Wednesday, September 03, 2008

What I Did on My Summer Vacation (Sort Of)

Well, I am truly, madly, deeply in love with Key West. At least, the kind of love that makes one desire frequent one-week-stands. I wouldn’t want to make any sort of long-term commitment, because, first of all, it would be way too easy to eat myself to death living in a place like that (although, I’m not exactly living in a place that is itself free from that problem, at the moment). Secondly, there’s that whole lack-of-seasons-and-snow business. Thirdly…What’s thirdly? Oh yeah, the little hurricane problem.

I won’t say it’s a good thing Gustav veered west, because I am so, so sorry for poor old New Orleans. Nonetheless, it did mean that we didn’t have to evacuate the Keys, only had one day of heavy wind and rain, and it was all kind of fun and exciting. I would not be saying this if the Keys had been slammed with a level 4 or 5 hurricane. I would imagine that I then would have spent the majority of my vacation in some other part of Florida, and I am not a big (or even a teeny, tiny, little) fan of other parts of Florida (sorry any Floridians who happen to be reading this).

Some of you may be wondering why we, who seem like relatively intelligent human beings, would choose to vacation in Florida during the height of the hurricane season. It’s simple: we’ve always gone to the Caribbean during hurricane season, because nobody else does. Places to stay are much cheaper, and dive boats are never full. Besides, statistically, the chances that a major hurricane is actually going to hit in the exact place we choose at the exact time we are there is pretty slim. Also, there’s that slight bit of excitement on both our parts, I guess. When my parents briefly lived on the coast of North Carolina, my reaction when visiting for the first time during a hurricane forecast was “how cool.” (This while my poor mother was busy worrying about how to protect everything in the house and wondering if they’d made a mistake moving to such a place.) The hurricane didn’t hit, and while my mother was breathing a huge sigh of relief, my sigh tended more in the direction of slight disappointment. If Bob had been there, I’m sure his reaction would have been the same.

Anyway, after eight days in Key West, I’ve probably got enough fodder for this blog for the next two months. I will try not to bore you-all with that (the equivalent of a two-hour-long-somebody-else’s-vacation slide show, I’m sure). I will keep the Key West posts to a minimum and try to write about other stuff as well over the next few weeks (which shouldn’t be hard, because Bob and I are renting a house in Maine for three weeks starting next week, and Key West will probably quickly fade into the distance). Meanwhile, I highly recommend that if you’ve never been, go visit this quirky little piece of America (even if you hate Florida. Key West is not like the rest of Florida), and here’s a little guidance from me:

Best place to buy books (you knew I’d start there, didn’t you?): Key West Island Books. They’ve been around forever, have books piled up to the ceiling, an impressive “pirate” section, and, if you’re lucky, Suzanne will be working when you visit. She’s extremely friendly and helpful and can recommend great places to see, as well as fantastic restaurants.

Best key lime pie ever: Mangoes restaurant. I won’t even say best I’ve ever had, just best ever, because I can’t imagine anyone, anywhere makes it better than this. Besides, I’ve made it a point to be a life-long key lime pie taster, so I’ve eaten my fair share of it over the years. No too-gooey meringue on top. No sickly-sweet filling. No heaviness in the stomach after two bites. Just the perfect amount of tartness. The perfect amount of light creaminess. And the all-important graham cracker crust, somehow made extremely light and thin. Yum!

Best Italian food I’ve ever had: Opera. Remember: I’ve never been to Italy. I have, however, lived in Connecticut and New York, and I ate a few meals at an Italian boyfriend’s mother’s house when I was in my twenties. I’m still finding it hard to believe that the best Italian food I’ve tasted is in Key West, FL, but, so be it. I’m not going to argue with my taste buds.

Best place to get a mojito: Conch Republic Seafood Company. They let you use their drink coupon (lots of bars give out “buy one drink, get one free” coupons in KW), for one thing, even for mojitos, which other bars, we discovered, don’t. Secondly, it’s just a wonderful, large bar. Thirdly, their mojitos are delicious. They’re deadly, though. If you’re a lightweight like me, don’t drink more than one (at least, if you want to remember your vacation).

Best place to get microbrews: Kelly’s. This is a charming-even-for-Key-West little bar and restaurant, owned by none other than Kelly McGillis (no, we didn’t see her). All the wait staff wear the old PanAm insignia on their shirt sleeves, because it apparently stands on the spot of what was once the PanAm building. Their dark stout is delicious, as is their IPA.

Best day trip: the Dry Tortugas National Park. It’s a beautiful, amazing spot. And I’ve never been to a national park where snorkeling, rather than hiking, was the order of the day. Nor have I ever seen an octopus in any other national park.

Best dive site: the Cayman wreck. I’ve never been one much on wreck diving (believe it or not, it’s a bit too spooky for me), at least, not until now. Who knows? After this experience, maybe I’ll even learn to penetrate a wreck one day. I was slightly tempted but ultimately decided that going inside things like ships under water still isn’t quite my cup of tea.

Best drag queens: 801 Bourbon Bar. Okay, I admit it: I love drag queens. Bob, not so much, so I decided, even though he offered, not to subject him to a two-hour-long night club act. I will have to go back someday with a group of people who are more into such things. Any takers?

Best historic site: The Hemingway House. It’s worth it just to see the fabulous studio where he spent his most productive writing years. Wish I had a place like that to write. Oh yeah, and then there are the cats, and the cat condos, and the urinal-turned-cat’s-drinking fountain. Only at Hemingway’s house, no?

Best author to read while visiting (no, not Hemingway, although I’m sure many would disagree with me): Tom Corcoran, most especially when the first murder in the book takes place on the very street where you’re staying. His books are pure male fantasy, but if I haven’t yet convinced you that you want to visit Key West, read him. He will. Rarely do I read authors who write about a place such that it becomes one of the characters.

Best advice: don’t bring four books with you. You really, truly, with all there is to do (especially if you’re a diver, which means every morning is taken up with that), will not have time to read them. Bring a couple of Tom Corcorans, and if, for some reason, you happen to finish those, you’ll have an excuse to go back (because, of course, it was the first place you went when you arrived in town) to Key West Island Books.

Coming soon: photos (but not a 2-hour-long slide show, I promise!).


litlove said...

It sounds like you had a wonderful time and I am VERY glad you didn't have to be either in the eye of a hurricane or sitting out your holiday in an evacuee centre. I can quite see the policy of going on holiday in hurricane season (rather like going anywhere in the UK outside of July) and if there was a thunderstorm season in any particular part of the world, I'd be delighted to vacation during it for the same reason!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a lovely time! I have been to Florida--Sarasota--on business a couple of times and didn't like it at all. Key West does sound nice thought. So why to they call it the Dry Tortugas when it doesn't sound like it is dry? I will happily take you up on the drag queen show if ever the opportunity arises :)

ZoesMom said...

For the mojitos alone I must now add Key West to my list of places to visit. I'm not much for diving, but the rest sounds fab.

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, it was a wonderful time. And I'm with you: I'd follow thunderstorms all over the world.

Stef, oooo,I get to impart the knowledge I learned from the tour guide. The Dry Tortugas, so named by Ponce DeLeon, got their name for having an abundance of turtles and no fresh water (thus,lots of dry, parched throats, I imagine). And glad to know you will take me up on the drag queen show.

ZM, it IS fab. Go!

Anonymous said...

I suddenly feel just a little bit smarter after that explanation :)

Keys Girl said...

I live in the Keys year round for over 15 years. The keys RARELY get hit with a hurricane. The last one that was major was in 1963! If you listen to the weather channel, you would think we get one every week, and they all are a catagory 5. Sept, Oct, November are the best months for scuba/snorkeling since the water is 90 degrees, and crystal clear. But it's nice to have the keys all to ourselves...

Anonymous said...

As I am sure you can imagine, S. and I have always talked about vacationing in Key West and now you absolutely make me want to go there even more than i ever did. What a lovely vacation post, Emily. I am really looking forward to meeting you this fall!

Eva said...

I'm so glad you had such a great vacation!!! I love mojitos, and key lime pie, and I'm sure I would love diving if I knew how...

Emily Barton said...

Keys Girl, fifteen years, huh? That means you're a Fresh Water Conch, right? So honored to have a real Key Wester comment on my little blog. And I'm sure hurricanes in the Keys are like blizzards in New England: never as frequent as the media would have one believe, and never as severe, either.

Court, oh yes, you have to go. I know you'll love it. I'm looking forward to meeting you, too.

Eva, oh yes, diving is the world's best sport. Maybe you'll learn how one day, especially being out there in CA now.

Rebecca H. said...

Sounds fabulous! I think I'd be disappointed about the hurricane too, just a little bit -- your vacation plans sound so sensible. Have a fabulous time at that house in Maine -- three weeks? Wonderful!