We don’t often travel without each other. It’s more fun when we do things together, and over the years we have defined our travel roles: Tony maps out where we are going; Cheri arranges the details of transportation and schedules; Tony packs for the trip out; Cheri packs for the trip back, etc.
However recently Tony took off on his own. His growing interest in the practice of Zen Buddhism had lead him over the past year to correspond and visit with Reb Anderson, a Zen Master, or Roshi, who lives and teaches at the Green Gulch Zen Center in Northern California. Reb, whose Buddhist name is Tenshin (meaning “naturally real”), is a renowned teacher who often travels to speak at other Zen centers and address groups around the world. A couple of weeks ago Reb was leading a four day Zen meditation retreat in southern Florida, and Tony decided to attend.
Zen is not a religion (it does not worship Buddha or anyone else) but is a discipline centered on meditation. And meditation is simply sitting quietly and looking within yourself, at your life and at the world around you…which can be a good thing whether done at the end of the day with a glass of wine, walking on a deserted beach or at formal sitting in a meditation hall under the guidance of a teacher.
The retreat was held at a small conference facility. Attendees spent approximately four hours each day in meditation and another three hours attending lectures on the teachings of Buddha. Attendees could also have private discussions with Tenshin Roshi if they wished. Meals were vegetarian (quite a change for steak-loving Tony), and the entire retreat was conducted under a vow of silence. No speaking except for exchanges with the teacher. Wow! What a difference from working at the hotel and bar where we spend the day talking with guests and friends.
The retreat ended on Sunday, Cheri’s birthday. We planned that she would fly to Miami that day and Tony would pick her up at the airport. Starting the next day we were going to drive through the Florida Keys to Key West for our own little spring break vacation. But on Cheri’s birthday we were going to be in the Miami area. To celebrate, Tony suggested a night at a fancy South Beach hotel and dinner at some hip new restaurant…or any other thing Cheri might want. Cheri’s choice? She wanted to spend the night in Florida City, a small town that is the last stop south before entering the Keys. Why? It had a Target store and a couple of malls!
Life in Mexico is a life without the commercial rat race of the States. In some ways that is very good. We have learned to slow life down and to put “things” in a proper and less important space. Yet we still miss being able to go shopping for whatever we might need or want without traveling from store to store or even town to town to find it. And we miss the selection of items not often available in Mexico (clothes, personal items, English language books, meat marinade, cement screws, etc). So Cheri’s birthday wish was to spend some time shopping, starting with her all time favorite store, Target.
After emptying Target’s shelves we headed for our hotel, the Florida City Travelodge. Yes, the Travelodge. Again, Cheri passed on some expensive place in Miami and went for the Tripadvisor #1 recommendation. The Florida City Travelodge is not a vacation destination but is a clean, comfortable motel for those traveling to or from the Keys. The next day there was a “little” more shopping (Macy’s, the mall, Office Max, Target again, JoAnn’s Fabrics and a few others) and then we were off to the Keys.
We know of two beautiful vista-filled roadways. The first is the Pacific Coast Highway in California as it winds along the ocean side through the mountains and forests of Big Sur. The second is Highway 1 in Florida as it meanders through the 100 miles or more of the islands known as the Keys.
The highway crosses the biggest keys first. Key Largo and Islamorada are large islands with plenty of development. Houses, stores and people are everywhere. It’s a strange combination of architecture and cultures. There are numerous strip malls, fast food restaurants and souvenir stores. But because of the nearness of the ocean and the gulf, there are also many dive shops and marinas. There are funky little docks filled with sailing boats and weathered cottages everywhere. The sense of being in a tropical, almost Caribbean, part of the world is added to by the sight of palm trees waving in the winds everywhere and the bright colors seen on buildings, boats and most of all on the art and crafts work that seems to be for sale everywhere.
Once past the largest keys the islands begin to shrink and the bridges between them start to lengthen. At this point you begin to have the sensation of driving on the water. To the left is the great darkening blue of the Atlantic Ocean while to the right is the blue-green water of the Gulf of Mexico. As we drove along in the late afternoon the setting sun bathed both bodies of water in a soft glow. If you are looking for a road trip with spectacular scenery, this is it.
We followed US 1 until it ended on the little island of Key West…the end of the road, the line and the rainbow for some. We had reservations at the Heron House, a very delightful Bed and Breakfast one street off of Duval, the main drag through the tourist zone of “Old Town.” The “other” Tony and Cheri recommended it to us as they stay there every year during Fantasy Fest. (BTW there will be a Tony and Cheri convention at the Luna Blue Hotel this August when the “other” T&C come to Playa for the first time!) And the management of the Heron House was nice enough to offer us an industry discount when they found we were also in the hotel business.
Our room at the Heron was ground floor and opened via French doors onto the central patio and pool. In the mornings they would fill a sideboard with breakfast foods (one hot dish…eggs one day, waffles the next… and fruits, cereals etc.). It really is a beautiful place. The staff was friendly and attentive and the location couldn’t be beat. Duval Street was just around the corner in one direction, with quiet walks through neighborhoods of lovely homes and flower gardens in the other direction.
In fact the Heron House was such a nice place some people just can’t leave it…ever! Cheri was talking with some of the staff about a beautiful plant in the garden (a Crown of Thorns it is called) when they mentioned that it grew over someone’s grave site! It turns out there are four people who, after cremation, have had their ashes buried in the garden there because they loved it so much. Now that’s customer loyalty.
We had last been in Key West in October for Fantasy Fest, the town’s crazy, adult, semi-dressed weeklong version of Halloween. This time we were looking forward to a less hectic, more laid back trip to visit some of our favorite spots. It was Spring Break, but even with lots of college kids wandering from bar to bar the town still kept its laid back vibe.
Duval Street is the heart of Key West’s “Old Town” with several blocks of stores, restaurants, bars, and clubs. Duval ends on the west side of the island at Mallory Square, a large open area dock/deck where each evening the crowds gather to watch the as the sun settles into the ocean, spraying the clouds and water with a pink coral glow. Food vendors, fortune tellers, craftspeople, acrobats, performers and hustlers of all kinds fill the Square to entertain, and make a little money from, the tourists. Stopping by Mallory Square for sunset is a must whether it’s your first or fortieth time to Key West.
In addition to long walks along quiet streets, we did some shopping on Duval where we got some great decorations for our bar and Cheri picked up what seemed like a dozen little sundresses perfect for Mexico’s coming summertime. We also dropped in a couple of times at the open air dockside Schooner Wharf Tavern to see one of our favorite musicians, Michael McCloud. Michael is old school Key West. He has a huge repertoire of songs including many he has written himself which he delivers with an easy patter of wry humor and comments. We have tried for some time to lure him to Playa to play at our own Luna Blue Bar, but Michael says he likes his quiet life in the Keys too much to disturb it. His wife jokingly says she can’t get him past the ballpark in Miami!
We also spent an evening sailing on the schooner Western Union. An aged sailing vessel, the schooner was built in the thirties and used to make runs between Key West and Cuba. Now it takes tourists out in the evening to watch the sunset from the deck of a rolling ship. The night we went the sea was calm and the sky clear. It was peaceful and sweet.
When we weren’t relaxing we were going to some of our favorite eateries. We ate at: Fogarty’s (which hosts “Red Night” during Fantasy Fest); Cheeseburger in Key West (a sister to another of our favorite places, the Cheeseburger in Paradise on Maui in Hawaii); Kelly’s Caribbean Grill (owned by actress Kelly McGillis and set in a lovely tropical garden…and home to Kelly’s Kinky Carnival during Fantasy Fest); Mangoes Restaurant ( right on Duval with a sidewalk level view of the nightly promenade); and Blue Heaven (the funky chicken roost of a diner made famous both by its breakfasts and the Jimmy Buffet song “Blue Heaven Rendezvous”). Tony also enjoyed stopping at the Five Brothers, a small grocery store out in the neighborhood that has a lunch counter known for its Cuban style coffee. Local workingmen gather there at 7 in the morning for the dark, thick, mud consistency espresso loaded with several heaping tablespoons of sugar and equal portions of steamed milk. What a great way to kick start your heart in the morning.
And of course, the Keys are not only famous for being one of America’s craziest and most beautiful places, but also for the Key Lime fruit which is used to flavor drinks, pastries, candy and above all else…the legendary Key Lime Pie. After much investigation and research on our part, we decided that the best Key Lime Pie in Key West is to be found at the Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Cafes. There are several in the area, and they all offer the same sweet but tart, flaky-crust piece of heaven. Sometimes we overindulged and ordered the Pie on a Stick version: a slice of Key Lime Pie, frozen on a popsicle stick, dipped in chocolate which then hardens. OH…MY…GOD. Believe us, it’s very, very good!
After thoroughly relaxing (and gaining more than a few pounds we suspect) it was time to head home to Playa Del Carmen. While we had been on vacation, two of our dearest friends, our almost daughter Sarah and her new husband Adam, were in Playa staying at our home and housesitting our many pets. After returning home we got to spend a couple of days with the “kids,” which was a wonderful way for us to end our spring break. Now it’s back to work, even if work means running a hotel and bar in paradise.
The other Tony and Cheri on “Leather Night” at Fantasy Fest
A typical Key West garden
The garden at the Blue Heaven restaurant
The Heron House
Michael McCloud at the Schooner Wharf Bar
The crowd at Mallory Square waiting to watch the sunset
Chocolate covered key lime pie on a stick. Mmm Mmm Good.
Sunset over the Atlantic
Cheri on the sailing vessel Western Union, dreaming of key lime pie
Early in the morning at Five Brothers Coffee Shop
A sailboat silhouetted against the setting sun, taken from Mallory Square
By the way, HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY!!! And if you’re in town tonight, be sure to stop by the hottest party in town, the Luna Blue Bar’s St. Paddy’s Day Party. 7pm to midnight.