When You’re Tired of Key West, You’re Tired of Life

We almost skipped Key West on our way home to St Petersburg from the Bahamas. But we had a line on a new dinghy outboard, and our two buddy boats were anchored there, and…well… Key West is a lot of fun!

We arrived just in time for the Minimal Regatta. Teams build their own boats out of a short list of ingredients:

1. One sheet of 4′ x 8′ x 1/4″ plywood
2. Two 2″x 4″ 8′
3. One pound of fasteners
4. One roll of 2″ x 60 yard duct tape
5. No caulking or adhesives – Epoxy paint is permitted
6. Painting of boats is optional
7. Oars/Paddles must be made out of these materials

Teams dress up in costumes and cheer their paddlers on. Some slice through the water like dolphins, some drag slowly, others sink all together. Prizes are awarded for best costumes, themes, best paint job….The crowd, fueled by adult beverages, has a great time regardless.

Celia and Todd from SV Eileen live in Key West. They’re “fresh water conch” which means they’ve live there over 7 years. (You’re not a full-fledged conch unless you were born there!) The last time we saw them, in Boot Key Harbor, they wrote me out a detailed guide to everything fun to do in Key West. So, we stayed an entire week and checked as many things off the list as possible.

Culture :

  • The Customs House Museum – has an excellent exhibit on the history of Key West (did you know, it was once the biggest city in a Florida?) and Guy Harvey’s Old Man and the Sea illustrations.
  • Lighthouse Museum – Tells the story of the men and women who kept the lights shining and kept the ship’s off the rocks for hundreds of years. Also has photos and history of all the other lighthouses on the Florida reef that we’ve been sailing past for a week. Cool to finally learn about them.
    • Tropic Cinema – Amazing Art Deco Theater (and great place to escape the heat) with full bar and homemade popcorn and art movies. We saw a wonderful movie about “Notorious RBG”
  • Exercise:

  • Yoga Sanctuary – This lovely and peaceful studio is a fabulous place to practice. I made it there three times, and always felt welcome although I hadn’t been to my mat in ages and felt a bit rusty.
  • Swimming: So remember… it’s June. In Key West. Which means it’s darn hot. Every day, I left the boat with a bag of everything I’d need for the day. Including a swimsuit. And every afternoon, we sought out a pool. Some, like Dante’s are completely open to the public. Others just might have been intended for hotel guests only. But, as long as we bought a couple of drinks from the bar, no one ever complained!
  • Eating and Drinking:

  • I have to admit…we did a lot more of this than we did exercising. Key West is a bargain hunter’s delight at happy hour time. Even at the historic waterfront district, you can find cheap drinks and delicious eats. Heck, at the White Tarpon you can not only get oysters for $1 each, you can get a whole rotisserie chicken for $6. Why would a thrifty cruiser ever heat up the galley with deals like that? And the happy hour at Mary Ellen’s, just off Duval St, starts at 11:30 and offers gluten free pizza!
  • Once again, we made good use of Todd and Celia’s Key West knowledge and noshed our way across the island, sampling tapas at Santiago’s Bodega, tacos at Mellow Cafe, breakfast at Harpoon Harry’s, shrimp at the Half Shell Raw Bar, and oysters at Alonzo’s. And we became regulars at the Sunset Tiki Bar, where Todd used to work. We introduced ourselves as sailing friends of Toddo’s and were immediately welcomed with open arms. And with the best margaritas I’d tasted since Colorado! Most evenings found us on a bar stool at the Tiki Bar appreciating the gorgeous Key West Sunsets.
  • Our last day in Key West was spent celebrating Pride. I love the fact that so many different types of people – Navy enlisted men, members of the LGBTQ community, sailors, artists, tourists, and families – all get along in Key West. We had a great time joining the festivities at the Pride Parade where everyone we met was happy, welcoming and ….. Proud!
  • Back in the Real World

    Our first days back in Florida were a bit of a let down. Here we were back “home” in the US after almost four months, but we were still far from friends and family. The endless rain brought by Alberto that left us trapped on the boat didn’t help either. And we suddenly had a mold problem. All the rain and humidity of the past few weeks triggered a full blown mold bloom on every wooden surface inside Sanitas. Since it smelled a bit funny and drove our allergies crazy, the first couple of days in Boot Key Harbor were spent moving every thing we owned from one part of the boat to another, and dousing all wooden surfaces with vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. Fun!

    We also watched on social media as all of our friends back In Colorado celebrated Memorial Day at the Bolder Boulder 10k without us, and as my fellow Skirt Sports ambassadors had a wonderful and inspiring time at the annual retreat. So we consoled ourselves… with food! We’d devolved into eating cold soup right out of the can on our Gulf Stream crossing. Plus, after the cost of groceries and eating out in The Bahamas, Florida seemed dirt cheap. And varied! So we made good use of the free cruiser bikes at the marina to make long, luxurious shopping trips to Publix, hit the early bird steakhouse special, the Mexican restaurant, and several visits to the Overseas Pub.

    Suddenly… everything changed. The storm passed and the sun came out, and all of the friends we met during the last cruising season started passing through Boot Key Harbor on their way back to wherever they planned to spend hurricane season! Suddenly, our social calendar was full. And we had more excuses to eat out. We spent one fun evening with Todd and Celia of SV Eileen, sharing pizza, seared tuna, and a bottle of wine in the cockpit at sunset. We met Pat and Melana of Tapati for happy hour at Keys Fisheries – the same place we sat and discussed our plans for the cruising season back in February. We met Robert and Rhonda of Eagle Too for the first time since the Georgetown Regatta. And we helped Colin and Dawn Marie of Wavelength prepare for their summer season in Cuba and Guatemala; trading currency, guidebooks, music, movies, and gluten free food back and forth between our boats. Pretty amazing when you think about it that we knew no one when we bought a boat and moved to Florida in the fall of 2017, and here we were less than a year later finding so many friends in port! I guess that’s the proof of a successful cruising season, right?

    Playing tourist in Nassau

    After a week of bad weather in Palm Cay Marina, we started to get a little bit stir crazy. So when Demario offered us a discount on a car rental, we jumped at it! Mike and I combined forces with Robert and Rhonda on Eagle Too and we spend an entire day playing tourist.

    I hadn’t really felt any need to see Nassau. I’d always heard it is crowded and even dangerous. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the historic district is also very beautiful. We started our tour at the Queen’s staircase, 102 feet of stairs and a narrow canyon carved into a limestone mountain as an escape route from the city fortifications. This morning, athletes were using the steep climb as an outdoor gym…sort of like Red Rocks in Colorado.

    Fort Fincastle at the top of the hill provides amazing views of Nassau and the harbor.

    Quite a bit of colonial architecture remains, hosting government buildings and businesses. This is Government House, the home of the governor of the Bahamas, Marguerite Pindling.

    The library is housed in the hexagonal former jail building. They store books in the cells.

    I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the beautiful Greycliff Hotel and gardens. When we win the lottery, I’m staying here for a week!

    In addition to the lovely hotel, restaurant, and gardens, the Greycliff Complex includes several artisan shops selling chocolates, wine, and cigars hand-rolled on premises. They say they are better than Cuban cigars. I think they all smell equally foul.

    Colorful public art is everywhere in Old Town Nassau… no admission fee required.

    I got it into my head that I wanted to eat lunch at Fish Fry. It’s not one particular restaurant (and not all the fish is fried!) but a cluster of casual, inexpensive eateries, shacks, and food trucks just off the bridge to Arawak Cay. You can try any type of Bahamian food here, and locals have their favorite shack, mostly named after the cook.

    My friends humored me, and agreed to the fairly long walk in the heat to fish fry. I have to say, the people watching on the walk over was worth it!

    As we approached Fish Fry, a tout with a sign grabbed us and started fast talking, ” You lookin’ for Fish Fry? Follow me to Fish Fry. I’ll take you right there!” It’s hard to resist the sales pitch, especially when your feet hurt and you are hot and thirsty. So we followed him into the nearest restaurant and ordered a drink. But then I had to put my foot down. I’d done my research, read reviews, and I’d be darned if we were going to act like cruise ship sheep and eat at the restaurant with the pushiest tout! I was going to eat at Goldie’s, gosh darn it!

    So my long suffering friends paid for their drinks, got up and left the restaurant without ordering food, and followed me to Goldie’s. I’m glad we did! We sat out on the water overlooking a veritable mountain of queen conch shells and had a feast.

    Rashid showed us how he cleans and preps the conch before cooking.

    But I have to admit, by this point in our Bahamas travels, I was a little bit conched out. Is it ok to admit it? So instead I ate some amazing grilled snapper with vegetables and the signature cocktail – Goldie’s Call A Cab. What is it with the Bahamas and green cocktails?

    In an effort to see how the other half lives, we decided to crash Atlantis for the afternoon. Here we are driving up the the front door (basically NO ONE actually drives to Atlantis, we might have given ourselves away with that one)

    Here’s the marina we didn’t stay at, because it’s crazy expensive. We met folks at Compass Cay who stayed at Atlantis Marina for two nights and the bill was $850.

    We enjoyed exploring the public areas of this resort, particularly the Atlantis themed aquarium. I was obsessed with getting a selfie with an eagle ray… not entirely successfully.

    And …. much better fish pictures, no Jenn!

    Our last attempt to pretend we are resort people, not cruisers, was a stroll through the casino. The highlight is definitely the Chihuly glass sculptures. I got in trouble taking the first picture. I guess I wandered into one of the gambling pits… oops!

    So we walked our legs off, ate great food, and enjoyed amazing colorful art, all for the cost of a $60 rental car split between four people. Not bad at all! This might have been the best value sightseeing tour in Nassau that day!

    Waiting for a Weather Window in Nassua

    From Highbourne Cay, we scrutinized the weather reports and entertained all options for what to do with our last few days in the Bahamas. We considered returning south, even as far as Georgetown, to avoid the possibility of a menacing tropical depression brewing off the coast of Costa Rica. The next day, that same storm appeared headed straight for the Exumas, so we researched anchorages in the Berry Islands. Realizing there are few options for a deep draft boat, and that we’d end up much farther north than our goal for crossing back to the Florida Keys, we talked to fellow cruisers about the charms of Bimini. And after all that, we did what pretty much everyone else does, and sailed a full day to the island of New Providence and the city of Nassau to hide out from yet another week of strong winds and unpredictable squalls.

    Two thirds of the population of the 700 islands of the Bahamas live on this one island. And pretty much everyone goes to college here at some point, or works here, or has family here. Which means a cruiser can find needed boat parts or provisions, but that it’s also crowded! And also feels slightly seedy with the only threat of crime we’d experienced so far on our trip.

    We set a course for the Palm Cay marina on the southeast side of the island. We’d met Demario, the dock master, at Highbourne during the Poker Run, and he’d invited us to come visit his marina and he offered us a discount. Well, heck yeah! Admiring the sunset over bacon cheeseburgers at the restaurant our first evening, it was clear that we’d chosen a great place to be “stuck” waiting out the next blow.

    This place has everything a cruiser needs: laundry, showers, cafe, restaurant, fuel, and of course a protected harbor and safe slips. In fact, I’d often forget how hard the wind was actually blowing until I’d follow the boardwalk around the corner past the marina office, and experience the full force of the wind in the face, almost blowing me over! It felt very safe with security at the gate to the community, and an actual chain prohibiting access to the harbor overnight.

    And at a very reasonable rate of $2.00 per foot, Palm Cay boasted unusual amenities. We had use of a courtesy car for free for two-hour blocks. Plenty of time to travel to the marine supply store (where we bought a new macerator pump for the galley sink),or the grocery store (where we resupplied with fresh produce and even gluten free English muffins), or to get a haircut (I was weeks overdue for a trim),or just to go out for lunch when we got a little bit stir crazy after several days of rain. I’m pretty sure we got our money’s worth out of that free car!

    For $15 per person, we bought a membership to the Palm Cay Beach Club for the duration of our stay. Talk about fake it till you make it! When breaks in the wind and the rain allowed, we definitely pretended we were yachties instead of cruisers for a change.

    Palm Cay has a fairly common dock cat, and a much less common marina manatee. One morning, as I was attempting to navigate the huge step from the boat to the dock at low tide, I thought, “I don’t remember that big grey rock living under our pier.” “Mmmmm……Mike! Come quick! There’s a manatee under our boat!” We watched her drift from piling to piling, nibbling on the vegetation that grows there, wishing we could convince her to eat the vegetation growing on Sanitas’ hull instead. I named her Blue for the streaks of blue hull paint visible on her back, and we watched her brunch her way across the harbor for quite some time.

    In the amazing coincidence department, we met two families in the marina from Capt. Mike’s home town in Western New York!

    You’re not renting a slip, you’re renting an island

    I’d heard great things about the Highbourne Cay marina since Florida. From Jack who ran the fuel dock at the Marathon Marina, to our friends Pat and Melana, to strangers who we met in various ports. So on our slow trip north through the Exumas, I was excited to spend a few nights here to explore.

    After almost three months of traveling with Orion and SE of Disorder, our paths finally diverged for good at Highbourne. They headed straight back to Florida in a single, long 34 -hour passage! While Sanitas planned to slow roll the return. Yep. We’re obviously in denial about this adventure coming to a close. We celebrated our successful cruising season over dinner at the high-end Xuma restaurant (where a Kalik beer costs $8) and told our favorite stories and relived our best adventures. I feel that our lives are forever intertwined after this season of highs, lows, and helping each other through challenges both big and small. Goodbye Chris, Stan, Laura, and Bob! Fair winds and following seas until we meet again!

    The next morning dawned loud. It was the annual Poker Run… a sponsored event of around 100 speed boats traveling from Nassau through the Exumas, complete with loud music, beer drinking, and all the accompanying shenanigans. From our anchorage just west of Highbourne, boats zoomed past so close that the wake almost sent a wave over Sanitas’ stern. Unsettling and uncomfortable, we hailed the marina and begged to be allowed to enter our slip before the usual check-in time.

    Entering a marina is always interesting. This time we were the only sailboat, and Sanitas was the smallest boat by an order of magnitude. Add the Poker Run and several mega yachts queued up waiting for the fuel dock, and space was a bit tight in Highbourne marina. Capt. Mike made it look easy though, coasting to a stop perfectly positioned in our slip – one line thrown to the dock master and we were home for the next few nights. Only afterwards did he confess that we had coasted in completely on incoming current, with the engine in neutral, and therefore had no steering ability whatsoever. It’s better to be lucky than good, right?

    Highbourne is one of the most expensive marinas that we’ve stayed at this year. I was uncomfortable about it at first, being always mindful of our cruising budget and calculating trade offs of what’s worth spending money on. But once we started to explore, I realized that the safe slip was the least of the benefits of staying at Highbourne. The real value of a stay here is the chance to roam the private and exquisitely maintained island at your leisure, almost as if we were resort people instead of sailboat cruisers. And our fees are also supporting a bird conservation area on the north side of the island. Sign me up! I was a bit sad to observe that many of the mega yacht guests never left their floating hotels / dance clubs to explore. Well, that meant Mike and I had most of the stunning beaches all to ourselves!

    The same family has owned this island since the 1950s and has invested a great deal into the gardens and accommodations. While walking or biking around the island, visitors find frequent “surprises”; beach huts and cabanas, lounge chairs and swings, and even an open air yoga studio / gym at the highest point of the island.

    The resort staff lives in a small village within the complex, and maintains an organic farm raising chickens and goats and grown produce for the Xuma restaurant. I had a lovely conversation with mama goat.

    I wish I had more photos of the gardens and beaches of Highbourne Cay to share, but….. the rain started. If the theme of the first two months of our cruising season was Northerly Winds, the theme of the last month was Tropical Rains. Believe it or not, Mother Nature doesn’t keep a day planner, and hurricane season doesn’t necessarily start on June 1st. This year, the crazy winds and rains started in May, making weather watching imperative, and route planning difficult. We made the best of it by plugging into shore power and running the air conditioner, and by spending time under the many shelters on the island watching the rain from lounge chairs. Not such a bad way to pass the time!