My recent (and first!) trip to the Florida Keys yielded lots of what I search for in my travels.
Delicious eats, beautiful sights, historical jaunts, unique cultural experiences and good company were all easily found. Of course I am also ALWAYS on the look-out for delicious beverages and interesting drinking culture wherever I go. I was expecting to find both while I was there. This was after-all, Hemingway territory! And sooo close to the Caribbean with all it's amazing rums. Unfortunately, my forays into the world of beverage were not very successful. I found enough overly sweetened frozen drinks, sour mix, and plastic cups to choke a manatee, but truly delicious beverages seemed to be scarce. Perhaps I’m being harsh? The purpose of my visit was to spend time with my aunt, not to investigate the drinking scene.
The Keys are a series of islands that extend downward and to the west off the southern tip of Florida. They are sandy, low-elevation islands that formed on top of coral reefs. Hundreds of these islands make up the Keys, only a small portion of them are big enough for habitation. As you drive through the keys, it’s rare to find a place where you can’t see the ocean, in fact a great deal of the time you can see it on either side of you, and some of the time you are actually driving right over the water.
My Aunt and her husband winter with a flock of retirees escaping the Midwestern cold and snow.
This community started out as a campground with a couple of small waterways running through it. People loved it there and returned year after year, eventually putting manufactured homes (I think back then they still called them trailers) in as vacation homes. As the value of the tiny campground plots went up people started gussying up those trailers, squeezing on additions, porches, and putting in boat slips. Now the owners have started building full-on houses. The sites are still campground sized, and new construction must be on stilts, so the houses have a very small base, and are very tall, like little campground high-rises.
My visit was short, only a few days long, so it was necessary for our adventure to get underway quickly. I was delighted to be starting at a local happy hour hot spot on (appropriately) Fiesta Key. We were among the good company of my aunt’s friends, a wonderful server, and a way cute little lap dog. I was quite disappointed to find a weak beverage selection, though some redemption could be found in the offering of a few locally made IPAs. The one that I tried, “Sunsessionable”, made by Fort Lauderdale’s Flagler Village Brewery, was a good choice, and it went great with my fried alligator bites! They could have been fried pretty much anything bites, but I was still overjoyed at the novelty of it all.
Afterward we went home and got ship shape for a night of square dancing! This was the whole reason my aunt and her husband were staying in this particular community. They both have spent many years square dancing, they actually met at one. This community in the keys was the only one that had square dancing meetings, so that’s where they came. Although I am a pretty great dancer generally, I’ve never learned to square dance, so I couldn’t get in on the action. Instead I sat on the sidelines, eating brownies and drinking sweet tea (yay sweet tea! That was a delicious beverage victory.) The dancers were so hospitable, I wasn’t left alone for more than a minute. It was like they took turns keeping me company. Afterward we went home, I was happily stuffed with brownies and good conversation.
We spent the first full day of my visit in Key West. Key West is the furthest of the keys from the Florida mainland. It’s actually closer to Cuba than it is to Miami! Key West was author Ernest Hemingway’s home for many years. My Aunt and her Husband graciously willing to accommodate my interest in all things Hemingway, so we started off at Sloppy Joe’s Bar. It beckoned to us from the raucous Duval Street party strip just after we parked. This was Hemingway’s watering hole while he lived it the keys, in fact Sloppy Joe and he were great friends. In these modern times it’s packed to the gills with both super cool Hemingway memorabilia and tourists, a winning combo for the tourists and owners alike, I’m sure. Because in “To Have and Have Not”, Hemingway’s novel that deals with Key West, the main character is sometimes a rum-runner, I ordered the house “Rum-Runner”, a classic Tiki cocktail. I was pretty sure that I wasn't going to get a delicious, balanced and nuanced drink in this tourist trap of a bar, but it seemed like the appropriate beverage. What was delivered to the table was about as gross as I thought it would be, though somehow still oddly pleasurable.
Luckily the live entertainment surpassed expectations! The musician (whose name I tried to find on their website, to no avail) had a great versatile voice. He was performing covers of 70s – 90s songs, and each one that I heard was great.
We jumped on the Conch Train Tour next (in Key West everything is Conch this and Conch that. Its pronounced like a “konk” on the head and is what native islanders refer to themselves as. For a delightful bit of modern Florida history watch this.) The Conch Train provides one of those tours where you can ride along, and the driver tells you nice stories from the history of the place, but you can also hop off when you want to investigate the sights further. When you’re done you hop back on and rejoin the tour right where you left off.
We were about two thirds of the way around the tour loop when we jumped off to see my number one Key West destination, the home of the aforementioned author and perhaps most famous of American bar flies, Ernest Hemingway. This house was beyond a doubt my favorite part of our day in Key West. It is in great condition outside and in, and the furniture and the items it contains actually belonged to Hemingway and his Key West wife, Mary (he tended to get divorced from one wife, then set up shop in a new locale with a new wife every so often). Pretty cool. The house also contains 40-50 cats, many of which are six toed. They’re the descendants of Snowball Jr., a cat that was given to Hemingway by a sailor. The old weathered sailor types considered six toed cats to be good luck, and ol’
Hem needed all the luck he could get. In the back-yard of the house is a water fountain. Mary emerged the morning after the big bar move and was less than delighted to find a URINAL in her back yard. It was a souvenir of Ernest’s adventures the night before, and he insisted it should stay. Making the best of a piss-poor situation Mary had the outside of the urinal covered with beautiful Spanish tile, attached a child sized olive jar, and turned it into a gorgeous water fountain. I’ll admit to being tempted to follow in the footsteps of the great man and use the fountain for its original purpose, but since that clearly would have been a bad choice for the 40-50 kitties who used it as a drinking fountain, I instead stepped in to his study. This was the upper room, detached from the house, where he went to write every
morning. It was in this very room that he produced many of his great works, including “A Farewell to Arms”, Death in the Afternoon”, “To Have and Have Not”, and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. His chair is there, pulled up to his table. His typewriter sits on the table. It was a special moment for me, being in the space where he spent so much of his time. He was complicated, and though I certainly don’t admire every aspect of his life (alcoholic, philanderer, sport hunter), I do still greatly admire the man. He spent many years fighting through mental illness to live a remarkable life as an adventurer, a renaissance man, and an incredibly well loved and influential writer.
Somebody (me) took too long in the Hemingway House gift shop and so we missed the last conch train. I was bummed to not hear the rest of the Key West tour, but we made the best of rough seas and booked it over to the butterfly house where Rhett the Caribbean Flamingo was really trying to get Scarlett the Caribbean Flamingo to pay him some attention. (Scarlett definitely didn’t give a damn.) There were countless beautiful butterflies, many of them munching on the ripe fruit that was set out for them. I could have spent a whole day in that room, surrounded by the plants, birds, butterflies and luxuriating in the warmth.
We had dinner close-by at Eaton Fish Market. We stepped inside and ordered at the counter, then picked our food up from a window outside. The whole service aspect of the meal was a bit chaotic, but the stone crab, smoked fish dip, and conch ceviche (all local specialties) were worth it. Conch isn’t just a name the locals give themselves, it’s also a mollusk that lives close to the shore around the keys. They have a mild flavor and firm texture, similar to calamari. There wasn't a bar here, so I satisfied myself with a Mexican Coke. Always a solid choice.
After dinner we walked back to the corner where Sloppy Joe’s is. The location we visited isn't Sloppy Joe’s original home, it was first located right around the corner on Greene Street. Apparently sometime after Hemingway started drinking at the original location the bar up and moved in the middle of the night to avoid a 33% rent hike. Hemingway was there for the move, and one of the urinals from that original Sloppy Joe's ended up in his back yard the next morning! Where the original Sloppy Joe’s was is now the home of Captain Tony’s Saloon (I’m sensing a naming trend). Because of the role it played in the Hemingway Key West legacy we headed over to check it out. Tony’s doesn’t yell about Hemingway the way Joe’s does, in fact I didn't see any references to him at all. It is dark, and atmospheric, and claims to be the oldest bar in Florida. There are dollar bills and bras hanging from the low ceiling. A glimpse across the bar didn’t inspire the confidence I needed to order a drink, so we headed home.
The next day was filled with boat rides, a tour of a historic island, and a visit
to a nature preserve. I also saw a great deal of damage from Hurricane Irma. Houses were washed off of their foundations, palms stripped of leaves, ground stripped of grass. Travel trailers and boats were sitting at odd angles near the side of the road, storm-worn and sun-bleached. There were empty buildings, plywood hanging off some windows, others blown out. It felt like an odd honor, visiting at this time, just 5 months after the hurricane, and seeing both the destruction that had been wrought, but also recognizing how much had been done already to bring it back. I felt good about spending my tourist dollars there.
Lunch entailed a visit to another awesome fish market, the Keys Fisheries, Market, and Marina. Although I had to give yet another bar a solid "eh", the food was yummy, and I did get to try my first oyster shooter! So that was exciting.
The lowest point in my drinking experience of this trip came that night when we went out to dinner. Everybody in our group was taking advantage of the “early bird special” (retirees with fixed incomes seek out deals, of course), so I followed suit. The special came with a free glass of wine, bonus! To be clear, I wasn’t expecting much out of the Chianti that I chose from the free wine options, but I WAS expecting more than the glass of straight up vinegar that arrived at the table. I was sufficiently shamed by the server when I told her my wine had turned. She literally laughed out loud before telling me “We open a fresh jug every day”. Good grief. Though filled with self-loathing I asked for a glass of the free Chablis instead (I figured that would suit me better than the other option, a white zin). It did the trick.
With the next morning came the bitter end. I sadly bid my aunt, her husband, and their adorable little dog good-bye. On the bus ride out of the Keys and back toward deliciousness, I reflected on my trip. Drink disappointments aside, there were plenty of good times with family, and I got to witness Midwestern snowbirds in their natural habitat, which was pretty fascinating. The biggest take-away(s) from this trip? One, I have been absolutely, 100%, beyond a doubt, spoiled to the point of snobbery by my access to delicious beverages. The days of Red Dog beer and Cysco are far behind me. Two, this lady needs to drink happily in retirement. I have increased my retirement fund contribution accordingly.
Want to make a great Rum Runner? Try this recipe. It was invented in the Keys! At the Holiday Isle Tiki Bar on Islamorada Key. “Tiki John” Ebert was the creator. The original bar is still there, an adventure for another trip.
1 1/2 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz blackberry brandy
1 oz crème de banana
1/2 oz grenadine
1 oz 151 Caribbean rum
Shake with crushed ice and pour into your favorite tiki mug.
*adapted from the original by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry
How about an Oyster Shooter?
1 oz spicy bloody mary mix
1 oz vodka
1 freshly shucked live oyster with it's juice
put all ingredients in a small glass and... bottoms up!