Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Water Adventure Wednesday & That's All, Folks! Thursday

Wednesday noontime found Chad and I at Lazy Dog Kayaking for a two-hour kayak tour among the mangroves with our brainy guide, Brian. Our guide stopped at least eight times to show us many cool things and explain each thing's role in the ecosystem. We saw a sea cucumber, a seahare (like a huge inside out snail - eww, but cool), queen conch (I swear I heard it say "don't eat conch fritters" in a tiny voice.), jellyfish, a nurse shark (!!!), mangrove trees, tree crabs (yes, little grey crabs that live in trees), anemone, a sea star (a.k.a. starfish), sponges and a few other things I can't recall. I also didn't recall to reapply sunscreen during our two-hour outing. Chad and I both got weird sunburn lines on the fronts of our bodies. Despite the sunburn, our kayaking eco-tour was a close second place to snorkeling for my favorite activity in Key West.

Back at the Almond Tree Inn, after much-needed showers, we sat on the lovely covered porch that had ceiling fans (almost like air-conditioning) for a lunch of leftovers from Blue Heaven and Blackfin Bistro. I love it when hotel rooms have mini fridges, especially when they aren't stocked with expensive mini-bar items. I need somewhere to keep leftovers.

We were pretty tired (and sunburned) from kayaking. We rested and read books until dinner time. Back to Blue Heaven for dinner! Why mess with a good thing when you find it? I had a salad with a side of that amazing cornbread and an Arnold Palmer. Chad had some fish dish that he really liked and a Bloody Goose drink. (He eats and drinks weird things. Gross. But he seems to like them.) We watched the resident chickens of Blue Heaven ascend to the treetops for their nighttime roosting. It was a slow trip that involved a lot of walking and hopping. Chickens are not graceful fliers. After the chicken show, we had the key lime pie with crazy high meringue top for dessert. So good!

We retired early to our hotel room on our last night in Key West. Party, party, party - that's us.

Thursday morning we took our time packing, left our suitcases at the hotel front desk and walked to Blackfin Bistro again for awesome brunch and good people-watching out the big front window. I had the BEST french toast I've ever had in the form of their Overnight Caramel French Toast. The toast had a caramelized crunch to it almost like the top of a creme brulee. Chad had Eggs Benedict Florentine. And some of my french toast. How does he keep that tiny waist? (Lots of time at the gym.) We skipped the mimosas this time, because no one wants a hangover on an airplane. 

Back to the tiny Key West airport, which for outbound travelers offers one more chance to get sand in your shoes at the Last Call Beach Bar. It's a small tiki hut looking bar with some sand and a palm tree in an outdoor courtyard right by the departure gates. No thanks. Our flight home (via Atlanta) departed Key West midday Thursday. We made it home safely, and only an hour late. 

Travel tip: bring your empty reusable water bottles in your carry-on bag. Empty reusable plastic bottles are fine to get through airport security. Austin and Atlanta airports have bottle filling stations near the regular water fountains.

Our trip to Key West was the right balance of fun, relaxing and interesting. I really enjoyed it. It's not a place that I'll lobby to go to again and again (That honor goes to Hood River, Oregon.), but I'm so glad we went. My sunburn is still peeling, but the laundry is all done!

Hotel was awesome: Almond Tree Inn
Favorite restaurants: Blackfin Bistro & Blue Heaven
Favorite activities: Fury Water Adventures Snorkeling & Lazy Dog Kayaking
Favorite lookie places: Hemingway House & Key West Eco Discovery Center
Pub crawl was a little sad
Favorite street walk: Whitehead Street for beautiful houses & banyan trees
Silliest photo-opp: the 0 mile marker

Monday, April 27, 2015

How do you like your eggs cooked?

Have you seen the movie The Runaway Bride about a lovely lady who continuously bolts the wrong way down the aisle at her numerous weddings? In the movie, a reporter asks the runaway bride's many ex-fiancees how she liked her eggs cooked. Each ex-fiancee describes a different method of egg preparation, that also happens to be exactly how each ex-fiancee liked their own eggs cooked. The point being that the each ex-fiancee was mistaken about the preferences (and the true nature of) their runaway bride. The runaway bride herself wasn't sure how she liked her eggs cooked, because she let each ex-fiancee decide for her. 

I use this as a playful parable to describe my job situations. I'm not sure what I really like or want in a job. I have a long list of things I don't want or like in a job. I am smart, hard-working and conscientious. I do just about any job well for a limited amount of time. The time limit arises when I burn out from working too many hours, without days off and in a job for which I was never a good fit. I also burn out, because I hit a point where I see gaping difference in my own values and the values of my employing entity. When other employees and supervisors realize that I am conscientious, they tend to start leaning on me too hard from too many directions. I try to set some boundaries or take some time off, and someone's feelings get hurt, or someone's superhuman expectations of me are temporarily unmet. 

I liked school and excelled there, due to the well-defined expectations, mostly constructive feedback and built-in holidays to rest, relax and rev up for the next semester. I also excelled in academics, because I was hardly ever graded by my peers. I didn't have to learn the politicking required for many job situations. I also liked homework. I could have the radio or television on for background noise while I worked. I could sit alone at home or at a table in the library to complete assignments. I liked that part of of my work was self-directed at my own pace under conditions of my choosing.

How do I like my eggs? The truth is that I don't really like eggs. Baked into yummy bread or sweet things, sure, eggs are fine, but as the featured flavor? Pass the salsa or ketchup, please. I need to drown out the egg flavor and texture. Also, I like to have humane-certified eggs, because I worry about the welfare of the chickens. I feel bad for taking their eggs.

I don't know what my next job will be, and I really hesitate to use the word "career". I know that when people ask me what I want to do next or what I am pursuing for my next job, they are expressing interest and/or benevolent concern. It grates on me, because I don't know. I've got some work to do deciding. 

Tourist Tuesday In Key West

As we walked to the Key West Eco Discovery Center Tuesday morning, we passed by a lush shaded courtyard that looked very inviting with a menu posted by the gate. We made note to return to the restaurant for lunch. 

Key West Eco Discovery Center is free, interesting and air-conditioned! Among the many cool things to see are a 2500 gallon reef tank with tropical fish and coral, life-size wetland ecology exhibit and an an interesting short movie about the flora & fauna of Key West on land and underwater. The center also exhibited beautifully strange photo art prints depicting an underwater world that looked like a high concept fashion advertising campaign by artist, Andreas Frank, as part of his The Sinking World series.

Chad and I walked through the Truman Annex and by the Little White House after we left the Eco Discovery Center. It's interesting that the Little White House was the winter White House for President Truman, and that important federal business happened there. These days the Truman Annex is mostly prime real estate garden homes and rental homes in a gated community with the Little White House as the anchor property.

We didn't forget about going to lunch at Blue Heaven! We sat in chairs on a covered porch for only about five minutes to wait for a table. A few resident cats sauntered past us to get to their food bowls. We watched roosters, hens and chicks scratching in the giant planted areas. There was an outdoor shower stall with a funny sign that said, "$1 to shower. $2 to watch." Despite the super-casual, relaxed ambiance, the food was great. I had the loaded black bean bowl served with amazing cornbread - so good, hearty and vegetarian! Chad had one of the Blue Heaven Benedicts, and loved it. (Breakfast is served until 2:00 PM daily.) On our way out we spied a game yard with a ping-pong table. I  dragged Chad into the cute gift shop so I could buy a t-shirt and a Key Lime Pie scented candle. I love Blue Heaven! 

Once again, we returned to the hotel for reading, rest and relaxing in the air-conditioning. Chad took a dip in the pool, but I didn't want to redo hair and makeup. It's a whole thing.

We looked at online reviews for vegetarian-friendly restaurants when deciding where to go later in the evening for dinner. The Cafe billed itself as a mostly vegetarian place with seafood. I had an unimaginative veggie sandwich served with a side of bean salad swimming in too much vinegar. Chad's crab cakes looked really dense sitting atop a bed of soggy lettuce. The ambiance of The Cafe felt weighted a little more towards cruddy than towards charming. (Regular readers know that I'm a fan of charmingly cruddy places and design schemes.) In my non-foodie, very humble opinion, it was our only bad meal in Key West. Maybe the chef was having a bad night? The Cafe is enclosed with good air-conditioning. It had good reviews on tripadvisor.

We made the mistake of stepping into a fancy looking art gallery on Duval Street after dinner. We were just lookie loos wanting to catch a few minutes of air-conditioning. A gallery representative greeted us at the front door, followed us all over the place and explained each piece to us. We tried to smile and nod politely. I think after we made a complete lap of the gallery, and we weren't asking for art to be shipped to our home while handing over the Amex Black credit card, the gallery representative was exasperated with us. He spat out the words, "that piece is worth half a million dollars", when we didn't look dually impressed with a messy painting by the exit door. That's great, dude. Thanks. Bye.

As the sun started to set, we started a mini Duval Street pub crawl. When in Rome, right?  The general vibe of the Duval Street bars felt far from celebratory, fun or indulgent. Instead, the vibe felt sad, defeated and unhealthy. I won't name bar names. We chatted with two of the bartenders from our three pub crawl. The first bartender, a young lady, is a very recent transplant from Michigan who drove down with a friend to move to Key West on a whim. She arrived in Key West only ten days before, but already had three jobs to be able to make ends meet. She told us that she hears good things about Austin, and wants to go to a music festival in Austin. The second bartender we talked with is a man close to our age from the Martha's Vineyard area. He is an eight year veteran of Key West, and explained that we were there for the tail end of the high season in Key West. He said that most restaurant and bar employees work 80 hours a week during high season, then spend a lot more time at the beach during the low tourist season. He half-joked that he probably has carpal tunnel syndrome from chopping limes and muddling mint for all the mojitos he prepares.

Living and working in a tourist town seems difficult. Most jobs tend to be service sector, and most rents/real estate prices seem to be sky-high. We met a few cab drivers and hotel employees who were retired from their longtime careers in other places. Two of the people told us they live on houseboats. They think of Key West as paradise. I wish them all the best. 

Tune in tomorrow for a final account of the Key West travelogue featuring kayaking among the mangrove trees.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Museum Monday with Sunset Snorkel

Monday morning I was awakened at 4:45 by a rooster crowing. As I fumbled in the dark to find the earplugs I packed, I offered a telepathic message to the noise-maker. "Rooster, dear, I need you to get it together. It is still dark. Calm down. Shut your yap." After a few more hours of fitful dozing, I got up and made myself somewhat presentable for breakfast. Post-breakfast, I scolded the rooster aloud when we met up in the parking lot, suggesting he might want to visit a therapist about his anxiety-fueled vocalizations. 

Chad and I walked down Simonton Street toward the Key West Art & History Museum. We passed the usual T-shirt shops, cafes, day spas and bars along the way. One establishment that caught my attention in particular was the shopfront for Pirate Costumes of Key West & Key West Weddings. If you have your wedding on Key West it should be pirate themed? Clearly.

The Key West Art & History Museum is air-conditioned, not crowded and hosts interesting stuff to look at and read. We lingered and looked at EVERYTHING in that lovely air-conditioning. The exhibit on Hemingway's time in Key West mostly revolved around his fishing adventures. The exhibit on Key West's role in the Civil War was pretty interesting. Key West was actually a Union stronghold! As we walked up the grand stairway, we looked at illustrated excerpts from The Old Man and the Sea. The second floor housed an exhibit and information about Henry Flagler & his role in bringing the Overseas Railroad to Key West, along with the unfortunate destruction of the railroad line during the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane. We also viewed works by folk artist, Mario Sanchez, many of which were wood carved in relief painted in bright colors with scenes of everyday life. 

After the museum, we walked back down Duval Street: the more raucous end of which should not be viewed, or smelled, in the good light of daytime. We bought a coconut from a stand to drink. The proprietor of the stand drilled a small hole in the top for a straw. The coconut juice was yummy, but warm. File my suggestion to refrigerate the coconuts under "first world problems".

After a brief stop at our hotel room to cool off, we walked farther down the quiet end of Duval Street to the Banana Cafe for lunch. The Banana Cafe has a French theme to the menu. I had a veggie baguette. Chad had a crepe with a green salad on top. The food was simple with fresh ingredients.

Walking back to the hotel after lunch, I heard a noise coming from the bushes as I walked by them. I said to Chad, "There is something angry in those bushes." Upon closer inspection, I realized that the angry cluck came from a mama hen with her brood of ten baby chicks! They were so stinking cute! 

Later in the afternoon, we set out for a sunset snorkeling cruise with Fury Water Adventures. The crew members of the boat presented a perfect balance of fun and safety mindedness. Before setting out, the captain told us we would not be going to the barrier reef as planned due to three foot waves and low visibility. Instead we went to a shallow water shipwreck that only had six inch waves and much better visibility. The water was crystal clear, and the sunken ship served as a sort of reef. We saw clownfish, angelfish, grouper, a pufferfish and several kinds of coral. Chad spotted a big crab scuttling across the gulf floor. As we cruised back toward the dock after snorkeling, the boat captain turned the motor off for a few moments so we could watch the sunset. It was lovely, and our view was not blocked by a giant germ boat, I mean cruise ship. Snorkeling was my favorite activity during our trip to Key West. 

Tune in tomorrow (or maybe the next day, I get distracted) for more Key West travelogue featuring the Eco Discovery Center and Blue Heaven.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Sunday Funday in Key West: Sweets & Sweat

After breakfast at the hotel, we headed a few blocks south to Southernmost House for the 13th Annual Michelle's Willie Wonka Chocolate Festival to benefit the Cancer Foundation of the Florida Keys. For me, this was not about contributing to a noble cause, the festival flyer had me at "chocolate". A teenage guy wearing a polyester (that mess does not breathe, bless his heart) Willie Wonka costume greeted each guest, bravely smiling and directing guests to the chocolate fountains tent and baked goods as he handed out Golden Ticket stickers to wear for event entry. The chocolate festival boasted mostly baked goods and two different triple-tiered chocolate fountains. I sent a pretzel rod through the fountain. Chad opted for a banana. We shared. All was yum. From the crazy buffet of baked goods, we shared a slice of chocolate layer cake and an oreo-flecked brownie. The treats were rich for such a hot day. Chad and I quipped that we would pay "tourist money" for pints of milk to wash down the sweets. We had to settle for bottled water at $1.00 each. Note to planners of future Wonka festivals, charge $5 for a pint of milk to raise even more money for your cause. Southernmost House is a beautiful old Victorian-style mansion complete with Candyland color scheme and a fairytale turret, which provided a nice backdrop for the Willie Wonka theme.

After so much sweet stuff, we decided to move along. We rounded the street corner to an old sewer junction painted to look like a buoy that is known as Southernmost Point, meaning the southernmost point in the continental United States of America with only 90 miles over the Gulf of Mexico to Cuba. Chad and I did not stand in the long line stretching down the sidewalk to take a photo there. We're not big on selfies or on repeating postcard shots that everyone and their grandma take. It's enough that we were there and saw it.

On our walk to the next stop for the day, Hemingway House, we saw a family of chickens scratching the ground for foodstuffs. The mama hen had three, gawky teenage chicks with her.  They were a cute little family. This scene of free-roaming chicken families was to be repeated many times during our trip. *Click here* to read more about the chickens of Key West.

Hemingway is not my favorite author by a long shot. I enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea reasonably well when I had to read it for school, but didn't like For Whom the Bell Tolls. I mostly just wanted to see the polydactyl descendants of Hemingway's cats. On the information-packed tour of the Hemingway House, we were regaled with the history of the house itself, some history of Key West, juicy scandals surrounding Hemingway and his many wives, and yes, lots of extra-toed cats. Ship's crew liked to have cats with big paws aboard to combat the rodent situation. Cats with extra toes were prized, and thought to be better mousers. A boat captain gifted a polydactyl cat to Hemingway, and he loved it. Approximately forty cats live at the Hemingway House today. The tour guides know each cat's name. They are well fed and have free reign of the place. A veterinarian visits twice a week to check on the cats. Most of the cats are spayed/neutered, but a few of the polydactyl ones are allowed to keep the bloodline going. One feline fellow even allowed me to pet him. This napping cat was perfectly posed with his extra toes on display.

After our tour of the Hemingway House, we returned to the hotel to rest and try to stop sweating for a bit in the air conditioned room.

Chad and I wandered over to Blackfin Bistro just around the corner from our hotel for a late lunch. Blackfin Bistro was pleasantly dark and cool, a respite from the scorching afternoon sun. The decor drew me inside with seed glass pendant lighting, weathered-looking shiplap boards on the bar front and clean lines. Blackfin Bistro was crowded when we passed by it earlier in the day, but we were the only customers there at 3:00. I love having a place to ourselves. I had a brie, apple, avocado sandwich. Chad had a fish sandwich. We both had mimosas with fresh squeezed orange juice. (Seriously saw the bartender squeezing oranges.) So good!

After lunch, we again returned to the hotel to rest and try to stop sweating for a bit in the air conditioned room. (Along with spotting free-roaming chickens, returning to the room to cool down from the heat and humidity was another recurring motif during our trip to Key West.)

Later in the evening Chad and I walked down to Mallory Square to watch the sunset. Chad and I share an uncomfortable avoidance of street performers, so we didn't stop to watch anyone juggle flaming things, breakdance or swallow swords. I know, we're both total buzzkills. Unfortunately, there was a huge cruise ship blocking the view of the sunset from Mallory Square. We got out of the ship's shadow by walking down the boardwalk to the Westin Resort Pier, where we stood on a low retaining wall to watch the sunset. It was pretty over the water, and seemed to sink quickly into the gulf. There was no fanfare, clapping or even "ooh"s or "ahh"s from the audience. I mention this to serve as a contrast to the sunset show at The Oasis restaurant in Austin. As the sun starts to set, a bell is rung, the sunset is announced, after a moment of watching the sun sink to Lake Travis on the horizon, clapping and hooting erupt seemingly spontaneously. Toasts are made. That's how you gratefully and festively observe a sunset, people! A sunset is not properly celebrated from behind a huge cruise ship that blocks the view of the horizon.

Walking back towards our hotel from Mallory Square, we stopped for dinner at Mangoes on Duval Street, yet another outdoor seating establishment. I sometimes tire of being a vegetarian, and struggling to find meatless dishes at restaurants. It's like I'm stuck in a revolving door of: salad, veggie burger, bruschetta, caprese sandwich, when perusing menus. I had bruschetta and a salad for dinner. It was fine. Chad, however, was spoiled for choice as an omnivore who loves seafood. He had ceviche and liked it. Dessert was key lime pie (naturally) topped with a tiny shot of whipped cream to cut the tartness. This key lime pie was not too sweet and not too tart -- just right.

Gentle Readers, I am a jaded old soul. Very little is ever quiet as great as I think it will be despite constant attempts to manage my artfully high, crazy-creative expectations. I am an ambitious aesthete, always wanting more beauty, delight and surprise. It's my bedazzled albatross to bear. If sometimes my take on places and events seems overly critical and underwhelmed, I own it. This serves as my disclaimer that while not every aspect of our Key West vacation was dazzling, I really liked it overall.

Tune in tomorrow for more Key West travelogue and tales of sunset snorkeling.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Travelogue: Key West, Florida (a.k.a. The Conch Republic)

To plan our spring vacation I searched the interwebs for "best North American vacation for couples" and came up with Key West, because it offers great snorkeling, a relaxed atmosphere and might stay within budget. Chad loved the idea so much, that we booked flight and hotel within a few days of me suggesting Key West.

I did a bit of research before our trip, and learned that in 1982 U.S. border patrol roadblocks along the only road into Key West put a damper on the island's tourism. This prompted the mayor of Key West to announce secession from the United States of America to become The Conch Republic. The secession was short-lived, but successfully ended the border patrol roadblocks. Watch a video about it *here on*. Happy Conch Republic Day on April 23! (Timely!)

Luckily, these days flights to Key West are abundant. The Key West airport is small compared to most tourist town airports, and the runway is short. The pilot warned us that we would feel a rapid deceleration upon landing with the implication being "don't be scared/no screaming or crying back there". Disembarking from the airplane down wobbly stairs to the tarmac, we were greeted by a retro-looking sculpture of a buoy and some families pointing at the buoy, or maybe reaching for each other's hands. Um... does anyone else find this sculpture a little creepy?

As we left the airport in a taxi bound for the hotel, I saw a big rooster sporting impressively colored plumage walking around near some picnic tables. When we arrived at our hotel another (or was it the same?!) big rooster sporting impressively colored plumage greeted us in the parking lot. There are many free roaming hens and roosters on Key West. More on that later.

Chad and I often turn to tripadvisor for help deciding where to stay, dine and play, which is how we found the Almond Tree Inn for our stay in Key West. Located near the quiet end of Duval Street on Truman Avenue, we easily walked to all the things we wanted to see on Key West. (The island is only 1.8 miles by 4 miles in area, so most things are walkable.) The rooms are thoughtfully appointed with Jonathan Adler-esque style. (Our room had cute cat ceramics on a feature shelf. It's like they knew me!) The hotel courtyard features a pool, a hot tub (no thanks, germs) and a man made waterfall with koi pond. An impressive continental style breakfast is served each morning on the lovely covered porch area. Happy Hour nibbles and drinks are served each evening.

Our first evening in Key West we walked around Duval Street a bit to get acclimated, stopping for dinner at the downtown location of Cuban Coffee Queen. I liked my black bean veggie burger from Cuban Coffee Queen served with plantain chips and a blue dumdum lollipop for dessert. Chad loves all things breakfast/egg and had Havana rice and beans with eggs. He liked it, but did not get a lollipop. I tried to convince Chad that the staff wasn't playing favorites with the unequal lollipop distribution, but I was clearly their favorite. Or possibly the lollipops only come with sandwiches.

Many of the restaurants in Key West, including the downtown location of Cuban Coffee Queen, have shaded or covered open air dining. It's hot and humid in Key West. If one holds still and there is a breeze, outdoor dining is semi-pleasant/semi-sweaty-making.

After dinner, Chad and I had a lazy swim in the hotel pool to cool ourselves before bedtime.

One of Austin's mottoes to promote local businesses "Keep Austin Weird", seems a little vanilla in comparison to bumper stickers/unofficial city mottoes I saw in Key West which read "Key West: a work free drug place" and "Key West: We do more in a week than most people do all day". Chillaxin' seems to be the name of the game down there. (Don't worry, law abiding citizens. We did not partake of any illegal drugs in Key West. We didn't even have to "just say no", because no one offered any.)

Tune in tomorrow for more Key West travel adventure tales.