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.