Cuba! (Part 1)

When we officially retired in December of 2014 and began our full time RV lifestyle in the weeks that followed, we fully intended to include traditional “vacations” into the yearly plan, aiming for one overseas trip per year, and possibly some within the lower 48 states flights as well.  In 2015 we went to Hawaii and England, but starting in 2016  money and opportunity limited our plans.  That year we made one trip to Brown County, Indiana so stepmom Marcia could show us that great little area, while Rosemarie made a couple of short trips to Coral Springs and Norfolk to see family.  The same with 2017 and 2018, a few trips to Norfolk each year.  (Our trip across the border into Mexico in 2017 doesn’t count: we only went for dental work!) 1-flag

So when an affordable and well timed opportunity to take a six day guided tour of Havana and outskirts, we jumped on it.  It all came to pass through family connections: Rosemarie’s Uncle Mario’s wife, Talek, started up a travel organization after retiring from the international corporate world.  She leverages her experience working throughout Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia to take small groups on her personally guided trips, or provide you with the information, tools and motivation to do so yourself via her excellent blog: Travels With Talek.  As a Cuban-American, she has taken numerous trips to Cuba, but had never taken a group.  Since this would be her first, she wanted to beta test it on friends and family who would provide honest feedback, and she would do so “at cost” for her first set of travelers. 2-hemingway-statue

Talek’s guidance for this event started well before actual travel; she sent a series of emails to each participant filled with helpful information and links.  Thus we knew about the Cuban Travel Card, which serves as a form of Visa, and the 12 permitted reasons for US citizens to travel there.  (Tourism is not one of them!  We went with “Support for the Cuban people,” though education would have been acceptable as well.)  Talek made sure that our detailed itinerary included numerous events that supported and justified our stated reason for travel.  We knew what to bring, all about the complicated two currency system within Cuba, and how to maximize our money. 3-d1-flight

DAY 1: Arrival, Money, and the Casa

Based on price and airport convenience, and airline preference, we left the cat with Gloria in Venice, FL, drove to Coral Springs to stay with Xavier and Joy for a couple of days before flying out of Fort Lauderdale on Southwest Airlines.  We arrived early to get our $75 travel cards (they are sold by the individual airlines, with varying costs, so you want to do your research) and boarded a nearly full flight for the less than an hour air time.  Customs and Immigration was a breeze, and Talek had a driver with our names on a board waiting for us among the taxi scrum to take us to our residence for the next five nights.

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The first of many classic cars in which we would ride this trip.

There are three categories of hotel available in Cuba: government owned hotels (nice old buildings taken over after the revolution,) foreign owned hotels permitted by the government (usually very nice and expensive,) and private “casa particulars.”  In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government had to pretty much restructure the entire economy since they were not getting any fuel or monetary subsidies.  They entered a Special Period that saw huge changes, particularly in agriculture, industry, and transportation. 5

One outgrowth was increased partnerships with West European and South American business to monetize the tourist industry, and the eventual issuance of licenses for Cuban citizens to partake in a select list of private enterprise activities.  One of those is the Casa system, where Cuban rent out individual rooms, often to foreign visitors, sort of like a bed and breakfast.  Many of them are even on Air BnB now. 6-casa-balcony

Our group split between to different Casas within about two blocks of each other.  We had our own private room, with locks, a private bathroom, and a shared large balcony.  We were given keys to the front door of the house as well, and invited to use the kitchen and main living room. The others in our group had the same general set up.  Everything was clean, we had hot water during the day, and were within easy walking distance of bodegas, restaurants, and some shops.

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Our room for the stay.

After meeting up with Talek in the other casa, she got us situated in ours, and gave us the run down on the local area.  We made the stroll down to one of the main thoroughfares to seek out a money changing venue.  As I mentioned earlier, Talek had prepped us for the confusing currency situation.  To start with, there is a 3% fee when exchanging currency, and an additional 10% added on for US Dollar exchanges.  Because of this we had gone through the trouble of changing our dollars into Euros before leaving the states, which saved us about 20 bucks in all.

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Street performers in Old Havana

Here in Havana we exchanged the Euros for Cuban Convertible Pesos, informally, “CUC” pronounced close to “cook.”  The CUC is pegged to the US dollar, 1 for 1, and is the primary currency for foreign visitors.  This is not the currency most Cuban’s use on a daily bases.  They use Cuban pesos, 25 of which equals one CUC.  And yes, the price for foreigners using CUCs is significantly higher than for locals using pesos; most vendors interacting with foreigners will only except CUCs. 9

Which is fine, because we found everything to be quite affordable regardless of the mark up.  We bought a bottle of three year old Club Havana for 8 CUC, fantastic cheese and ham croissants for just over 1, and usually paid just a few, 4 or less, for taxi’s around town.  Local beer, even in high end hotels, rarely ran more than 2 per can, and restaurants were noticeably cheaper than equivalent meals in the US. 10-beer-stop

DAY 2 Old Havana

The next morning we met up with Talek and the rest of our tour group: John, Talek’s youngest brother, and Jaems, a women she had met at a bloggers conference.  Originally there were supposed to be three others (a couple and their friend) but a death in the family had caused a late cancellation.  So here on day two we began our tour in earnest.  And let me tell you, if you have an interest in going on any of Talek’s tours, which we highly recommend, be prepare for a full schedule, because she does not play.  You are in this country for what may be the only point in your life, and she wants you to see everything in the limited time you have available. communal-brkfst12

We enjoyed a sit down breakfast prepared by the hostess at the other casa before boarding a taxi for a full day in Old Havana.  This would be an extensive walking tour of this historic UNESCO world heritage site, focused on the history, culture, and architecture, though with a few stops for refreshments, or course. 12-coco-frio

One of the most common phrases associated with Old Havana is that it is a city caught in time.  The vast majority of the buildings are pre-WWII, and, famously, a large portion of the cars are old American classics from the 40’s and 50’s.  One of the things Talek pointed out is that as far as the architecture goes, much of it really dates to the pre-depression era in the decades after the turn of the century. 13-achitecture

We had a sit down lunch with live music before continuing our walk, then did a bicycle taxi tour of a couple more culturally relevant stops and a drink on top of one of the best rooftop hotel views in the city.  Many of the historic building have intricate lower level lobby’s, some of which serve as historic markers and museums.

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This peacock occupied the back courtyard of one of the street level museums.

We visited one of the local markets permitted by the government to sell various food items outside of the ration system.  It was from these markets that our hostess gathered the necessary items to prepare evening meal in her house.  This was an excellent capper to a long day, and we headed back to our casa tired but satisfied, and ready for an evening cocktail before an early bedtime; for tomorrow would be full as well. 15-market

I was planning on writing up our Cuba trip as one single post, but I’m already at 16 paragraphs and feel I am beyond many attention spans. Additionally, I am running into an unexpected problem with inserting google photos pics into WordPress, so until sort that out, no more pictures. Once I resolve that issue I will likely do the remaining four days in one photo heavy post since we won’t need paragraph upon paragraph of intro like in this one. 1617182019

A pre-Cuba crisscrossing run across South Florida

That title makes it pretty clear what the “upcoming international trip” I mentioned in the last two posts is about.  But before we could go to Cuba, we had family to visit and things to take care of throughout South Florida.  Our grand total of 3 miles in January through March for Serenity was about to get dwarfed by the true start of our 2019 travels.

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PKM in her usual travel position.

Normally when we leave The Keys we head up to Coral Springs to see Xavier and Joy before crossing westward to eventually meet up with Gloria in Venice.  This time we had to reverse things a bit in order to balance planned work on the RV, a cat sitter, and value priced plane tickets.  Though not the most mileage efficient plan, it worked out best for our needs, and we got to enjoy the Tamiami Trail (US 41) through the everglades rather than our usual Alligator Alley (I-75) route.   Though you are not always quite as elevated as on I-75, we found the opportunities to see wildlife significantly better on this road, and enjoyed it much more than the alternative.

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PKM showing concern the night before we left her with Gloria and Jerry for our trip.

We made a one night stop at Midway Campground (you can guess about where that is) our very first Corps of Engineers park.  Hard to believe we have been full time RVing for more than four years with a rather heavy road schedule and have never stayed at one of these great campgrounds before.  Of course, we were winging it like we often do and had not made reservations because we did not know how far we would feel like driving that day.  And we were in the middle of the Everglades with very limited reception, so working through the COE reservation system was quite impossible.  Fortunately the campground had a “pay by cash or check” drop box and, after several careful readings, we were able to determine which sites were reservable and which were not, so as to be assured that we were not just pulling into a spot reserved by a late arrival customer.  3-pedicures

It was nice, and we will likely make this a one day stop again if our path warrants.  There are only 26 RV sites, they are electric only, but water and a dump station are on premises.  The sites are large, and the setting pleasant, with lots of greenery all around.  We stayed inside due to rain throughout the evening, but I imagine mosquitoes could be quite bad whilst in the middle of the Everglades.

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We forgot to take a picture of Midway Campground, so enjoy these attractive tacos from Gloria and Rose’s outing in Venice.

From Midway it was on to Port Charlotte to drop off Serenity at Mr Mobile RV’s for Bill and his crew to fix a few minor things.   Bill has worked on our rig a couple of times, and he has become the RV mechanic I trust most.  I remember my grandfather had a regular mechanic, Tom, that did all of his auto repair work, so maybe Bill is our Tom.  I suspect that there is some industry wide secret society that mandates that truly reliable and fair mechanics all have a one syllable first name.  Anyway, Bill would work on Serenity while we were bouncing around the state before and after Cuba, and allowed us to park the rig in his lot for the two weeks we would be busy at no extra charge.

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Multiple trip to Venice means I am slowly filling in the caches in this area.

A short aside: we were very low on propane (in our fixed 24 gallon tank) after a season of extensive dry camping in Key West, and Bill advised us to top off before arriving since we would not be hooked up to electricity at his place (our refrigerator runs off propane when electricity is not available.)  So we pulled into one place we had googled, only to find that they no longer do RVs.  On their advice we headed to the local Tractor Supply Company.  Unfortunately their propane refill station was poorly positioned, and while I was able to pull into it, I was unable to maneuver out of the station due to the parking lot configuration.  We spent half an hour trying before giving up and searching the store for the owner of the pick up truck parked, perfectly legally, in the spot that prevented us from making the turn.  We only fill up twice a year or so, but I need to do better research before the next time.

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Having a fixed tank is nice since it last so long, but those RVs with multiple smaller tanks have the advantage of a much easier fill up.

We stayed with Gloria and her husband Jerry for four days in Venice, FL.  We enjoy this town; Venice was our first Moose Lodge, and we try to visit anytime we are in the area.  Jerry is very hospitable during our stays, and while I was their IT consultant and repairman, he sprung for a family dinner at an excellent local BBQ place for the four of us plus Rose’s brother, niece, nephew, and their mother. 7-dj-rose-laura

And while in Venice we made two significant purchases.  For our trusty 1997 Geo Tracker (Loki) it was time for a new set of tires. They were last replaced in June of 2016, so we got 60K miles out of them, and it would have been more if I rotated them (the nature of the tow system and an alignment issue has caused increased wear on the inner tread of our front tires.)

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Ahhh, new tread. 

And for Rosemarie, who has talked and talked about us trying to learn an instrument of some sort, we finally got her a Ukulele.  We found her perfect instrument at The Rhythm Inlet.  Jeff walked us through the basics, and eagerly encouraged us to pick up any of his over 150 Uke’s and give it a go or let him demo it.  While we were planning on a very affordable “entry level” instrument, we ended up going a bit higher for one with excellent sound and a lovely sea themed design carved and inlaid. 9-rose-uke

This is not shaping up to be the most financially responsible months for us considering that our big trip to Cuba came right on the heels of those purchases, but we think our first quarter financial discipline will allow a month of largess.   Besides, for the six days of the Cuba trip, plus the eight combined days before and after in Venice and Coral Springs, we were staying “rent free,” i.e., no campground fees.

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Whereas in Coral Springs there is still a lot left to find.

Leaving Pad Kee Meow in the capable hands of Gloria, our last remaining cat sitter, we crossed back across Florida to Coral Springs for a two night stay with Xavier and Joy before catching our flight out of Fort Lauderdale to Cuba.  Usually we have our rig in their driveway while there, so it was nice to visit without having to worry about our big rig clogging up the driveway.  11-rose-gloria

Next up: Cuba!

 

Lucking into a full week stay at Bahia Honda State Park

In an ideal world we would hit Bahia Honda immediately after leaving Key West every year and maybe follow that up with a stay at Curry Hammock State Park as well.  We came pretty close to this ideal in April.  Our vaguely planned departure date from Key West had originally been mid March, but an international travel opportunity caused us reevaluate our options, and look at staying a couple of weeks longer.  Once that change occurred, we were checking the Reserve America website every day for any cancellations at either Bahia or Curry, but only managed to find a single day available in the time period we had available. bridge-day

Then our friends Rusty and Charito developed truck problems and had to cancel their reservations at Bahia Honda.  They contacted us to see about orchestrating a carefully timed “we cancel and you snatch up the days” online action.  Which we did, and that combined with yet another cancellation from some stranger allowed us to string together a full week there.  Perfect!

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Can you tell this place makes Rose happy?

While we will take Bahia Honda under almost any circumstances, we are particularly enamored with the fifteen or so water front sites.  Fortunately, the last half of our stay was in one of these coveted numbers, really capping off a lucky set of circumstances for us.

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Our site from the Overseas Highway nearby

We spent our days enjoying our fantastic ocean front views, swimming and snorkeling in the protected bay, and when the wind was right, checking out the Atlantic side as well.  Almost every evening we joined a conch blowing group at sunset near the overpass, which was nice as you start to actually know your neighbors and the volunteer staff when you see and speak to some of them each day. us-at-conch-blow

We made several outings around the lower and middle keys, hitting the Moose Lodge on  Big Pine several times, eating at a nice little pizza-by-the-slice parlor there as well, and driving up to marathon for a hair cut, some shopping, and a bit of geocaching.  This was a great way to start our post Key West travels. bridge-sunset

49, 50, and 51 Months Fulltiming: January, February and March combined report

So we are breaking from a four year long consistent pattern of posting individual monthly reports that contain numbers and info about where we went, what we did, how we did it, how much it cost, and how much drama was involved.  Bottom line: I have allowed the blog to become too far behind, and in order to get back on track I’m taking a shortcut.  Thus I present the first, and hopefully last, quarterly fulltiming report covering January through March of 2019. 1-sunset-1

The Distance:  3 miles, about on each month.  We stayed in Key West at the Naval Air Station Sigsbee Annex the entire three months, and only moved a handful of times between the dry camping and full hook up areas.  This brings our 2019 annual total to (checks figures) 3 miles.  2-route

The Places:  As mentioned above, we spent all three months in Key West.  So that’s 90 days at nothing but military campgrounds.  Since we were in the Sigsbee full hook up rotation scheme, we ended up dry camping for 57 and in full hook ups for 33 days. 3-jack-crab

The Budget:  Way under budget!  Specifically, 15% under in January, $17.8% under in February, and dead on in March.  Key West is great for our budget.  For some of the Sigsbee crowd, Key West is their splurge: in addition to maintaining a home wherever, they deny themselves little while here in paradise.  For us, it is one of the cheapest places we stay ($17 a night drycamping, $27 while in full hook ups, giving us an average of nightly cost of less than $21.)  In addition to that we are not moving, thus no gas costs for Serenity.  This is a big deal for us: our rig gets 7 mpg and we travel 10,000 miles or more the rest of the year.  Finally, we have markets, and quite successful ones at that.  And we stayed this far under even after paying 80% of the cost of an upcoming international vacation. 4-rose-water

The Drama and the Improvements:   Our buddy Stan spent several hours helping me troubleshoot and repair a few issues this season, with the big victory being his repair of our onboard generator, a big ole Onan Marquis 5500 watt machine capable of powering both A/C’s and everything else in our rig.  For less than $50 we replaced the fuel filters and then the fuel pump, which solved the problem.  He also worked on our highly temperamental automatic stairs, which will probably work for a month or so until they go out again, and reinforced our biggest slide out floor.  After Stan determined that our toilet was not reasonably repairable, I ordered an upgraded model and installed it.

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It’s not a toilet, it’s an all weather indoor/outdoor stool with under seat storage.

We had some drama with Serenity’s starter battery going dead a couple of times, and are not certain what caused it since it is now holding a charge just fine.  We must have some sort of very light trickle drain on it somewhere in the system.  Lastly, we ripped out our front sleeper sofa: it had become such an eyesore after all the faux leather peeled away, and we figure that pulling it out will motivate us to find a replacement sooner.  6-sunset-2

 

Key West: The Markets

I held off on this until our very last Key West 2019 post since I suspect that the frequency with which we mention our market participation can become a bit tiresome.  But it is a significant part of our life and particularly important to our finances, and let me tell you, January through March were quite good for the Shell On Wheels marketeers, so read on if your interested or skip it if the sordid details of our roving sales has become tedious.

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A cool overcast morning for our first on base community yard sale of the season.

During our winter Key West stay in 2018 we jammed three weekly farmers markets into our Wednesday through Friday mornings.  That felt a bit like having a real job, and after some interesting experiences participating in seasonal festivals, we resolved to shift our Winter market pattern in the direction of special events rather than weekly markets.  Besides, the Bayview weekly in Key West always felt a bit too pricey considering the crowd, the American Legion event on Stock Island shut down, and we did not quite gel with the Sugarloaf market manager, so the decision was pretty easy.  So what did we do?  Aside from two out of the fourteen Wednesday Sugarloaf markets and two on base community wide yard sales occurring during our three month stay, we participated in four special events.

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The March on base yard sale was a bit different than the others we have done. Rather than MWR coordinating it, the base housing contracting office arranged for it in their parking area.

The first of those was the Big Pine Key Nautical Expo (which is not to be confused with the weekly Big Pine Key Nautical Flea Market just down the road.)  Held on Martin Luther King weekend on Big Pine Key’s Chamber of Commerce property, it typically draws in 200 vendors and a steady stream of potential buyers.  I am not gonna lie: not every vendor was happy with this year’s offering.  The people behind us were lucky if they covered their vendor fee, but we killed it!  We were quite fortunate in our site assignment along one of the main drags, which, frankly, helped a lot compared to some of those in the back rows.  Fortunately, we were able to lock in the same site for next year by paying in advance.  We suffered a bit for our success: the no-see-ums were quite bad.  Next year we will be better prepared.

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Our set up gets more elaborate every season.

In February we participated in the Stock Island Botanical Gardenfest for the second year in a row.  The event organizers appear to have done more advertising, improved the people flow, moved all the vendors to a nicer area, added a second live music stage, and arranged to have more food options for the attendees.  All this meant we did nearly three times the sales this year compared to last time.

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A nice grassy area surrounded by lush vegetation.  Much better than the dirt road from last year’s Gardenfest.

While working at the previously mentioned Big Pine Key Nautical Expo someone associated with the Boondocks restaurant on Ramrod Key let us know about a series of events with potential vendor participation in the coming months.  We skipped on the Spanish Festival, but made some inquiries about the late February Habitat for Humanity Island Grass Music Festival, and were encouraged to come set up with no vendor fee at all.  Turns out vendors were a bit of an afterthought for this event, and we were the only ones!  We had a great time, had delicious food, craft beer, live music all day, and one a few silent auctions as well.  Oh yeah, we sold like crazy most of the day. 5-sus-necklaces

Encouraged by our success at these seasonal events, Rose found yet another one via facebook: The Key West Preschool Co-op annual fun fair.  Despite the short notice, event organizers fit us in with no issues, and Rose worked to bulk up the kid oriented items on our tables, all of which resulted in yet another great sales day.  6-flower-headbands

So that’s it for Key West markets, and also the last Key West specific post until next year.   During our 13 week stay we participated in eight events, two of which were two days long, and sold a bit on the side to Sigsbee campers.  Quite a successful winter for us. 7-mm-crowns-plus

 

Key West: The Food

Key West is a touristy town, and dining experiences in such places often run the gamut from great to poor in a way that normal towns don’t quite see.  The touristy places attract some top flight restaurateurs and chefs, but also have an unfortunate number of spots living off their location and banking on glitzy advertising, high traffic, and reputations that may no longer be earned.  In my Miami Beach years, I often made the point to visitors that the absolute top tourist area, Ocean Drive on South Beach, definitely fit into this latter category and the restaurants there could not compete with those on, for instance, Lincoln Road (also on South Beach) or Wynwood on the mainland just across the causeway.  I am years out of date for Miami Beach recommendations, and your mileage may vary, so I only use it as an example.

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Sunset at Sunset Lounge

Our experience in Key West, however, has been quite good and often excellent, with very few places that we would recommend against.  Part of this is our online research, part of it is freely offered opinions from our many friends in the area, and another part is that this was our fifth winter on the island (on top of the numerous visits made before our fulltime RV days) and so we know, to a large extant, what we like and what we don’t here.

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Old Town Mexican Taco Tuesday aims for higher end tacos at a higher price than Lucy’s

This year we resolved to “eat out smart,” i.e., select our restaurants carefully, don’t get pressured into going to those places we didn’t fully appreciate in past years, and hit some new, well reviewed spots.  In our last post. about the the many social events we attended while in Key West. we covered Taco Tuesday at Lucy’s, Wing Wednesday at the VFW, the Sunset Lounge on the naval base, and Mangrove Mama’s on Sugarloaf Key.  I won’t belabor the point on those except to reiterate that Lucy’s taco day is better than Old Town Mexican’s (and there upstairs bar is great any day of the week,) the VFW (in partnership with Treble Hooks) is truly a great “bang for your buck” option (especially if you’re drinking,) Sunset Lounge provided a mixed bag, and we are willing to give Mangrove Mama’s another go before passing final judgement. 3-lucys

So where, other than those four, did we dine and to which of them do we give our highly coveted endorsement?  Let’s start with the happy hour specials at The Boat House.  Get there early or expect a wait, but it is well worth it.  Basic drinks and all the “small plates” are half price.  Fried lobster, lamb chops, filet mignon and mushroom skewers, multiple shrimp options, baby back ribs, and much more all at half price.  We find that three items is more than sufficient for each of us, or just two if we split the less than $2 Boat House chefs’ bread.

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Steve and I at The Boat House

El Mocho is the best low cost Latin restaurant in the Lower Keys.  Let me repeat that: El Mocho is the best low cost Latin restaurant in the Lower Keys.  I will stand by that against any competitor.  It is authentic Cuban fare at rock bottom (for The Keys) prices.  We loved swinging in for tostadas (Cuban bread toasted, buttered, and flattened,) empanadas, or pastelitos de carne (pastries with flavored ground beef inside.)  The highlight of our multiple food experiences there, however, was the Friday special: oxtail stew.  Aside from being delicious the serving size, which included toasted bread, maduros (fried sweet plantains,) white rice, and garbanzo beans, was more than sufficient for Rose and I to split.  We waddled out of their full, with leftovers, and only $15 poorer.

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Somehow we never got a picture from El Mocho, so enjoy this excellent shot of Deb and Steve.

We attended a fund raiser at the historic Key West Fire House Museum, and ended up winning a silent auction for t-shirts from The Lobster Shack restaurant.  What can say, Rose liked the design.  When we picked them up a week or so later we went straight to the shack wearing said t-shirts, and I had a fantastic Maine style lobster roll while Rose enjoyed a delicious shrimp roll in the same style.  It’s a tiny little place but we thoroughly enjoyed it.  Next winter I might compare their lobster roll to another place that comes highly recommended, but for now I would not hesitate to recommend The Lobster Shack. 6-lobster-shack

Let me take this opportunity to rant a bit about crappy Tripadvisor reviewers.  I am in the habit of checking out not just the general assessments on that site, but I tend to read the worst reviews even when they are in the distinct minority.  Check those for The Lobster Shack: One guy gave them a one star review because they closed early after the death of an employee’s father and a high wind advisory.  Another gave one star because, essentially, he didn’t understand the difference between Maine and Florida spiny lobster.  A few other two star reviewers likewise did not understand the difference between these two distinct crustacean species, and were thus dismissive of the Maine lobster prices here in a place more than a thousand miles from Bar Harbor and Kennebunkport.

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The Upstairs “Locals” Bar at Lucy’s es quite nice.

Last year we had a fantastic, serendipitous seafood pasta meal at Rustica, with liberal amounts of hogfish, shrimp, and other offerings from the sea.  We did not manage to get back on a day with that special, but the pizza was top notch, though “artisinally” priced.  Next year we plan on checking their schedule so we can once again enjoy the delicious seafood pasta.

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Roger, Stan, Marilyn, and Barny in the backgroud.

Angelino’s Pizza is another iconic downtown Key West establishment that we have patronized and loved during various bar crawls.  The individual slices there are about as great as you could hope for, particularly during an evening of morally questionable activity.  The actual whole pies, however, we found woefully lacking, as did a couple of our friends during separate visits.  Bottom line: slices yes, pies no, and we will remain a bit suspicious next year even for the slices. 9-sunset-lounge-us

We loved the amazing Sunday brunch at Bistro 245 so much last year that we did it twice.  We felt that to be a bit glutinous, and thus resolved to only do it once this season.  It did not disappoint!  Once again we went with our good friends Steve and Deb.  Located in the Margaritaville Resort in front of one of the cruise ship mooring piers, we love the outdoor morning view, excellent service and incredible and varied buffet offerings.  Yes, it is $44 per person, and thus our most expensive meal of the winter, but with the bottomless mimosas and champagne, imaginative food options, fantastic lamb and prime rib, raw oysters, sushi, omelet station, smoked salmon and cream cheese, crab claws, to-die-for desert section, and a dozen other things I won’t list, we found it well worth the price of admission.  Besides, we won a silent option at a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser that covered the tax and tip! 10-bistro-us

Two Friends is one of Rose’s favorite, nostalgic, Key West spots.  It has great environment with a top quality roster of live music acts performing at a volume that is not overly intrusive (unlike the horrific Kelly’s Irish Bar, just to pick one example.)  We paid a pretty penny on our Saint Patrick’s Day visit for Rose’s snow crab legs (obviously a traditional Irish meal,) my spicy chicken wings (common fare in County Kerry going back centuries I understand,) and a stream of drinks ($5 Jameson’s) but it was thoroughly enjoyable. 11-two-friends-snow-crab

Some of our Sigsbee friends raved about the gigantic fish sandwich from Mundy’s Pirate Seafood, a little shack of a place in a strip mall in the center of the island.  We remembered buying shrimp from the colorful owner at a craft market downtown last year, and gave it a shot.  The reputation he enjoys is well deserved; it was a huge and tasty fish sandwich with a mound of fries.  We split it and were completely full.  While trying to find the place I noticed that his google search results provided an old and “permanently closed” location.  I talked to him about this, got his correct address and hours, and fixed most of the google results such that you get the right address and correct hours, however the google pin point drops on the old location.  If anyone knows how to fix this, please let me know.  It’s even worse with his Tripadvisor result, which shows him as closed.  I would like to fix this as well, so any recommendations appreciated.

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Didn’t get a pic of Mundy’s either, so here are the wings from the VFW.

Near the end of our stay we enjoyed a flight of beer and a burger from Waterfront Brewery.  I am surprised it took us so long to get there given that we are quite into trying out local small batch breweries.  It was solid, and since we went for happy hour, quite affordable. 13-two-friends-us-1

This sounds like quite a lot of restaurant activity for people supposedly on a tight budget.  We greatly mitigated the costs, however, by usually only dining during the happy hour or daily specials, and by making extensive use of the many discount cards available at certain kiosks.  Many of them are Buy One, Get One for drinks, but others offer half off appetizers or some other discount.  So yes, we ate and had drinks out quite a lot, but we did so pretty affordably, and look forward to more next year! 14-discount-cards

Key West: The Social Life

While the Winter weather, beautiful water, and general “living in paradise” conditions are a major reason we and so many of the other Sigsbee campers keep coming back to Key West, another major draw is the social atmosphere here in the RV park.  Of the two hundred or more different parks we have visited, none can come even close to the constant party atmosphere that pervades this place.  And it seems there are more events added every season, though part of that is simply that we know more people each year, and thus get invited to more things.

Arial view of Lucy’s back porch during one of many Tuesday gatherings there.

Things started off the day after our arrival with the annual Sigsbee Polar Bear Plunge.  This, obviously, involves a group dip in the bay, in waters that are merely a bit chilly compared to what our northern countrymen experience.  I think it was all of about 72 degrees this year.  The plunge itself is followed by an outdoor potluck breakfast complete with Mimosa’s and Bloody Mary’s, of course.

Like many of the Sigsbee events, this gets bigger every year

In past years a portion of the social activity was coordinated by the base’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation department.  But last year, in the wake of the Hurricane Irma, MWR pretty much dropped out of the party organization game.  Into that gap stepped a few Sigsbee stalwarts, particularly Eddy and Tina, determined to continue some of our favorite social traditions and perhaps add a few more.  One of our main events is the Sigsbee Shuffle; a moving party with multiple hosts providing a drink and light hors d’oeuvres.  Always a good time.

Shuffle host Mike handing out shots at one of the stops 

Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar & Grill has been hosting a $1 taco night every Tuesday for some time, with an every growing contingent from Sigsbee dominating the larger tables.  A few months before we arrived, they moved locations, and some felt the new spot was not quite as workable for our large group, so for the first Taco Tuesday of our Winter season, we tried another joint, Old Time Mexican Restaurant.

Val, Joan, Rusty, and Charito at Taco Tuesday

It had its perks (great sangria and an interesting taco variety) but a significant portion of our Sigsbee clan felt that Lucy’s couldn’t be beat.  So for most of the following Tuesdays for the rest of our stay we returned to there.  I think Lucy’s taco’s are bigger and better this year, and though the Corona price has increased from $2 to $3, it is still a fantastic value for Key West, and always a lot of fun. 

The only bar/restaurant on the Sigsbee Annex base is the Sunset Lounge.  As the name suggests, it is perfectly positioned for a great sunset view, has decent food, and frequently has live music.  We had a big turnout from the RV park for the No Name Band’s appearance there.  The band was started by two members of our Sigsbee community, Mike and Nelson, and they always provide a great, energetic set of mostly classic rock. 

From Left to Right, Dave, Nelson, and Mike.  Band Member Debbie not in this set for some reason.

The VFW was closed due to hurricane damage last winter, but reopened with a vengeance this year.  They offer half price Wing Wednesday (comes out to about 50 cents per wing) and Prime Rib Night on Thursday.  We took a group of eight for wing night and had a great time made especially fantastic when Steve won $600 from a pull tab machine and picked up everyone’s dinner tab!

Deb and Steve with their winnings.

Another event becoming an annual tradition is Eddy and Tina’s blind wine tasting.  This involves every participating couple bringing a bottle of wine, restricted to whatever criteria our hosts decide.  Last year it was reds, under $15, and not sweet.  This year it was whites, under $10.  Eddy and Tina add a layer of fun by including a bottle of $2 buck chuck (Trader Joe’s cheap special) and a $20+ bottle of something as well.  Last year the cheap stuff actually one the most votes, though fortunately I think it only made the top three this year. 

A group of us prepping the wine bottles for the big tasting.  We had about 25 bottles and couples last year, this year it was up over 70, and we had to split into three groups lest we all pass out or run out of wine.

I get that some people might find the Key West sunset cocktail cruises a bit over hyped, but when you get a large group of friends, fantastic organizers (Tina and Eddy again) and add in a costume theme, it completely lives up to expectations.  We had somewhere around 40 of our group participate, with most dressing up appropriate to the Gilligan’s Island theme.  Rose and I went as Mary Ann and The Professor, while Gilligan and Ginger were the most popular choices. 

The Professor and Mary Ann

The No Name Band booked a Saturday gig at Mangrove Mama’s, a long standing Lower Keys iconic restaurant 22 miles up the road on Sugarloaf Key.  We made carpools and had a big turn out that ended up completely overwhelming the wait staff.  The music was great, the food solid, but the “getting our bill” phase of the evening was utter chaos.  We mentioned to the owner that whenever he has The No Name Band playing, he can expect a big turnout from our campground.  We hope next time he staffs accordingly!

Another years long tradition among our group is the annual “Cinco de Marcho” party.  The name is obviously a play on the Mexican holiday, and our version is intended to celebrate all the holidays we will be apart.  Last year it was a day long party in a fixed location.  This year, Eddy and Tina created a significantly ramped up Sigsbee Shuffle with each host team assigned a different holiday theme.  We started at the ball field to get things going, as well as honor the memory of some of our Sigsbee people that passed away in the past two years.  RIP Brian and Dave. 

Opening ceremonies for Cinco de Marcho

We volunteered for the host team assigned the Cinco de Mayo theme, and I can say with all honesty and humility, we were absolutely the best stop.  We had buckets of margaritas, walking tacos (small Fritos or Doritos bags topped off with taco meat, sour creme, salsa, and shredded cheese,) and Rose made a great frame prop for everyone to take pictures with.  Truly a great time, and we thoroughly enjoyed the Octoberfest, Fourth of July, and Saint Patrick’s Day themed stops as well.  We ended the long day back at the ball field for more drinks and softball of questionable safety. 

Joanne and Charlie with Rose’s picture frame.

People were always throwing parties.  It seemed like not an evening passed that you would not see a moderate to large group gathered outside someone’s rig if you took a stroll or drive around the campground.  Jan and Bob hosted another big one to celebrate everyone who had a Birthday in January, February, or March.  It was, like most of our events, a pot luck style buffet with way more food than necessary. 

The Birthday boys and girls

I’m probably forgetting a few events (I just remembered the Superbowl Party and Leonard’s famous fish fries,) but the last one I will write up is Val and Joan’s sunset farewell party complete with live music from Val, Mike, Nelson, and others.  Mildly subdued since we were all saying goodbye, but a great way to end the Key West party season.  Until next year, Sigsbee crew, when it is possible we will have even more to write about if our livers allow it. 

Key West: Geocaching

I think Geocaching (explanation at that link) is a fantastic hobby, but it is particularly suited for RVers travelling around the country.  It gets you out to places you might not otherwise see, often involves a bit of exercise, and unlike those who live in a fixed area, we won’t run out of caches or find ourselves needing to venture further and further afield in search of them.  For instance, here is my cache map from Sanibel Island in 2016, which left only the east end of the place still holding unfound caches.

Our cache map after our last visit to Sanibel in 2016.  The yellow smiles are the ones we found, every other little box we had not yet found.

We “cleared” the rest of those during our first visit in 2019, and now have to venture into Fort Myers to find new caches.  If we lived there full time, it wouldn’t take long to clear Fort Myers as well,  but as full time RVers travelling out of Key West 9 months of the year, we can only temporarily run out: the next town will certainly have more to find.

The Geocaching website updated their symbology in 2017, but you can see the obvious expansion of our found caches in the area; we cleared the Island and started working on Fort Myers.

But, for those three months in Key West, we have pretty much run out.  There were a few newly placed ones this year, and a few “Earth Caches” (a GPS location that does not have a physical container to find, but rather questions to answer about the spot, which usually educates you about something significant in the area) that I had not yet done.  That meant only getting about half a dozen caches on the Island, though we managed to get a few more by venturing into the other lower keys. 

Nothing left to find in Key West unless they place some new caches.  We need to venture up to Sugarloaf and beyond to cache.

All that is a long way of saying that though we managed to find 500 caches in 2018, pushing us to 1000 as of December 31st, we left Key West with only 1007 caches.  Expect that number to start ramping up considerably now that we are back on the move!

Key West: Our Winter on the Water

Aside from living in an RV park right on the water, we also spent a fair amount of time out on the water on various friends boats.  Aside from the sheer joy of it, getting the chance to try different boats allows us to appreciate the pros and cons of the various types.  This experience is quite handy for anyone bitten by the boat bug and considering a future purchase of their own.  (Ahem, Rose.)

Dennis taking us out on a particularly calm day.

If you read our stone crabbing post, you know that we spent a good amount of time on Dennis’ boat.  He towed it down here last year, allowing our little group to do a bit of fishing on very calm days, but this year we mainly used it for crabbing.  It is a 17′ Carolina Skiff with a very flat bottom, which minimizes the days you can go out as well as distinctly limiting how far from the protected gulf bay near the base you may venture. 

Despite the size Dennis’ boat was in a few ways ideal for our crabbing:  It had plenty of open working space in front of the center console helm, a big casting deck in the bow which worked well as a platform for us to work the traps, and a low enough freeboard (the space between the water line and the deck railing) which meant we didn’t have to haul the trap too far out of the water to get it on deck. 

It wasn’t all crabbing this season, we managed to get in one short fishing trip, and though it was a small haul, it was, as always, fun and instructive for those of us new to salt water fishing.

While we appreciate all boating opportunities, our fishing highlights last year were the times we got to go out on Leonard’s boat.  It is a 26′ Twin Vee catamaran with two big Suzuki four stroke motors.  Within the boating community, there is an ongoing vociferous debate on the best riding hull: a catamaran or the more common deep “V.”   I can’t address this with anything approaching scientific objectivity, but my personal preference leans heavily towards the power cat, which may have more to do with Leonard’s being the biggest personal fishing boat we have been out on than any actual hull shape preference.

You can really appreciate the cat vs deep V hull when you see them out of the water.

Aside from the ride, one of the best things about going out with Leonard is that he loves to teach people about fishing.  We always come back from with significantly more knowledge; setting the hook better, fish identification and rules, rod set up, trolling techniques, you name it, Leonard wants you to know it.  And even if some of that knowledge just whizzes right over our heads, he is an entertaining story teller with a lot of material to work with.

Rose and Maryanne

Another advantage of a trip with Leonard is that he always has a full crew, so we get to know new people, or get to know those we already know better.  This year Leonard took us out along with Steve, Charlie, Gary and Maryanne.  His boat is big enough such that even with six lines in the water drop fishing we usually had plenty of room; we only tangled lines a couple of times. 

The boys.

Let’s talk about a slightly delicate subject: compensating the boat owners.  It is tradition and courtesy to offer some money to the owners when you go out on these boats.  They have, after all, made a huge investment in the boat itself, blow through gas far faster than your car or truck does, have a shocking amount of maintenance to do each and every year, and are often letting you use their spare rods and gear.  Now maybe, like our friends Danny and Patty, they will refuse any but the most insistent offer, but most owners will appreciate it.   If nothing else, at least buy the ice and bait.

This is especially important if you come back with a huge cooler full of fish and expect to take a share.  After discussion with other guests of Leonard, for instance, I give $40 no matter what we come back with, and more if Rose is along for the ride.  That is more than I offer on a smaller boat, but then again you are almost guaranteed to come back with a solid amount of fish when out with Leonard.  One time last year we returned with over 200, mostly 8″-12″ lane snapper, grunts, and porgies.  Not everyone wanted a share, but I did, and I assure you, taking only a portion, I walked away with far more value than my traditional $40 compensation.  Oh, and in case it is not be obvious, if you want some fish meat, be prepare to help with the fish cleaning. 

The cruise ship channel is one of the top fishing areas for very near shore stuff.

Danny and Patty brought their pontoon boat down from Alabama this year, but within a month or so he had sprung for a brand new 23′ Bulls Bay deep “V” with a 200hp Yamaha outboard.  This was one of the things, obvious to experienced fishers or boat owners I suppose, that one notes down here: almost all of the boats are outboards, hardly an inboard or an inboard/outboard hybrid to be seen, until you get into the charter or yacht sized options.

We got to go out one day with Danny, and though conditions were a bit rough it was still a great time, and we caught enough fish to be happy with the haul.  Danny and Patty are both very experienced freshwater bass fishers, but they are still learning this Lower Keys salt water thing, and we experimented with a couple of different trolling set ups in between drop fishing.  The excitement of the day was probably snagging the small shark which put up a robust fight, and managed to cut the line, possibly on the prop, just as we got it beside the boat.

 

In addition to the power cat vs deep V hull debate, preferred engine is another area with a robust discussion and adherents.  Our interaction with an admittedly limited number of owners has led us to believe the top two preferences are the Yamaha and Suzuki four strokes.  They are incredibly reliable, quite, and efficient.  While Leonard preferred the Suzuki, Danny insisted on the more expensive Yamaha.  Apparently all the big time bass people use Yamaha’s, and he would settle for nothing less.   This is not to say that Mercury, Evinrude, Honda, and Johnson brands are rare down here, it just seems they are a touch less desired.

It wasn’t all power boating this year, we also enjoyed a few hours on the water with Diamond Jim and his “Texas Kayak.”  This is a Hobie Mirage Tandem Island; basically a two person kayak with a sail, two outriggers, and twin “Mirage” pedal power.  A real Frankenstein, but incredibly versatile.  The Mirage Drive pedal system allows you to maneuver in light or no winds, and assists in tacking when under sail.  The sail is a robust 90 square foot set up that can be controlled from either the front or rear position.  The outriggers are equipped with “trampolines” that allow a third person, within the overall 600 lb weight restriction.

Mast stepped, outriggers out, trampolines going on.

It takes a good 20 to 30 minutes to get it rigged for sea, but once ready it is a fantastic little sailboat for the near shore bay area, and can operate in anything from dead wind to 20 knots or so, depending on the seas.  The thing is light enough that Jim can put it in the water with just his golf cart, and it folds up so small (the outriggers fold in, the mast is light and easily removed, and the mirage drives pull right out) that he can travel with it on top of his motorhome.

Jim takes so many people out, and is such an advocate for the Hobie sail/mirage system, that other Sigsbee campers have bought one as well.  This is Dave and Clara out on Hobie’s smaller tandem option.

So, there it is, our winter boating fun in Key West.  We are near the end of our stay, but look forward to even more next year.

Prepare for Key West blog post inundation

Just a quick note to say yes, we are still alive and still maintaining this travel blog.  Just as during our last two Winter stays in Key West, we fell way behind on the blog.  Though we are not moving, and have all the time in the world to keep it up, we fall into a routine heavy on socializing and light on productivity (other than our markets.)  So look for a series of posts during the next week or so covering out three month stay in paradise, including the boating, dining, parties,  geocaching, and markets.  In the mean time, enjoy these iguanas.