Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tuesday Travels: Scrumptious Neighbors

Forgive me for a moment – I'm still a little giddy from the New Orleans Saints' overtime win over the Minnesota Vikings. For those who don't like football – or the Saints in particular – I'm sure Sunday's win means very little, but for New Orleanians, it signifies the fulfillment of a decades-old wish. The Big Easy might not have won the Superbowl (yet), but even the fact that our beloved team is going to Miami in two weeks is an amazing feat for this seemingly jinxed organization. Believe me when I say that, even four years after Hurricane Katrina, the people of New Orleans needed this chance.

So, as I said, forgive me for a moment of giddiness. Okay, it's passed – on with the show!

As I mentioned last Tuesday, Dan and I have spent the month of January exploring the Florida Keys, a unique cluster of islands south of Florida's mainland, in preparation for a travel guide on which I'm currently working. One of the communities that we've had the privilege to experience is Islamorada, a village that consists of four islands (Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, and Lower Matecumbe Key) and whose Spanish-influenced name means “purple isles.” It's also known, in many circles, as “the sportfishing capital of the world.” After all, the area is rumored to have a larger fishing fleet per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Besides that, my father, an avid fisherman, has actually heard of the region and is, hence, terribly excited about the publication of my travel guide. Now, that, more than anything else, tells me something about this place – since my father, whom I love dearly, rarely knows a lot about locales beyond southern Louisiana, the region where he's lived his entire life.

Beyond being popular among anglers, however, Islamorada is also considered one of the poshest areas in the Florida Keys. This is where you'll find upscale resorts like the Cheeca Lodge & Spa and The Moorings Village, a former coconut plantation that today features several well-appointed cottages and houses, enveloped by shady trees and situated beside a glorious Polynesian-style beach, one of the finest I've seen in the Keys. As if that (and the pool, tennis courts, and beachside massages) aren't enough, the owner of The Moorings also operates two fine restaurants on the opposite side of the Overseas Highway: the Morada Bay Beach Café and Pierre's Restaurant.

Dan and I were lucky enough to experience both – and, against dietary considerations, in the same day! Our first stop was Morada Bay for lunch. Although it was an unseasonably cold day in Islamorada, we opted for a table on the beachfront patio, where we could keep an eye on the lovely Florida Bay as we ate. The meal began with drinks, chips, and salsa – and while this might sound dim-witted, I often judge a place by the quality of its iced tea and salsa, both of which were excellent that day. The ginger-peach tea didn't require a sweetener, and the salsa tasted fresh and homemade, the way Dan often prepares it at home – except that Morada Bay's addition of chopped red onions gave it a tiny zing.

Afterward, we each tried the island-style conch chowder – a delightful version of this Keys favorite, with a kick that even two New Orleanians could appreciate. Before the main course, we sampled one of the café's appetizers – a combo of fried calamari, shrimp, and zucchini, all of which were lightly breaded and served with marinara and chipotle aioli sauces. By the time our salads came, we were admittedly full, but we powered through nonetheless. Dan enjoyed his chicken Caesar salad, while I adored my choice – an artfully arranged pile of artichoke chunks, asparagus bites, avocado slices, and spinach leaves, topped with Pecorino Romano cheese. Oh, yes indeed-y, I would order that again!

Besides the food, though, Morada Bay is also wonderful for its ambience – set as it is beside the water, amid swaying palm trees. At night, you'll even be treated to live entertainment from a small stage on the beach.

Of course, not twenty yards away on the same beach, stands one of the finest restaurants in the Keys. Neighboring Pierre's Restaurant might be pricey, but it's well worth the splurging. On the night we went (several hours after dining at its neighbor), it was still fairly cold in Islamorada, but we nonetheless ventured onto the second-floor balcony of the gorgeous plantation-style structure. From there, we could hear the wind in the palm trees, see the tiki torches on the beach, and listen to the live music from Morada Bay. Although the interior of the restaurant has a distinctly African vibe, complete with incense in the bathroom, the candlelit upper balcony reminded me of New Orleans.

At first, we just relaxed with a drink – a mojito for me, a gin-and-tonic for Dan – then we began to order appetizers. Two that popped out at us were the French goose liver foie gras and the Maine lobster sashimi. Though small and expensive, each dish was a delight. The lobster sashimi was especially unusual – clear, gelatinous, and enhanced with fresh ginger, yuzu ponzu, and grape seed oil. Of course, the entrées were the main event: filet mignon for me and tempura lobster tail for Dan. Oftentimes, Dan chooses more wisely than I – perhaps it's because he's an excellent cook himself, with unexplainable instincts for such things. Well, however he does it, he did it again that night. While my filet mignon was delicious, his lobster was inspired – perfectly breaded, with hearts of palm hash, soy glaze, and wasabi crème fraiche. I admit to having been tempted myself, but for some reason, I had beef on the brain that night – no doubt due to all the seafood we'd been eating – but if I ever return to Pierre's (which I hope to!), I'm definitely getting the tempura lobster tail.

Though we were both full by the meal's end, we couldn't leave without sampling dessert. While Dan opted for the chocolate bomb – which is as gooey and rich as the name implies – I decided to try the banana beignets, four fried banana chunks paired with vanilla ice cream and glazed with Grand Marnier caramel sauce. This time, I believe my choice was the more interesting – it certainly was tasty!

All in all, we enjoyed both dining experiences, but while Morada Bay has a decidedly more casual feel, Pierre's is the kind of upscale place in which Dan and I (both casual at heart) feel comfortable, too. Our waiter, Scott, who's worked at Pierre's for a decade, was friendly, helpful, but not too smothering. And though I was freezing by the time we left, we both relished being the only ones on the upper balcony. Privacy and relative peace are key in any fine-dining establishment – there's little worse than paying a fortune for small, unsatisfying meals in a noisy, crowded joint. At Pierre's, the meal was divine, and the atmosphere almost better. I sure hope you have the chance to experience both restaurants someday – if you like to eat, you surely won't be disappointed.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Weekend Mishmash: Breaking for the Saints

Lately, I haven't had much time for anything but travel research. I'm not complaining, mind you – I've really enjoyed traversing the Florida Keys, in search of little-known eateries and experiences – but I do miss having the time for other activities, like blogging, beta-reading, and playing with my kitty.

I've been working so hard on my Florida Keys travel guide, in fact, that my parents have both expressed concern. They each believe that I need to step away from the laptop for a little while, and they each suggested that I spend the break watching my beloved New Orleans Saints take on the Minnesota Vikings – which will be happening in a matter of minutes. After all, this is a historic moment for native New Orleanians – the Saints have never gotten this close to the Superbowl before, and if Archie Manning's old team gets a chance to play Peyton Manning's current one, I can't even imagine the party that will erupt on the streets of the French Quarter.

So, perhaps I should take my parents' advice and embrace a little football break this evening. You think I should?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tuesday Travels: An Upper and Middle Keys Adventure

The last couple of weeks have been one wild ride. Dan and I have been so busy running around the Florida Keys, exploring every restaurant and attraction possible, that I inadvertently failed to blog for a whole week! Oops.

So, in case you were wondering, I haven't disappeared. I'm still very much with the world – just “meeting myself coming and going,” as my grandma always says. At the moment, we're in Key West – a vibrant town that, as Dan describes it, seems like a melding of New Orleans and South Padre Island, two places we adore. Yes, it's safe to say that we could stay in Key West for a good long while – at least until the wandering bug bites us again. We're nothing if not nomads.

Anyway, there will be more to come about Key West soon. In the meantime, I wanted to share some of our adventures in Islamorada and Marathon, two towns in the Upper and Middle Keys that don't get quite as much attention in most travel guidebooks as do, for instance, Key West and Key Largo. Since I'm currently working on a Florida Keys guidebook of my own, I wanted to give these communities my full attention.

As mentioned last week, we stayed at Conch Key Cottages, a cozy hideaway on Walker Island, near mile marker 62. Despite the unseasonably chilly temperatures and cloudy skies, Dan and I had a wonderful stay at Conch Key. Beyond the comfortable accommodations, we adored the quiet, isolated nature of the place, which incidentally has a pool, a relaxing tiki area, and, even better, its own private beach. In fact, although we were rarely home, I did take the time to drag one of their complimentary kayaks into the frigid water and venture out on my first solo kayaking trip into the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, because we were pressed for time, I didn't go very far, but hey, at least I tried it!

During the week, we toured the impressive collection of diving equipment at the History of Diving Museum (MM 83), watched the charismatic sea lions and dolphins at the Theater of the Sea (MM 84.5), and strolled the private Polynesian-style beach of The Moorings Village (123 Beach Road in Islamorada). As if that weren't enough, we watched more playful dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center (MM 59), trekked across the sand of Curry Hammock State Park (MM 56.2) and Sombrero Beach (MM 50), and tried to locate the wildlife at the Crane Point Nature Center (MM 50.5).

Of course, our excursion wouldn't have been complete without the food. Some of our favorite dishes included the conch fingers at the Cracked Conch Cafe (MM 49.5), the island-style conch chowder at the Morada Bay Beach Cafe (MM 81.6), the tempura lobster at neighboring Pierre's (MM 81.6), the blue cheese chips and fish tacos at Sparky's Landing (MM 53.5) in Key Colony Beach, the tuna sashimi in wasabi wraps at the Castaway Restaurant (MM 48), and the seafood Benedict at The Stuffed Pig (MM 49). You might have noticed a trend here – yes, there's a lot of seafood in the Florida Keys – a fact that very much pleases these part-time New Orleanians.

Given our passion for seafood and the open water, we decided earlier today to venture north to Big Pine Key, a quiet, nature-oriented area between Marathon and Key West. We were scheduled to tour the surrounding waters on a five-hour island excursion through Strike Zone Charters (MM 29.5), and though the day began promising – warm and sunny, as it should be – it turned cold and ugly pretty darn quickly. Nevertheless, I managed to snorkel amid the coral reefs, catch a grouper with a spinning rod, and wade to one of many mangrove islands in the Atlantic. True, our hands and feet were frozen by the time we reached the dock, but it was still a memorable adventure... right, honey? Uh, honey? Well, I just hope it was warm and sunny wherever you were today.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tuesday Travels: Savoring the Middle Keys

The road to you-know-where is indeed paved with you-know-whats. I'm a classic example of this sad-but-true fact. Yesterday, in the midst of preparing for my research trip to Islamorada and Marathon (two towns in the Florida Keys), I had the grandiose plan of posting a “Monday Munchies” about fried okra, with the intention of reminiscing about New Orleans cuisine before plunging into the somewhat different atmosphere of the Florida Keys. But, alas, between packing my duds, emailing my tourism contacts, and preparing my kitty for our four-day separation (sniff, sniff), the time got away from me... as it does to all of us on occasion.

So, I'm afraid my fried okra recipe (or should I say Becky's fried okra recipe?) will have to wait. After all, my brain is no longer in Louisiana – it's in fact focused on the Sunshine State, which, though cold this week, has not disappointed me and Dan with its promised sunny skies.

For those who have never been to the Florida Keys, it's important to note that addresses along the Overseas Highway (U.S. 1) are typically given as mile markers (MM). They start at about MM 110 north of Key Largo and end at MM 0 in Key West. Well, today, we were searching for MM 62, where the Conch Key Cottages awaited. After speaking with Patti, the pleasant general manager, about the area's highlights, we checked out our accommodations – an amazing two-bedroom cottage on stilts, with a lovely view of the ocean from our second-floor balcony – then headed into Marathon for a tasty meal at the Cracked Conch Cafe. We were especially fond of the conch combo (an appetizer including conch seviche, conch balls, and conch fingers) and, of course, the key lime pie, which was a classic blend of sweet and sour.

More details are forthcoming, but in the meantime, I just want to point out a long-held observation. When it comes to the Keys, Key Largo and Key West certainly receive the lion's share of attention. But, if you have the time, the Middle Keys are definitely worth a look, too. They might not be as famous as Key Largo or as flashy as Key West, but there's a laidback vibe that's well worth experiencing. And, as we'll discover over the next few days, there's plenty to do in the Islamorada and Marathon areas, from the History of Diving Museum to the Dolphin Research Center. So, we're bound to have a good time - in spite of this being one of the coldest Januaries on record - which, incidentally, won't stop me from testing out one of the kayaks near my cottage. If I manage not to drown (or freeze to death like many of the tropical fish down here have sadly done), I'll be back soon with more adventures. In the meantime, stay warm, wherever you are!

P.S. In case you're wondering, that's me (with my new haircut!) in the last photo, waving to the whimsical mural inside the Cracked Conch.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Friday Fantasies: Desperate for Desperate Housewives

For a long time now, I've wondered about the hype surrounding the salacious prime-time television show Desperate Housewives. In my mind, the popular soap opera never seemed like the kind of show I'd like. But being sick can really upend a person's tastes and priorities, and it just so happened that this week, while I've been recovering from the flu, the Lifetime network has been running episodes from the fourth season – episodes that just so happen to feature Nathan Fillion, one of my favorite actors. And I must admit – in the haze of sinus overload, I've found the melodrama, intrigue, and fairy tale-like vibe strangely alluring – and I've even begun to entertain the notion of renting the earlier seasons. Please, somebody, shoot me.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Thoughtful Thursday: Appreciation

I see it all the time on the blogosphere – heartfelt appreciation for one's fellow bloggers. Sometimes, people are grateful for the supportive writing advice they receive. Sometimes, they're thankful for the encouragement offered during a personal crisis. Sometimes, they're just happy for the solidarity and comradeship of their online pals.

I, too, have felt gratitude for my fellow bloggers – and those that take the time to lend support when it's sought. So, thanks, everyone, for the well wishes this week – I'm feeling better already.

And thanks, too, to my beloved kitty, Ruby Azazel, who's rarely left my side while I recuperate from this nasty flu bug. I'll admit she seems a bit confused by my inadvertent impression of a slug, but she's been a trooper nonetheless, curling up next to me most of the day and making me giggle in spite of my symptoms. Of course, now that I'm on the mend, she's back to her old tricks, rifling through the trash, hopping on forbidden surfaces, and nibbling my arms and ankles whenever possible. Isn't that right, my little demon seed?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Whimsical Wednesday: Wedding Anniversaries

Dan has always been more of a romantic than I. The kind of guy who gives me flowers for no reason at all, unexpectedly brings home my favorite treats (avocados and lemon poppyseed muffins among them), and never forgets an anniversary. In fact, I'm the one who occasionally has trouble remembering such things. Because I often let work overtake my sanity, it's easy for me to disregard the things that should matter most – like my wedding anniversary (which I almost forgot last year, despite Dan's reminder that he'd made a dinner reservation at Emeril's in New Orleans).

Well, this year, I was determined not to forget. And I haven't. Today is, in fact, the ninth anniversary of our intimate, little wedding at Sin City's Chapel of the Flowers. The only trouble is that we're both too sick to celebrate. Still, I won't let that stop me from saying... Happy Anniversary, Honey! I'll love you always – in sickness and in health – though I definitely prefer the health part.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Tuesday Travels: Under the Weather

Well, the good news is that, after three days of packing, cleaning, and driving, Dan and I have finally reached Florida – where we'll soon be exploring the Keys for my latest travel guide. The bad news is that we're both sick as dogs – or “under the weather,” whatever that means exactly. Coughing, sneezing, wheezing, head and body aches, the whole bit – which will inevitably delay our much-anticipated explorations. We look terrible, we feel terrible – in fact, we're pretty pathetic.

Frankly, I blame the woman who coughed on me while I was walking along Royal Street this past Saturday – that, and the fact that we've been running ourselves ragged for a while now, plus the fact that it's been ridiculously cold in the Pelican and Sunshine states lately. Global warming, my hind end.

But, seriously, I hope that everyone else is experiencing a better start to 2010 than we are. With any luck, I'll be back on my feet soon – and ready to rejoin my pals in the blogosphere. In the meantime, I'm going to bed.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Friday Fantasies: I'm Sorry, My Dear Avatar

I have a small confession to make. Although Dan and I had every intention of seeing the 3-D IMAX version of Avatar today – which would have been our second viewing since this awesome movie was released – the universe, sadly, had other plans. You see, last night, we decided to celebrate New Year's Eve in true New Orleanian fashion – by slamming back tequila shots and Abita beers and dancing the night away at a burlesque-style French Quarter bar called One Eyed Jacks. As mentioned on my American Nomad blog today, we ended up boogieing for four hours straight – all the while dressed for a 1980s-style prom. (By the way, I'd post a photo, but alas, I didn't have my camera with me, so you'll just have to imagine me with teased hair, gold eyeshadow, a bright green dress, and black go-go boots).

So, long story short, we didn't get home until well after four in the morning – a great way to kick-start the new year, but not such a great way to guarantee that we'd make it to an afternoon screening of Avatar. Fuzzy heads and 3-D glasses just didn't seem like a smart combination.

Although we're bummed to have missed the screening (for which we'd already purchased tickets – poop), we had such a wonderful time hanging out with my stepbrother and his wife last night that we really don't care. Besides, despite the fact that we'll be in southern Florida for the next month (while I research for my Florida Keys travel guide), I'm sure we'll find a movie theater somewhere down there. After all, Avatar can wait, but New Year's Eve celebrations only come, well, once a year.

So, what did you do to ring in 2010?

P.S. And, this might go without saying, but nevertheless... Happy New Year!