Saturday, June 28, 2014


Our next port was Freeport.  Freeport was an up and coming region about the time the American Colonies were opening up. The British had enslaved all the inhabitants and had them harvest most of the trees on the Island. Most of the lumber used to build the first structures in Virginia most likely were brought from Freeport. The island is rather small and only about 93 miles long and 12 miles across but a classic Bahamian Island with white sand beaches and crystal clear green-blue waters.

I had booked another Segway excursion for us. We had taken our first in Mexico and, as it turned out, were the “veteran” Segway drivers in the tour. Our guide was Arnold (AJ) and once you cut through the thick Bahamian accent, he was quite informative and funny. He took an immediate shine to Dianna. We were probably the oldest couple in the group (and I'm still struggling with that concept daily) and when he took her aside to give her instruction, he could see Dianna was a quick study and had retained her skills. He often drove in formation with her and chided her along with little quips about her driving skills.

On one run, we drove through a grove of trees with thin trunks and wispy needled leaves. Arnold pointed them out and referred to them as Australian Pines. They were not indigenous to the Bahamas and were planted almost by accident by some Australian settlers in the late 1800's. A couple had been brought over to plant at their new home as a result of the deforesting of the Islands by the early settlers.  Begun as an experiment, they quickly thrived in the Bahamian soil and are now seen all over the Bahamas. What no one knew at the time was that Australian Pines thrive in salty, sandy earth. This becomes even more important when storm surges from weather or hurricanes flood the land. Freeport's highest point is only 33 feet above sea level. The trees, even when completely submerged just bounce back when the waters recede.

Arnold ran us down to the beach and gave us an opportunity to walk the pristine sands and was kind enough to take pictures of each of us. He pointed out a pretty home just up the beach we drove by that was a vacation home to Dan Merino.

Arnold made it a point to give us the 411 on Conch Shell meat. Like Abalone, it was considered a delicacy but that wasn't all. He wanted us all to know about the benefits of eating Conch especially, it turns out, for the men. Arnold was a firm believer and advocate for eating copious amounts of Conch he euphemistically referred to as the Bahamian Viagra.

Like a snake-oil salesman he proclaimed Conch was strong enough to cure any degree of ED, right capsized ships or straighten the Tower of Pisa if taken as directed. Quite the advocate I must say.  At the end of our sojourn, as we disengaged ourselves from our safety equipment, he took Dianna aside and handed her a beautiful Conch shell she had been admiring, as a Mother's Day gift.

We were then walked over to a small beach restaurant to relax before the drive back to town. It was a nice mom and pop restaurant called Banana Bay and bar with a really nice Lanai open patio overlooking the beach  in a place called Fortune Bay. Both of us had the delicious Chunky Chicken Salad and some Ice Tea on the one of their picnic tables.

Fortune Bay is an example of the chaste system typical of our experience in the Caribbean. Only the wealthy, primarily white (many of whom are foreigners) reside in the exclusive communities. These were historically lands either seized by the early British rulers or areas set aside for the wealthy and government officials after independence. Most of the poorer natives work in the service or hospitality industry and live in more, how should we say.....modest homes and neighborhoods (think the Colonias in Mexico). Although the Government has made some improvements, there is much to be done and there is still a lot of graft and corruption for the people to endure. Two hurricanes in 2004 (say it with me Tonia...Frances and Jeanne) devastated the island and tourism has suffered ever since then.

A drive to the shopping mecca, Port Lucaya, and shopping. Nothing to write home about (wait a minute, that's what I'm doing) the usual suspects, the Diamond's International, Del Sols and the like but I had to try Arnold's Conch Meat challenge. A word about the name Port Lucaya. I should point out that the indigenous people of the Bahamas when the British landed were the Lucayans and the Arawaks. Unfortunately, you can't meet or interview one because, once the British arrived, they quickly enslaved the tribal people who either worked to death, were sent off to other places, died of disease or killed themselves rather than be abused by their masters.

Not impressed by the shopping options, we stopped at the “After Deck” Bar and Grille and I ordered some Conch Chowder and a couple of Bahama Mama rum drinks. A really tasty, almost Chili-like concoction with bits (and I mean “bits”) of Conch meat mixed in. I highly recommend it. Not for it's magical powers but just a really good soup with some pieces of potato and carrots thrown in for good measure. Then it was back to the ship and off again to Nassau.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Key West (again)

After a day at sea, we made our first port, Key West. Many of you may recall we had visited Key West for the first time just eight months ago. Having hit all the touristy stuff then, we ( I ) decided to indulge in some fun. I signed us up for a “Pub Crawl” excursion. I noted that it was the most popular excursion in past cruises and sounded like fun, well...and there was a promise of drinking copious amounts of alcohol (hey, we're on vacation for God's sake). We promptly met our tour guides....all old, grey haired men with pervasive signs of alcoholism, at dockside and were split into groups to glide our way through downtown Key West. Our guide, Beau, was a very spirited guide who led by tooting his Conch (pronounced Konk) shell he referred  to as his “Shell Phone” through the streets of Key West.

Beau gave a very quick history of the island as we walked. He pointed out the rich pirate history of Key West which was prevalent right up to the early 1920s. Before lighthouses were the norm, many ships ran aground on the reefs around the Island. Many homes there still have their “widow walks” on their roofs where many entrepreneurs stationed men to keep an eye on the waters around Key West for shipwrecks. They would alert men (“wreckers”)to man their boats to meet the ships and provide assistance but at a price, usually a large percentage of their cargo. When the Captains initially refused, the men would politely leave and stand-off in the water and wait. Once the Captain realized his plight, he would call them back, they would strike a deal and render any assistance they could provide. They would bring their bounty back to Key West and its many warehouses to hold for sale. Key West became the Amazon of the East and would draw in people from all over the world to attend these auctions making Key West one of the wealthiest cities in the US.

Originally from Nashville Tennessee, Beau came out here from Seattle Washington five years ago for the weekend and never went back. Beau keeps busy doing tours for the pub crawl as well as ghost tours. Beau was a big advocate of the Keys and specifically Key West but noted the big negative was the weather and of course, hurricanes. He said most residents were weather experts and closely followed their weather apps. He said if the hurricanes came up from the Caribbean, Cuba usually got in the way and broke up the storms so they would lose their punch by the time they got to the Keys. But, if a storm is headed up through the Straits of Florida, he remarked, residents typically will take a spoon of jam and place it in their pockets because they knew they were “toast”. A rather entertaining, fatalistic but practical view of life in the Keys.

We began our trek at a place on Duval Street called the Lazy Gecko  . The drink there was the Rum Punch where Beau would illustrate with a right cross to his chin as he pronounced the name of the drink. He was right on the money. The cost of the tour included one free drink at each bar with emphasis on the drink-of-the-day. At Gecko it was the Rum Punch. rum was left out of this sucker. It was very smooth and delicious as rum is one of my favorite drink additives (think rum and coke).

Nick after two drinks!
The second stop was the Rum Tree Bar which was a lovely bar situated in an alley off Duval next to Angelina's Pizza which shared the alley. Lots of plaques from various military units that have visited the island thanking the bar for their support (and, I assume, liquor) they may have provided. 
The next was the Flying Monkeys Saloon across the way on Duval. The Monkey specialized in using grain alcohol in their drinks. There was an extensive selection in a series of Margarita Slushy machines you could choose from. Dianna had the “Grain Train” and I had something called the “Howler.” Now mind you, neither of us had had anything significant to eat since breakfast on the boat and these two drinks had a distinctive effect on both of us. Dianna began giggling (more then she usually does) and I seemed to have an inability to walk in a single direction. I found myself bouncing off stationary objects like the bar and associated stools and umbrellas set up throughout the outdoor bar.

As we walked (well stumbled) Beau pointed out that in our travels around the Island that we might notice the presence of wild chickens and roosters through out Key West. Beau said it was the result of the outlawing of Cock Fighting in the Keys  in the 1920s. When the decision was made, all the game birds were rounded up and brought to Key West for adjudication. But there didn't seem to be a proper consensus as to what to do with them (I'm guessing many of those decision makers had probably attended this particular excursion as well) so they decided to release the birds into the wild resulting in an explosion in the population of feral roosters all over the island. Now they can't (or won't) get rid of the damn things. Like the wild pigs of Hawaii.

As we approached our next stop, Beau stopped us by an unassuming white blockhouse looking building at Greene and Elizabeth Streets. Beau reported that this simple cork lined structure was Jimmy Buffet's first recording studio. Buffet purchased the old ice house and turned out some of his first recordings from there. Since then, several big recording artists have come to the Keys to record their stuff and take in the local fare like Kris Kristofferson and more recently Kenny Chesney has been seen in and out of there cutting some tracks.

A short walk away on the  Harbor Walk to the Key West Historic Seaport. For almost 200 years, the Seaport has been a focal point for much of the economic and cultural life on the island. By the late 1700's, sea captains found that the uninhabited island of Key West (which was also known by the Spanish name "Cayo Hueso") was a useful stopping point during coastal navigation. It had a safe anchorage, and there were stocks of drinkable water at primitive wells ashore.

Obligatory group photo of the Crawl

The Seaport (also known as the "inner harbor" or as "Key West Bight") primarily served as a base for vessels used in fisheries, coastal shipping, and other maritime trades. The Harbor Walk took us to the Schooner Wharf Bar a collection of elevated patios where you could drink, view the harbor and listen to music.

The drink of the day was a Rum Punch. And there we met Gary Hemser and his guitar. Gary was the headliner for the afternoon and as he strummed kindly reminded us he had just finished smoking some weed and apologized that he may wander a little during his set. If you spend any time in Key West you will grow to realize this is the accepted norm for many of the local residents. Gary was pretty good all in all so I recorded one of his numbers.

As we left, Beau conducted a contest. To the person who could blow on his Conch the longest, he would reward them with a set of pretty fancy Marti Gras beads to wear proudly back home. When he called for volunteers, of course, my loving wife (dearly wanting those beads) pushed me forward and my fellow travelers parted to watch me embarrass myself. Actually, I surprised myself and did rather well with 7 seconds. The technique is to purse your lips together like a Bronx Cheer and blow. But a ringer came forward (young guy..maybe late 20s, that bastard!) and did 21 seconds...and he was a smoker! Well...the alcohol soothed my wounded pride...and we carried on.

Our last stop was Rick's Key West and Rick's Tropical Breeze drinks. More sweetness than alcohol taste which made most of the drinks the kind that sneak up on one if not allowed to consume food. But a wonderful bar and a little off the beaten path which this tour was set to do. Most of the bars we attended were not “big name” bars like Sloppy Joe's or Margaritaville which seemed to be overflowing with patrons and I liked it that way.

After photos with Beau, we parted company and walked...more like stumbled back over to The Rum Tree and got two slices of pizza from Angelina's. A really good thin crust Hawaiian pizza made to order right from their traditional pizza oven, not one of those long assembly line Pizza Hut things.

Now with some of that alcohol absorbed by the pizza, we were better able to make our way back to the ship and on to The Bahamas.