Christmas in July?Clement Moore’s famous poem describes St. Nick as having a droll little mouth drawn up like a bow, and a beard as white as snow. The piece continues, “He had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!”
Moore’s poetry inadvertently describes the requirements for contestants in the “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest. The competition highlights the annual Hemingway Days festival in Key West, Florida, along with a marlin tournament boasting a $250,000 purse and literary short story competition drawing over 1300 entries.
From July 16-21, 2013, stocky middle-aged men with whiskers will flock to the isle to compete in a pageant akin to Miss America. Some return on an annual pilgrimage with the understanding that newbies score little chance of securing the coveted title. They line up on stage for preliminary rounds showing off their beards and bellies. Hopefuls also receive a generous minute to display a personal talent- frequently a song, poem, literary reading or comic routine.
Last summer I watched as many paraded in khaki sportswear but at least two men wore fisherman knit sweaters resembling a famous portrait of Ernest. That’s diehard dedication in 90 degree heat and humidity! Another dressed as Hurricane Hemingway donning red boxing robes and gloves, but making it difficult for him to grab the microphone.
Semi-finalists go on to compete in the finals held Saturday night before a beer-drinking crowd overflowing the doors of Sloppy Joe’s Bar. The Key West watering hole ranks a favorite haunt of Old Hem himself and owner Joe Russell became one of his closest friends.
The judge’s panel of past winners also scrutinize the contestants’ congeniality during activities like the whimsical “Running of the Bulls.” This quirky event satirizes Ernest Hemingway’s love of Spain and the bullfight. Look-alikes pull wooden hobbyhorse bulls through the streets of downtown Key West instead of Pamplona.
No one mentions the fact that the Nobel Prize winning writer was actually a young man when he lived in Key West during the 1930’s. Seems that older contestants fare better than those in their 50’s and no aspiring youths enter. This contest indulges big boys and the Hemingway manly-man lifestyle of hunting, fishing and love of cocktails.
During the festival, participants, known as Papa’s, meld into a fraternity of sorts; likewise for their wives called Mama’s. The 2012 semi-finalists included Michael Groover of Savannah, Georgia, who was cheered by his wife, Food Network personality Paula Deen. Deen praised her husband’s Hemingway looks but said he had other equally important qualities in common with the author.
“He’s all man, he’s truthful and honest and (has) really got the spirit,” Deen said.
The 2012 winner, Greg Fawcett, a64-year-old North Carolina investment banker, won after his 10th attempt besting the 139 other Hemingway look-alikes. He credited his victory to establishing camaraderie with the judges, timing his haircuts carefully and paying attention to the length of his beard. Upon hearing the announcement, Fawcett looked to the heavens mouthing a thank you. Like a pageant crowning, he was met with rousing cheers and hugs from fellow contestant. Why, I might have even seen a few tears.
When you drive down US 1 heading toward Key West, you know you have arrived when you come to a city: a downtown with stop lights, shops and homes. That may seem like an obvious statement, but when you motor by the other islands or Keys (there are actually 1,700, thought most are tiny and uninhabited) you feel rather betwixt and between. The landscape is a tad monotonous; a small strip of land surrounded by shimmering blue water, or patches of development with 1950’s style buildings. I was feeling neither here nor there, more in a twilight zone of locations known simply by their numbered mile markers.
It was in just such a spot that my husband Jay and I stopped to photograph a at sunset. So, it happened that we approached Islamorada near dark, when the sunset afterglow had disappeared into the waves.
The original name, Isles Moradas, pronounced- eye-la-mor-rah-da, translates to purple isles. Pick the name derivation as no one knows if it’s from the purple-shelled snail or the colors in the orchid trees and bougainvillea. I found the place enigmatic, full of mystery and intrigue.
Night descended quickly and we drove past our lodging. Realizing our mistake, we made a U-turn, then ventured in and registered. I would never have stayed at La Siesta Resort had I just driven by–not much in the way of street or curb appeal. But I’d been told, “Try it. You will like it, you will be surprised.” I was.
We located our unit, a small single story building, more than accommodating. I could have lived there for a week– or longer, a king-sized bed, full kitchenette, dining table and den with sleeper/sofa and wall-mounted flat screen TV.
But, we were hungry. We dropped out bags and left for dinner, choosing the Islamorada Fish Company, attached to the Bass Pro Shop. Arriving around 8:30pm, I thought we’d get a table, but found the sprawling restaurant full. Our names were added to a list and we were given one of those vibrating light-up disks, so off we went for a drink. We waited; we enjoyed our margaritas; we were the last ones at the bar. Finally the hostess came over, said she had tried to contact us, but our communicator wasn’t communicating. Gee, the margaritas had been refreshing and the view lovely, guess I was getting into “island time,” that kick-backed nature of The Keys. Nonetheless, my stomach was starting to growl, I was ready for food. We soon ended up with lovely yellowtail snapper and grouper for dinner.
Afterward, we fell asleep early; the sea air must have tuckered us out. On the other hand, when the mornings’ ochre rays filtered into the room, I immediately awoke. I crept to the double security sliding glass door, opened the drape and found, well….an amazing site. A hammock rested on the patio and a huge swirl of sand like a labyrinth garden lay beyond.
I wanted to enter and follow the path, but hesitated- my foot steps would desecrate the pattern, like making tracks through freshly fallen snow. But, I couldn’t resist; I paced round to the middle and realized it wasn’t the middle. No, this was the beginning. Of course, whoever created it started in the center. Hmm. I felt the need to sit and meditate or try a yoga pose. However, like being knocked on the head with a coconut (which could have actually happened), I realized I was barefoot, standing in the open hotel complex in my pajamas– with a camera strung around my neck.
I returned to my room to dress and discovered Jay slowly coming to life. He doesn’t do mornings very well, at least not before his coffee. I left him in his post-dawn stupor and went back outside. Some fisherman had arrived on the scene. I watched as they loaded their boat with about twenty fishing lines and then took off. However, they shared a secret– coffee and Danish were being served by the pool. This was indeed good news, especially to Jay.
A little later in the morning, I drove a few miles to the kayak rental shop at Robbie’s Mariana. I was expecting to be expected, as travel writers frequently are, but I wasn’t. Nonetheless, I arranged for a kayak and went in search of a crocodile, one I was told would make a great photo. Alas, he wasn’t there. Now I admit, I don’t have the best sense of direction, and the map handed me looked somewhat like a drawing of my first-grade grandson, but it led me astray. Perhaps my car’s GPS has spoiled me—I needed a voice to tell me, turn here—NOW. I was lost in the lush mangroves.
Then, I ran into three other kayakers who were, shall we say, off-course. Mind you, two of them were college professors, and we all four attempted to get to a point on the map; and we all got lost together. I thought it rather funny and decided it was time to retrace my outing and return my boat.
So, I ate some lunch and returned to La Siesta Resort and took an afternoon nap, a siesta, in the hammock at La Siesta! That evening, Jay and I went to dinner at The Hungry Tarpon. The outside looked like a breakfast diner and it was, but it also had an outdoor patio strung with Christmas lights, which was actually an awesome gourmet restaurant (if you can call an “old Keys-style marina and fish shack”a gourmet restaurant). The chef, Joseph Sassine, came out to talk to us, but couldn’t stay long because he said his assistant needed supervising. The assistant was rather new on the job, he added, just been working at it for five years.
After another restful night, I awoke to find the same curious pattern created in the sand during the night. I rather enjoyed the mystery and never inquired. Somethings are best left alone.
Nonetheless, I convinced Jay to go back to the Hungry Tarpon Restaurant in the morning, even though we weren’t hungry. I wanted to feed the famous jumping fish that I’d learned about the night before. Tarpon usually like deep water but these tarpon were different. The tarpon at Robbie’s Marina like to swim near the surface and be fed by human hand. Wouldn’t you know, on this morning, the hungry tarpon were neither hungry nor jumpy. The prehistoric-looking denizens must have felt the cold air, as a recent spell of artic air had chilled Florida. And so the curious happenings continued.
“Enough,” said Jay, “time to drive home.” One last time I insisted on stopping. “I must photograph Betsy, the lobster,” I begged. Betsy is a huge roadside attraction, the type of thing that was popular back in the 60’s when drivers traveled Route 66. So, for the record, here she is, a real beauty.
What more could one wish for on a trip to the quirky Keys and an interlude on Islamorada?
If You Go:
La Siesta Resort, Mile Marker 80.5, Islamorada, FL offers 1,2 and 3 bedrooms suites, a 3 bedroom vacation house and 5 bedroom executive house. Marina slips are also available. www.lasiestaresort.com
The Hungry Tarpon Restaurant at Mile Marker 77.5, 305 664 0535, www.hungrytarpon.com, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner reservations suggested.
January 2010 turned unseasonably cold, even in my corner of northeast Florida. The winter chill in Jacksonville felt like Buffalo, forcing Floridians to dream of warmth. Yes, the Keys were calling: sunsets and sand, flip-flops and shorts, Key Lime pie. “Come, drive down the Road to Paradise,” I heard.
The Florida Keys Overseas Highway, from north of Key Largo to Key West, was recently crowned with the title All-American Road., the only such road in Florida. And that’s the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program established by the Congress. Only 30 other roadways in the nation have earned the prestigious designation and my husband, Jay, and I were about to find out why.
The Overseas Highway follows a trail originally blazed in 1912. Standard Oil millionaire Henry Flagler completed the immense logistical task–more nightmare, really–of extending his Florida East Coast Railroad the 150 miles from Miami to Key West. Just imagine Gibson Girl-esque young women in their swan-bill corsets and pompadours boarding the train in New York and–a mere 30 hours later–stepping out at the southernmost point in the United States. What a boom for Florida.
Then, in 1935, catastrophe struck this paradise. A hurricane collapsed the rail line, and the economic conditions of the Depression left the destruction lying in disarray. The Keys were accessible only by water.
The government decided a highway was needed and could incorporate the foundation of some of the original railway spans, as well as 42 bridges over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The road, completed in 1938, included the Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon, which stretched 6.79 miles across open water and referred to as “the eighth wonder of the world.”
I remember my first road trip to Key West in 1960, a family vacation in our brand new Chevy Corvair. My Dad did all the driving and my two brothers and I sat seatbelt-less in the backseat. We Virginians were thrilled by southern tourist attractions and the changing landscape: Spanish moss, palm trees and alligators. But, when we got to the Keys highway, my Mother nearly succumb from white knuckled fear. Trucks passing in the opposite direction took more than their half of the road.
Fortunately, in 1982, most of the original bridges including the Seven Mile Bridge were replaced with wider spans. Many of the remaining structures can still be seen running alongside the newer ones and are frequently used as fishing piers.
Today, a road trip from Florida City, below Miami and known as the “Gateway to the Keys,” takes approximately four to five hours, depending on traffic. The speed limit is 55 mph most of the way, 45mph in more populous intersections. The pavement is good and its width, or lack of it, is no longer scary.
The first Key you encounter along US 1 is Largo, the largest at 30 miles from end to end. Most people recognize the name from the 1948 movie Key Largo starring Boogie and Bacall or perhaps the song, Sailing Away to Key Largo. You really wouldn’t know you’re driving on an island as you don’t see water– just shops, hotels and flat scrubby ground. This area is now famous for diving including an underwater park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.
Islamorada Key comes next, a fisherman’s dream. Boaters arise early for deep-sea fishing or back water excursions. The wide selection of catch includes Amberjack, Blackfin Tuna, Blue Marlin, Bonefish, Cobia, Dolphin, Grouper, King Mackerel, Redfish, Snook, Tarpon, Wahoo and Yellowtail Snapper. Water sports of all types are available for non-fisher folk. (More about this area on my return trip.)
Marathon Key follows, originally named Vaca (cow) by Spanish settlers for the many manatee or sea cows found offshore. It was renamed Marathon by the men building the railroad which required the lengthy bridge. Marathon boasts lots of development and a small airport, but no regular commercial flights. However, the surrounding water shimmers a beautiful blue-green and the many bridge crossing give the area a tropical feel.
Crossing Big Pine Key called for slowing to 45 mph or 35 mph at night. Key Deer, small endangered white-tailed deer, live here and large fences (erected at a few million dollars of taxpayer’s expense) help protect the animals and cars. I didn’t see any.
Finally, the end of the road arrives at Key West, also known as the Conch Republic. “Conchs” are the natives, many of whom trace their ancestry to the Bahamas. “Freshwater Conchs” are those who migrated from somewhere else years ago. Additionally, many Cuban immigrants help make up the resident population of 25,000.
Jay and I dropped our luggage at our B& B, the historic Cypress House. Built by shipbuilders in in 1888, this Grand Conch mansion has been called one of the purest examples of Bahamian architecture in Key West. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and its exterior (weathered cypress) and interior oozes with island charm. I loved our room on the second floor with an outdoor patio. I felt I was sleeping like a baby, among the palm treetops.
We walked to Conch Republic Seafood for a late lunch and to meet Carol Shaughnessy, a local resident for the past 30 years. Carol tells us about the infamous Conch Republic rebellion, “The US Border Patrol decided to set up a roadblock at Florida City, which caused a seventeen mile back-up on the only road in and out of the Keys. Outraged by being treated as foreigners, we, the residents, formed the Conch Republic and declared war.”
She continued,”We intended to use stale Cuban bread as ammunition. But, a half an hour later we surrendered and demanded a billion dollars in foreign aid. We’re still waiting.”
Soon, the embarrassed Border Patrol dismantled their roadblock and thus the motto of the Conch Republic,”We seceded where others failed.”
Conch “officials” state, “We consider ourselves a fifth world nation with a sovereign state of mind that promotes the mitigation of world tension through the exercise of humor.”Gotta love that attitude and attitude is what Key West does best – laid back and easy going.
Later we strolled the streets finding the official end of the road, mile marker zero. We meandered down to Mallory Square for the nightly Sunset Celebration which included street performers and vendors selling their handmade wares and cocktails. Dogs jumped through hoops, cats performed tricks and one man juggled fire torches while riding a 12- foot high unicycle.
As the sun dropped, boats zigged and zagged across the horizon, giving photographers a lovely photo op. The day’s sunset was not terribly spectacular with color but romantic; how nice to be standing on the dock with your partner, gazing into the sea.
Jay and I dined at a Cuban restaurant on Ropa Vieja which means dirty clothes.The brisket was slowly cooked and then pulled, giving the meat a dingy look but tasting tender and succulent. We strolled back hand in hand to the lovely and conveniently located Cypress House B&B looking forward to exploring Old Town the next day.