Wednesday, April 20, 2016

4-8-16, Snorkeling in Sombrero Key

While staying in Marathon, we’ve been asking around about diving in the area, but somehow we didn’t ask the right people, or we didn’t ask the right questions. NOBODY TOLD US HOW EASY THIS WOULD BE!!!

On Friday, we decided to take the boat out of the harbor and head for Sombrero Key, which is about 5 miles south of Boot Key Harbor. The weather was beautiful. Seas were calm, with waves one foot or less, and winds were light. Dolphins, ever the good luck charm, greeted us as we headed south for the reef.

Leaving Boot Key Harbor
Passing the Seven Mile Bridge
We had read that there were mooring buoys on the south side of the lighthouse. Yes! At least 11 of them. We found a free one easily and tied Summer Wind to it. The water was very clear. And shallow. So there was no need for dive gear, we’d snorkel. We grabbed fins, masks, snorkels. I insisted that we wear t-shirts over our bathing suits so we wouldn’t get sunburned. The sun was very strong, and it was hot.
Approaching Sombrero Key, on a beautiful clear day
Sombrero Key Light
It's a party!
Other boats on moorings
Professional dive boats
Up closer, you can see that the lighthouse is red
We both hopped into the blue water, which felt refreshing. We made our way toward the lighthouse and slowed down to examine the coral reefs below. Chuck filmed video with his knock-off Go Pro. (Some day we will figure out how to post the video.) I didn’t bring my underwater camera on this trip, which is unfortunate for the blog, but was great for me. It’s nice to be just present in the experience, without worrying about trying to document the experience at same time.

We saw many types of coral – brain coral, barrel corals, purple fan corals, and many broken pieces of what looked like white staghorn coral. We saw many schooling fish – Sargent Majors, Grunts and others. We saw familiar reef fish, such as Parrot Fish, Damsel Fish and Barracuda. And we saw Grouper and Scrawled Filefish. I was trying to get Chuck’s attention to point out the Nurse Shark that I saw, when I realized he was busy filming a green Moray Eel that was completely out of his hole.

We stayed in the water for about an hour, and went back to the boat, chilled, thirsty and hungry. After snacks and water, we went in for a second dive. The moorings were filled, and a small boat with a young family (with 5 kids!) anchored on the reef. We swam over to tell them that was not permitted, and they might get fined. They were very nice, and grateful for the info. We offered to let them raft with us, but fortunately another boat was leaving and they were able to take the freed-up mooring for a short while until their small kids had enough.

We enjoyed the blue world again, and swam until we started to get chilly. On our way back, we passed one of the commercial dive boats, and tried to listen to their briefing. I heard the dive master tell the patrons that this was the best water visibility that he’d seen in nearly a year. We’ve heard that diving is best here in the summer, when the weather is calm and the water is clear.

Oh, and the t-shirts did a good job of preventing sunburn on our backs. The back of our upper thighs, however, are a different matter. We both got sunburned through that beautifully clear water. Ouch!

4-20-2016 – Florida Foods

Every trip is an adventure. And every adventure is nothing without new food discoveries! We found a few things this year that are new to us, or are just plain great.

Café Con Leche

Once we moved into southern Florida, Café Con Leche was everywhere. And that’s a good thing, because we love it. Café Con Leche is Cuban, and consists of strong, flavorful coffee, with plenty of milk and sugar. Sounds simple, and it’s pretty good everywhere we’ve tried it, but in some places it’s divine.

Cafe con Leche
Chuck with Iced Cafe con Leche, at YUCA in South Miami Beach

Key Lime Pie

I first tried Key Lime Pie as a kid on our family trips to Florida and I loved it. And I just discovered that I still love it. Real Key Lime pie is yellow, not green. The crust is usually made with graham crackers and it is served cold, sometimes with whipped cream.  I tried it in Marathon (3 times!) and I tried it in Key West. My favorite is at Burdines, in Boot Key Harbor, where the filling is light, and the crust has the addition of nuts. They also have a “fried” version, that many people like, but I haven’t tried it. I’m not big on fried foods, and the regular is enough of a calorie splurge, thank you.

Here is one recipe, to get you started. I haven’t tried it yet. It’s way too hot to run an oven here.
Postcard with Key Lime Pie recipe
Key Limes

Key Lime Pie is made with tiny Key Limes, which are, unfortunately, no longer grown commercially in the Keys, but instead are imported from Mexico. I picked some up in the grocery store, just to try them. I squeeze the juice over salads and other foods as a condiment, and put them in water to flavor it. And of course, in plain tonic or Gin and Tonic.

And I picked up this cookbook in Key West, which contains recipes for salads, sauces, meals desserts, among them NINE different recipes for Key Lime Pie. That’ll keep me busy.
Key Lime Cookbook and Key Limes
Meyer Lemons

While we were in the citrus aisle, we had to try Meyer Lemons. I wasn’t sure what they were, but they are yellower, juicier and more fragrant versions of the regular thick skinned lemons that we are used to. They are not quite as sour as ordinary lemons, although the ones we tried were still very sour, too sour for us to eat like an orange (which some people do). And they are fragrant to the point of smelling a little like perfume, or a lemon scented cosmetic. We’ve used them to squeeze over fish dishes and salads, and to add to salad dressing and to water.
Meyer Lemon
Florida Strawberries

One day in the grocery store last year, a local lady checked the display of strawberries, and said, “I’ll wait for the Florida strawberries to come in.” I never realized where our strawberries come from (often California), but the fresh Florida ones are really wonderful. I like to get them at the farm markets, or in the grocery store.

Florida Oranges and Grapefruits

Yes, they really are wonderful. And the juice is fabulous too. One of my favorite things about the ubiquitous Farm Markets in Florida is the oranges and grapefruits. And they often offer samples of the fruit and the juice, yum!

Fresh Fish

Every restaurant menu has some Fish of the Day, which goes into sandwiches, over salads or on platters, grilled, fried or blackened.  I am enjoying blackened fish sandwiches, which are made with mahi, grouper, snapper, hogfish, yellowtail, and others.

Blackened Mahi Mahi sandwich
Fresh caught Albacore Tuna, in Naples, FL
Grouper, Red Snapper, and other fresh caught fish, in Naples, FL
Keys Fisheries, Marathon, FL (Restaurant and Fish Market)
Menu on the wall at Keys Fisheries

Stone Crab (Claws) with Mustard Sauce

This was something entirely new for us, and we absolutely loved it! "Stone Crabs" are the claws of the stone crab. The fisherman removes one or both claws, cooks it immediately (on the boat), and tosses back the crab. The crab then grows a new one. Stone crab claws are only caught between Oct 15 and May 15, and are found in restaurants, grocery stores and fish markets. They are pretty expensive, but we were lucky to find them on sale at the Keys Fisheries. We latched onto some other patrons who advised us. Since we hadn’t had them before, she said, it was fine to get the “Select” size, which are smaller. She thinks the "large" taste better, and of course are less work to eat (less shell per amount of claw meat), but she said we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. I guess she was right because we thought they were amazing. Mustard sauce is the recommended (required!) accompaniment.

Stone Crabs with mustard sauce
Wild Caught Gulf Shrimp

We’ve had so much (inferior, frozen) imported shrimp in the last few years that we forgot how good fresh shrimp can be. And the wild caught gulf shrimp, which we were encouraged to try in Sarasota (on the west coast, thank you, Amy!) are really great. We picked up some more on our trip to the Keys Fisheries, and made Risotto with Shrimp and Asparagus. Yummy!

Risotto with Shrimp and Asparagus, made with fresh wild caught Gulf shrimp
Garden Fresh Arugula, Cherry Tomatoes and Herbs

One of our favorite things about staying at the Boot Key Harbor City Marina was the community garden. In the two weeks that we spent at the marina, the plants really grew! We enjoyed fresh salads almost every day, by just picking a few of the lettuce leaves, and leaving the plant to continue to grow. We picked the “almost ripe” cherry tomatoes that showed a hint of red, and by the next day they were fully ripened. We also tried nopales, the soft, edible, paddle shaped cactus with rubbery thorns. Eaten raw, it tastes sort of like a green bean or snow pea.

Salads of community garden arugula ("organic spring mix"), cherry tomatoes, dill, chevre, 

Garden Cherry Tomatoes in 3 stages of ripeness – Green, semi ripe, and ripe red

Homemade sushi

And not exactly a Florida food, (although it’s commonly found in restaurants here) but a first for us. I tried making sushi on the boat, since I somehow found myself with Sushi Nori (seaweed wrappers) and a recipe. I made vegetarian sushi with asparagus, avocado and sweet potato in various combinations, just to try to figure out how to do it. Not the most perfect, but not terrible for a first try. And very tasty.

Jak Fruit (aka Jackfruit)

A last minute discovery for us, we tasted jak fruit at the Farmers Market in Miami. It grows wild around here, somewhere.  The yellow part is sweet and eaten raw.  The man cutting it put oil on his gloved hand to handle it, because it's so sticky. The seeds are roasted like a vegetable. The white part is fibrous and I'm not sure whether they eat it raw or cooked, but they do eat it. I think they skip the core. If interested, you can read many internet entries about its uses in several exotic countries. We may not get to those places any time soon, but at least we can enjoy their foods!

4-10-2016, Two Trips to Key West

There were several ways for us to get to Key West. We could have sailed there, going west via the outer (southern) channel of the FL Keys ("Hawk Channel"), or we could have sailed west along the inner (northern) channel (ICW) (in a different boat, it might be too shallow for ours), or we could have sailed directly south from Sarasota on the Florida west coast, after we attended the Baldwin Yacht Club Winter Rendezvous and visited friends in March.

We didn’t do any of these! Instead, we sailed down the west coast of Florida to the Everglades, land of extreme natural beauty, a lot of insects, and no cell service whatsoever. From there, we continued south to Marathon, on Boot Key, in the Middle Keys, where we “camped out” in the harbor for two weeks. During that time, we went to Key West twice, the easiest possible way. We took the bus!

Monday, 3/28/16

To take the bus, we dinghied to shore, walked about ½ mile west to a bus stop, and waited. We were advised to take the bus that leaves around 10:20 AM. The earlier one (8:00) has people commuting to work, so it’s a longer ride, with more frequent stops. The bus is cheap! The cost is $4.00 each way, reduced to $2.00 for those 60 and over, active and retired military, students, or disabled, and even less, $1.50, for seniors.

We got onto the almost empty bus in Marathon. Almost empty except for 3-4 people, one of whom was not an ordinary bus rider, but instead was a costumed street performer, “Zanibar the Pirate,” who was half asleep. He had a half-asleep stuffed parrot nodding out on his shoulder, where it was pinned to his costume. 

As we rolled along, the bus stopped and gradually filled up. Lady with no change asked everyone on the bus for change for a $20 until she made her $4 fare. Homeless looking guys waiting at a stop, where mysteriously, some got on and some did not. Other “tourists” and other cruisers. Land cruisers from an RV park. 

Around noon we landed in Key West, at the corner of Caroline and Duval Streets. Our first order of business was to find a rest room, and we did, at the “Oldest House in Key West”, which had free admission. Being the oldest house, of course there were no bathrooms in the house, and we were not about to try those chamber pots! Fortunately, there were rest rooms located in out buildings in the back yard. Perfect!
Back yard of the oldest house in Key West
At the oldest house in Key Weest
Rested, we moved on to the next order of business. Lunch! Chuck mentioned a restaurant that he had visited 10 years ago, Louis Back Yard. 
Louis Back Yard Restaurant
We called. Yes, open. Yes, reservations needed. It’s pretty far away, about 45 minutes by foot. No 1:00 PM reservation available. 12:30? Yes, we’ll take that. We’ll be a little late, walking. OK, see you then.
Nailtini, Nail Bar and Day Spa
Even though we were in a hurry, I couldn’t resist grabbing this shot of “Nailtini, Nail Bar and Day Spa” for my girlfriends in CT (you know who you are!).

We walked quickly and got to Louis Back Yard just after 12:35. Got a nice table outside in the shade.
Louis Back Yard
 A lovely place, with linen table cloths, a beautiful ocean view, and a great menu. It was the Monday after Easter Sunday, so lamb was on the menu, in the form of a special sandwich on focaccia bread, served with Moroccan Carrots and homemade potato chips. We also ordered a salad of “Wilted greens with duck confit and roasted grapes”. Duck confit is duck cooked in duck fat. It is tender and flavorful, and surprisingly not greasy. Roasted grapes are somehow made into skinless grapes. By roasting them, I guess, and they are delicious. We enjoyed this beautiful lunch, and we felt fancy and special. Fortunately in Key West, casual dress is acceptable anywhere. Many people in the restaurant were more dressed up than we were, but it was fine, and no one made us feel like we had just come from the bus with the homeless people.

Lamb sandwich on foccacia bread, with Moroccan carrots and homemade chips
Salad of wilted greens with duck confit and roasted grapes
After lunch, we walked past the “Dog Beach” just next door, where dogs were playing in the water, and napping on beach blankets in the sun, near their people.

Dog Beach
From there, we passed the “Southernmost Point in the Continental U.S.” There was a big line to take pictures with the monument, which looks like a huge channel marker, so we just snuck around and took some pictures of the marker, from a different side. 

At the southernmost point in the Continental US.
We walked along and soon discovered the ubiquitous Key West roosters and chickens. Like the sacred cows of India, the chickens roam free all over the streets and yards of Key West. They are noisy, but they eat bugs, and they have been a Key West fixture for a long time, so no one pays attention to them, except to try to avoid running them over.
Roosters and Chickens are everywhere
We stopped into an art gallery, where the owner does water colors that are vibrant and don’t really look like what most people consider to be water colors. He was fun to talk to and offered me a cold bottle of water. It was a very hot day, so this was most appreciated.

We walked toward the Hemingway House, but there was a very long line, so we decided to skip it. We passed some time chatting with Rudy, a street vendor selling jewelry made from sandalwood and Poinciana seeds. He says he found the seeds himself, but a little research (later) told us that it would be much easier for him to just buy them online. Hmmm. 

Rudy, street vendor
Rudy's jewelry made of sandalwood and poinciana seeds

Rudy, carving a gourd
My new necklace, of sea bean and found silver chain
I bought a necklace and pair of earrings, and Rudy gave me a beautiful sea bean, with a hole already drilled. He made a quick finding out of silver wire, so I could hang it from a cord or chain. It’s supposed to be good luck. Well that turned out to be true! The next day I found a broken silver chain, which I was able to fix. 

 Chuck stopped at a store near “Mile 0” to buy a card and a postcard to mail to his daughter, Sarah, for her birthday, and then made a trip to the Post Office so he could mail it, after dodging many more chickens.

We returned to Duval Street where we visited several art galleries, and then stopped for a much needed pick-me-up of coffee and fabulous pastries.
Cafe con Leche, Raspberry Tart, Key Lime Pie, 
with apologies for diving in before photographing! 
Then we proceeded to Mallory Square for the Sunset Celebration. We had planned to meet up with Alex from the sailing trimaran Hafvalla, but he unfortunately got tied up with boat work. He and Kate have moved to Key West and are planning to sell Hafvalla, so he had some straightening up to do before a showing. 

Mallory Square is like a carnival, with many circus acts performing and then passing the hat to make their living. We saw a contortionist – a guy who was able to break out of a straight jacket by dislocating his shoulders (pretty creepy).  The straight jacket was pink and his show contained lots of straight (jacket)/gay jokes. We saw a couple of guys who balanced things and each other. We saw a guy with a trained pig. We saw two great musical acts, a Cuban band, and a duo. There were also vendors of stuff and vendors of food. 
Walkway to Mallory Square
Great Cuban band
Trained pig
Just before sunset, we made our way back to the nearest bus stop where we met up with Zanibar, aka Pirate Dan, for the return trip to Marathon. We were happy to see him, because then we knew we would get on the correct bus. He played a couple of songs at the bus stop, and we and others dropped a few more dollars in his tip bucket.

Pirate Dan, aka "Zanibar"
The ride home was fun, filled with regulars and laughter. One of the regulars got off for an errand, and then got back on again, when the bus made a circle, which surprised all of us who didn’t know that the bus route makes a loop and crosses the same spot. A sweet young gentleman got on at the airport. He was from the Midwest and was headed to Marathon to visit a friend and go fishing. It was his first trip to the Keys and he was pretty excited. One of the regulars had rented out his boat that day and made $700, so he was really happy. Other familiar faces rejoined us for the ride home.

Lots of laughs on the bus ride home
Saturday 4/2/16

We enjoyed Key West and knew that there was more that we wanted to see, so we planned to make another trip. On Saturday, 4/2/16, we made our second trip. Pros by now, we decided to take the early bus, since there wouldn’t be a lot of people getting on and off for work on Saturday. And there was an air show at Boca Chica, so we thought the later bus might be very crowded.

We got to Key West before 10 AM. 
Corner of Catherine and Duval Streets

After a nice conversation with a jewelry vendor (and former cruiser) who stopped there 17 years ago and never left, we took her advice and went to The Cuban Coffee Queen for breakfast. 

Jewelry vendor, a former cruiser
The Cuban Queen, restaurant
"Drink more Cuban Coffee, do stupid things faster"
Then we visited another Art gallery (Peter Lik’s photography), and stopped at the “Isle Cook Key West” where I was fascinated with the new boat friendly silicone tools, and picked up a Key Lime Cookbook.

We walked through the "Little Bahamas" neighborhood and went to lunch at Santiago’s Bodega, which is a tapas restaurant. We tried small plates of Tuna Seviche (with mango and avocado), another Salad with Duck Confit, Chicken Skewers with a lemon sauce, and Ground lamb burgers with cucumber and feta salad.
Inside Santiago's Bodega
Another salad with duck confit
(And see the hand painted floor in the top left corner of this photo) 
Chicken Skewers with a lemon sauce,
Ground lamb burgers with cucumber and feta salad.
After lunch we started walking to the beach, planning to go for a swim. On the way, we ran into the Ocean Festival, which we had seen advertised, and which was free. It was a lot of fun, with artists, musicians, and lots of touch tanks and activities for kids. It took place on the grounds of a marine museum, so we spent a little time browsing in the AC (air conditioning) as well.
With the artist Noel Skiba
Live Sea Urchin
Entymologist, working on mosquito control
Noel Skiba, painting and dancing
Shortly before 5, we both felt very tired from the heat and realized that we could just make the 5:02 bus back to Marathon, so we ran to the stop and made it with a few minutes to spare. It was nice to do the bus ride back in the daylight.

There is still a lot of Key West for us to see on future visits. I was surprised at how much we enjoyed it. It was a lot different from what I expected. I thought it would be raunchy like New Orleans, with a lot of “adult” t-shirts for sale, and drinking and music in the streets, but it’s much cleaner than that. It has plenty of fine art and good food, and nice things for sale. Or maybe because we were only there in the daytime, we missed an aspect of it that only comes out at night. It reminds me of a story of a former co-worker who went to Woodstock and didn’t see ANY of the wildness that was shown in the movie. We each have a unique point of view, and a unique experience everywhere we go!

Key West Choices!

Any idea what this is made of?
(Seen hanging on a front porch, in Key West)