I get around.
I get around.
We got up at 7:15, which wasn’t that pleasant, but we had to be out of the room by 8am. Technically we were supposed to get off the ship at 8am (they send people off in groups depending on where they’re going afterward), but since our plans involved a cab to the airport for a 12:30 flight, we had plenty of time.
We went up to the buffet for one last gruel and Maxwell’s Foreclosure, and the place was absolutely packed, to the point we had trouble finding a table. I’ve never seen anything on a cruise ship so crowded, so I was amazed. After eating, we took our carryons down to the 4th deck, where we were supposed to exit. There was a line of people standing there, so we joined it, not really knowing what was going on. (I mean, they were pointed toward the exit.) After standing there a long time without moving, we decided to go to the spot we were originally supposed to meet before debarkation.
We got to the theater and I asked one of the staff about whether we should wait, or if we could get off. She said they were having trouble with the gangway, so we should join everyone in the theatre. We went in and got seats, and ended up waiting there for a very long time. I was glad we’d decided to leave the line, so we could at least sit down.
They finally announced that we could leave, so we headed off the ship and down to the building with all the luggage. The gangway had obviously worked at one point, because ours were the only suitcases left in our disembarkation group. We then took them over to the customs line, and proceeded to stand there FOREVER, because it was run by the most distractable lady on earth. At least it was fun watching the cute drug-sniffing dog running up and down the line.
Finally we were free of the cruise terminal. We got a cab to the airport and went to check in at Cape Air. They told us how to find the gates, took our bags, and sent us on our way with a couple hours to kill. We got coffee at Starbucks, and had a surprisingly decent lunch at Mango’s, which had the only vegetarian food in the terminal. We then went to hang out at Air Margaritaville for a bit, enjoying the airport’s free wifi and a Medalla.
Then it was time to catch our flight, so we headed back to the small-plane terminal. They called our flight time, and directed us down an escalator to the lower level. There we met up with two other couples, and then an agent led us out onto the tarmac. I love any day I get to walk on the tarmac!!
As expected, the plane was tiny. It had 4 rows of seats, but they only let us use three of them. Matt’s seat folded down, so that the front row could exit more easily. They took our carry-ons and stowed them in the nose and over the wings, and of course I forgot to grab my phone or camera. We strapped in, and our pilot (Captain Jim!) just turned around in his seat to tell us about the exits in case of emergency. It was awesome.
And then we were off to Vieques! We took off over the ocean, and hugged the coast of Puerto Rico all the way around the east end of the island. We could see El Yunque National Forest, and Fajardo, the port where the ferries to the islands depart. (We had considered the ferry, but it’s apparently unreliable, slow, and you have to get to Fajardo. Flying was much easier.) Within a few minutes, we could see Vieques, and then the airstrip we were landing on. Seeing the approach and landing out the front window of an airplane feels a lot like a video game. (While I’ve flown an airplane before, I’ve never landed one. I don’t even remember what it’s like.)
We climbed out onto the tarmac at VQS, which could not be more different from the airport in San Juan. It was tiny, with a single building and four circles for airplanes to park. (We were parked in the spot reserved for the W’s private jet – it’s the only resort on the island.) They handed us our carry-ons, and the pilot told us to grab our suitcases off the world’s smallest conveyor belt.
We went inside, and the conveyor belt was no joke – it was maybe 10′ across, with half outside and half inside. Awesome.
We had a Jeep reserved from Maritza’s Car Rental, which I’d chosen because they were the only one advertising airport pickup. The booth was there, but nobody was in attendance. (It had a sign saying it was closed 12-1, and it was after one.) I called them, and they said they were on their way over. In the meantime, a guy sitting there at the airport saw us looking at the tourist map, and came over to talk. It turns out he and his girlfriend were leaving after three days in Vieques, and he wanted to give us some advice. We appreciated that like crazy, because there is hardly anything about Vieques on the internet beyond the usual TripAdvisor stuff. No good maps, no restaurant menus, no great advice beyond which beaches to go to and “you need a Jeep to get anywhere”.
They gave us loads of advice on getting around, on beaches to visit (he verified the Jeep thing), about the BioBay, and even which restaurants had good vegetarian food, as they were also vegetarian. He showed us everything on the map, too, and we lamented that that awesome tourist map wasn’t online anywhere. (Vieques is small enough that they can draw almost every single business on the island on the map. Really.) He also told us what he’d been told: Vieques has 9,000 people and 3,000 horses, so watch out for them on the road. Our car showed up a few minutes later, so we thanked them profusely and headed out.
I was expecting a crappy beat-up Jeep, but what we got was fantastic. It was basically brand new! I was super-excited to drive a Jeep, too, because I never had before. We named it Captain Ron, following our longstanding ‘Captain’ tradition.
We’d decided to do a VRBO rental in Vieques, based on advice from other people and the fact that they really don’t have much in the way of hotels beyond the W (which was $600 a night, and really not our style). It was about 1:45 and we couldn’t check in at the house til 3, so we decided to drive into town to the grocery store before calling the owner to get directions.
Vieques has two towns – Isabel Segundo, where the ferry lands on the north side of the island – and Esperanza on the south side. They’re barely even towns, really… Isabel is larger and is maybe 10 square blocks. There’s one main road that runs across the top of the island, from the airport and the W, just past Isabel II. From there, there are three main roads that go north-south, all ending up in Esperanza. The entire eastern half of the island is protected nature preserve / former bombing range, and a lot of it is still closed due to the very real possibility of land mines. (The US military rented out Vieques and Culebra as bombing grounds up through the 1960s, which is why they’re still so undeveloped.)
We took the main road into Esperanza (passing a cockfighting facility along the way), looking for the grocery store the couple had recommended. He said that it looked sketchy, so we decided it was the bodega on the corner. We parked the Jeep, locked everything (we’d been warned), and went to the store. We ended up with an overfull basket, a bottle of rum, and some $3/bottle Kona beers, and a huge backup of people in line behind us while they run us up.
They didn’t have everything we wanted at the store, so we went down a couple blocks to the other grocery store we’d seen. That was the actual grocery store, we realized as we entered. We stocked up on more supplies for tacos, plenty of drink mixers, coffee, plantain chips, and other things we needed to stock up at the hacienda (our name for the rental house, based on the awesome photos). We grabbed a 6-pack of Medalla, too.
Once we were fully outfitted, I called the owner. My signal kept going in and out, and I barely had an internet connection, despite T-Mobile’s assurances of 4G LTE in all of Puerto Rico. I got his voicemail, so I left a message and we decided to drive on and see things until he called back. A little ways down the road, my phone rang, so I pulled over and grabbed it. It wouldn’t connect, of course. Finally, we found a spot where my phone worked, and I got the owner on the line. It turned out he was in Maryland at the time.
His directions to the house were something like this: “Go down the road until you see mom&pop store, and then there’s a two-story wooden building that looks like it’s falling down, but it’s actually a store. Turn there. Go by some mailboxes and turn there. Look for a house called ____ and it’s right past there. There’s a really steep driveway.” Then he told me where to find the key. We went over the directions again since that stuff was not on my tourist map (as far as I could tell), and then Matt and I set off to find it. Since I’m godawful at landmark-based directions (I like cardinal, thank you very much), I told Matt twice what he had told me, so we wouldn’t forget it.
We found the first grocery store, and then the falling-down building was unmistakeable (it would later become known as “the ramshackle”). We found the mailboxes, and the house he’d named, so we knew we were in the right place. It was at the top of a very tall hill, and the road up there was gorgeous.
We turned the only direction we could go from the house, and looked for a steep driveway. Down the road a little bit, we came to the top of a cliff. It wasn’t a road, it was what you see when you get to the top of the biggest hill on a rollercoaster, and can’t actually see the track below you. I flipped out. There was no way in hell I was taking a vehicle, or anything, down that gigantic steep hill. That kind of road would not even be legal on the mainland.
(This was only the top, and doesn’t do it justice. But hey, you can see the ocean and the bioluminescent bays from there!)
We sat there parked at the top of the hill, and decided we had no choice. He’d said it was a really steep driveway, after all. This was more of a road than a driveway, but it was also the steepest thing I’d ever seen. So we started off.
I rode the brake the whole way down, unsure whether to let up and tear down the hill to get it over with, or whether I’d hold on too long and we’d tumble onto the roof. I’ve never been so terrified driving before. We were leaning back as far as we could, because I was sure we were going to flip right over.
But we made it!! At the bottom was a whole big crowd of peacocks waiting for us. I was so upset about the hill that I didn’t even bother taking their picture. (Mostly it was the prospect of having to drive down that same hill every single day, even at night, while we were there. We’d never leave the house.)
What was not at the bottom of the hill was the house we were looking for. There was a dead end, so we turned around (which was a challenge). We looked around, and the house was definitely not there – I’d seen pictures online, and these were not it. We’d have to drive BACK UP the same damn hill.
Part of the way up, we saw a guy hanging out in his garage, so we stopped and asked if he had any idea where the place might be. He wasn’t sure, but thought maybe it was back up at the top by the ____ house. We hadn’t seen anything else up there, but we had to go back up there anyway. Unbelievably, we made it back up the hill. At that point, I absolutely knew for sure why people drove 4WD in Vieques.
We ended up back by the ____ house, our last known waypoint, and I found a spot where I could get a signal again. We called and talked to the owner, and he said we’d gone too far; the driveway was immediately past the ___ house. When he said that, we recalled the gap in the fence at the end of the wall, and I knew that had to be it. I thanked him, and we turned back around.
By the time we turned, there was a horse walking out of the driveway to our hacienda. He was showing us the way, obviously. I nosed the Jeep into the fence-gap, and then we could see the house at the bottom of what was indeed a very steep driveway. But that driveway was nothing like the road we’d just driven down, so that made it seem easy. We parked the Jeep, dragged out our bags and groceries, and I went to retrieve the key.
Our hacienda was AMAZING.
There was a patio that wrapped around two sides of the house, and the one with the grill and coconut palms had a view of the nature preserve and the ocean. It was perfect.
There were geckos all over the place, too.
The place was gigantic, and decorated with African masks and furniture that had obviously been acquired over many years. There was a full kitchen (we were looking forward to cooking after a week), and a washer and dryer so we could do the laundry. I got on that right away, of course.
After so many days of constant motion, always having to make transportation plans and stick to schedules and cut short our time in places, I was really excited at the idea of just staying at the house for the rest of the day. It was exactly 3pm, we had all the groceries we needed, and we were alone on top of a hill overlooking the ocean. It was perfect. We opened some beers and sat in deck chairs on the patio, watching birds in the trees. (I was on the lookout for more horses in the yard, too.)
The palm tree over our heads had a couple really big coconuts on it, but they were well out of our reach. Since the VRBO listing had mentioned picking your own coconuts, I was determined to make it happen. I knew we wouldn’t be able to open them without a machete, so I went poking around the laundry closet where things seemed to be stored. I found two machetes in there, so I brought one out and we started swinging at the coconut. It was still too far away to reach the branch holding it, though, so I went back to the utility closet and found an extendable painting pole.
We had to stand on a planter, and it took a good half-hour or so to make it happen, but we got that damn coconut off the tree. Then we took turns hacking at it til we got it open, and drained the juice out. (We managed to open it the rest of the way after that.)
Then Matt made cocktails with the coconut juice and Barrilito, and it was the greatest thing ever. (He named it the Caribella: Barrilito, lime, soursoup juice, simple syrup, and coconut water.) We sat on the patio for a very long time, just staring at the forest and the ocean beyond it. We had some plantain chips, and watched a huge team of ants carry a tiny piece of chip away at an alarming pace.
Round about dinnertime, we headed to the kitchen and made tostones and tacos with sofrito rice, beans, cheese, and huitlacoche. Matt made flank steak churrasco on the grill. We ate on the patio with a mosquito coil burning, but didn’t really see much evidence of bugs at all, which surprised me. There were super-loud frogs (particularly the Puerto Rican mascot, who yells COQUI!) and geckos running everywhere, and the weather was absolutely perfect.
While we were playing dominoes outside, I started to feel like I was getting a cold. OF COURSE. We decided to go inside and turn on the bedroom A/C and hang out. Matt turned on the TV to see if we could find the Gophers hockey game, since it was on one of the ESPN channels that night, and the place had satellite. Well, apparently they turn off the service when they’re not there, because all we got were a ton of free channels (which were mostly home shopping). Thankfully, DirecIV was doing a free preview promo, and one of the included channels was the NHL Network. So we got to watch some hockey after all.
I had a lot of trouble sleeping because of my cold and seasickness (oh no, it never goes away right away!), but I still got up at 9:15 feeling much better than I had on the ship. I went to make coffee, and we had breakfast on the patio. I was so happy to have decent Puerto Rican coffee, too.
We showered and got geared up for the beach, which required more work than you might think: we needed towels, cooler, beer, lots of water, some snacks, sunscreen, cold medicine and kleenex, and beach chairs (which we found in the closet at the hacienda). We piled all those things in the Jeep and headed toward Blue Beach, the one the people at the airport had liked the best.
I noticed when I turned the Jeep hard to the left that the steering wheel kind of caught, and I had trouble steering. I figured maybe that was just a Jeep thing, but I wasn’t sure. Driving that big bouncy thing around with vertigo was pretty entertaining, too.
The turnoff for the nature preserve was a few miles down the road toward Esperanza. From there it’s a few miles on a potholed, washboard road covered in horse poop, because there are wild horses wandering around everywhere. It’s fantastic.
There are a few beaches along the way, but we wanted to go to the one that was known for having signs about unexploded bombs. There was a mysterious detour along the way, near some mysterious gates with multiple ‘no trespassing’ signs. We got to the beach access road, and drove until we found a little parking area that had the fewest cars (there are 13 beach access spots, and apparently 11-13 have gazebos; they were the most crowded. We went to 7, right by the road closure.) There was a sign there warning us to stay on travelled paths, because otherwise we might be blown up by 1950s bombs. SERIOUSLY.
We’d been told by the people at the airport that theft was a problem at the beaches, with all those untended cars sitting around. The solution was to take everything with you, and just leave the windows of the car open so they didn’t get broken.
So, yeah, check out just how crowded Blue Beach was.
There weren’t any shady spots to be had, so we set up our beach chairs and cooler and covered ourselves in SPF 50. We cracked some beers and just hung out looking at the ocean. There was an island that was fairly close to shore, and there were signs all over it warning people to not go onto the island because of unexploded ordnance. (Pictured in the header above.) Snorkel boats were bringing people to swim at the reef right next to it, though.
We went to swim for a long time, which mainly consisted of bobbing around in the water. The temperature was perfect. After that we sat in our beach chairs again, and decided to cut open the mysterious fruit I’d picked up at the bodega the previous day. It turned out to be the world’s largest yellow avocado, so we ate that with a bag of plantain chips.
A guy named Brandon (who Matt termed the “one-man brodown”) showed up with three women, and they picked a spot far too close to us, since we could hear all the immense douchiness Brandon was broadcasting around the beach. We decided that was a good opportunity for us to go get lunch, so we packed up our stuff, threw it in the Jeep, and headed toward Esperanza. We met these horses along the way:
The town was about five miles or so from the entrance to the nature preserve, on the south side of the island. It was right in the middle of the lunch hour, so the tiny town was crowded. There were a bunch of food trucks and some trinket tents set up in the parking lot at the pier, and a few open-air restaurants facing the malecon. We drove slowly through town checking out our options, and had to go down a few blocks to find parking. We ended up parked next to Lazy Jack’s, a combination hippie restaurant and hostel. (I’d decided from their ad on the tourist map that I didn’t like it, but I really have no idea why.)
We wanted to have lunch at El Blok, a new Jose Enrique restaurant that was also illustrated on the map. It was about three blocks down the malecon, so we headed that direction. We rounded the corner to find the spot that El Blok would be, once construction was finished. It wasn’t even close. (Don’t ever change, Puerto Rico.)
We turned around and decided on Duffy’s (another place I’d judged as a crappy bro-bar based on their tiny ad on the map, but that wasn’t true at all; I don’t think that’s really possible in Esperanza). We got a seat, and were greeted by an awesome server. Their menu said they had the island’s largest selection of craft beers, and that was no joke; there were some selections from the Old Harbor Brewery that we’d visited in San Juan, and a beer fridge full of craft beer from all over the place. I ordered an Abita Turbodog and a veggie burger; Matt had a Stone IPA and a pastele with pork. (Pasteles are traditional Christmas food in Puerto Rico, but the server said they had the guy who made them chained up in the back because they were so good. The tostones were amazing, too.)
After his beer, Matt ordered the house special, the Parcherita, which was a passionfruit margarita with a salt and demerara sugar rim. I just tried his, since I had to navigate a Jeep on the world’s narrowest roads. Our server said people loved them so much that they’d had them as the cocktail at their weddings in Vieques. I couldn’t argue with that, because it was delicious.
By that point, I’d started to realize just how much Esperanza reminded me of Negril, just much tinier. It was really laid-back, everybody was friendly, there were locals drifting in and out of bars, and everywhere you looked there was an amazing view. Even better than Negril, it was clearly gay-friendly… there were rainbow flags everywhere. I was suddenly very, very happy to be there.
We wanted to stay all day, but we had more beaches to visit. We headed to the Jeep and made some phone calls, both to the house’s owner who was checking in, and to make reservations for the BioBay tour on Monday night. Esperanza was one of the few places on the island where we reliably had a phone signal, if not internet connectivity. The owner said the house had wifi and that we just needed to get the password off the router, but that it was also very common for the phone company to “accidentally” cut the lines for DSL, and it would take forever for them to repair it. I told him we’d check and let him know.
The Jeep was still having that weird steering issue every time I made a tight turn (like a u-turn, which I did a lot in Vieques), so I was going to call the car rental place to ask them about it. Matt suggested we just drive over there, since it was only a few miles away. Vieques is indeed tiny! We headed over there, along one of the roads that ran north-south across the island. The road was very windy and forested. We saw a couple places along the way that we wanted to stop – one was an awesome-looking bar with a corrugated aluminum roof, and one was the place we were planning to have dinner later.
We got to Maritza’s, and I stopped into the office to describe the steering issue with the Jeep. They summoned the mechanic, and he took it for a spin (literally) in the parking lot. He said it was just low tires, so they filled them up and we were on our way again. Everyone there was super-friendly, too.
On the way back, we decided to stop into Tin Box (the corrugated-roof place) for a drink. The parking lot was fairly empty, but it appeared to be open. We parked and as we walked in, a older lady working there barked “WE’RE CLOSED!” I asked when they’d be open, and she said “Tuesday”. As we left, there were a few people walking up in obviously wedding-related clothing, so we were pretty sure it was closed for a private event. (That would be the one crabby person we talked to on Vieques.) We got back on the road and headed to Red Beach/Caracas (every beach in Vieques has two names – a color, and a local name).
It was down the same road as Blue Beach, inside the nature preserve. It was “crowded” when we got there, in that there were probably 50 people on the entire beach. A lot of them appeared to be packing up to go, though, since for some reason morning is beach-time. There was a large group of hippie-looking people partying at the far end of the beach, and also there was a nun. A BEACH NUN. I was so excited.
We also saw Brazilian Derek Jeter strutting up and down the beach in his Speedo. He kept going in the water to splash his crotch. I have no idea, but it was pretty entertaining to watch. We hung out and had some beers, then went to swim until about 5:30.
This is my absolute favorite time of day on the beach, when the sun starts to get low:
When we’d been in the water long enough to get cold, it was time to head out. We very nearly had the entire beach to ourselves at that point, too. We dried off at the car, put clothes on over our bathing suits, and headed back toward Esperanza for dinner. When you’re on an island, you don’t have to be that classy. (I did tell Matt I thought we were under-dressed, but he disagreed.)
Next Course was on the road near Maritza’s, and I was glad we’d driven that way before, since we’d have to drive it in the dark. Between the narrow, curvy roads and the lack of street lighting, I was pretty wary of having to do that.
The place had a steep driveway going down to a hairpin turn to a parking lot, which had a line of four or five Jeeps that were basically identical to ours, all backed in to the spots. We did the same, laughing because the one next to ours was even the same exact color. The place wasn’t too busy yet, but it was small enough that reservations would definitely be required later in the evening.
They gave us a spot on the balcony, overlooking the line of Jeeps, a valley in the middle of the island, and the coast of Puerto Rico in the distance. It was hard to complain about that.
Their menu was excellent, both food and cocktails. It was sort of California-style Caribbean cuisine, with lots of local ingredients. I had broiled watermelon with goat cheese and radish greens, and Matt had oysters Rockefeller.
Then I ordered a wild mushroom pizza, and he got butter-poached lobster with crab risotto and fennel cream. We didn’t want dessert, but when the menu arrived, we noticed that one of the options was to buy the kitchen beers for a dollar apiece. Our server said there were four people working back there, so that seemed like a pretty solid investment for four bucks. They deserved it.
The place was pretty much full by the time we left, and Matt was right – there was a wide array of dress there, though people did tend towards fancier. (I was wearing a dress, at least.) When we got to the Jeep, I understood why everyone had backed in – the parking lot was full, and there were cars parked along the wall across from us. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to get the Jeep out of there, but after a few well-executed manuevers we escaped.
The drive back was as harrying as I’d expected. I was driving slow enough to have cars stacked up behind us, but I didn’t care. It was hard to navigate by landmarks at night, too, but luckily the road in Destino had some streetlights. We found the ramshackle, and decided to drive up to Colmado Mambo, the not-as-shady-looking bodega, for Barrilito and a few other things. As we passed the road to our neighborhood, there was a car sitting there with running lights but without its headlights on.
I pulled up in a spot out front, and Matt said he’d run in. I looked over at another vehicle parked there, and saw a bunch of faces looking at me. It was super-creepy, to the point where I was conviced we were going to be robbed. I decided to prepare for it, by hiding the only thing we could not lose: Bally Basketball. I put him under Matt’s seat and then played with my phone, not looking at them, til Matt FINALLY emerged from the store. It seemed to take forever.
He said that nobody in the store could be bothered to do anything, and that though there were a bunch of cars out front, there was no one in the store. I pulled out of the spot, passed the creepy van, and went to make a U-turn in the street just past the parking lot. Just as I did that, someone laid on the horn and freaked me out. I didn’t think they were honking at us (since we weren’t in anyone’s way), but then I remembered the headlight-less car waiting by our hacienda and decided that we were most definitely going to be murdered.
I was trying to figure out what to do if we got there and the car was still waiting, because the police station was most definitely behind us, and ahead was a whole bunch of marshy, empty area and the ocean. We were totally dead, and someone was going to steal Bally. I was so freaked out by the whole thing that I missed the turn by the ramshackle, and the car wasn’t even there anymore. Somehow we had CHEATED DEATH.
I didn’t tell Matt about this non-murder-plot til we were back in the house showering, because it was too embarrassing. He agreed that the people in the van were definitely shiftless and creepy, though!!
Our hacienda hadn’t been hard to find in the dark, so that made me feel better about driving around there, since our BioBay tour wasn’t until 10pm the next night.
We hauled our leftovers and other things into the house, did dishes from the previous night, and I started laundry. Then we went to play Moby Dick, the nerdiest card game ever, on the patio. It calls for a “measure of grog” to pass back and forth as an indication of whose turn it is, and Matt had conveniently purchased an actual half-gill measure at Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua. Our nerdiness was absolute.
After our game, a moth flew up onto the patio and started flying all over the place like it was crazy. We decided it was horny, and headed inside before it attacked us anymore. While we were bringing our things inside, we discovered a little coqui that had taken up residence between the slats of the chair to spend the night. So cute!
Matt played an Indonesian drum in the house for a while (because why not?) and we went to bed around midnight. I was smart this time and took dramamine, which meant I slept far better. I still had my cold, but there was something about being on an island that made me barely even notice.
When I got up to make coffee, I noticed a couple chickens running around the yard, so I fed them some torn-up bread. Patio chickens!! I wanted to keep them.
We got our stuff piled into the Jeep again, and headed to find another beach. Our destination this time was Navio, because it was one of the most secluded, and our hacienda’s owner said there were tidal caves at one end.
According to our tourist map, we had to take the road that went past Sun Bay, just outside Esperanza. We’d already driven by there a couple times, and I’d noticed that the gate on the road into the park (apparently it’s a campground) seemed to always be closed. The exit gate was open, and there were cars in the parking lot, so we figured that must be the thing to do. We drove in through the exit, and headed down the beach road.
Sun Bay had a gigantic beach and actual facilities, so I’m guessing it probably got fairly crowded on the weekends. When we drove past, though, there were only a few cars parked there. The road quickly turned from potholed asphalt to even-more-potholed dirt, and we followed the signs pointing toward the beaches and the bioluminesent bay.
We passed Media Luna beach, and then came to a fork in the road. The left fork led to the BioBay, and the right to Navio. The road was tiny, with no room for cars to pass. We didn’t exactly know what we’d do if we encountered a car coming towards us, because it was thick, jungly forest on both sides of the road. The potholes were terrible, too, and got progressively worse. I wasn’t even sure our Jeep was going to make it, between driving in and out of potholes and the couple of mud pits we had to pass. Had there been a spot to turn around, we would’ve done so, but there wasn’t.
We finally got to the end of the road, where there was sort of a cul-de-sac and some parking spots for Navio beach. We found a little clearing with a shady palm tree and set up our chairs, using the tree as an ottoman.
Navio was worth the journey. It was a perfect beach.
Pretty crowded, right?
I did a little beachcombing, and found some fan coral and a little sand dollar.
There were indeed caves at the end of the beach, but the tide was pretty high at that point. People were snorkelling by this reef.
We hung out under our palm tree for a couple hours, relaxing and watching the ocean. After that, we decided to go back to Sun Bay to swim, because the waves at Navio seemed pretty rough. Plus I really wanted to see the other beach, because I liked all the huge palm trees there.
The drive back wasn’t quite as nervewracking, since we knew what to expect. I decided to make a video so everyone could experience what it’s like driving on the road to Navio. Matt pretended he was on Top Gear.
We parked at Sun Bay, and picked a gigantic palm tree to sit under. How does Vieques have so many gorgeous beaches?? And how were they practically empty?
Bally had some adventures on the beach. First he sat in his own palm tree:
Then he found a cairn:
Then he wore a piece of coconut as a hat.
There was one other couple on this entire beach. Seriously.
We went and swam for a long time. There was a bit of sea grass right by the beach, but once you swam over it, the rest was sandy. We decided to get some exercise, and swam out to the rope and back.
Near the shore, I found a pufferfish swimming right at the surface. I chased him in Matt’s direction so he could see it, too. Sadly, he wasn’t freaked out enough to actually puff up.
Once we started getting cold, we got out of the water. I wandered around finding treasures on the beach for a while.
This weird fruit was growing on a tree nearby. A few had fallen off, and looked kind of frightening laying there rotting.
We were getting hungry for lunch, so we packed up the Jeep and headed out. I was glad we’d driven through there during the day, since we had to meet the BioBay tour group in the parking lot at Sun Bay later, and that closed gate would’ve been confusing.
There were a ton of horses hanging out in the campground area. They’re pretty skittish, and don’t like people coming too close.
We parked the Jeep on a side street in Esperanza. This guy was wandering around town:
It was a bit past lunchtime on Monday, and Esperanza was much quieter than the previous day.
We decided to try Lazy Jack’s for lunch, because we knew they had vegetarian options there. They also had delicious signature drinks.
The place had a hostel in back, and there were young people coming and going from it. There was a girl sitting at the bar waiting for the mail delivery, and our server appeared to be staying at the hostel as well. She took our order and then disappeared for a long time, and we later saw her wandering down the street with someone else staying there. The bartenders seemed to be the only actual employees there.
We noticed a series of vans driving up and down the street, and realized those were the Vieques bus system. They had signs in the windows listing their stops, which were mostly Isabel II and Esperanza, the W, and the beaches.
After lunch, we decided to go back to Duffy’s for a beer. We’d really liked the place, and wanted to stop in again on our last day there. Here it is with the patio, facing the malecon:
Here’s the malecon facing west. That’s ‘mainland’ Puerto Rico in the distance:
We got a seat at the bar at Duffy’s, where I had to contemplate this creepy painting:
Hostel guests were wandering in and out of there, too. (Esperanza is a lot like Negril, in very tiny form.) Matt decided he was only drinking beers named after sea creatures, so he had a Leviathan and a Lost Coast Great White. We hung out there for a couple of drinks, then asked the bartender if we could get a bottle of Schneider/Brooklyn Weiss to take back to the house. He accidentally opened it, so he gave us that one for free and grabbed another one to go.
We headed back to the hacienda to hang out on the patio for a while, and work on our bottle of Barrilito and shower. We emptied our suitcases and repacked them with clean clothes and souvenirs. Later on, we made dinner and ate outside, then played dominoes until it was time to get ready for the BioBay tour.
We left the house around 9:40, and I wasn’t thrilled about driving around in the dark again. A car tailgated me the whole way to Sun Bay with its brights on, and when it passed Matt noticed that it was a cop. We turned into the exit again, and headed toward the parking lot where we saw a bunch of identical Jeeps. There were a bunch of people there waiting already. Then a few giant white vans pulled up, and a bunch more people piled out. (Apparently Abe’s will come pick you up if you don’t have a car.)
The BioBay was the main reason I’d originally wanted to come to Vieques, because there aren’t very many of them in the world. There’s apparently one tour company that has transparent kayaks, but we went with Abe’s because the people at the airport said they were great.
There were way more people than I’d expected, especially for a Monday night. They counted 36 total, which meant 18 two-person kayaks. We all signed in and paid, and then they gave us some instructions for the tour. They gave each group a number so that we could count off while we were out in the bay, since it would be hard to see. Then we all piled in the vans, and they set off down the same road we’d taken to Navio earlier that day.
I ended up talking to the lady next to me, and discovered that she was Minnesotan, too. They’d come over on the ferry from Fajardo, and were spending a couple weeks in Vieques. We of course got to discussing the blizzard, and her daughter told us how they’d blown a local’s mind on the ferry by telling him about ice fishing. Hilarious.
Since the tour guides were obviously quite familiar with the potholed back roads, they drove much, much faster than we did in the Jeep. I’m shocked that none of us hit our heads on the ceiling. Matt and I were cracking up because we knew what to expect, and those who were having the experience for the first time looked a little panicked about it. We arrived at the launch spot at the bay, and the guides started unloading kayaks and life jackets from a truck there. It was really dark (we’d been super-lucky and ended up there on a moonless night, which is the ideal time to go), and the only light was from the guides’ headlamps.
Matt and I were team #2, so we got in our kayak right away. They told us to paddle out and grab a spot by a pontoon that was floating in the bay, to wait for everyone to get into the water. We gathered there and the guides explained that the bay provides perfect conditions for dinoflagellates that glow when they’re disturbed. We all sat there splashing our hands in the water, watching them light up. It kind of looked like blue sparks that left a trail after every movement.
We paddled in a group over to see the narrow opening from the bay to the sea, and paddling made them glow even brighter. It was too dark to really see much, or to have a sense of distance. (We kayak quite a bit, but doing so at night is really disconcerting!) The guides wore flashing lights, so we were able to follow them around that way. They brought us over to see the mangroves, and then gave us time to just paddle around by ourselves for 20 minutes or so. Matt and I spent most of that time smacking the water with our paddles to make it glow, or with me staring up at the stars, which were incredible too.
The only downside to the BioBay tour is that you can’t take photos… there’s really no way to capture that without a really powerful camera. I guess that means you’ll have to go see it for yourself, which you absolutely should. It was amazing. Also, it’s pretty amusing to go on a tour that requires meeting in a dark parking lot in a deserted spot.
We were on the water for about an hour total. They were really efficient about loading the boats back up, and we were back to the parking lot around 11:45 or so. We said bye to our fellow Minnesotans, thanked the tour guides for a great trip, and headed back to our hacienda for the night.
We got up around 8 Tuesday morning, and I went to make coffee. Somehow I managed to put the machine together wrong, and we ended up with coffee everywhere. I cleaned that up, and the second time, it worked. We had our last patio breakfast overlooking the ocean, hauled our stuff out to the Jeep, locked up the hacienda and hid the keys. It seemed like we had only been there for a day, and I wanted to stay a lot longer.
Matt was kind enough to take a picture of the ramshackle so we could remember it always. Next time we’ll probably actually go inside.
We drove into Isabel II to do some souvenir-shopping, but the town was packed and we couldn’t find parking after circling for a while. We decided that wasn’t a big deal, so we headed over to see Mosquito Pier and the ceiba tree, both of which are on the north side of the island near the airport.
On the way, we stopped to fill up the Jeep at one of Vieques’ two gas stations. They’re across the street from one another, and you have to wait in line forever to use them, plus you have to pre-pay. (That was another valuable tip from the couple we met at the airport.) While we’re on the subject, another fun fact we’d learned about Vieques: there’s a horse taxi. Like, a guy shows up on a horse with a couple other horses in tow, and you ride them from one place to the other. REALLY.
We didn’t really know the story with the ceiba tree, but it was on the tourist map. Apparently it’s 375 years old! It’s in a park very near mosquito pier.
As usual, there were horses hanging out in the area. They’re seriously everywhere.
This is my favorite sign. “Ceiba, beach, more beach.” It’s very appropriate for Vieques.
We drove out onto Mosquito Pier for the view. Here’s a majestic shot of Cap’n Ron the Jeep with Puerto Rico in the distance:
And another of Puerto Rico, this time with no Jeep. I tried to convince Matt we could probably swim there.
This is the west end of Vieques. That’s the only area we didn’t really cover (apart from the large sections where you’re not allowed to go lest you explode.)
Looking back down the pier. The W resort is somewhere over on the left side here (so is the airport).
We found a fossilized tree stump there, too.
Then our time in Vieques was up, and we had to go to the airport. (Sigh.) There was no one at the car rental desk again, so they told me to leave the Jeep in the parking lot and hide the keys. (I like the way things work there.) We rolled our bags inside, checked in, and then went down to the gate area. It had seats for probably 20 people at most. The agent had told us there were two flights at the same time, and we’d be on the second. (I wondered what they were going to do about the fact that there were more than six people waiting.)
One plane loaded and took off, and then they led us out to ours. Here’s the airport! I believe it’s actually smaller than the one in Kona.
Once again, we were on the W’s private landing spot. What does it cost to fly Air W? Anyway? I can’t imagine.
Matt and I had the same seats as our previous flight, in row two. We strapped in, said hi to the pilots, and were off.
Here’s a view of the east side of the island, looking toward Isabel II.
This is Mosquito Pier from above. I still can’t get over how tiny Vieques is.
Rather than going around Puerto Rico this time, we went directly over it. This is the area near Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, south of Fajardo.
We flew around the edge of El Yunque National Forest, and I tried to pick out the fire tower we’d climbed on our last trip. I couldn’t find it in there, though.
We came in over San Juan and turned to follow the approach directly over the long causeway lined with flags. It was fantastic seeing that from the tiny plane.
Landing at such a huge airport seemed really strange. I love seeing the runway like this.
We got our carry-ons (Bally got to fly in the nose of the plane this time), then went into the baggage claim and picked up our suitcases. We had to take them upstairs in the elevator to the main part of the terminal, and bring them to the USDA inspection area before we could check them. There was a line out the door for that, of course.
We checked in with United, then wandered around the airport to check out our food options. They were severely limited, so we ended up at Air Margaritaville. At least they had sports on a million TVs. We had lunch and a couple margaritas, then headed to the plane.
There were no issues with our flight back to Chicago; we even arrived early, so we had plenty of time to make our connection. They boarded that one a little late, and we were all in our seats on the plane and ready to go when the flight attendant announced that our pilots had just landed. Um, what?
We arrived in Minneapolis much later than expected. Thanks, United!
I grew up in Chicago, so I’ve always been really nostalgic about Christmastime there. When Matt and I found a deal through American Express that refunded one night of any three-night stay there, it was hard to say no. Especially when one of the cheapest hotels ended up being the very fancy Renaissance Blackstone on the Magnificent Mile, and plane tickets were cheap.
We decided to fly Sun Country rather than Delta, because even though tickets were the same price, Sun Country goes to Midway. That’s way more convenient when you’re taking the train. We flew out of Minneapolis around 5, and landed in Chicago by 6:30. Since we just had carry-ons, it was a quick trip from the plane to the Metra.
We rode into downtown and got off at the first stop down in the south Loop, an area I wasn’t very familiar with. In the past it had not been the greatest neighborhood, but it’s definitely becoming gentrified now, with a lot of the warehouse-style condos that tend to spring up in those areas. We walked the six blocks or so to the hotel (walking along Michigan Avenue in the cold isn’t smart, by the way… go inland from the lake!) and checked in. As expected, our room was really fancy… the Westin is usually my standard for nice hotels, and this was a step up.
It was after 8pm, but since we’d had sandwiches on the plane we weren’t dying for dinner yet. We decided to get cocktails at the hotel bar, which is downstairs from the resident tapas place, Mercat a la Planxa (we were excited that it’s run by an Iron Chef, too). The place was tiny and well-appointed, the ideal kind of hotel bar. They had a great cocktail menu, too.
We had decided on getting our deep dish needs out of the way early at the nearby Lou Malnati’s, partly because we didn’t want to take the train anywhere since we were planning to buy passes the next day, and it was getting late. The bartender confirmed the directions for us, and we headed out in the cold. On the way there, we took note of two bars we might want to visit later; one was a big, packed sports bar, and one appeared to be a liquor store that you could also drink in. (That one was the instant favorite, of course.)
I’ve only been to Giordano’s before, so this was an exciting change! Also exciting: they had personal-size pizzas (you always end up with tons of leftovers at Giordano’s), and Goose Island Matilda. Perfect.
After dinner, we stuck with the ‘things to always do in Chicago’ theme and headed up to Miller’s Pub. The sign out front advertised that they had Tom and Jerry’s, which was fantastic. The bar was crowded, but we managed to find a standing spot at the far end and ordered our Tom and Jerrys. They were pretty sweet, but the large quantity of brandy (and the warmth, since it was really cold outside) made up for it.
We stuck around for another round, at which point I switched to a gin martini to avoid the sweetness issue. I was trying to eavesdrop on the people next to us, which appeared to be a couple of coworkers. The guy was older and the woman was pretty young, and he was drunkenly trying to hit on her in a very subtle (but not really) way. It was very entertaining.
Round about midnight, we decided to head back toward the south Loop and stop in at one of the bars we’d seen earlier. We decided on George’s, the liquor store that apparently had a bar inside. That’s exactly what it ended up being, too… a total dive with a bar and a few small tables (and awesome jukebox), with a wall of liquor you could buy for exorbitant rates along the back wall. It was the BEST. The bartender was old and crusty, there were loud Wisconsinites manning the jukebox, and drinks were incredibly cheap.
Though the bar was open til 4am (!!), we were at least a little bit smart, and decided to leave at 2. Thankfully it was only a block from there to the hotel.
The next morning, we got up and went downstairs to Starbucks for coffee before walking to the el. We purchased three-day passes, then hopped on and rode up to the north side of the Loop. Our destination was Daley Plaza, for the Christkindlmarket. Apparently it’s been going on forever, but I had no idea! I was incredibly excited to see it.
The pigeons there were smarter than the average bird, too:
The place was insanely crowded, of course. It was convenient that there seemed to be multiples of most of the food and drink booths, so that you didn’t have to push your way across the entire place to get something to eat. We saw people carrying little souvenir mugs all over the place, so I wanted to check that out first. It ended up being gluhwein, so Matt got one of those and I got a beer instead.
We did some wandering around the shops, and noted one of the gigantic shops full of traditional glass ornaments that I wanted to visit once we weren’t carrying drinks. We decided to stop at get breakfast first, too. I got potato pancakes, and Matt got currywurst. Some people joined us at our table, and it seemed like the whole city was excited to be there, even though we were freezing our asses off.
After the food, we went to the ornament shop. There was a line to get in, so I shivered there for 10 or 15 minutes before we actually got inside. From there everyone had to grab a basket and circle slowly around the store, following a pre-established path. You had one shot to get the ornaments you wanted, or you’d have to wait in line again. It was probably the most German thing ever.
I picked out a few things, and appreciated the fact that they wrapped and boxed them up really well. From there, we went to get another beer and go hang out in one of the heated tents to warm up. The tents were also packed, of course, but we didn’t care. We found a spot near the heater and I regained feeling in my feet.
Before heading out, we stopped to get a couple pretzels, and ate them outside in a sheltered spot. I would probably have stayed there all day if it wasn’t so cold out. (It was still 20 degrees warmer than home, though!)
We walked over to State Street to go see Macy’s, the former Marshall Field’s. I have vague memories of that store and Carson Pirie Scott being all decorated at Christmas, and I wasn’t wrong about that. We did some shopping, then took the escalator up to see the giant tree in the restaurant.
Then we decided to head over to XOCO for a late lunch. On the way, though, I had to stop into Walgreens to pick up some things, like super-strong hand lotion (stupid cold), hairspray, and Christmas cards for my nieces in Florida, since we wanted to send them some cash instead of gifts.
Our timing regarding late lunch was planned as follows: wait in line for a torta. Eat a torta. By the time we’re done with tortas, Three Dots and a Dash will just be opening. Since the place is very new and very popular and it was cold outside, we wanted to make sure we got in right away. Plus, you know, afternoon tiki drinks.
We decided to walk, since it was only six blocks or so. We crossed the river, stopped into Citibank to break a hundred (so my nieces could have their Christmas gifts), and then headed over to Xoco. To our surprise, there wasn’t even a very long line! I got a beer and Matt ordered one of their bottled margaritas, and we went to wait at our assigned counter spot. The food took a while, but that was fine because it was a good opportunity to warm up.
My woodland mushroom torta was fantastic, too. There need to be more vegetarian tortas in the world.
Since our lunch went faster than expected, it was only 4pm and Three Dots wasn’t open. So we did what all good Midwesterners do in the winter: we went to another bar to wait for it to open. The Boss Bar came recommended by Foursquare as a classic dive, and it was only a block away, so we headed that direction. Holy crap, the place was insane at 4pm. It wasn’t just people at post-work happy hour, either… it seemed that many of them had probably been there all day. Also, one of the walls was being held up by 2x4s, and the kitchen was just a little kiosk with a deep-fryer near the entrance. AWESOME.
We killed time with a drink there, and then promptly at 4:30pm headed over to Three Dots. It’s in the alley behind Xoco, complete with bouncers in black, velvet ropes, and heaters (thank god). But seriously, it was 4:30pm, not 11. Anyway.
We went up to the doorman, and he told us that they were closed for a private party. (Sad!) But the private party only went til 5:30. (Hooray!) Rather than wait outside, we walked to yet another bar. I had seen a place called Havana as we walked past before, so we decided to go there. I didn’t exactly know where it was, though, so we circled the entire block before we ended up there, directly next to the Boss Bar we’d just come from. At least we got some exercise.
The nice thing about places named after Cuba, or any really Caribbean island, is that you have a good idea what to expect there, and you’re rarely disappointed. Havana was a small, pretty restaurant with a very nice bar and better rum selection. We had mojitos, and the bartender made them perfectly, not too sweet.
Shortly after 5:30, we walked back over to Three Dots. The private party was taking their sweet time exiting the place, so they said it would be after 6 by the time they actually opened. We didn’t want to ruin our streak of waiting in bars, so we went to Mother Hubbard’s Sports Bar (it was not that awesome) to warm up and use the bathroom. Matt was excited that they still tacked newspapers up over the urinals to read. I didn’t even know that happened!
We made our way back again around 6, and this time found an actual line in the alley. It was only ten people or so, but still. A line! At 6pm! I’ve never seen that before. We stood there for a while, shivering and wondering if we’d ever get in, because the line wasn’t moving and there were still work-party people milling around and going in and out of the bar. FINALLY, the bouncer came over and started letting people in. We were taken downstairs to a table, and immediately knew it was absolutely worth the wait.
The place is decorated in usual tiki/nautical style, and the drinks are half classic and half inspirations on everyone’s favorite giant picture menu. (If I own a tiki bar someday, we’re going to have the largest illustrated menu on earth). The thing I loved most was that the drinks are less sweet than the originals, and they pay a lot of attention to presentation.
We had three cocktails apiece, plus a couple very delicious appetizers, and then it was time to go lest we just decide to live there forever (I would). Plus the place was getting crowded to the point where people were bumping into our table and yelling over each other. We requested a souvenir glass, paid our check, and headed back out into the cold.
We decided to walk again and see what was on the way, since we didn’t have any great ideas for dinner yet, and we’d just had appetizers. Conveniently, we ended up passing right by the Palmer House, so we decided to go visit another classic. We grabbed seats from someone who was vacating them at the lobby bar and ordered one of their house Manhattans. Then I took out the Christmas cards for my nieces and filled them out on the bar, so we could mail them right away. It’s my goal for us to be known as the super-classy aunt and uncle.
When we were done there, we decided to just go back to the hotel and check out Mercat a la Planxa. We’d looked at their menu in the room enough to know that they did actually have vegetarian stuff, and it seemed like an easy choice. We started walking back that way, and within a couple blocks of the hotel, it started sleeting. Just like at home in Minnesota! We rushed back, dropped our stuff in the room, and went down to the restaurant. It was 10:30 and they closed at 11, but they told us it was no problem. Thank god, because we were dying of hunger at that point.
Not only did they have vegetarian stuff, they said they could do a tasting menu for both of us! And holy crap, it was fantastic.
The only downside was that the food just KEPT COMING. We were getting full, to the point where we were hoping it was over, and then more would arrive. I should’ve taken it home in my carry-on or something.
Back in our room, we had truffles from the front desk, because we’d mentioned being fancy on Twitter. Cute!
At that point it was after midnight and we were hella full of delicious tapas, so it was time for bed.
I woke up sometime early the next morning and noted blearily through my contact-less eyes that it was snowing. And not just a little bit, but a full-on blizzard. Lake Michigan seemed angry. After a couple more hours of sleep it was starting to die down, but not enough to make wandering around outside all day that feasible. I was glad we’d gone to the Christkindlmarket the previous day.
Conveniently, we’d talked about visiting the Art Institute, since neither of us had been there in a very long time. And conveniently, it was only a few blocks away!
Our time was limited there, but we managed to cover a lot of ground. We saw most of my favorite things, which include the impressionists and anything modern.
The views from the building, which has expanded a lot since my last visit, confirmed that we didn’t really want to be outside that much:
We visited the Chagall windows, which for unknown reasons was my absolute favorite thing as a kid, and then went downstairs to have lunch in their really excellent cafe. I had a delicious falafel burger.
We stopped to take a quick spin through the miniature rooms (also a longstanding favorite), and then it was time to head out, because for once we had actual plans! We hopped on the train to Logan Square, home of Matt’s longtime internet pal, Kyle from Midmajority. More importantly, Kyle is the inventory of our constant travel companion, Bally.
We took the longest possible route around Logan Square (whose intersections had all become treacherous pools of indeterminate-depth slush) and found Billy Sunday, the new cocktail bar on the block. Their menu was fantastically interesting, and rather than trying to explain it, here’s the link. Kyle showed up a few minutes after we arrived.
We hung out there for a couple drinks, and then headed out to get some dinner. Kyle led us to Parson’s Chicken and Fish, which, despite the name, also had vegetarian stuff on the menu, not to mention things like a Negroni slushy. I had the vegetable club, made with pickled beets. They had good beer, too, and Bang Bang Pie. (No, I didn’t know what that was beforehand.)
From there, we walked over to Scofflaw, another awesome cocktail place. It was standing-room crowded, but we were conveniently standing next to some girls who were leaving and gave us their armchairs around a little table. There was a fireplace in the room, too, so it was quite comfortable.
After a cocktail there, we grabbed a cab to Wrigleyville. We ended up talking about how Indiana was a huge wasteland, and our driver piped right up with stories about how much he hated Indiana because people were racist and did horrible things to his middle-eastern friends. Holy crap, Indiana, what’s your deal??
We were a little early for the show, so we went to Gingerman Tavern next door for a drink. It was much like Triple Rock or Grumpy’s, so we were right at home. We had beers there, and then went next door to Metro for the Breeders show.
I was expecting Metro to be a lot bigger, since they get the shows that First Ave generally does, but it was definitely smaller. Which was nice, because even though we ended up at the back, we had a good view.
Confusingly, both Matt and Kyle encountered really aggro dudes there. That’s definitely not something that ever happens at First Ave. Minnesotans like to keep their rage inside.
After the show, we were standing in the coat check line talking about the cab driver who hated Indiana, and ended up talking to a girl from Fort Wayne who could not understand the concept of flying from Minneapolis to Chicago. (It’s a long drive, and a generally very cheap flight!)
We hopped in another cab and rode back up to Logan Square to the Empty Bottle for the Windy City Soul Club 5th anniversary event. The place was packed with people actually dancing! And they had a really good bourbon drink on special! It was amazing. We hung out with Kyle’s friends there for a while, Kyle introduced us to the wonders of Malört (it’s godawful, as you’d expect of herbal Swedish liquor), and then we headed off to yet another bar in the neighborhood, the Blind Robin.
I took their photo with Bally, and it turned out GREAT in the darkness. Haha.
Finally, it was time to head back to the hotel. We got another cab since we were about a mile from the train, and apparently cabs in Chicago are way cheaper than Minneapolis!
Sunday morning, we hung out in the room until close to check-out time, and then left our bags with the front desk. We picked up coffee at Dunkin Donuts, then rode the train up to Wicker Park. Rodan was a couple blocks from the stop, and we were apparently the only ones there for brunch at almost 1pm. Strange.
They had bottomless mimosas for brunch, which sounded like a great idea for people who had a few hours to kill before their flight. (It was colder outside than the previous days, too.) The food was great, too. We finished and then sat there for a long time while they refilled our drinks; it seemed easier to get mimosa refills than it was the check, but that was fine with us.
Finally we headed out, and rode the train back to River North. Our destination was Eataly, the Italian market/deli that had recently opened in Chicago and had lines around the block at the opening. Walking in, I immediately realized why. It was HUGE, and wasn’t just a deli. They had several different spots in the building that were mini-restaurants, with things like pizza, fresh bread, a wine bar, charcuterie, pasta, truffles, a brewery, and even a mozzarella bar. HOLY CRAP. I was sad we had just eaten!
We wandered around and looked at the merchandise for a while, then went to the brewery. They brewed their own beer there, as well as doing contract brewing for Dogfish Head. I got an ancient ale (a style I’d never tried before), and we went to wander some more. I wanted to get to the mozzarella bar even though I was full, but it was full every time we walked past.
Matt picked out some packaged meat to bring home, and we picked out black rice for risotto. We would’ve bought some black truffle, but they weren’t getting them in until the next week. We picked up some fancy chocolates to take home, and a few other things from downstairs before going to check out.
We still had some time to kill before needing to be back at the hotel, so we did what anyone else would do: went back to Miller’s Pub for a victory lap. The place was crowded again, this time with Chicago Bears fans who had apparently come from somewhere else (the Bears were out of town). They were in post-tailgating condition, and hilarious to listen to with their super-strong Chicago accents. It reminded me of when my dad used to put on his cop voice years ago, and he sounded like Dan Aykroyd in the Blues Brothers. We had one last shot of Malört in Kyle’s honor, and then headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags.
We rolled them to the train station just as it was getting dark outside. We rode to Midway and discovered our flight was delayed (it was late leaving Montego Bay: SHOCKER), so we got a table at Harry Caray’s to get dinner and beers. Once we were done, our flight was further delayed, so we hung out at the pub waiting for it to arrive. It finally arrived, and we got home without further incident.
For the first time ever, we decided to take a trip with my in-laws. I was worried that it wouldn’t work out well, but they turned out to be great travel companions! We flew into Fort Lauderdale, took them on a whirlwind tour of Miami, and then headed to the Keys. We had two nights at a quiet hotel on the ocean in Marathon, spent three nights across the street from Papa Hemingway’s house in Key West, and then had another short visit to Fort Lauderdale again before heading back.
I could easily live in Key West, I’m pretty sure.
(The entire photoset is here on Flickr.)
Read from the beginning below, or jump to each day:
Matt’s parents had come into town the night before, and we went over suitcase packing with them yet again, since this was to be their first flight in something like 15 years. The main concern was making sure that my mother-in-law didn’t try to take her huge toiletry bag through security with her, so we had to review the 3-1-1 rules multiple times.
We got up bright and early at 6am to get our ride to the airport in style; we had an Escalade from Uber, and an awesome driver named Patrick. There was a long security line which we opted to wait in so that we could escort the in-laws through security, rather than taking advantage of our PreCheck access. That was a little painful, but the trip through was entirely uneventful. We had some time to kill before the flight, so we got coffee, pastries, and a breakfast cocktail at Surdyk’s before heading to the gate.
The flight boarded early, so we were able to get on right away when we arrived there. Matt and I had a two-seat row to ourselves, and the flight was uneventful. We ate sandwiches from Surdyk’s and enjoyed the view of the coast. As we approached Fort Lauderdale, we flew right over a rainbow!
We circled over the Everglades before heading into the airport from the west. I really love this view, with the houses pushing right up against the alligator zone.
We landed around 1:15, then went to get our bags and board the rental shuttle. I was renting with Hertz for the first time, because I’d gotten a deal through American Express for 5,000 Hertz points for $250. We only needed 2,500 for the week-long rental, so that means I have another free week still waiting for me. That was a hell of a bargain!
I found my name on the board at the rental place, and we rolled our bags out to the car. It was a gigantic Buick Verano, so we were rockin’ it just like old people. I hate driving cars that large, but it was definitely comfortable for the four of us.
We left the airport and drove straight to Miami Beach to get lunch. Huahua’s Tacos did not disappoint, and we were able to sit out in the sun. It was a nice change, having left Minneapolis in the early fall. I especially enjoyed the world’s greatest guaco, which had both guacamole AND a slice of breaded, deep-fried avocado. So delicious.
There we had our first of many toasts to Southern Florida, too:
After lunch, we drove over nearer South Beach and circled for a while looking for parking. We finally found a ramp that didn’t cost a million dollars, and that was only a few blocks from the beach. Harlan and Judy have never been to Miami, so we wanted them to see the monstrous beach where we both misplaced our underpants on our honeymoon. (We left that part out of the story.)
We ordered drinks from the awesome bartender, who gave us each a poker chip, good for our next drink free. Daytime 2-for-1s? Sold. (They’re not weak, either.) We sat there enjoying the divey ambiance, and Matt got into a conversation with one of the old guys holding up the bar, based on their mutual love for Hunter S Thompson. The guy instantly became his BFF, and came over to tell him stories about his old days in journalism. It was hilarious.
After we finished our second round, it was time to head out lest we just decide to move in there. Matt bought a t-shirt, and they gave him a bunch of stickers as well. We retrieved the car and headed up the A1A in the direction of Fort Lauderdale. We could’ve taken the highway, but there’s a lot to see on that route. There’s something about that oceanside ridiculousness that I love a lot.
Once we got tired of the stop-and-go traffic, we headed back toward the interstate. At that point my father-in-law was napping in the back, so we figured it was a good time to go check into the hotel (it was around 5pm). We took 595 over to Plantation, a suburb west of downtown Fort Lauderdale, and managed to locate the Sheraton Suites. From what we could tell, the entire town of Plantation is one gigantic strip mall after another, and the hotel was no exception: it seemed to be located right in the middle of an abandoned mall. It was really nice, just a little strange.
The in-laws wanted to get comfortable, have a brandy (they brought their own bottle from Minnesota, fearing that E&J – the only brandy Judy will drink – would be in short supply in Florida), and take showers. Judy swore it would take her an hour to wash and do her hair, which seemed unlikely. Matt and I were ill-prepared for room-based relaxation, since we had brought nothing to drink from home. We dropped them off, looked up the location of the nearest liquor store (shocker: it was in a strip mall a mile away), and headed over there to get some room beers.
The place we found had an incredible beer selection, so we built a couple of our own 6-packs (a combination of local stuff and other things we hadn’t seen before, plus Dragon Stout, which we thought was only available in Jamaica!) and headed back to the hotel. We opened the suitcase but didn’t bother unpacking, since we were only spending the night. The room was fantastic, too: there was a big living/work area with a sideboard, a huge bathroom and closets, and a separate bedroom with a second TV. How many hotel rooms have a hallway? (The place isn’t convenient if you’re planning to spend a lot of time in the FLL area, but it’s great if you want to be near the interstate that will take you to the Keys with the least painful traffic congestion.)
We hung out for a while, then went to check in on Harlan and Judy in the room next door. Judy had changed to her going-out outfit, and they were enjoying a brandy. We talked about dinner options, and researched a couple spots where Matt had found vegetarian options on our phones. We finally decided on Seasons 52, and I called to make reservations for 8:30. Then we gathered our things and headed that way.
The restaurant was about 12 miles away near the beach, but it took a while to get there because the only direct route was on local streets. We finally managed to locate the mall where it was located (surprise!) on Highway 1, and parked in the nearest lot. We walked through the mall looking for it, and finally had to ask for directions. The entrance ended up being down a level and outside, near the other typical mall restaurants. We checked in with the host stand and stood around listening to the piano guy playing in the bar. The place was gigantic, and it was surprisingly packed, too.
We were seated, and attended to by a very unpleasant server. He was incredibly slow, and also impatient with my in-laws. While the food was seriously excellent (I had a vegetarian platter with a grain salad, cedar-roasted tofu, chutney, roasted vegetables, and a delicious taco), the service was unbelievably bad. I guess that’s what you get for going to a big chain restaurant in a mall in Florida.
We fixed it afterwards, though, because then it was time to go to Mai Kai, one of the greatest tiki bars on earth. We were worried that it would be really busy, and that was backed up by the huge crowd standing out front as we arrived. It turned out that it was the crowd for their nightly luau show all waiting for the valets, and the place was actually nearly empty. (We even got to park our own car!) We got a table and ordered a round of drinks. Matt’s Jet Pilot was amazing, and incredibly strong.
Harlan went to the bathroom and reappeared a long time later. He told us his zipper got stuck in the down position and he couldn’t fix it, so he finally asked the bathroom attendant if he could help. The attendant told him to hold the bottom of the zipper and tug; that worked, so he tipped the guy a dollar for the advice. (At this point in the story, we were all falling off our chairs laughing.) He also got lost leaving the bathroom, and told us he wandered all over the restaurant (it’s made up of several gigantic rooms, all decorated differently), and finally ended up crossing a bridge and ending up in a rainforest. We had no idea where that was, because we’d only ever seen the bar.
Unfortunately we couldn’t stay very late (his parents looked like they were going to doze off), but we were happy to get in a visit. While Judy and I were waiting for them to finish up, one of the hosts asked us if we’d seen the shrunken head yet. I had no idea what that was about, but since we’d already decided we had to make a return visit on the other end of the trip, I put it on my to-do list.
We headed back to the hotel, and the journey seemed a LOT longer on the way back. We finally got to the hotel, and headed to our rooms for the night. Matt and I enjoyed a delicious Abita Pecan nightcap before going to sleep. Hooray, vacation!
We got up at 9 Sunday morning and checked out of our abandoned-mall hotel. We found a Dunkin Donuts a mile away for a quick breakfast and coffee, and then we hopped on I-75 to head to the Keys. Considering the usual traffic in Miami, Sunday morning was the absolute perfect time to go. It was smooth sailing the whole way.
We got to Key Largo around 11 and stopped immediately at the visitor center. I’d printed Florida Rambler’s excellent mile marker guide, so we followed along with their recommendations, too. We picked up a bunch of tourist magazines (I can’t resist the coupons) and talked to the lady at the counter about her recommendations for things to do. She ended up being pretty dead-on as far as the awesome things in the Keys, too.
A couple miles down the road was the famed Caribbean Club from the movie Key Largo, so we stopped in for a beer, and to get Bally’s photo with the wooden Humphrey Bogart out front.
The interior was full of memorabilia, but the in-laws seemed to not notice that. We headed right out the back to sit at a picnic table overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, which was just fine with me. I could spend an entire day like that, really. (I believe I have, in Jamaica.)
There were no servers evident, so the men went to the bar. They returned with the best beers they could find there, which for Matt and I meant Budweiser (a.k.a Bud Heavy) in cans. They said the bartender was surly, too. At least the place was in a great spot!
Once we’d examined our various maps and finished our beers, we got back on the road to go another few miles south to Ballyhoo’s, one of the places listed in our guide. I’d seen mention of an entire vegetarian menu on their website, so it was a great option in a place not really known for being very food-progressive. We got a table on the patio under a tree strewn with fishing floats, which I loved.
Apparently we were sitting under a pitch apple tree, because these things were scattered around the place. I didn’t know what they were until we asked our server, and she told us they were inedible but pretty when they bloom.
We ordered beers and the best possible appetizer in the south: boiled peanuts. Everyone else was wary of them, but they reminded me of the first ones I’d had from a highway-side stop in Mississippi. I got to have my first nearly-local beer, too!
They had incredible jalapeno cornbread, and I had a sweet potato burger that was so gigantic I took the bun off and just ate the whole thing with hot sauce. It was awesome.
From there, we headed to Robbie’s Marina, because you can do THIS there:
And for three dollars, you get this bucket of fish for it. While ordinarily I will shy away from touching any dead animal (I’m vegetarian, after all), in this case I wasn’t passing up the chance to feed a gigantic tarpon.
The second we set foot on the docks, we met this guy. There’s a sign about not feeding the pelicans, because apparently they’re jerks and will bite. Still, they’re hilarious!
We went down to the end of the dock, and saw massive quantities of tarpon swarming around. It’s hard to photograph them, or to even get a sense of how big they are, but some of them were easily 3 feet long. We’d meet a guy who said you could hold the fish well up in the air and a tarpon would jump up and grab it, but they didn’t seem terribly interested in that. We had to hold them within a foot of the water, and then the tarpon scramble would begin.
The pelicans hang out nearby, watching warily. There was a couple there who’d clearly had several beers, so they offered no end of entertainment: first the girl was talking with a fish in her hand and not paying attention, and a pelican came hopping up sidelong behind her and almost stole it. Later, a seagull swooped down and grabbed it right out of her hand. So funny.
Once our fish bucket was empty, we went to hang out in a double adirondack recliner while Judy shopped. I just wanted to stay for a long time, because it was very Caribbean there. When the in-laws were ready to go, I stopped and bought a coconut birdhouse to take back home, and then we were back on the road.
We headed to our hotel to check in, since it was nearing 3pm. The place was Rainbow Bend on Grassy Key, which is just south of Islamorada and north of Marathon. We’d picked it because it was relatively cheap (everything in the Keys is expensive, so it’s tricky), and because they let you borrow their boats to take out during the day. Plus it was right on the Atlantic, and I figured we could grill on the beach.
We pulled up, and Judy freaked out because there was a pigeon walking around outside the lobby. (She’s deathly scared of birds.) The lady came out and said hi, and then shooshed the bird (who she called Roscoe!) away. We checked in, and she said would basically had our pick of rooms. She took us around to show us three options, and we chose two decent-sized rooms next to each other in an unattached building facing the swimming pool. Our room was slightly smaller and had saloon doors to the bathroom, but the shower-in-a-hot-tub made up for it. We had a small fridge, table, and coffeepot, and that was all we needed. The room was dark and seriously outdated, but it was clean.
Harlan and Judy’s room was much bigger and brighter, and they had a full kitchen. That suited them a lot better, so it worked out well. Both rooms had patios overlooking a yard full of tiny lizards. We changed into bathing suits, put some beers we’d picked up into a small cooler, and headed to the beach.
The beach, however, was not exactly what I pictured. The sand was hard, and there were huge mossy boulders at the water line. The tide was out, so there was no way you could get in there without doing damage to yourself. It was kind of stinky, too, due to the buildup of stuff in the next yard over that accumulated at low tide. The grilling area was in pretty rough shape, too. But we were on the ocean, so whatever. We went to swim in the pool instead.
The place seemed deserted, and there were apparently only a couple of other rooms occupied. It was still shoulder season in the Keys, but this seemed especially quiet. They had an onsite restaurant that was apparently popular, but we never saw more than four cars in the lot at any given time.
We hung out in the pool drinking beer for a long time, then went to go rinse off and change for dinner. One of the people we’d talked to at the Caribbean Club recommended the Safari Lounge (he said the locals called it the Dead Animal Bar due to the big game trophies), so we headed up to Islamorada. We found the place attached to a fancy resort near the docks, and it looked perfect:
Inside, however, was a different story. It basically looked like a Wisconsin bar (including the dead animals), and was ten times as smoky. The bartender couldn’t make anything better than a rum and coke, even though it was a tiki-style bar on the ocean. We took our drinks outside to sit on the patio for sunset, which was really pretty.
After that, it was time for dinner. We drove right up the road to Habanos, a Cuban restaurant right on the Overseas Highway. It was too-brightly lit and the interior was tacky, but it was proper Cuban food, and that was exciting. I had to have a cortadito ASAP.
Because it was proper Cuban food they of course had nothing traditional that was vegetarian, but we had a tostones appetizer and I got a small veggie pizza that was actually really delicious, so I was happy.
On our way out, we decided we should stop at a liquor or convenience store for some beer to bring back to the resort for card-playing. We headed south, passed our hotel, and crossed into Marathon proper before even seeing anything that was open. It was 8:30, by the way. We finally saw a gas station, and ran in to find they didn’t sell beer. The cashier there said to go to Walgreens a mile south, so we did that. They had a separate liquor store with a surprisingly good selection, so we grabbed a bottle of rum (which came with free pop) and some beer. The guy at the counter made fun of us for being Minnesotan (re: living in igloos), and I told him we at least didn’t have hurricanes. He gave a loud PFFT and said, “Did you see how all the buildings are built around here? They’re all on stilts and nothing’s more than three stories high!” He had a good point.
Harlan and Judy were in the main part of the store getting snacks, so we met them and headed back to the hotel to play cards in their room. Normally Matt and I prefer staying out later with the locals, but this was the kind of place where nightlife is scarce. (That’s what Key West is for.) After the in-laws got tired, we went to our room to play dominoes on the patio. Which was a bad choice without bug spray, as I’d realize in the next few days. But that’s for later.
Monday morning, the in-laws went to partake in the free breakfast at the onsite restaurant. We’re not really breakfast people, so we chose to sleep in and make coffee in the room. They came back with a bunch of gossip from the restaurant owner, who is apparently different than the guy who runs the resort. He had no end of complaints about how the owner had no interest in upgrading the place at all, and just wanted to make money off it. Which is sad, because it was a beautiful location with a ton of potential.
The beach didn’t look so bad in the morning. Still no Jamaican beach, but it looked more swimmable at high tide. The waves were really rough, though, so the guy who ran the boats said it was unlikely we’d be able to go out that day. Which was fine, because we had other plans involving the ocean.
We drove south into Marathon and stopped at Publix to buy a styrofoam cooler and picnic food. We got crusty bread with cheese and cured meat, grapes, snacks, beer, and water, packed everything up in the car, and drove to Bahia Honda State Park.
The park map showed two beaches, so we picked one and headed that way. It turned out that there was just a parking lot separating the two of them, one facing the Atlantic and one facing the Gulf. We decided to check out the Atlantic side first, so we grabbed all our stuff from the trunk and climbed over the dune to find this:
The beach was gorgeous and uncrowded. Judy and Harlan set up towels and parked themselves on the beach with beers, while Matt and I took ours in the water. It was so nice there, I didn’t even care about our less-than-optimal hotel beach.
We bobbed around for a while, and ended up talking to a guy from Madison, Wisconsin (we always meet people from Wisconsin on vacation, and I’m not sure why) who said he and his wife were camping there at the park. They had to make reservations a year in advance, and the place fills up within a few hours of the reservations opening. I wasn’t surprised at all. He said they once made the mistake of not setting up their tent on the provided pad, and his wife had chigger bites so bad she had to go to the hospital. Wow.
After a while, we went to grab masks and my snorkel. The waves were a little rough because of the storm offshore, but I couldn’t believe how much life there was even within ten feet of the beach. I saw a few live conch, too! As requested by the state of Florida, I left them alone to crawl around the sea floor.
After snorkeling and exhausting ourselves swimming back to the beach against the current, we decided to go over to the other side of the peninsula and have our lunch. We found a picnic table with this view, so it was obviously the perfect spot.
The west-facing side of the park features the old railroad bridge that was originally the only way to travel down the Keys over land. It makes for a really picturesque view, too. The overseas highway isn’t pretty, but it’s a fascinating structural feat.
After lunch, we walked up to see the railroad bridge up close.
This is the gulf-side beach from above. It seemed to be more crowded than the Atlantic side, and the water wasn’t as clear.
The in-laws went to wander around and see the historic sites while Matt and I went for a swim at the beach. After a while, we headed over to the shower building to clean up and change, and then we were back on the road heading north over the 7-mile bridge. I wanted to do some shopping, so we stopped at the sandal shop, and at a giant shell store in Marathon to pick up souvenirs. While we were there, we asked the girls working (who I’m pretty sure weren’t old enough to drink, but whatever) if they could recommend a good tiki bar in the area. They gave us a couple options, and we headed out.
Tiki bars are tricky in Florida, because that’s their name for everything with a thatched roof, as far as we could tell. You’re sometimes lucky to find a place that can make you a mojito, much less a classic tiki drink. At that point, I just wanted a bar where we could sit outdoors and have a pina colada.
One of the places they recommended was Lulu’s, right down the street. It’s a restaurant in a cute house, but the main attraction for us was the gigantic round tiki hut in the garden next door. It reminded us of our favorite spot in Negril, 24/7 (R.I.P.). We parked in back and chased off a few big iguanas from the yard, then got seats at the bar. The bartender was a quiet older guy who warmed up once my in-laws started talking to him. We all ordered boat drinks, and Judy and I got the pina coladas we wanted.
After a while, I went to check out the garden. It reminded me a lot of Just Natural in Negril, and there were iguanas and geckos hanging out all over the place. Even though the garden is right near the road, it’s a really quiet little oasis. I would love to have a place like that someday.
The in-laws wanted to go back to the hotel for a mid-afternoon nap, so Matt and I dropped them off and headed back to Marathon. We stopped at a combination deli/liquor store and stocked up on supplies for later, then drove back down to the beginning of 7 Mile Bridge. There’s a small parking lot where you can stop and walk out onto the old bridge, which runs alongside the new one. It extends to Pigeon Key (which you can still only visit via boat, unless you want to bike or jog there), and then there’s a gap before it continues on alongside the modern bridge.
We walked out on the bridge for the view, and to watch the Atlantic and Gulf run together. That looked kind of turbulent.
Afterwards, we drove down around to the other side of the bridge to visit Sunset Grille. The place looks like a gigantic tiki hut, so of course I took note of it every time we drove past. We got mojitos and Matt ordered smoked fish dip, which is something he and his parents would end up eating about 10 more times on the trip.
We sat at the rail overlooking Seven Mile Bridge, the ocean, and a giant patio with a swimming pool, a smaller tiki bar, and what appeared to be a movie screen. It was basically the template for the bar I went to own someday.
We had another round just to sit there enjoying the view, and then it was time to head back to the hotel to pick up the in-laws for dinner. We headed back down to Marathon to Island Fish Company, another place that had been recommended to us more than once. We were seated on the patio right by the docks, and ordered mai tais. Our server was awesome, and told us he used to live in the Twin Cities, working for Northwest Airlines. Now he splits time between the Keys and Maui. (Matt and I died of envy at this point.)
They had a veggie burger on the menu, which made me pretty happy. Also, the view did not suck at all:
Before leaving, we got our server’s advice on bars where locals hung out, and that were unlikely to close at 8pm. He recommended Brass Monkey as the place he hung out most often, because they have bands all the time. When he told us it was in the strip mall behind the K-Mart, Matt and I knew that was a place we had to see.
If you picture what a bar in a strip mall might look like, you’re on the right track. It was dark, smoky, a huge dive, and had a fantastic jukebox and cheap drinks. I cringed when my father-in-law ordered a stinger, waiting for the bartender to ask what the hell he was talking about. But he was very professional, and said “sure!” and headed to the back of the bar where we saw him quietly asking the other bartenders, who I’m pretty sure Googled it. Awesome.
There was Appleton VX and Bubble Butt on the jukebox, and nobody even seemed to care when Harlan went to play a cheesy country song. I wanted to stay there forever, but of course we had plenty to see before noon the next day.
I woke up at 8:30 Tuesday morning covered in bites from what was presumably the largest swarm of mosquitos in history. (Possibly they were chiggers or something beach-like on that order, but I’m not sure. All I know is that I wanted to scratch off all the skin on my legs. It sucked.)
We checked out of our run-down resort and hopped on the Overseas Highway. We crossed back over Seven Mile Bridge and passed Bahia Honda, then crossed into Big Pine Key. As soon as you’re over the bridge, there are fences on either side of the road; that’s to protect the Key deer, which are just miniature version of real deer). They’re only found in Big Pine Key, and they’re very protected. There are signs everywhere about their extremely low speed limit, and stories of people being pulled over all the time. I was dead-set on seeing one, since I hadn’t on our last trip through.
Shortly after crossing the bridge, I saw the back half of one of them pressed against the fence, so I felt like that was a good sign. The lady at the Key Largo welcome center said they just wander all over the neighborhoods in the Key, so I turned onto a side street and we started driving around slowly. The key is densely tree-covered, so it seemed like it would be pretty easy to see them in such a protected area, in a driveway or side street. BUT NO.
We drove further into the depths of the key, crossing to No Name key. Mostly I just wanted to see something with that name, but we figured there might be deer there too. But no, just a lot of awesome oceanside houses and swampy, empty space.
We finally decided to just go to the Key Deer center and see them there. We parked and walked up to the entrance, only to find it closed; it’s apparently part of the national parks system, and this was during the government shutdown. Lame.
I resignedly got back on the highway, and we headed south again. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw something on the side of the road: a Key deer was starting to cross. We stopped and watched it walk across the Overseas Highway. Of course we would finally see one in the most populated area of the island.
After Big Pine Key, there are a ton of bridges and causeways connecting more spread-out and less-touristy islands with awesome names, like Sugarloaf Key, Cudjoe Key, Knockemdown Key, and Saddlebunch Key. There are communities lining the coast with ridiculously giant oceanside mansions and huge boats. I did indeed have some envy over that, but I’d be happy with a very small oceanside house and a smaller boat.
We stopped at the famous Baby’s Coffee to pick up some beans to take home (we loved that some of their blends were Hemingway references), and then crossed over onto Stock Island. Our predetermined lunch destination was Hogfish Bar and Grill, which was hard to locate even with signs AND Google Maps’ help. We finally found it down by the docks, and were thrilled to officially be in Key West.
We got a picnic table and checked out the menu. Of course the only ‘vegetarian’ option was Caesar salad, but I didn’t really care that much. We ordered beer and hung out looking at the docks and the roosters wandering around the dirt road.
After lunch, we drove into Key West proper. There was road construction and traffic was terrible, but we had time to kill before we could check in anyway. We headed over to the fishing pier near Martello Tower, because we’d never seen that part of town before. It was about a billion degrees and humid outside, so the wind on the pier was a nice break. Also, we saw this dude fishing on the rocks:
This is facing the southernmost point in the continental U.S.:
We walked back and headed to East Martello Tower, because I really wanted to see the gardens there.
The man taking admission up front was a Packers season ticketholder. Seriously, they’re EVERYWHERE.
The gardens are run by the Key West Garden Club, and they were fantastic. It’s like a little sanctuary inside the fort. There’s even a huge banyan tree with a doorway in it, and geckos and iguanas hanging out all over the place.
The gardens were quiet and secluded, and the perfect setup for a wedding. There were fruit trees all over the place.
There were a couple ibis walking around, too, and this guy was not happy that we followed him around.
A little light rain started while we were there, but we could barely feel it. We wandered around in the orchids some more, and then went to find the in-laws, who were hanging out inside watching a video about the place.
By then it was time to check in, so we headed over in the direction of the Lighthouse Court. Since it’s across the street from the Hemingway House, traffic around there was insane (it’s always insane in Key West – having a car there is a huge inconvenience), so Matt dropped us and the bags off, and went to circle while we checked in.
The guys at the front desk were incredibly friendly, and gave us 2-for-1 mojito coupons from their onsite bar and a parking pass, since it turned out they had free spaces behind the hotel. We had no reason to use the car while we were in town, so that worked well. I met Matt to go park, and the in-laws went to their room. We had two rooms next door to each other in one of their long buildings on the property.
The rooms weren’t big, but they were very clean and comfortable, and each of them opened onto the deck that led out to the patio and pool in back. Plus there was a cornhole court in the shade of the Key West Lighthouse, and the place seemed really quiet despite being in the middle of everything. Also, you get to see Hemingway’s place every time you walk out the front gate:
We had a drink in the rooms with Matt’s parents, then headed down Whitehead Street to visit the Southernmost Point marker. As usual, there was a line of people waiting to take photos of it, but somehow I managed to finally get one without anyone in it!
From there we walked over to see the Southernmost House, where we’d stayed for our last visit, and then back up Duval Street, past all the shops and restaurants. My mother-in-law is scared to death of birds, but she didn’t seem too bothered by the roosters there. (Pigeons would be another matter entirely.)
We stopped back at the hotel bar to redeem our mojito coupons, and hung out on the patio for a while. Around 5:30, we headed back out and went directly to Sloppy Joe’s, because it was very important that they witness the most legendary Key West bar posthaste. They loved it, of course. And so did we, because they serve Papa Dobles.
It was nearing sunset time, so we got some roadies and walked down to Mallory Square. Judy keyed in on a guy singing reggae, so we stood near him to watch the sunset. He said his name was Key West Mustafa, and he was pretty entertaining to listen to.
After sunset, we watched another busker doing weird ladder tricks with fire, and then walked down Duval Street again to Margaritaville for dinner, because NOBODY loves Jimmy Buffett like my mother-in-law. Seriously, I’m surprised she doesn’t go to the parrothead conventions. According to their website, they had live music nightly at 9:30, but by the end of dinner it was clear that the in-laws weren’t going to make it anywhere near that long. They hopped on a pedicab back to the hotel, and Matt and I set off to wander.
The smallest bar (a tiny walk-up place in an alley) was empty, so we had to stop in for a drink. We asked the bartender where he hung out, and he recommended Levity Lounge. We made a note of that for later, and headed over to Captain Tony’s because it was a lot nearer. It was super-crowded and took forever to get any service, but I did discover that one of their house beers is pretty good.) From there we went to the Rum Barrel, which was surprisingly empty by that time of night. While the bartender set us up for a rum flight, it became clear that they were ready to close. We asked her about it and she said she didn’t care, since she’d be there cleaning up anyway. I like island bars.
Once they closed, we walked over to World of Beer (which I think was new since our previous visit). They had a monstrous and awesome beer list, which of course is a GREAT idea after a bunch of rum. We ended the night with Matt getting pizza at a little shop while I made friends with a girl from Wisconsin across the street from Sloppy Joe’s. As it goes in Key West.
Wednesday morning, we got up not entirely ready to face the day. Matt’s parents were already out wandering around, since they’d gotten in much earlier than us the previous night. We picked up coffee from a crabby Russian girl at a place on Duval Street, and then walked down to Mallory Square to meet them for an early lunch at El Meson de Pepe. Despite it not being vegetarian-friendly at all (what Cuban place is?), I still like it a lot, and was happy with my plantain-nacho-and-capirinha brunch.
After eating, we went to see more of Mallory Square, and hang out with the chickens.
There was a big ship in port, so the shops in the area were fairly busy. We wandered around them for a while, and then headed farther down Duval to see some more shops. As we passed La Concha (which is now a Crowne Plaza, apparently?), I remembered something I’d read on a travel forum about a rooftop bar and overlook. We decided to go in and check it out.
The bar wasn’t open til 4, but the patio was still unlocked, and there were a few people out there at a table. The view was excellent.
Facing Mallory Square:
The hallways of the hotel are lined with historic photos of Key West and its many celebrity visitors, too. It’s definitely worth checking out!
Since it had been at least an hour since we’d had a cocktail, we stopped in to Willie T’s. I was very excited to be back there, because we’d been there with a group of five on our first visit, but it was closed for remodeling when Matt and I were there for our pre-honeymoon. We grabbed a little table near the tiny stage, and got a round of mojitos.
I tried to find the dollar bill we’d posted on the wall earlier, too, but I couldn’t remember exactly where it was (not surprisingly). There was a guy named Zach playing the guitar and making terrible jokes on stage (including a song about rhyming with Olive, which I’ll probably never forget).
Once we were done there, we walked back to the hotel. My father-in-law wanted to nap, and Matt and I wanted to go for a swim. We got a couple mojitos at the bar and got in the pool. I wouldn’t really call what we did ‘swimming’, though… mostly we floated around with pool noodles for an hour and occasionally had a sip of our drinks. It was awesome. Judy joined us for a while, sitting on the edge of the pool with her feet in the water. (Someday I’ll convince her to actually come in!)
After a shower and preparing a room drink, we all headed back down towards Sloppy Joe’s, stopping to see the Mile Zero marker along the way.
We had drinks and a couple of appetizers at Sloppy Joe’s (including very delicious cheese arepas), then headed in the direction of the wharf. We had reservations on the Jolly II Rover, which I’d booked because we wanted to take them on the Schooner Western Union, but it was being remodeled. This schooner came highly recommended, though, so it seemed like a good replacement. Plus it has red sails!
It’s a smaller boat than the Western Union, so the crowd was smaller, too. Also, it’s BYOB, which means it’s cheaper. We brought a bottle of Filipino rum and some mixers, and they supplied ice, water, and plastic cups. I liked that arrangement a lot.
Captain Rio (really!) was at the helm, and the ship’s owner also happened to be aboard. We headed out about 6pm, and sailed past Mallory Square, which was filling up for the sunset celebration as it does every night.
It was the absolute perfect night to be out sailing. There wasn’t very much wind close to sunset, but there was enough that we could maneuver into a good position without having to use the engine. While we were waiting for sunset, the crew circled around talking to everyone, and we heard a lot of fascinating stories about their jobs and sailing experience. The captain told us all about his spearfishing adventures in the Tortugas, and the ship’s owner talked about why he decided to buy it. We were so envious.
Sunset was fantastic, too. They explained to everyone about the green flash, and one guy on board SWORE he saw it. There was kind of a white flash, but definitely not a green one. (He was probably drinking Filipino rum, too.)
Post-sunset, we sailed back toward the wharf, much closer to Mallory Square this time. Once we got to one of the narrow streets lined with condos and hotels, they fired the ship’s cannon down the street just to make it echo like crazy. It was fantastic.
We docked around 8pm, and headed back down toward the main part of town for dinner. We’d decided on Kelly’s, since Matt and I liked it so much the first time around. The place was not very crowded at all, and we had a nice table out on their giant patio. The vegetarian offerings weren’t that great, but Matt loved his fried chicken and the house beers were good. The in-laws seemed pleased as well.
After dinner, we walked a block or so to the Green Parrot, one of the other oldtimey bars in Key West. It was apparently also one of the few crowded places, which was kind of shocking. We found a small table along a rail and quickly discovered why it was so busy: they have open ukelele jams on Wednesday. There was a group up on stage leading the crowd, and a whole bunch of people with ukeleles down below following along. They were even selling ukeleles, should you wish to just pick one up and jump in. I loved it.
I had never realized that their ceiling was a giant parachute, either:
Matt’s parents headed out after a drink, and Matt and I decided to stick around a bit longer. It started to clear out after the ukelele jam, so we grabbed spots at the bar and hung out. Round about 12:30, we decided it was time to head back so we wouldn’t feel quite so unpleasant the next morning.
Thursday morning, we got up and headed to the pool deck for breakfast. They had a counter set up with the typical hotel fare: toast and bagels, bananas, some pastries, and yogurt. Eating outside on the patio made it a lot more exciting, though. We picked up the in-laws from their hotel room (they’d eaten earlier, of course) and crossed the street to visit the Hemingway house.
We opted to walk around ourselves rather than go on the tour. It was a really hot day, so being in a crowd in those only fan-cooled rooms seemed like a little much. The cats didn’t mind at all… I liked this guy hanging out on Papa’s bed:
We toured the entire house, then the grounds, including the cat cemetery. I tried not to look too closely.
There’s a good view of the lighthouse from the upstairs balcony. Key West legend has it that Hemingway liked living across the street from the lighthouse, because he never had trouble finding his way home from the bar at night.
His office is in a building out behind the main house, and it’s my favorite. It’s covered in souvenirs from his travels all over the world.
Bally got to meet one of his cats, too, who wasn’t terribly interested in having a basketball hanging out with him.
We stopped in the shop, picked up some souvenirs, and dropped them back at the hotel. Then we walked a couple of blocks down Duval to the Conch Train stop, and purchased tickets. It’s not generally the kind of thing Matt and I would do (especially after having been there a couple times), but my parents enjoyed it quite a bit, and at that point Matt’s parents welcomed the opportunity to be off their feet for a while.
The tour ended up being really interesting, and we visited places on side streets that we hadn’t seen before. We also learned a LOT about Key West history. It took us down to Mallory Square, where we had an obligatory stop at the shops and restrooms there. We decided to get lunch, so we walked over to Island Dogs nearby. (Note: do not make the mistake of going to Island Dogs. The food and service were both godawful.)
After lunch, we boarded another Conch Train for the rest of the tour, which takes about 2 hour or so total.
I thought the second half was more interesting, since it went into some of the newer parts of town, and farther from Duval and the wharf area. We saw a lot of really interesting houses, and noted that Key West LOVES Halloween – everything was decorated like crazy. At this point, Matt’s dad was already dozing off on the train, so I’m not sure he saw much of the tour. When we arrived back at our starting point, we hopped off and went into the hot sauce store nearby for a tasting. (We ended up bringing three bottles home with us.)
After that, we walked back to the hotel to relax for a while. We made drinks in the room, and then went to play cornhole while Judy watched and Harlan napped. The little backyard of the hotel is seriously great, and the lighthouse and huge tree provide a lot of shade.
Judy decided to go take a nap before dinner as well, so we made plans to come back and pick them up at 5:30 to go for sunset and dinner. Matt and I walked down
Duval in the other direction, stopping into a few stores to buy sandals and souvenirs. Then we headed to Rum Bar in the Speakeasy Inn, one of the best places we’d stopped at on our previous visit. This time, Bahama Bob himself was tending bar! We welcomed his advice on our rum flight, which was served up in a barge.
(We had Botron, Angostura, Diplomatico, and the two on the right are Hemingway-tribute rums called Papa’s Pilar, so obviously we were thrilled about that.)
Once our rum was finished, Matt became intrigued by the repurposed Carlo Rossi jug behind the bar labelled “Bob’s Bark Juice”. Bob explained that it was infused with a bunch of bark and herbs, so it’s basically just like Mama Juana from the Dominican Republic. (It’s also made with 150-proof rum.) Matt ordered one, and I declined, though I did try it. There’s some flavor in there that I can’t get past, and I wish I knew what it was. Also, that meant that Matt was in GREAT shape by late afternoon.
We walked back to the hotel to retrieve the in-laws, and of course mix a drink for the long walk to Mallory Square. On the way, we met this ibis hanging out overhead, probably trying to poop on us.
We stopped into Captain Tony’s for a beer, because we really wanted them to see that place, too – it was the original location of Sloppy Joe’s, back when Hemingway hung out there, and Captain Tony was his friend. They enjoyed all the bras suspended from the ceiling, I’m sure. There was a guy with a guitar singing for tips at the door, so Judy hopped up and sang a song with him, and then we were on our way to Mallory Square for sunset.
We stopped at the outdoor bar at El Meson de Pepe (because you wouldn’t want to be without a cocktail at sunset), and Harlan went inside to use the restroom. We waited forever for him, and it was becoming clear that he was lost. We walked around for a while, and finally saw him standing in the square, scanning the crowd. We retrieved him in time to take some awesome photos before sunset.
We hung out near Key West Mustafa again, where Bally met the stuffed tiger hanging out on his gear.
Our final sunset in Key West was as good as the rest of them:
After sunset, Key West Mustafa requested some help singing the Banana Boat song, so Judy hopped right up to the microphone and joined a group of women singing backup. Yes, my mother-in-law was busking in Mallory Square, and it was awesome.
We decided to walk back down to the wharf because we’d noticed a bunch of restaurants over there the previous night. I knew they’d all be seafood places, but figured one of them had to have something I could eat; I’ve learned that I can’t really be a picky vegetarian on vacation, especially in places that are really seafood-focused. We walked around checking all the menus, and things weren’t looking promising. We finally decided to go into Conch Republic Seafood without looking at the menu. I figured I would cobble something together, or maybe just have mojitos while they ate.
I ended up with a salad and artichoke/callaloo dip, which was actually pretty tasty. Matt had snapper Wellington stuffed with blue crab. The drinks were pretty good, and we were on a giant patio overlooking the ocean, so it was hard to be too annoyed with subpar vegetarian options at that point. The in-laws seemed to like the place quite a bit, too.
After dinner, we walked back down to Duval Street, which was far more crowded than it had been the two previous nights. Judy had declared her intentions to go hear the song Margaritaville at the original Margaritaville, so we went over there and got a table. A guy was just setting up on stage with his guitar, so we were set. We got drinks, and my mother-in-law got herself one of the shark-fin hats that they were passing around. She was having a pretty good day.
Guitar guy was horrendously boring, but finally he got around to playing her song (after she prompted him some, of course). They danced, and then decided it was time for them to head back to the hotel. We breathed a sigh of relief over being free of guitar guy, and said goodnight. Matt and I walked over to Levity Lounge, and found it in an alley off a side street, attached to the giant Cowboy Bill’s complex (a really dumb cowboy-themed bar that we avoided like the plague). They had a really good beer selection and big TVs showing the Giants/Bears game, so we grabbed seats at a rail in the alley and hung out watching football.
After a couple beers, we got some Appleton in to-go cups from the bar, and headed back to the hotel to sit on the patio for a bit before heading to bed.
Friday morning, sadly, it was time to leave Key West. We had the identical breakfast by the pool again, and then went to check out of the hotel and load up the car. Matt’s dad was driving this time, so that I could stare out the window at the Keys. We didn’t stop until we reached Islamorada, where we’d decided on a place called Shula Burger at the Postcard Inn, because they had a veggie burger on the menu.
The menu, however, did not have a veggie burger, or anything vegetarian at all. Our server explained that they were rebranding. OF COURSE. I ordered a crappy taco salad without the meat, and I was glad they at least had good beer. (Cigar City Helles is great, by the way.)
Matt took over driving, and we headed back up to Key Largo, where we had to stop at Shell World, the giant craft market with the huge lobster out front:
The shops were indeed as touristy as expected, but there was a bunch of cute stuff, too. I finally fulfilled my desire to own one of those colorful glass floats wrapped in rope, too. I can’t help loving cheesy nautical decor.
From there, we went to find the African Queen. There are about 50 signs for it, so it’s easy to find. The dock is next to the Holiday Inn.
I hadn’t seen the movie at that point, so it was definitely not what I expected. They still take people out on this! Having now seen the movie, I know that the boat is in far better shape at this point.
We snuck through the back yard at the Holiday Inn and went to use their restrooms (their pool complex looked really appealing, too), and then hopped back in the car. We made a quick stop at a nearby liquor store to pick up souvenir rum, the same one we’d tried at Rum Bar:
We also picked up beers for the room, and Matt discovered you can buy Cuba Libres in a can!
Then it was time to head back to the mainland. Traffic was pretty light again, and we made it to the Westin right on I-95 in Fort Lauderdale around 5ish. We checked in, and had adjoining rooms again. Matt’s parents got out their brandy, and we opened some beers and started looking on our phones for a place to have dinner. Based on reviews, we decided on a place called Tap 42, about 10 miles away. Then we set to tearing apart our suitcases and repacking them so that our souvenirs would stay intact on our flight.
Matt’s parents had brought their own bottle of E&J Brandy, the only brand Judy likes. Based on their previous experiences in Florida and Alabama, it was hard to come by, so they were prepared. What we’d learned on the trip, though, was that apparently E&J is now distributed in Florida, so that was even the rail brandy at most places we visited. Consequently, they had a whole bunch left and wanted to use it up before we left. Nothing like having a whole bunch of brandy foisted on you early in the evening, before you’ve had dinner.
We eventually headed to the restaurant and parked. We walked around the back to the entrance, and discovered that the place was PACKED. The restaurant itself is pretty small, and apparently it’s really popular with the douchebaggy crowd, because that’s who was on the patio. (Everyone was really dressed up, too, which was strange.) We asked at the desk how long the wait would be, and they said probably 45 minutes. We decided to stay anyway, because it’s not like there were other spectacular options in the area. We worked our way up to the bar where we could find a standing spot, and ordered drinks. Their cocktail menu was really impressive, so Matt and I were happy; the Farmers Market featured bourbon, sage, mango, lemon, and spicy bitters.)
We were only there for 15 or 20 minutes before our buzzer went off, so that was a nice surprise. They seated us at a long high-top table, and handed us menus. I was immediately thrilled with our decision to stay there, because the vegetarian offerings were spectacular. We ordered the vegan ‘ceviche’, which had fresh lychee, pineapple, and avocado in coconut milk, bruschetta with cheese and dates, and then I got a veggie burger with horseradish. That ended up being so big that I had to take it off the bun to eat it. Everything was great, and it made up for the crappy vegetarian food in Key West. (Our server explained that the owner is vegan, so it was important to him to have those options on the menu.)
From there, we headed back to Mai Kai for a victory lap. The place was way more crowded this time around, and the bar was packed. We were able to get a table in the back where it was quieter, though. I had a zombie, which of course was delicious. We unfortunately couldn’t stay very long, but managed to get in a couple rounds before the in-laws were ready to go. On the way out, we asked the guy we’d spoken to on our first visit about the shrunken head, and he said he’d take us there. He headed off through the restaurant, and for the first time ever, we realized just how gigantic that place is. (We’d only ever been to the bar in front, the bathrooms, and the souvenir shop.) There’s a huge room with a stage for the luau – which was going on as we passed through – and then several other rooms decorated in various island themes. And, you know, the rainforest that Harlan ended up in the first time around. We finally made it to the shrunken head room, and he pointed it out to us in a case on the wall. There was a big table of people eating in front of it, so it was kind of awkward. But dammit, we got to see the shrunken head, and it was as creepy as expected.
We went back to the hotel and stopped into the bar to pick up manhattans to take up to the rooms with us. A very drunk lady at the bar commented quietly (she thought) to her man-friend about why people would want to drink something like that when they were in Miami. I wanted to tell her that we’d spent the last week drinking all of the rum in the world, so it was time for a change.
We hung out in Matt’s parents room for a while watching baseball and helping with their brandy stash, and then went back to our room to finish packing and sleep.
We got up at 9:30 Saturday morning and had to repack suitcases since mine was 52 pounds. We worked that out, crammed all our stuff in the car, and headed to FLL. The car dropoff was quick, and the entire thing cost a total of $103 since I’d redeemed points for most of it. We hopped on the shuttle to terminal two, dealt with crappy service at both check-in and security (where my mother tried to carry through three bags of toiletries), and finally got to our gate.
We picked up coffee and bagels and then ended up at the airport bar for a morning beer. Boarding was quick and we had a 2-seat row to ourselves, so that was good. And as a bonus, we had a layover at CVG, which is in northern Kentucky!
We got there just in time for lunch, so I had a delicious vegetarian ‘cheesesteak’, and Matt got chili, as you do in Cincinnati. Plus Andy Dalton made it, I think.
The rest of our travels were uneventful, and we managed to get the in-laws and all our souvenirs home in one piece!
I’ve been a longtime Delta Skymiles American Express cardholder, since we live in a Delta hub and fly them 95% of the time. The basic card offers free checked bags and an annual $100 companion voucher. You earn miles for purchases, and double miles for purchases from Delta.com. And if you spend $25,000 a year, you earn a bonus of 10,000 qualifying miles, which counts toward medallion qualification.
We recently upgraded to the platinum card. For $150 annual fee (instead of $95), you get a free annual companion voucher. Since we already cover the annual fee with the waived baggage fees, it’s totally worth it.
I’d read a lot about the Capital One Venture Rewards Card, which is constantly voted the best travel credit card (especially for international travelers, because they don’t charge foreign transaction fees). I thought about it, but figured that since we’re so tied to Delta, we were better off with American Express, especially since we use it enough to hit the bonus threshold. Still, I kept hearing about the Capital One card, so I finally sat down and did the math.
Even with the bonus on Amex, Capital One still came out ahead for us. That’s based on a fairly significant amount of travel ever year, and using it to pay bills and large expenses intentionally to get the points/miles. So I switched, because I still get the Delta benefits from Amex just by being a cardholder.
Capital One makes the point earning and redemption process pretty simple. You earn 2 points per dollar. Each point is worth 1 cent. That makes it on of the few 2% cash value cards. There’s a catch with that, though… with the Venture Rewards card, the points only have that value when redeemed for travel-related purchases. There are many other ways to redeem points, including cash back, but those only have a 1% value, or .5 cents a point. So, basically, only get this card if you’re a frequent traveler.
You can book travel directly through their site using points, or you can pay for any travel purchase with your card and then get a credit for it with the Purchase Eraser. That option shows you all of your travel-related purchases in the last 90 days, and you can choose which one(s) to erase. Each item shows you how many points are required to erase it (the calculation is Points * .10, i.e. 10,000 points = $100).
You can’t erase a portion of a purchase; you have to have enough points to cover the entire thing. Airline bookings are a little different: if you bought 4 tickets, the Purchase Eraser will let you choose to erase only one of them if you want. You can also erase multiple items at once. The credit appears within a few days.
You can also use the Purchase Eraser on non-travel expenses, but again, you’re redeeming at half the value. I don’t know why anyone would choose that option.
Capital One currently has a signup bonus of 10,000 points ($100) if you charge $1000 within the first three months. They also have a section called Perk Central, where certain retailers offer bonus points. Unfortunately, that’s being shut down as of November 2013, so hurry and book now! My favorite option there is Hotels.com, which offers 6 additional points per dollar. Those points are credited after you complete the travel, rather than when you purchase.
I feel like we have the best of both worlds with the combination of the Delta Amex and Capital One; all of our purchases go on Capital One now, and I’ve already used the Purchase Eraser for a free flight after just a couple of months. Just by holding the Amex, we still get free bags and the companion voucher, which make up for that annual fee. If you’re not tied to one airline the majority of the time, though, Capital One seems to be the way to go.
Earlier this year, American Express sent me a year-long pass to their new Centurion Lounge. While there’s only one location at the moment, it’s conveniently located in McCarran airport. (According to their website they’ll have new locations yet this year, but I haven’t heard any rumors about new ones. Come on, Atlanta!)
Since we were flying Sun Country, we were leaving from Terminal 3, but there’s a monorail past security at the airport that made it pretty convenient to ride over to the main terminal.
The place looks kind of ultraloungey from the outside, as befits Las Vegas. There were several people waiting to check in when we arrived; half of them seemed to have the same pass I did, and the other half were being told that while all American Express cardholders have access, not everyone gets in for free. (My favorite moment was a lady at the desk telling a customer, “Oh, you’d know if you had the pass.” Pretty sure it’s not some super-elite membership, you just have to be a platinum cardholder.)
Though we didn’t have much time to spend there (we didn’t want to be the jerks making our friends go to the airport early), we took advantage of it. On first glance, the place is far, far nicer than the usual airport lounge. I’ve only been in the Delta one, but this place was infinitely more welcoming, and much less crowded.
Rather than the typical snack bar, they have a buffet with hot food. The selections were pretty good (as a vegetarian, I had no trouble finding options), especially the quinoa salad and pasta. Our favorite thing they had was a tiny creme caramel, designed by a chef whose name I should probably know, which came in a miniature espresso mug. It was excellent.
The open bar was the kind you dream about. Everything they had was top shelf and delivered in very sizable glasses. I had a bourbon Manhattan, and Matt had a Negroni. Though we picked those up at the bar, for our second round a server came to the table and asked if we wanted refills.
There were electrical outlets for phones and laptops everywhere, including below our table in the dining area. There were two TVs over the bar with sports on, as well as a departure status board. The rest of the place was set up in groups of functional areas: workstations, couches around low tables, individual cubby-style chairs, and daybeds for napping. Everything was very modern and appealing.
We unfortunately only had an hour to spend there; if just the two of us had been travelling, I’m pretty sure we’d have gone to the airport with an extra hour to spare. We stopped to use the restroom on the way out, and I found another favorite thing in there:
“No, friends, we haven’t been drinking top-shelf cocktails while you sat at the hot, crowded gate!”
The Delta lounge is only $25/person, and Centurion is $50. I’m not sure I’d be willing to pay $100 for the two of us to hang out there for a normal layover, but if it was more than a couple hours? Without question. I hope to see more of them in other airports soon!
Joe and I left work around 1pm, and headed home to meet Matt and Missy at our house. The plan was to carpool to the parking at Terminal 2, since that was cheaper than getting cabs. As we pulled up, I saw a man out front of the house standing outside his Jaguar, and said something to Joe about why the hell he’d be parking in front of our house.
It never occurred to me that he was our ride, because Wendy had bought me a fancy-ass ride to the airport for my birthday. SURPRISE!
I changed into a dress before we left, because the plan was to not wear pants all weekend. It was supposed to be 110 degrees in Vegas the whole time we were there. We grabbed our bags, Kyle (our driver) put them in the trunk, and we rode in style to the airport. I rode in the most style, because I got the front seat and the three of them had to take the back.
The line at security needled me because we were flying Sun Country and therefore couldn’t use our Pre-Check privileges. We finally got through the scanners and into the terminal with enough time to have a pre-flight drink, so we went to Barrio. It’s fairly new to terminal 2, and a very welcome addition to the previous selection of one bar, called something like Grandaddy’s.
After our round of drinks (containing both tequila and absinthe), we headed to the gate. Sun Country’s convoluted boarding process meant that we got on last, which usually doesn’t bother me, but Missy had a roller bag. That turned out to not be a huge issue, though, because the flight wasn’t totally full. We left the gate ahead of schedule, and had a fairly uneventful journey until we hit turbulence coming into Vegas. Joe and Missy, who are infrequent fliers, didn’t take that especially well, and looked a little pale when we finally landed. Early!
We got on the shuttle to the rental car center, which usually only takes about five minutes. Since we were at Terminal 3, though, it took much longer and managed to hit traffic on the way. We finally got there, and I waited in line at Budget for way too long. Our agent was awesome, though, and we ended up with a very comfortable Nissan Maxima. We found it in the lot, cranked the A/C to SUPERULTRAMAX, and got on the freeway.
Our first stop was critically important: In-and-Out Burger. Sadly, Joe wasn’t feeling well enough to eat his (he thought maybe the tequila and absinthe had something to do with it), but the rest of us enjoyed it. We hopped back in the car, drove to the parking garage at Treasure Island, and ditched the vehicle for the night.
By the time we were in line at check-in, it was pretty clear that we’d have to hurry to be on time for our plans. We had tickets to Absinthe at Caesar’s Palace at 8pm, and it was going to take a bit to walk down there. We hurried to our rooms to change (while I was already in a dress, I was wearing a fancier dress for our first night), and then met back downstairs in the lobby. We headed out onto the strip, where it was approximately four billion degrees.
It’s only a couple of Vegas blocks to Caesar’s, but that’s really far in the heat. When we got to the driveway we turned in toward the casino, and that ended up being the long way; Absinthe is in a tent on the plaza, and we had to make a loop around the fountains to get there. We FINALLY arrived just a few minutes before the show. Matt and I got beers at the bar, as well as waters for our suffering friends, and were led to our TINY TINY wooden seats. We were more crammed together there than on any airplane, and we hadn’t come close to cooling off yet.
The show was great, however. It’s a mixture of burlesque, acrobatics, and dirty jokes, set inside a side-show-like tent decorated to look like the steampunk apocalypse. The acrobatics were incredible, and since there are fewer than 10 rows of seats, you’re really close to everything. The burlesque was awesome, too, though the manic announcer lady telling dirty jokes started to get really old after a while. It’s not really shocking after hearing the same thing 40 times.
Missy was having trouble recovering from the shock of the heat, so they left the show midway through and took a cab back to the hotel. I was worried that she hated it, but later she said that she was having a good time, she just felt terrible. That sucked.
The show was just shy of 90 minutes long. Matt and I exited the tent into the heat, stopped at the bar for a beer, and headed back in the direction of our hotel. We had dinner reservations at 10 at the Encore, and it seemed unlikely we’d be able to make it in that amount of time.
We made it inside the Wynn with ten minutes to spare, and were shocked to realize that it’s nearly impossible to walk across an entire casino (let alone two!) in 10 minutes. I felt bad that we were arriving a little late and with only half our party, but they didn’t seem to care much; the place was nearly empty by 10pm.
Sinatra was great. It’s very fancy, so I’m glad we were well-dressed. At one of the tables nearby, they were having a wine tasting: the entire table was covered in bottles and glasses, and the sommelier seemed to have a permanent post there. One of the reasons we’d picked the place is that because Steve Wynn is vegan, he insists that the restaurants there all offer vegetarian and vegan menus. That’s still pretty rare for Vegas.
We ordered cocktails and a caprese salad to start, and then I got agnoletti with butternut squash and sage. Matt had Frank’s spaghetti and clams. There was a giant bread basket, too, with breadstick spirals that I want to eat all the time. Our server tried to push dessert on us, but there was no way that was happening. She brought little candies with the check, and that was plenty.
We worked our way back down the strip, with gambling in mind. I wanted to play Pai Gow, but we couldn’t find any open tables along the way. We finally ended up at the Quad, which is the former Imperial Palace in its half-renovated state. We were thrilled to see that they kept the celebrity impersonator dealers, because they rule. We found a totally empty blackjack table hosted by Donna Summer, and sat down to play. We did very well, and she gave us a pound with her very dangerous-looking rings every time we won.
Somewhere after 2am, we headed back to TI. We stopped at the bar to get Manhattans, and took them up to our room. We weren’t really sleepy yet, so we hung out in bed drinking. That’s just how you do in Vegas.
I woke up early Friday morning despite our late night, because I’m bad at adjusting to time zone changes. That’s always in my favor on the west coast, at least. Matt was still sleeping, so I texted Joe and Missy to see how they were feeling. Joe said that Missy still didn’t feel well and wanted to sleep, but he was going to go wander around. We agreed to meet after I went to pick up coffee for Matt and I at Starbucks.
We walked over to the Mirage, since I’m pretty sure I’d never actually been inside the casino, only at Rhumbar outside. We checked out their awesome sports book, then wandered around til we found a Pai Gow table. Joe hadn’t played before, but he was a quick learner.
Our first dealer didn’t really know much about dealing, either. She kept comparing hands incorrectly, so we’d have to correct her. I hit the bonus with a flush at one point, and she took my cards and called it a push. I told her I had a winner, so she had to call the pit boss over, deal the cards back out, and check. Then she told me I should have alerted her to it. Um, no. That’s not how it works, lady.
Our next dealer was hilarious, but made us really uncomfortable. By then there were two other people at the table, an old Chinese guy and an old lady sitting by Joe. The dealer started telling us (Joe and I… he pretty much ignored the other two) that he was a PhD candidate for some really technical-sounding medical degree, and informed us that everything we were doing there was going to kill us. I agreed, and ordered another cocktail when the server came by. The Chinese man started freaking out that the old lady was blowing smoke in his direction, and the dealer told her that it was going to kill her, and making jokes on that order. I’m not sure if she didn’t hear him or was ignoring him, but it was really incredibly awkward. I’ve had lots of funny dealers in Vegas, but that kind of crossed the line.
Matt showed up after an hour or so, and we decided to cash out. I’d lost $8.50 but gotten two free drinks, so I considered it a win. We went over to look at the sports book, so Matt could explain to Joe how to bet. He did so, and then Matt went to bet. He came back with a free drink coupon that we were both envious of, so I decided to go place my Stanley Cup bet. I did not get a drink coupon, so apparently Matt was special.
(He later theorized that it was because he was betting on a horse race that was about to run, so they assumed you were probably sitting there watching it.)
Missy texted that she was ready for lunch, so we went back to TI, and met up again in the buffet line. Our room came with free buffet coupons that were only usable Friday during the day, so we were set on taking advantage of that.
In addition to the buffet, Matt and I partook in the $4 all-you-can-drink champagne. Seriously. They bring you a coupe of champagne, plus another sizeable juice glass full of it for refills. I assume you could have more if you finished that, but it was only lunchtime and we didn’t want to nap.
The buffet was surprisingly good, and I was glad it wasn’t so extensive that I felt obligated to try everything. They had a sign up about sugar-free desserts, too, so I asked about that. The guy started pointing out options, and then pulled a slice of some chocolate cream pie from a cold drawer. I grabbed that and rushed back to the table, very excited. The two bites of it I had were great; I didn’t want to risk more than that, because I know what they use in those fake sweeteners. They make you an unpleasant person to be around later in the day.
Four more of our friends were arriving later in the afternoon, so one of us had to leave around 5 to go pick them up. Joe volunteered to drive, so we decided to take the car over to the Flamingo, since we were headed there anyway (and of course it was a billion degrees, so we didn’t want Missy to get sick). We drove over there and parked on the top floor of the ramp, thus guaranteeing the car would be as hot as possible when we returned. (We didn’t really have a choice about that part.)
First we went to go see the animals hanging out in their ponds. There were a ton of birds, including flamingoes and pelicans:
After 10 minutes it was hot enough that we couldn’t breathe, so we went to check out the gambling situation. The pai gow tables in the Flamingo were all full, so we wandered over to the side of the building that had been converted to the Margaritaville casino. We found pai gow there, and Matt and I sat down to play with a bunch of old bros who knew each other.
We weren’t doing as well there, so when Joe and Missy came back, Matt and Joe went to play blackjack. I didn’t want to gamble for a bit, and Missy wasn’t feeling great again, so I volunteered to take her back to the hotel. We went back up to the car, and I burned the back of my calf getting in. It was indeed a billion degrees, to the point where it was painful holding onto the steering wheel. The A/C was doing its best, but in the 20 minutes it took me to drop her at TI and drive back to the Flamingo, it was still barely cooling off. I just hiked my skirt all the way up, since I’m all class.
Matt called to say he and Joe were done gambling and had gone to sit outside near Sin City Brewing, by the Flamingo pool entrance. I found them easily at a table with big comfy chairs in the shade, and Matt had a beer waiting for me. Under those conditions, the 112-degree weather was downright pleasant. Joe had half an hour or so to kill before heading to the airport, so we just hung out people-watching on the patio.
The highlight of the people-watching was the security guard pushing a girl up the ramp in a wheelchair. She was so debilitated I thought she had some horrible disease, but when they got closer I realized she was just that drunk and passed out. She was curled up around a beer bucket on her lap to catch the vomit, and she was clearly either headed to the hospital or detox. Holy crap.
Joe left to go to the airport, so Matt and I grabbed some walking beers at Sin City and headed down the strip. The nice thing about walking on that side is that you can mostly stay inside, crossing through casinos. (You can do the same on the other side, but Caesar’s and the Bellagio are built in such a way that you have to walk an extra mile to cut through the building.) We went over to Bally’s to get his picture (as the owner), then played my favorite gigantic slot machine. From there we cut through Paris, then crossed over to Planet Hollywood. We stopped to get drinks at Yolo’s, as per tradition, and planned to take them with us, but then ended up sitting around there for a while. I really like that bar, and have no good reason why (beyond the reasonably-priced build-your-own margaritas).
We grabbed another set of margaritas in go glasses this time, and went over to the PH sports book to see what was going on there. We found a very comfortable couch, so I was happy to hang out there for a while and wait for our friends to be delivered to the hotel.
After a while I started getting “WHERE ARE YOU WHERE ARE WE HAVING DINNER WE’RE HUNGRY OH GOD!” text messages from people. We liked the idea of them coming down to have dinner on the patio at Planet Hollywood, then realized how complicated that might be to arrange: we had four people who didn’t know their way around Vegas, and two of them were staying at the Quad rather than TI. After some debate, Matt and I decided it would just be easier to go back up to meet them and have dinner at Senor Frogs, since we were planning on that already.
We headed out to the street for maximum speed. It was still 110 degrees. We made it in 15 minutes, and I think I dehydrated everything out of my system on that walk, even the margaritas and beer. Holy crap.
We found the six of them waiting outside the restaurant with a buzzer, looking perturbed. I was surprised the place was as crowded as it already was, but you know, Senor Frogs. Finally we went in and got our table for eight (a couple high-tops pushed together). We ordered drinks (with coupons!) and waters, and suddenly everything was fine again. Especially when they came around and made us all stupid balloon hats.
The food was fine, and the place was as entertaining as usual. Toward the end of dinner the staff was up on stage trying to get the crowd on their feet and dancing, so we did that for a while. Next there was the conga line, which we were not too interested in until they told us everyone would have shots poured in their mouths. Well, that’s just the kind of stupid shit I can get behind, so half of us lined up. We were all handed long balloons, and started marching around the restaurant. The shots were red, and the guy pouring them was holding a rag under people’s chins to wipe up the drips. It’s by no means the most sanitary thing we’ve ever done, but that didn’t stop us from getting back in line for a second one.
We got our check after that, and while we were figuring it they started playing the Cupid Shuffle. Wendy, Sarah, Amelia and I ran back to the dance floor to participate, because we can’t not do it. There was a guy trying to hit on Sarah, who’s six months pregnant, and he was so creepy that Wendy had to physically get between them to stop it. There was also a guy so drunk or zoned out that he was doing everything exactly backwards, so that he ended up facing us the entire time.
Oh, Senor Frogs.
When we left, it was nearing time for the show in the lagoon outside TI, so we went out there and lined up for SEXY SIRENS, as they’re called.
The show was something. The sirens were pretty sexy, I guess, but the terribleness of the music and “acting” kind of killed that whole aspect of it. I liked the fire, I guess! And I’m glad we saw it, so none of us have to waste our time with that again.
After the show, we went back inside and found Bill and Katie, who had just arrived on a later flight (and with another car). We decided to walk down to the Quad again to see if we could get a table with one of the awesome celebrity impersonators again, so we all headed off down the strip, cutting through casinos along the way.
When we got there, the tables were all really crowded. We couldn’t find a spot there, but we managed to get a blackjack table over in the main part of the casino instead. Five or six of us sat down to play, and the rest wandered off around the casino. Things started to go awry after a while; Katie was doing really well (and having a great time getting the dealer riled up), but Matt and I were losing way more than we were winning. Once I was down $60 or so, I decided to go win at the bar instead. We went over to the one near the celebrity impersonators and ordered Manhattans, and I hung out talking to Willis until everyone else showed up later. Even Katie ended up losing at that table, so that was not our best gambling experience at all.
We all hung out there at the bar for a while, and some of the group decided they were done for the night. Matt noticed that it was almost midnight, which meant it was about to be my birthday, and decided we should have shots. I didn’t want to get them at that bar, though, because their prices were ridiculous. I suggested we go to Casino Royale instead, because having walked through there before, I knew it was probably the last bastion of low-rent on the strip. Seriously, there’s a Best Western, a Subway, and a Denny’s in the building.
We walked over there, and Matt went to the very busy bar to order. He just asked for some kind of shot from the impatient bartender, so we watched as the guy poured a whole bunch of vodka, then blue on top. Wendy and I cringed. I don’t have a spectacular history with blue drinks. We took the seven of them over to the rest of the group (at the giant Wheel of Fortune), and toasted to my birthday. The shot tasted just like strippers smell!
We headed back toward TI, where we ended up gambling for a while before all heading to bed.
Saturday morning, we all convened in the lobby at TI and headed to the cars. Bill and I had the same rental car in different colors, so I’m sure our 10-person, 2-car caravan looked awesome driving down the strip. Our destination was the Mob Museum, located in the former federal building in downtown Las Vegas. We paid $5 to park our cars in their million-degree parking lot, and went inside for tickets.
I’d wanted to visit the museum since I heard about it, because it’s run by the same group who created the International Spy Museum in DC. They do a good job of telling a story in a way that holds my fleeting attention, and they have a lot of interactive exhibits.
We started by getting in the lineup, which provided no end of entertainment.
They had an exhibit on the St Valentine’s Day massacre, complete with a piece of the actual wall:
Then there was the electric chair. Bally gave it a try.
They had a room devoted to Vegas-related mob history, and the old hotel artifacts were great. They also had video of all the old casinos being imploded.
Farther along in the exhibit, we got to practice our reaction times with a gun. Matt’s a lawbreaker, so he just shot at the cops.
We swung through the gift shop quickly, then all gathered out front where Katie wrangled another tourist to take a group photo on the steps of the museum. It was so hot out, I thought I was going to have an ass-burn from the stairs.
Sarah mentioned that she needed to eat soon, so we devolved into a flurry of “OH GOD PANIC THE PREGNANT LADY NEEDS FOOD RIGHT THIS SECOND!!” and rushed over toward Fremont Street. Matt and I really wanted to see the brand new Detroit-themed casino called The D (seriously, a Detroit-themed casino), so we headed that direction. Doran was just excited about the name.
The game floor was pretty nice, and they had cheap blackjack and even $3 craps. We went upstairs to find the restaurants, and the entire upper floor was a huge collection of old slot machines and other games that actually used quarters. The owners had gathered as many of them as they could find. AWESOME.
Oh, and they had a piece of the Blarney Stone for some reason.
We decided on the D Grill for lunch; it’s the typical burger place that exists in pretty much every casino. They were quick to get us a 10-person table, and our server was really amusing. After ordering, Matt and I rushed to the sports book to see if they were taking bets on the Belmont Stakes, but they didn’t do parimutuel there.
After lunch, we went to get a plastic bucket and roll of quarters from the casino cage so we could play the horse-racing game. It was a really old machine with 8 seats around it and the “track” in the center. You deposited money and made your picks, and then the horses kind of lurched along their individual tracks to the finish. They switched the odds every time, and the favorite always won, so I guess the best play was to just pick that horse every single time. It was pretty entertaining, though.
After we got tired of that, we went back downstairs to look for a table. Conveniently, half of the group was ready to go back to the hotel and head to the pool, and half of us wanted to stay downtown and gamble. Matt, Bill, Wendy, Doran and I couldn’t find open tables at The D, so we stopped to grab a beer and headed to check other casinos.
As usual, Binion’s proved reliable. Matt, Wendy, and I sat down at a pai gow table, and Bill went to go play craps. Doran wandered.
After a while, Matt wasn’t liking his pai gow luck, so he and Doran headed over to The D to play. Doran went right back to the horseracing game, and Matt found a blackjack table. I left pai gow once I was up a little, cashed out, and found Bill at the craps table. I turned my money right back into chips and played that for a while, until it was time to round everyone up to head back. We got Wendy from pai gow, Doran and Matt from The D, and went to the car. We drove back to TI and made plans to meet in the lobby again shortly.
Matt and I went to our room to refresh our sweaty selves, then headed back downstairs. Half the group was going to the car to drive to the Cosmopolitan, and Wendy, Amelia, Bill, Matt and I were going to walk so we didn’t want to have to drive back afterwards. I’d told Wendy to meet us at the bar in the back hallway so we could use one of our check-in coupons for a 2-for-1 slushy drink or beer. We needed sustenance for the long walk to the Cosmopolitan, after all.
It took a while to get our drinks, and then we realized we’d have to hurry to be to the restaurant on time. We rushed off down the strip in the 110-degree heat. Once we got to Caesar’s I suggested we go in through the mall entrance and walk through the building, since it’s easy to get from there to the Bellagio, and then the Cosmopolitan.
That turned out to not be such a great idea. First, when you walk into the mall rotunda, it’s absolutely unclear how you get from there to the casino. You can barely even see the hallway for it, and it’s not obvious which level you should even be on. We circled around there on the escalator for a while, and finally found the hallway. That went well until we ended up at the dead-end near the giant aquarium and had to backtrack. Then it was clear we were almost definitely going to be late.
We wisely decided against walking through the Bellagio, and went out to the strip instead. The fountain show was just starting in front of the Bellagio, so we got to see a tiny bit of that as we rushed past. As we got to the top of the escalator near China Poblano, we saw the other half of the group waiting outside, just being gathered by the hostess to go to the table. WHEW.
They seated us at a long bench-like table near the counter prep area. We ordered cocktails, and started reviewing the menu. I’d forgotten how awesome their food is, and what a variety they have.
We ordered a couple guacamoles for the table while awaiting our other food. While we were eating that, a server suddenly appeared with two brightly-colored pitchers, and handed me a note. Jumi and Josh, who hadn’t been able to make it to Vegas, had bought drinks for my birthday! Between those sizeable pitchers and the cocktails we’d already ordered, we were in good shape.
I got a setas taco and the huitlacoche noodles, which are the best thing ever. The rest of the table was freaking out with excitement over the golden pigs, i.e. pork donuts. They loved them. Seeing small plates for ten people arrive constantly at the table was pretty amusing.
After a very long dinner and a mezcal sampling flight, we were finally ready to go. It took half an hour to figure out the bill, but we worked it out, and headed out into the casino. As per usual, half the group was ready to go back already, and then rest of us (me, Matt, Wendy, Amelia, Doran, and Sarah) went to wander. We tried to find a table in the Chandelier, but it was really busy. We went to Bond instead, since it’s an equally awesome bar. There were no seats there either, but we found a rail to stand around. Since it’s right at the front entrance of the casino, people-watching there was incredible.
After we finished our drinks, we headed across the street to Planet Hollywood. We cut through the casino there, and stopped at the Cabo Wabo walkup window so Matt could buy me a birthday shot from Sammy Hagar.
From there we crossed into Paris, and walked through the hallway with all the shops. We stopped to watch the giant slot machine outside Bally’s, and Wendy and Amelia went to find machines to play on. Sarah wanted to go into L’Art de Paris, the store with a million creepy sculptures, so we followed them in there. We were the only ones in the shop apart from some surly-looking guys working there. They had “no photography” signs everywhere, but Sarah still snuck one of a Jesus on the cross with large, shapely breasts. Then we got the hell out of there.
Matt and I played on some video poker machines for a while, then found Doran and Sarah again. Wendy and Amelia were headed back to the hotel. Matt and Doran stopped at the bar to get Jameson on the rocks, which arrived in super-cute rounded miniature rocks glasses. I told them we were keeping them, and we headed out the front door to the next casino.
We finally ended up at The Quad again. I figured it was a good choice since Sarah was undoubtedly getting tired, but she corrected me quickly: she was going to stay up and hang out, because that’s what you do in Vegas. The tables were all packed, so we picked a spot at the usual bar there and ordered manhattans. We stood around there talking for a few drinks and what seemed like a very long time, watching the celebrity impersonators.
Doran wandered off to use the bathroom, and when he returned he was sans cute stolen glass. Sarah asked where it went, and he looked alarmed and headed back in the direction of the bathroom. A few minutes later, he returned with a shotglass… a different one that he’d found sitting out. He got laughed at for that, and Sarah told him they were taking that one instead.
We said good night to them and walked back to TI. We decided to stop at the bar for a room drink, so Matt headed toward the place we’d been the previous night. I told him no, we should go to the bar on the other side of the casino, because that one was better. He told me there was no other bar, but I insisted that I knew where it was. I led him around the outside of the game floor to the better bar… which turned out to just be the far end of the one he was going to. I deserved the laughing-at that I got for that.
We got up, grabbed coffee at Starbucks, took the bags to the car, and checked out of TI. Bill and Katie had already left for the airport (painfully early in the morning), so we were down to one car again.
Wendy had texted earlier to say they wanted to go to Pink’s Hot Dogs down at Planet Hollywood, and that Doran was interested too. We had no interest in walking that far in the heat again, so we told them we’d meet up with them after brunch. Matt, Joe, Missy and I headed toward Emeril’s Stadium, our favorite sports book restaurant in the Palazzo.
The place was conveniently located directly across the street from TI; we could see the entrance when we walked out the door. But because it’s Vegas, you can’t just cross the strip there: you have to take the overpasses. We took an elevator to the overpass to Fashion Show Mall, another overpass to the Wynn, and an elevator again because the escalator was broken. Finally we crossed the overpass to the Palazzo and went inside. We were outside just long enough to get exhausted from the heat.
Emeril’s was just opening, so we had our pick of seats. We chose the couches set up as massive stadium seating facing the massive TVs and the actual sportsbook. We ordered brunch, a pitcher of drinks, and hung out in incredibly comfortable fashion.
A short time later, I got a text from Doran asking where everyone was. Apparently though he’d expressed interest in Pink’s, they hadn’t actually made plans. I wasn’t sure where Wendy was, either, but I told him to get in touch with her. They finally met up at some point, and started the long journey to Planet Hollywood.
We wrapped up our brunch at leisurely pace and headed over to the Mirage. The plan was to meet up with Wendy and Amelia there later, since we both had Groupons for 2-for-1 drinks at Rhumbar, which we’d enjoyed with Wendy on the previous visit.
We stopped at the sports book at the Mirage, because Emeril’s didn’t have the bet Joe wanted. He bet, Matt redeemed his free drink ticket, and then he and I went to place a few more bets. There was a horse race coming up, so he bet on that and got another free drink ticket. Apparently that’s the trick… bet on something that you’re probably going to be sitting there watching.
Wendy texted to say they were just leaving, and that they would meet us at Rhumbar. We went in and got a table in the back corner of the patio, one of the few spots in the shade. A server came by and we gave her our Groupon. Missy and Joe just wanted water. She told them apologetically that there was a 2-drink minimum on the patio, so Missy asked if a ginger ale was OK because of her heart condition. She seemed OK with that explanation (and Joe’s lack of order), though, so apparently we were fine. The patio was nearly empty anyway.
It was still ridiculously hot, but the shade and their intermittent mist-fan helped a little. We were still way happier with that than the crappy weather in Minneapolis, plus we were leaving soon. Joe seemed to not mind too much, and went ahead and took a nap at the bar.
We had another round, and Wendy was still nowhere to be found. We hung out longer, and finally our drinks were happy and we had no good excuse to stay any longer. We got our check and went back to the sports book to wait.
There was still half an hour left til we had to head out, so I went to go play craps with $40, and Joe came along to watch. I feel like I did a good job of convincing him he should play sometime, since I turned it into $100 pretty quickly. We went back to the sports book just as the rest of the group arrived, looking completely exhausted. They said they’d tried to do the same thing we did in Caesar’s, and gotten lost for AN HOUR.
We all went to the tram and rode over to TI. Matt, Joe, Missy and I went to get the car, and the rest went to pick up their bags at the desk and get a cab to the airport. We dropped the car off at the rental center, then got on the bus to the airport. We got through security fairly quickly, so Matt and I sent Missy and Joe off to the gate, and headed to the inter-terminal tram.
The Centurion Lounge, American Express’ first airport lounge, had opened recently at McCarran, and they’d sent all their platinum cardholders a year-long free entry pass. Unfortunately it was only good for the cardholder and a spouse, so we couldn’t bring everyone. I already wrote a review the place here, but the short version is this: IT’S AWESOME.
Our flight home was fairly uneventful, and the parking shuttle was waiting for us at the terminal. We were home 15 minutes later, thus cementing my opinion that the Park and Fly lot is great. Also, that that was a hell of a birthday party weekend.