Monday, February 18, 2013

The Florida Keys

Key West rooster.
Just got back from a week's vacation in the Florida Keys; Islamorada, to be exact. The weather was fabulous, which is 9/10s of the reason for going south from Canada at this time of year. Here's some random observations on the other tenth of the trip.

Southwest Airlines. We flew Southwest from Buffalo, and the airline should really rebrand itself as the standup comedy airline, and I mean that in a good way. The cabin staff on both flights turned all of the standard in-flight announcements into a series of gags. It was usually pretty funny and took some of the sting out of the fact that everything else about the airline is strictly no-frills: it's essentially a bus service with complimentary peanuts.

Route 1. This highway is the backbone and main street of the Keys, but what you don't know if you've never been there is that it's pretty damn busy. The vast majority of hotels and condos in the Keys are within throwing distance of this road, which means traffic noise is a constant companion on your vacation.

Pelicans. I love pelicans, they're almost worth the trip to Florida just by themselves. They look completely ridiculous but picturesque at the same time. Stand near one on a dock and you'll notice they always appear to be looking down their nose at you.

Americans. How can people who are so friendly and open with strangers also be so wildly intolerant? Everyone we met is was friendliness personified, but then on Duval Street in Key West we saw the other side of the coin: a middle-aged couple had set up a card table stand decorated with posters calling for the impeachment of Obama. The stand featured a large picture of Obama dressed as a Roman emperor. It would be funny if it wasn't representative of a lot of other Americans.

Key West. This is the star attraction of the Keys, and its charm hasn't been completely obliterated by the tourist trade. Duval Street is the main drag and it's a wasteland of tourist trap shops and bars. Move off the main street and the town's quirkiness becomes more apparent: chickens and roosters roaming free; quaint, but not opulent, homes; pedestrian-friendly streets; and some decent and underused beaches. Key West is also famous for its gayness, but that aspect of the town seemed pretty subdued. The place was mostly full of middle-aged straight couples getting wild and crazy after two drinks.

National Parks. There are several in the Keys and they're all worth visiting. As usual, I'm always left annoyed by how well-maintained and designed state and national parks are in the U.S. compared to their equivalents in Ontario. Wasaga Beach Provincial Park in Ontario features one of the great beaches in the world, so why does it have such crappy facilities?

Ocean Drive. On our last day we drove up to Miami and walked along Ocean Drive on Miami Beach. Yuck. It's one of those places where rich people, and those who try to pass themselves off as rich, go to be seen; it's like a nature preserve for the noxiously affluent.

It's Still The Deep South. In restaurants and hotels all the front of house staff are white, all the cleaners, bus boys, and kitchen staff are black or Hispanic. I can't say for sure but it certainly looks like businesses in the Keys work hard to present a white face to their customers. Not surprisingly, black tourists are a rare sight.

The Zane Grey Lounge. This might be one of the best restaurants in the Keys. Not because of the food, which is OK, but thanks to the view, which is spectacular. The lounge is on the second floor of a deluxe fishing supply store called World Wide Sportsmen, which is part of the BassPro chain. From the second floor balcony you get an uninterrupted view of the ocean, fishing boats skimming back and forth, and a chain of tiny islands. The fact that the restaurant is attached to a store might be why it seems to be relatively unknown.

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