Five Days Six Nights
Well, someone needs to write something about the Keys, so I thought I would step up to the plate. This is kind of a "vacation report" that I wrote back in 2002 about a trip Chrissy and I made to the Keys.
It's a little lengthy and unfortunately, no sailing, but it's a good cross section of the Keys experience.
Anyway ... Five Days Six Nights
It is 4:45 a.m. The persistent, beeping alarm clock seems abrupt and intrusive as I groggily sit up on the side of the bed to gather my thoughts. It takes a few moments for my mind to peel away the layers of dreaminess, and my body feels reluctant, unwilling to start the day. Reaching into the darkness, I grope, searching for this small but obnoxiously loud device until finally, silence.
I look over and in the dim light see Chrissy's face, serene and unmoving as she still soundly sleeps.
No question as to whether or not high octane coffee is necessary this morning; we have an early morning flight to catch.
The next five days, we will spend wandering around the Florida Keys.
We arrive at Dulles Airport well within the required two hour check-in for security screening prior to a flight but after a brief conversation with the airline representative, we discover our flight has been canceled without notice or warning.
"You will need to ride in a taxi to Reagan National Airport to catch a rescheduled flight" the counter woman said in a causal, matter of fact voice. Debating the merits of the situation with her would have been fruitless, so without options, we are whisked away in a cab, courtesy of United Airlines, with a new itinerary, i.e., a late arrival.
At 2:30 p.m. we step out of the airport terminal into the hot, thick, steamy air of deep summer in Ft. Lauderdale. Air conditioning is life support here. On cue, our driver Russ arrives momentarily, the luggage is loaded, and we begin the one hour thirty minute drive to the Keys. Small talk fades as both Chrissy and I drift away, sleeping for most of the drive southward. We wake on the section of road known as the "eighteen mile stretch," the last bit of highway before entering the Keys proper. Featureless describes this monotonous piece of road; long, straight and lined with mangroves on either side.
On crossing the bridge over Jewfish creek, we are now officially on Key Largo, the largest Key in land mass but scores a second to Key West in population count.
On a bright cloudless day, the waters surrounding these islands appear blue-green in color but the sky is overcast and the water looks dark today. Chrissy is busy checking out the various shops, businesses, restaurants, marinas and resorts as we continue driving south.
The tropical lushness of the winding lane inside Coral Harbour Club is familiar to me, but for Chrissy, its all new. My Mother and Stepfather call this place home for three seasons of the year and it has been a gathering place for family members since the early 80's.
During the summer months, the condo is empty so we will have it to ourselves this trip.
As we walk in the door we are greeted by soft music and a welcome tray with flowers, finger food snacks and a bottle of wine. Two unusually large wine glasses set the tone for this getaway.
After shaking out the suitcases and ourselves, we drive over to Winn-Dixie for supplies; a case of Coronas, limes, Bloody Mary ingredients, ice cream, Starbucks ... oh, and a few food items ... all the necessary components of a quality and successful American vacation.
The Keys are well known for hypnotic psychedelic sunsets and I wanted Chrissy to experience the sun's exit while dining on the water's edge. We hurried about the store gathering groceries as quickly as possible, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the now pastel sky.
I have chosen the Lorelei Restaurant for dinner because of its western exposure and we arrive just as the last hints of color fade from the darkening twilight sky. We dine outside on the waterfront and dinner is excellent; conch fritters, salad, fresh Keys lobster over a bed of saffron rice, coffee and banana foster for desert.
Later that evening at the condo, we walk down to a tiki hut overlooking the water on the far side of the complex's marina. The rhythmic sound of an ocean at night is inspiring to say the least. We fall asleep swaying in a hammock strung between two palm trees as a warm breeze rustles the palm leaves.
It is a perfect close to the day.
Friday is the day for snorkeling on the reefs off Key Largo. My brother Tim's girlfriend Laura has made arrangements through a local dive shop. We drive to Largo, purchase our tickets and walk around inside the marina waiting for our dive boat's return from the morning's snorkeling excursion. On display and also available for a cruise is the original "African Queen," the boat used in the same-name movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. We study the boat's well worn lines and stout hull. It's easy to visualize the two cinematic legends chugging along in this classic relic of the past.
Our snorkel boat arrives, and we, along with thirty other anxious passengers, step aboard and store our gear for the ride to the reefs, some four miles offshore. Chrissy and I bask in the sun of the boat's open-air upper deck while the hull plows through the docile seas. The sky is partially overcast with very little wind as we motor to a buoy permanently fastened to "Banana Reef." Aptly named because of its shape, the reef is located in 12-15 foot of water and has been used as a cinema background for such Hollywood productions as "Cocoon and Thunderbolt."
The anchor is lowered and the captain stands on the integrated dive platform of the boat delivering a five minute lecture on technique, safety, and the proper etiquette of snorkeling on the reefs, "don't touch, don't take, don't stand on, etc., etc."
Naturally, the rambunctious kids aboard are the first to splash the water and Chrissy and I watch from the upper deck as the kids push off.
We slip into the clear tepid water with the rest of the adults and begin fining towards the reefs on the port side of the boat. This was Chrissys first time snorkeling and it took a few moments for her to adjust to the technique of breathing through a tube. If you've never tried snorkeling, the best way to familiarize yourself with the equipment is to learn in the comfort of a swimming pool, say versus the wide open spaces of an ocean, but she is a quick study and after several minutes, Chrissy makes the adjustment and we are underway.
The reefs are gorgeous and full of multicolored tropical fish along with yellowtail snapper, grouper, barracuda, etc., etc. Yellows, blues, purples, oranges ... all the colors of the spectrum are represented here. I have a disposable underwater camera and try to maneuver to take pictures of the fish and Chrissy, but the camera's limited range and wide angle lens hardly captures the beauty of this undersea world, or the gracefulness of my companion.
We return to the boat, climb aboard and begin motoring towards our next underwater destination, an underwater statue known as "Christ Rock."
This 9-foot figure of Christ, with upraised arms and looking toward Heaven, was designed by an Italian sculptor, cast in Italy, then donated to the Under Water Society of America. Most people consider the statue a protectorate of mariners.
Our third and final destination for snorkeling was an area known as Grecian Rock, a very shallow, crescent-shaped patch of reef. Chrissy and I elected to sit this one out, sipping cold drinks and relaxing on the upper deck.
The trip back to the island takes almost an hour, and once we make landfall, we drive over to Tim & Laura's house. It had been a little over a year since my last visit, and this would be Chrissy's first introduction. Tim met us at the door wearing his usual gregarious smile.
Laura arrives from work, and we sit around the table on their screened porch catching up on current events while sipping spicy Bloody Marys.
We dine at the restaurant Sundowners later that evening, just as the sun starts to drop on the horizon. Laura and I debate the amount of time it takes for the sun to completely disappear once it touches the horizon, so we time it; 2 minutes, 20 seconds and order another round of drinks to celebrate our findings.
Remember, this is the menu of vacations.
Dinner is sumptuous; conch and calamari appetizers, salads, seared tuna steaks sprinkled with crab, steamed vegetables, mo Bloody Marys and coffee.
Afterwards, we return to the roundtable of Tim & Laura's screen porch and the drinks flow freely now. Laughter, revelations, confessions, a little piano playing, a few stumbles here and there, stolen kisses and lots of good, warm cheer.
Sometime around 2:00 a.m., we all decide to visit a nightclub called "The Caribbean." Known locally as "The Crib," this place is steeped in Hollywood history; the site of the films "Key Largo," "Casablanca" and also used in "The African Queen." Hollywood and perhaps Bogart must have had a fondness for this place. Time hasn't been so kind to "The Crib" though, as most of the local residents consider this place a bit seedy after-hours.
The live band is on break so we stroll outside and sit at a table on the water, and of course, order another round of drinks. Tim is peaking now, as his animation is in full swing. My brother's late night antics can be described as "a hoot" when fueled by vodka. The band starts playing again and after a while, we mosey back inside for a peek and dance for a few minutes before leaving the club and head back to their house.
It is well after 3:00 a.m. by the time Chrissy & I decide to drive back to the Coral Harbour Club and once there, we change into bathing suits and walk down to the swimming pool. The water is bathtub warm and feels good. Chrissy wraps her legs around my waist, her arms over my shoulders and we very slowly turn wide circles in the water, embraced, as we talk of the day's experience. We fall asleep in the hammock again, and near 5:00 a.m., wake, and return to the condo, calling the evening quits just before sunrise.
"Sleep, gimme sleep" I mumble as I fall into bed. Chrissy is already gone.
I wake at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday and with half open eyes, immediately seek out the coffee machine. I felt as if I slept only a few brief seconds instead of the five plus hours. Chrissy remained motionless and I find myself staring at her beauty. I later wake her gently and serve her coffee in bed.
We plan to spend the day boating with Tim and Laura, fishing in the backcountry, and it is time to move.
If you are driving south in the Keys on Rt. 1, the water to the left (east) of the highway is the Atlantic Ocean; on the right hand side (west) is Florida Bay aka "the backcountry." If you continue westward, Florida Bay eventually spills into the Gulf of Mexico near Flamingo, a point of land on the very tip of the Florida peninsula.
The backcountry's landscape is shallow water, sand flats covered by flooding and ebbing tides, and turtle grass beds. There are deep channels or bays dotted with tangled mangrove islands. At a distance, the flats appear to be a mosaic of muted earth tones, or bright white sand, covered with sparkling blue-green waters. These waters are rich in aquatic bounty and the fishing can be phenomenal. A flat is a good place to study the food chain. Shrimp and crab are the prey of bonefish or permit, and shark, barracuda, rays, tarpon, ladyfish, trout, snook, redfish, snappers, and numerous other species all patrol the edges of flats searching out edible quarry. It is very common to see groups of porpoise surfacing in the deeper channels or bays near the edges of flats. Often on windless days in the summer months, the still waters of the backcountry reflect the sky making the horizon disappear.
Our trip to the backcountry doesn't begin until 3:00 p.m. Our late night celebrations have a lingering aftereffect and the four of us move slowly.
We motor by skiff out into the ocean from Coral Harbour Club, follow the twisty-turny channel under Snake Creek drawbridge, purchase live shrimp for bait and enter the backcountry. The sky is threatening. There are bands of dark, heavy clouds on the horizon and menacing looking thunderheads chocked full of lightening are in every direction. It is definitely not the best day for a boat ride, but our time in the Keys is limited, so we continue. Spray blows over the bow as we push towards "Captains Key" a small tangle of mangroves with a deep channel on one side, surrounded elsewhere by flats. The approach is tricky, but Tim knows these waters well, and we power over the "skinny" water into the deep channel, snuggling up to the leeward side of the island. I sink the push pole into the soft mucky bottom and tie off as Tim starts rigging the rods. Tim makes the first cast at 5:00 p.m. I film with the video camera while Laura sits on the side deck talking with Chrissy.
In a matter of minutes, a fish is on; a mangrove snapper, excellent fare for the dinner table. We each take turns fishing, although Laura elects to sit on the sideline. Chrissy catches several nice snappers, giggling like a youngster all the while. She makes me smile.
An ominous looking thunderhead pushes towards our anchorage, so we crank the engine, pull the push pole and start motoring towards friendlier skies. It is late, so we return to the condo and begin dinner preparations.
I cook thick slabs of maui maui and shrimp the size of small lobsters on the grill. The girls prepare a special recipe with yellowtail snapper, make a bucket full of saffron rice and steam tender baby asparagus.
White wine, laughter and conversation complete the menu, and this tasty dinner is served.
Once the dishwasher is loaded, Tim & Laura decide to shove off. I didn't realize it at the time, but this would be our last "live" conversation with Laura as our plans for the remainder of our trip consume all of our time and energies. We say our good-byes and in hindsight, I am thankful for such a great visit with her.
Chrissy and I again seek the wet, relaxing warmth of the swimming pool. For almost an hour, we play much like the night before; embraced, making small talk and laughing. The hammock has become a late night magnet as we find ourselves waking around 2:30 a.m. and walking back to the condo hand in hand. Tomorrow we will head south.
David Bell and I have been lifelong friends. In our youth, we successfully raced sailboats together and somehow have managed to stay in touch over the years. He now lives on a 50 ft. sailboat on Marathon Key with his wife of many years, Brenda. Dave and Brenda sailed the Caribbean for a number of years and returned to the mainland only last year. This would be our first visit since '99 and I anxiously awaited the rendezvous with my old friend.
"Windspirt" is a sound, heavy displacement, blue water boat and a good choice for the lifestyle David and Brenda have chosen. A ketch / cutter rig with huge storage capacities; she is a yacht seeking open waters and exploration.
We arrive at their boat only to find out they are shopping at Home Depot. We instead are greeted by a friendly neighbor who along with her husband, live on a trawler, the next dock over. She offers the use of her waterfront gazebo while we wait and discloses that she is a true "conch," the rare person borne in the Keys and a lifelong resident.
In a matter of minutes, David and Brenda arrive and after introductions, we step aboard Windspirt. We sit in the center cockpit and catch up on their past travels and fill in the blanks regarding each of our lives. Brenda offers drinks and a seafood dip with crackers. David then gives us the tour of the boat below decks. I find the onboard electronics, mechanical and various other systems fascinating. Life aboard takes a lot of thought and planning, redundant backup systems and a thorough understanding of all of the above.
This is a lifestyle, to which I could easily adapt.
Life on the water is simply grand. I love sailing ... it serenades my soul and is a celebration of everything that I aspire to & for in life. If I were without obligation, and had taken a "left instead of a right" on my path in life, I would sail the world's oceans and everyday life would be an adventure rather than simply routine. The ever changing variables, the natural motion of a boat underway, capturing and harnessing the power of wind … it all has great appeal to me.
We bid farewell after a couple of hours and again, turn the car south. Key West is next on the itinerary.
My first visit to Key West was back in the early 70's, when it was a sleepy, out-of-the-way forgotten Caribbean-ish village. There were no crowds, no traffic, few if any tourist, and extremely reasonable, bottom-of-the-barrel real estate price tags. If only …
Key West today, with it's skyrocketing real estate values, ranks as one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. Locals laughingly describe how big dog billionaires are pushing out mere millionaires, and the streets are flooded nightly by passengers of docked cruise ships creating a carnival atmosphere. I guess you could say Key West is now living large.
It is almost 4:00 p.m. when we arrive and unbelievably, I lose my bearings on an island that only measures two x four miles. I want Chrissy to ride the "Conch Train," a hokey miniature train towing open air passenger carts and driven by a tour guide narrating the points of interest. It is very touristy, but fun, and a good way for visitors to see the island. I drive around searching for the "train station" and inadvertently stumble upon the "Southernmost Point" marked by a large buoy. We stop momentarily and persuade a teenager to take a picture of us standing here, only ninety miles from Cuba.
We never did find the conch train, and instead, rode the Trolley Car. I guess you could say I was sort of lost in paradise. The Trolley Car tours all of Key West and includes points of interest such as Hemmingway's house, museums, The Truman Annex, various exotic plants and trees, homes of the rich and famous, resorts, architecturally interesting and unique structures along with a brief history of the island and it's inhabitants.
After we complete the tour, we walk back to Earnest Hemmingway's house for a closer look, but the visiting hours have ended and we stand outside the compound peering over the brick wall that surrounds the residence. Although a trivial fact, the six and seven toe cats prowling the grounds are direct descendants of the pets that lived here while "Papa" was on the island. The compound looks like a picture perfect postcard with all of the exotic plants, flowers and well kept manicured lawn. Hemmingway's family members discovered a manuscript hidden in a garden shed after Papa's death, entitled "Islands in the Stream." A movie would be later made based on this story, starring George C. Scott as the main character.
"It is the story of a driven artist living the in Bahamas
during the 40's when the world was at war. The movie revolves
around the visit of his three sons at his island retreat and
the deep loneliness he feels once they leave. He struggles
with the death of his eldest son (a pilot in the war effort) and
his chance encounter with his first wife, the love of his life.
Eventually he becomes involved in a clandestine war effort,
smuggling European Jews into Cuba but ultimately decides to
return to the mainland and his two sons. Crossing paths with a Cuban Patrol boat, unfortunately, decides his fate."
A powerful read and a good, but dark movie.
We visit a Bohemian gift shop next, and Chrissy purchases several unusual gifts for girlfriends back home. One of the gifts is a carved figurine; a man wearing a barrel. When the barrel is lifted, the figures exaggerated endowment "pops" out. Good for a laugh, this gift is a success back home.
Hunger pains remind me that it is dinner time, so we seek and find one of the most unique and romantic restaurants in Key West, a tucked away, hidden spot known as the Key West Seafood and Beer Garden. A narrow brick path lined with plants opens into a virtual tropical garden and we choose a table under a tiki hut with swimming fish in stone lined pools on either side of our table.
We sip ice cold limey Coronas as we place our order for dinner: hogfish, cobia, snow peas, caramelized plantains, coffee, espresso and for desert, key lime pie covered in chocolate on a stick (like a popsicle). This is an exceptional dining experience.
We leave the outdoor garden cafe and wander down Duval Street, stopping by various t-shirt shops searching for kid-bound souvenirs.
We eventually take a table in Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Cafe and of course, we drink margaritas.
The festive nightlife of Key West is cranking up as we walk past infamous bars like "Sloppy Joe's" and "Rick's Place." The streets are full of people and you can hear the thumping, resonating music of live bands in every direction. Chrissy still wants to purchase a few gifts and I want to see the antique tall ships in the marina, so we jump on a bicycle taxi, pedal powered by a young lady with dark hair. Our taxi drops us in the vicinity of several gifts shops we noticed earlier on the trolley tour, but unfortunately, we find they are closed for the evening. We walk down Duval Street, peeking in windows of nightclubs along the way. We unknowingly watch (at first) the bizarre, but convincing stage performance of a female impersonator, or transvestite. There are areas of this town wide open to whatever lifestyle or whim suits the individual.
We continue walking until we reach a cabana bar adjacent to Mallory Square, the gathering site of Key West's famous Sunset Celebration. Sunset Celebration has become a cottage industry for performers to showcase their talents or acts to the public as the sun sets. Every circus act imaginable is present; trained cats, fire eaters, musical talents, magicians, tight rope walkers, escapee artist and the list goes on.
Unfortunately, we miss the festivities this night while dining under the garden tiki hut.
Chrissy and I take a seat at the cabana and order a tropical drink; a specialty concoction called "Monkey Love Juice." The drink is served in cast coconuts made to resemble, well, monkey heads. The potent drink packs a wallop as the generous alcohol content is masked by fruity sweetness. Almost immediately, we feel the giddy effects of this potion and like high school teenagers, begin playfully pawing one another, kissing and laughing.
As the world spins around us, my focus is exclusively limited to the beautiful woman sitting directly in front of me. I am glad she is here and realize Monkey Love Juice scores high on my cocktail-of-choice list.
It is late when we walk through an almost deserted Mallory Square. There is a few pirate type street people lingering and a high tech palm / tarot card physic with a dwindling line of potential customers. I say "high tech" because the customer and physic are linked by headphones, keeping the conversation private and thereby safeguarding the client's unique forecast.
Yeah right! It was time to leave, and the drive north to our nightly swing in the hammock takes two hours.
Another day begins ... sipping coffee from the screened porch while admiring the stark color contrast between dark green foliage and the blue-green waters of the Atlantic. The sun is bright today, in a cloudless sky and the water glimmers. Chrissy wants to lie in the sun, so today becomes beach day.
We sit on recliners at the beach in the middle of the complex, but the sun is sizzling hot,
the air humid, and not a breath of wind, so we move to cool in the pool.
We later shower, dress and drive south again. Our first stop is Robbies, a marina. Like many facilities in the area, Robbie's is a full service marina offering boat rentals, camping, repairs, fishing offshore and backcountry trips. What sets this place apart from other marinas is something totally unique and very much, a Florida Key's experience.
For three dollars, a person receives a bucket of mullet (bait fish) and can hand feed large tarpon that gather around the dock. Most of the fish are in the thirty to forty pound range, but a few of the bruisers reach the hundred pound mark. Tarpon are refereed to as the "Silver King" in the backcountry and are sought by sportsmen from around the world. A finer sport fish, there is not.
Chrissy delicately picks up the bait fish by pinching it on the very tip of the tail, between her forefinger and thumb, as if trying to make the least amount of contact as possible. "Yuk" is written all over her face, her nose offended and wrinkled, but her facial expression is short-lived.
Chrissy holds the "smelly fish" (as she refers to it) over the water, dangling it, teasing the tarpon, swinging the fish in a circle as if she were playing with a cat. A domesticated house cat might lazily investigate this temptation, but the tarpon's reaction is immediate and decisive.
I think she is surprised by the speed and power of the fish, and awed by their size and number. There are tarpon everywhere, totally in the hundreds.
She laughs, a hearty laugh, like a kid at the petting zoo and grabs the mullet quite handily now, without regard to odor, feel or texture. Two buckets emptied in no time.
We leave the tarpon basin and lunch at the restaurant "Lazy Days," a waterfront establishment on the ocean side of the highway. We chat and sip tall glass ice teas while we wait for lunch; coconut shrimp appetizer, blackened tuna and coconut maui maui sandwiches with fries. We share a piece of Key Lime Pie with whipped cream for desert and I take careful pleasure feeding Chrissy small bites of the pie. The lunch experience, much like my companion, is delicious.
Our departure time is nearing, so we drive by Tim's business, "Island Custom Embroidery" on the way back to the condo to say our good-byes. It has been great to visit with my brother and like always, I am reminded how much I miss him when we say our good-byes.
Our bags are packed and readied by the door, but I'm not mentally prepared to leave. I want to stay longer. Five brief days of vacation is not enough to quench my thirst and I want more.
I reluctantly answer the phone when it rings and predictably, it's Russ, our dependable driver waiting at the gate. A quick last minute check of the condo, a ride down the elevator and the bags are loaded. As we drive away, I promise myself the time between visits will not be as long.
It is now 2:30 a.m., our sixth consecutive night together and we are back in Leesburg. Memories of our trip tumble in my mind as Chrissy's head lay on my chest. With closed eyes, I imagine water … being surrounded by warm blue-green water and I can almost hear the rustling palm leaves; signature memories of our trip. I also realize that in a vast ocean of women, Chrissy, my woman unique, has left me feeling like a man who has discovered buried treasure and I am thankful.
She is so very fine.