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Labor Day in Key West. Literally.

In the great annals of First World Problems, it's hard to top, "I'm going to miss Labor Day in the Hamptons because I have to spend the weekend in Key West." I know. I knowww. But a new tenant was moving into our condo in Casa Marina, and because we are what some people call "fastidious" and others call "on the spectrum," we decided to fly down to ensure that the place would be ready. (Sure, we could have hired someone to inspect the place and make sure it was up to snuff, but have you ever seen my meticulous husband clean something? You'd think we let Ebola patients lick our plates.) And so we hopped a quick flight to Key West for what was shaping up to be a charmed visit indeed.

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Well, at least until we arrived. Because sweet baby Jesus, it was hot. And lord, it was stifling. It was like being waterboarded by a sopping wet towel fresh out of a hot dryer, which doesn't even make any sense. That's how hot it was.

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We cabbed it over to the condo, where we were mercifully greeted by the shady tropical gardens and inviting pool.

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There's a man in New York City named Jimmy McMillan who turns up every four years to run for mayor. McMillan's political party is called, "The Rent is Too Damn High," a phrase that also happens to be his entire political platform. A reporter might ask about his position on, say, the treatment of carriage horses in New York, and McMillan will respond, "Ain't no money to be takin' carriage rides, because THE RENT . . . IS TOO DAMN HIGH!" Or a debate moderator will ask what McMillan proposes to do about the city's broken educational system, to which he will respond, "All I learned in school is that THE RENT . . . IS TOO DAMN HIGH!"

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I was the Jimmy McMillan of Key West. No matter what anyone said to me, my response was the same. "Where do you want to go for lunch?" Angel would ask, to which I would respond, "Who cares? I'll be dead before we get there because THE HEAT . . . IS TOO DAMN HOT!" "Do you want to ride down Duval or Simonton?" he'd press. "What does it matter? The asphalt's melted clean off of both of them, because THE HEAT . . . IS TOO DAMN HOT!" Everywhere we went, I muttered this phrase over and over under my breath, while the sweat collected in the crooks of my elbows and my hair swelled to angora-rabbit proportions.

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But before we could go oozing around town, we first had to take inventory of our supplies.

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We had a handful of cleaning products, but a closet full of coat hangers. Priorities.

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After a short discussion, we decided that Angel should start working while I rode to the store to pick up the items we still needed.

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I idiotically thought I'd gotten the sweeter end of the deal, until I stepped outside and beads of perspiration popped out of my pores with an audible zoink, like a nervous cartoon character in the face of an oncoming freight train.

But the alternative was scrubbing the walls with a toothbrush, or cleaning in between the hardwood floorboards with a pair of tweezers, or whatever other painstaking projects Angel had invented for himself, so I soldiered on. Despite the disorienting heat, I still managed to remember the most important items on my list: Potato chips and piƱa coladas.

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Now, Angel has a lot of great qualities, but unfortunately being lazy isn't one of them. When there is a task at hand, he absolutely refuses to slack off or take a break until the task is completed, thoroughly and perfectly. Which is great when the task is buying me a birthday present, but not so great when that task is scrubbing grout.

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Even the Rain Man of Household Chores has to eat, though, and so I dragged him off to Southernmost for nachos and key lime coladas.

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The three-minute bike ride from Southernmost back to our condo was a sickeningly sticky affair, so as soon as we arrived back home, I pulled my bike inside the gate, dropped it to the ground, and sprinted headlong into the pool fully-clothed, crying out, "SWEET RELIEF!!!!" as the pool overflowed with gallons of my sweat.

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That night, Angel calculated that he'd lost approximately 82 minutes and 45 seconds of work thanks to that lunch at Southernmost, so for dinner he suggested that we stay in and order pizza.

The weather outside was an actual pizza oven anway, so it did make sense. Plus, I'd lost approximately 15 lbs. of water weight that day and needed to bulk up. Who needs one of those plastic sweat suits when you've got summer in Key West?

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The next day we woke early to squeeze in a bike ride before the day got too hot.

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We lasted about 20 minutes before calling in for reinforcements.

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Soon it was time for lunch, so this time I dragged Angel to one of our go-to spots, Agave 308.

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We settled in at our usual table in the window and ordered up our favorite drinks on the island: A sweet-tart Paloma made with strawberry-infused tequila, grapefruit juice, and muddled strawberries for me, and a Mexican Mule with ginger syrup, fresh lime, and a skewer of candied ginger for Angel.

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As, er, side dishes, we split an order of chips and salsa, then enjoyed the island gazpacho topped with blue crab salad and the roast pork tacos with spicy slaw.

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Later, the bartender brought us an experimental freebie: A "Samoa" cookie with house-made vanilla tequila, coconut, and dark chocolate. Or as Angel called it, a Girl Scout with a driver's license.

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We worked nonstop the rest of the day, and that evening my furtive texts for help were finally answered when our friends Mark and Steve invited us over for dinner. Angel reluctantly put aside his latest project (I think he was perfecting the trim in the kitchen with an eyeliner brush) and we pedaled over, making a quick stop at funky Vino's on Duval to pick up some wine.

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Mark runs the fabulous Key West Food and Wine Festival, which is a great event if you like food, wine, and seeing how much your liver can take before it cries "uncle." It soon became apparent that Mark had decided to do a dry-run for the fest that evening, serving up everything from grilled lobster and shrimp to steak, corn on the cob, asparagus, and melon and prosciutto skewers, along with roughly 6 bottles of wine . . . per person.

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We enjoyed great food and good, if rather opinionated, company.

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For dessert, Mark's friend Joey, a pastry chef extraordinaire, brought some coconut cake. If you've ever seen an episode of "When Animals Attack," then you know how the cake came to look like this after about 30 seconds.

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The next day we gathered up anyone who wasn't still passed out from the night before and hoofed it over to Santiago's Bodega for a little hair of the dog.

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The fire was just to make sure everyone was fully awake.

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That afternoon we divided up the remaining tasks at the condo: Angel spent the afternoon using one of those CSI-style ultraviolet lights to ferret out invisible stains on the plantation shutters, while I lounged in the pool with a key lime colada.

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After a few hours we assessed our progress and decided that the house was probably clean enough to pass inspection by the folks who sterilize hospital burn units, which meant that Angel was somewhat pleased with our work thusfar. We decided to celebrate at Kelly's happy hour, because nothing says a job well done like a bowl full of melted cheese.

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The key lime margaritas at Kelly's turned into dark rum pina coladas at Louie's, and at that point there was no turning back: It was time to get down with our bad selves, as well as any poor unsuspecting bystanders, at the Green Parrot.

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I decided to take the next morning's sluggish pace as a sign that Angel was due for a break and, more importantly, I was due for a burger. And so we headed off to Frita's Cuban Burgers, where the menu promised an explosion of flavor on a freshly-baked Cuban roll.

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Frita's manages to squeeze an impressive amount of tropical bric-a-brac, homages to Cuba, and even bartender roulette into its charming little space.

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If you need to eat-a-Frita on the fly, there's also a food truck outside.

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We grabbed two seats at the tiny bar inside and ordered up a round of the house special, sangria slushies.

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We both had to try the signature frita, a beef and pork patty seasoned with garlic and Spanish spices, then topped with spicy ketchup and crispy shoestring fries.

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To that we added cheese arepas, freshly-baked empanadas, and a plate of rice 'n' beans that put all others to shame: Coconut-ginger jasmine rice with black beans, sweet plantains, and salsa verde, all smothered in melted cheese.

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And a cute little flan for Angel.

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The next day was our last full day of work, and it was sure to be a long one. We decided to fuel up with egg white omelets and fresh juice.

Just kidding! We had cheesesteak spring rolls.

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In addition to the Breakfast of Champions, the Rum Barrel on Front Street also has some healthy options, like fresh green salads and grilled fish.

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Along with that "juice" I mentioned earlier.

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It was our last evening on island, so we met up with friends for dinner at Azur to take advantage of their locals'-only summer special.

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All food and wine was half-off, so we decided that the best way to get our money's worth was to order everything on the menu and let the savages fight it out.

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I don't know who thought it would be funny to pile up all those wine glasses in front of me for this photo, but the joke's on you if you think you're getting your glass back afterwards.

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On our last day, our writer/blogger/photographer friend Claudia drove down to Key West for a planned stay on nearby Sunset Key, and invited us over to the island for lunch. Although our flight home was scheduled for that afternoon, the timing seemed doable, so I agreed.

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I knew, however, that Angel would consider every possible scenario, and a whole bunch of impossible ones, before ultimately deciding that it would be way too risky to make the 10-minute boat ride over to Sunset Key on the same day that our flight was to depart. What if the boat breaks down? What if it sinks? What if it is torpedoed by a wayward Navy jet, or destroyed by a large mechanical shark? The variables were many, and thus my chances of getting Angel to agree were slim.

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Or so I thought. Turns out, inhaling all those cleaning-product fumes was good for something.

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As fate would have it, we ended up on the same boat over as Claudia, which gave us a little extra time to get caught up before lunch.

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Or, you know, to post a quick Snapchat.

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A cruise ship was in port as we departed, and while cruises are not my cup of tea, it's hard not to marvel at how man can design 150,000 tons of steel to stay afloat, but cannot invent a pair of pantyhose that doesn't run within 20 minutes of putting them on.

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Upon arrival, we asked for a table indoors so we could eat in air-conditioned comfort, which is really a crime at a place as lovely as Latitudes. Still, it beat branding my forearm on one of those wrought-iron chairs baking outside in the sun.

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After settling in, we ordered up an assortment of libations and then got down to the serious business of food styling.

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Next up, a photogenic tuna tartare with miso-yuzu aioli, a perfectly posed lobster and crab cake with grilled corn salsa, and a casually candid fish sammich with key lime tartar sauce.

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Our lunch was over all too quickly, and soon it was time to say our goodbyes and head back to Key West to catch our flight.

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As usual, we skidded into the airport with just minutes to spare, worn out and exhausted, and even though the airport was nice and cool, I found myself again thinking of Jimmy McMillan's catchphrase, but tweaked just a bit.

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"THIS VISIT . . . WAS TOO DAMN SHORT!"
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What's up next? A marvelous Moondance in Anguilla, death-defying feats of stupidity in the Hudson Valley, a boozy "swingers" weekend in Philadelphia, and a rockin' New Year's Eve at an old folks home on Anna Maria Island. Check back soon or click here to subscribe and you'll receive an email when a new post goes up!

Just want more Key West? Come on vacation, leave on probation.

Posted by TraceyG 04:51 Archived in USA Tagged key_west santiago's green_parrot key_west_food_and_wine_festival southernmost_beach_cafe Comments (12)

Key West: Walking in a Wiener Wonderland, Part 2

That evening, while I made the final preparations for the pizza party, Angel went to the turtle races with the rest of the gang to try to redeem us after that time I was thisclose to winning the entire jackpot, but got distracted by what was behind door #3 (a bottle of Heinz ketchup) and blew my chance.

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As Angel well knows, you can take the girl out of Pittsburgh, but you can never destroy her abiding love for ketchup. So if we were ever going to win some Turtle Bucks, it was all on him. Luckily he's pretty good under pressure.

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Back at the house, we killed the rum punch, made a sizable dent in the vodka that we'd goaded Todd into buying on Raunchy Ornament Night, devoured three large pizzas, and participated in a rousing game of "Guess The Definition" of a number of unmentionable slang terms on Urban Dictionary, which is how people used to entertain themselves in the olden days before TV.

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Ellen had been plotting for months to bring one of those "Adults Only" cakes from Croissants de France to the party for dessert, but as soon as arguments broke out as to how each of us would be depicted, anatomically speaking, she went with the world's prettiest edible Yule log instead.

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After all this, there was only one place left to go: The Green Parrot.

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Now, sometimes I'm in the mood for a nice glass of Cabernet and quiet conversation. Sometimes I'd like a frosty pina colada and a water view. And sometimes, I can even be dragged out to Sloppy Ho's or one of the other bars on lower Duval for free music and cheap beer. But when I'm in the mood to act like a dancin' fool, only one place will do: The Green Parrot. That night the band was bringing Friends, Funk & Fortitude from New Orleans, and we were more than ready to laissez les bons temps rouler. And unlike most nights when I just stumble on in to the Parrot, this time I was prepared. See, back in early December, Angel, Brian, and I had celebrated Ellen's birthday at NYC's Hurricane Club, a so-tacky-it's-chic tiki spot that specializes in group drinks that are consumed with absurdly long red straws.

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Those straws allow you to suck up much more than you normally might drink in one sitting, which prompted Ellen to remark to me, in complete and utter seriousness, "Your eyes look beautiful in those glasses." Yes. Like space crystals.

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Sensing an opportunity, I gathered up as many of those straws as I could that night, smuggled them home, cleaned them up, and promptly stowed them away in my luggage for this trip. (I can't remember to pack things like toothpaste, but I can remember to pack a slew of two-foot-long straws.)

Thus armed with my super-straws, it was time to head over to the Green Parrot. Fragile Frances had been felled by a bad case of too much rum punch (or, more likely, the volcano-sized pile of nachos she'd inhaled at the turtle races), so only six of us made the pilgrimage. While the guys staked out a good spot near the popcorn machine, kept an eye on our purses, and wisely kept the cameras hidden away, I busted out my mega-straw and began to make my rounds of likely marks. "Helllllloooooooooo!!!" I trilled in my best Mrs. Doubtfire voice, aiming my straw at whatever libation my next victim happened to be holding. "And what have we heeeere???" I am happy to report that my super-straw and I sampled everything from Jack & Gingers (eh) to a few warm Coronas (ick) to a diet Coke (quel disappointment!), all without a single refusal or communicable disease (so far). The night ended with Donna getting down like one of the Solid Gold Dancers up on stage with the band; me twirling a stranger's handlebar mustache (with permission) the wrong way (by mistake); Ellen slipping on the stairs and landing on said stranger; and Angel once again dragging me away just when things were getting good. And I know exactly what you're thinking: What a shame that Frances couldn't be there, what with us behaving like the cast from her beloved stomping grounds, Jersey Shore.

The next day we dropped off the keys to the house and checked in at the Chelsea House, an historic inn where we would spend our last three nights.

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Although the Chelsea House and its sister properties, including the adorable Key Lime Inn cottages, are all perfectly nice (and the staff extremely accommodating), poor Chelsea House, having followed seven days at the most private house we've ever rented, suffered the same fate as whatever you happen to order after the free bacon at 2 Cents: It's nice, but it just can't compare.

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Which is not to say that it was boring, by any stretch.

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After dropping off our bags, we made like a couple of sailors on payday and headed down to the Bight to spend Angel's hard-won Turtle Bucks.

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One of the newest and most beautiful sailboats at the Bight is the Hindu, which was built in 1925 in Maine and has been lovingly restored by the Rowan family.

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Me, I'd be happy with this little boat, so long as the puppy came with it.

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By the time we reached Turtle Kraals, it was 11:45, and therefore almost noon, and therefore time for cocktails.

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Then it was on to the crab and spinach dip with Townhouse crackers, followed by the shrimp Po Boy for Angel and the fried shrimp and a pathetic, naked, boiled corn cob for me . That cheesy grilled corn at Paseo has ruined me, I tell you.

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Frances and Todd showed up just as we were digging in, ostensibly so they could eat lunch, but really so Frances could force me to look at her new Velcro sandals. Yes, Velcro. You know how people always say they'd rather be comfortable than fashionable? God help her, but Frances actually means it.

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If you don't have anything nice to say . . . turn your head and try not to laugh.

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That evening Ellen and Brian treated us to the Commotion on the Ocean sunset cruise on the Fury boat.

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As if that wasn't nice enough, Ellen picked this cruise specifically because they serve meatballs at the small buffet and unlimited margaritas during the cruise, and that is why we are convinced that she and I would clean up at that Friday afternoon Newlywed Game at Southernmost on the Beach.

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The next day we met up with Ellen and Brian at Le Bistro, since Brian wanted a crepe. (Frances and Todd ended up back at their usual spot, Pepe's, due to her powerful addiction to their strawberry eggnog.)

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The food was great: A turkey croissant for Ellen, a chicken pesto panini and some spicy gazpacho for me, and the lobster-and-chorizo Benedict for Angel.

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Oh, and Brian had the scrambled eggs. I guess he pulled a crepe-and-switch.

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Later that evening we decided to revisit some of the inns and houses we'd seen on earlier bike rides to get some photos of their Christmas lights.

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We also came upon the horror of this terrible massacre. God only knows what kind of animal would slaughter Santa, and Tigger, too.

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After spying one particularly decked-out house, we pulled our bikes over and I walked across the street to get my shot. Or, rather, I walked across the street and, distracted by all the sparkly tinsel, didn't notice that big ditch in the street and promptly fell headfirst into it. As I lay on the ground wondering what the hell had just happened, my first thoughts were, in this order: (1) Thank god this fall didn't chip my pedicure; (2) Thank god this fall didn't rip my favorite jeans; (3) Thank god I brought my cute ambulance band-aids; and (4) Did I just break my kneecap . . . AGAIN? Priorities, people.

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The fall left part of my big toe a bloody mess with a sizable flap of skin hanging off of it, and my knee looking like a grapefruit covered in angry red brush burns. (I blew out my flip-flop, too, and I wasn't even wasted away again.) I patched my toe up with a band-aid -- being distracted by sparkly stuff is reason #1 why I carry band-aids on my person at all times -- and tried to get back to taking photos, but soon I could feel my knee stiffening up and, worried that pedaling my bike might soon become impossible, we headed back to the suite to clean my wounds and ice my knee.

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As Angel set me up with a chair to elevate my leg and fashioned an ice pack out of some ice cubes and a washcloth and forced me into a series of excruciating knee stretches every ten minutes, I realized that we were probably going to have to order in for dinner, because both walking and pedaling seemed out of the question.

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But tonight we had plans. Big plans. Plans that were so important that I somehow managed to pedal my bike with one leg and brake Fred Flintstone-style in order to get there.

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One gigantic veal parm, a glass of Pinot Noir, two meatballs, and a handful of Advil later, all was right with the world.

On New Year's Eve we decided to check out the Key West Dachshund Walk, otherwise known as the Wiener Dog Parade.

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I'd been expecting maybe a dozen or so weenies and their owners and a smattering of gawkers, so I was completely unprepared for the throngs that greeted us (along with a blaring loudspeaker playing "Who Let the Dogs Out?").

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I immediately realized that, like a politician with a camera phone, if I wanted to get some good wiener shots, I was going to have to get closer to the action. Still pretty banged up from my unfortunate meeting with that roadside ditch, I limped my way through the crowd, carefully sidestepping holes and uneven pavement and, you know, air, until I found a small opening in the crowd and weasled my way in. At first I tried shooting the weenies from on high because squatting was difficult with my knee, but I soon realized that if you really want to capture the beauty of a wiener, you've got to get up close and personal with it.

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So I sat down on the pavement, with my good leg tucked under me and the bad one sticking out since it wasn't willing to bend. Which wouldn't have been so bad, except that I was wearing a dress. Once you've flashed your undies to the spectators at a wiener dog parade, you know you're close to hitting rock bottom.

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Of course, the parade mostly featured wiener dogs, though I did spot a few impostors.

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See that lady in the red shirt?

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That wiener-dog-hog brought a container full of bacon in order to lure the dogs over to her side of the street, so that folks on my side couldn't get any pictures. Why didn't I do the same, you ask? Because no matter how badly I want to get the perfect shot, no way am I wasting good bacon on a wiener dog. I mean, I might let him sniff it, but I'm the one who does the eating around here.

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Thankfully, the guy next to me was a talented Weenie Whisperer, enabling me to get some decent shots as well as keep those pesky zombies at bay.

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Obviously this dog can't tell us how he feels about that Hawaiian shirt, but that look, and his extended middle paw, really say it all.

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After the parade it was time for some lunch. With no set plans, I suddenly remembered that the Westin's Bistro 245 serves its own version of that fabulous blackened grouper sandwich on griddled luau bread that we first discovered in Delray Beach and most recently devoured on Lido Key. We arrived and were greeted by this:

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That marvelous feat of engineering is a Disney cruise ship, which presumably holds something on the order of 45,000 children. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I would rather spend eternity tied to a stake while the devil gleefully dangles pizzas and cheeseburgers just out of my reach than spend 10 minutes on that ship. Though the all-meals-included thing is appealing.

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Just looking it started giving us the shakes, so we immediately ordered some drinks (a lemon-lime daiquiri for me; Planter's punch for Angel), followed by the gazpacho, which came topped with crispy toast and tangy cream cheese.

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Although the blackened grouper was tempting, I decided to go with the salad with feta, hearts of palm, pine nuts, and red and yellow tomatoes.

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The afternoon was a flurry of activity -- a quick stop at Kermit's for some key lime cookies; a little pool time; and happy hour with Ellen at Southernmost Beach Cafe, where we enjoyed yet another round of key lime pina coladas -- and soon it was time for New Year's Eve to begin in earnest. We'd originally planned to have dinner at Latitudes at Sunset Key, and called in early October to make sure we'd be among the lucky few to get a reservation. Despite my repeated calls, however, Attitudes at Suckit Key refused to confirm our reservation until the day before New Year's Eve, since they'd been waiting to see if any of their owners or guests wanted our table instead. We turned them down, of course (Donna had already pulled some strings and landed us the best seats in the house over at Hot Tin Roof), making sure to let them know that we'd have been a party of five plus one tapeworm, which was clearly their loss.

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Over at the lovely Hot Tin Roof, we started with some mango martinis, then moved on to a luxurious four-course dinner that included oysters with caviar, foie gras, crab cakes, lobster, and filet mignon.

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Adjacent to Hot Tin Roof, Sunset Pier was trying out a new countdown-to-midnight "drop" this year, a lime wedge in a margarita glass.

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And although Donna and Greg planned to be home by midnight for their puppies (who are frightened by the fireworks) and Angel, Ellen, Brian, and I planned to spend midnight watching the pirate wench drop at Schooner Wharf Bar, Hot Tin Roof had other plans: We hadn't even had dessert yet when the countdown to midnight began. "You're gonna watch our lime wedge, dammit, even if we have to hold your cheesecake hostage to make it happen!"

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But considering that the food was fantastic, and the generous manager gave us a locals' discount on the bill and bought our first round of drinks, we really had no cause for complaint. Plus, we'd spent the evening with great friends, and there was a burlesque show, and I think I might have even seen some boobs, and isn't that what New Year's Eve is really all about?

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After saying our thanks and good-byes to Donna and Greg, and with the crowds thinning out, we figured it was safe to brave Duval Street on our walk home.

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We even stopped at Angel's beloved Willie T's for our first drinks of the New Year.

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Finally, we stopped at Bourbon Street to see the aftermath of Sushi's midnight shoe drop.

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Was it the most debauched New Year's Eve on record? No, but when you have to check out of your hotel by 11:00am on New Year's Day and your friends are scheduled for an early morning jet-ski tour, it's probably best not to wake up with your pants on backwards . . . or missing altogether.

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As is always the case, our last day on the island was a beauty: Vibrant blue skies, plentiful sunshine, just a whisper of a breeze, and my knee had returned to close to its normal size.

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With Ellen and Brian on their jet-skis and Donna and Greg busy back at the Ranch, Angel and I decided to enjoy a leisurely lunch on the water and then spend the day at the pool at our condo soaking up some final rays of sunshine. We made a beeline for Louie's, where we luxuriated in the hot sun and sipped our fruity cocktails and had an excellent burger topped with melty Provolone and roasted tomato chutney.

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Over at the condo, we spent three blissful hours lounging, reading, swimming, and asking ourselves for the hundredth time why we don't just move here already.

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Sure, it sounds like a great idea, but we'd better stay put for now.

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I hear that too many key lime pina coladas can kill yer brane cellz.

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Up next, more liver damage at the 2013 Key West Food & Wine Festival, a Cheesesteak Throwdown in Philly, and a boating trip around the Abacos. Did I mention that we're operating the boat ourselves? Subscribe here and you'll be the first to know how many docks we end up having to rebuild.

Posted by TraceyG 06:24 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys louie's_backyard hot_tin_roof turtle_kraals green_parrot chelsea_house Comments (2)

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