Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Month That Was - February 2014

The Month That Was - February 2014: It remains the most brutal winter in my memory. Cold, snow, ice. Constant inconvenience and discomfort. Sky high heating bills. Businesses are going broke trying to keep their sidewalks clear and their parking lots plowed and avoid slip and falls. There is no road salt to be had -- they can't pull it out of the ground fast enough. The school year has been extended because there have been so many snow days. It's gotta end eventually right? Luckily I was able to spend a week down in Florida this month (trip report below) otherwise I would be homicidal at this point.

I still have a half-marathon to run at the end of next month and my training has been sparse. It's not so much the cold that is the problem it's that snow has piled up at the edges of all the streets which would squeeze a runner into traffic, and ice has covered everything else. I can't run any serious distance on a treadmill so I am stuck running in small circles around a local park or in the side streets around my neighborhood where they maintain a path. I have been keeping up on my cross-training so I hope I'm not that bad off, but I need to be back up to 12+ miles by mid-March or I'm done for.

I have an enormous amount of work to do around the house. The fireplace (gas) has never worked and I set to pulling it apart to see if I could determine the problem. All I got was sooty. I need to call someone in. And I might as well see about upgrading to one of those fancy units with remote control while I'm at it.

You get an extended trip report this month, something I haven't done in a while. Otherwise, short shrift. My car is still an issue. The book is still in revision. It's like my life is as frozen as the weather.

[Rant] Tethered to Cable
[Travel] Islands in the Gulf

[Rant] Tethered to Cable

Tethered to Cable: I managed to renegotiate my TV contract with Charter Cable, under threat of jumping to DirecTV, although I'm not sure I gained all that much. I basically got my (slightly discounted) monthly rate extended for another year, but added another movie channel, a couple of new special interest channels, Red Zone (woot!), faster internet, and was handed two extra DVRs and a new router for my trouble. Of course, in another year I'm going to have to go through it all again.

I could save a little money by going with DirectTV but only for a couple of years, then the DirectTV start-up discounts would end and I'd be back in the same boat so I took the deal for now. No contract so I can back out at any time. Expensive as it is, Charter has done a truly solid job of maintaining service. I can't remember the last outage.

It really amazes me how some industries have developed pricing models that thrust them into direct conflict with their customers. Auto dealers are the paradigmatic example. You know you are in for a battle as soon as you walk in the door. The guy you have to buy from is the antagonist. He will make you pay as much as he possibly can. He is not working with you, he is the enemy. And you have to assume that if he agreed to a deal, it was to his advantage, not yours. Another day, another salesman, another customer might end up with the same product at a lower price. There is no way to walk out of the dealership feeling positive, you have to hope that comes later when the trauma wears off and the experience of the nice new car dominates.

Airlines are not quite so awful, but they do have a similar problem. Pricing varies, although at least it is based on timing and not on you as an individual. No the big problem with airlines is that once they have, once you have purchased the ticket, you are at their command. They can jerk around your schedule, cancel your flight, switch around your seats, overbook, etc. You on the other hand, can't do anything without paying through the nose. Luggage? That'll cost you. Miss your flight? Tough luck, that'll cost you. Delay kills have your vacation? Hard cheese. Let's say you have a Sunday flight and you need to stay another day. Even weeks in advance, even if seats are readily available, if you call and ask to switch to a Monday flight they will charge you hundreds of dollars. It costs them exactly zero to move you from one flight to another, but they do it because they can. Because the nature of their relationship with the customer is antagonistic, it is to squeeze as much as they can out of you.

Cable companies are in the same boat. They offer you wonderful discounts to sign up and then, once they expire, your only hope of keeping a reasonable rate is to get them on the phone and threaten and cajole and complain in the hopes of getting something back.

All this flies in the face of everything we know about enlightened business practices, where you are told the soundest and most long-run profitable course is to build positive long term relations with your customers. This does put these folks on troublesome footing when disruptive technology comes along. True Car and the like could put the old school car salesman out of a job very quickly, and may have already. My cable company at least felt the need to do a live comparison of the price they eventually offered me with DirecTV to show it was competitive, but streaming services are coming on strong. So there is an element of risk in taking this path to revenue maximization.

Still I understand that these situations don't occur in a vacuum. There are economic and regulatory forces that push them that way. Not much you can do about it except stay keen to any alternatives that arise.

And never, ever take a job in customer service in one of these industries. It will crush your soul.

[Travel] Islands in the Gulf

Islands in the Gulf: There are few things more enrapturing than, in the middle of the coldest, snowiest winter in history, flying down to the Keys. OK, anywhere warm and sunny will do, but within the continental U.S., Key West is likely the only place you can be truly certain of summer weather. I have been burned in the past in both Miami and San Diego, expecting sunburn and getting a chill.

Not this time. I got off the plane in Fort Lauderdale, stuffed my big fat winter coat into my luggage, picked up my rental and was cruising south on the Florida Turnpike, windows open, radio blasting. It was Friday afternoon on President's Day weekend so I fully expected to be backed up for hours in traffic, but I wasn't. A couple of jams here and there, but nothing more than a few minutes. I pulled into the Pier House in Key West at sunset, changed into shorts and a t-shirt, went out and bought sandals because I had stupidly left mine home, and went walking up Duval Street in search of food and drink. Latitude adjustment.

Duval St. hasn't changed. It's a slightly older and less hairy version of Bourbon Street. In February, it is filled primarily with snowbirds and vacationers from the frozen north. I crossed paths with many Michiganders. In contrast to Bourbon St., there aren't really a lot of folks looking to get hammered and cause chaos. It's a lot of older couples, blowing off steam after a day of fishing or water activities. Much friendlier -- less aggressive. Just a fun place to wander from bar to bar and chat with the folks next to you.

Where Duvall falls down compared to Bourbon St. is in entertainment, perhaps not surprisingly. Whereas on Bourbon Street you will hear astounding music of many kinds -- trad jazz, zydeco, electronica, straight ahead rock -- flowing into the street from every venue. On Duval, there is basically one form of live entertainment: a guy playing guitar -- sometimes alone, sometimes with a partner, sometimes with a recorded backup band -- but every one is a variation of the Jimmy Buffet/street troubadour image. Of course, a solo performer playing for free beer is cheaper than a professional band, but really, Key West could stand to step it up in this department.

And there are plenty of daytime activities, beyond the various water-based tours. I can be fun just renting a bike and tooling around the island. In fact, a bike is probably the best way to get around, although the more lazy types would pick up a scooter. With a half day on a bike, you could easily cover:
  • The Southernmost Point - a big, garishly painted kiosk labelled Southernmost Point. It is not actually the southernmost point in the continental U.S. as there are clearly points that you can see further south. It may be the Southernmost point on a main road. Whatever the case, a line spontaneously forms for folks to take pictures in front of it.
  • Smathers beach and the southern coast bike trail - many people are surprised to discover there are no really great beaches on Key West. Most are rocky or have thin, gritty sand. Smathers has a few decent spots, and the area is generally quite windy, meaning kite-flyers and windsurfers and kite-surfers make good use of this area.
  • Fort Zack State park - Here is certainly the most dramatic beach, and excellent for sunning and strolling. Good facilities. You can also explore the Fort itself, a site of some historic import and offering nice views of the surrounding area. This is also a good place for wildlife watching -- you can spot iguanas the size of your arm in the mangroves surrounding the fort.
  • Key West Cemetery is worth a stop just for the famous grave stone that reads “I told you I was sick."
I know you could easily cover it in a half day, because I did. On one of those beat up single speed beach cruisers, even.

Interestingly, this exploration revealed something unknown to me. That there are actually “bad sections" of Key West. As in high crime sections. One is the section just south of the cemetery, which looked like a pretty standard working class neighborhood as I rode through it. Apparently, it's the center of drug trafficking after dark. The other is one the western end of the island just up against the naval base. This looked more appropriately ghetto-ish with obviously low-end apartments. I saw a cluster of seedy looking guys jivin on a street corner and an occasional car stopping to interact with them. Hmmm. Both these sections are about two blocks long and, I suspect not much of a problem in daylight. Still, both these spots are within a quarter mile of some heavily touristed areas. But I suspect the crime here is most drugs and solicitation -- not so much violent crime. (A crime map confirms that things like assaults tend to happen in the bar-packed areas; meaning for the most part it's probably a couple of drunks mixing it up.) Key West, for all it's good qualities, is not life under a dome.

The big first for me this trip was the Hemingway House. It's a large compound that was occupied by Ernest on and off during the 30s and was a place where he wrote many of his famous works. The house is maintained as something of a museum and the grounds make up some of the best gardens in the area. Weddings are often held here; it is that picturesque. The house itself and the tour are really nothing all that special, but then, it's not expensive either. The most interesting thing are the six-toed cats that pretty much have the run of the place (actually only about half of them are six-toed mutants). It's a good distraction for an hour or so.

As to the question of accommodations, the three previous times I've stayed in Key West I've stayed on the south side, essentially just off the end of Duval St. furthest from the action. The three resorts -- Casa Marina, Santa Maria Suites, and the Reach Resort are all fine and beautiful places. It's a bit of a walk -- probably close to a mile -- from main attraction area of Duval, but it's also not bad to be a bit secluded from the madness. They are close to Fort Zack, and Casa Marina and Reach -- both are Hilton properties -- maintain their own private beaches and share room charging privileges. This trip I stayed right down in the center of the action at Pier House. It's a top notch spot. Very luxurious, two restaurant and two bars, a spa, big comfy rooms that are very stylishly furnished, a deep pool, and a small private well-maintained and serviced beach and bay with a cool swimming platform. Interestingly, there is also a small section of the beach area that is tucked away for topless sunbathing, although as far as I could tell nobody was doing so.

My first choice is usually Casa Marina but that is because I collect Hilton points. The grounds are a little nicer than Pier House, I think, but there is a distance to consider if you plan on walking back and forth down Duval a couple of times a day. You won't go wrong at Pier House; I would happily stay there again in a heartbeat.

As to food and drink, it's everywhere and it's generally pretty good. There are no high end fine dining establishments, everything is island casual. It's tough to tell from the name of the place where you're going to get something really tasty versus just a run-of-the-mill dish. The hottest restaurant at the moment is the Blue Heaven Cafe, and you better have reservations -- the weekend brunch will spill out into the street. I went for a very late lunch and managed to snag a seat at the bar, only to be told they don't serve food at the bar. Everybody in Key West will have their favorites -- I like the crepes at Banana Cafe for breakfast and I had good meals at the Rum Barrel and in the Harbourview Cafe at the Pier House. But don't follow anyone's advice. Explore: there are little gems everywhere.

So that was Key West. As you know, I am on a slow-burn hunt for vacation/retirement spots in Florida and have been exploring all around the gulf to see where I want to end up. I don't think I want to end up in Key West. It's fun and active, which is nice, and there's good infrastructure, but it's also far from everything. It's about a three hour flight into Ft. L or Miami, add a couple of hours for airport commute and security, then a four hour drive to Key West. That's a full day burned even if everything works right. Contrast that to somewhere like Sanibel/Captiva and you can knock three hours out of that at a minimum. Which is a good segue into phase two of my vacation…

Captiva Island (which is immediately north of the more heavily trafficked Sanibel, connected by a short bridge) is a pretty solid opposite of Key West. The energy level is low, as is the sense of chaos. The nightlife is, well, let's call it subdued by comparison. There are really only a handful of restaurants and bars. The beaches are astounding. It's like a big chill pill.

Although not as long a drive as the one to Key West, getting to Captiva is not trivial. The closest major is Ft. Myers. From there you have a good half hour before you reach the bridge to Sanibel. It's $6 to cross the bridge on to Sanibel. (Yes, everytime you go back and forth across the bridge to get to Ft. Myers it's $6. The State of Florida shows little mercy when it comes to road tolls and fees. Most toll roads do not even have stops to pay them -- they nail you by photographing your license plate and sending out bills. So a couple weeks after you have turned in your rental car your credit card gets dinged for road tolls. This being Florida, the burden falls disproportionately on tourists, which enables them to have no state income tax. Must be nice.) Sanibel is about 12 miles long, with a single stop light. The speed limit is 30 on the main road, but you will never approach that. Traffic is so thick in season that stop lights are useless. They put actual traffic cops at two or three of the main intersections just to keep things moving as smoothly as possible. In fact, if you are trying for late afternoon-early evening exit back to Ft. Myers plan on sitting in your car for a couple of hours. That is to say, don't bother trying to leave. Find a nice bar with view and relax until the madness passes.

Sanibel is about two-thirds rental homes and beach resorts, peppered with the usual assortment of trinket outlets and restaurants. The other third is given over to a wildlife sanctuary. Although it's not a particularly big island, there is really no central village or strolling area. Once you get settled in on Sanibel, the best strategy is to rent a bike and use that to get around. On Sanibel your days are given over to biking about and maybe doing some sort of waterborne activity, followed by drinks at sunset and a leisurely dinner in the evening breeze.

Captiva is the next island north of Sanibel, connected by a very short bridge which crosses a small channel that you could probably walk through is you needed to. Captiva benefits from being a dead end -- the masses of traffic have drifted off to various points on Sanibel. That's not to say it's not busy, just not insane. You do not want to have to park anywhere on these islands in season, other than the resort you're visiting.

Captiva benefits from a couple of other things. First, the top resorts are located here. The sprawling giant is the South Seas Plantation. A huge manicured campus style complex at the very end of the road. You will not be allowed in without stating a purpose and paying a five dollar parking fee if you're not a guest. Many charters and tour boats are stationed here so there is some traffic through the grounds, but for the casual day tripper, having already dropped $6 to get on the island, dropping another fin just to look around is unlikely. The other high end resort is Tween Waters, named because it occupies a spot where the island narrows such that the back of the resort abuts the channel and the front looks out on the gulf. Tween Waters is where I stayed and it's a terrific spot. It contains both a nice restaurant and a fun pub along with the requisite pool bar and cafe. It has it's very own marina on the sound side and comfy loungers and umbrellas that you can rent on the beach (small fee -- maybe $20 for all day). Rooms are spacious and nicely styled -- many have screened in balconies. Service was excellent start to finish. Highly recommended; I could easily see this place being a “go to", however there are always numerous timeshares and condos for rent -- I have to make a point of checking that out next time. The aforementioned South Seas Plantation, for example, is a Hilton Timeshare property and there are a number of little condos that appear to be rentable tucked away in a corner convenient to the main area of Captiva.

Which brings me to the second thing Captiva has over Sanibel -- a wee little main street that is a nicely walkable area. The bulk of the activity on Captiva is contained in about a three block stretch that includes a number of interesting little restaurants, some retail, and a small grocery store. If you can snag a place to stay in walking distance of this your transportation needs drop pretty close to zero. Some of the restaurants in this area have some tasty stuff. Key Lime Bistro has a very tasty lunch and Doc Ford's (part of a three restaurant chain in the area) is a cut above. Also there is the semi-famous Bubble Room, which is primarily known for it's desserts and its somewhat disturbing clown and circus theme. Down on the beach is the Mucky Duck, an Irish pub-style place which would work well for sunset.

Of course, this being the Gulf, there are a plethora of sunset cruises and other sorts of island tours. Interestingly, although you can catch a sunset cruise from just about anywhere, there really is only one outfit that goes on day cruises to nearby island. Captiva Cruises runs various lunch/day trips to Cabbage Key, Boca Grande, Ussepa, and Pineland -- in all cases they drop you for lunch at a place of some interest, give you time to explore the surroundings then bring you back to Captiva at their home port in South Seas Plantation. In high season you had better make reservations well ahead of time for these. Every cruise was sold out during my stay. A sunset catamaran cruise was, however, just perfect.

The slow-burn question is, could I live on Captiva? I think probably yes. There would be some sense of isolation that might make me crazy after a while, but with judicious timing I could be on the mainland in well under an hour (off season a good deal less). I would probably have to buy a little boat to make access to nearby islands easy, maybe even get a scooter of some sort that I could load on the boat. Hmmm. I don't know exactly how I would afford it, though. A 1-bedroom 1-bath hovel would go for 300 grand. That's the old story of not being able to afford the places I want to live. Maybe I should start with a low end timeshare to see how it goes.

There's still more exploring to do. I want to spend a few days on Boca Grande to see how that is. And I should probably do a panhandle trip since I keep hearing good things about it - Pensacola/Destin specifically. But, all in all, I would definitely like to re-visit Captiva. In fact, I'm sure I'll see Key West again also. There's always another winter coming around.