Monday, February 27, 2012

Sebastian Inlet and the Disco Torture Chamber

I could’ve sworn A1A went all the way down the east coast of Florida. If you wanted to, you could drive it all the way from Jacksonville to Key West; a long, scenic drive, perched above the dunes, with marsh, river and bay on one side and the Atlantic on the other. I thought you could cruise almost endlessly from the Georgia state line to the Southernmost point of the U.S.

Well, friends, it really doesn't work that way.

Shortly after leaving Melbourne, we hopped back on the not-so-endless-after-all coastal highway. With really no plan at all, short of “we need to keep going southward," we headed, uh … southward.

One of the things I eagerly anticipated on this trip was the chance to see – and hopefully fish – some of the places I’d read about (maybe even dreamed about) for years. Sebastian Inlet was one of those places, and it was directly in our path.

We cruised into the state park, paid our fee for the day, then made our way through the short, winding road to the parking area. It was unusually cold for mid-Florida, chilled even further by a howling northeast wind. The sun tried hard to peak out amidst the clouds, but pale grayish blue was about the best hue it could produce.

Betsy and I sat in our car and gazed at the sight in front of us. It was epic. The inlet cut through the sand; unnatural, yet grand in its design and scope. The tide was coming in, pushed forward by the wind and crashing through the concrete supports of a long jetty on the north side of the cut. Sea birds of all types – gulls, terns, pelicans, herons – swooped, swarmed and dove into the roiling water below, almost always finding a bait fish dinner. A handful of dedicated, if not crazy, fishermen lobbed baits into the maelstrom from the end of a long, concrete and steel pier.

We pushed open the doors of our vehicle and reactively shivered from the brisk, 25 m.p.h. wind. The sound – the vibrating wind, the roar of the tide and high-pitched shrieking of the birds – was a fitting soundtrack to the scene that played out in front of us. As we walked to the water, we passed a smiling fisherman making his way back to the parking lot. Betsy asked if he caught anything. “Trout. Big ones. And, a couple of sheepshead.”

This was my kind of place.

While tempted to grab my 12-foot surf rod and sprint to the end of the jetty to hurl metal into the seething surf, I hesitated, deterred by the gale and cold. As I rationalized the opportunity, I also realized I’d have to dig through a heavily-packed back seat, including removing a lead-heavy ice-and-drink-filled cooler, in order to retrieve my surf gear. That uncomfortable thought, along with the miserable elements, the unfamiliarity with the surroundings, the fact we were actually on a journey and time was finally becoming of the essence, and the reality that I’d be asking my wife to be a spectator to my near-freezing fishing folly, made me realize that fishing was a bad idea.
As we walked towards the jetty, waves crashed over the handful of idiots risking hypothermia in order to fish for whatever swam in the inlet. Betsy and I snapped a few photos of a flock of terns gathered near the seawall, grouped closely together like Emperor penguins braving an Antarctic blizzard. While we never braved the end of the jetty, we could also see that nobody was catching fish. Mr. Big Trout and Sheepshead was obviously out of his mind … probably as a result of a severe drop in internal body temperature.

While I never cast a line into the miraculous and famous inlet, we did have a blast walking around and enjoying the sights and sounds of the place. Afterwards, we drove a short distance down A1A to a nature preserve known for its giant white pelicans. While we only saw one bird – it looked just like the one on the pickle bottles; it even had a little hat on, no lie (I know it's a stork, just roll with it) – we encountered numerous osprey, a bald eagle and tons of ibises. Or Ibis. Ibi. Whatever.

After our nature walk, we toured the fishing museum next to the inlet before knocking back a late lunch in the parking lot overlooking the water (turkey roll-ups, served on paper towels and eaten from the relative warmth of the inside of our car). As we ate, we watched young loggerhead turtles bob up and down in the current, grabbing quick gulps of air before sounding once again. It was yet another cool scene for us.

As the sun dropped into the inland horizon, we continued to go south. After realizing that A1A was about to come to an abrupt halt at the Fort Pierce Inlet (it "ends" as it joins 1A ... before beginning yet again on the other side of the inlet), we chose the interstate in order to make up some time. Betsy was behind the wheel as I did my best to both navigate and find a place to stay the night. We eventually chose a hotel in Fort Lauderdale, far from the beach and tucked into a relatively quiet business park. It was a perfect place to rest on the eve before our last push to Islamorada.

After dropping our bags in our room, we found a nearby sports bar and grabbed a quick burger. It was the only downer meal of the trip. The cheeseburgers were fine, and the onion rings weren’t bad, but Betsy hated the bar. Dance music blasted through the sound system, neon lights flashed everywhere and we were literally surrounded by hundreds of TVs, all of which featured crappy NBA games (ed. note: all NBA games are crappy; except for those shown on the NBA Classic channel, particularly games from 1996 and back, preferably involving Jordan 23 or Magic or Bird). Betsy called it a “disco torture chamber sports bar.” I admit, the atmosphere was challenging. But, the beer was good.

We fell asleep in our fourth hotel in four nights. Since leaving Murfreesboro, we’d had lunch with a famous transvestite in Savannah, trespassed on a vacant oceanfront lot in St. Augustine (the oldest city in the country), gawked at manatees in the Indian River, ate Irish food in Melbourne, spent two hours trying to look at one damn pelican in Sebastian and enjoyed lunch in our car overlooking the most epic looking fishing spot I’d ever seen. And, really, our adventure really hadn’t even begun. The next day, we’d navigate Miami and then head to the purple islands for a three-day break from travel. We were ready to relax.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Crescent to Canaveral

All that remained was a crater in the sand and a small square of concrete. Betsy stood on it and faced the ocean. “This was probably a footer in the middle of the house.” She squinted and used her right hand to block the sun from her view. A tangle of vines twisted below her, culminating in orange and white blooms every few feet. The stiff breeze bent the sea oats on the nearby dunes.

She sighed and stepped off of the concrete square. “Over here was the back porch … there wasn’t any air conditioning, so we kept the windows open and used the breeze coming off the ocean to cool the house.”

I snapped a few photos and walked around the grounds. Broken bottles mingled with oyster shells, making it clear that while no one had been here in awhile, but when they were, they didn’t bother cleaning up after themselves.

It was kind of a melancholy scene. We were standing in the former site of Betsy’s family’s beach house. It was owned by her great aunt, and was the place where many of her childhood memories were made. Several years ago, the family sold the house and the new owners eventually tore down the old home. The lot remains vacant, despite it’s prime location in Crescent Beach, just south of St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S.

It was the morning of the second day of our long journey to the Keys, and we began the day checking out of our hotel and trying to locate the vacant lot via a smart phone and Google maps. Betsy contacted her great uncle to get some ideas of where the house stood, and we matched his description with the satellite photos of the beach and quickly honed in on the targeted spot.

The beautiful sunshine, amazing beach and the flocks of black skimmers provided a positive vibe to balance the emotions Betsy was feeling while touring the homestead. We kicked around in the sand, watched the impressive surf and eventually marveled at what a wonderful house it must have been. If we could win the lottery, we’d buy the lot and build a home on it in a heartbeat. And, undoubtedly, it would be the "family" vacation home once again.

You’ve probably done this. You’re driving down a highway and you’ll see a little roadside restaurant that looks a kinda rough. Little-to-no curb appeal. Probably a well-worn wooden porch out front, with a mangy cat or two roaming the adjoining gravel and dirt parking lot. But, the lot is full. You’ll think to yourself, I bet that place has pretty good food; it's a place the locals know about it. But, you never have the nerve to stop and check it out.

Well, we did. JT’s Seafood Shack sits amid a clearing in the live oaks and palmettos. It’s not easy on the eye from the road, but it just looks like it would have really good fried seafood. And, it did. REALLY good. We channeled our inner Guy Fieri, went inside the packed restaurant, found a two-top near the cramped bar, plopped down on some rickety chairs and soaked up the atmosphere. The walls were adorned with a mishmash of Florida Gator memorabilia, old fish mounts and a crusty snakeskin or two. Overhead, the light fixtures were old, steel minnow buckets. The tables were filled with a mixture of contractors on lunch breaks, bar regulars having an early afternoon cocktail or three and brave tourists like us. Betsy had a grouper sandwich. I had the fried shrimp. We downed a beer each. The streak of great meals stretched to three.

Rocket Town

Later in the day, we cruised unhurriedly down A1A, through the high-rises of Daytona Beach and the various seaside neighborhoods. For fun, we counted the concrete manatee mailboxes that stood watch over numerous driveways down the coast. We had to stop at a million. By late afternoon, we reached the Space Coast and made a mad dash through Titusville in order to catch a glimpse of the Kennedy Space Center. We made it to the park as the shadows grew tall, and managed to get a few photos of the Center and a fairly close look at a real manatee (they’re huge … I had no idea they were that big). There was much rejoicing. But, no time to waste. Darkness was upon us.

Within an hour or so, we pulled into a hotel in Melbourne for the evening. After a quick search of restaurants (JT's was a distant memory), we settled on Meg O’Malley’s in the downtown area. The meal and the atmosphere were fantastic. I also began to feel the need to drop my belt down a notch. After two days of heavy cal meals, I had packed on some lbs. Hell, I guess I could eat grilled grouper tomorrow ...

Two days down. Only 250 miles to Islamorada.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Southbound (It Begins)

Savannah Fared Us Well

As the darkness swallowed Tennessee in the rearview mirror, Betsy and I chatted enthusiastically about what lay ahead for us. We had less of a plan, and more of a general direction (go south, stop when we got tired). Our car was modestly packed. A few changes of clothes, sunscreen, a couple of fly-rods, a bottle or two of wine, a bag o’ snacks and a Fodor’s guide to Southern Florida.

The general idea was to wind up in Islamorada, Florida. What happened between here and there was up to us. We had three days to play with before our summit push to the purple islands, and our first planned camp was near Savannah, Ga.

A cold, northwest tailwind pushed us toward hopefully warmer climes as we cruised over Monteagle, past Lookout Mountain and Chattaboogie and through the amoebic reaches of the megalopolis of Atlanta. Our march to the sea would eventually end at Savannah, Ga., at nearly 2 a.m. Exhausted, yet relieved the first leg was done, we gathered some Hilton honor points, dialed up a softer bed and dreamt of cerulean skies, emerald waters and tarpon. Ok, maybe Betsy didn’t have tarpon in her dreams. She should’ve, but she probably didn’t.

A few hours later, we woke to grey skies, misting rain and cool temperatures, as the cold front had finally caught up to us while we slept. After a couple cups of plastic-tasting hotel room coffee, we drove to the historic downtown area of Savannah. Mid-day in the garden of good and evil, we milled around the classic southern architecture and the hordes of tourists, trying to soak in the history and the gothic goodness of the city while snapping dozens of photos. Eventually, we grew hungry and plopped into the wonderful corner spot of Belford’s.
After an evening of fast-food and Fritos in the car ride down, it was extremely good fortune to stumble into a place like this. We sat outside on the covered patio, seated next to a group of locals gathered around the famous Lady Chablis, the city’s flamboyant legend, who was cross-dressed to the nines and taking routine smoke breaks nearby on a bench below an enormous Spanish moss-covered live oak. On the opposite corner, a pizzeria welcomed a growing lunch crowd as we watched a couple of shaggy-haired 'Spread Heads tossing pizza dough in the kitchen’s large picture window. It was weird. And, kind of perfect.

Fried bait

We greedily devoured an appetizer of fried calamari, claiming it the best we’ve ever eaten. I sipped on a local brew and waited on our main course – Belford’s award-winning crab cakes. They were incredible, and well worth the two-beer wait. Nine days later, when we recounted the various meals we enjoyed along our journey, our lunch at Belford’s topped the impressive list.

On the phone at Belford's; staring down a Red Wings fan across the street.

On the way out of the old town, we stopped by a few galleries, then hopped in our car, drove past the tourist traps down by the river and eventually merged on I-95 and headed south to the next stop: St. Augustine.

We drove through the vanishing daylight, wipers occasionally clearing the annoying mist from our windshield. Eventually, we cruised through the blue-lights of downtown Jacksonville, as Betsy fussed at me for repeatedly checking my smart phone for directions to the proper exit. A short time later, we turned on to Highway A1A and found a hotel in south St. Augie. I informed Betsy that St. Augustine was the oldest city in the nation. I would repeat this tidbit of information several dozen times over the next nine days. Eventually, she found this funny.

The front-desk clerk told us about a nearby restaurant that had gathered positive reviews from a few guests, so we gave it a shot for a quality late-night bite. The grouper entrees far exceeded our modest expectations for the place, and we enjoyed the second outstanding meal of the day.

Exhausted, full of seafood and just a little road weary, we literally fell into our bed and the pillows we brought from home (you can't beat your "home pillow"). The first stage of the trip was over. Tomorrow brought all kinds of expectations, but we were too pleasantly tired to consider our options for the next day. Hell, we’d figure it out when we woke up.

To be continued ...