BRENT ROSEN is a raconteur and pontoon boat captain on Lake Martin Alabama. He is interested in Southern food and Southern culture. He blogs at southxmidwest.com and is on twitter at @brentlrosen.
A trip to Key West
My wife caught a 23 pound Bonito off the coast of Key West last Summer. The fish set a Key West record, and was only a few pounds shy of the Florida record of 27 pounds. The fish also nearly guaranteed her a victory in the Key West Fishing Tournament, the island’s annual sport-fishing event. You entered the tournament by taking a half or full day trip on a participating boat, and any fish caught during the trip counted toward the tournament. Winners in each of the many fish categories – e.g. Amberjack, Grouper, Wahoo, Yellowtail – are declared in late Fall. Month after month we checked in on the standings, month after month her record catch was safe.
The final day of the tournament was November 30, 2011, and on that day her victory was certain. An invitation to the Captain’s Awards Dinner arrived shortly after, and deliberations lasted about fifteen minutes before we decided to pick up the prize in person. We booked flights, then looked into rooms.
A word of caution to those who, in a fit of romanticist spontaneity, decide to rent a houseboat on Stock Island instead of a hotel room on Key West: reflect a bit, maybe drink a glass of wine, marinade on the idea before entering into a non-refundable rental agreement. You must be a particular kind of person, the sort of person that doesn’t mind 20 – 30 minute commutes to Old Key West, the kind of person that would rather see what Hogfish Grill is all about rather than wander Duval Street, a person that finds the marina’s private beach with only a few beach chairs alluring, not isolated. Whether you will find the houseboat enjoyable depends primarily on whether you are a traveler or a tourist. Tourists need not apply.
But, you might be asking yourself, “how do I know if I am a tourist or a traveler?” A fair question, and one I have anticipated by preparing a handy checklist. Please answer either (A) or (B) to the following questions: (A) Minivan, or (B) Convertible? (A) Cannon, or (B) Instagram? (A) Breakfast –> Beach –> Lunch on the waterfront –> Beach –> Nap –> Dinner on Duval –> Bed; Repeat with a sprinkling of museums/cultural attractions, or (B) Um…? (A) Fodor’s, or (B) Yelp + Urban Spoon + Twitter + perusal of relevant “36 Hours In…” article from the New York Times? (A) Souvenir T-Shirt purchased at T-Shirt stand, or (B) Souvenir T- Shirt purchased at Bar/Restaurant? If you answered mostly A, you are probably a tourist; mostly B, a traveler. For those of you wrinkling your noses like something smells bad, I assure you that neither of these labels are meant to carry a pejorative association. In fact, I have been both a tourist and a traveler at different times and in different places, with factors like age, children, marital status, whether I have been to a place before, whether I am showing off a familiar place to the un-initiated, etc., all coming into play. Regardless, this (necessary?) digression has obscured the point of the checklist: determining whether you would be comfortable renting a houseboat. For you tourists, feel free to scroll down until you see the bold “In Cape Town they call happy hour drinks …” If you are a traveler, stay with me.
We rented a three-bedroom, two bath houseboat moored at the Key West Harbour Yacht Club, a private club and marina. To be honest, we had no idea the difference between Stock Island and Key West, but decided a few miles would not be a big deal, forgetting that in Florida, a few miles of two-lane streets with traffic lights, strip malls, and Floridian drivers can be more than a minor inconvenience. The houseboat turned out to be lovely, with ample bedrooms, impressive showers, full size appliances and an incredible roof-top deck featuring a bar, a hammock, lounge chairs and Christmas lights for evening card games. BUT… swimming was off-limits around the boat. This was a major problem, as sunbathing on a houseboat deck in 80+ degree weather demands access to cool water. Worse still, we thought the closest accessible water might require a drive to Key West. Our parade was reporting the gathering of rain clouds.
While discussing whether the houseboat was a huge mistake, we noticed from the roof of the boat what appeared to be a beach in the distance. I grabbed my wife and we jumped on the beach-cruisers provided with the boat, and within a few minutes we found a private beach attached to the yacht club. Not only was the beach private and secluded, but we could also see out into open water, watch the fishing boats and swim around without worry we’d become one of those sad, deeply scarred manatees you see in the documentaries about conservation in the Keys. Even better, the club house was next to the beach, and the club’s bar ensured we’d not want for cold beer and frozen drinks.
Finding the beach restored equilibrium, and pretty soon we felt like we were staying at an exclusive resort – quiet beaches, few people, limited city lights/noise – except instead of staying in a room or a cabana, we were on a boat. We slept fantastically in the darkened staterooms (that is what you call rooms on a all ships, right?), had glorious views of the ocean, and took full advantage of the marina’s amenities for our entire trip. Anyway, if you found this description about houseboats enjoyable, look into renting one the next time you head to the beach. Now, let’s get back to those tourists.
In Cape Town, South Africa, they call happy hour drinks “sun-downers,” as in “those drinks consumed while enjoying the sunset.” So instead of saying, “lets go to happy-hour,” you would hear “want to meet for sun-downers?” The South Africans have this right, calling it happy-hour is aggressively hokey. Happy-hour feels like an HR approved slogan, something you can put in an email that won’t violate your company’s technology usage policy. I’m declaring 2012 the year of the sun-downer. Say it out loud, emphasize the second word, use a slight British accent. See, you love it. Everyone does. Here lies “Happy-Hour” R.I.P. 2012.
Key West is famous for it’s sunsets, and rightfully so. Since, as alluded to above, sun-sets are more enjoyable when accompanied by alcohol, it is of primary importance that you begin thinking about the bar where you’ll enjoy the sunset by 4:00 p.m. (adjust time accordingly if not visiting in Winter). If you don’t start thinking about the sunset until 5:00 p.m., or (gasp!) 5:30, all of the good tables will be occupied and darkness will fall before the bar gets around to preparing your first sun-downer, negating the entire point of the exercise. We found two excellent options, “Louie’s Backyard” and “The Top” at the La Concha Hotel (Crowne Plaza) Your present location at 4:00 pm will dictate your choice.
If you are downtown on Duval St., hit The Top. The Top is the La Concha Hotel’s roof-top deck and entertaining space. Enter through Jack’s Seafood Shack, walk straight through to the hallway and take a left. Round the corner and look for the unadorned elevator – you’re going all the way up. The Top has an indoor bar and seating space for small to medium sized events, surrounded by a high-walled, taupe colored, concrete deck. The place has a desert-cool, sun-bleached, wind-swept vibe, Lawrence of Arabia not Casablanca. You can walk around the entire deck, providing 360 degree views of the city. However, the action, like early 90′s rap, is concentrated on the west-side. There, high-top tables are clustered around the perimeter, offering a stunning view of the sun setting over the ocean.
On our visit the Navy had occupied The Top, uniformed men encircling the bar like ships blockading a port. The sailors were celebrating a change of command on the nearby naval base, so the gentlemen were in full dress, consuming an amount of alcohol consummate with my expectation of Navy men. Their dates were more interesting, as their sartorial self-expression was not subject to military discipline. Their looks ranged from matronly to wanton, with no seeming relationship between the age of the woman and her look. Since we chose an unfortunately cloudy day to observe the sunset from The Top, it was fortunate the Navy ball provided a comparable outlet for our attention.
If you are on the southern end of the island, near the beach and hotels closer to the airport, Louie’s Backyard is your spot for sun-downers. Louie’s is in the more residential part of Key West, so outside the bustle is limited. However, once you’ve walked through the restaurant and out onto the back deck, you’ll find yourself in a happening, upscale version of the classic beach bar, think Burt Bacharach covering Jimmy Buffet. Giant umbrellas cover much of the deck’s surface area, keeping the still present sun from baking the patrons, while an incredibly competent wait-staff (of ONE) was able to satisfy the cocktail needs of two-dozen patrons spread out over a dozen tables. The rest of the surface is wood: wooden tables, wooden chairs, wooden benches, a wooden railing.
The deck runs almost to the water, with a public beach area next to the restaurant. The beach was full of swimmers and snorkelers enjoying a quick dip before evening arrived. Many people took their dogs to the beach on the day we visited, causing a canine melee each time a tennis ball was thrown into the waves. A large group of kayakers had assembled just off shore, admirably combining exercise with the sunset, unlike the drinkers among whom we were assembled. This assemblage was diverse, as Louie’s caters to both visitors and locals. We met a large group on vacation from Iowa, while the couple sitting next to us worked in Key West’s service industry and were on, what appeared to be, a fairly awkward first date.
Key West and New Orleans are frequently compared to each other because of the surface similarities between Bourbon and Duval Streets, their architecture, their age and their status as mainland America’s only two Caribbean cities. The food culture of the cities also shares a similarity, in that people from out of town come looking for “Key West Food” just like they look for “New Orleans Food” in New Orleans. You would never hear someone say, on a trip to New York, “let’s get some New York food,” but the cuisine of both New Orleans and Key West are sufficiently idiosyncratic that it works. Two of the meals we had in Key West reflected the old and the new of “Key West Food”.
Our “old” Key West meal wasn’t actually eaten on Key West at all, but on Stock Island. Stock Island, at least according to the locals, is what Key West was like before heavy development. It is mostly marinas and fishermen and beach bars. The best of those beach bars, Hogfish Bar and Grill, is situated on a marina and is always full of fishermen. Just a roof, some support beams and a bar, Hogfish allows the breeze to blow through, carrying the sound of music, clinking glasses and laughter out into the surrounding street. Hogfish is laid-back to the point of lazy, time there is kept in hours not minutes. We drank beer, ate Key West Pink Shrimp and chased roosters around for our first hour. In hour two, wine and a lunch of panko fried yellow tail, fried lobster tacos and a most impressive fried lobster club sandwich. Call it “Island Soul Food.” I never visited Key West when it was rough and unvarnished, but this lunch was a close approximation. I took a beer to go for the bike ride home.
Our “new” Key West dinner was at Nine One Five, a restaurant on the quieter end of Duval St. The restaurant is housed in the residence of a former ship-builder, built in the late 1800′s. The Victorian building is all porch and windows, with real wood trim in the former owner’s signature style. Most of the seating is outdoor, on the house’s front porch and yard. The color palette is pure Key West, white, sea foam and royal blue throughout. The food was “New Floridian,” and it was incredible. We shared small plates of chipotle and orange braised pork carnitas with key lime crème fraiche, fried calamari, and duck confit. For dinner we had braised pork belly on heavily garlicked mashed potatoes; black grouper with lentils, smoked tomato butter and micro cilantro; and corn gnocchi cakes with caramelized pears, blue cheese, arugula and olive oil. Every bite of every dish sparkled. Nine One Five distills the essence of new Key West – it’s funky, creative, and a little bit wild, while remaining firmly grounded in island tradition.
While the food and drink we enjoyed in Key West were worth the trip alone, the real reason we’d come was to collect my wife’s trophy. Our final night in Key West was spent at the Key West Fishing Tournament Captain’s Dinner (KWFTCD). At the KWFTCD, if someone calls you a fisherman you are being insulted. Angler is the preferred nomenclature. The term fisherman is only used to draw distinctions, e.g. catching a 20 lb fish on 8 lb line is what separates the anglers from the fishermen. Needless to say, there were a lot of broad shouldered, closely cropped, shorts-clad men with sunglass tan lines in attendance.
They give out a lot of awards at the KWFTCD. There are fish specific awards, like the one my wife was there to receive, along with awards for the male and female and pewee angler of the year. They give out an award for most releases (fish caught), a guide achievement award for the captains, and an award for “Master Anglers,” and if you have to ask, you aren’t one. Particularly impressive catches were also recognized. It was like the Golden Globes, in that awards were given and dinner and drinks were served, but with the AVN awards budget. Interestingly, in a room full of fishermen (anglers?), our dinner choices were either steak or chicken.
The ceremonies opened with a speech from the director of the Key West Fishing Tournament, Captain Rob. He recognized that conservation has become an important aspect of fishing, and that anglers must be the true stewards of the seas. As such, he explained that the tournament was no longer counting any sort of sharks as catches, and any endangered fish have been removed from tournament consideration. He then called out the International Game Fishing Association (IGFA), saying, “we’ve upped our standards, now up yours.” This unintentional joke was the line of the night.
The dinner then proceeded along course, with Captain Rob keeping a strong hand on the till. Classes of fish were read out, the anglers who caught the largest walked to the stage and collected their plaques, photographs were taken, handshakes exchanged, and a few of the most impressive fishermen were recognized for being “anglers not fishermen,” the highest of high compliments at the KWFTCD. There was also a raffle. Prizes ranged from free half-day fishing (angling?) expeditions, fee stays at the Double-Tree Key West (our hosts for the evening), artistic prints of various fish species, and two Guy Harvey short sleeve button up shirts depicting fish in the artist’s distinctive style. We struck out on the free stay, but I am now the proud owner of a Guy Harvey party shirt.
The KWFTCD opened a window into a foreign sub-culture that exists, un-seen, in almost every fishing village and beach town. The boat captains in the room, who clearly outnumbered the anglers, all knew one another. They also knew each other’s children, many of whom dominated the tournament’s Pee Wee division. Fathers, sons and grandsons sat at the same table at the KWFTCD; they work together, own boats together, and, at the end of January, celebrate their industry and its accomplishments together. Fishing was the business of Key West a hundred years before the island was first a gay-friendly Mecca, then a family-friendly tourist destination. While the beaches, restaurants and nightlife are what outsiders think of Key West now, the fishermen know, regardless of changing tastes and times, their role in Key West is secure. It is also worthy of an annual celebration.
When I went through security at the (jarringly international) Miami Airport on the way home, one of the TSA workers asked how I enjoyed Miami. I explained that I’d actually been down to Key West, and he said, “oh, where are you from?” I told him I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, and he said, giggling, “did Key Weird freak you out a bit.” I laughed and explained that I’d lived for over five years in New Orleans, and he responded, “oh, then that wasn’t anything you hadn’t seen before.” The agent was both right and wrong. Right in the sense that I’d seen my share of men in white tutu’s and tank tops, but wrong as far as my overall experience of Key West. Key West is more than Bourbon St on the beach, and if that’s your only impression of the place, I’d recommend a visit (or re-visit). While you’re there, take a half-day fishing trip. You never know, but you could end up winning the Key West Fishing Tournament.