Sunrise, snorkelling and strippers
Trip Start Jan 08, 2012
7Trip End Jan 16, 2012
Leaving Coman asleep I walk out to the pier across the road from the hotel and join the other early birds with cameras in their hands. It's truly stunning, the sky blazing a burnished palette as the first hint of the fiery deity breaks onto the horizon. And as each second goes by it rises and rises until the full orb breaks free of the sea and ascends higher bursting vibrant colours across the clouds.
My fellow dawn raisers melt away and I too retire, slinking back to bed and sleep for another hour or so before we fully arise and head to the nearby Banana Cafe for breakfast
Across the road from our hotel lies the Key West Butterfly Conservatory, which proudly bills itself as the No. 1 Visitor Attraction in the Florida Key, as voted for by People's Choice and Trip Advisor. Seeing as No. 3 is the 'scenic drive' through the Keys itself we don't exactly hold out much hope, but hey - it's kinda pretty and sure enough is full of butterflies so we spend a pleasant twenty minutes pointing cameras at fluttering wings that never quite settle into view in the way we wish. This nature photography lark is harder than it looks. Nuff respect to David Attenborough!!
A quick walk to the end of that street takes us to the buoy-shaped monument that marks the most southerly point of all and then we investigate the rundown charms of Bahama Village, where the workers who built Key West traditionally lived before we stop for lunch at a vegan restaurant called simply The Cafe
We slowly make our way up to the departure point for our snorkelling trip, heading into Captain Tony's Saloon on our way, originally called Sloppy Joe's, where Ernest Hemmingway used to drink in the '30s. It's a pretty unsalubrious dive with dollar bills stapled to every inch of the ceiling, so a quick flash of the camera and on we go.
It's the same affair with Audubon House, a key attraction but one that doesn't quite seem worth the steep admission price being, essentially, just a house with a pretty garden - and there's an abundance of those. So we head over to the marina just as the skies start to cloud over. Hmmmm. Those clear blue waters over pristine coral reefs could well be muddy rain-drenched sandbanks by the time we get out there.
Moored up next to our catamaran is a huge cruise ship, Majesty of the Seas, which has disgorged thousands of tourists for the day and is welcoming them back carrying bags of shopping and slurping on huge tubs of ice cream.
We board our vessel and are immediately greeted by the ebullient Nicole who has one setting
"Who likes the Spice Girls?" she asks one slightly terrified couple. "You don't like 'em. Get off my boat!! We got 3 hours together. I'm gonna get you drunk so you're gonna LOVE the Spice Girls." This could be one loooooong trip.
Nicole fixes on a group of college kids and asks them to help her rig the sails. They pull with all their might and soon we're heading out to sea, eight nautical miles to reach the reef. En route Nicole's boss Mike gives us the safety talk, complete with excruciating jokes, obligatory audience participation, lots of shouting and hi-fives. "ALL RIGHT!!!!" he hollers, "Let's get in the water!"
By this point the sun has completely disappeared behind a wall of grey cloud and the tranquil seas are riding up and down on choppy waves. This is not exactly the beautiful underwater paradise we saw in the brochure and were promised by the sales person earlier who told us the weather forecast was "just perfect" today. Caveat emptor etc etc.
Wet suit, flippers, mask and snorkels duly donned and in we go
The choppy swells start raising us up and threatening to crash us onto the coral and soon Coman is swallowing sea water and lands with a thump on the reef itself. Nicole, bless her, transforms from boozed-up Barbie to diving professional in an instant and swims straight over to him, checking he's OK.
We take this as our cue to thrown in the towel and head back to the boat, dry off in double quick speed and get Mike to start pouring rum punch as if his life depends upon it. The warming booze does its job just in time as the threatening clouds start lashing the ocean with a waterfall of rain and our fellow divers clamber back on board and seek shelter, huddling under the awnings.
Undeterred Mike cranks up the reggae and sets a course back to shore. It's pretty obvious there'll be no sunset cruise to go with the rum and reggae but, despite Mike liberally lacing the rum with Dr Peppers, we all tuck into the bar with gusto
Next to us a couple are shivering slightly having forgotten to bring a towel so we offer them ours and they gratefully dry off and change. Over increasingly large measures we get chatting and it transpires they've come down from Chicago as part of an athletics group who ran a challange from Fort Lauderdale to Key West. It's over 200 miles which seems a crazy thing to do when car hire is so cheap, but Will and Megan as they're called are big into their fitness having met in a gym where love blossomed over the treadmills.
Fortunately their dedication to exercise doesn't preclude downing booze in Olympic quantities so as we all disembark they invite us to join them for cocktails, but sadly we just miss Happy Hour and in need of showers ahead of dinner we make plans to meet them the following night instead.
Will in particular fancies taking in a drag show, having already frequented a couple of nights since arriving on Key West. Being a good-looking guy he's been called up on stage a number of times and had his shirt whipped off by queens to the delight of the audience. Seems he's ready to go back for more and who are we to deny him!? We promise we'll accompany them tomorrow and say our goodbye
Dinner tonight is at La Te Da, a beautiful restaurant on Duval Street which boasts a colonial plantation vibe with elegant verandahs, turn of the century overhead fans and wooden shutters. A tree rises in the middle of the courtyard around which the tables are arranged, dressed with crisp linen tablecloths, gold plates and heavy silver cutlery.
The night is balmy and humid so the fans putter away while the obsequious waiters fill our crystal glasses. It's delightfully pretentious amongst the more relaxed vibe of Key West's usual eateries and obviously attracts the A-gay crowd by looking at our fellow diners. We can see why when we're presented with the menu; perhaps we should have checked the prices first!
New mortgage notwithstanding we order the spicy tuna tower and red pepper conch bisque for starters followed by Tahitian chicken and pork osso bucco for mains. The food is utterly, delightfully delicious but so obscenely huge I have to push it away not even half finished.
In the main room 'Patrick and Debra' entertain us with piano jazz
Once our fellow diners start waltzing away to the increasingly schmaltzy nonsense that Mathis Jr III tunelessly belts out we decide to move on, but sadly the rain has returned heavier than ever. The nearest bar is called Bourbon Street and has a huge red stiletto hanging above its entrance with rainbow flags blowing from its balcony so we seek shelter there.
If there was any doubt that it's a gay bar the amount of go-go boys in underwear dancing on the bar while old men stuff dollar bills into their pants, makes it obvious. One in a cowboy hat and cigarette is wearing just a hankie-sized bandana wrapped strategically around his pride and joy whilst he gyrates to speeded up Madonna songs. He stuffs the dollar bills from his punters somewhere unspeakable. What a way to make a living..
We run through the deluge to Aqua across the street where a slightly classier form of entertainment is taking place - or at least a more fully clothed one. The biggest drag bar on Duval Street sees super-sized Danny La Rue's paying tribute to Sister Act, Kelly Clarkson, Whitney Houston and many more. Bizarrely the crowd is almost exclusively straight and both men and women take great delight in stuffing money into the fake boobies, while the men pose for photos kissing the female impersonators. Not sure Chuck and Brad will be showing those pics to their football buddies back home in the Mid-West.
Once the show ends it turns into a disco and we have a vague attempt at dancing until the rain finally stops at 1am and we can make our way back to the Southermost Hotel. We sleep like babies, not waking until almost 10am the next day.