Thursday, June 20, 2013

key largo, montego, baby why don't we go

It all started when my friend Michelle decided to get married on the beach in Florida.  Aka the perfect excuse for a mini-vacation!  When Steve and I realized how close the wedding date was to our first anniversary, we knew that we had to take advantage of being in the sunshine state and stay for a few extra days.  And thus, our first "official" vacation as a married couple (and no, the honeymoon doesn't count!) was booked.
We decided to drive instead of fly (driving saved us at least $800) and hit the road early for Clearwater.  We I got to welcome the sun that morning, while Steve was asleep.  So pretty.

After 15 hours in the car, we arrived at Clearwater Beach.  The wedding hotel was great - it had a large beachside area with live music, a pool and good food.  On our first day there, Steve got ambitious and ordered the "fish spread" at lunch.  Apparently he was envisioning an extensive fish spread of various Floridian fishes, served with dipping sauces and the works... instead, he got a fish spread.  Complete with extra mayo and saltines.  Oops.  My boring club sandwich, on the other hand, was delicious!

 The wedding itself was gorgeous.  The bride was radiant and the groom couldn't have been any happier.  I am so thrilled that these two found each other and have committed to spend the rest of their lives together.  It was also catch up with some old law school friends at the reception.
We spent the rest of the weekend on Clearwater Beach workin' on our tans getting terribly sunburnt.  Oops.  But after such a terribly long Indiana winter, we were very eager to soak up as much sunshine as we could!  We also knew that Tropical Storm Andrea was churning in the Gulf and was expected to hit Florida while we were there, so we figured we needed to get as much sun as possible while we could.
While in Clearwater, Steve fell in love.  With this little restaurant.  I'm not kidding - he is still raving about it to this day.  To their credit, the food was amazing.
Who would have thought to combine tuna, wasabi and nachos?  Not me.. but it was yummy!
My favorite part of Clearwater Beach was Pier 60.  We took a stroll out there one evening to watch the sunset.
And now comes the sad part of this story.  On our last day in Clearwater, Steve's wallet was stolen at a convenience store.  Once we realized what happened, we made frantic calls to Chase to cancel credit cards, transfer money, and close accounts.  Let me tell ya, trying to do all of that while in another state is hard to do!  But everyone we worked with at Chase was very kind and helpful.  While losing a wallet on vacation is never a fun thing, the good people at Chase took care of us. 
And in happier news, Steve's wallet was later recovered and is being sent back to us!!  What a blessing. 
 The next stop on our trip was to the beautiful Key Largo.  We chose Key Largo over the other FL Keys for a couple of reasons: 1) it's the first key, which meant less driving for us, 2) it's close to the Everglades, where we were contemplating a stop (but never did), 3) Key Largo is much more laid back and low-key than some of the other Keys and 4) far less touristy. 
We stayed at the Hilton Resort and loved it.  I highly recommend the Hilton - the location was perfect and the hotel had been newly renovated, so everything was in tip-top shape.  
When we first arrived, this little actually quite large crab greeted us in the middle of the road.  I almost ran him over (oops).  We named him Sebastian, of course.
It rained off and on during our stay in Key Largo, but the view from our hotel room was gorgeous in rain or shine.  This was the view that greeted us upon our arrival to our room. 
We debated whether it was worth the extra $20/day to get an ocean-view room - for us, it was completely worth it. We spent a lot of time out on our little balcony.
Being the fish at heart that I am, I couldn't wait to get into the water when we first arrived at the hotel.  The Hilton had its own private beach and the water was shallow, which made it easy to wade and to snorkel right off of the beach.
These walking trails went all over the hotel grounds.  The climate is tropical in the Keys, so we felt like we were walking through a jungle on our way to and from the lobby of the hotel.  Very cool.  (Sorry for the terrible quality picture, stupid iPhone!)
One of our top priorities while in the Keys was to eat as much seafood as we possibly could.  We found several great little knick-knacks with delicious shrimp (my fave) and mahi-mahi (Steve's go-to).  I don't think I've ever eaten so much seafood in one trip in my life.  But boy, was it good!  I failed to document most of our food except for one dinner... but let's be honest, this is pretty much what my plate looked like every time.  Gotta love the shrimp.
We packed lots of breakfast and lunch supplies forthe trip so that we could conveniently grab lunch in our hotel room (and also save money) each day instead of going out.  Knowing that we were eating healthier and not spending $20 on lunch gave us some freedom to eat at nicer places for dinner.  Which really worked out in our favor because, as it turns out, eating in the Keys is yummy but expensive!
Here's us at dinner one night (with the rare appearance of my glasses)...
...and another evening w/ live music...
...and of course I can't forget the one time we ate out for breakfast.  This little place was a gem.
Steve deviated briefly from our seafood diet to enjoy the breakfast burrito at Harrietta's.  He is slightly obsessed with Mexican food, and I'm pretty sure this trip was the longest hiatus he took from the food genre.  Clearly he was excited to be eating Mexican while repping our favorite Mexican restaurant.
Mid-way through our stay, Tropical Storm Andrea hit landfall on the gulf coast of Florida.  We were south of it all, so not in any serious danger, but we did get some rain.  The thunderstorms at night were actually really pretty to watch from our hotel room, and we had partly cloudy skies through most of the stay.  One day the weatherman predicted sprinkles all day, so we decided to avoid the beach that day and make the 2.5 hr drive down to Key West instead.  Time to be touristy! 
We had three major stops in mind for our day:
Stop #1.  Southernmost point of the continental US.  Check.
Stop #2.  Historic Downtown.  Check.
Steve made a new friend...
...while I tried on some new headgear.  Scuba gear was ridiculously heavy back in the day!
"Yay, we are in Key West!"  ----  "But it is raining.  Humph."

Stop #3.  Ernest Hemingway's House.  By far my favorite stop, as the official bookworm of our family.
And in true bookworm fashion, I nerded out on all of the original first editions throughout the house.  SO cool. 
Steve was much more fascinated by Hemingway's famous 6-toed cats.  There are 45 of them on the grounds currently, and they have free reign of the house.  Seriously - they were everywhere.  This guy was lying on a photo display.  See that little mini-thumb on his outstretched paw?  That's the 6th toe.
The cats even have their own house around the back of the house - and it's a mini version of the estate!  Spoiled much, kitties?
Here's Hemingway's studio, where the majority of his books were written.  Doesn't it look cozy?
The grounds of the Hemingway House are stunning.  I couldn't get enough of the tropical feel. 
The story behind this pool was possibly my favorite part of the house tour.  Apparently the Hemingways bought the entire estate in the 20's for $8,000.  They wanted a pool, but it would cost $20k to install so they tossed the idea.  Well, Mr. Hemingway was not the most faithful husband, and began having an affair while he was out of town for an extended period of time.  When the Mrs. got word of what was happening, she decided to build the pool after all.  Ernest returned to a fully-constructed pool and quite a hefty bill to pay for.  Haha.
The rest of our vacation was spent exploring Key Largo.  We went snorkeling at Pennekamp State Park, paddleboarding in the Florida Bay and kayaking through mangrove groves.  (We used a disposable waterproof camera for those adventures but I have yet to develop to pictures.  Oops!) 
We also reserved plenty of time to do this.  My favorite.

The rain and clouds came and went for the rest of the trip, which I ended up loving.  I got to see how diversely beautiful this area of the country is, in rain or shine.  I've never been a big fan of rain (just thunderstorms), but I watched God paint a canvas of clouds over the sunny sky - and it was fascinating.  The same landscape one day was beautiful in a completely different way the next.
All in all, our trip was a great way to celebrate our first year of marriage.  We had a great time and can't wait to go back again someday.  Thanks, Florida, for staying sunny (some of the time) for us - hope to see ya again soon!

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