in Florida's bargain basement

KEITHA McLEAN November 1 1969


in Florida's bargain basement

KEITHA McLEAN November 1 1969



in Florida's bargain basement


I ROLL OUT OF BED on to cold tile and sleepily drag on my sandy, clammy bikini — will I ever remember to wash it out at night? — and search for the car keys. The bronchial MGB sputters into action and the Florida sun pops up, equatorially. Already, at seven, heat seeps through the louvred windows of pale-pastel bungalows and into spongy, tropical lawns; dew bubbles cling to the slender stamens of the brilliant - magenta hibiscus. As I zip along the coast road, the sea glisteps like a sheet of turquoise wrap; shrieking terns swoop around the moored fishing boats, hunting garbage. The town is yawning awake; shuttered doors bang open and little black children hop on bicycles, pedaling furiously to the milk shop. I stop in front of the Fourth Of July restaurant, which smells of burned pork fat. "Dos café Cubano negro, por favor,” I say. Then another stop down the street, at the Rodriquez bakery for a three-foot stick of doughy Cuban bread. Another Key West day begins.

I was in Florida with my boyfriend Ted because it was midwinter in Montreal. I was in Key West, Florida, because midwinter had followed us all the way down the east coast from New York to a chilly 62 degrees in Miami. The only solution was to keep driving until either the road or the winter gave up. As we approached the Florida Keys, after almost 2,000 miles and three days of frustrated driving, the temperature soared almost 10 degrees.

Ted and I had sufficient vacation time, expensive tastes and little money. We needed a place where we could spend the best part of a month; a place ►

KEY WEST continued

Three weeks to go and only $320 left - but we got a house, white beaches, the sea, the sun and solitude

that offered good beaches, clear sea and good reefs for spearfishing; great food; cheap drinks; charming accommodation and interesting people — all for under $250 each. And it had to be warm.

Driving to Florida had seemed a good idea: we would save money traveling, we would see all of the Keys, and have a car in Key West while we were there.

What we hadn’t realized is that Air Canada services Florida during the winter season with four flights a day to Miami (two from Montreal, two from Toronto), and four flights a day to Tampa (one from Montreal, three from Toronto). Regular return fare to Tampa from Montreal is $168, from Toronto $150. To Miami from Montreal it costs $194 regular, with a 21-day excursion fare of $169; from Toronto it’s $174 regular, excursion $154. Miami is connected to Key West by a good bus service and two local airlines have daily flights. In Key West, we discovered rent-a-cars available and reasonable, and rent-a-bicycles, an excellent and inexpensive way to see the island.

Like the last skip of a pebble across a pond, Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States, has grown into the largest and most developed of the 25 Florida Keys. The island — like all the Keys — is connected to the mainland by a highway and a series of bridges. A four-mile bubble of tropical vegetation, pounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and coddled by the Gulf of Mexico on the other, Key West is a modern amalgam of Bahamian Colonial, Pre-Castro Cuban and Miami Modern.

But when our complaining sports car sputtered down Roosevelt Blvd. into Key West on Christmas Eve, our interest wasn’t architectural — we needed a place to stay at a price we could afford. We’d already spent $90 of our combined vacation resources of $500. Calculating that our return trip would cost the same $90 (and holding an American Express card aside in case of emergency), we counted on a grand total of $320 for the remainder of our three weeks in the sun.

Although the Christmas and New Year period is one of the peaks of the Key West tourist season (FebruaryMarch-April is another), accommodation rates were reasonable. For the first couple of nights we stayed at a small cabin court, with bath, on Truman Avenue — and paid $10 a night. Double-

room accommodation in the main guest house was eight dollars.

We drove east along the south coast of the island, past the historic East Martello Tower (one of two artillery emplacements built in 1861 as the island’s rearguard protection, and now used as a museum), past the gleaming stretches of white sand -— Rest Beach and George Smathers Beach — past the sea wall hugging Cow Key Channel. The tourist accommodation was changing from “charming” to “smart.”

Modern beach bungalows, discreetly private and surrounded with tropical flowering trees and shrubs, are set graciously away from the road on manicured lawns. They glisten with every appliance and comfort. But they didn’t fit our plans — or our budget. Because we planned (hoped) to fish for most of our food, we needed a kitchen. We also longed for white beaches, clear seas and a sense of isolation. Finally, we found them on the southernmost side of the island in an “efficiency” — a sprawling beach house containing kitchen, dining and living room, bedroom, bath and a large screened veranda — for $75 a week. Our “efficiency” was luxurious by Key West standards and could have comfortably accommodated six people. We gradually discovered many reasonably priced beach and guest houses, mostly clustered in the same southwest area, ranging from about $55 to $95 a week.

The Christmas-New Year crowd in Key West is, we were told, the liveliest of the year. There are the locals, those who live and work in Key West all year, and those who spend the summer in other parts of the U. S. or Canada and come to the Keys each winter to operate motels and guest houses. There are the regulars who own or lease houses on the island and have been coming for years to meet the same friends and go to the same parties. There are the “straight” types, the families who usually stick to the bigger motels and swim in the pools, who camp and take sight-seeing tours. And then there are the others — a group, we were soon to learn, that included us.

The “others” are the get-away-to-thesun people. The dropouts. The runaway businessmen. The writers. The man-hunting secretaries. The Boys. The hippies. The young itinerants who follow the sun and who work to earn escape money.

In a sleepy little town such as Key West, the chief recreation is watching one another, and the best possible place for this is Southernmost Beach, at the foot of Simonton Street. Southernmost Beach is also the best place on the island for breakfast. The Beach is the place where everybody “checks in” each morning. Mango or papaya juice, heavy Cuban coffee, toast with guava jelly. Or, if the night before prescribes a late breakfast, spicy conch soup and a turtle steak. Southernmost Beach is as unAmerican as a Montreal sidewalk café. Chess games are set up at eight in the morning, conversation is as endless as the continuing beach volleyball match. Friends are made, liaisons formed, feuds waged. You dare not miss a day of it in case something happens.

Life quickly evolves into a drowsy routine. The days roll one into another, distinguished only by the fact of weather (sunny or cloudy) and by fishing (rod or spear, success or failure). A leisurely breakfast at the beach is usually followed by a sleep on the sand followed by a swim, then by lunch, then (made drowsy by American beer and Key West noonday sun) another sleep. Then fishing — but usually only if hunger forces it. Key West and the surrounding Keys are superb fishing grounds. South from Key Largo (the first Key in the chain) almost every island-connecting bridge has a fishing catwalk, which, regardless of the time of day, is crowded with anglers armed with long bamboo rods. We also noticed some surf fishing along the Keys, and one of the major sports is deep-sea angling in the gulf for marlin, tarpon and even shark.

Fishing for me is more an experience than a sport. I rarely catch anything, and therefore stress scenery and location. Florida Keys fishing scenery is beautiful. Many of the southern Keys — Sugar Loaf, Saddle Bunch, Boca Chica and Stock Island — are riddled with roads built by the army and unused since the war (and usually unmarked on the map). These cross deserted mangrove marshes over innumerable deep clear rivers, many teeming with sea perch, bass, grouper, pompano. And even if the only bites you get are mosquito, just being there offers rewards enough: watching a fantastic Florida sun descend over the swamp; savoring the tranquility as you are warmed by the gentle evening air that drifts off the sea in the tropics as in no other place in the world; relaxing, enveloped in a complete silence pierced only by the calls of exotic swamp birds.

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KEY WEST from page 69

Moreover, our gear was more suited to Ontario lake trout than to the brilliantly colored tropical specimens, and our nearest approach to success was the hooking of a tremendous eightor 10pound red snapper. After a classic and beautiful battle, the fish got away, taking with it the line and half the rod.

Our real fishing success was sub aqua; armed only with masks, flippers and a primitive Polynesian-type spear (a long rod tipped with a trident), we caught enough in an afternoon’s fishing to feed us for weeks. Our usual diet was lobster, served with a cheap, chilled, Californian white wine and hot Cuban bread. The lobsters, not the familiar eastern Atlantic type, are small, soft-shell Caribbean crayfish. They are too puny to have edible claws, but their tails, either broiled or boiled and dipped in melted butter, are delicious. An occasional variation was grilled sea perch, and the high spot of our vacation was the spearing of the snook.

A fighting game fish, the snook is difficult to catch even with the proper lure. One hapless snook paddled into range where Ted had been waging a week-long battle with a sleepy tarpon under a reef just off Southernmost Beach. To the cheers of the beach crowd, Ted, like a Tarzan, waded ashore with the twofoot-long slice of wriggling silver still on his spear. (We were then told that by catching a game fish out of season we were liable to a $50 fine. To dispose of the evidence, our prize quickly became Steamed Snook with Cream Sauce.)

In addition to the fish, we survived on fruit, bought cheaply at the shops. And because even lobster can become boring in excess, we explored the best eating places around town. The most-advertised restaurants are the ones to avoid, we soon discovered. Our biggest mistake was a visit to “Luigi’s, The Original Italian Restaurant.” Luigi’s mediocre food was surpassed only by his insistence, no matter what his customers’ instructions, on serving tepid white and frosty red wine.

We also tried, at great expense, such well-known places as Logan’s Lobster House and Tony’s Fish Market (and were disappointed) before we learned, through our equally penurious acquaintances on the beach, about the Fourth Of July Restaurant on White Street. This immediately became our favorite eatingout spot. Named in an impulsive patriotic gesture by the owner when he arrived in Key West from Havana with wife, father, niece, grandnephew and about 17 assorted children, the Fourth Of July is open seven days a week, serves beer by the pitcher, and offers a fantastic Cuban menu, with a top price of about three dollars.

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Cuban food, like most West Indian dishes, is overspiced, overcooked and delicious. The Fourth Of July serves every dish with mounds of black beans and rice, and crispy plántanos (in English, “plantain” — a large member of the banana family, deep-fried green in cocoanut or corn oil), followed by Cuban flan (a type of cream caramel) and heavily sugared coffee. For picnic lunches their foot-long “Cuban-mix” sandwiches are second only to the Cubanburgers from José’s Cantina, at the corner of Duval and Truman. Probably the best restaurant in Key West is Le Mistral, small and French-Canadian owned. It has a whiteclapboard creole aura to it, serves excellent food, good wine, and provides comfortable atmosphere at a reasonable price.

Entertainment depends on money. For the well-heeled, there are charter cruises, sailboat trips, nightclubs, such as they are, and evening trips into Miami. The beach crowd is forced to be more inventive. On cloudy afternoons we plonked down our dollars to see the sights: the house where Audubon stayed and worked on Whitehead Street, the exotic Peggy Mills botanical garden on Simonton Street, the Aquarium near Old Mallory

Square, the house where Hemingway wrote. We discovered the kraals where the giant sea turtles are kept before slaughter, played pool in a tavern on Geiger Key, browsed through galleries filled with local art, and sat on the docks, watching banana boats being unloaded.

For beach people, that is daytime entertainment. In the evening, we met people and drank beer at the new Sloppy Joe’s. The original Sloppy Joe's, where Hemingway used to hold court, has been sold and is now called Capt. Tony’s.

Capt. Tony’s, a big, sprawling complex, with a circular bar, open fireplace, and always-empty dance floor, features Capt. Tony (a more worldly MacDonald Carey), his very young girl friend, assorted non-native barmaids, a hokey calypso band, and everybody in town who’s interesting (playwright Tennessee Williams was a regular). Whoever you miss at Southernmost Beach during the day, you see at Capt. Tony's at night. It is usually fun, conversational, reasonably priced (a dollar per drink) and lively.

Around the bars and little Key West clubs we met Joan and Herbie and Marvin and Bill, the foursome who spent three weeks sitting on the beach, quizzing each other in minute detail about characters and events from Gone With The Wind (“All right, for five dollars: what was the name of Scarlett’s maid?”); Big Bo from Texas (the license plates on his

Toronado read B O); Mark, the young dropout Acadian from Baton Rouge; Motorcycle Bob, the fisherman from Monterey, California, who would stand for hours at the end of a pier, resplendent in motorcycle boots and helmet, waiting for the baitfish to run.

Ending our last week, we met the shrimpers, a group of colorful, harddrinking layabouts who earn their weekend celebration money working the shrimp beds off the Florida coast. We planned to ship out on a shrimp boat to explore the Dry Tortugas and Marqueses; perhaps even to glimpse, if all the rumors were true, the fascinating world of black-market trade and travel into Cuba. But the weather turned squally and by the time the shrimpers set a southerly course, we had packed up our sleeping bags, suntan lotion and fishing gear, ready for our trip home.

Not knowing that our planned $90 would return us to Canada and we would finish the trip with our credit card unused, not realizing we could end our trip under budget, we loaded our car with a “survival kit” of 10-cent avocados, Key limes, mango juice and Cuban sandwiches.

That survival kit rotted in the bottom of the car until many days later when I cleaned it out in Montreal. It was a reminder of the best get-away vacation I have experienced. □