We had a very pleasant drive down to the Keys from New Port Richey yesterday. Once we realized how far we needed to go we decided to just bite the bullet and enjoy the 70 mph speed limit on I-75 for most of the trip. We got off the Interstate at Naples opting to take the Tamiami Trail instead of taking I-75 through Alligator Alley. It was a good decision. Traffic on the 2-lane road was very light. The only downside was that there’s a fair piece of road construction going on towards the Miami end of the road but it didn’t slow us down very much. What slowed us down more were the two tropical thundershowers we got. We’re cruising along happily when a couple raindrops hit the windshield. Then a couple more. Turn the wipers on to ‘intermittent’ – no problem. Then the rain increases enough to turn them on full-time on low. Then, suddenly, the heavens opened up and just dumped. The wipers were going full-bore and I was wishing for an even higher setting. Visibility dropped to about 10′, just enough to see the center line on the road at least part of the time. I dropped my speed down but didn’t dare pull over. First, there wasn’t anyplace to pull over and be completely off the road and second, because some car coming up behind me may think I’m still on the road and moving and plow into me before he realizes his mistake. Fortunately, the downpour only lasted a couple minutes. Did a great job of cleaning the windshield.
We got to Homestead and decided that we’d only go as far as Key Largo, the first of the larger keys. We’d look around, have some dinner, and get a place for the night. That way, we’d be fresh for the last leg of the trip out to land’s end.
It’s kind of hard to look for stuff as you drive along Highway 1 because the speed limit is 45 mph and there are a LOT of signs. Didn’t see any for any motels that we could afford so, we grudgingly pulled in to the Holiday Inn thinking it was Holiday Inn Express. Checked with the front desk and found that room, in the off-season, mind you, was going to set us back $129.99 + taxes for one night. I don’t think so. The bright spot about the stop was that our friend Kevin, from Desemboque, Mexico, had told us that the African Queen was on display near the Holiday Inn. We saw the signs and it was right next door. So, before leaving the HI parking lot, we wandered over to have a look.
Because of its location, being tucked in tight to the dock and with a stairway obscuring part of it, it was tough to get a good photo but these might give you an example:
There was a pictorial essay posted on the wall explaining the African Queen’s history and how she came to end up in Key Largo. They apparently run sight-seeing trips on her. Don’t know if they still use the steam engine but there was a Honda 9.9 outboard hanging off the transom. I choose to think it’s just a back-up and that they primarily use steam power. That’s what I choose to think.
I read this entry to Lulu while proof-reading it and she said that there had been a box there for donations to help get the steam engine fixed so they could use it again.
After our dismay with the prices at Holiday Inn, we started looking for what we really wanted; a funky little Mom ‘n’ Pop place that had plenty of vacancies (this being the off-season) and was willing to cut a break as a result. Just a short hop down the road from the HI, we found it. Sunset Coves Beach Resort, a collection of funky little cabins. We went into the office to see what kind of deals they had. The young man behind the counter said that they could definitely give us a deal and went on to prove it by renting us the Beach Cottage. This is a small cottage with a double bed and a hide-a-bed, full bathroom with shower, a kitchenette, cable TV and free wifi. During the peak season it rents for $165 a night. We got it for $75. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!
Included in the price of the room is the use of kayaks, canoes, and snorkeling gear. Here’s a shot looking back up towards the entrance:
Just to give you an idea of how funky the place was, here’s one of the cabins. Granted, it’s the only one of its kind but it still gives an idea of the mindset of the owners.
After we got settled in, we went off in search of Alabama Jack’s, another of Kevin’s recommendations. Turns out it’s way back at the northern end of Key Largo, just over the Card Sound Bridge, about a 20 minute drive. We headed over, paid the $1 toll on the bridge and pulled up to Alabama Jack’s only to find first, that it’s only open until 7:00 (it was 6:12) and second, CLOSED signs on the gates. There were obviously people at the open-air bar so we just sort of stood there looking disappointed. The bartender (manager) shouted out that, if we wanted a drink we could come in but the kitchen was closed. After the drive and paying the toll we definitely wanted a beer and to see what AJ’s was all about. We went in, ordered a couple of Beck’s and sat by the rail overlooking the slow-moving water. The bartender explained that the place had been a ghost town all day and he finally decided to close the kitchen at 6:00 (so close!). He was very apologetic. We completely understood. Kevin said that, at times, you can watch manatees swim by. Not today, though. It would be a great place to spend a long afternoon. Maybe next time.
We drove back to town worried that 7:00 might be a normal closing time for restaurants and such during the off-season. Stopped at the Winn-Dixie for snacks just in case we didn’t find anyplace to eat. However, we needn’t have worried. We pulled up to Evelyn’s Key Largo Restaurant which was definitely open and showed no signs of closing soon. First we ordered up a couple of Key West beers:
We perused the menu and decided that, what with being in the Keys and all, nothing would do except some conch. Alabama Jack’s had conch fritters on the menu and I wanted to try some of them. No conch fritters here but you could order a conch basket and so we both did.
We were surprised to find out that the conch is pretty mildly flavored. It was good, just not particularly memorable. I’ve heard that conch can be very tough if not prepared right. Well, at Evelyn’s they must know the secret of the mallet because these were not the slightest bit tough or chewy. We still need to try conch fritters and conch salad and, hopefully a grouper sandwich before we leave the Keys. Thanks to Jimmy Buffett and John D. MacDonald, these are the foods that say “Florida Keys” to me.
Today, we head down to Key West. So, fire up the rental. Next stop: Margaritaville!
*If you don’t know who Johnny Rocco is, go to Netflix or someplace and rent “Key Largo”.