Key West Wonders

Boating through the backcountry

Boating the backcountry

I treasure many moments from our recent getaway to the Conch Republic, including a kayaking tour, a romantic sunset dinner at the famous Latitudes Restaurant, and to my honey’s delight, an early morning fishing excursion.

Sunny Key West Morning

Sunny Key West Morning

I’m not exactly a morning person. Okay, I’m most definitely not, and vacation is the perfect excuse to savor a lazy wake up. But we had so much fun fishing with Captain Ron a few years back on our first Key West charter that I agreed to do it all over again. This time out, I promised myself I would remember how to cast a line and I was determined to bait my own hook and learn how to handle any fish I caught.

Sailboat neighbors

Sailboat neighbors

You see these sailboats floating around on the gulf side of Key West? People live on these vessels, some full-time in the harbor and others staying anywhere from a week to a month before moving on. Imagine how much thinking, writing, or reading you could accomplish without all the distractions. I wonder…

Jack and Me

Jack and Me

I loved every part of the experience, from watching the sun rise as our skiff motored through the channels to the backcountry fishing spots to learning about the different baits, lures and eating fish, to catching  our lunch and releasing my first-ever fighting fish–a beautiful jack.

The competition

The competition — a brown pelican

For four beautiful hours we were part of nature, the warm sun at our backs, the waves lapping against the skiff, and exotic birds landing near us as we waited patiently for a tug on our lines.

An egret

A Great White Egret

I hope to travel to the southernmost city in America again one day soon. The waters are calling me. I’ve added Pilates to my routine in preparation for our next adventure–paddle boarding.

Our Catch -- feed us and guests at Turtle Kraals

The catch we shared with fellow guests at Turtle Kraals

What’s one of your favorite memories from 2013?

Top Five Reasons To Visit Key West

In 2011, 9.6 million tourists visited Key West, contributing $8,200,000,000 to the local economy and creating 102,000 jobs locally. Wow! That’s a lot of dinero. What is it about this little 2×5 mile southernmost island that attracts so many?

KW2011 238

The island’s OTHER wildlife

People from all walks of life visit here, from those who camp at Bluewater Key RV park to those who rent a Westin cottage on Sunset Key. Key West is like Vegas, but with fishing on the high seas instead of high stakes gambling. For some tourists, the highlight of their vacation is the freedom to drink their way from one end of Duval to another. For others, they come for the laidback, casual step away from demands of everyday life.

La Concha Hotel on Duval Street

La Concha Hotel on Duval Street

This island has something to offer almost everyone.

Here are my top five reasons I keep returning to the southernmost island and why I think you should put the Conch Republic on your bucket list–if it isn’t there already!

5.  Incredible Dining:

If you love fresh seafood, this is the island for you. If you don’t, you still will have plenty of five-star restaurant food selections. From the local favorites to the touristy Historic Seaport and Duval establishments, we’ve yet to be disappointed. Foodies will be in heaven here. I can’t wait to report back to you in a few weeks about our upcoming dining experience at Latitudes.

Bacon-Wrapped Scallops and Mashed Potatoes

Bacon-Wrapped Scallops and Mashed Potatoes

4.  Fantastic Water Sports:

You have your choice of snorkeling, paddleboarding, kayak ecotouring, swimming, scuba diving, flats fishing, deep-sea fishing, sailing, jet skiing and more. My favorite activities are the snorkel/kayaking combo, the flats fishing, and of course, the sunset sail.

Mangroves off Key West

Mangroves off Key West

3.  Awesome People-Watching:

Whether you stroll Duval, soak in the entertainment at one of the many bars or restaurants, lounge at a beach, go shopping, visit a museum, or take a ride on one of the tour trolleys, there will be plenty of opportunities to people-watch. As a writer, I get some of my best character and dialogue ideas from people I’ve observed or chatted with on that tiny, diverse island. Enjoy the variety!

Performer at the Aqua Club

Performer at the Aqua Club

2.  Biking:

Biking the island is so easy and fun and freeing. You are connected to nature, cycling everywhere like when you were a kid. I don’t know about you, but my busy suburban life doesn’t lend itself to leisurely bike ride through quiet side streets to the beach or bars. Just saying.

Lounging at the Beach

Fort Zach Beach is a short bike ride away!

1.  Being Accepted for Who You Are:

I always feel welcomed on the island, not just because my honey and I bring our tourist dollars, but because of who we are. Yeah, it’s a nice feeling. I’ve traveled other places, and nowhere else has quite matched it. I’ve yet to meet a local or tourist that I haven’t enjoyed talking with and learning about. Don’t be surprised if your concierge, taxi driver, or the restaurant wait staff engages you in conversation and shares a little about him or herself too. Key West’s motto, “One Human Family” may strike a chord with you as it has me. There’s a relaxed vibe of “live and let live” and in appreciating, or at least accepting, people’s differences. At the risk of sounding preachy, here’s one of my current favorite songs…

I’d love to hear about your favorite destination. What are your top five reasons for returning there time and again?

The Not-So-Old Woman and The Sea

Hemingway, the Fisherman

Enest Hemingway, lovingly referred to as Papa by historians and Key West locals, was an iconic American writer of the twentieth century. He set up residence there from 1931-1940, and was said to enjoy being “the big fish” on the little island.

I read a few of Hemingway’s classics as well as some of his more obscure short stories back in college. I remember being fascinated by his terse, straightforward prose and being aware of the tragic way he died, but I knew little of his life before I became a fellow Conch Republic addict.

Hemingway Photo  Turtle Kraals Restaurant

Writers are often advised to write what they know. Hemingway was an avid fisherman and hunter, as well as writer. It makes sense to me that he often wrote tales with man vs. nature themes. During his Key West years, Papa wrote many stories, including his novel, The Sun Also Rises. Yet, it’s his 1953 Pulitzer Prize winner, Old Man and the Sea, that comes to mind when I imagine him living and working there.

The more times we’ve visited the southernmost part of the United States, the more my husband and I desired to go fishing. Key West’s economy has always been driven, in part, by the fishing industry. I have no issue with legal hunting and fishing, as long as the animals caught are eaten and not used merely as trophies. The prospect of being one-on-one with nature was exciting AND overwhelming. I’ve seen tv shows with people on deep-sea fishing charters reeling in huge fish such as marlin and sailfish. To reel in fish like these, a person is sometimes strapped into a fighting chair so the fish doesn’t pull him overboard. Scary thought. We wanted a beginner’s excursion equivalent to the bunny slope when learning to snow ski. After some research, we chose backcountry or flats fishing.

Our early morning fishing spot

I’ll admit it. I’m squeamish about putting bait onto a hook or taking fish off a hook. I’m girly that way, I suppose. However, as soon as we left the dock, watching our captain collect live bait and select our fishing spot, I was eager to try my hand at casting and reeling. I’m an avid observer, but on this day I participated, too. I soaked up Captain Rob’s advice, his history, and as a word nerd, his dialect, too. I learned about the parts of a boat, fishing terms, and most of all, what it feels like to struggle with a fish to bring it in. Before that day, I could count on one hand how many times I’d caught fish, and that includes ice fishing as a youngster with my grandfather on Lake Champlain. (Ice fishing is a passive activity compared to tackle fishing.)

We traveled through water locals call “The Lakes.” The sea is shallow there, between 5-6 ft., an estuary that divides the Atlantic from the Gulf of Mexico. We anchored at Destroyer Island about three miles offshore on the Atlantic side where the ocean is close to thirteen feet deep. We had left early in the morning for a greater chance of success and were rewarded with dozens of fish swimming around our boat.

My first keeper, a rainbow snapper

Shortly after Captain Rob had shown us how to cast (or pitch, as he calls it), he surprised me by blowing up a balloon. I wondered if we were celebrating the day with a party, but then realized he was setting up a sportfishing line. He was as excited as we were about the kinds and sizes of fish, and about the chance of bringing in “a big one.” We spied a young tarpon and a small school of snook. Captain Rob explained that snook were out-of-season but would have put up a good fight. Oh well. We still had plenty of fun.

Our hard work pays off!

My husband caught two barracuda, and we suspect one cut my line. The first fish I caught big enough to keep was the one shown above. From the effort it took to reel it in, I was certain the fish on my line was the tarpon we had seen earlier, and wondered why we didn’t have a fighting chair to keep me from flying overboard. When it surfaced, wriggling at the end of my line, I was surprised. Maybe I should lift heavier weights when I exercise? We also reeled in gray snappers, a number of them keepers.

Two sunscreen applications later, the current changed and our captain moved to a new fishing spot. We anchored a bit further offshore where my husband and I were introduced to an interesting fish called a grunt. They have flourescent orange mouths with sharp teeth. I soon learned how they got their name. These fish sound so much like deer, my hunter husband was on the lookout for four-legged creatures.

Hogfish

In our last hour on the water, my husband caught the prize fish of the day. Hogfish are generally caught using a spearhook instead of light tackle, so Captain Rob was quite impressed. This fish is considered by many to be the best-tasting local fish, too. Of course, we enjoyed sampling every kind we kept–grilled or blackened.

Fishing may not seem a woman’s kind of escape, but you may surprise yourself, ladies. I did. We tell children, “Try it, you may like it,” when encouraging them to take a risk. That motto may work for us adults as well.

I caught more than fish that day; I caught the fishing bug. We plan to book another charter boat our next trip. Popular wisdom claims pursuing a common hobby is good for a couple’s relationship. We never have. Who knows? This may be the one.

Have you ever surprised yourself by enjoying an activity far more than anticipated?

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