Friday, December 14, 2018

Key West Express

On Monday morning at 7:00 am on December 10th, 2018 we boarded the Key West Express (a sea-going catamaran) in the harbour of Fort Myers Beach and headed for Key West, Florida. It is marketed as a 3½ hour journey across the Gulf of Mexico. We were in for a nautical awakening. There is very little of man's creation which competes with the vastness and power of the sea.  Our education was about to begin.

In fairness - and to the credit of the front desk clerk of the Best Western hotel on Fort Myers Beach where we spent the previous evening in anticipation of our Monday morning voyage - we had been urged to purchase Dramamine (motion sickness pills) at the local 7-Eleven convenience store (which by the way is an international chain owned by the Japanese and first operated in 1927). The clerk had looked knowingly at the rollicking sea as he checked us in. His assertion could not have been more precise.  And with good reason as it turns out.  Warnings at sea - especially from the comfort of the shore - are not to be discounted. It is easy for the dilettante to be deceived by appearances. The seeming glassy sea from the view of a fine restaurant can disguise hidden perils. The clerk added probative legitimacy to his speculation by commenting that a cold front was making its way across the Gulf of Mexico. We were subsequently to learn that his forecast was dead on. The grey skies and choppy waves were but a hint of what was to come!

Initially as we languished our way out of harbour on what appeared to be an acceptable (but somewhat cool) morning, there was no indication of anything contrary.  Yet it wasn't long before things rapidly changed. Though there was to my mind no palpable evidence of storminess (the sun continued to shine and a ceaseless wind seemed merely part of the seafaring vernacular), the threat of being torn flat by a sudden surge made mobility on deck a serious consideration. The shifting course of the catamaran was as though we were being stretched by the waves in several directions at once - an imprudent violation which made the mere contemplation of movement highly questionable. The dignity of voiding one's bladder lapsed into a grave debate of Olympic magnitude. Nor did it encourage us to see several young women hanging their heads mournfully over the side of the rails or seeing others face first into a garbage bin. Even though the deck stewards attempted to comfort the waning passengers I later heard them jokingly recount among themselves that the ship might usefully be renamed the "Vomit Comet". I rapidly developed a thesis that travel by sea in December - even on the Gulf of Mexico - is not for the pusillanimous. The issue of sea legs was utterly beyond reflection.

When our wearied crowd at last made it to shore in Key West - by which time in the tranquillity of the harbour and the balmy weather the erstwhile commotion had completely evaporated, leaving us wondering what the fuss had been - my own far more personal and less environmental concerns of a different wave had arisen.  I had developed an increasing bulge where an inguinal hernia had been repaired several years ago. The effort of carting my suitcase onto, about and off the catamaran and then into the hotel appeared to have been more than I was capable of.  But this abdominal abuse - and the effectiveness of the Darmamine - eventually extinguished any ailment and in the end we were no worse for wear.  I should add too that upon our return trip, the wind was from the southeast, a warm herald to smooth sailing.  We later learned that the shrimp boats on that adventurous Monday had knowingly dissolved from the northern side of Key West and sheltered on the leeward side of the island instead. Our hard-won education was as always both entertaining and caustic.

The putative reason for our visit to Key West was the celebration of my 70th birthday on December 11th. This particular birthday promoted more than usual interest for me.  Having survived open-heart surgery and repeated heart failures I viewed my life as worthy of commemoration - not because of merit but mere fact. I had somehow made it in spite of everything - including having used my carcass as a toxic waste site for a good deal of my permissive existence.  For the past year I have envisioned our winter sojourn on Longboat Key (including all that that entails) as the pinnacle of personal achievement - again not by accomplishment but rather by default. I hasten to add by way of defence that in the past number of years I have sought to expiate my guilt for having been ridden hard and put away wet by altering my former trajectory. Quite frankly the accommodation has been perfectly painless because it is merely a collateral of old age that one's appetite for indiscretion diminishes commensurately.  Nonetheless I have thus retrieved some advantage, milking the udder for all it is worth.

It was about 40 years ago that I first visited Key West.  At that time I heard of Casa Marina hotel. At that time I stayed at a modest B&B on the north end of town.  Lately we've frequented Casa Marina.  It has the advantage of being out of the popular urban mix, connected to lovely bike paths and within walking distance of nearby excellent restaurants.

Though Key West hasn't any real beaches (the surrounding coral reef defeats that prospect) Casa Marina has managed to render an acceptable likeness of a beach.  The pool succeeds to satisfy our swimming urges. The on-site restaurants are nonpareil. Apart from biking there really is no need to leave the premises. Even our last day at the hotel was spent very agreeably lounging by the Gulf, absorbing the rays and putting on the nosebag before heading to the pier for the catamaran in the late afternoon.

This is not to minimize the delight of venturing about the island (which is only about 4 miles long and one mile wide). The density of development makes Key West as complicated as an old European city and just as beguiling. Although I have ridden my bike around most of Key West over the past many years I continue to discover new unexplored areas constantly, partly due to the perpetual improvements being made  - Mallory Dock for example where cruise ships now inhabit but without the customary dreariness that characterizes the Caribbean haunts; and Truman Annex (upscale residential construction).

There persists the notorious Bohemian flavour of Key West as well, reminiscent of the haunts frequented by Tennessee Williams who in my opinion is by far the most provocative literary feature of the island (in particular captivated by in his "Letters to Donald Windham 1940 - 1965").

Though we have already booked our return visit to Key West in February it is a venue which is best abandoned briefly. There is only so much of a good thing which one can endure without the risk of trivializing it.

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