We rose up early and had coffee and were on the road by 8AM. We cruised along past Philadelphia and the rush hour traffic and arrived at the Philadelphia airport with plenty of time. The flight got us to West Palm Beach a little after 1PM. We picked up a rental car at Dollar with a modicum of trouble; they had rented all the gas-saving cars (of which we had reserved one -- so much for that), and wanted to rent us an SUV or a Hummer with a $50 credit for gas. After some shouting and waving of hands we managed to acquire a Ford Fusion (23 mpg) and off we went. We motored around Miami down to Florida Bay where we connected to Route 1 and embarked upon the Keys, coming in to Key Largo and eventually finding the Key Largo Inn, where we were contracted to stay for the night.
The place was almost (except for the clerk and us) deserted. There was a pool, and the whole establishment had the look of an old, functionally designed, indifferently maintained motel. The bare, hot, parking lot next to the Inn was unpaved coral dust, ringed with hot dusty trees and banana plants. The room was clean, had comfortable beds, and gave the impression that tropical insects might possibly come there to live, given half a chance.
The clerk was moderately friendly and quite helpful, drawing us a map to the Pilot House, and also recommending an alternate dining place nearby.
I looked the Inn up on TripAdvisor later and recommend to everyone the reviewers' comments and the management's replies; evidently things get pretty tense here in-season. And in any case, Key Largo looks like the sort of place that can be rough in spots.
We had dinner at the Pilot House, which was recommended to us by Mary Ellen, a friend whose family used to own and run the place about twenty years ago. We dined on a deck overlooking a small working (i.e. commercial) marina, and had a pleasant (fried) meal, while about us tattooed local residents had their end-of-the-day Budweisers. Then we drove around the back streets for a little bit, marvelling at the houses of the rich folk (all new, all Atlantic side), then went back to the Motel and, in splendid solitude, and with no traffic noises, to bed.
We rose and took our leave of the Key Largo Inn. I think, even with the bad reviews, that I might try this place again, if I was in a bind. But maybe not; the thing about lodgings is that the world is full of lodgings, and unless this is the only lodging in the neighborhood (it isn't) one might as well try some of the others.
We drove down the Overseas Highway a mile or two and pulled into Mrs. Mac's Kitchen for breakfast, where we had a nice breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and sausage, washed down with hot coffee -- exactly the same as breakfasts in all the places like this that we have encountered up and down the U.S. Except here they had an "Atkins" platter; double helpings of everything except with no toast. Then, suitably fueled up, we roared off to see what we could see. We drove through Tavernier and Plantation Key and Islamorada, each one looking more tropical (but still dusty and hot) than the last. The water turned increasing blue and green as we rode along, until we stopped a little city beach at the south end of Lower Matecumbe Key, named Anne's Beach and strode about in the shallow water and among the fiddler crabs and beach plums and mangroves. It was here, our way impeded by water, that we were forced to clamber up and over the railing onto the wooden walkway back to the car. Kate made good us of her gym training here, and was energized by the event for several days.
We drove along, casting our eyes here and there, viewing Indian Key, but not realizing what it was until after the trip, when I read Jerry Wilkinson's writeup about it. (This was the setting, and much of the basic story, of Frank Slaughter's book "Fort Everglades". Of course in the book the doctor survives and gets the girl at the end.)
We drove into Key West and found the Grand Guest House on Grinnell Street and checked in around 1PM; our room was not yet ready, so we strolled around the corner to El Siboney on Catherine Street to have lunch of Cuban beans, fried plantains and yellow rice.
In the afternoon we walked down Catherine Street to Duval Street and proceeded to walk Northwest. It did indeed look -- as an acquaintance in Lambertville had advised -- like New Hope, PA., only flat and without as many trees. There were rainbow flags everywhere, including at our guest house.
Scenes of Old Town, Key West
We were in Old Town, a 5- or 6-square mile area of old Key West. The houses are all enormously quaint, mostly well-kept (as if the town has seen a lot of money coming in over the last decade), and everything lush and blooming, the drought nothwithstanding.
And hot; we made it up to Fleming Street where we stopped off and had cold drinks at a Starbucks and gazed at a 1926 Episcopal Church, before turning our steps back to the Grand
The trip back was arduous, long and hot. We made it back, but my feet hurt. We lay under the air conditioner in our little windowless room as ones dead, in an icy tomb. Then we got up again and began to wonder about eating.
The lads who ran the Grand had suggested a place about five blocks over on Duval called La-te-da, so we cleaned up a little and went there. We found ourselves in a pleasant shaded courtyard of the Ocean Grill, drinking cooling drinks while a cocktail pianist ineptly bashed a medley of show tunes and top hits from the seventies. From time to time a female impersonator would dash past because, oddly enough, there was to be a drag show later on upstairs.
Nevertheless the food was good, the not-so-vaguely Latin waiter was sardonic and the ambiance was very — well, Key West.
We must have had breakfast at the Grand -- coffee, muffins, bagels, English muffins, fresh fruit, orange juice and the like -- but I don't remember. I had blisters on several feet; I believe that after eating at La-te-da last night we went out and acquired some bandaids, which I then applied to the blistery parts.
I know that we rose up at some point, put our beach reads down, and went out for lunch at El Siboney, where we had black beans and beer. Or at least, I did; Kate had vegetarian food and green tea.
In the afternoon we read books, rested and sweated. We may have done some other things.
Here's what we did; we rose up after breakfast and went over to see the Bahama Village area of Old Town, and finding ourselves attracted by a lighthouse that seemed to be sticking up from the middle of the block, realized eventually that we were standing in front of Hemingway's House. So we went in.
After the tour we wandered up to Duval and I bought a tropical shirt that I had seen the day before. It was a Guy Harvey shirt, with pictures of Florida style fish on it.
That night we wandered down to Origami and sat out on the patio and ate maki and sushi.
We went to Camille's, at the corner of Simonton and Catherine Streets, for breakfast and admired the modified Barbie Doll sculptures. Then we strolled around the southernmost points, which is to say we looked at the Southernmost House, and the Southernmost Point, which was surrounded by Cuban families, taking pictures.
We went to the Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and looked in at the old fort, which resembles Fort Gaines, on Dauphin Island, Alabama. They had a nice collection of Rodman guns and Parrott rifles, and it was very pleasantly cool under the old brick arches.
Then it was off to the beach for a dip in a very salty and tropical Atlantic. The bottom was very hard on the feet, being mostly broken coral, so that I had to wear my sneakers into the water.
As we were lounging up at a picnic table under the shade of the trees, we met a man named Sean Rowley there, with his children. He was pleased to find out that Kate and I both knew and liked history, and after some chat offered us a sunset cruise on one of his boats. It turns out he is part owner of Sebago Watersports, which runs parasail rides and three catamarans. We accepted, and around 5:00PM set out -- on foot -- for the dock, which was in the Key West Bight, across the island. It took about half an hour to walk over. When we got there, we had some time to look around, so we went into the Schooner Wharf and had some drinks and Conch fritters until time to board the boat.
The boat was a catamaran named the Marquesa, built --according to Mr. Rowley-- in Key West. It held about 55 people, and motored out of the harbor before setting sail straight out to the Southwest, in the company of a number of other vessels, also doing sunset cruises. Drinks on the cruise were complimentary, and consisted of various beers and some indifferent champagne. The day was pleasant, there was a nice breeze, and the sea was calm. We sailed out for three or four miles, then rounded about and headed back in. On the way back the Sun sank gently into a bank of mist, without any green flash. The pilot then cranked up the engines and we booked back into port.
Leaving the boat, we glanced briefly around the harbor area, then headed down Duval to Origami, a Sushi restaurant, for a late dinner, and then back to the Grand.
Breakfast at the Grand. I gathered up our dirty clothes and dropped them off at the laundromat up on the corner of Truman and Grinnell. Then I walked around the corner down Truman to look into a used bookstore and bought a Tony Hillerman novel. Kate and I strolled out a little later and lunched at a garden deli on White Street, where it rained briefly as we sat under an airy shed at the back of a pleasant garden. There was a Plein Air group of three ladies just finishing their morning painting session as we came in.
That afternoon we took the car and drove up to the old harbor area where we had been yesterday, picking up the laundry on our way up. We parked the car at a meter and wandered over to the harbor and bought another Guy Harvey shirt from the shop where I had seen it earlier. But then I realized that there was a parking lot at the harbor and went to retrieve the car while Kate partied at an Internet Cafe that sells coffee. We strolled around looking at things until we had nearly worn ourselves out, and had an early dinner at the waterfront. There we gazed upon huge fish — later identified as Tarpon — lurking about under the docks, waiting for the trash bits that fishermen would throw into the water after they cleaned their catch.
There were also some kind of fishing birds -- they looked like Rails as they were standing, but they would dive into the water for small fish -- hanging out on the boat cables fishing for their food. They were very territorial, and would fight for their fishing spots. They might have been Green Herons, because they looked like pictures and descriptions of such.
Breakfast at the Grand. We were going to go off to the beach again when it occurred to us that this was the last day ever in Key West, so instead we got in the car and drove up to Mallory Square, where we parked and jinked around for a couple of hours.
Cruise ships dock regularly these days at Mallory Square. This one gave a great hoot as we were strolling around, and then slid majestically away from the dock as we were having lunch. As you might expect, the shops surrounding Mallory Square are the absolutely right places for finding inexpensive cotton tropical shirts, but by the time I found this out, I had stocked up on Guy Harvey fishing shirts.
We had lunch under the spray misters at the Cafe Tropical (across from the Customs House) where I encountered a hitherto unknown beer named Kalik, from the Bahamas. "Like Corona," said the cafe owner, "but without the aftertaste". After lunch we toured the Mel Fisher Museum next door and viewed the treasures of the Atocha and other vessels which were retreived from the bottom of the sea.
The statues in front of the Customs House are a horrific Seward Johnson piece of Grant Woods' "American Gothic" couple as tourists. In fact, there was quite a lot of Seward Johnson crap all around Key West, including some in a junk yard on Simonton, wrapped in plastic tarps, presumably awaiting installation somewhere. It made me wonder if the stereotype of gay "artistic sensibility" isn't one of those myths, like black "natural sense of rhythm".
Apparently this exhibition isn't permanent, because I have seen photographs of other sculpture in that space.
Then it was off to Voltaire Books where we picked up some more beach reading, and thence to home, to prepare ourselves for dinner at Duffy's Steak House. I took the opportunity to call up to Islamorada and arrange a stay overnight at Palms and Pines.
At Duffy's, we had fish, and a good feed too.
We rose up, and after breakfast at the Grand, we drove away from Key West without a backwards glance, but with many sideways glances. The day was, as they all were, hot and bright. We rode over Keys and bridges until we got to the Seven Mile Bridge, commemorated in a mural on the side of a bar in Key West.
Moments later we arrived at Palms and Pines, where we checked in to a very lightly populated lodging consisting of 20+ tropical cottages at the Atlantic Oceanside. There we unpacked and lounged up, drinking cold drinks on the beachfront terrace and reading trashy novels while fishing boats motored to and fro.
Actually, aside from Key West Harbor, we didn't see much motor yacht activity. Either the season was slow or the cost of fuel was keeping them in dock. Also, we were there in the middle of the week, when all the doctors and dentists had to work to support their boats.
We rolled out that night and had dinner on the bayfront at Morada Cafe, where we drank wine and dined on excellent (non-fried) fish and watched the sun sink into the Gulf behind some distant keys while a local singer strummed his guitar and sang suitably tropical songs.
Another quiet day in Islamorada. After breakfast at a local diner -- the Whistle Stop, I believe, we went shopping up and down the Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys, where Kate bought a bathing suit. We looked in on the World Wide Sportsman store, which is a vast warehouse of all thing fishy and includes the actual boat "Pilar" which was the model for Hemingway's own boat.
In this complex, which included the "Zane Grey grill", the Islamorada Fish Company (said to be a swell place to watch the sunset), the Morada Cafe as well as the World Wide Sportsman, we saw a Great White Heron, looking for handouts in an aggressively casual way. This may have been the same Heron we saw later at Palms and Pines, the one who was said to have stolen a steak from someone's grill.
We went up to Annes Beach and splashed in the shallow water for a bit. I waded out to a bar near the channel, but the water never came up over my knees. To get wet, I had to lay down on the seaweed, and to drown, I had to lay face down. We drove back past the Hurricane Monument, commemorating the victims of the great hurricane of 1935, which was to the Keys much the same as the hurricane of 1947 was to Biloxians.
We had lunch at Wahoo's, at Whale Harbor, on a second-floor deck overlooking the marina where, as was the case with most all other marinas (except the Key West Bight), nothing was going on. Then it was back to the Palms and Pines where we lounged around reading and (for me) drinking and smoking on the beach while a group of German tourists swam in the sea off the dock.
Dinner that night was at the Islamorada Fish Company, which was somewhat disastrous. The place was a little too much like the sort of tourist trap like I remember from St. Thomas, and Kate had an unfortunate reaction the the perfume worn by one of the German women who sat at the table next to us. Also, her grouper was not good, although my Lobster tail was excellent, and so was the beer. At one point a sea-going Cadillac sailed past the dock and off into the sunset. It seemed to me that it was pink.
We checked out of the Palms and Pine and drove up the road to the Green Turtle Inn where we had a swell breakfast of blueberry pancakes and other things, then it was away up the Keys and back to the mainland of Florida. We did not take Sean Rowley's advice and take the Card Sound road to Alabama Jack's, because we were running low on cash and didn't feel like it at the moment. However, at the point where we entered Florida City, we determined to take Florida Route 9663 to the Everglades National Park, and entering therein (after paying a fee of $10 -- said by the attendant to be good for seven days) we drove slowly along looking at this, that, and the other until we were almost to Pa-hay-okee overlook. At that point we decided to backtrack, leave the park, and go back to a little country store, where we stocked up on crackers, Vienna sausage, sodas and bananas for a picnic lunch.
Then it was back to the park, where we zipped past what we had seen to that point and proceeded down the road toward Flamingo. We stopped off at a couple of places, but they were inconducive to picnicing, and finally settled in at West Lake to chew our lunch and gaze meditatively on the hot and dry environs.
It seems that the Everglades are drier this year than ever. Boat trips to the swamps are suffering because the levels are so low that boats can't get through various places in Okefenokee and elsewhere. Apparently the Everglades are caused by a huge shallow river that spills over the southern edge of Okenfenokee and oozes south to Florida Bay and this has taken various serious hits by the construction of the Tamiami Trail and the water demands of Miami, Palm Beach and other parts of Florida.
We got all the way down to Flamingo where we found a large, pleasant and somewhat moribund Park Service establishment with a small marina where we had ice cream and gazed out into the shallow expanse of Florida Bay. We may have seen a manatee there, bobbing briefly to the surface. Certainly at Nine Mile pond we watched an Anhinga on a log sunning itself, with its wings spread, while a loglike alligator cruised imperceptibly past.
All the while, distant plumes of white and grey smoke marked the distant fires at the North end of the park. These fires were only moderately controlled, but were not threatening a whole lot of man-made property, so no one really cared, except those residents of West Palm Beach and Broward County who had to breathe smoke the next day over on the east coast.
Retracing our steps once again, we left the Everglades and entered into that sort of one-story flat sprawl that characterizes the suburban fringes of Miami, making our way past there and north toward Palm Beach. Just south of the Broward County line, we found a lodging in Deerfield Beach at the Holiday Park Hotel and Suites, for $50 for the night. So what if some of the linens in the bathroom had been used before we got there? I think the place has a justifiably sleazy reputation, to judge from the underage-looking couples checking in before us, but it was perfectly OK for a night's stay and to my mind perfectly epitomized the culture of South Florida. We settled in and then rolled out to see what A1A looked like at that part of the Atlantic shore. It was pretty bad: congested, and tacky and once over the county line into Boca Raton so chi-chi in an expensive condo sort of way that I had trouble breathing and had to leave.
We drove back to Deerfield beach and found a shopping center called "The Cove" with a whole bunch of restaurants and almost no parking. We found a space and strolled about looking into windows. We found a French restaurant called Le Val De Loire, which was deserted when we walked in, but we persevered and sat down and ordered wine after determining that they took credit cards. They had specials listed, but for cash only. This, they said, was to attract old folks for a sundown dinner special, but it didn't seem to be working.
Still, as we sat drinking our wine, another party did come in. Pretty soon we were chowing down in the proper French fashion, grunting and muttering "Sacre bleu!". The food was rich, after the French fashion, but good; I had Sea Bass, and Kate had Coq au Vin.
The tablecloths were decorated with images of Breton figures; I asked the owners why, if they were from the Loire, they had Breton figures on their table cloths. They said this was because they were not from the Loire, but were Bretons. I guess they figured the Loire name was more upscale than Brittany.
Afterwards, back to the sinister Holiday Park and a restless night of food-induced nightmares of Breton Sea Bass.
We rose up and had breakfast at the motel restaurant — a Denny's. Since the airplane didn't leave until noon, we passed the morning driving up A1A toward Palm Beach, where we passed through the rarefied environs of Boca Raton into even more rarefied environs which revealed to me that Boca Raton was really only the lesser habitat of the tacky nouveau riche, and through that into some fairly normal-looking neighborhoods, including one with an actual free beach, which we stopped and went to stand on so that we might say that we had actually stood on a free beach in Florida.
Finally, it was off to West Palm Beach International airport, where we turned in the car, proceeded to the terminal and tried to check in with the automated kiosk, which didn't work, so we had to wait while a ticket agent wrestled with the system to acquire us two seats on the airplane. That achieved, we proceeded through security, where an automated booth sniffed us for drugs or explosives, and where our shoes were examined closely for whatever, and where our belongings were examined meditatively through xray machines.
The airplane ride back to Philadelphia was uneventful, praise God, and we arrived on the ground at Philadelphia with so little drama that the passengers were not moved to clap and cheer on our arrival.
The trip from Philadelphia to Lambertville, however, took about one and one-half hours, because we landed right at rush hour, and for some reason, the highway department had decided to squeeze the three northbound lanes of the Expressway down to one. Still, the grey skies of Philadelphia, and the rainy greenness of New Jersey were oddly refreshing.