Friday, March 26, 2010

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Florida; Just the Tip Please.

The flight to Orlando was packed full of kids. We had never been on the same plane with so many potential noisey bio-hazards,"Honey, did you pack the ear-plugs?" I asked quietly as we settled into our seats.

It was spring break for Summit County, Colorado and apparently Orlando, Florida has a small Disney problem that attracts the crotch fruits and their support units. I made a note to myself that Flights through Orlando should be better timed, perhaps during the super-model spring break.

The flight was actually fine and quiet, suprisingly. Regardless I was still even more convinced to get that vasectomy I always wanted. The next plane to Miami was on a 19 seat puddle jumper, the plane was small, (we even got out to help push it at one point) . Why they had such a small plane to fly from Orlando to Miami we could not figure out. Seemed like that would be a popular enough flight to warrant a plane with jet engines and a flight attendant. But the pilot was sober and there were only adults aboard so we were both glad when we finally got airborne.

Miami International Airport is known as MIA - which is also, uncomfortably enough, the designation for "Missing In Action". Of course being in Florida during February does make it hard to fly back to Colorado at the end of the week, so maybe MIA is appropriate. I am just glad we were not flying into DOA.

The internet flight and internet rental car worked out as promised without any help from William Shatner or garden gnomes. and we were on our way to the beautiful Florida Keys. I had my lovely girlfriend with me and some new snorkel equipment, we were looking forward to a great week in the sun and surf. The rental car came with an RFID Sun Pass to breeze us through the tolls (and report back our movements to big brother) so nothing was stopping us on our trip south. The next stop was Marathon!

Kim and I stayed at the Blackfin Resort last time we were there and had reservations to return. Although "resort" is a bit of a stretch. It is your basic roadside motel with a nice beach, pool and boat slips...but no bellmen or spa so I don't think "resort" is totally accurate. However it is a very nice place for the money and the staff is extra friendly. We like the maintenance guy, Barry, who lives on his boat all year and is fun to hang out with during the Blackfin's own little nightly sunset ceremony. He set us up with free Kayaks, and lobster-catching kits, and had plenty of local knowledge to help us round out our itenerary.

In the keys, addresses aren't used that much, everything is located by it's mile-marker and whether it is "bay-side" or "ocean-side." Blackfin is bay-side at MM 49.9. Marathon is pretty much half-way between Key-West and Miami and is a great jumping off point for any Key adventure. We had originally planned on staying in Key-West but were very glad to find this place. Key West is a great place for a day or two, but is almost TOO touristy and Marathon just had a better vibe and more relaxed pace for us. So we happily pulled into our motel-resort and got ready for some beach time.

Sombrero Beach in the heart of Marathon is a lovely little ocean-side beach and great for swimming. The bay-side beach at our motel-resort was also perfect for sun-tanning and beer drinking. The Motel beach is raked smooth everyday and had some lovely plastic chaises to lay-out on.

Kim is a sun-o-holic and I'm not. Our beach wear differs quite a bit. I stay covered head to toe under a big hat and Kim shows up wearing nothing but a paperback book. Like a stadium-roof in Canada, Kim's bikini top tends to appear and dissappear with the cloud cover. She actually tans nicely, I tend to turn as red as an expired parking meter if I even get close to a bright lamp. Consequently we have different goals in trips to sunny spots, she likes an unobstructed solar view and I hope to find a good internet connection. We found both at the Blackfin.

Florida was having a bit of a cold snap this February, there were some cloudy days and record setting cold mornings unfortunately. Tanning in the rain doesn't work I am told, so we had to find some other things to do. Luckily we were in the Florida Keys, a Mecca for tourists, retirees and pirates, there was plenty to do, as long as you like eating, diving, or fishing.

The diving is world class. Snorkeling at the Sombrero Reef was a highlight this trip! For 30 bucks at Tilden's Scuba Center they take you out to the most amazing reef in Florida. The locals told us about this place and Barry reaffirmed the fact that this was the best snorkeling and diving to be found in the sunshine state. I am not well versed in dive trips but Kim has snorkeled many places in the carribean and also agreed that this was a rare treat. It was like swimming in the aquarium at the doctor's office, there were so many fish and brightly colored corals I was overwhelemed with the variety of sea life; parrot fish, queen angel fish, eels, little "walnut" jelly-fish, and countless neon species filled your dive-mask everywhere you looked. Captain Billy and his crew were amazingly patient, knowledgable, and helpful to the snorkelers and newly certified divers. Safety and fun were the keywords of the trip, they took us to two different spots along the state park reef and allowed us on our own for over an hour at each locale. The half day tour is more than enough and is a must see! Tildens is located right next to our motel, and the boat left just yards from our room. Perfect trip for a cloudy morning.

Key West is the usual destination for most people, Ernest Hemmingway, pirates and drag-queens seem to be the theme here. Beautiful victorian cottages fading in the strong sun. scents of smoky barbeque and lime waft down sandy alleyways. Chickens run wild in the cobblestone streets along with six-toed cats and locals on crazy, colorful cruiser-bikes.

You can tell you have entered into another world with it's own rules and customs. A southern accent mixed with the lingo of a long life at sea fills your ears as you chat with the residents about shrimps, conchs and cocktails. Everyone seems to have been born on the very bar-stool that you now find them sitting on. T-shirts and sandals are worn with forced tolerance as if they are just one layer too many. I wouldn't describe it as a relaxed atmosphere, but it's real and unpretentious; southern paced, with a salsa undercurrent.


Our favorite stop now in Key West is a place called Peppers. It is a shop dedicated to the religion of the hot sauce. Before going in however, you have to buy an iced bucket of beers from the sport bar next door, (be sure to get some extra for your server). Then belly up to Pepper's tasting-bar and plan to spend an hour or two testing and tasting some of the thousands of hot sauces and cooking marinades that line the walls. A hot-sauce somalier will take you on a tour of your tongue, armed only with lite corn chips your server will expertly guide you through the halls of the habenero. Your palate will light up with heat and your skin will glow with saucy sweat. They will mix sauces together and paint pictures of barbeques and glazed chickens that you can't wait to go make yourself. Kim and I considered ourselves lucky only leaving with just a hundred and fifty dollars worth of delightful treasures locked away in little red bottles. Whether you are a gourmet foodie or a sunday-afternoon-chips-and-salsa-while-watching-football-guy, you absolutely have to stop at Peppers. Luckily it's just a block away from the Conch Republic where you can cool down afterwards in an open air patio, next to the marina eating some of their famous pink key shrimp.

Pink Key Shrimp

The Key West sunset is where color was invented, and the Mallory Square scene is world famous and rightly so. The sunset is a must attend mass everywhere you go in the Keys and Key West has made it into an art. Touristy but fun, it caps off a perfect day.

Buskers abound

For the foodies we found a couple of treats. Stopping at most any Miami Cuban sandwich shop, on the way out of town, for a classic Cuban sandwich piled high with pork, turkey, ham on a toasted bread with a pickle is a tradition for us now. Look for Las Olas Cafe in the south beach area!

Cuban Sandwich

Just a couple of blocks off the highway in Marathon is the Key's Fisherie, Market and Marina. MM 49 at the end of 35th St. There they have the award winning best fish sandwich in Florida - the Lobster Rueben. Barely dead lobster with thousand island dressing, sour kraut, on toasted sourdough bread. Sit up in their sunset grill and wash it down with a Key West Sunset Ale. One sandwich will feed two people nicely and is available on the internet.

For the dirt-bag tourists looking for cheap thrills you can visit the Hawk Cay Resort, they have a great pool that easily poached and a free dolphin show for their guests. The dolphins are accesible right off the walkways around the hotel and they have a couple of shows daily. Not the caliber of a Sea-World type park, but it's guilt free because you didn't pay for it. I like free stuff.

One of our favorite stops in South Florida is the one-of-a-kind Everglades. We bought some handguns and assault rifles and headed into the National Park. Winter is a good time to see wildlife in the park. We saw alligators, herons, osprey, Ibis, coots, cormorants, great white pelicans, and my new favorite bird; the anhinga. All of them were tasty and delicious and we should have brought more charcoal.


Green Heron

I joke about the guns and charcoal, but if you do want to eat alligator it is available at a lot of places including the alligator park just a couple of miles from the entrance to the Park. I've been to this alligator park a few times and I don't reccomend it unless you have never been. Then it's cool to do...once. I always leave feeling dirty for some reason. The same way I feel after visiting zoos, rodeos and Sea-World type places. I just quit going eventually. But if you have kids you have to go to an alligator farm! They will insist. I admit, too, the air-boat ride is actually a lot of fun.

After that Kim and I turned in our rental car all caked with sand and lobster juice. took the shuttle to the airport where various delays and another, un-planned night in a Marriott in Houston awaited us. Finally the cold, thin air of Colorado greeted us, and the visions of another great trip to Florida filled our memories, like the fine sand in the bottom of my luggage.