Key West #3– Eat, Drink and Be Merry… Tomorrow We Diet

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I did so want to be a good boy this Lent and watch my caloric intake, but I realized that Ash Wednesday would be occurring right in the middle of our trip. I had planned on a spartan eating program this month, and not just because I wanted to do something nice for Lent– I really need to get rid of the anaconda that’s wrapped itself around my waist before it crawls northward and squeezes the life out of my heart. But how does one deny himself his favorite foods when vacationing on an island that contains over 200 restaurants? Simple: one rationalizes and decides to do extra good for Lent rather than just quitting doing something bad. And I really don’t do that many bad things. (And what’s with the guilt?!?! I ask you.)

Luckily, we roomed with John and Chris, our good friends from Massachusetts. John especially is an accomplished cook and likes nothing better than planning and presenting entire huge themed meals for friends and family; his luaus are North Shore legends. They were predisposed toward roaming the Island and finding good places to eat; the guest house we stayed at has a full bar and restaurant, and that’s tempting: like spending a day at Disney, you never feel like you have to leave the place in order to find sustenance. (Typical day at the guest house: awaken; shower; coffee; lay by pool; swim; doze; read; have one or two drinks before happy hour; have many more drinks during happy hour (they are free); doze again; shower; go out to dinner; come back and swim; sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat.)

There are tons of great restaurants in Key West. Some of our favorites…

Sarabeth’s on Simonton Street: breakfasts and brunches. Highly recommended: the lemon ricotta pancakes with a nice serving of wheat berries are perfect. The owner came over to us and told stories, none of which I remember at this point, but they were very informative.

Harpoon Harry’s on Caroline Street: diner-y fare; all tasty and comforting. Very friendly waitresses. The kind of place where you can wear shorts, a tee, flip flops, and absolutely nothing else.

Opera on Duval Street: upscale Italian. John treated us that night for Chris’s birthday. Very, very nice– everything was elegant and professional and the ambiance was sooo soothing: like floating in a pool while having dinner, it seemed. I had their Panzanella Salad (balsamic- and herb-marinated bread, baby spinach and artichoke hearts); Orrecchiette con Broccoli Rabe (ear-shaped pasta with white beans, sausage, toasted garlic, and white wine); a Cannoli; and espresso. I have no idea what anyone else ate because I didn’t lift my face from my plate long enough to find out.

Pepe’s on Caroline Street: it’s been there forever. FABULOUS seafood! They really feed you. Hanging from the ceiling is a giant paddle fan run by a washing machine motor– you’ve got to see it! It’s got a very nice outdoors area, too. And in the front of the restaurant is a phone booth! If those walls could talk (back)…

Flamingo’s on Duval: extremely friendly cafe’– you feel like you’re at home being attended to by loving relatives! Very casual, small-town feel.

Cafe’ Sole’ on Southard Street: I always wanted to try this, and we finally did, with our friend Jim visiting the guest house from North Carolina. I remember the Conch Carpaccio I had as an appetizer– it was a first for me, and very satisfying. My entree was their Salmon Oscar, which was wild salmon topped with crab meat, asparagus, and shrimp with a homemade hollandaise sauce. I ordered it because I wanted to say “Salmon Oscar” out loud in the same cadence that Norma Shearer said “Pancakes Barbara” in The Women. I was fascinated by the other diners in the room: they were all of a certain group– retired gentlemen with their wives, all vaguely resembling one another. I got to wondering: if you sat me and all my friends at a restaurant table twenty years from now, would we all resemble one another? And will people stare?

And I think that covers our repast, though I should mention that the meals at the Island House cafe’ are always good. I am particularly taken with their waffle fries. Sometimes I like to sit in the shade by myself at a table in the shade and have an entire portion all to myself, accompanied by yellow mustard and iced tea. Perfect. And did I gain any weight that week? Not an ounce– we made sure to do plenty of walking and biking.

Key West #2- Das Kayak

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See those orangey things to the right in the picture? Those are upside-down kayaks, which were lashed to the top of the hull (I’m sure there is a better nautical term for that) of the Blu Q, a catamaran that we took to sea on our recent trip to Key West. We always try to take some sort of boat trip when we go to the Keys, considering that there is water everywhere you look. I mean, the water in the pool at the guest house would be actually enough for me because you can see borders, and just beyond those borders are cocktails, and comfortable bathrooms. The ocean has no borders; if anyone tells you “yes it does: the continents,” slap them. Hard.

I agreed to the boat trip because I’m a sport, and I even restrained myself from doing my aqua-themed imitations: Vivien Leigh in Ship of Fools (which I’ve never seen but can just imagine); Barbara Stanwyck in Titanic— “Where’s Norman… Norman? NORMANNNNN!!!!!!!”; Harriette Johns in A Night to Remember, complaining about being inconvenienced in the lifeboat… I could go on and on. Instead, I boarded the Blu Q with aplomb and settled in for what turned out to be a beautiful ride.

We headed in a leisurely course northeast of Key West into the mangrove islands, and soon tied up at a point near Elliott Key. The plan was for the four of us passengers and one of the two crew members to man three lifeboats– I mean kayaks– and then head toward the Key, paddle alongside it a bit, and then return. It turns out that we made such great headway that we ended up circling the entire little island, paddling nonchalantly or frantically, depending on whether the tide was coming in, our out, or whatever the hell the ocean does when you least expect it to.

It was gorgeous– the water really is Blue Green, or Aqua, or Green Blue. (They knew what they were doing, those Crayola people!) We saw needlefish, and small nurse sharks– one moving along slowly, and one snapping through the water below us like a whippet. We kayaked into th emangroves, and negotiated submerged roots and overhanging limbs with ease, only getting stuck once; with a few shoves of the paddles and some really colorful vocal exercises, we were soon on our way.

On the far side of the island (The leeward side? Windward? Who can say?) we paddled past thick mangroves which were alive with birds: roosting pelicans (not penguins, as originally noted; there are NO ice floes in the Keys– at least, not yet!), seagulls, and all sorts of others. (I didn’t notice any pigeons.) In the sky above were creepy, mysterious frigate birds, circling and circling and nevercoming down to our level… I always wonder what those things are waiting for, and am reminded of Suzanne Pleshette’s great line in The Birds: “Don’t they ever stop migrating?”

Paddling the kayak was relatively easy. We’re not always in sync on land, so it just figures that we wouldn’t necessarily be in sync in a kayak floating atop a heaving ocean. Well, not exactly heaving, but there were tiny swells once in a while. Still, the front man (me) had to steer while the back man (Kirk) paddled, unless we were moving along in a straight line, which meant that we both paddled. “Just think of your Viking roots,” I suggested. “Make believe we’re in a longship heading for Greenland.” Left, right, left, right, left, right… Greenland is only six thousand miles ahead, men! Be thankful it’s not Winter! We were mostly in tandem, but it was obvious that the two other Blu Q passengers must have signed up for professional kayak lessons the week before, because they aced us. Not that we were racing, but I tend to get very competitive in these situations. (As Ethel Merman hollers in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,  “WE’RE the ones in the Imperial and WE’RE running last!”) Years ago in another kayak run, we raced another couple, and won, and I was so proud… “But one of them just had open heart surgery,” Kirk said.

My impatient harangues were dealt with in a gentlemanly manner by He Who Puts Up With Me, and we really weren’t that far behind Couple Number One by the time we returned to the Blu Q. The boats were brought back on board, and we tucked into very nice chicken Caesar salads, beers, and soft drinks. The captain and his crewman treated us very well, and pointed lots of things out to us: interesting birds, fascinating fish, and threatening cloud formations. Our safety was in their hands, and they handled it all professionally.  We’ll do it again next year… there are so many more movie references that I still have to put to use!

Key West #1– Robert the Doll

Robert the Doll

A perfect week in Key West was marred– MARRED!!– only by the disappearance of a ring containing my house and car keys. Okay, I’m being dramatic– the trip wasn’t ruined or anything, but the last twenty minutes in the room were colored by the fact that we’d spent them searching high and low for the keys rather than spending them in the cafe having a final cup of coffee. We’d packed pretty carefully, too, considering that we were departing with a third more luggage than we’d arrived with, all for naught– everything was torn apart and dissembled and rearranged, with no satisfactory end result. Kirk luckily carries my car key on his ring, so we weren’t exactly going to be marooned when we arrived at the Orlando airport’s parking lot, but still… what a waste of time!

And it was all Robert’s fault.

In Key West’s East Martello Tower– a history museum inside a fort– lives Robert, the Haunted Doll. So they say. He was made by a family servant for little Gene Otto in 1904, when he was five years old. From the very beginning, Robert has been imbued with a disturbing presence, and the usual movements, eye blinks, giggles, etc. have been attributed to it over the years. Gene died in 1974, his wife three years later, and Robert, after a stay in the house where it was reported he liked to move around, ended up in the museum. He rests in a glass case there and it’s said (and testified to by dozens of accompanying letters) that he doesn’t like to have his picture taken: he’ll drain your battery or jam the camera’s mechanism if you try, or he’ll come up with ways to inconvenience your visit.  Well, I had no problem getting pictures of Robert but, when trying to photograph the Elena Hoyos effigy in the next display (that’s another, horrifying tale), my camera gave up the ghost. Granted, the rechargeable battery was weak and I expected trouble– if not with Robert, then eventually. But the camera worked fine after I rubbed the battery contacts, and I had a fresh battery back at the guest house– a fresh battery, but no keys. Thanks, Robert.