Key Largo: First stop on a Florida road trip

What image comes immediately to mind for you when someone says “Key Largo”? Do you think of Bogie and Bacall in the eponymous 1948 film noir?

…or perhaps you’re more inclined toward the laid-back, beach-bum image created by the 1981 Bertie Higgins song?

Either way, Key Largo is something different. And it was our first stop in this winter’s Florida road trip.

We flew into Fort Lauderdale, rented a car and drove the almost two-hour drive toward the Florida Keys. The truth is that the drive is unbelievably boring and the traffic going into the Keys? Brutal. But at least Key Largo is at the top of the keys.

We pulled into the Key Largo Beach Marriott Hotel and got our bearings. Let’s start with location.

Great Florida vibe in the hotel lobby

Key Largo is less a “town” than it is a very long, four-lane highway running down the middle of a sandbar where, in places, there are a few streets between the road and the water on either side. Thus, if you’re trying to find a “downtown” hotel, close to everything, you’re out of luck. The Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort, however, is walking distance to a number of bars and restaurants in addition to what’s on the property.

This is what runs down the Keys from one end to the other. Art is heading south.

One of the nearby bars is The Caribbean Club that bills itself as the filming location for Key Largo the movie back in the late ‘40s. Subsequent research, however, suggests that the movie was almost entirely filmed on the Warner lot with only the opening scenes filmed on location in Florida. We’d have to go back and watch the move again to see if this bar really figures in. If it doesn’t, it probably should.

We took a walk north from our hotel one evening and were lured into two spots by the music wafting through the air waves along with the rustling palm trees. At the first one, the band was just finishing a set, so we moved on and stumbled into The Caribbean Club. Filled with a wide variety of laid-back, T-shirt-clad music lovers, we took a seat at the bar and ordered two beers. Strictly cash only. No credit cards.

We sat back and enjoyed the band and our beers and when the set was finished, we moved on. The life-sized statue of Humphrey Bogart at the door was more Rick from Casablanca in his white dinner jacket, but no matter. Atmospheric it was!

The three days in Key Largo were laid-back and rum-filled. There is no reason whatsoever for anyone in Key Largo to wear anything other than a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. Since we don’t do downtime as well as many people do, one day we decided to drive to Key West.

Views from our hotel veranda

We’d been there twice before each for one day off a cruise ship and decided that we need to see the Keys in their entirety. Well, when people at the hotel heard we drove there and back in one day, they thought we were crazy. It took two-and-a-half hours to make it down the narrow highway to the end of the Keys and over three hours to drive back. Hideous traffic all the way.

Key West (images above of Papa Hemingway, his house and the southernmost-point-in-the-US marker after Hurricane Dorian) was mobbed by cruise ship travelers. We found a place to park, had lunch then headed back to Key Largo to mellow out a bit.

After three days of chilling it was time to get back in the car and head across the Everglades to our next stop: Naples, Florida.

Grand Old Hotels: Some are grander than others

There’s something so romantic about the idea of those grand, old hotels of yesteryear. The long, low buildings with those wrap-around porches overlooking a tranquil lake, palm plants in the lobby where a string quartet plays. And the guests are elegantly attired and enjoying a serene holiday away from the heat of the city. Epitomized in that 1980 film Somewhere in Time, these hotels have always held an allure for us. Remember that movie? Just look at the hotel!

Well, that hotel, The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan is still on our bucket list, but we’ve visited a few others and have just returned from one that we thought might be the luxury experience they advertise. We have just returned from The Sagamore Resort in upstate New York.

The Sagamore Resort with its porch facing Lake George, New York.
The entrance to the Sagamore. This is the historic hotel where we stayed, but there are many modern “lodges” on the resort property.

When we first visited their web site to book, we were enthralled by the drone footage of this incredible resort on a private island on Lake George. And there was the iconic hotel design. It was love at first sight. They refer to themselves as “Lake George’s premier luxury resort” and with a price tag of nearly $800.00 a night for a water view room in the main historic hotel, how could we go wrong? Let us count the ways.

Being on a summer road trip, we had just come from the Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, another of the grand old hotels that we have visited many times.

Their grounds are not nearly so grand as the Sagamore’s, but their main historic hotel rooms are wonderful and the price? We paid less than $300 (Canadian) for what turned out to be a far superior room and a more luxurious experience. But, what about the Sagamore? Our story covers the good, the bad and the very ugly.

Let’s start with the good bits. When approached, the staff are, to a person, attentive, friendly and personable. From the valets parking our car to the housekeeping staff, we had not complaints in that department. Then there was the food. It was exceptional for hotel dining. We enjoyed La Dolce Vita, their main dining room as well as al fresco dining at The Pavilion.

Margaritas on the deck at The Pavilion.

But the pièce de résistance had to be the wonderful Grill at the golf course. Off-site, it was serene, peaceful and served wonderful steaks. And the service was impeccable. And the grounds are lovely (we enjoyed them as long as we stayed away from the pool, beach and anywhere that was populated – more about why in a minute).

A cruise on the Sagamore’s “The Morgan” is included in your resort fee. We highly recommend taking advantage of this.

So, those were the good bits. Now for the bad bits.

The room. Furnished in an historic style, the room was just a very ordinary, tired-looking hotel room. For the price, we have had so much better. Can we talk about dust encrustation on parts of the bathroom and dust in the crevices of the old dressers – and there were lots of crevices. The carpets were not fresh either. But the bathroom had been renovated and was acceptable (except for that dirt).

Patty enjoying a glass of champagne (which we brought with us) in our $$$ room. Yes, that’s how small it was.

The hotel is old so the noise tends to permeate, but that wouldn’t have been a problem if it were not for…the ugly bits.

The place was crawling with children. Loud children. Whining children. Children running amok through dining rooms, hallways, outdoor walkways, the “beach”, the pool. You name it, they made the experience like being in Dante’s ninth circle of hell. We chatted with a young couple from Boston who had just arrived and were surprised to see so many children. You see, they had read the promotional material and had left their children at home with the grand-parents for a brief, romantic getaway. At that point, it wasn’t looking so romantic to them.

Overall, we tend to be able to have a good time wherever we go, but this was such a disappointment that we will not make that mistake again. It is not a luxury experience in any way, shape or form. It is just expensive. We will head to The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in the off-season and hope for that serene experience.

Cruising to Chile: Live Blog #1 (Key West)

Ernest Hemingway loved the place… the conch republic as they call it. Of course today we’re in Key West. And it’s only month post hurricane Irma. The local residents have done a heroic job of clean-up. There’s some evidence of damage, but the hurricane has clearly not dampened the laid-back ambiance that is so characteristic of Key West.

We took ourselves on a walking tour to the southernmost point in the US then down Duval Street for a bit of hat shopping.

Buying a new sun hat at “Hot Hats” on Duval Street with proprietor, Terry Lipsky.

The rain started in earnest, pounding down to the point of mini flooding. It’s not hard to imagine what it must have been like in a hurricane.

We’re truly enjoying the Silver Muse…she’s a beautiful ship and our suite is lovely. Tomorrow we’ll be at sea and on our way to Costa Rica.

From the biggest to the smallest: San Diego’s best attractions for discerning travelers

IMG_4476Sometimes a travel experience involves a tried and true tourist attraction; other times you find those off-the-beaten path places that no one else seems to find. Either way, they can have their charms.

Last month we visited San Diego for the first time in over a quarter of a century. When people think of tourist attractions in San Diego, the first thing that usually comes to mind is their zoo, and so we made our way from our hotel on the edge of the Gaslight District to the San Diego Zoo only to find ourselves in a morass of people. Having visited the Taronga Zoo in Sydney Australia within the last couple of years, we found the San Diego experience to be lacking in appeal, so we had to find other attractions. Enter the USS Midway.

For many Americans, visiting this floating museum, an actual post-World War II aircraft carrier, likely evokes feelings of patriotism and awe of the US military machine. For us non-Americans, it was an experience of quite a different kind.

There is no doubt about it: there is something awe-inspiring about the sheer size of a vessel of this kind. The hangar deck, the flight deck, not to mention the miles and miles of corridors. We marveled at how a young sailor or air man could possibly have found his way around the carrier on first deployment.

The carrier itself was commissioned a week after the end of World War II and had the distinction of being the largest ship in the world until 1955. During her 47-year career in the US naval fleet, she participated in many important actions including the Vietnam war and Operation Desert Storm. Walking around the ship and exploring its labyrinth of corridors, you get a real sense of history. The curators of this “museum” have done a spectacular job of evoking the life and times of this massive ship.

We arrived early – about 15 minutes before it opened at 10 am – and found ourselves in an already forming line. Once the gates opened, however, we moved quickly and spent the next two hours exploring. It is not a place for anyone with mobility issues – and for the love of God leave the strollers at home! There are many steep stairways and the corridors move from one water-tight space to the next requiring you to step up and over the barriers where the doors shut. Leave the very little ones at home if you want to really experience this museum.

So, we found that massive tourist attraction – then marveled at the opposite end of the size spectrum at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Fascinated by all things miniature (we’ll tell you about the Arizona Art Museum’s offering next week), Patty had discovered that this museum occupied a floor of one of the buildings at Balboa Park.

It is the largest indoor model railroad exhibit in North America and its 27,000 square feet are pure pleasure. Just as we marveled at the sheer massiveness of the Midway, we were equally awestruck by the workmanship of the miniature worlds created by the model railroad artisans.

This is a place that you can take younger children who will be mesmerized by the miniature worlds and the trains making their way through various landscapes.

It was lovely and quiet there that day and we were delighted to have experienced it.

The Midway has to be seen to be believed, so if you have a moment, click through our video and then make plans to get there on your next trip to San Diego.