Published in the Chronicle/Advisor
You know you’re not in Michigan anymore when the first warm blast of air (scented by jet fuel) hits you as you leave the plane and enter the jet way. When I asked a Michigan native why they live in the Florida Keys for half the year, “It’s as far south as you can go and still be in the U.S..” South is good when there are piles of snow lining your driveway. We had modest goals for our long weekend—sun, sand and seafood. And water—lots of blue water!
The temperatures were hovering in the high 70s as we drove down U.S. 1 towards the Florida Keys. Three airports are in driving distance of this chain of small islands stretching for 120 miles between the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean. West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami all boast Keys friendly driving distances. You can also fly right into Key West’s small international airport (think postage stamp run-way) but the airfare is considerably more expensive.
The drive down the Keys is a mostly two-lane highway, where topping 55 mph is an accomplishment. But what’s your hurry? It is one of the most beautiful drives in the world, with expansive vistas of aquamarine water reaching as far as the eye can see on both sides. The first of five major keys or islands is Key Largo, a perfect spot for lunch after flying and driving since 0’ dark hundred. A family (and an army) travel on their stomachs after all! We choose a perennial favorite with an unoriginal name, The Fish House at mile marker 102.5. Mile markers are attached to the road signs and tell you were you as you progress towards the last island, Key West, mile marker 0.
We were sold by the claim that they serve only fresh fish brought to the restaurant’s back door and then filleted and prepared on the premises. How much fresher could you get? The outside of the restaurant looked sketchy as my daughter said. But inside was bright, with the fish motif carried to the nth degree including nets hanging from the ceiling. And the food was fabulous. Succulent boiled and u-peel shrimp, called pink gold by the locals, best in class fried calamari, lovely grouper Matecumbe, baked and topped with fresh tomatoes, shallots, basil, capers, olive oil and lemon juice. The last dish was The Fish House’s original creation that has been featured in “Cooking Light” magazine.
You drive across dozens of small islands with names like No Name Key, Greyhound Key and Plantation Key. Our destination was Duck Key, home of Hawks Cay Resort where we have stayed before. This weekend we were going to stay with friends a few keys down but wanted to check out what a $35 million renovation had done to what was already a lovely resort. It’s a big place, 402 rooms and villas with five restaurants. That was at least two more than last time we stayed. The beautiful saltwater lagoon was as inviting as we remembered and they had really souped up their dolphin program. Called the Dolphin Connection, they say it is the only one of its kind in North America. Now they even have Segway tours using those wonderful upright two wheeled scooters. Quite a place at quite a price, rooms usually start at $300 a night but they did have a web only special of $189 a night that would be a huge deal if it matched the dates you wanted to stay.
Continuing down the route, it was almost time for dinner. There is a food theme to all our travels. Lots of choices in Marathon, the mid point, but we traveled on to the Square Grouper in Cudjoe Key, at mile marker 22.5. It was worth the extra miles. The fish selections had all the freshness of the Fish House but with even more inventive and exciting flavor combinations. A square grouper is what they call the bale of marijuana that gets dumped overboard by smugglers when law enforcement comes alongside (news to me!).
The menu is dived into ocean and earth and we sampled from both. We tried the island shrimp cakes with banana pepper aioli and the pasta with shrimp scallops and fresh fish of the day. My husband almost licked his plate of roasted duck breast with a spicy tamarind garlic sauce. The wine was displayed in unusual cubbyholes around the restaurant and the wine list was pronounced very satisfactory by the wine snobs at the table.
Now on to Key West itself, the largest town by far with 25,500 souls. Lots of hotel and restaurant choices here, and nice, uncrowded public beaches. We met our other two goals, lying in sand for sun baked oblivion for many hours (with lots of sunscreen!). Some people avail themselves of the plentiful snorkeling, sport fishing, glass bottomed boats and jet skies. About five miles off-shore, along the length of the Keys is the only living-coral barrier reef in the continental U.S. The coral formations are famous for their abundance of fish, from impressive schools of blue-striped grunts to toothy green moray eels. This is a must see on our next trip.
Once we were thoroughly unthawed, we ventured into town. Fortified by a terrific mohito (rum, mint, lime, sugar and soda water) at The Grand Café on Duval Street, we walked almost the length of the street. This is important only because Duval is known as the longest street in the world, since it stretches from the Gulf to the Atlantic. By now the temperature had soared to the high 80s, so ice cream was a must. We choose The Flamingo Crossing where they make their own. English cream, mint chocolate chip and Cuban coffee satisfied our frozen flavor cravings.
Lots o’ tacky T-shirt shops, interspersed with some nice art galleries and clothing stores line both sides of Duval Street. Like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, you can buy beverages as you walk down the street and carry them from spot to spot. We ended up in Mallory Square to watch the sunset, a Key West tradition. In the shadow of a giant Disney cruise ship, we were feted by street musicians and young men on unicycles, juggling fire and knives. The carnival atmosphere is heightened by the wild variety of visitors, from the two men wearing the same hideous Hawaiian shirts, meeting by chance to discuss who paid less, to grandmothers pushing strollers and teenagers on the lam from their parents.
Our final meal was a tribute to the small island nation only 90 miles from Key West, Cuba. Key West is actually closer to Cuba than it is to Miami. We chose El Siboney, a family owned restaurant in a plain brick building slightly off the beaten track. The budget conscious prices were a good way to end the long weekend. It’s the kind of place where locals order by the number. I had the number 3, Roast Pork, Casava, Tamale. Casava is yucca root and tastes like potatoes. It may have been potato for all I know. It was a huge plate of food for $9.95 so my husband had to eat half of it to accompany his El Siboney Steak, a specially seasoned hangar steak with yellow rice and black beans.
Then it was back to the rental car for the three- hour drive past shimmering blue waters, lined with mangrove trees, to the airport and our flight back to reality and the frozen Midwest.