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The Lower Keys
First and foremost, the Lower Keys are home to Bahia Honda State Park (located conveniently on Bahia Honda Key), frequently mentioned as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Here, you'll find beautiful white sand beaches, abundant wildlife, a great marina, and first-rate camping facilities. The relative isolation of the Lower Keys means that Bahia Honda never seems to be crowded, which, coming from some of the beaches is in the Miami area, makes it worth the whole trip.
The main bastion of commercial civilization in the Lower Keys is Big Pine Key. Here you can find a smattering of little shops, most of which seem to host dives to nearby reefs. It is also home to Looe Key Marine Sanctuary â€“ a reef that grew out of the crusted hulk of a British ship-of-the-line which ran aground in 1744. You can find any number places on Big Pine that will take you for a dive, if you're so inclined.
There isn't that much more to see on the lower Keys other than the same beautiful scenery, a few radar blimps, and a naval station before you reach Key West. Even so, The Lower Florida Keys are a great place to go to get away from the crowds that dominate everywhere else in South Florida, and it's one of the only places you can go to see the rare, diminuitive Key Deer! Beat that!
Next time: Key West
Named for the Spanish "Cayo Largo," Key Largo was predictably the site of the Humphrey Bogart classic, "Key Largo," and is the largest and closest to the mainland of the Florida Keys. In spite of its proximity, the feel is quite different from that of mainland Florida â€“ for example, there are no real beaches here (Key Largo lost them in a foolish wager with Florida some years ago). There are, however, TONS of beautiful reefs, which make Key Largo one of the dive capitols of the world. There are dives that are suitable for everyone from novice snorklers (take a look at the "Christ of the Abyss" â€“ a sunken statue about 20' down) to advanced SCUBA divers (the USCG ships Bibb and Duane, which were sunk 70' down to make artificial reefs. The open hatches allow you to explore a lot of the rooms). For those who don't know how to SCUBA, you can easily find facilities that will rent equipment and give you lessons â€“ and Key Largo is a great place to learn.
While diving is one of the main reasons to go to Key Largo, there are a variety of other activities that will hold your interest, no matter your pleasure. Deep-sea fishing, for example, attracts thousands of visitors every year, and some of the best charter-captains in the nation work out of Key Largo. There's nothing quite like pitting your wiles and technology against the mighty beasts of the sea and winning.
As with most tourist destinations, Key Largo has a large number of classy restaurants and bars, as well as more casual fare. When on vacation, I tend toward the latter â€“ try The Fish House â€“ it offers great local seafood prepared in a variety of different ways.
While this description only scratches the surface of activities and attractions in Key Largo, it's time to move on.
Next time: Islamorada
Last Stop: Key West
You will no doubt recognize most of the daytime activities from other locations on the Florida Keys; fishing, diving, and golfing are always popular. If you are so inclined, you can take a stroll along the city's historic seafaring district, known as Key West Bight. For landlubbers (who also happen to have historical interests), try looking at some of the historic architecture in Bahama Village â€“ this neighborhood was one of Ernest Hemmingway's favorites.
Once night falls, Key West becomes a different place entirely. Eclectic, sometimes bizarre street performers come out of the woodwork (think oddly costumed mimes and jugglers, for starters). World famous restaurants, clubs, and bars open their doors. A carnival atmosphere takes over, but the party has a decidedly more laid back feeling than nightlife in South Florida. Relax in one of the sidewalk cafes or open air bars, and you'll soon realize why life on this island is so widely enjoyed. The seafood on Key West is amazing, so be sure you stop in at Alanzo's Oyester Bar or The Conch Republic Seafood Company to take advantage of some fresh local fruits de mer.
That about wraps up this mini tour of the Florida Keys. No matter where you're from, a trip to the Keys is always different and rewarding â€“ and you'll see why they're so hard to leave.
Boating: A Short Treatise
There is really nothing cooler than being on the open ocean â€“ unless it's being in a sailboat on the open ocean. Florida is the perfect place for sailboats of all styles. There's no reason to go out and buy a brand-new 40 ft. Beneteau; there are plenty of slightly smaller, used sailboats at a tiny fraction of the cost that will serve you well for many years. You can find a used Newport 27' for 10 â€“ 15k (depending on how much work you are willing to put into it), making owning a sailboat a very real possibility for anyone in the middle class. Newports sail wonderfully and are perfect to learn on, and while they don't have the amenities of a Beneteau or other luxury boat, their cabins are still comfortable and ample.
Another popular option for Floridians looking to sail are catamarans. If you like some serious speed, catamarans might be right up your alley. Again, it's fairly easy to find a 14'-16' Hobie or Prindle Cat for around a thousand dollars, and in my opinion, they are way more fun than the jet-skis that the kids seem to like today â€“ there is far more finesse and skill involved (though it should be noted that sailing is quite easy to learn). Plus, smaller catamarans more or less demand that you trapeze out over the side of the boat in order to balance when the boat goes up on one pontoon â€“ which not only is a lot of fun, but impressive to all who are watching as well.
There you have it: a short introduction to some of the ocean-going vessels that you can purchase. Happy sailing, and watch out for reefs and ocean-dwelling zombies that will pull you to a watery grave.
Next time: Fresh water vessels
More about Watercraft
I really enjoy fishing in all forms, and one of the best boats you can use for freshwater fishing in Florida is the humble canoe. Very portable, easy to use, and usable in numerous watery environments, canoes have always held a special place in my heart. Some of the most scenic and exciting camping trips I've been on have involved canoeing through boggy, alligator infested waters (don't fall in). My favorite canoes are lightweight Kevlar blends that are easy to carry across dry portages, like models offered by Mohawk and Le Tigre.
For those of you who prefer a little more power, consider getting a small riverboat with outboard motor. While not quite as versatile as canoes, river-boats are faster and more sturdy, and often times more practical. For a larger river boat, try a Hewes Craft. They are roomy and great for fishing, and can be outfitted with a number of outboard motors. Hewes Crafts are sometimes too large for small lakes, and can rarely get through the swampy everglades. If this is your thing, then consider getting a flatter-bottomed john boat. Available from a variety of sources, these boats are perfect for little excursions, and are about as bare as canoes (though wider and therefore more stable). Of course, if you want to cruise through the everglades, then what you need an airboat capable of skimming over even the most shallow water.
These boats represent my personal choices in fresh water watercraft, and I think that you'll find they do their jobs admirably. Owning a boat allows you to recreate in entirely new places, and whether you have a canoe or a gigantic yacht, Florida is the perfect place for them.
One Last Port Article
The first question you have to answer is, "Does my bottle of port need to be decanted?" If it is a bottle of vintage port (which, as you know from my precious articles, is bottle conditioned), and it has a cork, then the answer is "yes." Decanting for vintage ports is needed for two reasons: the most important is that there will be a crust of detritus at the bottom of these wines, and drinking them straight from the bottle would be akin to drinking loose-leaf tea without a strainer. The second, less important reason is that many ports will improve slightly with the aeration that occurs (though this is far less important than it is with many other fine wines).
The actual decanting process is very simple. All you will need (in addition to your bottle) is a decanter, a bottle of cheap ruby port, some muslin or gauze, and a funnel. 30 minutes prior to decanting, stand the bottle upright. This will allow any sediment floating around to collect on the bottom. Wash the decanter with warm water, and then use a small amount of the cheap ruby port (think the stuff that tramps drank in the â€˜30s) to give the decanter a final rinse A few hours before serving, decant the bottle through the muslin-lined funnel into the decanter. If you drink the port too soon after decanting, you will taste off flavors, so it's important to wait long enough before enjoying it. As a rule of thumb, younger ports need longer to acclimate to the decanter than older ports. If you want to get fancy, you can use a pair of port-tongs to open the bottle, but a corkscrew works just fine.
That's all there is to it â€“ enjoy your port!
While I've never experienced a pirate attack first-hand, I know a couple personally who was attacked off the coast of Venezuela when they were sailing around the Caribbean for a summer. Their story is pretty harrowing, involving multiple men with machetes and a homemade shotgun, and while they weren't badly injured, their boat was stripped, and the local authorities were utterly unwilling to help. Yachting supply companies capitalize on the fear that pirates inspires in pleasure-boaters, offering sometimes bizarre contraptions designed to ward off pirates (including a high pressure water-hose designed to blast pirates off your deck, as well as an electrified netting designed to prevent pirates from getting into the cabin). While I have my doubts about the effectiveness of gimmicky measures like these (imagine trying to fend off a boat full of armed, angry pirates with an oversized water pistol), there are many common sense measures to take that will greatly reduce your chances of being boarded.
First of all, PAY ATTENTION. Know if and where there has been pirate activity in the area in which you're sailing. Most people know the hotspots: the coast of Somalia, the Red Sea, Malaysia, Columbia, and parts of the Caribbean â€“ but it pays to know exactly what has happened where you are going to be.
Next time: More tricks to avoid pirates
As I mentioned in my previous post, your best weapon against pirates is your awareness. Know about any pirate activity in an area before you enter it, and realize the situation can change very quickly for the better or worse. Venezuela, for example, was a pirate-free county just 10 years ago, but is now extremely dangerous along much of it's eastern coast. Pay particular care to anchorages â€“ many pirate attacks happen when the victim is moored for the night. In pirate-infested waters (particularly around the coasts of Somalia and Yemen), it's best to stay 50 miles from the coast, as most pirates are in small, speedy boats that they use to chase down slower yachts.
Another important anti-piracy measure to take is to travel in convoys. While some might wonder if this just presents pirates with multiple targets, there is strong anecdotal evidence that suggests pirates are often scared off when a convoy closes ranks.
If you are boarded by pirates, the same advice goes as for any other robbery-situation: do what they say and cooperate as best you can. In most areas of the world, the pirates are not interesting in killing or kidnapping (unfortunately, this is not true around Yemen or Somalia). Be aware, however, that often, officials (in South American and African nations in particular) are often unable or uninterested in helping sailors recover stolen property.
Depending on what part of the world you're cruising in, pirate attacks are not rare. Of particular worry to Floridian cruisers is the fact that the coast of South America has become so dangerous in recent years, as many sailors from Florida cruise around this area. Keep alert, and happy sailing.
European Microstates Tour!
Located along the southern coast of France, the quintessential micro-state vacation hotspot of the Principality of Monaco cannot be missed. The thought of Monaco invariably conjures images of tuxedoed secret agents playing baccarat while casually gambling with the free world itself. While this particular demographic is a sizeable minority in Monaco, it should be noted that Monaco is surprisingly diverse for being such as small place (the second smallest in Europe, as a matter of fact), and there more to it than gambling in opulent casinos.
Monaco has a wonderful Mediterranean climate, which makes it a vacation hotspot for much of Europe. The Principality itself is an interesting historical curiosity, surviving in its present form against the odds, and is now one of the few places in the world you can hear the nearly-extinct language of Monegasque. The beaches of Monaco are some of the world's finest (though that won't necessarily impress someone from Florida), but it is Monte Carlo that really packs in the visitors.
Monte Carlo is the jewel of Monaco, known for glamour and luxury that would make even Miamians gasp. It is the home of the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix and the Monte Carlo Master tennis tournament, and has hosted numerous championship- boxing bouts. The casino complex is amazing, and also holds the Theatre de Monte Carlo, which hosts ballet and theater companies.
Monte Carlo is a destination not to be missed, and anyone planning a trip to Europe should consider paying a visit. Have fun breaking the bank.
Next time: the Azores