A vacation contemplation: Despite my great excitement to see my friends in the Keys, I admit to being slightly hesitant to actually arrive. My trip, now in its sixth day, had developed a rhythm all its own. Wake, explore, drive, stop and explore, drive some more, write, sleep, repeat. I was concerned that parking somewhere for 5 days would somehow spoil the integrity of it, or at least break the spell of the calm, contentment that I had discovered. In the end I had a not-shocking reality: staying with friends for 5 days in their home on the beach is, in fact, different than staying 5 different nights in 5 different states, sleeping in my car, a cabin, airbnb’s, and hotel-ish types of places. Another reality: it was OKAY and I got over it. Now, to the vacation part of my vacation . . .
Most people I know in Virginia would probably define themselves as “beach people”. Where I live, that generally means Ocean City, Maryland or the Outer Banks in North Carolina, though there are plenty of other less-populated islands and towns that stretch south through not just Maryland and Virginia, but North and South Carolina as well as Florida. I’ve visited many of them, and they all have their own charm and draw. The boardwalks of Ocean City, Virginia Beach and Myrtle stand in bright and busy contrast to the lazy low-key islands and inlets that dot the coastal Carolinas and parts of Georgia and Florida. The further south you go, and the further away from the edges, in my experience, the lower the blood pressure of the average inhabitant and vacationer. (Note: Daytona and Lauderdale do not support this argument, so I’m just leaving them out of the conversation!)
The Keys, however, seem to be a different animal entirely. I’ve been only once before, so my experience is limited at best. And to be completely up front, I’ve never been all the way to Key West, though I’ve read a good amount, in part thanks to crotchety Hemingway. My friends live in Islamorada, which is an area, though maybe not exactly a Key. Their exact Key, is Lower Matukumbe, which is at the tail end of the area of Islamorada, near mile marker 72. All very confusing. In fact, when I asked two residents to break it down for me, neither seemed entirely sure how to explain the actual name of their little slice of land. As I look out the window at the Gulf, I’m content to just call it “heaven”. It would be hard to argue with that assessment.
If you’ve never been, the Florida Keys are a sliver of land extending south and west off the coast near Miami. They begin roughly around mile marker 106 and Key Largo, and curve back around to Key West, perched out at its furthest point at mile marker 1. Flanked by the Atlantic to the south and east, and the Florida Bay/Gulf of Mexico to the north and west, the A1 highway is the only way through. Many of the Keys are connected by bridges, the clear warming waters of the Gulf mingling with the Atlantic beneath their arches. I find it both mesmerizing and a little creepy to know that when you’re out there, the full width of the land (if there’s any at all) can be as narrow as the road itself. Consider that when a hurricane is threatening. There’s only one way out for 100 miles, and hunkering down means that you are choosing to stay where can hit a golf ball from the roof of a house into the Atlantic or the Gulf, depending on which way you face. Not that comforting when the winds are howling and the storm surge is coming at you.
With all that in mind, it’s perfectly logical that the average habitant is fun, water-loving, super laid-back and just a little nuts. I found out that if you’re a native, you are considered a Conch, and there are quite a lot of them. My friends, though frequent visitors for the past 25 years and one-time Florida residents, have only been living full-time in the Keys for about 3 years, so can be humorously be referred to as “freshwater Conchs”. By the way, they do fit the descriptors above, or at least my friend Rene does. Carmen, her wonderful and very Italian husband, cannot be considered “laid-back” simply due to Italian blood. What he lacks that area, however, he makes up for in the fun-loving and a little nuts areas.
About 3 ½ years ago, they decided to rent in Islamorada for the winter and get a sense of what it might be like to live there full-time. Within a month, they had bought a beautiful Gulf-side waterfront property, and Carmen eagerly set about the business of overhauling the original house in favor of his own dream of a design. Rene, ever the supportive wife, just got out of the way. In fact, she’s so amazing that for the next 2 years, she happily (mostly) and without grumbling, lived in their small RV, (in the driveway of the new home!) with four tiny dogs and an obsessed husband, still doing the books for their former business, with both kids away in college in North Carolina. While we all teased and made fun, the end result is no joke. Well, there is one very good “dirty” joke/true story about Rene and the septic line from the RV. Hilarious, but for another time. In fact, Rene may still say it’s “too soon”.
Now complete(ish), their home is a dream, and designed for fun. Color is a given in the Keys, and they embraced that to the fullest. Their backyard (i.e. the Gulf of Mexico) shimmers with green and blues, and Carmen brought all those colors to life both inside the house and out. A beautiful infinity pool, tiled in iridescent blue/silver squares, conjures up images of mermaids and blue marlins. It’s breathtaking and just the beginning.
Carmen has a bit of a love affair with wood from Bali. Every room in the house, and out, boasts of intricately carved pieces from beds to benches, and a dining room table that is truly a tree. The house was actually built around the table (it’s one floor up) and their lava-rock bathtub (two floors-up), which are permanent fixtures of the house and both far too heavy to be carried, and thus were air-lifted and placed in their current and forever locations.
Waterfront rooms boast floor-to-ceiling windows, making you feel that you’re perched on the edge of the bay, just a step away from splashing in with the dolphins and pelicans beneath. The details of the whole interior – part nautical museum, part dream home, are too numerous to recount. Suffice it to say that the possessed Italian restaurant-owner turned designer, truly outdid himself.
But what’s most important to know about these fine friends is not the wow-factor of their amazing home, but their kindness, generosity and friendship. I was welcomed like family. Wait, one more house note – my room was to die for! (See photos,
though there is not a picture of my self-heating toilet seat with built-in fan.)
For the next 5 days, I ate like a queen (he’s a chef, too!), slept like a baby, laid by the pool, drank wine and talked for hours with my sweet friend. Our daughters have grown up together, best buddies, playing soccer all over the country. Rene and I (and a few other now forever friends) traversed what seemed like all of America with our girls, enjoying every moment, unknowingly building bonds that won’t be broken. We are all cast to the winds, now, with some of the girls now graduated and the rest entering their final year of college. There was much to catch up on, and we did our best.
My hosts made sure that I experienced the best of Islamorada during my short stay. By way of baptism, my first evening I was treated to fantastic steak and seafood at the bar at Ziggie and Mad Dogs, whose bartender had a laugh we won’t soon forget. (Think horror movie.) For the most part, we steered clear of the vacation hotspots, and instead hung out at the OV, or the Ocean View, a very “Key-Z” joint for great music. The night I was there, one of the former Lynard Skynard guitarists played and sang, along with half-a-dozen other incredible local artists. I admit I couldn’t resist visiting the touristy Robbie’s Hungry Tarpon, a renowned favorite. Where else can you get an amazing “Trailer Trash” Bloody Mary, complete with beef jerky stick for a straw, shrimp, pickles, bacon, and more. Breakfast in a glass!
Best of all, halfway through my stay, we welcomed home their sweet daughter (one of my favorite people on the planet) and son, back for a few days for her surprise birthday celebration with college friends.
But mostly, we just relaxed, taking in the sunshine and clouds, talking easily like old friends do, and planning a return trip down with the rest of the family in tow. Each day I was gradually refueling for my return north. I had been hesitant to finally arrive at this destination, and now I am contemplating devising ways to stay. In the end, though, the desire for continued adventure wins, and I am consoled in knowing that my coastal route north will keep me close to the water with plenty of ocean breezes and salt-air.