Wednesday, April 06, 2011

[Travel] Keys to My Heart

Keys to My Heart: [[Photos to come.]] I do still love Florida. First, Palm Beach. I flew in on Friday, arriving in the early afternoon (a fine enough flight, no rant needed), snagged my rental, and headed for Worth Ave.

It's tempting to resort to clich‚d descriptions of gauche, wealthy WASPs; white-haired men sporting colorful khakis and reconstructed cougars dropping half a grand on a hairstyle. The clich‚s would be accurate. The street is peppered with Bentleys and Rolls and high-end Mercedes. Anything below a Lexus sticks out. Gucci and Neiman Marcus and Jimmy Choo and Cartier and Brooks Bros and Polo. The street-side real estate glossy magazine is filled with eight-digit homes with private boat docks and servant's quarters. Women are decked out in desperate housewife level finery, towing pugs and papillions. Men with fishing and golf logo'd sportswear and millionaire-banker jawlines are killing time over single barrel bourbons while their wives/mistresses are overspending. And tourists, of course. In fact anyone who didn't fit in the above category could be presumed to be a tourist.

Now many of you are cringing at the thought of such a gaudy display of wealth and status. Leaving aside the questionable merit and motives for such anti-snobbery, let me just say that from an aesthetic standpoint, you would have to acknowledge the place is remarkably beautiful. The architecture is old Floridian, with the quasi-moorish influences in the roofs and turrets. There is a nice clock tower at the end of the street where the ocean begins. The beach is a perfect Florida Atlantic Ocean beach. And the streets are absolutely spotless. Decadent or not, it's a good place to hang out.

I confined myself to taking some photos and having an al fresco dinner of Neapolitan pizza and white wine. Then back to my hotel room. Big day tomorrow.

The plan: Pick up Miss Kate and the airport, swing by Barry University to get Miss Anna and barrel-ass it to Key West. And that we did. A brief stop in Key Largo at the renowned Key Largo Conch House where they have an "As Seen on the Food Network" banner up and are happy to mention all their awards and the fact that an actress named Jorja Fox from CSI-Las Vegas once enjoyed their fish tacos. The food was tasty and the atmosphere was pure Key Largo -- ultra casual, open air amidst the palms, fishing-hole kitschy d‚cor, and somewhat lackadaisical service. Late in the day we pulled into the Reach Resort in Key West proper.

In recent years, Hilton has taken over two resorts on the southwest side of the island under the auspices of the Waldorf Group, which is to say their luxury recreational group (as opposed to Conrad, which is their luxury business group). The two resorts are Casa Marina and the Reach Resort. They are separated by about four residential blocks and services can be used seamlessly across resorts.

If I had to characterize them differently, I would say Casa Marina is larger and more traditionally resorty. Reach is smaller and going for a more hip, boutiquey feel. Both are exquisitely beautiful.

Reach was something of a mixed bag for us. It was 5:30 before our room was ready, which was really not that big a problem since we were able to familiarize ourselves with the bar and the pool side amenities. The room itself was more than a little, um, challenging. A handle to the closet came off at the touch and the mini-fridge could have woken the dead, but strangest was the layout. While there was a bit of a hallway between the bedroom and bathroom, the bathroom itself, including commode, was not separated from the bedroom by a door. That was truly creepy. I mean, it is sufficiently isolated, I'm sure, but I really need to close and lock the door when I am going potty. It may be psychological, but I just feel more civilized when the sounds and smells of my bodily functions are fully private.

But apart from that, Reach is a top notch place. I would have been happy to stay a few more days and spend some time on the private beach and maybe sample the steakhouse, called Strip which is accentuated with large pictures of naked women. Like I said, they are look for a hip, edgy vibe at Reach.

I should point out that, despite my snarkiness, the staff was unfailingly friendly and helpful. That is hugely important and trumps all the little peccadilloes.

Reach is one block east of the south end of Duval Street. And Duval Street is where the action is. Stretching the length of the island north to south, Duval is lined with innumerable crap shops, bars, and miscellaneous nonsense (including at least one "adult club"). Since this is my fourth visit to Key West, I'm sure I've written about Duval Street before. I suppose you could consider it similar the Bourbon Street in New Orleans, but somewhat less lurid, although no less profane. By their nature, Conch Republic types have more of a chilled-out hash-house streak than the bayou hustlers in the Big Easy.

We walked down Duval towards Mallory Square, stopping here and there, hoping to snag a waterside dinner table to catch the sunset. Of course the waterfront was packed on a Saturday night so we moved inland a block and had a fine open-air rooftop dinner at the appropriately named Rooftop Caf‚.

Up early the following morning for the big adventure to The Dry Tortugas. Little more than a collection of coral reefs and sandbars, the Dry Tortugas lay about 70 miles west of Key West. (They're called "dry" because there is no fresh water, not because you can't drink there...although you can't drink there.) You get there via the Yankee Freedom ferry as part of an arranged tour, and a very, very nicely done tour at that. If you've done boating/snorkeling day tours before, you know they can be very regimented and controlled. Not so with the Yankee Freedom. It's not cheap, but when you add up everything that's included it is really a great deal. The ferry ride, park entry fee, breakfast, lunch, snorkeling gear, and a tour of Fort Jefferson -- all included. Bring sunscreen and towels. You only have to pay for drinks and afternoon snacks, and I suppose you could pre-pack those too.

The key thing that differentiates this from other tours is that once you are at the destination, you are pretty much on your own timetable. They do guided tours of the Fort at two or three times and you can sign up for any, or just tour it by yourself -- there are placards for a self guided tour. The Fort is a very cool place; labyrinthine old brick work that virtually shouts of its violent and sordid history. It's a moat-outlined three-level hexagon with an expansive, green, cactus and mangrove filled courtyard and astounding 360 degree views from the top. Reserve an hour for touring and explorations. Then head to the beach for some outstanding snorkeling in the reef-protected waters. Huge schools of silvery fish try to stay clear of the diving pelicans, just yards from your mask. Honestly the best snorkeling experience of my life (although that's not saying much). Top it all off with a couple of drinks on the trip home and it makes for one awesome day. When visiting Key West you really must take the Yankee Freedom to the Dry Tortugas. I can't recommend this highly enough.

Thanks to the room availability SNAFU at check-in, we were able to snag a late check-out the following day so I took the opportunity for a 5-mile run in the morning before the heat was upon us. It was an interesting experience in the contrasts of the island. Jogging along the south shore it's pretty clear to see that is the "bad side of town," if there really is such a thing in Key West, but this is clearly where the homeless guys and vagrants hang out on the benches and sleep off whatever is ailing them. The beach here is long, but not particularly attractive and the winds whip up hard, as evidenced by the near constant figures of kiteboarders. The core of the island is residential and the houses -- generally very cozy and well cared for behind their old growth shade trees -- are fairly tightly packed. The north shore is where the docks are -- fishing charters, old schooners doing sunset sails, various ferries. As you move west you reach the heart of Duval Street and Mallory Square, then continuing southwest you encounter the coiffured realm of Truman Annex, home to Harry Turman's Southern White House. Along the far western shore is a naval station and the docking area for the big cruise ships. Keep heading back south and you eventually reach Ft. Zachary State Park, the site of the only good beach in Key West and some truly funky beach architecture. Turning back east toward the heart of town takes you through the smallish old town with Cuban and Haitian shops and divey diners. Key West is a remarkably varied place for such a small island.

I love Key West. Certainly one of my most favorite places in Florida (but that tends to change with each new trip). I've been four times and I still have much to explore. I was sad to leave.

The last couple of nights we settled in the Coral Gables. In the weirdness that is Miami you often find nice upscale neighborhoods next to downtrodden quasi-ghettos. Just a stone's throw from Little Havana (which is not the worst place in Miami, but not remotely upscale), Coral Gables could be lifted from any high-end urban metropolis. A fine set of restaurants and shops, good area for walking about. If you need to stay in the city, as opposed to at the beaches, you probably should shoot for Coral Gables.

Just a quick swing towards downtown then across a bridge and you find yourself on Key Biscayne -- a lovely island with a predominantly country club feel about it. The exception to this is the Bill Baggs State Park which features a terrific beach, nature trails, etc. Sadly, we only had about an hour there, but it was enough time to slap on the bathing suit and go out and bob around in the warm Atlantic Ocean while some sort of photo shoot (featuring children) was proceeding on the beach. Not surprising since the beach here often shows up on the various "most beautiful" lists. I first set foot in the Florida Atlantic nearly 40 years ago and it still feels like home.

Our final evening was Anna's birthday dinner, an adventure that included my getting lost in the car, my getting lost on foot, and finally driving a trio of college coeds to the world's sketchiest liquor store on the edge of Little Haiti to buy a bottle of Grey Goose through an armored window. It was not my finest hour.

I couldn't count the number of times I've visited Florida, but I still love it. Facing the fact that I will likely end up here one day when I take my place in God's waiting room just isn't all that depressing to me. I think I could adapt to being a Worth Street trolling, white haired millionaire, clad in Tommy Bahama. Hell, I wouldn't mind being known as that cranky old man on Duval Street.