Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

True story: nothing says special occasion like a good dive.

Knowing we had reason to celebrate, Mr. Wright had suggested the Shrimp Shack after we'd stopped in one night to score a pound of steamed shrimp to eat on the deck. Waiting for them to pack up our crustaceans, we'd snuck a peak into the bar and been immediately seduced.

Wood paneled walls and a low ceiling worthy of a '70s rec room. Bar stools that have seen a lot of big butts. Colorful signs all over the mirror behind the bar. Silverware wrapped in paper napkins.

And, yes, a signed poster of Guy Fieri from that time in 2015 when he stopped by to sample the shrimp fritters and the Senator-style (that's almond-crusted) catch of the day and gone on to feature the Shrimp Shack on "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives."

And while we're no Guy Fieri fans, we knew a good dive when we see one.

Although the Shack had been practically empty the night we'd stopped by, when we got there last night, it was bustling, as evidenced by the smiling hostess who greeted us by saying, "Would you mind a 20-25 minute wait?"

Honey, we've got nothing but time. And if you want to talk about a couple of patient people, let us tell you about the wait we had to meet each other.

Besides, barely twenty minutes later, people began exiting the bar like rats from a sinking ship and she led us in, menus in hand and apology for the wait on her lips, to the prime real estate of two center stools.

Turns out the reason for the mass exodus was that the Tuesday evening happy hour club had just left for the Moose Lodge, where it was Queen of Hearts night. The bartender, who was also a co-owner, explained that the group of four couples comes in every Tuesday and the men sit at one table and the women at another, all gabbing and drinking.

Promptly just before 7:00, the slightly loopy posse pays up and moves on.

And, yes, she knows every one of their drink orders by heart, despite the fact that half the couples are snow birds who are only down here half the year. When she goes on vacation, she notifies the group in advance so they won't be disappointed when they arrive to a new face.

Once they leave, she knows the rest of the night is smooth sailing.

Our sojourn at the bar began when Mr. Wright explained that we needed bubbles. Although they were recently out of splits of the Coppola "Sofia" Brut Rose, my first choice, we had no complaints with her suggestion of the JP Chenet Blanc de Blanc Brut splits - truth is, French bubbles do trump California bubbles - which were nowhere to be found on the menu.

Because of course the Shrimp Shack would have a secret stash of bubbly with subtle notes of lime.

We were noshing hard on smoked fish dip - a staple of our diet down here - although I couldn't help asking for Saltines instead of the Ritz crackers they typically serve theirs with, when we asked our girl to take a picture of us and the reason for the celebration slipped out.

"That's why you needed bubbles!" she grinned, snapping away.

It wasn't the moment to share that we can drink bubbly for no reason at all, but sure, we could let her think that as long as she kept bringing the splits.

Meanwhile, regulars came and went around us, each of them greeted by our knowing bartender with a killer smile and a memory that catalogued each of their preferences.

"Miller Lite, Danny?" she asked the sunburnt guy who sat down next to me wearing a tank top and sunglasses on the back of his head. "The usual cheeseburger or are you in the mood for something else?" she inquired of a blond at the end of the bar. Sometimes, she had the drink poured or beer open before they even sat down.

That's some good service right there.

Mr. Wright took her recommendation on the special of yellowtail snapper, while this beach chick went with a traditional shrimp basket (albeit served on a plate) because what's a true beach meal without cole slaw and hushpuppies?

We were sitting back stuffed and still sipping bubbles when our girl arrived with a slice of Key lime pie and two spoons, her gift to us in honor of our celebration. It's the third time we've had the local dessert since we got here and each version is different than the last. The Shack's was the least creamy and most dense, its graham cracker crust nowhere near as thick as the one we'd had at Islamorada Fish Company a few nights before.

Hell, we even saw a menu with a chocolate ganache-covered Key lime pie, a combination that even this chocoholic has trouble getting her head around.

Our charming bartender had been right about the trajectory of the evening and the longer we lingered, the clearer it became that the tourist trade arrived and left early while the locals rolled up once the amateurs had gone back to their temporary digs.

We may not be locals, but we'd timed our visit perfectly, made an ally of the bartender/owner, documented the occasion and had a ball doing it.

And frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if the next time we hit the Shrimp Shack, a couple of JP Chenet splits are waiting on the bar for us before our butts hit the stools.

Seems that's just how Islamorada dive bars do.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Pushing and Reeling

There's no tour guide like an old friend from college.

After getting up early enough to see the sunrise - I had pledged to do it once - Mr. Wright and I struck out because of heavy cloud cover that obliterated any rise. A thin line of orange was about all we got before a heavy fog rolled in and all but swallowed up the ocean view.

Not to worry because we were going to hit the road anyhow. Destination: Key West.

My friend has been living down here for years now and had offered to show us around and since it had been close to ten years since I'd seen him, combining my first look-see at the southernmost Key with seeing his smiling face was irresistible.

Honestly, I had no idea how much he knew.

Walking toward their gate, he called to us from behind it in a voice I'd know anywhere. That he looks exactly the same (minus a few gray flecks in his hair and mustache) surprised me not at all, although the last time I recall seeing him in shorts, it was the '70s and his shorts were, ahem, far shorter.

Regardless of what he was wearing, it was just wonderful to see him.

After taking us on a tour of the house his wife had designed, we set out on a driving tour. His first question was, "When's the last time you were in a minivan?" knowing full well what an unlikely scenario it was.

From there, the adventure was just beginning. He drove us around Old Town, Casa Marina, New Town, Truman Annex and told us about Bahama Village. His strength was in pointing out houses of people of note as well as houses that had been impressively renovated or restored. He reeled off the sale prices of houses like a realtor, sometimes sharing what the house had gone for to multiple owners.

He always was good with numbers.

With a nod to his own past, he took us to a 5th floor condo in a building he'd lived in during the '70s while stationed in Key West during his stint in the Navy. The coral-colored buildings looked out across the Atlantic Ocean and the roller-bladers, cyclists and pedestrians making their way in the park along the shore.

Eventually, we landed at the new Truman Waterfront Park, where, of all things, we spotted a Florida car with an RVA sticker on it. Now, I ask you, what are the chances?

After parking near a couple of massive cruise chips, we took a stroll before setting out on a rambling journey through Key West. We saw former Navy base buildings, including a picaresque hospital with hurricane shutters, that had been converted to residences. It wasn't hard to see how locals had been priced out of the area with large houses, extensive porches and shaded lots that screamed, "MONEY!"

Once my stomach began grumbling loud enough for tourists to notice, he took us to First Flight Restaurant and Brewery, notable because it's the building where Pan-Am Airways first began selling tickets in 1927. When given the choice, I opted for a table in the red-bricked garden under a canopy of trees but within earshot of a singer/guitarist entertaining the afternoon crowd.

When you've known someone since college, you kind of know what they eat and my friend didn't disappoint, either in his choice or his knowledge of me. When his cheeseburger was dropped off, he immediately rotated his plate so that the steak fries on it were facing me across the table. "Help yourself," he said with a grin, knowing I would.

It's no secret I've been eating fries off this man's plate since I can remember.

My shrimp and bacon flatbread quieted the noises emanating from my belly and fortified me for the non-stop touring that was to come. My friend wanted to know from Mr. Wright how we'd met and offered up a tidbit about me.

Seems he's always thought I was particular when it came to men. Never more so than this time.

Once we'd eaten, the marathon walking tour began with a vengeance. Just don't expect me to remember everything I saw or even half of what he told us, because this was upper level touristing of the highest order.

Passing by the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens, we decided not to go in, although I did admire the lush garden from the sidewalk after he spoke highly of it. Joining the throngs at Key West First Legal Rum Distillery meant that we were in a former Coca Cola bottling plant, but also that we were in a place where you had to be 21 to buy a rum cake.

T-shirts labeled "Bad Bitch" referred to an early female distiller with a penchant for red wine in her rum and shooting men who tried to steal her hootch. Sounds more like a capable  bitch to me.

Climbing the steps to the Custom House Museum, Mr. Wright was smitten with its Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, while my friend pointed out its steeply pitched roof. Seems that the Feds had a standard design for such buildings at the time and while the rooves made sense for northern buildings in places that got snow, they weren't about to change the design for Key West.

That probably accounts for the fireplaces, too, since Key West's lowest recorded temperature is 41, at least according to our knowledgeable guide. Was there anything my friend didn't know?

Inside, we saw exhibits of playwright and local Tennessee Williams' paintings, an historical exhibit called "Overseas to the Keys" about Flagler's railroad (we're becoming experts) and a whimsical exhibit by the late Ferron Bell, who split his time between Key West and Fire Island.

His colorful work used all the usual Key West tropes - tropical birds, palm trees and drinking - as frequent motifs. One of my favorites showed a house where atop the roof line sat a martini glass, a rocks glass and three shot glasses in the night sky under the moon.

An entire island summed up succinctly.

My only regret was that we arrived at the Key West lighthouse and Keepers' Quarters Museum ten minutes too late to climb its winding stairs and admire the view. I do love a good lighthouse climb.

The consolation prize after missing that was going to the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum, a treasure trove of Papa's books, photographs of him throughout his life and a glimpse into his writing studio next door. The rooms in the house, especially the kitchen and bathroom, were light-filled with large windows on three sides - such a  luxury! - but the loo got extra points for the stunningly bold yellow and black floor tiles.

One room was dedicated to his love of fishing, including the method he developed for pulling in heavier fish than had been possible before. Dubbed "pushing and reeling," it replaced constant pressure as the means to land the big one.

At least I think it was a fishing term, given that the man had four wives, a nurse love and who knows how many paramours.

Out back, the enormous pool was said to have cost Hemingway his last dime, but equally of note was that city officials wouldn't allow dynamite to be used to break up the earth, so it had been dug out by hand with picks and shovels.

Rich people have different problems than the rest of us, no?

Afterward, Moondog Café welcomed us on their deck for a final pitstop after absorbing as much local color and knowledge as two people could reasonably be expected to. We toasted the day with Gruet sparkling Rose and Big Dad sangria while nibbling on pesto flatbread and pot stickers and marveling at how much ground we'd covered in eight hours.

The subject of blog mentions came up and my friend admitted how exposed he felt whenever I refer to him in a post. "Tell me about it!" Mr. Wright cracked.

And while you might think we'd call it a day at that point, my friend had one final stop in mind. It was Mallory Square, but our Moondog linger meant arriving too late for the circus that accompanies sunsets in Key West. All was quiet when we got there.

That said, it wasn't too late to see one of two legal panhandling spots on the island and it was still fully populated despite the darkness. The handwritten sign near the men read, "Need weed and a bottle of rum."

There's much to be said for blatant honesty when trying to loosen money from tourist pockets.

Personally, all I loosened was my shoes from my feet as Mr. Wright drove us up the coast in the darkness past road construction, flashing tiki bar lights and an ocean too dark to see.

A long day, sure, but well spent with an old friend, followed by heading back to Islamorada with my new love.

Lucky and happy? Tell me about it.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

To Walk, Perchance to Learn

Every now and then, you've got to stop sipping rum and tanning your legs on the deck and learn a little something.

That meant setting out on a 5+ mile walk south, my first attempt at heading toward Key West beyond a half mile stroll to the Midway Café, which didn't count. Once I discovered the Old Road - which was the main road before the Overseas Highway aka Route 1 took over as the main drag - it had become my go-to for walks.

But once I determined to head toward the equator, my plan was to give Route 1, with its wide bicycle/pedestrian walkways, a try. It worked out well because the strip between here and Indian Key Channel was so narrow that I had views of the Bay and ocean almost the entire walk and I thrive on water views.

It was also a good way to scope out oceanfront cottages (quaint places like the Pines and Palms), marinas with diners dating back to the Hemingway days (like Bud 'n Mary's, with a hand-painted sign out front pleading, "NOW Hiring!") and, a personal favorite, a small blue sign reading "Roadside table."

And because this is Florida, the roadside table was blue and purple and under a palm tree.

My walk took me as far as milepost 78.5 where a trio of historical markers rewarded my inner nerd. One was to the Cuban rafters who have died trying to reach these shores, one was to Ponce de Leon because he'd stopped there for well water (and, who, I learned, was governor of Puerto Rico and never actually looked for the fountain of youth, despite myths to the contrary) and one to the Spanish treasure fleet that got lost in a hurricane.

I may have been hot and sweaty by that point, but the history lesson made it all worthwhile.

More schooling followed late yesterday afternoon when Mr. Wright and I took a walk over to the Islander Resort which, for reasons I can't explain, is where the pastel blue Florida Keys History and Discovery Center is located.

Bypassing tanks of beautiful but voracious and predatory fish, I went straight for the exhibits detailing local history. I don't need no stinkin' science on vacation, just extra portions of history.

Like how Key largo only became the name after the Bogart movie. Before that, it was known as Rock Harbor, which doesn't sound nearly romantic enough to attract Bogie or Bacall.

Because the Over-Sea Railway is such a huge part of the history down here, I spent time ogling photos and artifacts from the days when the train was the only means beyond boating to access Key West.

Given my food fixation, perhaps most fascinating of all was a dining car menu from 1926-1930 that featured six kinds of marmalades. The breakfast menu was as notable for the prices as for the offerings. Sliced bananas in cream? Never heard of such a thing, but at 25 cents, worth a try.

An omelet with Florida grape fruit (apparently, it was always two words back in those days) marmalade would set you back 75 cents, while a Virginia corn muffin was only 15 cents.

You know what was a steal when you needed a hearty breakfast? Lamb chops at 55 cents a piece.

Eventually, we tore ourselves away from photos and stories to head upstairs to the theater to see moving pictures of the history we'd been seeing in stills.

A Chevrolet Leader newsreel showed the new train tracks to Key West, pointing out that automobiles could drive the route in between train trips, the tires absorbing the bumpy railroad ties. Considering the size of the cars in the '30s, it probably wasn't all that uncomfortable.

But the truly compelling film was the one about the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, which to this day is still the most intense storm to ever hit the U.S. with winds that reached 185 mph. Down here, it's legendary and we'd already been to the hurricane monument where the remains of over 300 are entombed, but I wanted to know more.

The film provided first hand accounts of the hurricane from seniors who'd been children when the storm hit. One, who admitted she'd always loved hurricanes before the Labor Day storm, felt differently after this one.

Hemingway - who loved Islamorada for its sport fishing - was quoted in the film as saying about this stretch of islands, "There is no autumn, just a more dangerous summer." He also came down after the storm to assist in any way he could. Many of the workers who'd been helping build the railway were, like him, World War I vets who'd been celebrating the Labor Day long weekend by getting drunk when the storm hit.

Many chose to cling to the railway bridges because they were 8" above sea level, although the storm surge was 17', leaving them 9' underwater. Footage of their dead, bloated bodies along the shore made for a solemn reminder that men who'd made it through "the war to end all wars" had been taken down by Mother Nature. Tragic.

The survivors spoke about how in those days, there was little to warn people of major storm beyond a falling barometer, which they lived by. All had memories of their clothing being stripped from their bodies by the ferocity of the storm.

Almost to a person, the survivors recalled what their fathers had said about the storm that day and afterward. Probably the most poignant was the man who, as a child, had asked his Dad what they were going to do after the devastation of the islands.

His father told him that their piece of land in the Keys was all they had, so even if all their possessions were gone, they were going to stay and rebuild because this was home. And, as of the time the film was made, they were all still here.

Walking out of the theater severely sobered by what we'd seen, it took a while to regain our emotional footing. This sunny place that we've been reveling in since last weekend is a testament to the strength of spirit of people who loved it long before we got here.

But never mind that. Now that I've fed my brain, we can go back to our debaucherous vacation lifestyle.

Can I get a Rumrunner over here?

Friday, January 11, 2019

Bait and Sip

Good thing we're staying right on the Atlantic because finding places to eat on the ocean isn't as easy as it sounds.

You can't swing a dead cat on the bay side without hitting a place offering fabulous views and island cuisine, but, man, if you want a water view that ends at Africa, you have to work at finding it.

Which we did, naturally.

Wahoo's Bar and Grill was situated over Whale Harbor Marina, a place where fishing boats pull in loaded with the day's catch and locals peel shrimp and drink beer at the long bar. Passing up the bar's scenic view because of smokers, we instead took advantage of a waterside table on the (bird poop-stained) covered deck, mere feet from where the big boats docked.

It was a fascinating perch because the ocean in front of the house is so shallow at low tide that you can walk out twice the distance of the nearby dock and the water is only up to your knees, but the harbor allows these big boats to pull in with no problem. Same ocean, wildly different depths.

But you know what? On vacation, I don't need to understand marine science, I just need a cold drink and a long view.

To that end, we perused the drink menu, eventually letting geography make the call. With Nassau a mere 159 miles away, it was a no-brainer to settle on a couple Bahama Mamas, especially now that we've adopted coconut rum as our official local drink. What Mastika was to us in Athens, coconut rum is to us here: readily available and eminently drinkable.

At least, that's how we rationalize that large bottle of Rhumhaven rum in the freezer, scored after a recommendation by the gent at nearby Green Turtle Spirits because it's made with real coconut water and pure cane sugar.

Let's just say it comes as close to tasting like how this place feels as anything we've had in a glass.

It was while we were sipping our drinks that a fishing boat pulled in and three or four guys bolted from their tables to hang over the railing to assess the day's catch. "Half a dozen good-sized ones," one of them told us. "Not much of a catch." When I asked for his best guess as to why they hadn't caught more, he posited that the water was too cold.

I don't doubt his wisdom, but sitting oceanside in an orange sundress, the late afternoon sun shining down on our backs, it wouldn't have been my first guess.

Trying to decide what to start with before dinner, we resorted to our Islamorada default: smoked fish dip. This time, it was wahoo (duh), smoked in-house and served with tortilla chips, cherry tomato halves, red onion, cuke slices and jalapenos.

Truth: no matter what fish gets smoked and made into dip, we're willing to eat it.

I gave Wahoo's points for marina humor with a menu item called "bucket of bait" because technically, that's exactly what it was: snow crab, green mussels, clams and shrimp. Clever, but still bait.

Instead, I went straight for the wahoo club, a behemoth sandwich because the piece of wahoo was as thick as the Texas toast it sat between - luckily, the Key lime/avocado aioli added no height - and there was no way to open my mouth far enough to accommodate its 5-inch height.

You hate to be that person eating a club sandwich with a fork and knife, but sometimes you have no choice.

On the other hand, we had no problem being those people with an ocean view ordering more Bahama Mamas, to the point that dessert became an impossibility, which for me is saying something.

Don't get me wrong, the bay side is great and all, especially with the right company. But happiness comes in waves.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

With a Twist

I could get used to eating on a sandy beach.

A short walk in the dark landed us at Morada Bay Beach Café and Bar, a sprawling enclave illuminated on the street side by flaming tiki torches (not the white supremacist kind) and on the restaurant side by more torches and white lights strung high up in palm trees. A row of colorful surfboards were stuck in the sand and a sliver of a moon hung overhead.

Tables were scattered around the sand and the music had a decided bossa nova beat, so you know I was happy. Some of us believe that you can never go wrong with songs dressed up with that beat, especially at night.

We scored a table on the farthest edge of table-land, away from the fray but with a view of the bay at night. Only problem was we were so tucked away it took a while for our server to find us.

But once he did, food and wine arrived lightening fast, as if to make up for the delay in taking our order. A bottle of Maison Legrand Sauvignon Blanc (as Pru is fond of saying, you can never go wrong with the Loire) had barely been opened when conch chowder, crispy fried Brussels sprouts, conch salad and tuna tataki showed up. Boom, instant dinner.

As someone who spends her life hungry, I wasn't complaining.

Our server, a Michigan boy who follows the tourist trade, had hair down to the middle of his back and a laid-back demeanor, but his service skills - thumbs ups aside - were top notch from years spent moving between the Keys and other sunny destinations serving vacationers like us a slice of Key lime pie with an easy attitude.

Because we'd purposely arrived post-sunset to avoid the exuberant crowd, the evening, with its dark, romantic vibe set to lounge music, felt miles away from Lorelei's Cabana Bar even though we were within spitting distance of it.

Just two sides of the island eating coin and I like to think that we're exceling at both.

It took a little getting used to, but after five days, I no longer do double takes every time I see a Key lime green house with a magenta gate or a place like St. James the Fisherman Episcopal Church on the side of the road.

Pshaw, old news by now. That's just our current 'hood these days.

That said, coming back from lunch at Chad's in Tavenier - another solid recommendation from Mr. Wright's Vero Beach buddy - along what's known as the Old Road, we were stopped in our tracks by the sight of a 30' palm tree being moved by a front-end loader, which looked like a toy in comparison to the height of the tree.

Watching the operator try to angle the towering tree to get it in a small, curved driveway with a gatehouse in the center was can't-look-away worthy. Moving palm trees, another Keys novelty.

Just this morning, we ate breakfast at the Midway Café, a brightly colored roadside spot with a patio and multiple cozy rooms, but why would we eat inside in January if we didn't have to? Turns out the name comes from the fact that it's situated at the mid-point between Miami and Key West, but, more importantly, it's conveniently only a half mile saunter from us.

Bob's Bunz was only a few steps further, albeit north, and while the Western omelet, Belgian waffle and fresh-from-the-oven biscuit we had at the bakery café on Tuesday were perfectly delicious breakfast fare, at Bob's you spend as much time reading the walls and t-shirts, all of which play on the buns motif, as chowing down.

That I walked out of there with a black "Bite my bunz" t-shirt can be construed anyway you like. Ditto the lemon yellow Keys ashtray we scored from the Coral Isles Church (and, yes, of course it's coral colored) thrift store. a vintage find complete with images of all the Keys, turtles and assorted colorful fish.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em, but we used it as an olive tray during yesterday's happy hour on the deck, during which we watched a great blue heron make its way ever so slowly from the ocean in front of the house three doors north to the ocean four houses south. It took hours as his shadow stretched longer and longer.

With the days stacking up and no agenda beyond the obvious, it's easy to forget there's a government shutdown or snow headed toward Virginia.

In fact, the only jarring note so far was as we strolled the boardwalk around a toney marina where huge fishing charter boats were moored. Many of the boats had brazen pelicans sitting atop them, daring anyone to shoo them away and pooping at will on the boats and boardwalk.

Atop the biggest boat, though, was a red flag snapping in the brisk late afternoon westerly breezes that read, "Trump 2020, Keep America Great." Beyond wondering if the owner wasn't out of his mind didn't lose a lot of business because of it, we didn't let it affect our stroll.

As long as I'm on vacation with Mr. Wright, eating on the sand, dancing to music on the deck and basking in the sunshine, reality can bite my buns.

Or bunz, take your pick.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Come Tuesday

Day four of vacation and endless lazing aside, two valuable lessons learned already.

Seashell collecting in Islamorada is not like seashell collecting on the Outer Banks, a lesson learned the hard way. After yesterday's lunch on the downstairs patio, mere feet from the ocean, we decided to check out the ocean temperature.

It was warm, which wasn't surprising given how low the water is along this stretch, which is referred to as "ocean flats," which seems to be code for "ridiculously shallow water that laps at the shore with no whitecaps." The beauty of that depth is the variety of colors that result from the slightest change in depth, so at any given moment, there can be bands of four different shades of green and just as many variations of blue.

As we're wading through the crystal clear water, we make our way around seaweed, sea sponges and the like when I spot a 3-inch whelk shell and scoop it up, then another and a couple more. All are striking in their markings so they're scooped up, brought back to the house and put in a bowl.

Mid-afternoon, we hear clinking in the bowl and by evening, we realize the biggest one still has an animal in it. He's returned to the sea with best wishes, but the others remain bowl-bound because there's no sign of animals in them.

Except that when we wake up today, only two of the three remain. Oops. We start looking for the escapee, but it's a big house, two levels with an open center staircase and he's a little guy with a shell the color of the floor. So not easy to spot.

Finally, Mr. Wright spots him lurking near the refrigerator.

Before breakfast, we're wishing bon voyage to all three, tossing them back to the mother land ocean and wishing them godspeed.

Okay, so no more shell collecting.

Then there's the music challenge. Sure, we could resort to music off of Mr. Wright's iPad, but where's the fun in that when Leila's house comes equipped with such 20th century accouterments as a CD player and a cache of CDS?

No, we're going to see what the house has to offer in terms of music, besides classical, which it seems to have plenty of.

After requisite Buffet (no doubt a mainstay in every Keys home), we hit pay dirt with a 2007 Paul McCartney album I've never even heard of: "Kisses on the Bottom." Like one of my favorite Paul Weller albums ("Studio 150"), it's Sir Paul doing classic songs from his youth, with arrangements using upright bass, vibes, children's choirs and even the London Symphony Orchestra. Diana Krall plays piano on most songs, if that tells you anything.

Then there are the songs, such as "It's Only a Paper Moon" and "Get Yourself Another Fool," Granted, anything would sound wonderful when listened to in big, cushioned chairs on the deck overlooking the ocean, but he also did a masterful job with the material.

Ditto Miles Davis' "Cookin' at the Plugged Nickel," which felt like we were in some smoky basement dive listening to Miles blow. Yves Montand's two disc "Montand" - the cover photo shows only his head, a match inexplicably clenched between his teeth - put us in a smoky Parisian club after hours.

Both, we have decided, are music for evenings, not sunny afternoon tunes.

The John Scofield Quartet gave us "Meant to Be," while Little Feat's "Waiting for Columbus" took me back to 1978 and Yes' "Fragile" to 1972. I picked "Sommer Smash Hots '92" expecting grunge or alternative and instead we heard a succession of bass-heavy club mixes of songs like K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "Please Don't Go" and Bread's "Make It With You."

And while I'm no fan of the milquetoast Bread, hearing that song with a thumping bass certainly improved it considerably.

After seeing a VW van with a Led Zeppelin bumper sticker on my walk earlier, it was only appropriate to get home and have Mr. Wright put on Robert Plant's "Now and Zen." And, frankly, Hendrix's "Axis: Bold as Love" was meant to be played loudly to ocean breezes.

And if it's not, too bad because we've learned that we're choosing the soundtrack to this vacation, with a little help from an Islamorada music lover and endless blue skies.

Bold as love, indeed.

Monday, January 7, 2019

A Time to Every Purpose

You could say we came 1,016 miles to hear a Rickenbacker guitar, but that might be overstating things just a bit.

As it happens, we did hear the distinctive sounds of a Rickenbacker last night, not because we set out to, but because we went to Lorelei's Restaurant and Cabana Bar, ostensibly to drink and watch the sun set over Florida Bay.

It seems to be a Keys rite of passage to settle in at a tiki bar to ogle the setting sun - to a person, everyone we've asked for eating recommendations has instructed us to catch a sunset, especially since we're staying on the ocean side - but Lorelei's had the added advantage of having tables directly on the sand.

That's immersion and we're all about the immersion.

Add in that the sunset doesn't happen until almost 6:00, nearly an hour later than in the Capital of the Confederacy, plus it was an easy walk and I was more than happy to give over three plus hours to lounging with tourists and locals.

The latter were especially easy to spot because, like the couple at the table next to us,  they asked their server questions like, "Do you still have smoked fish dip today?' a surefire clue that the dip must be good to run out of it regularly.

Not so sound smug, but fortunately for us, we'd already ordered ours. That it arrived with Captain's Wafers rather than basic Saltines would be my only critique, but then I'm partial to the old school ways.

Another way to spot locals was when one or the other of the two guys who made up Webb and Davidson, the duo performing at Lorelei's last night, spotted a local in the crowd and called out, "Hey, Pam and Saul! Nice to see that the snowbirds are coming back!"

Mr. Wright identified the duo's sound as pure Florida Keys and we found out how right he was when one said he'd been performing at Lorelei's for 29 years and for the other  guy, it had been 20 years.

Later, pointing to the pink glow on the water just after the sunset, he gestured and announced, "This is why we live here, folks. It never gets boring!"

Tiki bar pontoon boats floated by, music blaring, as we sat there sipping rum punches and taking it all in. On a trip to the loo, I spotted a pink Cadillac which had been converted to a sea-going vessel (and, naturally, was available for rental)  floating at the dock. Hanging from palm trees along the way were bird sculptures made of palm leaves, almost invisible in the greenery unless you were paying attention.

Webb and Davidson, with their years of playing experience, were just the right accompaniment to the late afternoon vibe. From the Beatles and the Marshall Tucker Band to songs like "Wooden Ships," they made their allegiance to the '60s and '70s clear with guitars and the occasional fiddle.

"This next song is the reason I bought this $2,000 Rickenbacker guitar," one of the guys said. "When I first heard that guitar, it sounded like god to me. It's the guitar Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and Tom Petty played."

Even a non-musician like me knew what he meant as they launched into "Turn, Turn, Turn." One of the first albums I ever asked my parents for at Christmas was "The Byrds Greatest Hits" and it was because when I heard that guitar, it sounded like, well, not god because I'm a  heathen, but certainly it resonated on an emotional level I responded to.

And hearing a Rickenbacker live? Yes, please.

After the mass selfie and photo-taking explosion that happened with the sunset was over, many people around us headed for the doors. Not us. Sensing the potential for a fish fiesta, we stayed on to sup and sip more rum drinks, as befits the best kind of post-sunset tiki evening.

While you can bring your catch to Lorelei's for cooking, we'd been too busy exploring the island to fish (ha! as if), so we went with menu offerings instead. The piece of fish on my grilled mahi mahi sandwich was almost twice the size of the bun, while Mr. Wright's mahi tacos were obscenely fat because of all the local fish stuffed in them. It's looking like we're both good candidates for island cuisine.

Not to mention that hearing that gorgeous Rickenbacker tone on a beach with my main squeeze while watching the sun slide behind mangroves made it plain why the locals had insisted we do the requisite sunset visit.

 And if that's the rum punches talking, we'll take another round.