Miami has basically devoured southeastern Florida. The sprawling city and its art-deco’d seaside suburbs seemingly stretch 90-plus miles of the coast, from West Palm Beach to Homestead. After three days of bouncing around a two-lane, oceanfront highway through quiet resort towns and past a million concrete manatee mailboxes, we now cruised down I-95 at around 75 m.p.h. … just a mere 20 to 30 m.p.h. less than everyone else on the interstate. I'm sure Miami is a lot of fun to a whole lot of people ... but we couldn't wait to get through it.
Alas, the city wouldn’t let us leave. A miscalculation had us crawling through a tangled web of traffic lights as we tried to make our way through South Miami on A1A (here it is again!). It took us about an hour to creep about five miles, as we lamented our decision to eschew the bypass for what looked to be a scenic trip through some of the more colorful areas of the city's suburbs. At red-lights, we scanned the palm trees for green parrots. Didn’t see any.
Eventually, we re-routed our way to the by-pass and quickly made up the rest of the distance to Homestead and the beginning of the Florida Keys. As we cruised past the green and tan marshland that made up the far eastern part of Everglades National Park, we began traversing bridges over waters that challenged us to offer an accurate description of their various shades of blue. Betsy and I didn’t talk during the portion of the trip – we just looked around, taking in the scenery unfolding outside our car windows.
There was only pre-determined destination on this crazy journey: the village of islands known as Islamorada. We booked a place recommended by George Poveromo, the host of the TV show called World of Saltwater Fishing. About three weeks before we decided to head south on this trip, Betsy and I were running through some DVR'd fishing shows at our house on a frigid Saturday morning. As we chased away the post-sleep grogginess with a pot of good coffee, we sat in the living room and watched the World of Saltwater Fishing as George and buddy caught a bunch of dolphin, jacks and snapper just off the coast of Islamorada. Near the end of the show, the host took a few moments to talk about the place where he stayed in the purple island – the Pines and Palms resort.
“We should go there,” I said. Betsy had already grabbed the laptop and began looking up the website. Within minutes, we had booked a three-day stay in a stand-alone bungalow in the retro-resort. George described it as “old Florida.” We called it perfect.
And, that's how this whole adventure began.
Not too long after we put Key Largo into the rearview mirror, we crossed a small bridge and entered Matecumbe Key and the community of Islamorada. With the Atlantic Ocean on one bank and Florida Bay and the Everglades National Park on the other, I had entered fishing heaven.
The Pines and Palms resort rested on the Atlantic side of A1A, at MM82 (mile marker 82, for those unfamiliar with the Keys … Key West is at MM1). It was just as George described. Extremely clean, fantastically neat and decidedly laid-back. Our bungalow – No. 12 – was a four-sided, white-washed one-story house, heavily windowed and sparsely decorated. A squeaky but comfortable bed, a small kitchen, a living room which shared space with a dining area, and a covered porch which faced the ocean (if you were Superman and could see through the bungalows which stood in our way). The grounds were immaculately kept; the sand of the private “beach” was raked daily, there were no leaves or palm fronds found loose on the ground and the small private pool was spotless. The boat ramp and private dock were almost always patrolled by seagulls and the entire place was in a flight pattern for brown pelicans and a family of osprey. We loved the place.
We dropped our bags and went exploring. Our first stop was the Bass Pro Shops/World Wide Sportsman, just down the street from Pines and Palms. We hadn’t walked 20 feet into the store before I compulsively began stockpiling tarpon and bonefish flies that I knew I wouldn’t need or use, but had to have anyway. Betsy shook her head and went searching the women's clothing section for some beach attire (that I knew she wouldn’t need or use).
About an hour later, we donated a generous amount of loose change to the store in exchange for flies, a handful of jigs and a bright red hat for Betsy.
With a camera bag slung over my shoulder and my pale-as-the-underside-of-a-shark complexion, I’m sure I was the walking stereotype of a tourist on vacation from his cubicle. But, the crowd at Lorelei’s didn’t mind, as Betsy and I found a couple of sun-bleached plastic chairs and a matching table next to the water in the restaurant's backyard beach. We plopped down as the sun fell in the west, just behind some nearby (purple) islands. As the stress from travel, work and everything else that makes up everyday life rose out of our bodies like steam from freshly boiled shrimp, we each took vastly deep breaths the salt air, exhaled slowly and literally melted into the scenery.
Seriously. I'm not thinking of anything.
While we crunched on conch fritters, a typical island band played typical island music to the typical island crowd. It was all good. So good, we ordered some stone crab claws … which we’re even better. The sun sunk lower, and the sky turned gray and blue as the water glowed brilliant gold. For a brief minute or two, things got weird when a late-model, pink Cadillac parted the waters a few hundred yards from shore. But, the Nautilimo’s crew simply waved to the crowd and then saluted the setting sun as Betsy and I said goodbye to our first day in Islamorada.
After paying our bill, we navigated through the throng of retirees, locals, European tourists and more than a few folks who looked a whole lot like us, and made our way back to unit No. 12 at Pine and Palms. The best thing about the upcoming day was we wouldn’t be traveling. The second best thing was we didn’t have a clue what we’d do.
But, before going to bed, I had to rig up some fly rods … you know, just in case.
Keys sunset No. 1