Florida Road Trip, Part 6: Hemingway and Heaven in Key West

Of our two days in Key West, one was ridiculous and the other, thankfully, sublime. Duval Street in all its seaminess was already a distant memory. We awoke our second day with a new plan: Hemingway and Heaven.

Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West from 1931-39. It is said that he appreciated his home’s location on Whitehead Street because it stood across the street from the lighthouse, which was the landmark by which he found his way home after boozing it up in the Duval Street bars.

Ernest Hemingway's home in Key West (image from hemingwayhome.com)

Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West (image from hemingwayhome.com)

He wrote To Have and Have Not as well as The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Green Hills of Africa in Key West during his marriage to his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer.

Ernest Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, at their home in Key West. (image from jfklibrary.org)

Ernest Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, at their home in Key West. (image from jfklibrary.org)

Hemingway was a complicated man of enormous appetite for life, travel, liquor and women. Oh, and for cats. His Key West home features a cemetery for the most beloved of his famed six-toed felines, including “Marilyn Monroe” and “Kim Novak”. Forty-five descendants of his original pets currently roam the premises. Few of them deign to interact with visitors, preferring to lounge in the deep shade of the garden, but I did spot one napping in a bedroom and another preening on an etagere in the museum bookstore.

This calico was one of the few cats willing to greet guests to the Hemingway Home and Museum.

This calico was one of the few cats willing to greet guests to the Hemingway Home and Museum.

Little black kitty takes a snooze in one of the bedrooms.

Little black kitty takes a snooze in one of the bedrooms.

So bored with it all: this cat condescended to mingle with visitors to the bookstore.

So bored with it all: this cat condescended to mingle with visitors to the bookstore.

Let sleeping cats lie: I only saw five toes on this kitty; maybe it's a stray?

Let sleeping cats lie: I only saw five toes on this kitty; maybe it’s a stray?

Just as I felt a sense of kinship with Thomas Wolfe after visiting his home in Asheville, N.C., I somehow felt that I better understood Hemingway as I strode through the rooms of his gracious Key West home. Most of his books are held hostage in Cuba, but family photos line the walls of the home and you can visit the detached studio where he wrote. And whether you like Hemingway the man or not – Zelda Fitzgerald, incidentally, loathed him – Hemingway, the writer, is as good as it gets. He was truly the voice of the “lost generation” and a national treasure.

The CE next to a portrait of Hemingway.

The CE next to a portrait of Hemingway.

The upstairs veranda at the Hemingway Home and Museum.

The upstairs veranda at the Hemingway Home and Museum.

Family photos line the walls of the home.

Family photos line the walls of the home.

From Hemingway’s Key West slice of paradise, we walked a few blocks and went straight to heaven – Blue Heaven, that is – the famed local restaurant and watering hole where you can enjoy a languorous Sunday brunch communing with the chickens that roam in the deep shade of the restaurant’s tropical garden. I’m not sure how they work it out with the health code and the powers that be – maybe the chickens are grandfathered into the Conch Republic constitution.

Blue Heaven is a must-visit in Key West.

Blue Heaven is a must-visit in Key West.

Lobster Roll + Bloody Mary = Brunch Heaven at Blue Heaven in Key West.

Lobster Roll + Bloody Mary = Brunch Heaven at Blue Heaven in Key West.

It was even more heavenly with hens and chicks underfoot.

It was even more heavenly with hens and chicks underfoot.

Papa rooster watched over the flock while the rest of us enjoyed brunch.

Papa rooster watched over the flock while the rest of us enjoyed brunch.

I would go to the ends of the earth to see chickens; luckily, I only had to go to southernmost point of the continent. Flocks of Cubalaya chickens originally brought over by emigrating Cubans who couldn’t leave their taste for cock-fighting behind now roam the streets of Key West and are known as “gypsy chickens”. They are more attractive and orderly than the birds I saw in Kauai and, for that matter, than most of the people I saw on Duval Street.

Crossing the street, of course. Don't ask why...

Crossing the street, of course. Don’t ask why…

Handsome Key West fellow.

Handsome Key West fellow.

We ended up enjoying our stay in Key West so much that we held back a few things to see on a future visit. Next time we hope to check out the Audubon House and Harry Truman’s Key West winter White House. For our two-day visit finale, we boarded a boat for the short jaunt out to Sunset Key, where we dined at Latitudes and watched the sun set on a perfect Key West day. Heavenly!

View of Sunset Key from our hotel

View of Sunset Key from our hotel

Looking back at Front Street from the boat headed to Sunset Key

Looking back at Front Street from the boat headed to Sunset Key

The CE relaxes at Latitudes after a long day of touring Key West.

The CE relaxes at Latitudes after a long day of touring Key West.

July 26, 2014 at 6:51 am 4 comments

Meet the Flockers.

Single stay-at-home mother, three very young children. No one knows who the father is. No source of income. Dependent on handouts.

Dysfunctional family?

Nope, just Pippa and her adorable little flock of chicks.

I think they were all made for each other!

I think they were all made for each other!

And they couldn’t be happier. Pippa is a helicopter mom. A Tiger Mom on steroids. She is ferociously overprotective and never, ever takes her eyes off her little ones. When we tried to “borrow” them for portraits she came at us puffed up like a turkey, wings flapping, and pecked at us like she meant it. Hard to believe this is the same docile little d’Uccle who just a few weeks ago sidled up to me each morning in the coop asking to be cuddled and hand-fed some scratch. I guess she has redefined the term “mother hen”.

Just like all mothers, Pippa is used to her kids climbing all over her.

Just like all mothers, Pippa is used to her kids climbing all over her.

As soon as I saw how well it was going, I wished that those other little ones – the grandkids – could be here to share in the fun. Next best thing: have them help with the naming!

Thomas and James responded first:

James and Thomas in one of their more angelic moments.

James and Thomas in one of their more angelic moments.

They chose to name the little brown Ameraucana and came up with the PERFECT name: Ginger.

Meet Ginger! Thank you, Thomas and James!

Meet Ginger! Thank you, Thomas and James!

Later that day I heard from Evie and Viv (and Caleigh, who will hopefully get a chance to name a future chick when she’s a bit older). They were busy making a l-o-n-g list:

So many good names! We will save this for the future!

So many good names! We will save this for the future!

Here are Evie and Viv unfurling our personal flag on their Duffy boat.

Here are Evie and Viv unfurling our personal flag on their Duffy boat.

My pick from Evie and Viv’s list was Summer, which I think suits the little Buff Orpington:

This is Summer. Thank you Evie and Viv!

This is Summer. Thank you Evie and Viv!

For the Barred Rock, I chose the name Lola. Alexandra and Andy reminded me that it was the name of the parrot they recently befriended during their trip to Peru and the Amazon. I must have catalogued it in my bird brain when I first heard it, because every time I looked at the chicks I kept thinking that one of them needs to be called Lola. So Lola it shall be.

Andy and his friend, Lola, who inspired the name for our little Barred Rock.

Andy and his friend, Lola, who inspired the name for our little Barred Rock.

Okay, she's not as exotic as the Amazon Lola, but I promise she will be a pretty girl!

Okay, she’s not as exotic as the Amazon Lola, but I promise she will be a pretty girl!

This is what Lola will look like when she grows up. (image from mypetchicken.com)

This is what Lola will look like when she grows up. (image from mypetchicken.com)

In retrospect, I realized I made a mistake during our chick delivery process. We were so busy stealing away Pippa’s beloved golf balls that I fumbled and just set the chicks next to her instead of tucking them beneath her. I think that is why she pecked at them a bit; next time I serve as a chicken doula I will remember to place the chicks under the hen so that she thinks her eggs have hatched rather than that she has been invaded by aliens.

Luckily for us, Pippa and her chicks rebounded from my clumsy midwifery. We’ve had a lot of transitions in the past few days, since we have to ready the flock for our imminent departure to points East. Dave and Karen and then our friend, Lori, are bravely taking on the poultry project in our absence.

Dave stopped by to see the chicks last weekend; here he is with Lola

Dave stopped by to see the chicks last weekend; here he is with Lola

First, we moved them from the nesting counter to the floor – I didn’t want anyone to topple over the edge! Along with that move came the chicks’ introduction to “Auntie Luna” who has been soldiering on all by herself while Pippa has been brooding and mothering. Sweet little Luna has been very respectful of the chicks – I think she would like to help mother them, but Pippa is having none of it – see how she puffs up to protect her brood when Luna comes near?

Pippa puffs up as Luna tries to meet the new additions.

Pippa puffs up as Luna tries to meet the new additions.

Personalities are already beginning to emerge. Summer stays very close to mom and, true to her Buff Orpington breeding, seems the calmest and most confident. Ginger skitters here and there, exploring new territory and then careening back to find her flock. Little Lola is the shyest, often seeking shelter under Pippa while the other two have a look around.

Ginger and Summer peek out, while Lola has characteristically taken refuge under Pippa.

Ginger and Summer peek out, while Lola has characteristically taken refuge under Pippa.

Next step is to give the little flock their first “big world” outing. Then we head out on our trip and our intrepid house sitters will take over. By the time we return, the darling little chicks will be entering adolescence and will have that scraggly vulture look that chickens take on during their ugly duckling stage between babyhood and hen-hood.

Summer is the quintessential baby chick - yellow and fluffy!

Summer is the quintessential baby chick – yellow and fluffy!

For now, though, they are preciously adorable – just like all the grandkids who named them!

Our other little flock - the cousins who named the chicks, all together in Hawaii a few years back.

Our other little flock – the cousins who named the chicks, all together in Hawaii a few years back.

July 19, 2014 at 6:50 am 6 comments

Introducing: Pippa and the Pips!

Three years ago, our beloved Buff Orpington, Hope, taught us the ways of a broody. We successfully “grafted” some hatchery chicks to her, one of which was our Belgian Mille Fleur d’Uccle, Pippa.

Hope and her chicks back in 2011. Pippa is the one on the left.

Hope and her chicks back in 2011. Pippa is the one on the left.

Sadly, Hope and many of her compatriots have gone on to that palatial chicken coop in the sky, and for the past six months we’ve been down to a flock of two; little Pippa and our Silkie, Luna.

Just us chickens: Luna and Pippa

Just us chickens: Luna and Pippa

When Pippa, now age three, had gone broody last summer, it was an annoyance. This year, I was praying for her to go broody so we could try to repeat the broody magic we experienced with Hope. Luckily for us, Pippa dutifully went broody a few weeks ago, growling and fussing and puffing up her feathers and refusing to leave the nest. We were thrilled!

Even though she was decisively broody, we were cautioned against giving her chicks too soon. The gestation period for hatching eggs is twenty-one days and one source we consulted was insistent that if you give baby chicks to a hen before the three week mark, she will kill the little ones. It is not uncommon for even a full-term broody hen to attack or abandon baby chicks; nature can be capricious. But we had to work around chick availability; our feed store was getting a shipment in yesterday, which put Pippa at just over two weeks in her broody cycle.

Pippa "hatching" golf balls.

Pippa “hatching” golf balls.

Leading up to the big day, we indulged Pippa in her broody ways. Since she refused to leave the nest, we “flipped the Pip” a few times a day, moving her from her clutch of golf balls over to her food and water. She would cluck in protestation, but she would eat and drink and take a little walk before returning to sit on her nest.

My research told me that a bantam hen like Pippa can only raise three standard-size chicks. Since both Pippa and Luna are very gentle and docile, I wanted to choose chicks from breeds known to have mild temperaments. Behavior varies greatly from bird to bird, but the three breeds we chose are known to be generally good-natured: Buff Orpington, Barred Rock and Ameraucauna.

We arrived at the feed store yesterday morning before the doors had even opened. I wanted to get first choice of chicks! I brought a shoe box to carry them home and I brought a list of the things we needed: a feeder, a waterer and most importantly, starter feed. Baby chicks cannot eat the grown hen’s diet of layer feed because it contains too much calcium. Pippa and Luna can eat starter feed along with the chicks until they are old enough to switch to a grower feed at about seven weeks of age.

First baby pic! L to R, the Ameraucana, Barred Rock and Buff Orpington. They are two days old.

First baby pic! L to R, the Ameraucana, Barred Rock and Buff Orpington. They are two days old.

Your best chance of enticing a broody hen to accept chicks is to slip the babies under her at night while she is less alert to the fact that her “eggs” have suddenly hatched into two-day-old chicks. So we set up a temporary cardboard box brooder as a way station for the day with food, water and a heat lamp. First order of business was to dip the babies’ beaks in the water and food and they all figured out the eating and drinking process right away. They ate like champs!

Always a good sign when they eat!

Always a good sign when they eat!

They ate, drank and dozed throughout the day. They also managed to get into trouble. Alarmed when I heard loud peeping, I rushed in and found that the little Ameraucauna had catapulted herself out of her brooder box and was separated from the other two. All three were frantic to be reunited. Lesson learned: make sure the sides of the brooder box are high enough!

I also did the necessary check for “pasty butt”, a common but problematic and potentially deadly occurrence with baby chicks. Stress and heat during the shipping process can cause their vents to become blocked and they must be manually cleared (q-tips and warm water) or the chicks may die. Staring at chicken vents is just part of a flock keeper’s job description; fortunately, these three had no problems.

Those are rocks in the water trough to assure that newborn chicks don't fall in and drown.

Those are rocks in the water trough to assure that newborn chicks don’t fall in and drown.

No names yet, but we are open to suggestions!

The Ameraucauna

The Ameraucauna

The Barred Rock - she will be black and white as an adult

The Barred Rock – she will be black and white as an adult

The Buff Orpington

The Buff Orpington

At 10 pm last night, watches synchronized, the CE and I crept into the coop with trepidation, a flashlight and the baby chicks. Pippa stirred and ruffled herself up in indignation as we stole away her beloved golf balls, clucking angrily at us and the small intruders we had set beside her. She pecked at them and our hearts sank; was she going to reject them? We held our breath and waited. Disturbed as she was, she did not appear truly homicidal, so we let the scenario play out for a few minutes. The chicks took the lead: even though they had been mail-ordered within hours of hatching, they knew a mama when they saw one and within a few minutes, despite Pippa’s seeming reluctance, they dove beneath her. Soon, all was quiet but for a few muffled peeps beneath her.

I woke with a start at 5 a.m. this morning and rushed to the coop, mentally preparing myself for either outcome: would I find a happy family or infanticide?

All was quiet. I heard not even a peep. Pippa seemed placid enough, but seeing is believing, right? As I reached beneath her I was struck by how hot her body was where she had broodily plucked feathers from her breast in preparation for keeping baby chicks warm. I lifted Pippa up and out scurried the three chicks, happy, healthy and ready to greet the day. They darted over to the feeder and waterer and then returned to the mothership, tumbling over her, pecking inquisitively at her face and finally seeking the warmth again beneath her. Pippa cluck-cluck-clucked at them, watching their every move and accepting their attentions without protest.

Just one little happy family!

Just one little happy family!

Peeking out from Mama's wing

Peeking out from Mama’s wing

There are still a few hurdles ahead – we need to re-locate mama and babies from the countertop so the little ones don’t fall off. And we need to introduce them to Luna, who is completely bewildered by the situation.

Will someone please tell me what's going on around here?

Will someone please tell me what’s going on around here?

But I am claiming a preliminary success. I just peeked in on them and Mama and babies all seem happy. Congratulations, Pippa!

Hanging out with mom...

Hanging out with mom…

We love our mom!

We love our mom!

Playing "Queen of the Hill"

Playing “Queen of the Hill”

July 12, 2014 at 9:58 am 4 comments

Florida Road Trip, Part 5: Our Not Favorite Day in Key West.

I guess we had envisioned Jimmy Buffett serving Margaritas in crystal glasses from a roadside stand under a “Welcome to Key West” banner, so our entrance to the quintessential Key in the Keys was a bit of a letdown. A1A is a veritable strip mall ring encircling the community on the approach, reminding you that you are in the most populated of the Florida Keys. There is currently a significant amount of construction on the road, so we had to thread our way through heavy traffic past the Kmart and fast food restaurants that dotted the road to find our hotel.

The sign promises Paradise but all I saw at first was the Kmart.

The sign promises Paradise but all I saw at first was the Kmart.

We checked into the Westin, chosen because of its waterfront location on Front Street. We splurged on a suite and, luckily, ours was at the far east corner of the building where our view could not be blocked by the cruise ships that dock along the waterfront.

Here is the CE on the lovely balcony of our room at the Westin.

Here is the CE on the lovely balcony of our room at the Westin.

First order of business once we’d settled in was to find the southernmost point of this southernmost city in the United States. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but it led to our least favorite evening in Key West, of which we only had two. It was only a mile walk but it felt like five as the sweat dripped off us in the late afternoon heat and humidity. No wonder they drink Margaritas in Key West – they must be positively medicinal for replacing all the salt one loses whilst one merely breathes in and out in the heat.

Obligatory cheesy tourist photo: 90 miles to Cuba!

Obligatory cheesy tourist photo: 90 miles to Cuba!

Truth be told, I had set my sights not on a Margarita but a Daiquiri. The CE and I are both unabashed Hemingway fans and we looked forward to treading where he had trod in Key West. Since he reportedly spent most of his time drinking daiquiris in the local bars, that was our next destination after bagging our photo at the Southernmost Point.

A considerable amount of squabbling goes on regarding which of the community’s watering holes were Hemingway’s favorites. Sloppy Joes is probably the best-known, so we walked back up Duval Street in search of the famed saloon. I don’t know how Hemingway would feel about Duval Street and Sloppy Joe’s today, but they just weren’t our cup of rum. Peppered with head shops, t-shirt emporiums and at least one “adult entertainment club” that looks for all the world like a brothel, Duval Street glories in its commercialised seediness. The only class establishments on the street seemed to be the gay bars where, at one, we glimpsed an elegantly clad transvestite beckoning to patrons with a flourish of her retro cigarette holder. She was the lone token of style we beheld, and alas, it went downhill from there once we stepped into Sloppy Joes.

Looking for our Hemingway fix: Sloppy Joes on Duval Street in Key West

Looking for our Hemingway fix: Sloppy Joes on Duval Street in Key West

The scene inside Sloppy Joes was more desultory than raucous. I would have preferred our vacant-eyed and mostly absent waitress to be more live and the musical “entertainment” to be less so; tasteless is far too tame a word to describe Pete & Wayne. The duo sang interminably of their scorn for Jimmy Buffett and then lapsed into a ditty that had to do with defiling moose in Maine. We weren’t channeling Hemingway. We didn’t stay long. I think Pete and Wayne were singing their “Scrotum Song” as we left…

It's a tradition, but maybe not the best one.

It’s a tradition, but maybe not the best one.

Dinner that evening was pre-fab pizza at the Hard Rock Cafe, where we sat on a terrace and looked out upon other tourists streaming along Duval Street. I silently counted the tattoos I saw on passersby (37) while we discussed To Have and Have Not (superb!) and rated the limp slices of pizza in front of us (absolutely terrible!) If I had it to do over again, we would have stopped into The Green Parrot Bar for our drink (billed as “a sunny place for shady people” it still outclasses Sloppy Joes) and had dinner at Louie’s Backyard. Next time!

We actually considered checking out of our hotel and skipping our second day in Key West. Glad we didn’t, because all was redeemed the next day, as you’ll learn in the next post. As it turns out, there is a lot to love in Key West!

Hemingway with a daiquiri. Cheers!

Hemingway with a daiquiri. Cheers!

July 5, 2014 at 10:27 am 2 comments

Florida Road Trip, Part 4: The Key to the Keys

I guess we could have had lunch at Robbie’s Marina Hungry Tarpon restaurant, but there was something about its location just yards away from the bait buckets we hoisted to feed the tarpon that said no, no, no to me. Another time, perhaps.

It's bait at the Marina, but maybe it's lunch next door? (image from pineislandangler.com)

It’s bait at the Marina, but maybe it’s lunch next door?
(image from pineislandangler.com)

So, stomachs rumbling, we began our drive south toward Key West. I started Googling for a lunch spot and discovered that the Information Highway holds the key to the Overseas Highway: if you are driving to or through the Keys, get thee to a Mile-Marker Guide! The best one I found was on the awesome Florida Rambler site. Other mile-marker guides can be found on Rent My Island and at the somewhat dryly-titled site called Digital-Librarian. Not a mile-marker guide per se, but an excellent reference for the area is the TheFloridaKeys web site.

Without the Florida Rambler guide, we never would have known about Burdine’s Chiki Tiki restaurant in Marathon. It is off the beaten path, to put it mildly. At Mile Marker 48 you turn east on 15th Street and wind back through a sort of seaside ghetto to the marina. The day we were there, the neighborhood “gatekeeper” was a guy in a wifebeater t-shirt clutching a very large liquor bottle and dazedly watching some scrawny chickens crossing the road (because they can, that’s why!). We wanted to ask if we were going the right way, but he did not seem like the guy to ask and the chickens weren’t talking. Fortunately, we finally spotted the thatched roof of the Chiki Tiki Bar & Grille in the distance and had a nice lunch overlooking Boot Key harbor. Worth the stop!

The Chiki Tiki Bar & Grille in Marathon (image from urbanspoon.com)

The Chiki Tiki Bar & Grille in Marathon (image from urbanspoon.com)


When in Rome: I indulged in a Florida Cracker Belgian-style ale at the Chiki Tiki.

When in Rome: I indulged in a Florida Cracker Belgian-style ale at the Chiki Tiki.

After lunch, we wove back past the street chickens and their keeper and found our way back to the highway and the famed Seven-Mile Bridge that connects the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys.

The unforgettable Seven-Mile Bridge that connects the Middle and Lower Keys. (image from movieevangelist.wordpress.com)

The unforgettable Seven-Mile Bridge that connects the Middle and Lower Keys. (image from movieevangelist.wordpress.com)

Along the way we saw portions of the old Florida East Coast Railway bridge, reminding us that only the 1935 hurricane was strong enough to overrule Henry Flagler’s will to dominate the area. A founder of Standard Oil, Flagler’s dream of a railroad to Key West was lost due to damage from the hurricane but gave birth to the Overseas Highway.

You can see the old railroad bridges from the side of the Overseas Highway.

You can see the old railroad bridges from the side of the Overseas Highway.


Larger than life: Flagler's stamp is all over Florida. This statue of him is located in St. Augustine.

Larger than life: Flagler’s stamp is all over Florida. This statue of him is located in St. Augustine.

Our Mile Marker Guide kindly alerted us to the many speed traps along the Overseas Highway, notably around Big Pine Key. State troopers are ubiquitous throughout the Keys but especially in this area where the speed limit drops suddenly to 35 MPH. All for a good reason: the protection of the diminutive Key Deer which roam the area. According to the guide, our best bet for sighting deer was to turn off at Key Deer Blvd. (Mile Marker 30) and drive toward No Name Key. We found ourselves driving rather aimlessly through a residential subdivision and just as we despaired of finding our quarry, a little deer came ambling up to my car window, clearly looking for a handout.

Look what we found! Key deer were once endangered but the population has now stabilized.

Look what we found! Key deer were once endangered but the population has now stabilized.


This one was looking for lunch!

This one was looking for lunch!

Happy to have “bagged” our deer, we found our way back to the highway and continued west, noting the Mile Marker numbers grow smaller and smaller. We were, almost literally, at the end of the road: next stop, Key West!

The Lower Keys: last stop, Key West

The Lower Keys: last stop, Key West

June 28, 2014 at 10:05 am 1 comment

Florida Road Trip, Part 3: Islamorada

The CE and I love to take road trips together. I organize the travel and dining. He arranges the flights. He drives. I program the GPS. We talk non-stop or we don’t talk at all – companionable silence is one of the great gifts of a long marriage! We have a travel rhythm that works well, although I have been admonished that it would work a lot better if I would please pack a lighter suitcase. Next time, dear, I promise…

But this had felt like a long day. The CE was road-weary after airboats and alligators and then driving mile after tedious mile across Rte 41 through the Everglades. We were slogging down State Road 997 to Homestead when we blessedly spotted a Starbucks, where we caffeine-ed up and I finally stopped whining about my fire ant bites.

Fueled by a mid-afternoon latte, we pressed forward on Rte 1 past Florida City and onward to Key Largo where Rte 1 turns south and the ugly duckling road turns into a swan – the scenic Overseas Highway.

The Overseas Highway: 130 miles and 42 bridges between Key Largo and Key West.

The Overseas Highway: 130 miles and 42 bridges between Key Largo and Key West.

The swamp grasses of the Everglades and the humdrum Florida interior had given way to shimmering turquoise-green water on either side of the highway. Our spirits lifted along with the highway bridges that sleekly connect the string of pearls that are the Florida Keys. The Keys were a revelation to me. Yes, I had looked at them on a map, where they seemed like an insignificant addendum to Florida – you have to squint or you’ll miss them. But looking at a map is nothing like meandering along the Overseas Highway. There is a great deal of interesting history here, much of it with the name Henry Flagler attached.

The Florida Keys (image form laurasglobetrotting.com)

The Florida Keys (image form laurasglobetrotting.com)

Suddenly I began to understand the whole mile-marker thing. Beginning (or ending, depending upon your perspective) at Key Largo with Mile Marker 106, the mile markers count down to Marker 0 at Key West. Our destination for this day was at Mile Marker 82 in Islamorada in the area referred to as the “Upper Keys”. To me, “Upper Keys” means you are close enough to Florida proper that maybe, just maybe, you can get off the Keys ahead of a hurricane. So much water, so little road!

Another view of the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys (image from fla-keys.com)

Another view of the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys (image from fla-keys.com)

My first (and incorrect) impression of Islamorada and the Keys in general was that I was on a highway strip mall with water on either side. Lots of signs and billboards and glimpses of the Atlantic to our left and the Gulf of Mexico to our right. I started wondering nervously about just what kind of place we were going to be staying that night. The Upper Keys are reported to be just 150 feet wide in some places! But then, just as advertised, after Mile Marker 82 we saw a a turn-off to our destination. We wound along a driveway lushly bordered by palms and ferns to the gracious entry of Cheeca Lodge.

Cheeca entry

We LOVED Cheeca Lodge! Everything about it! It is refined and yet completely low-key and we would go back tomorrow if we could. It is set on a generous twenty-seven acres, and even boasts a nine-hole golf course.

A towering Bahamian gentleman with a James Earl Jones voice and the manner of a potentate greeted us at the valet desk, relieved us of our car keys and luggage and sent us down the walk to the reception lobby, where we were offered champagne at the check-in desk under a gigantic mounted tarpon which may or may not have been caught by George H.W. Bush. Bush was a frequent visitor to Cheeca Lodge where he co-founded the annual George Bush Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament in 1994.

Former President George H.W. Bush with a tarpon he caught (and released) in Islamorada in 2008. (image from macedoniaonline.eu)

Former President George H.W. Bush with a tarpon he caught (and released) in Islamorada in 2008. (image from macedoniaonline.eu)

You know you've arrived when you see the stuffed tarpon in the lobby.

You know you’ve arrived when you see the stuffed tarpon in the lobby.

We stayed in the main lodge, which I recommend. We had a look at the seaside “bungalows”, which are, indeed, right next to the ocean but are quite rustic and dark. Next time I would spring for an ocean view room, although our “resort-view” room was spacious and up to date.

Our resort-view room at Cheeca Lodge

Our resort-view room at Cheeca Lodge

After settling in, we went downstairs for dinner at Atlantic’s Edge, which instantly entered my top ten list of favorite scenic view restaurants. If you go, request outside seating, where you can look out upon the Lodge’s 525-ft fishing pier. The food is fine and the view is nothing short of magnificent. The warm air and a soft breeze off the Atlantic caused us to exclaim more than once that it felt like we were in Hawaii.

Right next to the beach: The CE at Atlantic's Edge in Islamorada.

Right next to the beach: The CE at Atlantic’s Edge in Islamorada.

I recommend the mussels.

I recommend the mussels.

Next day we lazed by the pool (mojitos!), read (Hemingway, of course, since we were in the Keys) and walked out on the fishing pier for “exercise”. We found Cheeca Lodge much to our liking, although I learned from thumbing through a recent issue of Vogue magazine that actress Charlize Theron favors The Moorings next door. Each to her own!

The pool at Cheeca Lodge

The pool at Cheeca Lodge

Mojito from the Tiki Bar

Mojito from the Tiki Bar

This guy was self-appointed mayor of the fishing pier.

This guy was self-appointed mayor of the fishing pier.

The pier at Cheeca Lodge (image from ciaobambino.com)

The pier at Cheeca Lodge (image from ciaobambino.com)

I learned during our two-day stay that there is much more to the narrow strips of land on either side of the highway than initially meets the eye. An entire community thrives along the ocean and the Gulf here. As we walked to dinner that evening, we got a peek at homes and businesses and we stopped to pay our respects at the Hurricane Monument, which memorializes the hundreds of Army veterans and Keys residents who lost their lives in the 1935 hurricane that leveled the area.

The Florida Keys Memorial remembers the losses of the September 2, 1935 hurricane.

The Florida Keys Memorial remembers the losses of the September 2, 1935 hurricane.

Since we had gazed at the Atlantic Ocean all day over at Cheeca, we walked across the highway to the Gulf or “backcountry” side of Islamorada and had a lovely dinner at Pierre’s, where if you are lucky enough to be on the night of a full moon, you can join them for a beach party.

The CE on the veranda at Pierre's

The CE on the veranda at Pierre’s

=
"Backcountry" view from Pierre's.

“Backcountry” view from Pierre’s.

Next day, we reluctantly said goodbye to Islamorada, but not before we stopped by the legendary Robbie’s to feed the tarpon. More than a hundred tarpon lounge by the docks at Robbie’s Marina waiting for handouts. For $5 you can buy a bucket of bait fish, make some tarpon happy and leave with a great memory of the Florida Keys. There’s also an on-site bazaar and a ramshackle seaside restaurant. It’s a must-see!

You buy your bucket of fish...

You buy your bucket of fish…

The tarpon are everywhere!

The tarpon are everywhere!

..and they are hungry!

..and they are hungry!

We didn’t stay in Islamorada long enough for me to learn the origin of its name, which means “purple island” in Spanish. Various accounts attribute it to early Spanish explorers commemorating the violet sea snail or a purple tinge that forms around the islands at sunset. Others say it recalls the color of local flowers or even the name of a long-forgotten yacht. Whatever the provenance of the name, Islamorada is a very special place. Can’t wait to go back!

A CN Traveler image of The Moorings in Islamorada

A CN Traveler image of The Moorings in Islamorada

June 21, 2014 at 7:33 am 5 comments

Florida Road Trip, Part 2: The Everglades

Of all the destinations on our road trip, our scheduled stop in the Everglades was the one we were most excited about. All that wildlife, right? Bronzed airboat guides wrestling alligators, right?

Well, someone got to see this but not us (image from floridaadventure2012.wordpress.com)

Well, someone got to see this but not us (image from floridaadventure2012.wordpress.com)

Well, not exactly. For some reason, throughout our airboat tour, my jaw clenched from the herky-jerky ride and the roar of the airboat engine pounding in my head, I kept thinking of Tobias from Arrested Development. You know, Tobias, the nevernude.

Comic genius: Tobias, the nevernude from Arrested Development (image from dbystedt.wordpress.com

Comic genius: Tobias, the nevernude from Arrested Development (image from dbystedt.wordpress.com

Because for me, this experience would be remembered as the Neverglades. If you want to go someplace completely devoid of wildlife, I highly recommend our airboat tour: no birds, no alligators, no creatures of any kind except for a handful of tourists and our stocky airboat pilot with his vast array of tasteless jokes and a massive skull tattoo on his forearm. I really wanted to ask about that tattoo, but did not want to risk a breach of etiquette while stranded in the middle of a mangrove with a guy who looked like he has bar fights for breakfast.

Airboats are the ATV's of the mangrove set.

Airboats are the ATV’s of the mangrove set.

We saw plenty of mangroves on our airboat tour.

We saw plenty of mangroves on our airboat tour.

They gave us headsets, but I'm still pretty sure I have a permanent hearing deficit after our airboat ride.

They gave us headsets, but I’m still pretty sure I have a permanent hearing deficit after our airboat ride.

There were lots of twists and turns on the river; if you like roller coaster rides, you'll love being on an airboat.

There were lots of twists and turns on the river; if you like roller coaster rides, you’ll love being on an airboat.

There are a number of airboat concessions in the Everglades. Ours was recommended by the concierge at our hotel in Naples and gets excellent reviews. It just wasn’t what I was expecting. I hadn’t done my homework. Should you ever have the inclination to spend an hour with the sound of a thousand industrial fans scrambling your brain cells, here are a few things to know:

1. You can access Everglades concessions from the east (Miami), the West (Naples) or south (Homestead). The western entrance was recommended to us and seems to offer a greater variety of options closer to the entrance.

2. Take an airboat ride if you want to see mangroves and have your stomach flip over because your pilot wants to show off his navigational skills. Do not expect to see wildlife.

3. Time of year is apparently to be considered. Our Captain (and believe me, I use that term loosely) explained away the absence of wildlife by saying that late May, “before the rains start” is the worst time to be there because the salt content of the water is higher than normal and the animals go elsewhere.

Later in our trip, we learned that there may be another reason why you don’t see wildlife in the Everglades: PYTHONS! In the last dozen years, escaped or released pet Burmese Pythons have challenged alligators to be king of the Everglades food chain. Evidence is disputed, but some believe that the “python invasion” is responsible for the fact that 99 percent of Everglades raccoons have vanished and that Marsh rabbits and foxes have completely disappeared.

A python that died as a result of trying to ingest a too-large alligator in the Everglades (image from www.mnn.com)

A python that died as a result of trying to ingest a too-large alligator in the Everglades (image from http://www.mnn.com)

Our stomachs eventually settled down after the airboat ride and we realized it was time for lunch. Everglades City is not a hotbed for dining experiences, especially off-season when many establishments seemed to be closed. Luckily, we found great grouper sandwiches at The Seafood Depot, which doesn’t look like much from the outside, but has a charming “Old Florida” cabana terrace overlooking the river. It ain’t fancy but the service is excellent and you’ll be greeted by an enormous stuffed alligator in the lobby, so there’s that.

We had lunch on the "cabana" at the Seafood Depot.

We had lunch on the “cabana” at the Seafood Depot.

It was here that we remembered our hotel concierge in Naples had slipped us a piece of paper with directions to an area she called Turner River Road. “In case you want to see more alligators,” she had said. (“More”, in this case, being a euphemism for “any”.) We dutifully set off in the hazy mid-day heat and after about a half-hour drive saw several cars parked by the side of the road and groups of tourists standing on the bank of a river that parallels the road. We were in the Big Cypress National Preserve and this is where you want to go to see alligators! We counted at least a dozen of them cruising in the water and basking on the riverbank.

Lots of gators on Turner River Road

Lots of gators on Turner River Road

This double-crested cormorant kept a wary watch on the alligators.

This double-crested cormorant kept a wary watch on the alligators.

In addition to the alligators, we saw egrets, osprey, double-crested cormorants and plenty of turtles and fish. Oh, and fire ants. I thought I had walked through a patch of nettles only to look down and see my feet covered with biting ants. Ouch! Don’t wear open-toed shoes!

Encounter fire ants at your own peril. They left some nasty bites on my feet! (image from carnivoraforum.com)

Encounter fire ants at your own peril. They left some nasty bites on my feet! (image from carnivoraforum.com)

I was tired, hot, sweaty and bitten up by fire ants, but I had finally “bagged” my alligators. It was a good day! Well, except for that persistent ringing in my ears from the airboat ride. Our work here was done: we’d put the check in the box for The Everglades and could head to our next destination: the Florida Keys.

Wish I could have brought this lubber grasshopper home for my hens!

Wish I could have brought this lubber grasshopper home for my hens!

June 14, 2014 at 8:48 am 10 comments

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