Paradise with a Twist – Key West

Key West Florida

Key West is the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence that is the Keys. This town has been a magnet for adventurers, the famous and fortune seekers for well over a hundred years. Over the years it has attracted a number of the rich and famous including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Kelly McGillis, Jimmy Buffet, Calvin Klein, Shel Silverstein, Truman Capote, Winslow Homer, Ralph Lauren, Robert Frost, Kenny Chesney and Harry Truman (his winter White House). Not too shabby for a city of 20,000.

Its residents have been navy men, shrimpers, fishermen, cigar makers, treasure hunters and more than a few people seeking a place to get lost. Today Key West is known for history, bars, its Cuban heritage, bars, great seafood, bars, water sports, bars and more than a few traditions.

Crowds & performers gather for sunset at Mallory Square

How many places do you know where they celebrate sunset with a festival every day? The sunset celebration is downtown at Mallory Square where musicians, jugglers, tightrope walkers, crafters, food vendors, locals and tourists gather to celebrate the end of another day as the Sun sets behind Sunset Key. It is such an institution that cruise ships that frequently dock next to Mallory Square are required to leave before sunset so they don’t block the view for the celebrants.

Crowds and entertainers gather at Mallory Square to celebrate sunset

The town has also become famous for a number of annual events like Fantasy Fest in late October an annual 10-day party in paradise for grown-ups. Started in 1979 by a group of Key West locals, the party was created to bring visitors to the island and has completely grown out of control. Pay attention to the word “adult” in the description, cause this town that gets pretty crazy on a normal day for Fantasy Fest is over the top. There are also Hemingway Days where Ernest look-a-likes come from all over for a chance to claim the title of Papa for a year. Check out the calendar and you will probably find very few weeks with nothing going on in this town.

Key west also has a number of worthy attractions and a few less so. John J. Audubon lived here and his home is maintained as a museum along with Hemingway’s house and Harry Truman’s Winter White House all open to the public. There is also a really nice aquarium, Mel Fishers Maritime Museum, the Shipwreck Treasure Museum and believe it or not a Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

Keno Sandles

In addition to the festivities there are a number of other things you will find Key West famous for. First is key lime pie, a delicacy invented in the keys. Be sure to take a bottle of key lime juice and a recipe with you when you leave. The city is home to a large Cuban population that brought their cigar making skills with them. There are a number of hand-rolled Cuban cigar makers in Key West. It is also famous for leather sandals (flip flops) and the oldest manufacturer is Kino located right downtown. Their leather sandals sell for $10 to $20. I’ve rarely gone to Key West without taking home a pair or two.

This town is also is famous for its seafood (fish, Florida lobster and shrimp), snorkeling and diving and its bars. Perhaps its most famous is Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street where Ernest Hemingway hung out,  southwest of . Tony’s where Jimmy Buffet was a regular (it was actually the original location of Sloppy Joe’s) and Hogs Breath Saloon. Hogs Breath probably sells as many Tee Shirts as beers and who doesn’t want a T that says “Hogs Breath is Better than no Breath at All”.

Key West is also a U.S. Navy base with a Naval Air Station and research facilities. When I was in the Navy we stopped in Key West a few times. There were submarine pens right near downtown and evenings at Sloppy Joe’s was a study in white with wall to wall sailors in bright dress uniforms.

When visiting there are a number of opportunities to do some snorkeling or diving along with a trip to the Marquesas Keys with the Key West National Wildlife Refuge and the Dry Tortugas National Park between fifteen and thirty miles out to sea. Key West was also home base for Treasure Salvors the operation headed by Mel Fisher that found the wreck of the richest Spanish treasure galleon, the Atocha, just to the southwest  in fifty-five feet of water. Be sure and visit their museum.

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Port of Call Juneau Alaska

A Day in the Port of Juneau

Probably the most isolated state capital in the United States and one of two that you cannot drive to (Hawaii). It is also one of the most frequented cities on Alaska cruise itineraries. Besides being isolated and the states capital it also has a lot to offer.

Where You Dock
Norwegian Pearl tied up at the AJ Dock
Historic downtown Juneau

Docking facilities stretch from the waterfront right at the foot of the historic district for a mile southeast along the Gastineau channel. If you are lucky and your ship docks near town you are only steps from shops and restaurants. There is however no cruise terminal or public facilities readily available at the dock. Restrooms are available at the public library just a block from the Red Dog Saloon along with a number of stores and restaurants. There is also a shuttle service provided from the docks down the channel but it is not free (currently about $2 each way).

Transportation

Besides the official dock shuttle there are taxis available at reasonable rates. To get to Mendenhall Glacier we would recommend the public bus service that departs from near the cruise ship docks. Current round trip fare toMendenhall NPS Visitor Center is $30 per person. Outside of the historic district Juneau is actually a very large city in geographic size. If you really want to see the wider area there are also rental car agencies near town.

Looking from library toward the Red Dog
Money

The U.S. Dollar and most credit cards are welcome

Attractions
Juneau Salmon Hatchery

Wander the streets of Juneau’s historic district, shop, visit the infamous Red Dog Saloon where Wyatt Earp lost his guns in a poker game. Within just a few square miles, browse multiple museums and an arts centers celebrating Alaska’s Native heritage. See multiple totems, the Ancon Mural, visit the fascinating DIPAC Macaulay Salmon Hatchery and be sure and go out to Mendenhall Glacier. Stop by one of Travel Juneau’s visitor information sites for a Downtown Walking Tour Map and be your own guide!

Mendenhall Glacier

Take a cable car up to a mountain top high above the city or take a helicopter up to the Juneau ice field and walk on a glacier. Go salmon fishing or whale watching. There’s more to do than will fit in a day.

More information on the Mendenhall Glacier.

More information on the Salmon Hatchery.

 

The Port of Honolulu Hawaii

Cruise Port Honolulu Hawaii

Honolulu is a frequent stop for cruise ships repositioning in the Pacific, cruises going out of the west coast of the U.S. And Canada as well as cruising the Hawaiian Islands. It is the largest city in the islands, the states Capital and gateway to Hawaii’s most developed island.

General

Honolulu is located on the island of Oahu with a number of areas to visit and sights to see. Nearby is Pearl Harbor with the museums and memorials and in the other direction is Waikiki Beach with the hotels and shopping. This island and city are major tourist destinations and to get a feel for Oahu you need a number of days.

Where The Ships Dock

The cruise piers are located on the northwest side of Honolulu between Waikiki Beach and the International Airport. Cruise ships dock at either the Aloha Tower (pier 11) or Pier 2 about a quarter mile more to the south (primarily used by NCL for Hawaiian cruises). Aloha Tower is conveniently located not far from the downtown area and the Aloha Tower Marketplace. There are facilities located at the cruise terminal and you can walk out without much difficulty. “Downtown” with its shopping and “Waikiki Beach” are not the same location so if you want to visit this famous beach area you will need transportation.

Transportation

For a short visit we would recommend trying to share a cab with others to get to Waikiki Beach, share costs and save time. Local public service is with TheBus and the ride to the beach doesn’t long. If you want to take TheBus a 1-Day Pass is $5.50. Ask your bus operator for the 1-Day

Pass before placing your money in the farebox. It’s valid 12:01 a.m. To 2:59 a.m. the next day, for up to 27 hours of unlimited rides. Our preference is to rent a car. Rates are usually very reasonable and since you are in the United States your insurance covers you. Oahu is a pretty big island with 3 major highways (H-1, H-2 and H-3) and we would strongly suggest that you use GPS navigation. The street anmes are difficult to pronounce and remember and the roads tend to wind around.

Currency

This is the 50th state and the US Dollar is currency.

Attractions

We’ve taken the Waikiki Trolley tour and found it way overpriced for what you get to see. Again we recommend renting a car if you want to see the island. A short taxi ride into the center of the beach is a better investment. If it’s going to be a first trip don’t miss a visit to Pearl Harbor with the USS Arizona Memorial (last we heard it was closed for refurbishment) and the USS Missouri. In Honolulu there are almost too many attractions to count, from shows to an aquarium and zoo. For the best view on the island drive up to Hawaii puu ualakaa state park with the overlook above Honolulu on Mount Tantalus. We love the North Shore with the surf at the Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay and a number of great small towns (look for the food trucks) and Waimea Falls Park. There is also The Dole Plantation in mid-island and also a couple of beautiful gardens to check out. Above all else is the ocean and the beaches and the reefs. Snorkeling and diving opportunities abound and depending on the season you can go whale watching too.

Port of Call Key West

Many western Caribbean cruises include Key West, Florida as one of their port visits. This city has much to offer a one-day visitor from history to shopping to just soaking up the atmosphere of Americas most southern place.

Where You Dock – Cruise ships dock along the waterfront right at Mallory Square in the heart of town. While there is no cruise terminal there are plenty of facilities with a short walk.

A five block walk to the left down Front Street takes you past Duval Street, home to a number of shops, bars and restaurants to A&B Docks with its array of restaurants and shops next to Key West Bight. Walking down Front Street in the opposite direction takes you past the Truman Winter White House and Whitehead Street the address of the Audubon House and the Hemingway House.

Transportation – Key West is not a very large city with the center of town just steps away. Getting to the other side of the island is a few miles but without a specific interest in mind probably not worth the walk. Sightseeing is easy with the Conch Train and the Trolley one to three block from the ship. There are also a few less conventional modes of transportation available like street legal golf carts and miniature two-seaters you can rent.

Money – The US Dollar

Attractions – If you are interested in history there are a number of attractions for you. From the Ship Wreck Museums to the homes of famous Americans like President Truman, Hemingway and Audubon. There are also an assortment of water activities like snorkeling and diving trips along with sailing excursions available. Key West is also popular for shopping, seafood and bars. Be sure and visit Sloppy Joe’s Bar, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite. There is little in the way of attractive beaches nearby but there are excursions down to the Dry Tortugas and the National Park and historic fort.

Key West is also famous for its sunset celebration at Mallory Square but unfortunately because of local regulations cruise ships must depart before sunset so as not to block the views.

 

Back To The Florida Keys?

When I was a kid growing up in the Northeast more than a few years ago, I thought Florida was the promised land, paradise and the most exotic place I could imagine – all rolled up in one. I was in my twenties before I ever made it there but I had long dreamed of turquoise water, coral reefs, palm trees and warm tropical weather. Later I visited Florida a few times on business and on a vacation and my dreams remained intact. About forty years ago we relocated to Ft. Lauderdale with a job. While there are more than a few people who don’t care for Florida, we loved it.

At the time we moved to Florida, Ft. Lauderdale airport was a single, one-story cinderblock building with twelve parking meters out front. The movie “Where the Boys Are” was still inspiring spring-break college students to the degree that we wouldn’t even try to get to the beach during spring-break because of the traffic and mobs. By late June each year many neighborhoods were all but abandoned and restaurants, if they were open, had few customers. Jump ahead a couple of decades and things have really changed. More business meant more employees. More employees meant more families and that meant more children and all that meant a growing year-round economy. Things were changing and not all for the better.

When I was in the Navy I was a diver and fell in love with coral reefs. In all the forty-eight mainland states only Florida offers coral reefs. If you’ve never glided over or thru a coral reef you have missed one of life’s great experiences and you should try it as quickly as you can. Many people plan trips to tropical places for the beaches and warm water but for very little extra money and effort a coral reef is only a short swim away.

The main attractions in Florida are fishing, boating, beach-combing and diving. Everything is focused on the water. After we moved to Florida, for a number of years every Sunday morning would find us at the beach. It started with breakfast and the Sunday paper, progressed to beach combing and sunbathing and ended with an onshore dive at a nearby reef. It just didn’t get any better than that.

Soon we discovered the Florida Keys and now we had a get-away place for weekends. In those days summer was the best time to go to “the Keys”. Like the rest of Florida, summer was off-season and hotels were cheap. As Florida residents we could frequently find deals at four star hotels that included breakfast and dinner for two for less than a hundred dollars a day! The Keys were everything we loved about Florida and more.

Just recently we spent a week in the Florida Keys. With the exception of Key West it has been over ten years since we’ve been in the Keys and that was way too long. Last September hurricane Irma rolled over the southern Keys as a category four storm. That explains the question mark in this title. Category four hurricanes are incredibly destructive and it always takes time to recover. Part of this trip was to see what progress has been made. This post is presented in four parts:

  1. An Introduction To The Florida Keys
  2. Key West, A Different Sort of Place 
  3. Where to Dine In The Keys (coming soon)
  4. Is It Time To Visit The Keys Again? (coming soon)

Our Florida Keys, An Introduction

Come with us and we’ll show you around our Keys.

The Keys Are Not What You Probably Think

Most people have an image of the Caribbean as miles of white sand beaches, all-inclusive resorts and exotic cultures. The Florida Keys are none of that. Many people visiting Florida plan a trip down to the Keys as part of the vacation and often they are disappointed. They arrive in the Keys thinking grand resorts, miles of sandy beaches and fancy seafood restaurants. The reality is there are very few beaches in the Keys and fancy resorts are few and far between and the best food is grilled fresh from the sea often on docks with picnic tables.

Resort at Islamorada
Resort at Islamorada

Geographically the Keys are a narrow band of small islands connected by bridges that stretch almost a hundred miles south out of Miami. U.S. Route 1 here is called the Overseas Highway and ends at the southern most point in the United States. There are a number of islands  that are only a couple of hundred feet or less wide so you understand how unique this piece of the planet is. One bridge actually stretches across seven miles of water. Most shorelines are rocky and often covered in washed up eel grass.

The lifestyle is laid-back in an oddly rural sort of way with only a few towns like, Kay Largo, Islamorada, and Marathon along that hundred miles, and just one small city, Key West. All the rest are just wide spots on the overseas highway with only a few with enough need to warrant a supermarket.

So don’t come seeking fancy because this is “The Keys”. But if you love watersports, are a fisherman, a boater, enjoy diving or snorkeling welcome to paradise. If you believe a great meal is fresh caught seafood thrown on a grill or a good evening is a tiki-hut bar with a guitar player singing while watching the Sun sink into the sea, this is the place.

Besides what nature has provided in the Keys you will find a few attractions along the miles mostly focused on nature but a few of historical note.

You’ll find the African Queen  (also known as S/L Livingstone) a boat used in the 1951 movie The African Queen starring Humprey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. It is located in Key Largo, Florida. I would be surprised if many people still know about the movie and that’s probably a shame but on February 18, 1992, someone thought enough about it to have it added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Arts and crafts in Islamorada
Arts and crafts in Islamorada
The Pilar at Outdoor World
The Pilar at Outdoor World

The other is the Pilar. Ernest Hemingway loved Key West and owned a 38-foot fishing boat named Pilar. Papa Hemingway sailed the Pilar out of Cuba and Key West on frequent fishing trips including to the Bahamas and the Marquesas. Papa’s adventures with the Pilar were legendary including world record sport fishing catches and hunting for German subs in WWII. Pilar had a twin sister (an exact duplicate also named Pilar and with the same boatyard lettering) and it is on display in the Outdoor World Bass Pro Shop in Islamorada, Florida.

Navigating the Keys starts at the North end with Key Largo. It is a large island and home to Pennekamp Underwater State Park along with a number of resorts. While it has a patch of sand here and there it has no real beaches. From the number of businesses lining the highway it is obvious that diving is its main focus. It also offers a State Park featuring a fossil coral reef that was quarried for a number of years used in Florida buildings.

Next comes Tavernier just south of Largo. It is actually a town and boasts one of the Keys only movie theaters. It also doesn’t have any real beaches to speak of.

Seven Mile Bridge
Seven Mile Bridge

Twelve miles on from Tavernier is Islamorada which includes a number of nice hotels and good restaurants. It is home to the big Outdoor World store but again no beaches. We actually prefer Islamorada as it has some character with an art colony and something like a night life.

The next real town is Marathon which boasts a small airport, several good accommodations and it actually has a couple of stretches of nice sandy beach. One is located at Key Colony that includes a few beach front hotels and the other is Sombrero Beach which is a public park. Leaving Marathon you come to Seven Mile Bridge and at the south end of the bridge is a great park.

The beach at Bahia Honda Park
The beach at Bahia Honda Park
Bulldozer restoring Bahia Honda Beach
Bulldozer restoring Bahia Honda Beach

Bahia Honda State Park is probably the best public camping in the Keys, has a nice beach on the Gulf as well as cabins for rent (reservations usually required). It also has a marina and boat launch and an Atlantic beach, but that has been closed since Irma because of damage but they are working at restoring it.

The last key that could be called a town before Key West is Big Pine Key which is most famous for its population of wild key deer. A unique species found only in the Keys.

 

Winter Garden, Florida In the Shadow of Orlando

A Cute Town With A Juicy Past

Orlando is a massive metroplex with dozens of suburban towns that include Walt Disney World in the west and Winter Park in the Northeast. Within the Orlando orbit and located twenty miles due north of Disney World is the town of Winter Garden.

It was a thriving town in the early twentieth century with it’s principle focus on growing oranges (juicy past). It was located in Orange County and at one time shipped more fruit than any other spot in the nation. Centrally located. two railroad lines passed through the town bringing in tourists and hauling out oranges. Many of the tourists came to fish Lake Apopka, once an international capital for bass fishing.

By mid-century the lake was terribly polluted (mostly from agricultural runoff on its north shore), the orange industry had consolidated around mostly larger corporate groves that had moved farther south and the town was drying up.

The town has enjoyed a rebirth recently. In 1994 the West Orange Trail opened on the former Atlantic Coast Line rail bed and become one of the states most popular biking and walking trails stretching out to twenty some miles. Created by Orange County the trail included way stations and rest stops doted along its length. On weekends Winter Garden plays host to throngs of bikers from all over riding the West Orange Trail. The middle of the trail runs right through the center of Plant Street, Winter Garden’s main downtown strip.

For several decades Lake Apopka has seen extensive efforts to reverse its pollution and the results are showing signs of making a difference. Anglers are catching bass again and boaters are using the lake for recreation. The town is making use of a lakeside park for concerts and Forth of July celebrations and there are plans to improve the waterfront.

Located on Plant Street along with two bicycle shops are a number of noteworthy attractions including the Edgewater Hotel. Developed in the 1920s as a state-of-the art accommodation for the anglers who visited Winter Garden to fish largemouth bass, it now operates as an upscale boutique bed and breakfast.

Also there’s the Plant Street Market, a new facility that looks a lot like Winter Park’s original Farmer’s Market. On the outside, the brick building looks like a survivor from the earlier century, but inside it’s 21st-century modern, with a craft brewery along with a number of food venue choices.

The town includes the Garden Theatre, which originally opened in 1935 as a modern motion-picture theatre and was restored in 2008 to become a performing-arts center that now offers plays, concerts and movie festivals.

The downtown district covers an area about eight blocks long and two to three blocks wide and within this area are two museums, several gift shops, four women’sdress shops, more than ten restaurants and three café/coffee shops.

Weekends are full of events with Friday night music on the square in the town center, along with additional music usually available in three or four other venues around town. Live music is usually featured all weekend at The Attic Door wine café, Pilars Martini Bar (Pilars also features a great open-mic jazz Sunday) along with the Crooked Can Brewery in Plant Street Market.

 

Saturday mornings start with one of the best Farmers Markets in Florida and continues with more live music around town going right thru Sunday. Recently on one Saturday evening there was live music going on at seven different locations in town.

 

Winter Garden is also noteworthy for a number of special weekend events throughout the year. There is the Spring Fling Garden Show, Blues and Barbeque, Classic Car nights, Halloween Treats in Town, Holiday Light Up Winter Garden., Orlando Symphony on the Lake, along with a couple of music concert weekends taking over the length of Plant Street.

If you are visiting Orlando or live within driving distance and are looking for a fun day consider a visit to Winter Garden. Unfortunately other than the Edgewater Hotel there are not a lot of hotels nearby.