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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 Part 1: I Just Can't Quit These Damn Chickens

"Winter sucks -- so let's get the hell outta here!" That was our rallying cry as we boarded a plane bound for Key West on a blizzardy Friday morning in January. Ahhh, Key West. The very words conjure up images of swaying palms and pina coladas, shady gardens and lazy porch fans.

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Long a haven for artists, writers, musicians, and secessionists, this tiny tropical paradise is famous for its Cuban influence, perfectly preserved historic district, and offbeat charm, including a multitude of six-toed cats and feral chickens.

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And yet, below the island's genteel if funky exterior lurks the seedy underbelly of the beast: Duval Street. A cacophony of t-shirt shops, tour operators, street artists, and con artists, Duval Street is best known for its wild, anything-goes bar scene and lax open-container laws, which lend the island a drunken depraved debauched laid-back air.

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I, of course, do not approve of such shenanigans, and neither does Angel.

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On this visit we stayed at the Paradise Inn, a name often applied to accommodations that almost always turns out to be unintentionally ironic. Thankfully in the case of Key West's Paradise Inn it's truthful, if a bit goading to those of us from the Great North.

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Our first order of business after checking in was to rent bikes from Eaton Bikes, the shop we like to use thanks to their friendly service and fair prices. Unfortunately the only bikes they had available were black, which were very obviously not pink or turquoise, so Angel mollified me by prettying mine up a bit.

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Later, after I'd accidentally almost mowed down a few unsuspecting pedestrians, we returned to the shop to see if I could get a bell to warn others of impending doom. The owner, Chris, explained that the shop doesn't like to equip the rental bikes with bells because the constant dinging drives the locals nuts. "Why do you need a bell to warn people anyway?" he asked. "You're from New York. Can't you just scream obscenities at them?" When I explained that I was trying out a new, relaxed, island-y Tracey, he kindly gave me a bell for free.

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In return, I dinged that bell about a million times a day, screaming out "CHRIS AT EATON BIKES SAYS HELLO!!!!" at anyone who would listen. Just kidding! I was actually very restrained with the use of the bell, save for imminent death. Which amounted to just a few hundred times a day.

As has become our tradition, lunch on our first day on the island was in the garden at Kelly's Caribbean, which is housed in the former headquarters of Pan American Airlines. Nothing conjures up visions of delicious food like airplanes!

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Kelly's was once owned by actress Kelly McGillis of "Top Gun" fame. Of course, we'd still frequent this place if it was owned by a toothless ex-con, as long as they still served these:

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This was our ninth visit to the island, so this time we decided to do something new, something different, something wild and crazy that we've never done before in Key West -- no easy feat on an island known for its enlightened stance on alcohol and public nudity.

So we went on a house-and-garden tour. Wait, what were YOU thinking? You really need to get your mind out of the gutter. Heh-heh.

A house tour usually consists of tramping through a stranger's house and snarkily critiquing all of their art, design, and decor choices. In this case, however, the tour of these exquisite homes consisted of several of the five stages of grief: denial ("Seriously, WHO on earth owns such a gorgeous house?!"); anger ("These lucky bastards probably don't even appreciate this house!"); depression ("It's hopeless; I'll never have a house like this!"); and acceptance ("I'll never have a house like this. Ever.").

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This last house is owned by country star Kenny Chesney, who purchased the house but never even moved in before deciding that it wasn't private enough and putting it back on the market. Which proves that what he's really hiding under that ever-present cowboy hat is not baldness, but lack of brains.

Right before we boarded the open-air Conch Train to take us from house to house, a mini-hurricane descended, cold and wet and windy, with the added bonus of turning my hair into something resembling a cross between a wet mop and blonde Silly String. But I soldiered on, and I'm glad I did, because otherwise I'd never have gotten to see The World's Most Awesome Shower.

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By the end of the house tour the temperature had dropped to the low 50s, so we decided to grab dinner at the nearest restaurant and call it a night. That turned out to be El Meson de Pepe, which is generally regarded as the touristy version of one of our favorite restaurants, the excellent Cuban spot El Siboney. Luckily for us, a large pitcher of El Meson's sangria turned what would have been an okay meal into an okay-but-giggly one.

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Angel ordered a sampler plate, with ropa vieja, shredded pork, and picadillo. Unfortunately, the picadillo was studded with raisins -- neither my nor Angel's favorite -- which are very adept at masquerading as black beans to get people to eat them. Sneaky little buggers.

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Despite the lovely homes featured on the house tour, I'm really holding out for one of these. Donations being accepted now at 1-800-FAT-CHANCE.

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For now, though, I really can't complain (not that that ever stops me): Two years ago we took the plunge and bought a small condo in the Casa Marina neighborhood of Old Town, with the intention of renting it out for now and using it ourselves once we can finally afford to retire (projected date: 2098).

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It was either that or pay the college tuition for the kids we don't have, which is how we sold this cockamamie idea to our financial planner.

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One of the things that we like best about the condo is its proximity to the Southermost Beach Cafe, one of our favorite casual lunch spots.

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Situated right on the sand, Southermost has an inexpensive lunch menu and boasts a drink list longer than Angel's . . . arm. This is one of their specialty drinks, the Sunkiss, which contains three different rums as well as pina colada/strawberry/passion fruit/mango mixes. A few of these and you will be drunk/trashed/wasted/blitzed.

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I always order the Chef's salad, partly because green vegetables are a nice shock to the system after several days in Key West, and partly because of the Caribbean vinaigrette dressing, which is sweet, tart, mustardy, and highly addictive.

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Angel decided on the fresh catch of the day, a blackened mahi-mahi sandwich with batter-dipped fries. There's a vegetable in there somewhere . . . I think.

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Finally, we split an order of conch fritters, which are really just an excuse to eat some fried dough. These came with a delicious sweet & spicy chili sauce.

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Near the restrooms is a huge map in which people stick pins indicating where they're visiting from. I wanted to stick a pin in Antarctica just to shake things up, but in the end I'm just a big conformist.

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One thing that we've noticed over the years is that folks in Key West adore their pets, and often go out of their way to make life easier for them. Like this little kitty door/staircase, for example. Because everyone knows that cats are terrible at jumping.

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When a beloved pet occasionally goes missing, an island-wide campaign must be undertaken to find him. Some are fortunately easier to identify than others.

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Hard to believe they got such a clear picture of him, huh?

This is Pickles. He is not currently missing, but when you leave a dog that cute alone in a car with the windows down, don't come crying to me when he ends up in my suitcase.

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Even the strays in Key West are pretty spoiled.

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On Sunday it was a bit chilly, so we scrapped our plans for brunch on the water and instead headed over to Martin's on Duval Street. Okay, I'm lying. It wasn't "a bit chilly." It was cold. Really cold. Practically freezing, by Key West standards.

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Martin's is owned by a couple of Germans (who know a thing or two about cold weather), who are so blond and blue-eyed and chiseled that the rest of us (okay, me) are left feeling like amorphous blobs of dubious national origin.

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Angel and I both ordered the lobster benedict, which is served with steamed spinach and a thick, lemony hollandaise that was so good that we had no choice but to order the German bread to mop it all up.

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And even less choice but to wash it all down with mimosas.

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German or not, Key Westers aren't typically shy about expressing themselves, whether that takes the form of bumper stickers, signs, t-shirts . . .

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. . . or a gigantic replica of the tiki idol in that really scary episode of "The Brady Bunch."

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Or this piece of sh . . . artistic expression. If nothing else, it's sure to keep those annoying trick-or-treaters away at Halloween.

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Now that's alot of pot.

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Later that night we biked over to Abbondanza, a romantic little trattoria that's a bit off the beaten path (that term being relative on an island that's all of 4.2 square miles) and has the best meatballs in town.

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Now, you might think it strange that we went out for meatballs on a tropical island known for its seafood, but that's because you've probably never had the meatballs at Abbondanza. These tender, garlicky little orbs are just the thing to replenish you after a day spent lazing around, and let's face it: Being thin is nice, but stuffing your face full of meatballs is even nicer.

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I fought the meatballs and the meatballs won.

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One of the things that we've always loved about the island is that it is a study in contrasts, the rich rubbing elbows with the poor; the literary-minded mingling with the simple-minded; the type who'd belong to a yacht club . . . being the same type who'd attach gigantic bull horns to his Jeep.

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Me? I'm the type who'd write a trip report but only publish half of it. Part 2 to come is now posted! Find it here: www.traceyg.travellerspoint.com/24/

Posted by TraceyG 10:39 Archived in USA Tagged key_west casa_marina florida_keys southernmost_beach_cafe Comments (18)

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