Monday, October 5, 2009

Trip Report: Key West

On the last weekend of September, we flew to Florida to meet with old friends, Mari and Craig Napoli, for a long weekend in Key West. For Jenny and I, the trip to the southern tip of Florida, the dangling line of islands that dips toward Cuba, was a first.

We decided to splurge after receiving hefty discounts on airfares from Delta after being stranded overnight in Atlanta some time back. With every glitch in Delta's process during this trip - adjustments in schedules, and unannounced change in flights - I had to marvel at the company's audacity: "You paid us to screw you once; the second time is (mostly) on us!"

Somehow, though, we made it through the maelstrom of despair and boredom that is modern air travel to be met by our friends on a muggy Thursday afternoon. Thereafter we drove south to Fort Myers and checked into a motel court where tiny green frogs climbed the outer walls. The next morning, our adventure would begin.

Friday morning, we boarded the Key West Express, a catamaran service that transforms a potentially all-day roadtrip into a three-hour water excursion. The process for ticketing, boarding, and seat selection was relaxed, even though the security provisions are fairly strict. After a lengthy wait, we finally cast off and began bounding through the water, the wind and spray slapping against us when we stood topside.

Since all four of us are mobile gadget fiends, we mainly stayed below, playing with our own tiny pocket universes. Real conversation had to wait until we left the phone service area. My complaints about the tendency to lose ourselves in these portable enclaves must have seemed pretty silly to my traveling companions, since I can't seem to stop fiddling with my own new iPhone.

There's something wonderful about sitting in wide, comfy seats - like a four-top restaurant booth, and watching the white clouds and blue water. Nothing to do but chat and relax. It reminded me of the Wood Family's trip to Australia, when we rode the Ghan from Adelaide to Alice Springs [Check out Jenny's written recollections]. We'd seen weather reports that threatened thunderstorms during the length of our weekend, but the skies looked friendly.

Around noon we arrived, to the squeals of drunken 20-somethings who announced in their loudest "Vegas-baby" voices just how much fun they were about to have. Soon enough we exited and dragged our bags about five blocks to our B&B, Curry House. The humidity added to our vacation vibe to make for a slow amble, and we were all drenched with sweat upon our arrival.

Curry House turned out to be an excellent choice, graced with pleasant rooms, a quiet neighborhood, and reasonable cost. Along with its pool, I particularly liked the shared balcony that connected our two rooms. Before long we decided to hit the streets in search of lunch. As I mentioned in my Key West Funk post, the city is a wandering photographer's dream, with tin-roofed bungalows, tumble-down fences, and streets traversed by bikes and scooters, all contrasted against tropical clouds that towered above us. Our spouses patiently endured frequent delays as Mari and I stopped to take pictures.

We stopped for lunch at Pepe's Cafe ("Open Under Old Management") that celebrated its centennial this year. Our server seemed more interested in helping us find the right balance of tastes than overloading us with purchases, and after scarfing through the complexities of sweet-jellied jalapenos and adding a few shucked-by-order oysters, we agreed that we'd started the day right. Once we finished a little more touring, we returned to Curry House and relaxed at the pool, eventually being joined by a friendly crew of folks who brought their own mini bar of mojito fixings.

By sunset, we joined the throng of revelers at Mallory Square, watching street performances (like the unicycle artist above) and surveying the scene to find a good spot to see the sunset. The crowds were quite lubricated but in a mellow way. I lit up a cigar and settled into the collective pause, waiting for the red-orange orb to sink below the surface. The smoky clouds and melting colors were entirely worth the wait. Dinner was at Alonzo's Oyster Bar, followed by a walk back to our rooms for the night.

Saturday started with breakfast at Curry House, and then a return to the docks for a morning of snorkeling. We took the Sunny Days "Fast Cat" to a reef about an hour away and swam at two locations (although Jenny got the unlucky break of getting seasick). I have no idea what kinds of fish we saw - lots of big blue ones and a few similarly sized green ones - I just remember valiant efforts to avoid pulsating purple jellyfish, whose stings can range from mildly unpleasant to pretty awful.

I did a pretty good job avoiding the things, hanging out of reach but floating close by to study their gentle movements, until the very last moment while waiting to board the "cat." That's when I felt the unmistakable sting of tendrils raking across my stomach. The welts of redness on my gut impressed the crew enough for the captain to study a reference guide. Apparently I'd been stung by a real nasty one. However, I was assured that my ability to breathe was a good sign. Many squirts of vinegar later and I felt OK.

We returned under a brief shower, and then we walked the blocks back to our B&B in shorts and bathing suits. Soon after we dug into plates of oysters and other goodies at Conch Republic Seafood Company, an open-air restaurant by the docks.

By afternoon, Jenny and Mari took off for some shopping while Craig and I hit the Hog's Breath Saloon, a swell place with outdoor seating whose overhanging trees create a cool interior. Here we finally heard our first Jimmy Buffett song and enjoyed the wandering roosters who sometimes delighted in attacking the servers (the island supposedly boasts between 1,500 and 2,000 feral chickens, strutting and crowing all day).

But we dug the nearby "Smallest Bar in Key West" even more. No more than a covered alley, the narrow sliver offered enough room for Craig and I to chat with a couple of other guys and a philosophically minded bartender. Three Patrón shots for me and a couple more beers for Craig (much to the chagrin of our respective spouses) and we were ready for another sunset at Mallory Square.

The rest of the evening was spent drifting with the crowds, waiting for the beginning of our Ghosts and Legends of Key West walking tour. Jenny and Mari dutifully photographed the various "orbs" and "phantoms" pointed out by our guide, even though I'm certain the effects were created by the various light beams emitting from our group's cameras as they sought to photograph the ghosts. We learned about necrophilic lovers and haunted dolls until it was time for our eerie walk back to Curry House.

Sunday morning demonstrated one of my great fortunes, the fact that I can down all sorts of hard stuff without suffering a hangover. Thus Mari and I kept our date to take our own Key West sunrise photo tour, greeting the chickens and a cloudy sky. The highlight of our walk was the 1847 cemetery whose aging tombstones and weed-covered walkways inspired the morbid fascination of us both. Naturally we stopped for a quick photo of B. P Roberts' famed epitaph, "I told you I was sick."

Returning to our B&B, Mari and I rejoined our spouses for breakfast and a group photo (with me warily eyeing our cheap travel tripod for signs that it'd tip our pricey camera into the pool) and then commenced to window shopping along Duval Street, all of us practically melting from the heat. Thereafter we took the necessary "southernmost point" photo and dropped by another B&B owned by the same folks who run Curry House. And then, for reasons that confounded me at the time, we visited a butterfly conservatory.

Now I love butterflies, but I thought it crazy that we'd pay to go someplace warm and humid on a day like this. I was thus delighted to learn that the conservatory was somehow cooler than the air outside. So we lazily followed the paths, photographing the flitting creatures and colorful birds. One big butterfly landed on Mari's shoulder and sat still for minutes, briefly revealing its blue wings to our shared laughter and delight.

Lunch was a pleasant stop at Camille's Restaurant, where locals seemed to outnumber visitors by a healthy percentage, whereupon we shopped a little more until it was time to grab our tickets for the "cat" back to Fort Myers. Craig and I managed to outrage about a few dozen folks who loudly announced that their random seating was some type of queue, albeit one not able to be seen by outsiders. While I bantered with a couple folks about the nature of invisible lines and difficult dialogues, Craig grabbed our tickets anyway, placing us in fortuitous seats for the ride home.

One final afternoon of swimming at Curry House and we forlornly lugged our bags to the docks. Returning north along the coast, we took in one last tropical sunset from the comfort of our "cat" and chatted into the evening. Plenty of logistics followed -- driving home, dealing with airline hassles, struggling with camera connections, printing tickets and the like -- and then Jenny and I made our way back to California. Days later as friends asked about the weekend, my response was always the same: "Too short." We've got to get back to the Keys one day soon. Over there, I hear the sun sets every day!

1 comment:

Jenny Wood said...

Oh, I so miss Key West! Now, I just wanna go back.