The weather in the Keys has been choreographed by the Chamber of Commerce; in a word – gorgeous. In the eighties every day and cooling to the low to mid seventies during the evening. Showers popped up early Wednesday morning well before dawn and gave everything a nice bath but left only an occasional puddle for us day-time people.
Tuesday saw us headed off-island and up the Keys to explore some new horizons at Little Torch Key, a place we discovered last year during our daily wanderings. This time, we were on a mission to see what was so special about Little Palm Island, a tiny island resort and spa just off the coast about 30 miles north of Key West . We had read about it in the fancy travel mags and checked it out online and put it on our “must visit” list.
We knew we’d need a Brinks’ truck to pay for an overnight stay, so we opted just to try a “simple” lunch. Reservations were mandatory and included a reminder about appropriate dress (which included “Country Club Casual”, whatever that is). We had booked the 11:30am boat. That’s how it works. Rather than booking a table, one books the launch from the Little Torch Key Welcome Center. This facility handles resort check in and a nifty, high-end gift shop and serves as the terminal for the fifteen minute boat ride out to Little Palm Island.
The launch (the boat) sends the initial image that establishes the brand for this property. It’s a replica of a 1920’s, varnished mahogany Chris Craft yacht launch, with beautiful sleek lines. A required 11:15 check-in verified our reservation and at 11:25 we were greeted by a tall, deeply tanned boat captain in full yachting captain uniform and direct from Central Casting. He walked us down the dock to the launch; named “The Truman” (we didn’t get that part of the history lesson, but knew President Truman was a regular visitor to the Keys). Everyone on the launch (only six of us) was headed for lunch and were greeted by name by the mate who assisted us in boarding. Talk about first impressions?
Promptly at 11:30 the last line was passed and we were underway for Little Palm Island and we already felt we were among the rich and famous.
The transition from the “mainland” to Little Palm almost made me check to see if I had my passport.
As the Captain backed The Truman into the pier, we noted an attractive young lady near the brow with a clipboard. As the mate assisted us onto the floating pier, the young lady greeted us by name and said she would escort us to our tables in the dining area.
The weather had forecast possible showers and our tables had been set on an open porch overlooking the beach. A slight breeze made the mid-eighties temperature an absolute delight.
Five tables had been set on the porch…with every table provided with an open and unobstructed view (except for an occasional palm tree) of the empty beach and ocean. No wife-beater tees or backward facing ballcaps here.
Betty, our waitperson introduced us to the menu and a couple of “specials”, one of which was a coconut conch chowder as a starter. I am not a big fan of coconut because it easily overwhelms whatever it is used with so I inquired about its use in the chowder. Betty explained the chef used a thin coconut milk in the stock and noted it was a subtle taste in the chowder. Boy was she right. I am a lover of conch chowder and this turned out to be one of the best I’d had. The conch, the potatoes, the carrots, onions, scallions and peppers (and tomato?) were diced into minuscule pieces and simmered for hours to infuse a wonderfully blended delight that I raved about at every bite. (Note: I just guessed at the ingredients I have noted, but the chef agreed to send me his ingredients after the weekend). The coconut milk was there, but only hinted in the background.
Our main course consisted of sandwiches. Fran’s was a tuna salad sandwich served as a huge, rounded scoop of tuna salad served on a bed of lettuce and tomato and plunked between a sliced, freshly baked, five grain roll. Her “side” was a potato salad made up of four different potatoes (including some mini purples). Yum.
My sandwich was a variation of a ‘Cuban” in which ham and cheese were served in a grilled Cuban roll, fresh from the oven. My side was the potato salad like Fran’s. The sandwich was melt in your mouth delish.
Dessert was over-the –top, with a magnificent presentation of scoops of vanilla ice cream served over rich, chocolate truffle cookies and drizzled with a caramel sauce; each cookie/ice cream combo served in an individual cavity/impression in a long, rectangular service plate.
The other, wonderful part of this luncheon was the quiet professionalism of the waitstaff who were always present and attentive, but never really in sight; the mark of well trained professionals. Our “light lunch” lasted a lingering, two-plus, delightful hours and came with a pricetag that would choke a horse (and with absolutely no complaints from this old Yankee tightwad). Afterwards we walked around the island and noted the understated beauty the visionary property owners of the resort had provided guests to ensure natural breezes and an isolation from the rest of the universe. Nary a TV or phone were seen anywhere, nor were obtrusive air conditioning units common in the tropics. Just peace and quiet.
Finally, our Central Casting Captain appeared and beckoned us back to reality after checking us off his island roster to ensure we were safely ashore. My goodness, how does one top this experience? (We will keep trying.)
After returning to the Conch Republic, we readied ourselves to meet our friends Donald and Betsy Breed at a new barbeque joint for dinner in Old Town. Wow, talk about a culture shift.
Donald, a retired Providence Journal Editor and Key West winter resident, commutes to and from Providence in a station wagon that I’m convinced is pre-programmed to sniff out barbecue places all along the US east coast. Donald is also a beer aficionado who was eager to pick my brain about the Russian beer I had recently consumed at the local Uzbek place and to sample the beer and BBQ inventory of Charlie Mac’s, the latest barbecue option to appear the Key West scene.
Fran and I arrived a few minutes early and discovered the live, country and western band would not start for a couple of hours (whew) so it would not compete with the country and western band performing next door at the Blue Parrot, a former biker bar now a local tourist trap. Absent the C&W band, the outdoor (but covered) bar cranked up a multitude of monster flat screen TVs with every sports event known to man…and at max volume. Oh boy. I’m such a sports fan. NOT! We discovered Charlie Mac’s had an indoor dining area that, although rather dark, seemed to be a break from the anticipated noise elsewhere in the facility. Whew!
We were seated in an empty, requested corner and Donald and Betsy ordered some exotic beers with names I cannot recall. Fran and I ordered $4.00 Margaritas (guess why?). Donald’s daughter Sabrina, visiting from New York, ordered a cooling lemonade.
Donald spotted a Brunswick stew as a starter and praised it as delicious as the rest of waited for an interesting mix of menu offerings. Betsy and Fran selected grilled Mahi Mahi they declared as wonderful while I dug into a half rack of Baby Back ribs with mango sauce that was totally scrumscious (sp?). Donald had discussed having some St. Louis style ribs but I cannot recall what he or Sabrina were eventually served because I was so fully engrossed with my baby backs. The only speedbump in the evening came when management discovered the monster flat screen TV in our obscure corner was not on and promptly remedied that. Fortunately, they could not find the volume control so all we got were the distracting visual strobe lights of whatever program was playing. I guess that was a blessing. My overall observation of Charlie Mac’s on Southard Street? Very good – IF you can steer clear of the loud bands and noisy flat screens that merely distract from a very tasty menu.
Wednesday was another Duval Crawl starting at the Atlantic end that is populated with art galleries and interesting shops (as contrasted with the Gulf end of Duval that seems over-populated with bars and tee shirt shops for the cruise liners). A bit after noon, we wandered by Michael’s Restaurant on Duval and were impressed with fresh cut flowers and brilliant white table cloths… and in we went.
Over the years we have walked past Michaels without missing a step and only now do I regret not having paused to “smell the roses” (or so to speak). There were only a few other patrons and thus our service was exceptional. Our waiter, Tripp recommended Fran consider a smoked salmon and brie crepe and that I consider a wienerschnitzle ( I have no clue how to spell that ) and we followed his guidance with a smile. Fran’s crepe was super delish and I can’t wait to try that recipe and presentation at home.
I ordered a wonderfully rich German potato soup as my soup course and my wienerschnitzle was tasty but hardly anything special.
I confess I was totally distracted trying to sneak bites of Fran’s crepes. Soooo good.
We prowled the rest of that end of Duval after lunch and headed back to the Navy Lodge for a well deserved nap. (Dining can be soooooo exhausting.)
More to come…….
My friends, Fran and Skip Mays live in Rhode Island. Part III will be coming soon. I hope you’ve enjoyed their adventure. ~MDH