|The Keys Aren't for People Afraid of Water, LOL|
My first stop was Key Largo, "the Diving Capital of the World" and the first of the keys as one makes their way south from the mainland, where after checking out of the dollar store with a few cans of tuna and other necessities, I received a call from Xochi, my couchsurfing host for the night, who upon learning I was going snorkeling, put me in touch with her other couchsurfers, Mandy and Matthias, who just happened to be on their way to the snorkel shop as we spoke! About 15 minutes later I met up with them at Sundiver Station Snorkel Shop, paid $32.20 for my ticket on the 2 1/2-hr noon trip (foregoing the $7 equipment rental fee, since I still had the set I used from the manatee snorkel), then stopped at Walgreens for a couple cheap underwater disposable cameras before meeting them at the harbor docks.
Laughter ensued as I got acquainted with my new, fun-loving German friends before boarding the Sundiver III, a beautiful 46-foot custom-built snorkeling boat. Once settled inside, the captain introduced himself and fellow crew member (they both had the same name like Joe or Bob or Dave or something), told us about our snorkel destination (one of the reefs in Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, aka Pennekamp State Park, where the reef averages 6-12 feet deep), and provided instructions for an enjoyable day at sea (like steering clear of the jellyfish we might encounter!). Picking up anchor and making our way out of the harbor was an experience unto itself, as we oohed and ahhed at the mess of jaw-dropping vacation homes and luxurious sail boats, jet boats and yachts at the docks.
|Dreaming of Retirement...|
About 30 minutes later we arrived at our snorkel site, threw on our gear and plopped in! The 90 minutes we spent in the water was amazing! It's a whole other world below the water's surface; I was a minnow in an endless tropical fish tank! One filled with a wide abundance of soft and hard corals and many colored tropical fish, including Rainbow Parrotfish, Angelfish, Butterflyfish, Tangs, Wrasses, Brain Coral, Venus Fans and much much more, all gently swaying in the crystal clear water. Oh and the jellyfish the captain said we "might encounter"? We saw TONS! I saw at least 20-30 of the hot pink beauties, and poor Mandy even got stung, though she didn't let it spoil her first-ever snorkeling experience. She took it like a champ, even declining my offer to pee on her, haha :P She said it felt like a bee sting, and lasted only about 30-60 minutes.
We spent the rest of the day together - an unforgettable lunch at Bayside Grill (mango margaritas, seared tuna, fresh key lime pie, a picture-perfect panoramic view of the Florida Bay... and we had the whole place to ourselves!), picking up and going through our snorkeling photos at CVS, a trip to ISLAMORADA! (we shouted with a southern twang, lol), where a failed attempt to feed the tarpon fish (closed) led to [almost, but not really] being eaten by a giant [fiberglass] great white shark and [very] happy hour at at Uncles, with a final stop at Publix (the main grocery store in The Keys) and turned in for the night at Xochi's for deep discussion over wine and homemade hummus =)
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 28th
After picking up some breakfast from Publix (hard-boiled eggs and pineapple loaf, lol) I continued southwest on Overseas Highway past the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, on through Marathon ("the Sportfishing Capital of the World"), across Seven-Mile Bridge (the longest segmental bridge in the world when it was completed in 1982, and as seen in True Lies!), past Bahia Honda Rail Bridge, made a quick stop for some info at a Key West Visitor Center (really just a private company trying to sell you vacation packages) at MM (mile marker) 31.2 on Big Pine Key, then hopped back into the car and kept truckin' on beyond the endangered Key Deer caution signs (peculiar surprise) about another 30 miles to literally the end of the road - Key West.
|Dude, Why So CRABBY?!|
William, my couchsurfing host for the night, met me at Publix around 2:30. A mellow retiree and creative artist (he makes really cool wooden cut outs of people) with dreadlocks and a moped, he totally embodies the don't-worry-be-happy spirit of Key West; I was honored to be his guest. I followed him to his home, he showed me his cool cut outs and where things were, gave me a map, told me to come and go as I pleased, he grabbed his saw and got back to work and that was that!
My first stop was at another Visitor Center (because there was a FREE souvenir can cozy to be had, lol), then I drove over to the Hemingway Home & Museum, nestled in the heart of Old Town, where Nobel-Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote for more than ten years, during the most prolific period in his career.
The $11.50 admission (I got a dollar off with my student ID) included a 30-minute guided tour (they run every 15 minutes 9-5pm 365 days a year), which informed me of the overall life of the late Ernest Hemingway, focusing on the years Hemingway lived in this particular house, built in 1851 in the Spanish Colonial style and restored and remodeled by Hemingway in the early 1930’s. It was a step back in time as the tour visited the rooms as key artifacts, paintings, trophy mounts and skins, European antiques, furnishings and architectural details were identified.
It was a bit whimsical touring outside, where more than forty living descendents of Hemingway's cats (over half of which are six-toed!) currently live amongst the lush palm gardens (and inside the house too, as they are free to roam wherever they like on the property, just as Hemingway had it).
It was fun listening to the stories about his wives; one of which took place as we were showed the pool, built in 1937-38, at the staggering cost of $20,000. It was the first in-ground pool in Key West, and the only pool within 100 miles! Our young, annoyingly monotone guide (with a constant motion of his right hand, palm up, back and forth like he was rocking a rattle back and forth, synchronized with the halting rhythm of his speech) told us that the exorbitant construction costs once prompted Hemingway to angrily take a penny from his pocket and throw it at his wife Pauline in the pool, shouting "Here, take the last penny I've got!" She took it and pressed it into the wet cement of the surrounding patio, and after their divorce (she kept the house) she'd proudly recall that story to her friends, "I took his last cent!" We all got a glimpse of the penny on our way out; it's still embedded between flagstones at the north end of the pool.
After the tour (my only tip was to speak with a bit of enthusiasm) you are free to wander around at your leisure, however our tour was done just as they were closing at 5. Luckily one of the other guides was nice enough to allow me a few extra minutes on the grounds (cat cemetary!) and even in the house before locking the doors for the day.
After making a few passes around the the different residential blocks I got lucky and temporarily found a place to park while I took pictures of some of the island-style residences and got some chow. I heard BO's Fish Wagon was good, so I gave it a try and I'm glad I did! I was in "Conch Republic," so I ordered conch fritters. Conch is the snail without its shell. They were DELICIOUS! The right amount of grease, crunch, and plenty of flavor (for only $7.75). The service was great, the rusty piles of junk was fun (ambiance, lol) and good people watching while dining alfresco. I'll definitely go back! I walked across the street for some fresh, tart, homemade key lime pie at Pepe's Cafe, "The eldest eating house in the Florida Keys (est. 1909), A fairly good place, for quite a long while, Open under old management" haha!
After re-parking my car in a [this time] legal spot, I walked around the Historic Seaport/Mallory Square area to check out the beautiful boats and luxurious yachts, partake in the ever-popular "Sunset Celebration," where sunset admirers gather on the dock and watch the jugglers, palm readers, musicians, clowns and other entertainers before seeing the sun go down (gratefully applauding at its end). Afterward I walked up and down famous Duval Street (the Boubon Street of Key West), lined with motels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, art galleries, cigar shops and the like. I indulged in a key lime soda from the Key Lime Pie Factory and a scoop of key lime ice cream from Kermit's Key Lime Shoppe around 9:30, before heading back to William's, where I visited with him and a couple of his other friendly couchsurfers for a little bit before getting some shut eye after another long day. Next time I'm in Key West I'll have to make it a point to hit up the lively bars/clubs/music venues/drag shows!
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 29th
This morning I left William a thank you note and a bottle of Chardonnay (his fav) in the refrigerator, and spent the rest of the day taking my time driving back through the keys to the mainland, stopping to photograph some of the murals, mailboxes, and large sea life sculptures in front of the many souvenir shops along the way, and having a great lunch at Lazy Days in Islamorada (first person there for lunch, having the whole outdoor, oceanside deck with picture-perfect view all to myself, nice!) - a conch filet, sauteed with Japanese bread crumbs and topped with diced tomatoes, scallions, fresh grated parmesan and key lime butter. Having it sauteed was a nice departure from the fritter version (which is blended with batter and fried) in that it allowed me to taste the flavor of the conch more (though I like the fritters better). Rather than the traditional mint, my Keys-style lunch came complete with a key lime candy, the last "keys thing" I would eat on my trip.