And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying by
“Sea Fever” by John Masefield
We LOVE the Florida Keys.
We just got back.
Third trip in four years.
When I was younger my father used to take me and my brothers all the way to Key West to fish. At one point, we ended up being closer to Cuba than to Key West. A plane flew over, and it wasn’t one of ours.
Buzzed by a MiG in international waters as we watched hallucinogenic colored dolphins swirling around our baits remains a talking point among my father, brothers, and me.
Buzzed is a good word for the Keys.
It’s crazy down there. In the best way.
I think every fourth person is in the federal witness protection program.
Three years ago, my intrepid bride decided we would go to the Keys for Spring Break with our faithful and now constant traveling companions, Anne Marie and Jimmy Hagood and their daughter, Catherine.
“You’ve been down there. You know what it’s like.”
“I haven’t been to the Keys since 1993.”
After a few phone calls to our pals, we decided we would hit up Islamorada with them. This Spring Breaks marks our fourth traveling with them. We’d go almost anywhere with Anne Marie, Jimmy, and their daughter Catherine. Really. Anywhere.
Any two families that can handle over twenty hours in a car together, well, ’nuff said.
Anne Marie and Jimmy had stayed at The Islander, a Guy Harvey Outpost, the year before and told us all about it. Count us in!
A converted late 1940’s Motor Lodge completed with louvered glass windows?
Sweet sporting art on the coverlet?
You know it.
Because we had children and gear and wanted to use The Islander’s kitchenettes to full capacity, we decided to drive in separate vehicles.
Not a miserable ride, but it’s a long haul best broken up somewhere along I95.
Three years ago, we stopped off in Jupiter, FL, and visited our pals Jen and John Smyth just down the road in Palm Beach. Jen is an Andover pal. We stick close together no matter where we are.
We woke up the next morning for an early mosey on down to Upper Matecumbe Key.
Plan you drive.
Drive your plan.
On they way, we stopped at the Key Largo Fish House upon the recommendation of a friend.
I swear that Carmela and Tony were at the next table. Made men everywhere.
Fish Matecumbe is a game changer.
Our pals were eating lunch at Denny’s. Denny’s Latin Cafe. Not the one of Grand Slam breakfast fame based in SC, but the one of Cuban sandwich fame with bacon fried in peanut oil and the best homemade mojo criollo sauce south of Miami and north of Havana.
We met them there and decided we must come back there for lunch sometime.
Next stop, the Winn Dixie in Tavernier.
Basics supplies gathered.
While waiting in line, we were cutoff by two aggressive old women, one in a Lark/Rascal scooter. Don’t mess with the elderly in the Keys as they pick up their light beer and laxatives.
Next stop was the Islander.
It has only just recently re-opened, updated for the modern crowd, after Hurricane Irma in September 2017. We hear it’s way fancier having been injected with insurance money (N.B. Charleston, SC , 1989-1990)
We loved it. Kitchenettes, large beach, pools, palm trees with iguanas and right across the highway from The Lorelei, beloved hangout of major drunks, tourists, locals.
In 2016, we booked tickets to the Theater of the Sea, a marine mammal park on Windley Key. Located in an old rock quarry used to build the Overseas Railroad, the old rock pits are now filled and used as lagoons for dolphin research and care and to allow the ever popular swimming with dolphins.
What’s behind those white vinyl gates?
Bottomless boat rides
A gajillion stray cats and enough Fabulosa to mask the smells but not really.
They don’t even close for Christmas.
Scooby Doo and crew solved many-a-mystery there. Those pesky, meddling kids. Or so it would seem by looking at the place.
Our girls swam with the dolphins. Goals. Dreams. Wishes fulfilled.
Our youngest came home and made an iMovie entitled “Dolphins are Boss.”
Want to know who else is boss?
Michael Trixx, the resident magician at the The Lorelei.
He’s performed for Presidents!
We love that dude, even if the word on the street is that he was cut from America’s Got Talent after a nanosecond.
The rest of the trip was sunning on the beach, swimming in the pool, trips to Bud & Mary’s for t-shirts, suppers at Morada Bay….typical Keys vacation…key lime pie from The Midway Cafe and Bakery.
Dessert at Mrs. G’s Ice Cream, which deserves its own story.
The place has got to be either a human trafficking front or a money launderer.
Straight out of Bloodline.
Don’t be a Kevin.
Our favorite supper was at Chef Michael’s where the fish jumps on your plate. Best black bean soup ever. Hogfish Heaven.
On the second to last day there, our eldest burned herself good and hid under a large hat.
We did go back to the Lorelei on the last night. We practically had our own table with our friendly waitress who told us the story of the tragic loss of a child when we asked about her new tattoo that seemed to be weeping.
Despite a 14 hour car ride back to Charleston, we promised ourselves we would return the following March for more fun in the sun.
Over Thanksgiving that year, the venerable old resort, the Cheeca Lodge sent out an email to a couple folks who lived in Charleston advising that they were having a 40% off special the following spring.
Our down the street neighbor, Libba Osborne, called and told MP and our pal Way Way Allen.
From there, things went viral faster than a silly cat video on the YouTube.
Half of Charleston was in the Keys for Spring Break at the Cheeca in 2017.
The same year, JetBlue had amazing deals.
Had those planes crashed, there would be no one left in Charleston to mourn.
So that we could have a suitable beach cooler, I packed myself in a Yeti Hopper to be checked through to the Fort Lauderdale airport.
The same airport where a man had opened fire a week or two before our scheduled flights.
What are the chances of lightning striking twice?
Should we drive instead?
Hell no! Then the bastards win. Up yours Bin Laden.
So, we boarded the Fort Lauderdale flight at 6 a.m. with half the town.
Quick flight and then a rented MiniVan.
Down 95 and US1 straight to Denny’s Cuban and the likka store next door.
Again, the best Cubano with mojo criollo for all the adults
The children all had pancakes.
Another drive down US1 past our old pal the Islander into the lush privacy of The Cheeca Lodge with a security gate, a par 3, 9-hole golf course, and, like many venerable older hotels, pictures of the famous on its walls.
And, yet again, half of Charleston.
That year, no Theater of the Sea.
Just The Lorelei, Bud n Mary’s, Morada Bay, Midway Cafe, Chef Michael’s.
Chef Michael’s that year had a large Charleston contingent at one table, of which we were a part. What originally was a table of 8 became a table of 14.
The poor couple who sat near us kept looking over and staring at us all agog at our loudness, familiarity, congeniality. They were just jealous.
Charleston folks have a bad reputation for being aloof, snobbish, and insular.
That’s just crazy talk.
They just don’t make new friends easily, don’t really like outsiders, have no need for others, and travel in packs.
I’m from off, remember?
That night at Chef Michael’s remains as one of the best fish meals I have ever had, even if we did just go back a week or two ago.
That was the year that, being concerned about re-heating any leftovers, one of our intrepid Charleston travelers called The Cheeca Lodge and asked, “Hey…y’all got microwaves?”
Another year of parasailing, snorkeling with a jelly fish sting, going to the secret hot tub in the back of the resort, charging things to the room because, hell, it don’t cost nothing.
That was also the year where a group of us were at The Lorelei when the rains started and that same intrepid traveler called over to The Cheeca and asked, “Is this is the shuttle department? Can you pick us up at the Lorelei? It’s starting to rain!”
The shuttle arrived moments later to whisk us back to our rooms.
The next day, we all spent way too much time in Fort Lauderdale wandering around waiting for our return flight. Nothing like watching the NCAA b-ball tourney in an airport bar.
Go Tar Heels.
Last year, we went to L.A. with the Hagoods, but, that, my dear readers, is a tale for another day.
This year we jumped on The Cheeca Lodge’s deals once again.
This year, seventy five other Charleston folks jumped on the same deal.
A pal who works in the Keys said that folks from The Carolinas with quasi-disposal income are their bread and butter. Quasi-disposal. Classic.
So, with our quasi-disposable, we decided to rent a large SUV this year, loaded up and headed South.
Seven for the road.
Let’s do it.
“What’s the smell in here?”
“Are those old Cheetos under the seat?”
“This car smells bad.”
“If we ain’t got it; we can buy it.”
“How many of them Johnnie O shirts do you people own?”
Some of our friends flew down, some flew down private, some drove.
We laughed the whole way down and the whole way back, even with an occasional squabble.
Better manners with another family in the car.
I highly recommend the fried shrimp basket at B&J Steaks & Seafood in Darien, Georgia. They DO NOT accept check or debit from poor Jason Battle.
They DO have a buffet for $9.00 per person including salad bar and dessert.
You know the salad bar.
It has pepperoni, green olives, and bacon bits the color of convenience store pickled eggs.
From there we made it to St. Augustine.
I didn’t lose anything in the oldest European founded city on the North American continent.
As I told a friend, St. Augustine is like Myrtle Beach, if Myrtle Beach and New Orleans had a bastard child.
We had a lovely meal at The Floridian, but we were glad to be on the road in time to hit up Denny’s Latin for another Cuban sammich, mojo, and pancakes.
We were glad nothing changed there from the hurricanes. Same silk flowers on the table.
We pulled into the same lushness of The Cheeca with a renovations in full view.
Old place looked the same.
One thing that did change was the service at The Cheeca. It needs a little work.
Guess it’s too much to ask for full recovery in a year and a half.
Construction noise is a real thing.
So is a lack of water use on some days.
So is a fire alarm.
So is a malfunctioning elevator.
So is a surly bar staff.
But, it was great. Really. It was great. Again.
I’d go back tomorrow.
This year, we rented a boat, too.
Us, the Hagoods, our pals the Givens.
We met up with our friends the Braggs who pulled their own vessel down from S.C.
Oscar, the proprietor of A1A Boat Rentals, expressed great concern for us taking out the boat due to the wind blowing around 20 knots.
Guess Oscar has never crossed the Charleston Harbor on a good day.
We took out the boat and had a great time drifting around the Atlantic waters of Upper Matecumbe Key. It was too cold to go to the Islamorada sandbar, but not too cold to raft up with the Braggs, drink cold beer, eat fried chicken, and act the same way we do at home, just with much clearer water.
I win spring break.
I have my chairs staked by 7:30 a.m. and have my ubiquitous Yeti Hopper loaded and ready to go by 8:30 a.m.
There’s a section of the beach at The Cheeca that should be renamed Charleston South. It’s the section by the bent palm tree, supra, providing the social media backdrop for everyone, including me.
One of our pals speared a snapper and had the chef fry it up and bring it on out for everyone mid-afternoon one day.
I generally remained anchored in one spot with friends of all sorts drifting in and out after parasailing, fishing, snorkeling, shopping at the Publix nearby.
Unfortunately, The Lorelei proved a bust for me this year due to my getting a mess of sunscreen behind my contacts and not being able to see. No Michael Trixx.
That’s o.k. My Publix sub provided enough sustenance along with the liquid bread from the Miller brewing co.
Good meals at Morada Bay and Chef Michael’s again.
However, the revelation this trip was our grace and favor meal provided by the Islamorada Fishing Club. It seems that the yacht club to which I belong and a great number of the Charleston crew belongs has no reciprocity with anyone.
However, one of our number finagled our way into the private club for a meal due to his smooooooooooooooooooooooooooth talking.
The Hagoods, the O’Kelleys, Alice and Ron Givens and their girls, Austin and Walker…off we went to club.
As we waited for the shuttle department, a group of angry Midwesterners glared at us because the 12 year old and 13 year old in our party secured us the shuttle first.
Membership has its privileges. On that note, I highly suggest talking your way into someone else’s private club for a meal. It’s not tacky at all. Not at all. Charge it to the Underhills, of course.
Great spicy conch chowder with a touch of sherry.
Wonderful fish that night.
I also highly suggest going to Chef Michael’s before 8 p.m. as they do run out of fish.
“I’m sorry, we are out of triple tail due to the high number of orders at your table.”
“Well, what do you recommend as a substitute?”
“[Fill in name of fish]”
“What’s kind of fish is that?”
“Oh, a light flaky white fish”
Aren’t they all?
I had consumed a number of beers, a martini at the bar, and a glass of rose. Much to his credit, our waiter at Chef Michael’s asked if I would be driving.
“Nah, he just has to walk his drunk behind back to The Cheeca.”
“Oh, well, then, he can have as much wine as he wants.”
This year, no one really sunburned herself.
This year, no one really appeared drunk.
This year, no one got on my last nerve, which could have happened by virtue of the sheer numbers of Fellow Travelers.
This year, the trip to the Keys mirrored a trip to Vegas: what happens in the Keys stays in the Keys.
I omit much to protect the names of the not-so-innocent.
Roasting the guilty over and over again under the tropical sun.
Remember to re-apply sunscreen and disdain every 30 minutes.
The ride home was a 12 hour day after another breakfast at The Midway Cafe.
Stop and go traffic on the Florida Turnpike in Miami made a few of us a little car sick. No emergency but definitely needed a break or two from the misery of
n stop n go n
go n stop
stop n go.
Some of our crew who left earlier sent us a text advising to get on Waze as I95 turned into a parking lot somewhere around Daytona Beach.
One of us drivers said we did not trust Waze as it was definitely invented by Millennial Tricksters.
Thanks be to God for those little nattering navigator nabobs.
They got us through a closed part of I95 and through 5 p.m. traffic in Jacksonville.
We tried to go to the Chic Fil A in Kingsland, Georgia, but, the lady in the drive thru said they had a long line.
“We just got hit by a bus.”
Welcome to South Jawja.
Stopping at another Chic Fil A in South Jawja let us know we were truly back in the South.
“Hey, y’all, take your order?”
Yes, we’d like to go back to The Keys right now and get the hell out of this country ass place.
But, we didn’t let them know that.
Instead, we’ll call the Shuttle Department.