the overly friendly staff with khaki button down shirts and Indiana Jones hats . . . one offered us a “free tour” to welcome us.  The tour took us directly to the building in question where he sat us down in front of a screen and said, “fill out this form so I can get my commission.”  We walked out as soon as we realized what the “free tour” really was.  Side note – this same guy gave me us a ride later in his golf cart.  I didn’t realize it was him.  I tipped him a dollar for the ride … it seemed like the right thing to do.

“Tipo” (tipping)

Workers manually lift each gate.  They get paid about $6/day and appreciate tips.

Workers manually lift each gate. They get paid about $6/day and appreciate tips.

Child in front of his house in a rural area of Peurta Plata

Child in front of his house in a rural area of Peurta Plata

Our recommendation – come with a stack of dollar bills and give one to everyone who provides good service.  They appreciate it and it’s a kiddush Hashem (I think).  A worker at this resort makes about $6/day or less than $200/mo.  Most workers I spoke to (after asking me if I was from Israel  … I was way back, but…) were traditional, meaning they value marriage and have children.  It’s very difficult for them to live on this salary.  Seriously, rather than a key card entry system or some other form of electronic gate and cameras that we see in the United States, there are fifty different gates manned at all times by a guy whose job it is to manually raise and lower it.  The guy in the picture smiled for me as he’s required to do, but that could be his son in the shack eating mango on the street.

In “ocean world” it was like this with the workers … “the resort says $30 if you want your picture with a lion or macaw [glance to see if anyone is looking] … or just come with me and I’ll take your picture.”  Right next to them was a conspicuous tip box with a $5 bill … we saw this same box and same $5 in it multiple times.  The only place where they will actually outright ask you for a tip is at the airport with the baggage handlers.

Housekeeping

the pile mysteriously grows.  Housekeeping leaves a bit to be desired . . .

the pile mysteriously grows. Housekeeping leaves a bit to be desired . . .

Pile of plates on the ledge outside our room  when we got there

Pile of plates on the ledge outside our room when we got there

This is one area which leaves something to be desired.  Outside our room were three plates when we got there … a few days later, it was about 15 plates and a glass.  We just watched the pile grow.  In our room, they have this strict towel policy (towels are great for bartering with in the Caribbean . . . a relative of mine once got a nice wrist watch in exchange for a cruise ship towel).  We had to fight to get our towels returned after the first day and then only got some of them.

The jets in our tub didn’t work and the people at the table next to us told us how theirs shot across about a 6′ expanse, over the night table, and soaked their bed.  Our air conditioner leaked destroying part of the ceiling tiles.  To their credit, they did come and fix the leak right away … but didn’t fix our jets.  We also heard stories about the front desk hanging up on people and ignoring all complaints made.

Our travel agent’s info after we booked said to notify them if there’s a problem and they can help.  They seem to be aware that the local staff isn’t so quick to help.  We didn’t go that far, but …

What’s it all cost?

Here’s a total breakdown – Airfare: $600/person + $25/bag from New York.  Hotel room: $110 – $140/night for rooms that hold between 2-6 people.  Kosher food: $150/day ($75/day child).  Safe: $3/day.  Alcohol at all bars: included.  Transportation: included.  VIP usage: $25/person.  Onside beaches, sports courts (including tennis racket usage), entertainment, and Ocean World: included.  Water slides at Ocean World: $10/person.  Tipping: <$35.

Being a Frum Jew at the Resort & Conclusion

The Rabbi calls this the one kosher night show @ LIfestyle - the magic show

The Rabbi calls this the one kosher night show @ LIfestyle – the magic show

One of the pools @ Lifestyle, Dominican Republic

One of the pools @ Lifestyle, Dominican Republic

This section is obviously subjective to our experience.  First, according to the Rabbi, most who go are Sephardic, and more specifically, Bukharian.  Since they raised the price, the percentage has switched to more Ashkenazi.  Make of that what you will.  Second, tznious is a huge issue.  The frum Jews who go tend to be ‘to the left’ for this reason.  The Rabbi told me of some of his own relatives who won’t visit him there any more, took off their glasses while there, and used side paths.  (The use of side paths is relatively easy in many places, e.g. to avoid the pool area when going from your room to the kosher restaurant and synagogue.)  When on transportation, you can also sit in the front row … the mode of dress there is pretty immodest.  However, at other times, such as in the busy “Tropical Lobby” where excursions leave from, it’s impossible to avoid.  We did our best to mitigate the issue.

The resort has nightly entertainment.  The only “kosher entertainment” according to the Rabbi is the magic show.  Other entertainment includes a “VIP party” – there were literally women standing in high heels and white dresses (some actually fairly tznious) on white pedestals.  As people walked in, they got their pictures with women on either side of them.  No comment.

Serenity Beach, Lifestyle Resort, Peurto Plata

Serenity Beach, Lifestyle Resort, Peurto Plata

On the other hand, everyone was very respectful and very relaxed.  There’s no anti-semitism and most tourists, whether Jewish, hispanic, or you know… plain old white guy, seemed to be from New Jersey.  If anyone thought anything of my wife’s tznious bathing suit and hair covering, no one said a thing and we felt quite comfortable.

The bottom line is if you want a “proper” vacation which includes: a) three kosher meals a day of a quality where you wouldn’t be ashamed to invite your non yet kosher relative, b) a synagogue, c) a plethora of fun out door activities, there aren’t many choices.  This is one of those choices and is one which we will probably revisit.

Introduction

A very large resort with beaches, public and private pools, and an on-site kosher restaurant (sometimes two) serving three meals a day as well as a shul [synaoggue] is situated on the Lifestyle Resort in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.  About a 35 minute drive from the Puerto Plata airport and about 3.25 hrs in the air from the New York area will bring you to one of the best kosher vacations we’ve even been on.  Read below for more details.  [Part II with more details is here, when you’re finished reading this article.]

A Brief History of Jews in the Dominican Republic

Peurto Plata airport departure area - Jewish settlement pictures in Sosua.

Peurto Plata airport departure area – Jewish settlement pictures in Sosua.

The island of Hispanola, which today holds the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was inhabited by the Taino people before their discovery by Christopher Columbus.  The first Jews to step foot on the island were probably the known morranos on Columbus’s voyage followed by those with the Spanish conquest of the island.  The last “pure” Taino people lasted until the mid-1800s, having died out in massive numbers due to disease brought by the Europeans.  Tainos regularly mixed with the Spanish (who didn’t come with their own wives) and a small percentage of these Spaniards were Jews or known descendent of Spanish Jews.  One of the Dominican Republic’s leaders in the early 20th century was descended from such Jews and a small congregation of Jews, once numbering about 1000, still exists in Santo Domingo, the capital.  Today, this congregation advertises “traditional services without a mechitza” but is supplemented by a Chabad.

Peurto Plata airport departure area - Jewish immigration plaque.

Peurto Plata airport departure area – Jewish immigration plaque.

In more modern times, the Jewish population of the Dominican Republic was supplemented by German Jewish WWII refugees.  While the rest of the world closest their borders to immigration during the depression era, Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, welcomed up to 100,000 Jews.  He offered freedom of religion, low interest loans, property, livestock, and assistance to any Jew who would settle on the island.  While his reasons for doing so may have had something to do with his hatred of Haitians and a desire to “whiten” his own population, the fact is that the island became a safe haven for the 600 to 800 Jews who were able to settle there.  It seems among those who could leave and had the foresight to do so, they went to Israel even with closed borders.  Still, some Jews made it and while many moved to Miami with a better economy in subsequent years, there’s a still a population and synagogue (now primarily a museum, unfortunately) in Sosua where Trujillo created a Jewish community.  Sosua is just miles from the Puerto Plata airport and as such, it is fitting that a kosher vacation spot exists in the same area.

Peurto Plata airport departure area - the local band next to the pictures of Jewish immigrants.

Peurto Plata airport departure area – the local band next to the pictures of Jewish immigrants.

Today, the local tale is that while Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake, the DR was spared due to it’s welcoming of the Jews.  when you leave the Puerto Plata airport, a mural and information about the Jewish settlement of Sosua greets every passenger.  The Dominicans seem proud of this and not only did we encounter no anti-Semitism on our trip, but rather we encountered respect with the frequent question, “Are you from Jerusalem?” or “Are you from Israel?”  A security guard even had a short conversation with us in Hebrew!  Most Dominicans are Catholic, and when Hugo Chavez (leader of Venezuela) made an anti-Semitic comment in 2013, the local head Catholic priest is known to have said that Chavez won’t live out the year.  He was right.

 

Basics of the Kosher Program at Puerto Plata

Kosher food @ Lifestyle Resort, Puerto Plata

Kosher food @ Lifestyle Resort, Puerto Plata

Lifestyle resorts is a huge corporation with multiple resorts in various countries.  They don’t seem to maintain their intellectual property rights very well, so you can find numerous websites using some variation of the “LifeStyle” name offering packages.  The resort in Puerto Plata is huge – you can rent (or buy) three to five bedroom houses, often for about $500/week or less if you look on house rental websites such as homeaway.com.  Each house has it’s own private pool.  Or you can rent hotel rooms or suites.  There are various sections of the resort each with their own style and “hashpa” (general feeling or impression).  The Presidential Suites and Crown Villa areas are among the most “up-scale” of rooms, away from much of the shtuss, and closest to the kosher restaurant and shul.

Signs for restaurants including the "Kosher Kitchen" @ the "Blues" Restaurant

Signs for restaurants including the “Kosher Kitchen” @ the “Blues” Restaurant

The place to start is at the kosher website for Your Vacation Dreams, LLC.  They are “members” of the Lifestyle resort – while you can book with the Lifestyle resort directly or through a variety of brokers, as a “guest of a member” your treated a whole lot better.  There are many complaints by those who booked through “cheap carribean” or others around the internet.  We also found prices ranging from $110/night to $600/night for the same thing!  Your Vacation Dreams, LLC operates multiple websites geared towards different crowed, but their kosher website is very “matter of fact” and very accurate with numerous tips and recommendations about your trip.  You don’t need to book through them – but we had an excellent experience doing so.

Balcony of Presidential Suite ($110/night) @ LIfestyle Resort

Balcony of Presidential Suite ($110/night) @ Lifestyle Resort

Rooms range from about $110/night (single hotel room) to $365/night (7 bedroom house).  Two bedroom suites are $125/night.  Add to this $150/day for kosher food which is paid based on a Jewish calendar day … dinner and the following breakfast and lunch.  (Technically, it does not include lunch the day you arrive/leave but you can sort of sneak this in if you’re there.)  Children are $75/day.  Thus, even with two people, the food is much more expensive than your hotel room.  Having said that, the food ranges from “very good” to “excellent” and we were stuffed at all times.  Considering they are importing most of their food from the United States (such as the meat) and Israel (the cholov yisroel dairy products) and serving some fancy meals, $50/meal is not actually all that much for what you’re getting and where you’re getting it.  It’d cost you much more for comparable kosher food, say, at a nice restaurant in Teaneck, NJ.  Chicken costs them $9/pound and there’s a full-time Rabbi/maschgiach.  An interesting side note – the Rabbi supervises the cow milking locally and then boils the milk himself.

Smoothies @ the kosher restaurant

Smoothies @ the kosher restaurant

The food ranges from “Ashkenazi” to “local Dominican” and there is a very big concern that the food be good.  It was.  More on this later, but let’s get the basics down first.  When there are not a lot of people there, they put dividers in the kosher section and label it “private party.”  When there are enough people, they actually take over the whole restaurant, and sometimes two restaurants.  The restaurant is certified by the O-K (use the link to check if this is still the case before you go).

The Synagogue @ Puerto Plata

The shul (synagogue) in Puerto Plata.

The shul (synagogue) in Puerto Plata.

 

According to the Rabbi, a Lubovitcher who works for the Circle-K Syrian Jew was renting large numbers of rooms in Puerto Plata and started demanding a kosher kitchen.  The resort administration was happy with this arrangement and welcomes Jews to the resort to whom they want to sell properties and investments.  However, the renter wasn’t so good on bill payment so the administration did some research to find proper kosher certification in hopes of creating a full time kosher kitchen.  They found the Circle-K who was interested, but also asked that they set aside space for a synagogue.

Seforim (books) in the shul (synagogue) in Puerto Plata.

Seforim (books) in the shul (synagogue) in Puerto Plata.

This synagogue can hold about 100 people but a minyan is not guaranteed.  We went during a down time in the Jewish calendar and there was no minyan.  Actually, there were more curious non-Jews than Jews Shabbos morning and there is no program during Pesach.  However, if you want to come during yeshiva week break, that fills up about 9 months in advance, capped at 215 participants (they had 340 one year and decided that was too many).  The synagogue has various siddurim and chumushim as well as a rented sefer Torah and mechitzah.

 

Beaches, Kosher Bars, Excursions / Area Attractions and Tips

Serenity Beach, Lifestyle Resort, Puerto Plata

Serenity Beach, Lifestyle Resort, Puerto Plata

The resort has many of it’s own beaches, a smaller version of “SeaWorld” called “Ocean World” and there’s a lot more to know.  Click here to go on to part II of this article.

Kosher Restaurants in Teaneck, New Jersey

Garden State Plaza in Paramus, NJ

Garden State Plaza in Paramus, NJ

You can find kosher restaurants in most cities with sizable Torah observant Jewish populations, but Teaneck is so large it can boast two different strips of kosher restaurants and shops – one along Cedar Lane, and another along Queen Anne’s Rd.  Both are not far from Route 4 where you can find much additional shopping, including the large malls of Paramus, NJ (closed on Sunday).  The Jewish community of Teaneck (and Bergenfield, where the community has spilled over into) is known for being a bastion of “Modern Orthodoxy”.  It also includes plenty of less than Torah observant Jews along with more “yeshivish” Jews with many yeshivas and some very large synagogues.  Situated about 5 miles from the George Washington Bridge, it is not far from New York City.

This review is not intended to complete.  First, it is limited to restaurants which have been in business for some time, so as not to include restaurants which are likely to disappear just as quickly as they appeared.  Margins are often thin, expenses are high, and you don’t need a degree to open a restaurant.  However, running a good restaurant is a challenge, even without the different set of business challenges and benefits of being a kosher restaurant.   There are also restaurants I simply haven’t been to or won’t discuss for reasons of “loshon hora” (speaking badly about something, and in this case, potentially harming someone’s business).  Your comments are welcome.

How the Restaurants are Reviewed

I am judging in the following categories: food, price, decor, hours, and service.  If the restaurant is closed at odd times, it gets knocked down.  If the service is slow, rude, or immodestly dressed, it also gets knocked down.  My judgment is based on my own subjective experience with comments of how it compares to the “traif” variety.  I came into Torah observance later in life and have plenty of experience with all sorts of “traif” restaurants.  Price will tend to be higher for kosher places (kosher food costs more in many cases) as there is often an extra staff member required to oversee the food preparation at all times.  The food, unfortunately, is known to be not as good but that is changing rapidly with, for one, the influx of people like me who are used to better quality, and for two, the maturing of the kosher market with every greater diversity and competition in a growing market.  The difference between the quality in Teaneck restaurants now and even ten years ago is amazing.

As far as I am aware, all the restaurants are certified by the RCBC, the kashrus for Bergen County, New Jersey.  Check their website before you go to make sure that still holds true.  Each restaurant is linked to it’s own website as well.

Legend: “(C)” refers to the Cedar Lane strip, at about the 400-500 range on Cedar Lane.  “(Q)” refers to the Queen Anne Rd strip, and side streets at about 1400 Queen Anne Rd.

The Super Fancy Category

Two restaurants fall into this category – ETC Steakhouse and Nobo Wine and Grill.  They are right across the street from each other.

These are both “upscale” and hoity and/or toity places.  The waiters wear suit or suit-like things.  The primary dish is … steak.  The secondary dish is … another kind of steak.  You can also get fish.

Nobo Wine and Grill

Nobo Wine and Grill

Nobo (C) has it’s own parking lot on a long narrow stretch of land, as is the free-standing building that houses the restaurant.  In the winter, they somehow have a fresh flower on each table and the waitresses dress somewhat-but-not-really up to Jewish modesty standards while seeming to have been properly trained and are professional.  Service is also pretty quick considering they’re cooking you a 10 or 20 oz steak.  The food is excellent.  The salads are amazing and fresh, the soup is amazing, and they have a large pepper grinder for fresh pepper as well as little rolls with separate bread plates and olive oil.  It’s very much up to traif standards.

Food: ♦♦♦♦♦ / Price: $$$$$ / Decor: ♦♦♦♦ / Hours: ♦♦♦ / Service: ♦♦♦♦♦

I give the food rating not because the steaks are that much better than traif (they’re about the same) but because the accouterments are so much better than average.

Price … it’s about $65/person with an appetizer, main course, and tip.  This doesn’t cover dessert.  This place is not cheap, but compared to it’s counterparts in Manhattan … it is.  The portion sizes are also fairly sizable.

Decor … it’s up against a train line on a very narrow strip of land.  Thankfully, it doesn’t have anything so obnoxious as valet parking, as one would expect at many traif varieties of such a restaurant, but the whole building is narrow and a bit dark in there.  Everything is black with dim lights.  Still, comparing it to many of other kosher restaurants in Teaneck, it’s great.

ETC Steakhouse (C) is a bit more boxy.  The food is in smaller portions than Nobo, and it wasn’t as much to my taste.  Still good, but lacks a parking lot hurting it in the “Decor” category compared to Nobo.  The staff did not know what items were gluten free and what not (a dietary requirement of someone I was with who has Celiac disease), but still just as ‘fancy’ as Nobo.

Food: ♦♦♦♦ / Price: $$$$$ / Decor: ♦♦♦♦ / Hours: ♦♦♦/ Service: ♦♦♦♦

The food is still “better than traif” of it’s kind, but the portions are smaller causing it lose a star.  Decor … no parking lot, though there is a large municipal one right next door.

The hours of both places are strange.  They are not open Sunday, despite what’s on their websites.  They are not open Saturday night, which is prime time for going out in the winter for a Shabbos observant person.  So they both get “-5”.  You have to find a weekday night to go them, really.  That means Monday – Thursday.  That’s silly, though I understand a restaurant of this caliber being closer after Shabbos because it’s hard to have things fresh and up to your standards when you have to rush to open, using food from Friday.

The “Ethnic” Category

We’re not talking falafel and hummus, the Jewish stereotype.  We’re talking Indian, Japanese, and Tex/Mex.  In order, that’d be Shalom Bombay, Sushi Metsuyun, and Smokey Joe’s.

Shalom Bombay

Shalom Bombay

Shalom Bombay (C) serves Indian food.  The best Indian food I ever had was in Japan of all places (I’ve never been to India…) and this restaurant certainly is not up to what I’d expect from the traif variety, but is still “good”.  The service is great, the decor is great, the spice variety is great … but the meat tends to be of a fattier variety and I’m spoiled by a mother who wrote a cookbook and growing up and deciding to make na’an (a kind of Indian bread) with me.  Eating it here … it’s just not as fresh and meat tends to have a good deal of fat on it.  Still, I’m being picky.  I once helped arrange a networking event here with 30+ lawyers (mostly of the non-Jewish type) who thought it was very good.  For someone who is used to all sorts of non-kosher Indian restaurants, you’ll think “this place is kind of good.”  For someone who hasn’t experienced Indian cuisine before, I think you’ll really like it.

Food: ♦♦♦♦ / Price: $$$$$ / Decor: ♦♦♦♦♦ / Hours: ♦♦♦♦♦/ Service: ♦♦♦♦♦

It gets these ratings because, well, it is expensive and the food is good, but not amazing.  The decor, in my opinion, is very much up to what I’d expect from a nice restaurant.  It is also open every day for lunch and dinner, including after Shabbos in the winter.

Sushi Metsuyun (Q) is … a sushi place, really.  They have some other meat dishes and the like.  I think it has improved in recent years and it’s certainly good.  (I much prefer Kyo Sushi and Steakhouse in Monsey, NY, but this is a Teaneck article).  The restaurant is part of a chain of a quite a few, of varying quality and decor.  It appears they are independently run.

Food: ♦♦♦♦ / Price: $$$$ / Decor: ♦♦♦ / Hours: ♦♦♦♦♦ / Service: ♦♦♦

It gets marked down in the “decor” department because it’s basically a store front with big glass window with seating for maybe 25.  I’m usually not impressed with the waitress staff here, but this varies.

Estihana gets honorable mention – it’s another sushi restaurant.  The variety in Manhattan is excellent and right next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I have not been to the newly opened location in Teaneck so I can’t rate it yet.

Smokey Joe’s (C) has had conversations with me about how kosher restaurants get away with all sorts of quality issues that they shouldn’t.  He knows his food and does all the “slow cooking” and marinating of meat and so forth that you’d find at a “Friday’s” or “Bennigan’s”.  This restaurant has won various awards for it’s food and you see plenty of non-Jews eating here, despite the higher expense of kosher meat.  This is a very good sign.  On Saturday night’s in the winter, there is a band each week.  This adds a cover charge and they aren’t always the most impressive bands, but well, it’s a valiant effort.  When the place fills up, service does get slower and it’s sometimes hard to catch a waitor, but the food is generally very good and the owner cares.

Food: ♦♦♦♦ / Price: $$$$ / Decor: ♦♦♦♦ / Hours: ♦♦♦♦♦ / Service: ♦♦♦+(1/2)

The Cafe Category

Say hello to Moca Bleu, Rabica, and Shelley’s.  All three are dairy cafes.

Moca Bleu (or as my kids call it, "makabul")

Moca Bleu (or as my kids call it, “makabul”)

Moca Bleu (Q) (pronounced by my kids as, “makabul”) is the newest of the three, boasting on their menu their $5000+ bar mitzvah and bris catering packages.  With a hot brick pizza over behind the counter, superb dessert/pastry counter, and wide variety of food served you can find something you like here.  One of my kids loves the personal pizzas.  They’re really quite good.  Stay away from most of the appetizers … they’re mostly overpriced, small portioned, and not so great.  The sushi is decent.  The fish and chips lunch special I once ordered was excellent.  The decor … that’s up to your taste.  Some people hate the tin can metallic feel of the place, along with the very light clear plastic chairs.  When it’s busy, you can’t hear a thing with the sounds bouncing off the walls and high ceiling with visible air ducts.  The modesty level of the waitresses leaves a great deal to be desired, and as a Torah observant Jew can be uncomfortable.  One time a waitress tried to tell me a 20% tip was the norm.  If you are careful when you go and what you order, this place is often excellent, however.  It also has many gluten free options.

Food: ♦♦♦♦ / Price: $$$$$ / Decor: ♦♦♦+(1/2) / Hours: ♦♦♦ / / Service: ♦♦♦+(1/2)

One note – it gets marked down on the “hours” category because we’ve gone sometimes to find it closed for private parties.

Rabica (Q) had some pretty decent food.  It’s right next to Sushi Metsuyun, having the same sort of “window shop” feel with a large glass window in front of a narrow room.  This is even more narrow, having the counter take up much of the space.  We liked the food, but it sure is on the tiny / claustrophobic side for a restaurant.  If it were anywhere else but Teaneck, still, I’d have no complaints … I’d only be singing it’s praises for being a great kosher restaurant in Omaha, NE.  It’s only because there’s so much else to compare it to that I can even find fault with this.

Food: ♦♦♦♦ / Price: $$$$ / Decor: ♦♦ / Hours: ♦♦♦♦♦ // Service: ♦♦♦♦

Shelley’s (C) has been around forever.  It has booths like a diner, only nicer and cleaner.  The food has varied over the years, but they start you off with some bread and butter and have lots of pasta dishes, mainly.  The same owner’s own “Noah’s Ark” across the street, a meat restaurant.  I much prefer Shelley’s which I go back to from time to time.

Food: ♦♦♦♦ / Price: $$$ / Decor: ♦♦♦♦ / Hours: ♦♦♦♦ / / Service: ♦♦♦♦♦

 

Burger Joints

Dougies, Gotham Burger, and Noah’s Ark go here.  My opinion of buying a hamburger at a kosher restaurant is  … buy some chop meat at the supermarket and throw it on the grill.  You’ll spent $5 – $10 per meal and it will be better.

Noah's Ark

Noah’s Ark

Dougies (C) is known for it’s subs as well as burgers.  I don’t know … a proper submarine sandwich from a good privately run sub place of the traiff variety … that was something good.  Dougies does not impress me in quality or taste.  The restaurant is big. I’ll give it that.  A lot of people seem to love this place, mostly of the “kid” variety.

Food: ♦♦ / Price: $$$ / Decor: ♦♦♦♦ / Hours: ♦♦♦♦♦ / Service: ♦♦♦♦

Gotham Burger (Q) … not my taste, but my kids thought it was amazing.  In my view, it was a “bland fatty burger”.  In my kids view .. as in all of them who can talk, it was “the best”. (Now, if you can get lamb burgers at Pomegranate in Brooklyn and grill them… that was the most amazing burger I ever tasted, beating any traiff burger I ever ate).  Some of my kids seriously want this to be where I take them for their birthday present.  I don’t get it.  I guess I had my five year old birthday party at McDonalds so I’m not one to talk.

Food: ♦ / Price: $$ / Decor: ♦♦♦ / Hours: ♦♦♦♦♦ / Service: ♦♦♦♦

Noah’s Ark (C) has a lot of deli.  It’s basic.  I haven’t been there in years, so I won’t judge, but it’s also been around for years.  There’s so much else in the area that I like better, so I don’t really know how it is these days.

 

What Do You Think?

Again, you can find the addresses at the RCBC link and I encourage you to look there and make sure any place listed above is still actively open and kosher.  (C) means it’s on Cedar Lane.  (Q) means it’s on or within about one block of 1400 Queen Anne’s road.

Much of my review is subjective, so if you have a different opinion or think I missed a great restaurant … add your comments below.

Fancy Kosher Hotel Ora in Monsey, NY

The Lobby

The Lobby

The most popular article on this blog is about the now kosher Raleigh hotel in South Fallsburg, NY.  Clearly, it’s something people are interested in, as the article is mostly found via search engines while my articles on philosophy … not so much.  There is clearly a desire to find a hotel which lives up to the highest standards of amenities and halacha [Jewish law].  Mostly, one finds either exceedingly expensive Pesach programs, bed bugs, or just a “kosher friendly” place.  There’s the exception with a bed and breakfast that is quite good, but I thought I would never find the, l’havdil, “holy grail” of a proper hotel for the Torah observant.  Most such hotels, such as Kutschers and the Concord have closed and it seems to be a money losing proposition today.  It still is, and that’s why, in all my searches for “kosher hotels” I haven’t this one.  They simply don’t advertise themselves as a hotel, but wow.

On the campus of Ohr Somayach in Monsey, NY is “Ora V’Simcha Family Retreats“.  In your room, you’d think you’re in a Hyatt or Marriot only with bigger rooms (for families).  During meals, you’d think you’re on medium rate cruise ship.  As my wife put it, “This hotel gets an A+, except that every child thinks I’m their mother.”

Why is it there?

Havdalah with The Traveling Chassidim

Havdalah with The Traveling Chassidim

The story goes that a very wealthy ba’al tesuvah (who seems to have made his money on Russian oil) sponsored the entire hotel and conference center for Jewish outreach purposes.  It is on the campus of, and operated by Ohr Somayach, a yeshiva for Jews who want to learn more about and/or are returning to Judaism.  They have programs at this hotel / conference center along these lines, as well as for Torah observant families.  For example, the “Shabbaton” program I attended was meant to be a family inspiring Shabbos with programs for the kids and shiurim [lectures] for the adults on child raising.  I was just looking for a place to go away with the family, but started attending the shirium which were very good.

When You Can Go

Motzei Shabbos Juggler

Motzei Shabbos Juggler

The “hotel”, well, “family retreat center”, operates seemingly about every other month … so you can’t just go any time.  They also rent out the space to others and use it for other types of programs.  You have to look at their website to see when it’s available, but while it’s a really fancy hotel, their primary reason for existing is to teach Torah.  It’s a very hard thing for someone with kids to get away for such a thing, so they take care of that too.

The Hotel Grounds

The hotel is on the campus of Ohr Somayach, right of Rt. 306 in Monsey, NY.  Some of the minyanim were in the main yeshiva building of Ohr Somayach, where I sat in my old seat, the seat where I first fumbled with tefillin many years prior during a brief period when I attended the yeshiva.  I’m sure other readers, those who are both frum and looking for decent hotels, shared the same experience not many seats away from there.

The hotel itself is modest in size, as far as hotels go.  There are only about 30 (estimated) guest rooms with a two story lobby, elevator, and three staircases.  Upon entering, you’re greeted with a fire place and some very European taste.  To the left is a conference room or “library” and to the right is a rather large gym with a full court basketball court and locker rooms.  Go the other direction, and you’ll come to the dining room which holds about 80 people.  On the second and third floors you’ll find the guest rooms.  The second floor is also houses the beis medrash / synagogue.  In the basement and rooms on the second floor, is a game room, childcare, and more childcare.

The Hotel Service

Fireplace in the Lobby

Fireplace in the Lobby

When we first arrived, the bellboy insisted on loading our luggage onto a wheeled cart.  I tried to stop him, preferring to have my kids do the wheeling, but he would have none of that.  By the time I got inside, not very long after, my wife already had our room keys.  We were up in room quicker than any other hotel that I can remember staying at, and everything was waiting for us.  When I had registered, I was asked the ages of kids.  I didn’t even have to think about asking for the right number of beds and cots, because it was all already in the room, complete with crib for the baby.  Never, can I recall, has a hotel gotten it so right.  I’m still astonished that this is a yeshiva where the emphasis is not on “gashmayos” … and to be clear, it’s still not.  When the Rabbis spoke to me, they clearly much better appreciated answers having to do with what I learned while there, rather than my appreciation of the physical surroundings, which were meant as a tool for the former, despite my less than ideal first intentions when signing up for the weekend.

The Guest Rooms

Hallway to Guest Rooms

Hallway to Guest Rooms

We stayed in two joined rooms – the kids in one room with enough beds for each of them and enough room to walk around between them.  Our room was a bit smaller, but still quite well sized.  You could think you’re in a Hyatt Regency or Marriott . . . the layout is identical.  The ceilings with stuccoed acoustic panels, slightly lower ceiling at the entrance way, and so forth is identical to the best of hotel blue prints.  My wife and tried to move a dresser over to fit a bed where we wanted it … that thing was solid.  The only thing “missing” was, of course, there’s no television, and while it was wired for phone service (I checked) there were no phones.  Today, when everyone has cellular phones and I really don’t want to go to a hotel for my kids to watch TV, this was just fine.

The Food

Artwork Lines the Walls

Artwork Lines the Walls

First comes the food.  Then comes more food.  Then there’s some more food.  There’s a buffet when you arrive before Shabbos – mostly confections and some fruit.  There’s the Friday night seudah – wine and meat.  There’s the 10pm “tisch” complete with beer and wasabi almonds.  There’s breakfast – cereal and cakes.  There’s kiddush after davening – herring, cakes and salads.  There’s the seudah by day.  There’s afternoon snack foods.  There’s seudas shlishi – various kinds of fish and salad.  There’s melavah malaka – pastas, soups, and pizza.  There’s Sunday breakfast – waffles from the waffle iron, cereal, cheeses, etc.  There’s Sunday lunch – wraps.  The food was very good and my stomach doesn’t take much to complain.  When I don’t get sick at a place like this, that probably means no one else will either.

Children’s Program

The Gym

The Gym

At least when I was there, the Shabbos children’s program consisted of not much more than “hand’s off” babysitting.  There was not a very organized program for the kids, and while my older kids said they had a good time, it’s a better place for younger kids between the ages of about 2.5 and 8 or so.  Below that, and really, you need to be with your baby and above that, there was one shiur for boys and they can play ball in the massive gym.  Only on motzei Shabbos and Sunday were there “organized” programs including a juggler, a magician, cotton candy, story telling, singing, and team games, again geared towards about the 2.5 to 8 year old crowd.  I should mention, since it’s not self-evident given the sort of hotel options that do exist with childcare – everything is in English.

Update November 2015: I returned and the children’s program was much improved.  They had organized activities like games of duck duck goose, projects, and walks to the playground.  The babysitters were much more involved.

Shiurim [Lectures]

The Bais Medrash

The Bais Medrash

As you may have read above and may have surmised from the travel part of the blog in general, I do like to travel and especially take my wife and kids to various destinations.  This was no different – for me, this was one more destination to try.  About halfway through Shabbos I finally let it sink in that the reason they have this hotel, isn’t for the “hotel” and the “I just want go to away, eat and do activities” crowd.  They have to teach Torah.  The lectures, in general, were very good and a worth attending.

One of my favorite tidbits … Rabbi Shmuel Dishon spoke about the need to have appreciation.  If we don’t appreciate what we’re given and think something worth $1 million is really worth only $250, we’ll be shortchanging ourselves and what we really have, as well as think less of the person who gave us the $1 million gift, thinking they only gave us something worth $250.  This, he says, is why many people become less or non-religious … they don’t appreciate themselves, so they don’t appreciate G_d either, who gave them the gifts.  He told a story of a man who had a bone stuck in his throat, feeling like he was going to die.  He went to the doctor on Shabbos, when payment after Shabbos isn’t always as “required” and the doctor took the bone out of his throat.  The doctor grabbed his tweezers and removed the bone.  “Wow, thanks doc … how much should I pay you?”  The doctor answered, “Only half as much as you would have paid me just a few minutes ago [before the bone was taken out].”  Appreciate what you have … your children, your life, your … stay at a fancy hotel where you pause to think about the door sensors and camera before exiting the front entrance, and then remember, “oh yeah, I’m in a kosher hotel – no Shabbos issues here!”

What’s in the Area

Monsey, NY is one of the largest Jewish communities in the world.  This will be in a future article by itself, but suffice to say, you can find large Jewish bookstores (e.g. Tuvia’s), excellent kosher food (KYO Sushi and Steakhouse), and even entire Jewish shopping centers with kosher supermarkets (Shopper’s Haven and Evergreen), women’s clothing, and toy stores.  Within ~10 miles you can find Harriman State Park for camping and shopping in both the Palisades Mall and Paramus, NJ malls (the latter are closed on Sunday).

Conclusion

I may not write about too many more kosher hotel experiences on this blog simply because I found what I have been looking for.  There are plenty of other articles I’ve been meaning to write on this blog, but if you’re looking for a proper kosher hotel experience where you can take the family, be in a Shabbos environment, be in a nice place, and have full minyanim and kosher food that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, in the United States, this is what you’re looking for.  Most of the price is also tax deductible as it’s a donation to a non-profit institution.