All posts for the month April, 2018

Who says we’re too cool to be total tourists? Here we are at the southernmost point in the continental U.S., closer to Havana than to Miami. Mark’s not certain, but he thinks there’s a very similar picture of his mother here … from a time when she was considerably younger than we are now!

It’s hard to believe that for all our travels over many years, neither Mark nor I have ever been to Key West. A prime tourist destination in general and one of the great gay destinations on earth … and we’d never been there. A big part of that is that we love Miami Beach so much that when we were working and had a few days off, that’s where we’d head.

So as we started thinking of this U.S. journey and had the brilliant idea of a road trip, we figured Key West should be our ultimate destination. After our week in Miami Beach, then, we picked up a new car for the five-hour drive south. The drive itself was fun; little towns, lots of water, a nice lunch stop at Chef Michael’s in Islamorada, just feeling more and more remote. And then we were in Key West.

Santiago’s Bodega was a big hit with us. Off the main drag, small plates, absolutely great food, and cold rosé: as good as it gets.

After all the years of hearing how great it is my reaction to Key West was … it’s OK. There’s pretty architecture. Some interesting history. A great climate; in April at least the weather was spectacular. Fun people watching. As with our experience in Savannah I love the fact that they’re not freaked out or prudes about alcohol. One night we stopped with a friend for a drink but didn’t really have enough time before our dinner reservation. No problem: the bartender just poured our drinks into plastic cups and off we went.

Mark made an interesting observation on our first day in Key West. He was walking up the main street at maybe 5 PM and it was incredibly lively with the bars full and people having loads of fun. “Wow,” he thought, “this is a lively town!” Maybe an hour later, though, he was walking back toward the hotel and it was vastly more subdued. The end of happy hour maybe? Nope – they had all been ashore from one of the two cruise boats in town and were now back onboard for dinner. In other words the evenings in Key West, in April at least, were a lot calmer than late afternoons.

Speaking of drinks, here’s something to love about being in the U.S.: diet sodas. I know, the artificial sweetener isn’t healthy. But then, neither is sugar. In the rest of the world you can’t get diet mixers, so a lot of mixed drinks are off-limits to us. There’s nowhere else in the world where I can get a gin & diet tonic, but that’s not hard in the U.S. And in Key West they even had diet ginger beer, meaning that we could have sugar-free Dark & Stormies. While walking down the street to dinner. I was in heaven!

Walking down the street finishing your drink? I like that. On the other hand, you can go too far with all that free and easy liberalism. Walking down Duval Street, the main street in Key West, there was a sign for a bar called Garden of Eden. And the Garden of Eden was described as a “clothing optional” bar. I just have to say, given what I saw walking down the streets of Key West clothing should most definitely NOT be optional.

The tropical climate is certainly a highlight here

How did we spend our time in Key West? We spent part of it with Jim Marzilli, an old friend from Boston who had moved to St. Petersburg but came down to visit for a couple days. It was good to catch up and share a few meals (and maybe a couple of drinks…).

Our old friend Jim Marzilli looking as though he belongs in Key West

There were two great sites for us to visit. First up was Harry Truman’s second White House, an old Navy station where he could use the base commander’s house and have both the freedom and security he needed; he spent nearly six months over the course of his seven-plus years as president there. Truman has a special place in my life: I paid for two years of college and one year of graduate school as a Truman Scholar. And then there was the whole Navy connection in the house, so I really enjoyed the tour.

Next up was the Ernest Hemingway House. Hemingway lived here, in the best house on the island for nine years. And while that wasn’t such a huge portion of his live the tour guide says that he wrote some two-thirds of his books here. I’ll admit: I’ve never been such a big fan of his novels. Maybe it’s just that I find him to be such a jerk, and I know I’m not supposed to say it, but I’m just not a fan. On the other hand his house was interesting on its own and then there were the cats. Dozens of them roaming around, most with six toes on at least one of their paws (polydactyl cats, as we learned). What’s not to like about a big beautiful house with dozens of cats?

You’re not allowed to pick the cats up but petting is permitted. So yes, there was a lot of petting going on.

I had expected that one of the main activities on Key West would be the beach, but no so much as it turns out. We spent a couple hours on Smathers Beach, half a mile long and supposedly the nicest public beach on the island. Obviously we’ve gotten spoiled but the beach itself wasn’t that nice. And the water was kind of dingy. And not that warm or deep.

So there you have it. Key West is a good place to drink, a fun place to admire the architecture, and a great place to enjoy summer weather when it’s not yet summer in the rest of the country. Next time we come to Florida though we’re stopping at Miami Beach. That’s heaven.

I spent part of one afternoon at the beach on my own and when I’m alone I head to the most remote spot I can find and make myself comfortable in the sand. This was nice but the tide was low and the water itself was kind of icky.

Key West architecture

Another shot

Hemingway’s kitchen. We’re hoping to do better in our next house.

An attractive fountain in Hemingway’s garden used to provide water to the cats. Somewhat less attractive, though, when we learned that the white basin is actually an old urinal from one of Hemingway’s favorite bars.

I wasn’t crazy about the beach but there were certainly some beautiful vistas in Key West

On our last night Mark’s old friend Mary Ryan from Tom Harkin world drove down from Fort Lauderdale for dinner with us. The big smiles suggest how much fun we had.

We love Miami Beach. There is just something about the colors, the sunlight, the beach, the people, the architecture, the Latin pulse – the whole thing. Mark says there’s no place on earth where he’s just happier. So after all that road trip from Duluth and all the visiting friends we settled in to a full week in Miami Beach.

And after a week there it’s possible I love it even more than I did when we arrived. We stayed at the Shore Club, once perhaps the hottest spot in South Beach. It’s where we spent our brief honeymoon in 2004 (while Mark was deep into the Kerry campaign) and we’ve been back several times since then. We weren’t inclined to stay there this time – the scene can be just too young for us – but it was priced much lower than other hotels. So we booked our week there.

The view from our hotel room. Nothing not to like here!

And then we learned why it was priced so much lower than other places. Over the years, the hotel has kind of gone to hell. It had the feeling of a hotel that the managers had quit taking care of because they figured they would sell it. Actually, that’s exactly what happened: there was a plan a year or so ago to do a serious renovation and connect it to high-end condos. That plan fell through due to a lack of financing, though, and for now then it’s still open as a hotel. A hotel that no longer has the sizzle it once did. And a hotel that now charges a mandatory “resort fee” for stuff that used to be included in the price of the room. Resort fees are just a way to hide the true cost of a hotel. They suck.

One day’s activity from my AppleWatch

After we got over the modest disappointment, though, we settled in pretty nicely. The pool is still nice, the beach is fabulous. It still has a great feel in the lobby and great views from our room. (They kindly moved us to a higher floor when we asked.)

What do you do in Miami Beach for a week? Normally you go for nice runs and walks, alternate between pool and beach, and explore the restaurant scene. We had an additional mission though: explore real estate. We’re starting to be pretty serious about finding a home again, someplace we would live maybe half the year while still exploring the world the other half, and Miami Beach is one of the finalists along with New York City and Paris.

We kind of randomly reached out to an agent who was listing one property that intrigued us and she set up two days of pretty intense house hunting. It turns out that she actually knew little about the South Beach market (OK, she didn’t know anything about it) but she still did a good job of setting up tours of maybe a dozen condos. It was all pretty exciting and there were moments when I could see myself making an offer then and there. We’re actually not ready to do that yet and of course it would be insanely stupid to be quite that spontaneous. The fantasy was attractive though.

Yeah, South Beach is beautiful

In the end living in Miami Beach is probably not likely. The climate is wonderful and there is a lot we love, but ultimately I think we would get bored living here. Late in the week we reached out to an old college friend of Mark’s who is a real estate agent here (Mark was initially reluctant to do so as doing business with friends can be a mistake) and he had great insights for us, suggesting that our ideal situation of finding a run down unit and designing our own space was definitely possible. Still, after a burst of excitement about living here, now we’re both skeptical. After stops in Key West and Boston we’re planning on spending two weeks in New York and we suspect we’re going to find that a lot more appealing than Miami Beach, more interesting.

And then our week was over. It’s a place we’ll always return to but for now it’s off to Key West.

The Shore Club pool isn’t quite the scene it once was but it’s pretty nice

The pool at night used to be a big party zone. No longer the case but still pretty.

The pool is still the site of an occasional fashion shoot

Why were hotel prices so high? Two of the biggest and best hotels on Collins Avenue – the Raleigh and the Ritz – were shut down, presumably the result of last year’s Hurricane Irma. This is – or was – the Ritz. I guess if you lose that many hotel rooms prices go up.

One day while eating lunch we started chatting with a local sitting at a nearby table. She turned out to be seriously annoying, maybe drunk, but before we lost interest she insisted we had to go over to Miami to see the public art in the Wynwood neighborhood. She repeatedly compared it to Soho in Manhattan. So I went there. Some of it was impressive, but it was no Soho. Not even close.

Another shot from Wynwood

We love the weather in Miami Beach. We love it in the heat of summer and we love it when storms move in. Especially if it gives you a double rainbow.

We discovered a Greek restaurant. The reviews were good but the feta cheese was bad. How can you have bad feta cheese in a Greek restaurant?

And Mark with a Perfect Manhattan toasting a nearly perfect city

Mark, Pam, & me toasting Mark’s parents!

Whew! This was a whirlwind; after leaving Savannah we made five stops in three days. Our first goal was St. Augustine, but first we had to make a lunch stop in Jacksonville. At some point after leaving Duluth, with the route all planned out, an old graduate school classmate with whom we’ve had very limited contact over the years noticed on Facebook that Mark & I seemed to travel a lot. “If you’re ever in Jacksonville,” she wrote, “let me know!” Well, Jacksonville is right on the way between Savannah & St. Augustine, so a couple of days out I suggested lunch.

It was fun to catch up with Mary Beth, however briefly. Just a brief stop, but given that the last time we saw her she was single and living in Boston, and now she’s married with two kids and has been in Jacksonville for 15 years, it was definitely time to catch up.

Mark, Mary Beth, and me after a too-short lunch. She was teasing me about wearing a sweater in Florida, but I like being warm….

Then it was on to St. Augustine, “the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement within the borders of the continental United States” as Wikipedia puts it so precisely. The original goal was just to see this old colonial city and spend the night but after planning it we learned that one of Mark’s old bosses – the campaign manager for Tom Harkin’s presidential campaign that was Mark’s introduction to the Harkin world – lived there. So we had dinner with Tim after spending a bit of time exploring to town.

Our first impression was that we were surprised just how touristy it was. I mean, I’d certainly heard of St. Augustine but I never thought of it as a particular destination. Well, it is. Founded in 1565 on the feast day of St. Augustine, it served as the capital of Spanish Florida for over 200 years. Besides the old history the more recent landmark was Flagler College, founded in 1968 and headquartered in what was once the grand old 19th century Ponce de Leon Hotel. Mary Beth had raved about the architecture and it was definitely worth passing through.

The old Ponce de Leon Hotel, developed by the industrialist and railroad baron Henry Flagler and now home to the highly regarded Flagler College

An interior shot of the old hotel

From St. Augustine it was down to The Villages, an age-restricted community in central Florida, largely to see Mark’s Uncle Bill & Aunt Debbie. We were both a bit skeptical of The Villages; we’re not really ready for a retirement community yet. Still, we were both a bit surprised by how nice it was. The Villages is a big and growing place; it has been listed by the Census Bureau twice this decade already as the fasted-growing city in the U.S. As Uncle Bill & Aunt Debbie showed us around it was obvious there was a lot to do and that it would be easy to be a genuinely active older person there. In fact, the one night we were there Mark & I went to a steak place for dinner where at 8:00 PM or so the bar was surprisingly full and buzzy. In an old folks home! We’re not ready to buy anything there yet, but I have a definite appreciation for it that was previously lacking.

Here we are with Uncle Bill and Aunt Debbie

One of the utterly amusing parts of being in The Villages is that pretty much everyone gets around in these souped-up golf carts, whether they’re playing golf or not. Here’s Uncle Bill in his cute little vehicle after our tour of The Villages.

The next stop was supposed to be Fort Myers, but again we learned of someone to visit en route. This time it was Mark’s Aunt Nancy, the recently widowed youngest sister of Mark’s mother. I’d heard a lot about Aunt Nancy over the years but had never met her; Mark, in fact, hadn’t seen her in perhaps 40 years. So we stopped at her winter residence in Spring Hill (summers are way up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), went out to a late breakfast, and caught up on the last four decades. She seemed like an utterly lovely lady, though the big takeaway is how difficult it must be to lose a spouse after thirty-plus years. Fortunately I’m older than Mark so he’s the one who’s going to have to deal with that!

Aunt Nancy with Mark & me

And then it was down to Fort Myers, where our great friend Pam lives. Just one night, but a great night hanging out in her house on a golf course, catching up on life and talking politics. Instead of going out for dinner Pam whipped out a great appetizer course, stirred some mean martinis, and then we grilled and roasted a simple dinner. Life doesn’t get better.

That was our race down Florida, then; a lot of family and old friends. Next stop is Miami Beach, one of our favorite places in the world, for a week on the beach. Sweet!

Set in the oldest public space in the U.S., here’s a Spanish history lesson for you. In 1812 Spain – which at that time still controlled Florida – briefly had a constitutional government. The new government sent a decree to towns throughout the empire to rename their central squares Constitution Plaza and to build a monument there. St. Augustine complied. In 1814, then, the monarchy regained power and ordered all the monuments destroyed. This time St. Augustine wasn’t so compliant and they kept theirs. This is believed to be the only Constitution Monument from that campaign left in the world!

We stayed, naturally, at St. Augustine’s St. George Inn, right on St. George Street

Another picture of Flagler College

One more

And the entrance to the hotel/college

Another grand building in St. Augustine

Aunt Debbie & Uncle Bill after lunch in The Villages

Bill & I are both Navy veterans, so we figured this was meant for us. And yes, I wore the t-shirt in honor of all these Michiganders!

What passes for a thoroughfare in The Villages

Enjoying hors d’oeuvres in Pam’s screened-in porch. We were honored to learn that this was the inaugural event for the new furniture!

Pam & Mark toasting my grill work. Or something else maybe.