Sure, family is important, but if you are tempted to avoid all the hassles of baking a bird and packing on more calories than nature ever intended, you might just think about disappearing down to the Florida Keys for Thanksgiving. That is exactly what I chose to do this year, and a light suitcase containing no ancestral commitments was all the trip required.
I’ve been to Key West before, and while I enjoy a vibrant downtown scene and the anthropology of people watching, I wasn’t really interested in that being the focal point of the trip. My primary goal was to hide out, maybe get a little fishing in, and set aside plenty of time to relax and catch up on the stack of books I’d built up. While planning, I systematically went through every Key in the chain using Google Maps to find the ideal spot, and I kept coming back to Islamorada. It is close enough to civilization to make driving or flying a snap, but far enough in latitude to give you the island feel you’re really needing. Plus, it just so happens to be an epicenter for excellent backcountry and deep water fishing. If Jimmie Albright were still around, he’d tell you himself. But more of that in a minute. First thing to do is to get a solid place to sleep.
I’ve got to admit, I’m a bit of brat when it comes to quality accommodations, especially on my precious vacation. I’d rather save money eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches just so I can blow it all on a decent place to rest. No, I don’t want to “Conch on In,” and there is nothing more annoying or distasteful to me than some cheesy motel-hotel bespeckled with expired sea creatures and fishing net decor. I want nice ambiance, good thread counts, and quality customer service.
Maybe it was the article in Conde Naste, or the fact that they have a nice website, but I kept coming back to Casa Morada. Owned by three women with hotel management experience, they’ve taken the time to construct an experience beyond just heads-in-beds. It’s not ridiculous, in other words, don’t expect a valet to polish your ass to a shimmering hue, but they do offer excellent customer service and plenty of attention to the little details. The rooms are well-styled with views of the water, beautiful landscaping, and there are a myriad of little things like complimentary breakfast, yoga, web access, bottles of water, movies, or even just a cool hand-delivered scented towel by the pool, to accentuate your personal enjoyment and help you get in the groove.
There is plenty to do if you need to DO something. Take advantage of their bocce court, sunset sails, snorkeling equipment, sea kayaks, and close proximity to all the restaurants and bars you would want to visit in Islamorada. If you want to leave there are several beautiful state parks close by, and I must admit I did end up driving down to Key West one day just to pay homage to Ernest Hemingway – it is approximately a 2-hour drive one way. But the other big thing you should do at Casa Morada is get picked up right at the property for a charter fishing trip.
November is an interesting time for the Keys when it comes to catching fish. Tarpon and Bonefish are pretty slow, but there are plenty of Red Fish and Snook to be had. Out beyond the reef the Sailfish are coming in to play, and there’s always the chance for a Dolphin. Just depends on what you’re interested in. For me, well, I grew up doing plenty of inshore fishing. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, in fact, I look forward to going back down to the Keys to do just that. But for this trip it occurred to me that I had never before caught a Sailfish.
There are a lot of guides down in the Keys who run 40+ foot yachts with tuna towers. They do this so they can carry a crew and sight fish from overhead. The problem with this is you are going to pay around $1200/day plus any tips you decide to toss around. Beyond the expense, this route can be a little unnecessary unless you need to run really far offshore. What is so great about the Keys is that you don’t have to motor for miles to get into some really good offshore fishing.
Personally, I would rather run with a guy on a smaller boat, fish with lighter tackle, and be a part of the process. That’s exactly what I got from Chris Barron at Stray Cat Charters. He’s been guiding down in Islamorada and the Keys for 30 years. Needless to say, he knows what he is doing. We were monitoring the success of many of the other big boats over CB radio while were trolled about, and most of them were having little to no success. But Chris hooked it up, and I had a ball fighting a beautiful sailfish that took me full circle around the entire circumference of the boat, putting up an impressive display.
Even though it was a slow morning, Chris took the extra time to troll closer to the reef. Before I realized it, he was turning the boat into a shower of Ballyhoo, and moments later there was the heart-starting pop of the line and the sound of the drag reeling off to the stubborn pull of a Dolphin.
Good eats are the only fundamental functions of a good vacation that are a little lacking in Islamorada. Beyond the good food at Casa Morada, my favorite bang for the buck was Morada Bay Restaurant. Even though I had to send my lobster bisque back, the rest of my meal was satisfactory and the ambiance was great. If you head to Key West for the day and are a fan of oysters on the half shell, pop in to Pepe’s Cafe. Established in 1909, Pepe’s garners the title of “oldest restaurant in town.” To me that says they’ve had plenty of practice. The oysters are shucked only after you order them, so you are guaranteed they will be plump and delicious.
It is a difficult thing for me to do, but I hope you find time to simply relax and read. Ernest Hemingway once said, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened.” If you are interested in some offbeat Florida-centric humor, check out Carl Hiassen’s, Skinny Dip. If history is your game you might find Les Standiford’s, Last Train to Paradise interesting, for it deals with the construction and destruction of Henry Flagler’s railroad, which once connected to the Keys to the capital markets of America.
So next year, save a turkey and come back home a little sun-kissed and satiated from some time in the southern climes. You’ll catch up with your folks over Christmas…or Easter…or some time soon. Better yet, have them meet you there.