Category Archives: Key West Florida 2010

Guava Cream Pie and Sunlight Addiction

Our last few spring breaks have been quite cold. Our school district has spring break every April. Last April, we skied in Vermont; in 2014, we went in Iceland—beautiful and absolutely worth a repeat visit, but cold; in 2013, we were in Japan enjoying spring chill and cherry blossoms; in 2012 we were in Quebec freezing our butts off and warming up over pots of maple fondue, in 2011, we went to Cancun and Isla Mujeres, and in 2010, we visited Key West, Florida, more traditional spring break routes.

Growing up along the Great Lakes in the Snow Belt, that frigid stretch of the Northeastern United states that gets pummeled with “lake effect snow,” spring break always meant more than just a vacation. It was that much-anticipated week where you went somewhere to thaw out after months of cabin fever caused by playing too many board games or watching too much TV. You were sick of shoveling snow, helping your parents scrape ice off the car, and being yelled at by your mother for tracking dirty snow into the house from your snow boots. Spring break was synonymous with wearing fewer clothes, getting sunburned, leaping into giant, Smurf-blue swimming pools and drinking drinks made of colors too bright to exist back home, for who anyone north of Florida drinks Curaçao, that Windex-hued liquer flavored with laraha citrus?

I lived vicariously through other people’s interpretations of spring break. My family did not take springtime vacations, and we certainly didn’t go anywhere, not even anywhere nearby, to pass the school breaks. There was no money. Sometimes we went to a museum but most often we were left to fill our days on our own. I always felt jealous of the kids whose families flew to Florida for spring break, and to this day, I still find palm trees exotic despite having been around them now in several different countries. When I joke to friends that “palm trees give me the feels,” I mean it, because those shaggy fronds signal I’m somewhere else. In two years, we are hopefully moving to Los Angeles where I will wake up to palm trees and have the feels every day.



Palm trees are obviously a big part of the scenery at Great Exuma Island, one of dozens of islands in the Bahamas where we spent last week. Exuma is breathtakingly photogenic, and I Instagrammed the hell out of it. Now that I think of it, anywhere in the Caribbean gives me the feels; I’m always happy there. I mean this emotionally as well as biologically; I have seasonal affective disorder, and my vitamin D and serotonin levels were soaring in the Bahamas last week. I could feel the release. Less rumination. Less worrying. Sunshine is good for the soul. I loved sitting out on the front deck of our rented cottage and getting pummeled by sunlight. I loved admiring the trees’ silhouettes against a backdrop where sea and sky were almost the same shade of blue. I have a crush on the word “cerulean,” and that’s the word I kept thinking of while in Exuma, a chain of islands home to just 7,300 people, a place that is part of a much larger archipelago originally called Baja Mar or low seas. It is indeed very shallow in the Bahamas, a region where the focus is outward, towards the water, where people move more by yacht or catamaran or dingy. The commercialized Caribbean vibe makes it easy to forget the Bahamas was once the gateway to the New World, when one day that probably started out like all other days, a stranger in a boat approached. In 1492, Christopher Columbus first spotted what is now called San Salvador Island, about 93 miles from where we rented our cottage. The Caribbean hasn’t been the same since.

People—usually pale Americans, Canadians and Europeans—go to the Caribbean to do the following: snorkel, dive, boat, fish, sunbathe, and, later in the day, eat the things you saw while snorkeling, diving or fishing. I could live like this for months, but spring break is only a week long. We snorkeled almost every day we were in Great Exuma Island, either off our private cove, in Elizabeth Harbour near Stocking Island, or near some of the smaller cays where a red-faced, old-time Bahamian guy named Ray took us out on a boat tour. We swam with the famous wild pigs of Exuma, who have their own Instagram feed, and held piglets born on Valentine’s Day. Twice, we snorkeled small coral reefs, and once you were mask-down, you saw the cast of “Finding Nemo” going about their business; fish of every size and color, some striped, some shinier than others, some bug-eyed, some darting about like over-caffeinated New Yorkers late for something, some just sashaying about, and some slowly circling yellow or dark-orange colored brain corals. We quickly discovered that swimming with the fishes in the Bahamas means something entirely different from swimming with the fishes in New York.






Breathing through my snorkeling tube, I wondered what the fish thought of all these people coming through and spying on them. We held living starfishes big and small, we found sand dollars, we saw a barracuda swim past our boat, we saw conchs that still had their meat on them—and were hoping to get through the day without getting caught, for conch fritters and conch salad are on every menu everywhere around Exuma. Also on the menu: guava cream pie at the Driftwood Cafe in downtown George Town, where they also serve a delicious black bean burger. On three different occasions, I ate guava cream pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Pie does work as a side dish at any meal.

My daughter is not an adventurous eater, and I couldn’t interest her in the guava cream pie, but she’s adventurous in other ways. I could tell she was getting brave in the water. After a year on swim team, she was able to take full advantage of the snorkeling opportunities we had last week, and swimming has given her such confidence, that she started diving for shells and curiously poking around the reef to see more. We had taken her snorkeling in Key West six years ago, and tried to show her how to feed bits of pineapple to the fish, but she lasted less than 10 minutes in the water before freaking out. Last week, we had to beg her to get back on the boat, and once seated next to me, her skin pruned from a great time in the salt water, she smelled like a bag of potato chips.





I tried to memorize the colors of the Bahamas during our visit, for even while swimming through these colors, I knew as soon as I got back to suburban New York City, I would miss the high these colors delivered. However, Great Exuma Island wasn’t all beauty all the time—there’s no recycling program, and I tried to pack our emptied plastics and bottles, but they wouldn’t fit in our suitcases. I also wondered about the local waste management system since garbage was everywhere. It’s an island of mixed development, with pockets of poverty alongside flamingo-pink administrative buildings and an old yellow school with not much of a playground. These buildings are just down the road from only a few major resorts such as Sandals and Grand Isle Resort, all connected by the “Queen’s Highway” as it is known, one long paved road running down the middle of the island, which also joins Great Exuma to Little Exuma via a one-lane, one-way bridge. From the Queen’s Highway are countless unpaved roads filled with potholes, which was how we got to our cottage. We chose to vacation on Great Exuma Island because we didn’t want to hang out in a resort bubble. I didn’t want to interact with resort staff. Instead, I chatted up locals when I could, asking a conch fisherman about where he dives for dinner, and talked to a guy selling produce out of the back of his pickup truck what days of the week he came through George Town. Everyone we met was exceptionally friendly.




Being out of that bubble meant seeing some things that were upsetting, like piles of garbage or abandoned, rusting school buses or cars left at the side of the road, or empty homes with windows punched out like broken teeth. Yet it also meant unadulterated beauty and wandering the Tropic of Cancer beach on your own, a crescent of white powdery sand that’s at 23 degrees latitude and is going to get super-hot when the Summer Equinox rolls around in two months. The Tropic of Cancer beach is easy to miss, and we mistakenly drove by it twice. The painted line that you can straddle for your photo-op was once blue and is now bleached by the sun; it’s as understated as the fading signpost by the road indicating the Tropic of Cancer was just ahead. What was most impressive about this beach was not the imaginary line that runs across it, but how unsullied it was by anything or anyone. The Bahamians call it a “footprint-free” beach, and they’re not kidding; any footprints made are your own, and quickly disappear with the tide. Jersey Shore beaches are as crowded as highways, often barely a square foot of sand to pitch an umbrella, but here, my daughter ran races against her father and skipped around. The Tropic of Cancer Beach was one of the most beautiful swaths of land and landscape we had ever seen, and yet there were only two adults reading on the sand, two teen boys playing in the water, and that was it for a late Thursday afternoon. No conch fisherman. No rusting boats. No garbage in any direction. No paddleboarders or swimmers. No one standing over a cookout. And certainly nothing that characterizes most American East Coast beaches: no fried dough vendors or saltwater taffy stands or lifeguards looking bored by the job. Just a strip of sand being licked by soft waves of salt water. Just a beach the way beaches used to look.




Sprinting Toward Spring Break

It’s hard to write about the beaches in Cancun or along Southern California’s coast when it’s barely 40 degrees out and the sun is ignoring you. But I did it. As we all daydream about where to thaw out this spring, I thought a roundup of some favorite spring break destinations might be in order. You can check out my latest blog posts for CheapOAir, like the one about beaches in Los Angeles or the one about Cancun’s beaches or there’s also Cancun’s newest Mayan culture museum and it’s not-as-new underwater sculpture garden. My tropical wish list includes more of Mexico, and more of the Caribbean, especially St. Lucia. Both have been added to the ever-growing vacation destination list.

What about the Florida Keys? We visited Key West after the annual wave of college party goers had already swept through and locals had swept up the remaining detritus. By the time we arrived in April, we had a clean, quiet island of margarita-sipping grownups who had already partied hard years ago. I love the funky, artsy, “we-answer-to-no-one” vibe on Key West and we look forward to going back and visiting our favorite pools and cafes again.

If you prefer history over the beach, Washington, D.C. is a fantastic spring break getaway because so much to see and do there is free, plus it’s the one time of year the city actually looks like it’s in a good mood (as opposed to humid, stressed-out summers or deadline-driven tension throughout fall and winter as fiscal and calendar years come to a close). How can you be grumpy when everything is blooming pink? Also, the foodie scene is gaining ground and visibility in Washington. Book soon because cherry blossom season is just weeks away.

Speaking of cherry blossoms, our spring break this year will be in Japan, where blossoming cherry trees are treated with the same reverence as Buddhist temples. I’m buzzing with excitement, and really look forward to blogging, tweeting, posting and just spewing giddiness via social media while touring Tokyo and Kyoto. More to come!

Scenes from Key West

It’s chilly and gray today, so I’ve mentally returned to Key West, home of the sunset. We actually saw wild dolphins while watching the sunset, but marine photography is tough and the creatures were quick, so we have no photographic proof of the awesome things we saw. But we do have proof that the sun went down (and came back up the following day), that Anna tried snorkeling for the first time, and that Anna played on the beach, which is actually an accomplishment because waves used to terrify her.

Totally Worth It

I can’t gush enough about Santa Maria Suites, the four-star hotel where we stayed for four nights during our visit to Key West. It’s far away enough from Duval Street so you have the peace and quiet you paid for, yet close enough to walk to all the shops, restaurants, and beaches if you want to be part of the public sphere. The beach was a three-minute walk from our suite, but that’s walking at a Florida pace. You can be there in a New York minute if you don’t mind a little sweat.

Santa Maria’s architecture is definitely from the 1960s-1970s for parts of the facility, especially the restaurant facade, reminded me of the Brady Bunch house. But when everything is painted white against a turquoise background that is the Gulf of Mexico, then anything can look good.

Named after Columbus’s leading ship, Santa Maria offers a unique kind of tranquility you can’t find at a more traditional hotel. You’re not schlepping in and out of elevators or walking across carpet that has the same hideous floral print as your grandmother’s house dress. The story, according to our beloved Captain Chuck from Safari Charters, is that the Santa Maria was a condo complex that didn’t sell so the two-story homes were converted into hotel suites so the vibe is anything far more personal and private than you would find even at the swankiest hotel. Anna walked in with our suitcase and proclaimed “This is nicer than our apartment!” and Mike had to agree.

The suites are furnished with modern touches–lots of brushed stainless steel, clean lines, earth tones, and no floral prints. Anna thought the doorknobs at Santa Maria’s were superior to other doorknobs she had seen. Although the doorknobs weren’t the first eye-catching perk to grab me, I did come to appreciate them over the course of our trip. What grabbed my eyes were the giant flat-screen TVs in each bedroom and in the living room. Also, for a person who takes pillows and comfortable bedding very seriously, this was the place; the pillows were phenomenal. I hadn’t enjoyed pillows like that since the NH Bruges Hotel in Belgium!

I have no idea what their room rates are since we stayed there as part of a package we booked last fall when packages were running cheap. We also stayed during the week; my impression is that weekends at Santa Maria are in high demand. The rooms are gorgeous and the staff are exceptionally friendly–the poolside bartender, Derek, is known throughout the Internet world for his delectable smoothies. Be sure to claim a deck chair poolside by 4 pm–that’s happy hour and it gets busy.

Unfortunately, we never learned the names of the others who catered to us, but we liked them just as much as Derek because these mystery people brought us muffins for breakfast, they left Dove ice cream bars in the freezer and chocolates on our pillow every night. Santa Maria definitely wants you to enjoy your sweet tooth; we were greeted at check in with a recipe for key lime pie. And I already mentioned the delicious Japanese restaurant Ambrosia, with its funky, balled up udon noodle-shaped furniture and some of the freshest sushi I’ve enjoyed since living in Seattle. Ambrosia is a bit on the pricey side; I thought $18.95 for chicken katsu, some steamed broccoli and carrots, and some miso soup was a bit much, but everything was tasty so we forgave them, as they probably knew we would.

A great hotel experience can make or break a trip. We’re eager to go back to Key West just to park it at Santa Maria Suites another week. No doubt Derek will welcome us back with a pina colada.

Margaritaville Sweets, Treats, and Eats

It’s weird to come back from a vacation feeling like you ate well and slimmed down, but that’s what happens when you live on tapas, key lime pie, sushi, and ice cream while walking everywhere, biking, snorkeling, and swimming. Now that’s a diet worth living!

Our first meal in Key West took place about 20 yards from our hotel lobby at a hotspot called Ana’s Cuban Cafe, which was a window into some Cuban family’s kitchen that was attached to a corner deli. We ate there twice because it was that good. The plantains are delish, the rice and beans are as good as it gets–and we’ve eaten in Cuba! For about $4, you can keep cool by sipping on some coconut milk. It doesn’t get more fresh than this:

We enjoyed the Cubano presence in Key West and regret we didn’t stop at more Cubano restaurants. Ana certainly benefitted from our repeat business, but next time, we’re going to give the other cafes a go.

Our second meal, one that actually involved silverware (Ana’s Cubano Cafe gave us some plastic sporks wrapped in cellophane) took place at Nine-One-Five, a classy little joint on obnoxious Duval Street. Not surprisingly, this tapas/wine bar features an extensive wine list and some of the juiciest olives I’ve nibbled on in quite some time. I’m regretting not ordering the sangria–we had just flown in having left our apartment for the airport at 3:30 am that day and I was nervous a little sangria would leave me face down and sound asleep on Duval Street. Certainly not the first time locals have seen that.

Mike and I ordered the tapas platter, which we noshed on while enjoying balcony dining on the sloped second floor of this old Victorian house. I inhaled the figs wrapped in bacon. “Inhaled” is putting it politely. I face-planted into them. Thankfully, I remembered to remove the toothpicks before doing so.

I promise not to do a play-by-play of each meal–it’s just that the first two were so good. Like the colors, the food at Ana’s Cuban Cafe and at Nine-One-Five were explosively sensual. What’s great about the Florida heat is that it slows you down, forcing you to sit still and savor every bite. You can’t get that in New York.

We were as lucky with our second dinner in Key West as we were with our first. After an afternoon out on the water, we circled back to our hotel and took a few steps from our room to the hotel restaurant, Ambrosia, which Captain Chuck (seriously…that’s his name and he was from New Paltz) told us had the best sushi on the island. Captain Chuck is indeed a man of his word–it was truly some of the freshest sushi we had wrestled with chopsticks. Wish I could share some photos, but we were starving and the sushi and tempura went quickly. Ambrosia’s ambiance is as great as the food–the wall behind the bar turns color–a trick that didn’t get old, even at 9 pm–and the furniture reminded me of balled up udon noodles.

In between plates of tapas and sushi, there was ice cream:

…and more ice cream…

…and more ice cream. Ice cream was worshipped on this trip. It was a palette cleanser, an intermezzo, a snack, a dessert, and sometimes even an appetizer. Our daughter is not an adventurous eater so I am pretty sure the calcium and protein in the ice cream sustained her throughout the trip. She has traveled on three continents, to four countries, and to the four corners of the United States. Despite all the mouthwatering and sometimes exotic food her parents have placed before her (or perhaps because of this), she still wants only macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, and ice cream. At one point, ice cream was almost breakfast, but you have to draw the line somewhere–even in Key West.

And if you’re tired of ice cream, there’s always the frozen key lime pie on a stick. Covered in chocolate, this concoction melts quickly under the Florida sun so you have to work those mandible muscles and eat it before chocolate and custard trickle down your hand. There are many places along Duval Street that serve key lime pie on a stick, but the Blond Giraffe claims to have been the first and to be the best.

Of course you can’t talk about Key West dining without mentioning Blue Heaven, an island institution that began as a lunch counter service nearly 20 years ago. I overheard people on the streets rave about Blue Heaven, and it had been recommended by a friend as well so we felt compelled to experience what all the buzz was about. If you do decide to eat at Blue Heaven, be warned: the wait averages around one to two hours. We waited nearly two hours for lunch. It’s not a bad wait because the whole restaurant is outdoors, there’s a ping-pong table, live music–even at breakfast and lunch–and a bar. There’s no rush on Key West.

I do believe Blue Heaven’s motto: “Serving heaven on a fork and sin in a glass.” People hang here for hours and keep coming back. Lunch was tasty, but also pretty standard; Mike and I didn’t think it was worth a two-hour wait. We’re glad we went, and would rather try breakfast or dinner next time since those menus looked more creative than the traditional lunch menu we read. I will say Blue Heaven makes a killer grilled cheese–they bake their own bread. And Blue Heaven also bakes their own key lime pies; the meringue definitely deserves some island bragging rights. Like Southern hairdos, the meringue is big, unapologetic, and held together by chemicals and willpower.

For us, the best part of Blue Heaven was watching Anna chase a family of wild chickens with a camera. Years ago, roosters were brought over from Cuba for cock-fighting, and now the island has no shortage of wild chickens roaming about figuring out how to safely cross the road. A hen and five baby chicks circled our table while Mike ate Jamaican jerk chicken for lunch. Right before our dessert, one of the baby chicks was injured and died right by our a table. The kitchen staff had obviously witnessed this before and a hired hand came out and quickly swept the dead chick away.

Don’t let a cute, cuddly dead baby chick slow you down. A few doors down Blue Heaven on Petronia Street is Colombian Grace, a new restaurant that opened its doors five months ago and is run by a former Blue Heaven staffer. The traffic to Blue Heaven is so heavy that there’s a sign out front directing hungry visitors unwilling to wait two hours for a burger or jerk chicken to walk down to Colombian Grace. We’re very thankful for that sign otherwise we would had never known about this place, which proved to be quite the find. Many of the tables there were empty at lunchtime, but hopefully word will get out and tables will fill up. Again, we sat on the balcony of another old Victorian. Petronia Street is much quieter and more residential than Duval Street, so you can bask in Key West’s softer side while sampling the local cuisine.

Mike noshed on tender, juicy shredded beef, I ate chorizo and fried plantains, and then topped that off with a plate called “Happiness,” a made-to-order diaphonous white corn fritter topped with cheese and served with hot chocolate–the real deal hot chocolate as in South America-grown cocoa ground fresh and not diluted with high fructose corn anything or dumped from a bag.

“Happiness” lived up to its name. I’m not familiar with white corn and cheese, but I now know I want to learn more. Colombian Grace claims to be the only Colombian restaurant in Key West–it’s not a large island so that may be accurate. The food there was so inspiring; I’m now checking out travel packages to Bogota. Eating at Colombian Grace reminded me of when I visited Isabela, one of the Galapagos Islands–because it was also one of those treasured, under-discovered, under-appreciated places that you get to selfishly enjoy alone–a real piece of heaven free of tourists and people wearing T-shirts that say “Surrender the Booty.” Hopefully when I go back to Key West, the line at Colombian Grace won’t be like the line at Blue Heaven.