Friday, December 21, 2012

Winter Solstice

Here are some thoughts about the year’s coldest season on this, its first day:

I love how it begins with evergreen boughs on mantles, lighted trees in village squares, carols on the radio, and people knowing that life’s greatest joys come from giving rather than receiving.

I love its chilly mornings when fog clings to the surfaces of ponds.

I love sitting outside on those mornings drinking hot black coffee.

I love watching Sarah try to catch snowflakes on her tongue during our winter vacation.

I love driving across California’s High Sierra between snow drifts so deep they soar above cars and turn roadways into tunnels of white.

I love walking through Appalachian forests that are barren of leaves but laden with snow, and therefore have the appearance of black-and-white photos come to life.

And finally, I love that I can spend a whole day outside in Florida without feeling the need to shower every hour.

So for those who curse the cold: Remember that every season brings beauty, so long as we stop to notice it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

New York Nexus

I have published this post before, but with the 11th anniverary of 9/11 upon us, I feel compelled to publish it again.

With September 11th upon us, it is only fitting to be thinking of New York. If you find yourself there, do not hesitate to do the usual tourist things. Go to the top of Rockefeller Center for a bird’s eye view of the city. Catch a Broadway show. Get your picture taken with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop.

And of course, go to Ground Zero, stand on the sidewalk, look at the pavement on Church Street...and understand that it is the very pavement onto which people leapt hundreds of feet to their deaths on that horrendous morning in 2001.

But then it is time to depart from the usual tourist circuit by taking a short walk to my favorite New York City nexus. From Ground Zero you go one block east to Broadway, then two blocks south to Wall Street’s western terminus, directly across from Trinity Chapel:

Then, you walk through Trinity’s cemetery and take note of its eroded, centuries-old headstones. Make your way to the cemetery's southern edge and you will find the final resting place of a Founding Father, for there, marked by a modest obelisk, sits the grave of Alexander Hamilton. When we were there, somebody had laid a bouquet at its base:

Right beside Hamilton’s grave is that of Robert Fulton, father of the steam engine. Elsewhere in the cemetery is that of William Bradford, who came to the New World on the Mayflower and became the leader of Plymouth Colony.

Leaving Trinity, you cross Broadway and start down surprisingly nondescript Wall Street. Just one block onto it, with Trinity’s steeple looming behind you, you come to the site where George Washington took the oath of office as America’s first president:

And across the street from that site sits the New York Stock Exchange. We’ve all seen the images of frantic traders on the exchange floor, and we know the atmosphere inside must be noisy and stressful and chaotic. But the outside of the exchange building is a picture of serenity that is dwarfed by much of its surroundings. American flags flying beneath its facade of Corinthian columns give it the appearance of a county courthouse from somewhere in the heartland:

Here, within two city blocks, you will have walked in the footsteps of at least four major historical figures, including the father of our country; visited three of their burial sites; stood at the spot where our republic’s executive branch came into existence; and seen the building where more wealth has been created than at any other spot on the planet. And you will have done it in one of the busiest, most ethnically mixed cities in the world.

Here, you get a sense of the real New York, the one of consequence instead of glitz and glamor. Here, you understand why the city is really significant, and you can feel the pulse of human freedom running from the past to the future, coursing through you in the present. You will know you are alive, and I hope you know what I mean.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Notes on Key West: Part Five

“It’s the best place I’ve ever been anytime, anywhere, flowers, tamarind trees, guava trees, coconut palms…Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks.”

So wrote Ernest Hemingway about the island he called home in the 1930’s, and with which he is forever linked in the public’s mind.

He first visited Key West in 1928 and was intrigued that it felt like a foreign country while still being part of the United States. Three years later he and his second wife, Pauline, bought a large house at 907 Whitehead Street. Considering the island’s vulnerability to hurricanes, it is amazing that the house was already 80 years old when they bought it and remains standing today:

Hemingway buffs come to Key West hoping to walk in the author’s footsteps. And other visitors, even those who have never read his works, want to do the same because they can’t help but get caught up in the fever. Since The Hemingway Home is now a very reasonably priced museum ($13 for adults, $6 for kids) it is the perfect place to start.

For the price of admission you can walk through the house and one-acre grounds at your leisure, or on one of the guided tours that repeat frequently throughout the day. Most visitors opt to tag along for one of the tours and then meander freely afterward, which is encouraged.

Unlike most museums, you are welcome to take photographs. The next one shows Hemingway’s studio, complete with his typewriter, where he wrote many books and stories during his time here. Among them were two famous works of non-fiction (Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa) plus his two most acclaimed short stories (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”).

He got a six-toed cat named Snowball who proved to be a prolific producer of offspring. Today dozens of Snowball’s descendants roam the property and you can pet them as long as you don’t pick them up. Here is Erika posing with one the first time we visited:

The next photo shows the water bowl from which Snowball and his progeny drank -- and continue to drink. It owes its trough-like shape to the fact it was originally a urinal at Hemingway’s favorite watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s Bar. The urinal was going to be thrown out when Sloppy Joe’s redecorated one year, but Hemingway thought it would make a perfect water bowl and saved it from the trash heap. Because Pauline did not like the image of their cats drinking from a former urinal, she had a giant olive jar from Cuba positioned behind it to draw people’s attention away.

Each day Hemingway rose at dawn and wrote until roughly 3:00, then headed out to live. He engaged in physical pursuits like deep sea fishing and horseback riding, storing his saddle at the so-called Southernmost House at 1400 Duval Street. Today that house is an inn, and it proudly displays the saddle in its lobby while also displaying Florida’s largest collection of original Hemingway letters.

Of course, it can be argued that the author’s favorite pastime was drinking, as evidenced by him often bellying up at Sloppy Joe’s come 3:30 in the afternoon. Modern-day Hemingway chasers flock to Sloppy Joe’s, at 201 Duval Street, hoping to catch an authentic Hemingway buzz by downing drinks in the bar he made so famous that it got mentioned in Citizen Kane. From the outside, its Depression-era DNA is obvious:

But in my opinion, the Sloppy Joe’s of today is overrated in general and disingenuous in the way it trades on Hemingway’s name. It moved into its current location during his final days on the key, so it is not the same place where his legendary swilling went down; and although he was in his thirties and beardless when he lived here, the iconic photo adopted as the bar’s logo shows him in his late fifties with a full white beard.

If it’s authenticity you seek, head over to Captain Tony’s Saloon at 428 Greene Street, for this is where Sloppy Joe’s was located during most of Hemingway’s time on the key:

Its salty Bohemian interior practically screams his name:

The real Captain Tony was one Tony Tarracino, a bootlegger’s son, boat captain, gun trafficker, and raconteur who was born in 1916 and died in 2008. Tarracino ran for mayor four times and was elected once, at age 73. He fathered thirteen children with eight different women, and when he died, his oldest son was 72 and his youngest was 22. In short, he was the kind of man it is easy to envision Hemingway hanging out with and writing about.

There are many places in Key West where it feels like you might be sharing space with the author’s ghost. It’s just that it is more true in some places than in others.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Notes on Key West: Part Four

One of the joys of traveling to a place is simply walking around and paying attention to the things that make it what it is: the architecture, the plants, the local music, and so on. When it comes to this aspect of traveling, Key West is one of the best destinations in America, since the entire island is only two miles long by four miles wide and the Old Town section -- where most of the action and history are found -- is concentrated on the western end. Combine this small size with the island’s distinctive building styles and cultural eccentricities, and the result is a pedestrian’s dream come true.

Duval Street is Old Town’s main thoroughfare and offers up many attractive buildings. This one was built in 1919 and has been the home of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church ever since:

The next one houses the San Carlos Institute, founded by Cuban exiles in 1871, and has obvious Spanish influences. Jose Marti referred to it as “La Casa Cuba” and it was there that he launched the final phase of his campaign for Cuba’s independence 120 years ago:

And how can it possibly be that a convenience store from a ubiquitous national chain can be interesting to look at? Turns out it’s easy. Just situate it in an old house where there are no parking spaces and no room for gas pumps:

There is no reason to stay only on Duval, however. Venture down side streets and you will find that pretty much every house is interesting because of the simple designs and old-style tin roofs:

You might enjoy the fact that you can see banana trees and papaya trees bearing fruit without having to leave the United States, and you will find it perfectly quirky that chickens run wild in town:

SavannahGeorgia is widely regarded as America’s best walking city, largely because of the verdant squares that beautify its historic district, but I am here to tell you that Key West is at least its equal. In closing, here is a picture of an abandoned 1920's movie theater that was reborn as a Walgreens in the last decade. There’s something about that you gotta appreciate:

Monday, May 28, 2012

Notes on Key West: Part Three

My last post was about a pair of outstanding restaurants on Key West…but drinking is the first thing on the minds of most visitors, so here are some observations about places where you can find the best libations the island has to offer.

The margarita seems to be the national drink down here, and for my money, the best ones are those at the Half Shell Raw Bar and Southernmost Beach Café.

The Half Shell sits on the docks along the key’s northwest shore and is an ideal place to eat lunch while sipping your ’rita. The burgers are big and juicy, the tuna salad among the best you will ever find, and the fish hooks a perfect appetizer. Offering all this tastiness in a weathered, far-from-fancy building makes for the quintessential beach bar:

As for the Southernmost Beach Café, its hand-mixed rum runners are just as quenching as its margaritas. And if you are looking for something unique you should try the Southern Medicine, which is concocted from sweet tea, vodka, and pink lemonade.

On a side note, it is worth pointing out that the Southernmost Beach Café really is the southernmost in the continental United States. Plus, do you know those maps on which travelers insert pins to show where they came from? I doubt you will ever see one as covered as the one here:

Regardless of what you consider to be your beverage of choice, however, it is hard to beat The Bull and Whistle Bar when it comes to pure fun and people-watching. The old-timey, open-air pub occupies this two-story building on the corner of Duval and Caroline Streets:

The first floor is called The Bull and the second floor is called The Whistle. The Bull’s focal point is a corner stage where you are likely to find local musicians performing at almost any hour of the day. The Whistle’s  best feature, as far as I am concerned, is the narrow wraparound balcony that allows you to sit outside and observe the pedestrians below:

Because Key West is so flat and small, the balcony catches the full benefit of ocean breezes blowing across the island. Although it was a hot May afternoon when we recently parked ourselves there, it did not feel like it because the steady breeze made it multiple degrees cooler than on the sidewalk. Check out our vantage point:

After day turned to night, we decided to sacrifice those primo balcony seats and mosey up to the roof, which is called The Garden of Eden and is Key West’s only clothing-optional bar. We remained fully clothed, as did the vast majority of rooftop patrons, but there were a few people in their birthday suits and a few others in lesser states of undress.

I do not know how The Bull and Whistle pulls it off, especially in such an old building, but there is no “bleed over” in the varying atmospheres from one floor to the next. The music on the roof consisted of loud, pulsing dance tunes, but you could not hear them on the second-floor’s balcony, even though they are separated by no walls and less than twenty vertical feet of open air. Meanwhile, the live music on the first floor tends to be acoustic and folksy, and some people who never leave that floor would be stunned to learn that hedonism and voyeurism are occurring in the same building where they sit drinking cold beer while listening to covers of Simon and Garfunkel.

Obviously, I highly recommend each of these places if you ever get a chance to come to the key, and I believe they can not be bested. You might notice that there are a couple better-known drinkeries not mentioned in this post, but rest assured I will write about them soon, when I publish a “chasing Hemingway” kind of piece. For an adavnce taste, here is a picture of Erika and me in one of them seven Novembers ago:

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Notes on Key West: Part Two

I do not claim to have the most refined palette this side of Paris, but I have eaten in all manner of excellent restaurants, all across this great country, and know good food the moment it settles on my taste buds…and today I am here to tell you about two places you can not miss if you find yourself in Key West.

Everyone who visits the key flocks to Duval Street. Seven Fish is located two blocks east of it on the corner of Olivia and Elizabeth Streets, and looks very nondescript. The building is so small and plain that if you walked by while looking for a place to eat, you would probably choose to keep walking -- which would be a colossal mistake.

We went to Seven Fish because it was recommended by a good friend who let us know that the menu’s fresh fish are same-day catches. The night we were there, those catches consisted of grouper, cobia, and snapper.

I ordered the grouper grilled simple and it practically melted in my mouth. Erika ordered the gnocchi (which, incidentally, was made with cobia) and raved that it was the best she ever had, so I took a couple bites and agreed with her. No one in our party of eight could stop talking about how good the food was, and that includes my popular food-blogger sister-in-law.

When dessert time came we were very impressed by the strawberry pie, topped with a whipped cream that is uniquely delicious because of its abundant vanilla. Erika and I were so happy with the meal that we had to have our picture taken there:

On our way out, we saw someone we believe was either the owner or chef. After graciously accepting our compliments, he let us know that they also own a breakfast-and-lunch eatery called Six Toed Cat, and armed with that information, we couldn’t help but visit that establishment a couple mornings later.

You will find Six Toed Cat on Whitehead Street, within eyesight of Ernest Hemingway’s house. Here is how it looks from the outside:

It was late morning and we all opted for breakfast food over lunch food. Signboards proclaimed that the French toast is world famous, and regardless of whether or not that is true, the people in our party who ordered it confirmed that it should be. I opted for eggs benedict and found the homemade Hollandaise to be so delectable my mouth watered every time I raised my fork.

As good as the food is at Six Toed Cat, I was most impressed with the beverages. Their Bellinis (champagne mixed with peach nectar) are so tasty I can not imagine drinking anything else the next time I feel like imbibing at brunch.

I wish I had taken more photos to share with you, but it's not natural to think of whipping out a camera while sitting down and enjoying a meal, so you will have to visit these restaurants and see their interiors for yourself. You will not be disappointed!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Notes on Key West: Part One

Though it has been almost five months since I posted anything here, that does not mean I have given up on this blog. It only means that life is busy and over the winter most of my writing energy was expended on my blog about hikes in the Tampa Bay area.

But now I am “back in the game” and yesterday I returned from a three-day whirlwind in Key West. So what better place is there to write about than that tropical island which sits closer to Cuba than it does to Miami?

In Key West the word “southernmost” is used frequently -- and loosely. Throngs of tourists flock to the intersection of South and Whitehead Streets to get their pictures taken near a concrete buoy that is billed as the southernmost point in the continental United States. Erika and I were among them when we visited in 2005:

However, it is not even the southernmost point on Key West. Standing at the buoy and looking out at the water, you can clearly see the island jutting further south into the ocean, although that part is owned by the U.S. Navy and not open to the public.

One block away, vacationers shell out big bucks to stay in an inn that was originally the home of Dr. Jeptha Harris. Built in 1896, it is internationally renowned as The Southernmost House, even though there are homes further south on the very same same street! But oh well…one of the island’s charming eccentricities is the way untruths are looked upon more as stories than as lies, and there is no doubt that The Southernmost House is a beautiful building in a beautiful setting:

You will not be disappointed if you come here hoping to catch a laid back, Jimmy Buffet kind of vibe. Shorts and flip flops are standard attire even in the priciest restaurants. And Saturday afternoon, when some customers on the second floor balcony of the Bull and Whistle Pub decided to shoot baskets by tossing Cheerios toward the cups of people on the sidewalk, the only reaction they got from below was from someone who laughingly said: “Hey, when you’re in Key West you’re supposed to throw Froot Loops!”

You will also not be disappointed if you imagine this island as the kind of place where the faucets seem to pour forth tequila and rum instead of water. Creative beverages are everywhere, mid-morning drinks are not frowned upon, and it is okay to drink on the streets. If you tell your bartender you want one to go, he will simply make sure to give it to you in a plastic cup.

Anyway, those are just a very few, very basic things. I will be writing more about Key West in the coming days and weeks, but for now, just be assured that it is a place where you can not help but relax. Just ask my sister-in-law Leslie:

(And -- shameless plug alert! -- be sure to visit her blog if you like to cook.)