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Sunny With a Chance of Meatballs

A winter weekend in Key West

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Any trip that starts with a view of a colossal fuzzy flamingo riding shotgun in the plane has to be good.

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It was mid-January. The holidays were over. The fun was over. The eatfest and presents were over. It was just winter. Boring, cold, long soul sucking winter.

We have found that the best way to cure the winter blues is to simply fly away from them. A quick 4 hours from home, we were flying over turquoise water littered with emerald islands.

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It was time for a Key West Quickie!

We only had 3 days, so we didn’t waste a minute dumping our stuff at the lovely Air BNB rental we’d found above the South Pointe Gallery and heading straight for sunshine and libations at the Rum Bar, practically next door.

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We were sad to find that Bahama Bob had moved on to Papa’s Pilar Rum Factory on the other side of Old Town, but at least he was still there in spirit.

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It was a beautiful day to sip rum on a wide shady porch. One quickly turned to …..more than one..... and before we knew it, it was oyster happy hour!

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We had sunset sail reservations so we ducked into the White Tarpon, the closest oyster destination which proudly serves $1.00 oysters all day. Sure, you can get them cheaper during happy hour at other places, but we didn’t have time to wait. And “other places” don’t have the always amazing Key Lime Pie Martini.

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On our first trip to Key West many years ago, we booked a cheesy boozy cruise on the Fury Catamaran where we drank cheap champagne in plastic solo cups, danced to the live band, and watched a spectacular sunset.

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Despite the ultimate cheese factor, we loved it so much we repeated it on later trips and enjoyed it just as much.

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So, once again, we found ourselves getting in line for the sunset sail with the endless beverages and live band, Commotion on the Ocean.

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Unfortunately, there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” We found that the Fury Catamaran on a night when the weather has turned on you is simply a big boat that smells like deep fried wontons. Despite the lack of charm or sunset, we made the best of it and drank enough bottom shelf booze to make it seem amazing.

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Even if we were the only ones not huddled inside eating cheap egg rolls.

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Like the Fury Catamaran, Amigo’s following the sunset(less) sail is a tradition that has stuck.

What’s not to love about a place where you eat street corn, tater tots, and a giant bowl of nachos while staring out at the craziness of a Key West Saturday night?

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Saturday morning brought a sunrise that looked a lot like the sunset from the night before, but that didn’t stop me from taking a brisk early morning bike ride to the pier to watch the sun not come up.

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When I got back, Matt was up and about, so we headed downstairs to La Grignote for breakfast. How could we not? We could smell the freshly baked croissants from our balcony.

Set in a cute little conch house on the corner of Louisa and the quite end of Duval, the entrance to the artisan French bakery was filled with potted flowers and plants spilling over the railings with the maddening smell of freshly baked bread filling the air. We walked in and a bounty of baked goods and pastries waited for us behind a perfectly polished glass display counter. Chalkboard menus overhead boasted breakfast entrees like bacon Belgian waffles topped with whipped cream and a French Petit Dejeuner that came with coffee, toasted artisan bread with homemade jam and butter, and fresh Greek yogurt with berries, orange blossom honey, pistachio and homemade granola.

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We were seated at a warmly polished wooden table where Matt had the breakfast special which came with scrambled eggs, their own ground sausage mix, bacon, avocado, tomatoes, and a slice of their freshly baked bread.

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Unable to resist the pastry counter, I went for a croissant and baked egg cup with bacon. What is an egg cup, you ask? Why, it’s a little basket of puff pastry with béchamel sauce, crème fraîche and a cracked egg on top.

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Or a little cup of happiness, whichever description you prefer.

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The croissant was flaky, pillowy perfection slathered with real butter and jam.

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From there, we spent a leisurely morning enjoying the streets and shops of Key West.

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We spent the morning walking the still quiet streets of Key West, shopping, and enjoying all the things that make Key West unique.

Like this dog in goggles riding in a backpack that said “Spank Me.” .

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Or this house covered with teddy bears. Which was less charming than the dog in goggles riding in a backpack that said “Spank Me.”

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When I was a kid, I watched too much Twilight Zone and was certain my stuffed animals were going to come alive during the night and kill me while I was asleep. This house was like a giant nightmare. That doll alone was enough to make me sleep with both eyes open.

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We had afternoon brunch reservations at Hot Tin Roof and I couldn’t have been happier when I walked in and saw a personalized menu, all you can drink mimosa and bloody Mary bar, AND a huge wooden boat filled with BACON.

ALL THE BACON.

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The brunch at Hot Tin Roof is a thing of beauty. The menu is filled with delightful small plates and you can order as many as you like along with bottomless mimosas, until you explode, pass out, or simply give up in defeat.

While we perused the menu, they brought out chilled seafood and ceviche along with a bacon topped cinnamon roll as big as my head.

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They thought they were being clever bringing out that cinnamon roll to fill me up. Obviously, they had never seen me eat.

Asian noodle salad with wasabi seared tuna and sesame ginger dressing:

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Crab Louie deviled eggs with pickled veges:

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Fried chicken with a little jalepeno cheddar cornbread waffle and maple syrup:

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Coffee crusted beef medallion with angel’s potatoes and herbed butter:

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Oysters on the half shell:

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Corn flake crusted French toast with cinnamon syrup:

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A cute little sour cream pancake with banana rum sauce and praline pecans:

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Rum and brown sugar roasted banana with sweet mascarpone and toasted pecans:

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Oh yes, and mimosas….so many mimosas!

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After brunch, we headed over to the Hemingway Rum Company to see if we could find Bahama Bob.

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We did not find Bob, but we did find this oddly smiley dog.

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En route to our end of Duval, Matt was distracted by a “2 for 1 Mojito” sign, so we popped into Willy T’s for a mojito and a little live music on the patio.

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While our friends enjoyed some down time, I talked Matt into walking next door to the bar at La Te Da for their Sunday afternoon Tea Dance by assuring him that there would be a “mixed crowd.”

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I did not tell him he would be the heterosexual male providing the mix.

Men, women, old, young….it was a colorful crowd dancing to old favorites by the La Te Da pool. Lasting from 4:00 – 6:30, the Tea Dance was situated perfectly between boozy brunch and a proper Sunday night dinner.

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After a day filled with mimosas, mojitos, and too much champagne by the La Te Da pool…it was time for some FOOD.

I have heard Key West maven TraceyG talk up Abbondanza’s spaghetti with meatballs to a degree that led me to believe she had to be grossly exaggerating or was getting a % paid for each meatball sold. No meatball could be THAT GOOD. So, I finally had to try them myself.

Dear sweet heavenly sphere of awesome. That little meatball packed more soul and goodness into a square inch than anything that tiny has a right to. It was supernaturally good.

That meatball changed my life.

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We all slept in the next morning and decided on a late breakfast at Blue Heaven. Touristy or not, Matt can’t get enough of their banana bread and BLT Bennies. I just like their weirdness and mismatched garage sale coffee cups.

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I think my 3rd grade teacher had this cup.

Not a cup like it...THIS cup.

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We worked off all the bread and potatoes with long bike ride through Key West’s quiet streets, one of my favorite things to do.

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Matt was in need of another oyster fix, so we headed to Pepe’s for oyster happy hour. Pepe's happy hour is my favorite with the breezy patio, house squeezed margaritas, and their own homemade chunky cocktail sauce.

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Then it was on to Half Shell for some fish lips, beer steamed shrimp, and smoked fish dip.

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It definitely hadn’t been a trip for sunsets, but it didn’t stop us from continuing to try. This was the best we were going to get.

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We ended the night with key lime pie and giant glasses of milk.

When your night in Key West ends with a big glass of milk….it’s probably time to go home.

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We had planned to leave around noon, but a quick moving snow system thought otherwise. Matt roused us all up at 5:00 a.m. and gave us 30 minutes to get packed. All I could say was, “Thank goodness all we drank last night was milk.”

This is the face of someone roused out of bed at zero dark thirty to leave paradise:

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And this is the face of someone who just left paradise and found herself in the snow a few hours later:

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Until next time! And where is next time? Why, sunny Guana Cay, of course! Stay warm, friends!

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Posted by vicki_h 11:48 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys duval_street conch_republic Comments (6)

Forty is the new F Word.

A friend's 40th in Key West

People can run around saying “40 is the new 20” and “I’m not 40, I’m 23 with 17 years of experience,” all they want. The truth is, turning 40 sucks giant donkey balls.

I know. It happened to me 5 years ago.

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You have to check a new demographic box every time you fill anything out.

Young adults literally start calling you “ma’am” overnight like there’s a stamp on your forehead that says, “I AM YOUR MOM’S AGE.” The cute boy that was flirting with you at the coffee shop? Yeah, he wasn’t. He called you ma'am as he handed you your change. There was no way he was flirting with you. You remind him of his mom.

You have to start getting mammograms.

Even the DMV takes a crack at you by ensuring that your driver’s license expires on your 40th birthday, forcing you to go get a new one with a picture where you suddenly age 5 years.

It can be uber depressing.

Unless you plan something fun.

Something that makes you look forward to turning 40. Something that gives you an opportunity to look 40 right in the eye and say, “BRING IT.”

My 40th birthday in the Bahamas made turning 40 one of the most fun things I ever did.

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When my friend Alison’s husband was trying to figure out what to do for her 40th birthday, I offered him 2 suggestions: 1) hire Stephen Tyler to serenade her with “Walk this Way” as Channing Tatum provides a personal lap dance or 2) do a destination birthday.

And that is how we ended up planning a surprise trip with her husband and 8 friends to Key West.

(Personally, I was hoping for Channing Tatum)

We spent 6 months planning and scheming….. quietly, carefully. Finally, the big day came. Alison was blindfolded and told she was being taken to see a car. Instead, all of us were waiting to surprise her.

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You have to be careful surprising an almost 40 year old woman like that. At our age, we could lose bladder control. Or spontaneously break a hip.

We expected screams. We expected fainting. We expected tears of joy. Instead, we heard, “You mean I’m not getting a car?”

(I told him he should have gone with Channing Tatum)

It was time to load everyone up in the Chieftan and head south.

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It was Key West or BUST, baby.

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Day One: Key West in June....Hotter Than Georgia Asphalt

My planning was impeccable. I had the perfect place to stay. Groceries and drinks were being delivered before we arrived. A beautiful cake and balloons had been ordered. An awesome itinerary had been planned. Every detail was accounted for.

Or so I thought.

I missed one tiny detail.

It’s really HOT in Key West in late June.

Like…really, REALLY hot.

I have had some hot vacation experiences. Like that time we thought it would be a good idea to go to Texas in the summer and eat tacos with hot sauce from a street vendor on the sidewalk. That was just before we caught on fire.

But Key West in late June? It was like walking through a furnace in a gasoline suit.

Even my fingernails were sweating.

There you are, innocently waiting in line to eat when it happens. One minute, you are smiling and enjoying a beautiful day. The next minute, you burst into flames.

It’s called Spontaneous Key West Line Combustion and it can really happen. It’s science, people.

And there is only one remedy: mimosas!

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We found them at Blue Heaven. We also found lobster & grits with toasted banana bread, BLT benedicts, and PIE.

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It was early in the day, and some of our group had never been to Key West, so we thought we'd do some walking around, maybe some shopping, and let everyone get a feel for Key West.

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Within 5 minutes, we said "Screw it." It was too hot to do much walking, so we only made it as far as the Rum Bar. Bahama Bob was behind the bar doing his thing.

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The group quickly became addicted to painkillers. We had to get them out of there after the 3rd round. We had been up since 4:00 a.m. and we didn’t want anyone passing out before we even got checked into the house.

Palm Gardens was PERFECT. Two, 2 story houses, each made up of 2 independent condominium units with a king bedroom, kitchen, den, bath, and porch. We had rented all 4 which gave us private access to the pool.

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Which was good, because no one else would have fit in that pool.

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We spent the afternoon cooling off before heading to Half Shell for happy hour. It was time for oysters!

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And shrimp.

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And drinks.

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And unfortunately shaped shadows.

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Having done the “booze cruise” with the Fury catamaran a couple of times, I had decided we needed something a little classier for the birthday girl. I didn’t want Alison’s pre-birthday filled with memories of overcooked chicken wings and cheap margaritas.

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I had booked us on the sunset sail with Floridays. It was a smaller boat, a more intimate crowd, and a more relaxed atmosphere.

It was an AWESOME boat. Service was impeccable. The boat was classy and refined. The mood was relaxed.

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But, as we sipped our champagne in the sunset, I couldn’t help but wish I had a couple of those greasy chicken wings.

You can take the girl out of the trailer park, but you can never take the trailer park out of the girl.

To prove that point, I forced tequila shots and tater tots on everyone after the sunset sail.

We had drinks at Agave 308. It’s dark. It’s classy. It’s filled with tequila. What’s not to like?

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Afterward, we stumbled over to Amigo’s. You can’t beat Amigo’s for late night eats.

The pork carnitas nachos were simply a thing of beauty. Not to be outdone by the amazing tater tots and street corn.

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And just to be certain that everyone barfed before they went to bed, we stopped at Better Than Sex for dessert.

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Then we all ate a handful of Tums and called it a night!

Day Two: Happy Birthday!

We’d had enough drinks the day before to give an aspirin a headache.

There is only one remedy for that: mimosas!

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What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. This especially applies to alcohol and fried foods, so we headed to Camille’s for a deliciously boozy breakfast.

Every time I walk into Camille’s, I feel like I am visiting 1984. From the orange sherbet walls and colorful vinyl tablecloths to the barbies and fornicating ceramic pigs to the Pet Shop Boys pumping out of the stereo, it screams "Hello, Vicki, this is your adolescence calling." However, despite how awesomely eclectic it is, one does not come to Camille’s for the décor, one comes for the breakfast.

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Matt went snazzy with the chorizo benedict and I went old school with a fried egg, grits, and Cuban toast.

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We had rented a deck boat for the day. Destination: Boca Grande, a small uninhabited island about 14 miles from Key West with a pretty nice little beach. Renting a boat was significantly cheaper than taking a boat out for a day with a captain, and it eliminated the embarrassment of acting like total idiots in front of a stranger. When we act like idiots, we prefer to do it in privacy.

We were armed with sandwiches and adult beverages. It was time to get our boat day on.

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It only took about 40 minutes to get to Boca Grande.

As we pulled up to the beach, I noticed a lot more seaweed than usual. It wasn’t quite a pretty as it usually was, but it still beat any beach on Key West.

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We poured up some beach drinks, found ourselves a shallow spot in the water, and made a day of it.

We proceeded to go through the 5 stages of beach drinking:

Stage 1: SUNSHINE AND HAPPINESS. This is the pre-drinking stage. Everyone is basking in the golden sunshine, cup in hand, marveling at how simply amazing it is to be right where they are.

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Stage 2: LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED. There is always that one person that gets a little louder sooner than everyone else. A little rowdier. A little OUT THERE. That person is usually me. This time, it was all 10 of us.

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Stage 3: DUDE, THIS IS AWESOME. This is the full-buzz stage. Everyone is having a killer time. Everything is the most fun thing EVER. Especially more drinks.

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Stage 4: HEY, Y’ALL…WATCH THIS. You have arrived. You are fully intoxicated and it seems really cool to do really dorky things. Like try to put your glass in your swimsuit and try to drink out of it. Or do synchronized swimming. This is the stage where you are most likely to get a black eye or lose a tooth.

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Stage 5: I LOVE YOU, MAN. We’ve all been there. This is the stage where you love everyone. They love you. These people are your BEST FRIENDS EVER. At least one person usually cries. Personal space ceases to exist as everyone talks too close, hugs too much, and generally climbs on top of each other like a bunch of puppies in a too small box. At least this is what happens when women drink.

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It is best to follow the “I love you, man” stage with food, lest you end up in the dreaded 6th stage of beach drinking: Puking like a kid who ate all of his Halloween candy in one sitting.

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We had an amazing lunch spread. We had it all: Champagne, coconut rum, and beer. Sodas. Chicken salad, tuna salad, and turkey and Swiss sandwiches. Chips and dip. Fresh Fruit. Cheese. Crackers.

Know what we didn’t have?

A knife.

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(I realize there is a "cut the cheese" joke just dying to come in here, but it's just not going to happen, folks)

And then, somewhere in the alcohol fueled haze of the beautiful afternoon….we ran out of alcohol. Just. Like. That.

It was probably a good thing. Otherwise, we’d probably still be sitting on that beach.

Time to go!

Back at the house, we had an AMAZING pina colada birthday cake from Key West Cakes. The cake was delicious, beautiful, and they had even delivered it to our fridge before we even arrived.

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Then it was time to head to Alison’s birthday dinner.

I was not about to let my girl spend her 40th birthday somewhere mundane like Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville eating a “cheeseburger in paradise” while sipping a watery cocktail and listening to “Fins.”

I wanted her big day to be exceptional and memorial. What better way to do that than with a dinner on the beach at a private island resort?

Ask anyone “Where is the best place to have a special occasion dinner in Key West?” and you will almost always get the same answer: Latitudes. Jet Set dining at its best, Latitudes is located on the private island resort of Sunset Cay, just a five minute ride on their private ferry from Key West.

As we pulled up to the dock, we knew we were in for a very special evening.

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And we were. It was called “Heat Stroke.” And it was very special.

I had made reservations in February so that I could secure a table in the sand about an hour before sunset, knowing that the restaurant was known for its unobstructed sunset view.

“It’s going to be really hot,” the girl on the phone warned me when I made the reservation. “It’s late June and you’ll have literally NO PROTECTION from the sun. It’s brutal.”

I looked outside my office window. It was snowing. I pictured a beautifully set table in the sand.

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“We’ll take the 7:00 reservation,” I said. What did she know? WE LOVE SUN. Sun is awesome. Sun is our friend. Too hot? Pfffffft. There’s no such thing as too hot.

I remembered that conversation as I sat sweating through my tank dress, gulping down a coconut martini as fast as my throat could swallow while silently apologizing to Mother Nature for making all those snide comments about global warming. Then I started sucking down Matt’s frozen bushwacker, promising God that I would purchase some solar panels and trade in my Land Rover for a hybrid as soon as I got home if he would just cool it down a few degrees.

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Heat be damned, we had an excellent dinner. Even though our faces were sliding off into our laps, the food and setting were hard to beat.

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The cool wedge salad was a perfect first course, with fresh Florida oranges and chilled melon topped with gorgonzola cheese and a papaya dressing.

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Matt had the seafood pasta: fresh tagliatelle pasta with Key West pink shrimp, lobster, and scallops tossed in a parmesan pesto cream sauce with heirloom tomatoes and roasted mushrooms.

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I couldn’t resist the honey and ancho chile crusted waygu beef skirt steak, primarily because it was topped with two big, fat onion rings (remember what I said about the trailer park?).

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Finished up with a mango martini, the dinner couldn’t have been better.

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Cooler, yes. Better, no.

We enjoyed the amazing sunset before catching the ferry back to Key West.

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Now that the sophisticated part of the evening was over, it was time to get the party started. In order to protect the guilty, I shall not divulge the intimate details, but there may have been lots of shots, dancing on tables, a couple of male dancers and a significant loss of one dollar bills, and we might have gotten thrown out of a bar by a guy that looked just like Vanilla Ice (but not before I told him how much I loved Ice, Ice, Baby….which he did not seem to think was as funny as I did)…..but I’m not confirming nor denying anything.

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Day 3: Wakey, Wakey, Eggs & Bakey

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We woke up s-l-o-w. I don't mean slowly. I mean slow. We were slow. We had no aggressive plans for the day so everyone slept in and got up at their own pace. It was a perfect morning to do nothing more than lay around in the air conditioning eating aspirin for breakfast.

Everyone finally roused around noon, so we thought we’d take everyone to the Southernmost Point for the “photo op” since some of our group had never been to Key West.

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We severely underestimated how heat can affect a hangover.

There are many who say that heat is a good remedy for a hangover. These people say you should “sweat it out” and get rid of the toxins in your body.

These people are stupid.

And are masochists.

We should not have tried to beat the heat. We needed to sit in the shade and drink a lot of Gatorade. And think about our life choices.

Instead, we were on bicycles, sweating it out on top of pavement that had to be at least 147 degrees. As we pedaled from our place on White Street toward Duval Street, there was absolutely no shade to be found. At the 4th traffic light we were forced to stop at, we started to die slowly.

It was so hot, my biggest bicycle wreck fear was, "What if I fall off my bike and cook to death on the pavement?"

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By the time we reached the Southernmost Point, we sent the strongest of our bunch in search of water while the rest of us lay limply on the sidewalk, begging for a quick and painless death. When Matt returned (did you really think it was anyone else?), we didn’t even bother to drink the water, but simply poured it over our heads. I think I saw steam.

And yes, we got the photo op. Unfortunately, Matt was buying water and I was taking the picture so I had to Photoshop us in. I don’t think you can tell.

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When we realized we were not, in fact, going to die, we made a mad dash to Deuce’s Off the Hook Grill for some lunch in the blessed air conditioning.

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This was a first time at Deuce’s and it was a WINNER. It instantly became everyone’s favorite, and not just because of the air conditioning.

Because of the amazing fish tacos and sweet potato tater tots.

SWEET POTATO TATER TOTS, y’all!

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The food at this small restaurant was outstanding.

Go here. Now.

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We were loath to leave the air conditioning, and the tater tots, but I don’t think Deuce’s was willing to let us stay for the next 7 hours, so we had to pedal on out of there.

It was just too hot for shopping, and no one had seen the beach at Key West, so we took them to Fort Zachary, thinking we might be able to dip in the refreshing water.

Unfortunately, the refreshing water was filled with seaweed and smelled like farts.

So we sat in the shade and ate giant pickles and popsicles instead. Have you ever noticed how many penis shaped foods there are in Key West? I’m just making a point, here, people. Just making a point.

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There was nothing left to do but spend the afternoon in our pool. Even though the pool was heated, it was the coolest we’d been all day.

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Seriously….who heats a pool in Key West in the summer??????!!!!!

It was our last day, so heat or no, we were going to make the most of it. We decided to do a Happy Hour crawl for dinner, starting with oysters and margaritas at Pepe’s.

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Then, it was on to Kelly’s for wings, nachos, and more margaritas (and maybe some nachos and fish dip).

I have a tidbit of advice for Kelly's: Maybe if you let people sit OUTSIDE in your pretty courtyard during happy hour instead of making them sit INSIDE....your pretty courtyard wouldn't be TOTALLY EMPTY.

Just a thought.

Especially considering the courtyard was the only really good thing at Kellys.

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Then we did a little Duval Street Strolling. It was finally cool enough to shop!

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The final stop was at the Little Room Jazz Bar for what was supposed to be one drink. You know, since we were flying out in the morning.

One drink did not happen.

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As a dog returns to its vomit…….

Some of us never learn.

Home again, Home again!

We filled ourselves with doughnuts and bacon before heading home.

I learned that a “side of bacon” at Sandy’s means “a pound of bacon.” It was a thing of beauty.

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It had been a whirlwind, but it had been fabulous. It had been hot, but it had been fun. It had been exhausting, but it had been worth every second.

There was nothing left to do but put the inflatable margarita in the trash and fly home.

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What's next? Why, getting stranded naked in Abaco, that's what!

Posted by vicki_h 12:39 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys duval_street conch_republic Comments (4)

Key West.... One Bite at a Time

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To everything there is a season.

A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

There is also a time to eat.

Let's face it, I love to eat. Especially on vacation. When I am on vacation, I eat like a bear that has just come out of hibernation. A bear with a sweet tooth. And who may be a wino.

When we found ourselves in Key West for a long weekend in January, it seemed like the perfect time to do just that. Temps were balmy, in the mid 70s. Warm enough for shorts, but not warm enough for the beach. So, unless we wanted to spend 3 days looking at Hemingway's 6 toed cats, we had a lot of time to fill.

I had planned the trip to coincide with the annual Key West Food and Wine Festival, but after realizing our travel companions don't really like wine, I decided to forgo most of the Festival events and create my OWN Food and Wine Festival.

It was to be 3 days of strategic eating. I had an EATING ITINERARY, people. The food fest was about to be ON.

There is nothing better than an eating vacation.

Let the eating begin!

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"Pace yourselves, " I cautioned. "You don't want to eat too much at any one place."

We were behind schedule.

We had arrived in Key West on time....landing just before noon on a clear, breezy Wednesday.

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The trouble came in when Key West Hideaways couldn't seem to send the shuttle picking us up to the right place. Key West Hideaways had convinced us to let them arrange for our bicycle rentals, telling us they would send a free shuttle from the bike place to pick us up from the airport. As soon as I heard the words "free shuttle," I was convinced.

They sent the shuttle to the commercial airport, although we had told them we would be at the general aviation FBO. After several confused phone calls between me and the shuttle driver, he finally found us.

However, the real confusion came in when he turned out to be from the wrong bicycle company. He dropped us off at the bike office and left. Unfortunately, no one at the bike company had any idea who we were. There was no record of our reservation. I had paid a deposit, so simply changing rental companies wasn't an option. Six very unproductive phone calls back and forth with an extremely rude and unhelpful young lady at Key West Hideaways who kept insisting "that is the only bicycle company we do business with so you must be mistaken about your deposit," and we were unceremoniously dumped on the sidewalk with our luggage like hobos.

With no ride.

As luck would have it, I got a call from the ACTUAL bike company that Key West Hideaways had booked us with asking what time we wanted the bikes delivered. And it WAS NOT the one the young lady kept insisting "is the only bicycle company we do business with." I asked him if he could pick us up. He said he would be there in 5 minutes.

Fifteen minutes later, we were still on the sidewalk with our luggage like hobos.

I called him back.

He said Key West Hideaways had called him and told him not to come pick us up. They were sending someone.

Son of a B*%$#.

Two more phone calls to Key West Hideaways, and a rangy late model mercedes with a "For Sale" sign tacked in each window pulled up.

Thankfully, it was not the young woman I had spoken to, because there would have likely been bloodshed, right there on South Street in front of all the nice people who were sipping their Cuban coffees at the cafe next door.

He was polite and apologetic and made several lame excuses about the confusion. And about the fact that we had to cram our bodies in on top of our luggage in the tiny back seat. Steve's leg was at an unnatural angle that I was pretty sure was going to cut off the circulation to his foot. I hoped the ride was short so that amputation of a limb wouldn't be necessary.

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As we rode through the streets of Key West, someone from the bicycle company called me again.

"I'm over here at 828 Olivia to deliver the bikes, but no one is here," he said.

"That's because Key West Hideaways gave you the wrong address. We are at 1019 Varela," I sighed.

We were finally dropped off at the correct house and got our bikes at the correct address, no thanks to Key West Hideaways. But we had lost an hour.

Our eating schedule was now behind.

Oh, the horror.

"Where are we going?" Matt said as we walked down White Street, "I'm seriously hungry." In anticipation of the impending calorie-fest none of us had eaten breakfast and it was going on 2:00.

"Not far," I responded. "See? Right there." I pointed to the Chevron Station.

"What? Where? I only see a gas station," Matt said. He was getting grouchy, like a hungry toddler that missed out on the graham crackers during story hour.

"Yeah. The Chevron Station," I said.

"We're not eating at the gas station," Matt replied.

"Oh yes we are."

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At the corner of White and Truman, right next to the bathrooms in the Chevron parking lot, we found White Street Station, a colorful food truck surrounded by tropical plants and brightly colored drums in the parking lot of the Chevron Station. We put our things on a yellow wooden bench next to a red ironing board that served as a table and walked up to the window to order.

"All of our fish is fresh, just caught," he said, "The fish tacos are excellent. I also recommend the Orzo as a side today. It's really good."

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Matt couldn't resist the fish tacos. The fish was insanely fresh and was prepared Caribbean style, topped with mango and black beans.

Fish Tacos almost sounded healthy to me, so I opted for the daily special: the Grilled Mac.......two giant crusty slices of Texas toast layered with American cheese and wrapped around a creamy slab of macaroni and cheese atop a pile of tender, braised short rib.

Oh my yumminess.

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Matt stopped complaining about the Chevron Station when he realized he could run inside for a beer.

With the hunger monster quieted for a few hours, we took the time to head back to Mango Cottage and settle in. Despite being less than pleased with the rental company so far, we did love the cottage. It was squeaky clean, newly renovated, and cute, cute, cute.

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Until we lifted the cover on the hot tub. It was filled with funky green water.

Have you ever heard the story about the farmer and the mule?

A farmer had a really stubborn mule. He was out trying to plow the fields one day and the mule wouldn't budge. He looked at the mule and said, "That's one." After the plowing for a while, the mule stubbed up again, refusing to move. "That's two," the farmer said. As the day grew long and the mule grew tired, he bucked up on the farmer again. This time the farmer didn't say anything, but pulled out his shotgun and shot the mule dead. As the farmer came into the farmhouse that night, tired and dirty, he looked at his wife and asked for dinner. "It's not ready," she said flippantly. The farmer looked at his wife. "That's one," he said.

Key West Hideaways? That's two.

The one absolute when we are on Key West is Matt's daily visit to some place for oyster happy hour. It's as certain as death and taxes.

So we found ourselves at the White Tarpon late in the afternoon. The oysters are no longer 50 cents all day, but $1 an oyster still wasn't too bad, especially considering how large and fresh the oysters were. Matt was definitely in his happy place.

A key lime martini quickly put me in my happy place as well. Although, my happy place is pretty easy. It pretty much includes any place with cupcakes, cocktails, pork rinds, or half price shoes.

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We had early dinner reservations at Hot Tin Roof, hoping to eat dinner to a beautiful sunset.

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The meal started off with delightful cocktails: a Hemingway daiquiri and the best caipirinha I have had outside of Brazil.

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As we perused the menu, the sun began to sink its way toward the sea. Seated on the outdoor porch, we watched it go down in a blazing ball of orange.

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Then the food orgy began:

We started with creamy melted manchego cheese topped with spicy chorizo and pico de gallo served with warm tortillas and a steamy bowl of mussels.

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As the sky turned from fiery orange to cool shades of blue, we discovered that our menus were illuminated. After a couple of cocktails, a lighted menu is fabulous entertainment.

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Next up was the lobster cocktail with roasted corn guacamole, cumin crema, and yukon chips; caramelized grouper with chorizo, corn, carrots, red pepper, poblano, and coconut; and a pan of lobster mac and cheese with creamy manchego cheese.

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After dinner, we headed to The Porch for cocktails. Even though it was located right off crazy Duval Street, it seemed a quiet oasis far from the throngs of people with their big gulp frozen daiquiris and Sloppy Joes t-shirts. As we entered the front door of the old house, a bar to the left was serving up craft beer and a bar to the right was dreaming up creative craft cocktails. This made everyone happy.

This bar was different from the "Duval Crawl" bars of Key West. It was cozy and cool, quiet, and the cocktails were a knockout. My banana bread bourbon old fashioned was crafted slowly, with care, and was absolutely fantastic.

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Did a man in a sparkly tutu walk into The Porch while we were enjoying our cocktails? Maybe he did, but we were still in Key West, after all.

We decided to make one final stop before heading home, and the Green Parrot it was. I needed popcorn, bad lighting, a hint of danger, and an atmosphere that promised at least the chance of a bar fight to make my evening complete. The Green Parrot is the perfect dive bar. It's a dive, without being too, well, divey. It's just gritty enough to be interesting, but still more charming than squalid.

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In hindsight, we probably should have skipped that final stop. I think that "one last drink" was how I ended up with a gorgeous headache the next morning and a tote bag filled with popcorn.

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I woke up early the next morning. It was before sunrise so I decided to grab some Cuban toast and cafe con leche at Sandy's on the corner and pedal my way down to White Pier, just a few blocks from the house.

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I would love to show you some glorious photos of that sunrise, but, while I managed to lug my 7 lb. camera all the way down there, I forgot the battery.

I blame it on the Green Parrot.

All I have is this crappy iPhone photo:

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Before long it was time for second breakfast, or was it pre-lunch? Whatever it was, we were going to do it up proper at Blue Heaven. I never tire of the colorful courtyard atmosphere and lively bar. On this particular morning, they had live Reggae and for a moment, I felt like I was in the breezy Caribbean.

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While we waited for our table, I wandered upstairs, simply curious what was up there. It turned out to be the overflow seating area. Colorful tables, eclectic decor, and this super cute little private room:

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We were seated in the courtyard with chickens running nervously around our feet, cats lazily sunning themselves on the metal roofs, and the sounds of the Reggae band drifting over on air that smelled like pancakes and home fries.

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Matt had the BLT Benedict. Not to be confused with the traditional meaning of BLT, at Blue Heaven, BLT means "Bacon, Lobster, and Tomato."

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Because I felt like I had already eaten breakfast, with the thick slices of buttery Cuban toast I scarfed down on the pier, I opted for lunch. The Caribbean plate came with tender lobster cooked in wine, butter, and spices and served with Blue Heaven's key lime hollandaise sauce; savory black beans; rice; asparagus; tangy cole slaw; and a slab of moist cornbread.

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Of course we couldn't leave without a couple of slices of their mile high key lime pie.

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We then took Steve and Alison on a bicycle tour of Key West.

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We ended up at the Martello Tower where we took a quick tour of the Key West Garden Club's beautiful oceanfront garden.

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All that pedaling made us hungry. It was oyster o'clock, so we headed back to the White Tarpon. This time, I got my own platter of ice cold oysters and washed them down with a hard cider.

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Matt is going to be sorry he encouraged me to eat oysters. If I really get hooked on them, he's either going to get to eat 1/2 as many or pay twice as much.

Truth is, I didn't really even WANT the oysters. I don't LIKE oysters. I was just eating at this point to be eating. A vicious cycle was starting to take hold: get up, eat, ride bikes, eat, walk around and shop, eat, drink cocktails, eat, watch the sunset, eat. Before it was over, I would be eating in my sleep.

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That evening, we had tickets to one of the two Food and Wine Festival events I had decided our friends would probably like: Henry Flagler's Welcome Party at Casa Marina.

Okay, who am I kidding? I didn't care if they liked it or not, I just wanted to see the beach at this gorgeous resort. It was not disappointing.

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The KWFWF had set up a nice soiree right on the beach at sunset, complete with live band, wine flowing like water, and twinkling lights hanging from the palm trees.

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The snacks were pretty good too: a pastry of baked brie with figs, specialty pizzas, cheeses, and a carving station with mountains of fried onions. Yes, there was some meat too, but did you see all those fried onions????? Who can concentrate on meat when there are UNLIMITED FRIED ONIONS?

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After a dozen oysters, two slices of pizza, countless glasses of wine, tender beef with a crusty roll, a mountain of fried onions, and enough cheese to constipate a horse, most people would have called that dinner.

But we were on a mission.

So we waddled our gluttonous selves away from Casa Marina with no shame and headed to the Rum Bar to sip their delicious painkillers until we thought we could handle more food.

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It wasn't long before we were ready for dinner at Square One, a short walk from the Rum Bar.

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Their creative cocktails were a hit. Mine was a Bufala Negra: fresh basil, balsamic vinegar (yes...vinegar!), agave nectar, ginger beer, and bourbon. It was quirky, but delightful.

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We then severely overordered. And overate.

There were soft little pretzel bites with savory herb butter.

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There were pork potstickers with pineapple hoisin sauce and a massive platter of lobster cobb salad with arugula, fresh tender lobster, crispy pancetta, egg, avocado, roasted corn, manchego cheese, and a togarashi ranch.

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There were pulled cuban pork sliders with sweet plantains and red onion marmalade on pretzel buns with crispy fries and a lobster roll with shredded lettuce on a pretzel hogie.

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There were shrimp and grits with spicy poblano peppers, manchego cheese, and caramelized corn butter and a pound of drunken mussels cooked in vermouth, fresh herbs, and shallots.

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Too full to go to bed, we ended the evening with cocktails at Point5, the upstairs bar at Nine One Five on Duval Street. The breezy front balcony was a perfect place to watch all that was coming and going along Duval.

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Eventually our choices narrowed to 1) stomach pump or 2) go to bed, so we called it a night.

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We woke up the morning and did a group cheer to get us psyched up for the day's eat fest.

It started at Firefly on Petronia. Their menu promised all manner of fried goodness, and they delivered. We started off with mango mimosas, to wash it all down and then ordered all the fried things we could find on the menu.

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Fried okra, deep fried mini corndogs, and deliciously cheesy stuffed peppers.

Then fried chicken and waffles, fried chicken and biscuits, and fried crab beignets on a bun with crazy good garlic fries.

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Oh....and then there was that one person who ordered a salad. I think she was starting to feel guilty about what she was doing to her internal organs, but never mind her. We would get her back on the food train before the day was over.

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The will is weak.

Especially when tater tots are on the menu.

The guys had decided their new favorite place was the Rum Bar so we headed that way. If I learned one thing on the island of Jost Van Dyke, home of the Soggy Dollar Bar and home of the painkiller, it is that it is never too early for a painkiller.

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We spent the day shopping up and down Key West's quaint streets in between snacks. We had decided that the best way to see the sights was on the way to and from our eating opportunities. If we followed the food, we'd naturally see the sights along the way. We wanted to see Hemingway's House. Did we pay admission and take a tour? Of course not. We snapped a selfie by the gate on the way to Firefly for a mango mimosa and a plate of fried okra. Just like we grabbed a walking photo of the harbor and the boats as we made our way to Half Shell for a pound of beer steamed shrimp and grabbed a glimpse of the Southernmost Point as we made a quick detour on our way to the Rum Bar for painkillers.

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It had been almost 3 hours since we'd had anything to eat and it was making me nervous. Certain that my stomach would shrink, we needed food and we needed it fast. As luck would have it, it was oyster happy hour.

We decided to try Pepe's for oysters just for a change of scenery, if nothing else.

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I liked Pepe's oysters best. They were served with lime instead of lemon and their house made cocktail sauce was so thick and chunky it was more like salsa. Paired with one of Pepe's hand squeezed margaritas, it was afternoon perfection.

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Since it was their first visit to Key West, we wanted Steve and Alison to enjoy a proper Key West sunset. That meant NOT at the sunset celebration where they could only catch a brief glimpse of it obstructed by 27 boats as they peered around the back of a guy with a combover and a Patriots jersey who was busy watching a guy juggle fire. Don't get me wrong, I love the festiveness of the sunset celebration, but it's not ideal if you actually want to SEE THE SUNSET.

We had done the Commotion on the Ocean sunset cruise on our first trip to Key West and, despite the total cheese factor of it, I loved it. It was not a classy affair, but I knew that. Bad wine and cheap beer were served in plastic glasses, cheap deli trays from the local supermarket lined the counter promising "free eats" as the smell of old grease filled the air. I was pretty sure I could smell cheap meatballs and frozen chicken wings cooking somewhere. The boat was also crammed with bodies. Bodies everywhere and all of them clutching a plastic solo cup of boxed wine.

I still loved it.

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The band was good, the sunset was amazing, and the atmosphere was the kind of cheap fun you can only have at a frat party or, if you are over 22, on a cheesy party boat. I can't explain it. I loved it the same way I love the $1.09 bean burrito at Taco Bell or the way I love watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians when no one is looking.

As we boarded the boat, I promised myself I would enjoy the band and the sunset but I would not drink the bad drinks on the boat.

Three glasses of boxed wine in a solo cup later I found myself enthusiastically accepting a crappy margarita like it was heaven's nectar handed to me from an angel. It was even worse than the boxed wine. I drank it anyway.

We watched the sun as it made its way toward the horizon.

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Before I knew it, I was drinking cheap champagne out of a plastic cup.

What is it they say? Wine before liquor? Never been sicker? Or is that beer? Did it matter? I was pretty sure I was going to be sorry I drank from the "Cup of Gallo" no matter what order I did it in.

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As the boat made its way back toward the harbor, the band cranked out oldies. Everyone was smiling and drinking champagne, snapping selfies in front of the fiery sky, laughing, having a good time. It was lovely.

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And then they played Rocky Top.

My friends, you always know who the hillbillies in the group are when the band starts to play Rocky Top.

If you are from East Tennessee, and you hear Rocky Top, it doesn't matter where you are or what you are doing. You can be in church, at a funeral, or walking through the mall and you are instantly and inexplicably compelled to start singing at the top of your lungs and throwing in a lot of "Yee Haws" for good measure.

Or maybe it was just the boxed wine singing.

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There was only one thing that could follow Rocky Top: tequila shots.

I mean, what better to do after drinking cheap wine, cheaper champagne and a margarita made with bottom shelf liquor?

We got off the boat and found Agave 308. The decor was creepy and dark, but in a fun way. I liked it.

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With absolutely no plans for dinner, we wandered in search of Garbo's. Or was it Grunt's? Garbo's at Grunt's? We weren't sure. I just knew they were supposed to have great tacos. We found what we thought was Grunt's and wandered around looking for something that appeared to be serving tacos. I did see what appeared to be a stand of some sort in the back, but there was nothing making it obvious that you could get food there. I also saw a sign shouting "Tennessee Steve's BBQ" with an arrow that confusingly terminated in a chain link fence.

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Unfortunately, the Grunt's / Garbo's set up seemed designed for those in the know and was simply confusing as hell for a group of people who had consumed entirely too much boxed wine and cheap tequila, so we made our exit, and headed straight for the predictable safety of Amigo's.

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Not only did they have tacos, they had tater tots.

And fire roasted corn.

And GOOD margaritas.

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Because we NEEDED another drink.

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The following morning, we all made it a point to get up in time for the sunrise. This is not hard to do when you fall asleep at 10:30 pm. It is hard to do if that early sleep was induced by a tater tot and tequila coma.

We grabbed hot coffee at Sandy's and rode our bikes to the pier to watch the sunrise.

It was spectacular.

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A sunrise that spectacular called for a hearty breakfast, so we headed to Camille's at the recommendation of our surly waiter at Pepe's the night before.

We hopped on the bikes and headed that way.

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Camille's was kitschy cool. With orange sherbet walls, vintage movie posters, and a smattering of quirky nicknacks, Camille's was one part crazy old Aunt Hilda's house, one part 1950's Hollywood diner, and one part Old Florida Retirement Community Party Room. Camille's had also stolen my 1984 high school mix tape collection.

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We ordered mimosas and bacon bloody marys, diving into the menu with gusto.

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Matt had the carb cake benedict. No, that's not a typo. Sure, there were some crab cakes in there somewhere, but it was really a carb cake. Especially with that pile of cheesy delicious grits.

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I went for the omelet special which was loaded with sun dried tomatoes, bacon, asparagus, and lobster. It came with a side of perfectly toasted, buttered Cuban bread and crispy home fries.

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Then we all went home and took a nap.

I wish I was joking, but I'm not. It was only 10:00 a.m. and we needed a nap. This eating quest was wearing us out.

It was when I woke up from my late morning nap at Mango Cottage that Key West Hideaways got their final strike. We ran out of toilet paper.

Now....I am not one of these "high maintenance" rental people that has unrealistic expectations of a vacation rental. But when I pay $2471 to spend 3 days in a 765 square foot house.....I should not have to go buy my own toilet paper.

We were up and at 'em in time to ride our bikes to catch the 11:45 a.m. shuttle to the second KWFWF event I had purchased tickets to: The Hogfish Grill Shrimp Boil on Stock Island.

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I loved almost everything about the Shrimp Boil.

I loved the table of endless wine.

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I loved the appetizers of ceviche and coconut shrimp.

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I loved the giant bowl filled with amazing shrimp, lobster, sausage, corn, and potatoes topped with the most delightful cornbread square I have ever had the pleasure of eating. The food was FANTASTIC.

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I didn't like being seated at cheap, crappy tables with no shade in the broiling sun in the freaking parking lot. It was almost as "unclassy" as the Commotion on the Ocean. At least the boat had a band.

It had all the atmosphere of a potluck in the church fellowship hall or dinner at a table set up outside of Lowe's selling girl scout cookies.

We left on the first trolley.

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We wasted the afternoon sipping painkillers at the Rum Bar and eating shrimp and oysters at Half Shell.

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Now that they had seen a proper sunset, we wanted Steve and Alison to experience the Mallory Square Sunset Celebration. We headed that way just as the sun was making its way toward the horizon. It was the usual assortment of fortune tellers, fire eaters, magicians, and pigs in top hats. There were popcorn carts, mojito carts, and guys whacking into green coconuts so passers by could grab a straw and sip them as they watched a guy on a unicycle juggle swords.

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We hadn't made any plans for our final dinner. I like to leave the last night open so that we can see what catches our eye during the trip. What caught our eye was the promise of "all you can eat crab legs" at Camille's that morning.

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We should have felt ashamed. We had been eating about 8,000 calories a day. The last thing we needed was "all you can eat" anything unless it was Lipitor or a colonic.

That didn't stop us. We dove in with enthusiasm, like we had not already eaten 3 times that day. The crab legs were large, perfectly prepared, and Camille's was generous. Of course we all had to get at least two orders lest we violate the secret code of "all you can eatness" which says you must get at least 2 plates of whatever it is or be forced to spend the rest of your existence as a chump who didn't get her money's worth.

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We decided to go out in a blaze of glory. It was time for dessert.

We stopped at Better Than Sex Desserts on our way home.

Walking inside was like entering a whore house, but one that traded chocolate instead of sex. It was dark and sexy. You could catch glimpses of the red walls from the dim lighting cast by the ornate chandeliers.

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From our illuminated iPad menu, we chose our desserts. For Matt, that was their signature dessert, the "Better Than Sex," which looked like a deep, dark chocolate bread pudding. I ordered the "Jungle Fever." It was described as, "Smooth. Soft. Supple. A warm airy chocolate cake full of body that’s oozing a subtle chocolate pudding underneath. Rubbing up against cool white vanilla bean balls." And vanilla bean balls they were.....

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They also served wine in glasses rimmed with dark chocolate. The chocolate was soft and melty, but didn't slide down the glass. As Matt sipped, I figured out why it was so dark in here. When he looked up, he had a line of melted chocolate across his forehead from the glass. If they didn't dim the lights, no one would leave this place feeling sexy. Instead, they would look like a 4 year old that got into the Halloween candy without permission.

It was uniquely indulgent and delicious. I was a fan.

Who am I kidding? I am a fan of sugar. Period. It could be a cheap, stale donut on a paper plate in the Kroger parking lot and I'm going to like it.

But throw in some red walls and velvet curtains and you make my day.

Or night.

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I woke up the next morning knowing it was time to pack up and head home. It had been a ridiculously indulgent few days.

I decided to take a total body inventory to assess the damage.

My mouth felt dry, like I had spent the past 10 hours snacking on cotton balls. Woman can not live on wine alone, I supposed.

The back of my throat was a little sore. I attributed that to belting out Rocky Top loud enough for folks in Michigan to hear.

My chest felt normal, but that was only because the fat had not yet had a chance to harden and make it's way into the lining of my arteries. It just needed a little more time.

My stomach was physically protruding over the elastic band of my PJs. I could poke it. It felt soft. Much like I imagine the Pillsbury doughboy would feel if you could poke him for real.

My butt cheeks were sore. No doubt because my butt was at least two sizes bigger than it was when we arrived, which made my bicycle seat increasingly uncomfortable as the trip wore on.

I was very sleepy from going to bed at midnight and getting up at 6:00 a.m. every day to see the sunrise.

And, inexplicably, I was hungry.

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I'm back home now and I am paying the price of gluttony.

I'm not as young as I used to be. My 44 year old metabolism can't quite keep up with a 9,000 calorie a day diet. The only cure for the food vacation hangover is, of course, lots of deprivation and raw vegetables.

I’ll keep telling myself that the miles and miles we walked and biked more than made up for our obscene caloric intake, but really, deep inside, past the thick layers of adipose tissue, I know better.

Was it worth it? Was 3 days of gluttony worth this horrible kale and spinach juice that is serving as my lunch today?

Yeah. It was.

Bottoms up!

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Posted by vicki_h 07:29 Archived in USA Tagged food island tropical wine key_west kwfwf duval_street Comments (2)

Let Them Eat Cake Part II

A Four Day Food Free-For-All at the Key West Food and Wine Festival

Day Three: Coming Uncorked

I woke up for the second day in a row with a hangover. Wow. This might be a record. Or an all time low. I wasn't sure which category to place it in.

I was going to have to get myself in order. Today was Duval Uncorked....a mile long extravaganza of wine and food tastings. I did the only thing I could: I popped some Advil, drank some water, and powered on. There was food to eat! There was wine to drink! I might need a liver transplant at the end of this trip, but I would not be stopped.

A freakishly early riser, even after staying out all night drinking champagne, I was wide awake while the rest of my gang tried to sleep off the last of their bubbles. It was another gorgeous morning, so I grabbed my bike and took a ride.

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Drawn by the smell of freshly baking bread, I found myself at the Old Town Bakery.

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As long as I was there, I figured I may as well start carb loading for the day. I grabbed a bag full of pastries and some hot coffee and pedaled them back to the house to see if anyone else was awake, secretly hoping no one was so that I could eat all of it by myself.

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Since Duval Uncorked started at 3:30, we opted to do an early brunch at Louie's. Hangovers are for sissies, so we started off with Bloody Marys and house made Sangria.

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That was followed by the crab cake Caesar salad for me and the jerk grilled shrimp and plantains for Matt.

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While my salad was phenomenal, I have to admit I was a little jealous when I saw John's hangover burger.

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I received a text from TraceyG inviting us to do Duval Uncorked with her group because 1) they had a couple of locals with them who knew the best stops and 2) she thought it might be nice for us to meet when we were not in ridiculous costumes chugging champagne from the bottle.

We met up with them at the Southernmost Cafe where the Duval Uncorked check-in tables were set up.

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While Tracey and her group slipped up to the VIP line, we stood in the regular line with the common folk. I might have to get me one of those VIP passes next year! Although, I will admit, the line wasn't that bad and the KWFWF staff kept it moving along nicely.

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It was a gorgeous day for a drunken stumble classy wine stroll down Duval Street.

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Upon check-in, we were each given a sipping glass on a lanyard that we could wear around our necks. Like a little wino necklace. How cute was that?

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Then it was time to let the tastings begin!

Duval Uncorked starts on one end of Duval Street. You are given a map of stops, with each stop representing a participating business that is offering wine, food, or in many cases, both. There were about 40 stops in all and we had 4 hours. Sounds very do-able, doesn't it? You try herding a group of semi-inebriated adults through a maze of food, people, and wine.

Our fearless leader seemed up to the task. The Captain, husband of Key West blogger, Prissy in Paradise (aka the beautiful Donna), did his best to keep us moving and get us to the best stops of the tour.

Have you ever heard the phrase, "herding chickens?" Poor man never had a chance.

I'll do my best to recall where we were and what we had, but as we neared the Mallory Square end...things got less clear.

We started off at Pearl's Patio, a ladies-only hotel that offered us bacon wrapped dates. Coming from Tennessee, these were what I would call gussied-up pigs in a blanket. Tasty nonetheless. There was also music by the pool.

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Our next stop was the Cork & Stogie, a cigar and wine bar in case the name didn't make that obvious. I believe we had some type of brie and raspberry puffs. We enjoyed them on the breezy patio.

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Next up was the Alan S. Maltz gallery, not only filled with beautiful photography, but they also had a cupcake tower from Key West Cakes. Next door we sampled wine at Archeo Gallery, a gallery of expensive rugs. I had to wonder about the person who decided to serve red wine to strangers in the back of a densely packed showroom filled with beautiful rugs....

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We then returned to the scene of our current hangovers...the Lush Bar and the Green Pineapple. They treated us to smoked fish dip and crab bisque from the Stoned Crab. They also had a sweet orange wine...Orange Columbo apertif wine.

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After stuffing ourselves with delicately sampling that amazing fish dip, we wandered over to the Rum Bar at the Speakeasy Inn. Can you believe they were giving away painkillers? Because we certainly needed some hard liquor to put on top of all that wine.

Sweet nectar of the Gods. They were delicious.

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The next samplings were mini key lime pies (either standard or chocolate covered) from Key West Key Lime Pie and a wine laden sorbet from Flamingo Crossing. Sorry...there are no photos of that sorbet. I sucked it down so fast I got a brain freeze.

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There was more wine at Grand Vin, champagne ....somewhere.....(things were starting to become fuzzy at this point....thank God we had the Captain or I'd probably still be sitting in an alley somewhere trying to figure out where the hell I was....)

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Blackfin Bistro offered more wine and a nice cheese platter.

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Then it was on to La Petit Paris. I was not thrilled to find out they were offering calamari....and it wasn't even fried. Not a fan of the squid, I can typically choke it down if it's deep fried and slathered in marinara sauce. No, this was sauteed. All nice and squishy chewy.

I gave it a go. Why not? When in Paris, right? Or was that Rome? Besides, I was in Key West, so it really didn't apply....whatever. The wine haze was settling in.

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This is the face of someone not very keen on squid sucking a nice mouthful out of a plastic cup and attempting to swallow it without chewing:

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I was proud of myself for trying something new. I ate about half of it, to give it a fair shake. The flavor was actually quite nice, but I simply couldn't make it past the texture. Like boiled worms. And I definitely couldn't eat this guy. Even after 19.5 glasses of wine, that was simply asking too much...where I come from, we call that bait.

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With the Captain leading our motley crew, we powered on. The next stop was Croissants de France, who had a little mini-buffet of curried chicken salad puffs, bruschetta, and fruit set up in their lovely garden patio. Then it was on to Vino's on Duval for an exceptional wine tasting.

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We were having a ball. It only became more fun when we were ushered into 801 Bourbon by a drag queen offering jello shots. Donna was surprised when she got more than a jello shot.

Sometimes you get a jello shot. Sometimes you get licked across the chest by a drag queen. 801 Bourbon is like a box of chocolates...you never know what you're going to get.

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Despite the HUGE line outside DJ's Clam Shack, we piled in because everyone was coming out with little cups of chowder saying it was worth the line. Besides, we got to wait with this little guy:

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The chowder was exceptional. And yes, it was worth the line.

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After that...there were more galleries....more wine....my brain growing fuzzier by the minute....

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We arrived at what had to be the most interesting stop of the day....Leather Master of Key West. They had things in there I didn't even understand....but they definitely got my vote for best server. Of course I meant the lady in the green shirt. What did you think I meant? I barely even noticed the guy with the chiseled abs and bare ass.

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Then there were lobster pizzettes at Island Style, chocolate covered pineapple at Kilwin's, more wine at Wet Paint Gallery, a unique coconut wine at the Key West Cigar Club, and chocolate mousse at the Hard Rock Cafe.

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We finished strong with conch fritters at Caroline's Cafe.

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Duval Uncorked was definitely a fun time. I had seen a lot of shops and galleries I might not have gone into otherwise, and the food and wine were sampling heaven.

In need of some substance, someone suggested we head over to Mangia Mangia. It wasn't far away, they could accommodate our giant group, and a giant plate of carbohydrates might just keep me from having a third hangover, so we headed that way.

I could smell the garlic from the sidewalk. I had visions of a platter of perfect al dente pasta with a savory sauce loaded with meatballs, and maybe a handful of shredded parmesan tossed in for good measure. I couldn't have been more disappointed when there were no meatballs on the menu.

So what did I do? I went in an entirely different direction.

Note: it's not a good idea to do some creative ordering when you have had 37 glasses of wine, no matter how small the glass is.

I am not sure WHAT I was thinking when I ordered THIS.

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Actually, I'm not even sure what Mangia Mangia was thinking when they came up with that dish. What...was the chef just sitting there one day and said, "Hmmm....I think I'll take some huge rigatoni and throw in a little shrimp. Well...that doesn't look very good...maybe if I toss some half cooked tomatoes on it, that will liven things up. Nope. Still needs something. I know, I'll dump a salad on top."

Seriously. What was that? It only made it worse when I looked across the table at Matt's plate. I think I had to wipe the drool off my chin. There might not be anything I hate more than a misorder.

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Day Four: Last Call

I was so happy when I woke up without a hangover the next day that I celebrated by riding my bike over to Glazed Donuts while waiting for everyone else to wake up.

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I expected doughnuts. I did not expect fried dough perfection. This place had the most amazing looking doughnuts I think I have ever laid eyes on. With flavors like Blood Orange Bullseye, Key Lime, Pina Colada, and Maple Glazed Bourbon Bacon, I didn't even know where to start.

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I started by ordering a key lime, banana dulce de leche, chocolate lovers, and a maple glazed bourbon bacon.

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If you don't think happiness can come in a cardboard box, then you have never been to Glazed Donuts.

It was an overcast morning and the guys were moving slow, so I talked Teresa into going to see some birds.

Days before, while eating lunch at the New York Pasta Garden, one of the waiters noticed my fascination with the parrots and told me I should visit Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden. Well, when I noticed that it was less than a block from our house, I was in.

I will admit that we had to go around the block twice before we figured out where the entrance was. That just gave us more time to look at all the wonderful houses. I think Key West has the best porches in the entire United States.

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We put our $20 in the jar on the table and stepped through the gate. I'm glad we did. Nancy is an artist and environmental activist who has been rescuing abused and orphaned birds for 25 years. The birds were sweet, funny, and entertaining. At 10 a.m. each day, you can learn about the birds and even hold some of them.

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I literally could have stayed in there all day. Teresa finally reminded me that the guys were waiting and it was getting dangerously close to lunchtime.

Apparently, they hadn't all eaten 4 doughnuts that morning.

We grabbed sandwiches at the Eaton Street Seafood Market before riding our bikes over to the KWFWF's outdoor wine market. Not a restaurant, but an actual seafood market, Eaton Street will literally take your seafood out of the cooler and cook it for you for lunch. The softshell crab sandwich was fantastic.

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Then it was on to the outdoor wine market where we could sample more wine (if we hadn't managed to get enough already) and peruse a varied assortment of farm fresh goodies and handmade wares that had been crafted by local artisans.

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I laughed when we arrived just as TraceyG and her husband were pulling up. I assured them we were not stalking them...and I think she believed me. Thank goodness she never found that GPS tracker I put on her bike.

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After that, it was back to the house for cocktails and downtime with the girls. All this eating and drinking was exhausting!

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Matt had discovered another great oyster deal, 50 cent oysters all day at the White Tarpon. I told him to count me in because I had heard that they had a mind blowing key lime martini and god knew I needed another drink!

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Expecting something creamy, which was the only experience I'd had with key lime martinis, this was a pleasant surprise: not creamy at all, shaken tableside, not overly sweet, and poured so heavy that we couldn't even pick the glasses up.

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John and Teresa wanted to do some shopping, so Matt and I sauntered over to Santigo's Bodega for some snacks and sangria.

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I had wanted to try Santiago's on previous trips, but we just never got around to it. It was an overcast afternoon with just the perfect amount of breeze, and it just seemed like a great day to sit outside on their patio with a glass of sangria.

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The food was GOOD. We tried the empanadas, shrimp and chorizo skewers, and saganaki (flaming haloumi cheese sprinkled with oregano) with warm pita bread. I also ordered the angel hair with meatballs, because the disastrous meatball denial and subsequent misorder at Mangia Mangia was still stinging my psyche.

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The meatballs definitely helped.

John and Teresa didn't feel like getting back out, so Matt and I wrapped up the day with a late night trek to Taco Night at 2 Cent Gastropub. What a good idea! We loved this place. Twinkling lights, live music, great wine, and $5 tacos!

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Departure Day

It's always the day I hate, but I think my liver and digestive system were looking forward to some down time.

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I made a final pastry run to Old Town Cafe and grabbed coffee at Cuban Coffee Queen.

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Before I knew it, we were wheels up and headed into the great blue yonder.

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I have my calendar marked though. Looks like I have just 346 days to get myself ready for the 5th annual Key West Food and Wine Festival. Who knows, maybe I'll see you there.

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Posted by vicki_h 15:23 Archived in USA Tagged food island tropical wine key_west kwfwf Comments (3)

Let Them Eat Cake Part I

A Four Day Food Free-For-All at the Key West Food and Wine Festival

Arrival Day: Just in Time for Sunset

It was cold in Tennessee. It had been snowing. Things were icing over. My car door was frozen shut when I tried to go to work. It was definitely time to head somewhere warm.

When we arrived in Key West, it was in the 70s and the sun was just beginning to set. I think the Key West sunset I saw from our plane might be the most beautiful Key West sunset I have seen yet.

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It was late and we were famished, so we headed to the closest place where we knew Matt would be able to find some ice cold oysters, Half Shell Raw Bar.

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Despite having been here on multiple trips, this was actually the first time we had ever really eaten here, our previous visits being relegated to the bar while Matt mercilessly sucked down platters of 50 cent Happy Hour oysters. The first thing he noticed was that the HH oysters were off the menu. Looks like we'd have to look elsewhere for cheap oysters.

Feeling sorry for Matt's loss, I consoled myself by eating a whole lobster with crab stuffing, an order of Key West pinks, and a slice of key lime pie.

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I'm not sure if Matt felt better, but I certainly did.

Day One: Let the Eating Begin.

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I hadn't properly conditioned myself before the trip by eating ridiculous amounts of food and consuming absurd volumes of wine, and I was worried that my stomach and liver were not ready for the assault that was at hand. So, much like the fool who has never run before and decides to start her first marathon at a full on sprint, I thought I'd start things off with a giant boozy breakfast at Pepe's.

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Worried that the mimosas, 2 eggs, and giant slab of banana bread wouldn't be enough to start the much needed stomach stretching, I also opted for the fried mashed potato patty special.

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It was a good call.

After sufficient carb-loading, we got our bikes at Eaton's and spent the morning shopping and looking at all the wonderful little houses that Key West seems to have hidden in every nook and cranny. I can literally spend all day in Key West doing nothing more than riding my bike and gawking at stuff.

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My original lunch plans got shot to hell when we found ourselves on the opposite end of town from our original destination and RAVENOUS (the stomach stretching and carb loading were apparently starting to work).

I surprised everyone by not throwing a tantrum and launching myself onto the sidewalk in a fit of hysterics, which is what I typically do when things don't go exactly according to my plans, and walked into a restaurant I had never heard of and knew nothing about (apparently the early a.m. alcohol consumption was also working - if nothing else, it made me significantly more accommodating).

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Besides, this restaurant had parrots.

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And glasses of wine that were bigger than my head for $7.

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That is not just an illusion of perspective. That was a seriously huge glass of wine.

They also had gargantuan sandwiches. Apparently, the New York Pasta Garden is the Texas of Key West - everything is bigger.

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With it being our first KWFWF, we had not opted for the VIP passes that included almost all events, we had only chosen one event per day. Since our daily event wasn't until later that evening, we made it a leisurely trip back to the house, doing plenty of gawking along the way.

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So a dog walks into a bar...........(by the way, that guy was drinking tequila).

Having realized there were no 50 cent oysters to be had on this trip at Half Shell, Matt had spent the previous night tossing and turning, in a restless fit of desperation. He was soothed at breakfast, however, when he saw that Pepe's had 60 cent oysters during happy hour. I was happy because I saw that Pepe's had happy hour margaritas made with their house squeezed juice. We headed that way.

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After we did the happy hour thing at Pepe's, we realized we had time to make it to Mallory Square for sunset, something I never get tired of seeing.

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I guess when you have a boat this big, you don't care if you are being an asshole by parking it in the one EXACT SPOT where it will block the view that hundreds of people have been waiting an hour to see. I guess if I had a yacht with a helicopter on it, I might not care either.

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It was finally time for our first official KWFWF event. We had tickets to one of the neighborhood strolls. We had chosen the Petronia Street stroll because the event guide just made it sound like the one I didn't want to miss: "On Thursday evening you can board the Old Town Trolley and ride through Key West's Historic old town to take a stroll to some of Key West’s most famous and unique neighborhoods and sample food & wine from our one-of-a-kind restaurants. Petronia Street is the historic entrance to Bahama Village. Stops include can't-miss Santiago's Bodega's selection of Spanish-style tapas, world famous and perennial favorite Blue Heaven, sweet and savory crepe favorites fron Brittany, France at La Creperie Key West and Sugaree Shack, the most recent addition to a fabulous restaurant row."

It might have been overzealous to have 2 of Pepe's margaritas before heading out on a wine stroll that included 5 glasses of wine....but that thought didn't cross my mind until the next morning.

We boarded the trolley that would take us to our first stop - Santiago's Bodega. We were each given an etched wine glass that was ours to refill along the way and to keep once the night was over. Each glass was filled with a New Age White White Cocktail, one of Argentina's hottest wines, often served on the rocks with a slice of lime, referred to as a "Tincho," named after the boyhood nickname of the cocktail's creator, Valentin Eduardo Bianchi, third-generation owner of the winery. Despite the exotic nature of our first wine, the trolley ride was quiet and uneventful. Our group wasn't (yet) a rowdy one and everyone was simply looking forward to seeing what the night had to offer.

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We were dropped off at Santiago's Bodega, an intimate tapas restaurant that I had been itching to try on each trip to Key West due to its consistently high marks from diners. I felt sorry for the patrons who were dining there that night, possibly unaware that this rambling horde of people was about to descend upon their quiet dinner, glasses in hand, ready to line up and see what bite Santiago's had prepared for us.

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We were given a Crostini topped with manchego cheese, roasted sweet peppers, and prosciutto and finished with a white balsamic reduction. Small, but tasty. It was paired with a glass of 2010 Matchbook Dunnigan Hills Chardonnay.

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As we all stood around, glasses in hand, one small crostini to two glasses of wine, everyone started to get more colorful. Or maybe it was just me.

We "strolled" toward Blue Heaven, the next stop on our tour. We were shown back into the courtyard where we found pork tenderloin medallions with a curry butter sauce and mango chutney. It was quite delicious. It was paired with a glass of 2010 Shooting Star Pinot Noir.

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For those of you who have not been keeping up, I had now had 2 Pepe's margaritas, 3 glasses of wine, and 3 bites of food.

That's probably what made me think I could hula hoop. And ride a stationary carousel horse.

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At this point, I was fuzzy. The wine to food ratio had been extremely disproportionate and I was in need of some food with substance.

God bless La Creperie. When we walked in, they had an assembly line of crepes going that made my head spin. Or was that the wine? Whatever. It was OUTSTANDING. They were cheerful, they were fast, and they were churning out fresh, hot delicious crepes that were not only delicious but were BIG.

Oh thank you dear sweet lord.

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We even had a choice: red velvet, key lime, or Nutella. I promptly got into the red velvet line and patiently waited my turn. I received my crepe and a glass of Pillar Box Red Blend from Australia. I really can't tell you about the wine....I was devouring that crepe like a woman who had just gotten out of prison.

We had come to the last stop on our tour: the Sugaree Shack who loaded us down with cupcakes and a glass of Cigar Box Reserve Malbec.

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There is nothing that makes a drunk girl happier than a cupcake.

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Unless it's two cupcakes.

Day Two: Take Two Aspirin and Call Me In the Morning

It could have been worse. Yes, I had a bit of a headache and I was moving a little slowly, but all things considered, I was doing pretty good considering that I had been clutching my wine glass with two hands by the end of the night, licking frosting off my fingers.

I was in search of strong coffee and I found it a short stroll from the house at 5 Brothers.

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We had the girls with us and 5 Brothers seemed to be the doggie place to go. These guys told us so:

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Seriously, is there anything cuter than a giant pack of Corgis?

One cafe con leche with sugar and one egg sandwich on Cuban bread later, I was feeling pretty okay. The girls gave 5 Brothers two paws up.

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Our KWFWF events for the day weren't until late that evening. I had opted for special dinner being offered at Southernmost Cafe followed by the much anticipated "Let Them Eat Cake" party.

I was tempted by the Grand Tasting, but at $130 a ticket, I just couldn't convince my group to go. Besides, with my unsophisticated palate, if I paid $130 for a wine tasting I'd be like the fat kid at the buffet, trying to get my money's worth by consuming in bulk, no doubt ending up like an unwanted poor relation that shows up at a country club wedding, gets drunk on boxed wine, and winds up on stage singing "Love Stinks" while everyone pretends not to watch.

Looking for a new Key West experience, I had booked us a charter boat for half a day. We weren't looking for a day at the beach. We wanted to do something new, see things from the water, and get the girls out for the day. "Take Me There Charters" advertised itself as "dog friendly," so that sealed the deal.

We were going on a boat day!

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Cpt. Tommy was incredibly easy going. We just told him that we simply wanted to ride and see some sights...maybe a dolphin, maybe a cool beach, whatever he recommended. We weren't looking to swim or snorkel, we were just out for some air.

Although it was beautiful, it was windy. Despite the challenges, Cpt. Tommy gave us a great day.

We first went to an area he called the mud keys, about 15 miles northeast of Key West. These were small mangrove islands that were highly dissected by navigable creeks. As we approached the area, the colors of the water were striking.

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What was usually clear blue water was sort of a cloudy greenish, due to the time of year and the wind, but wow, it was still beautiful.

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Then we went looking for dolphins. We knew we were in the right place when we saw this boat. It had a very sophisticated dolphin tracker.

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Laugh, but that dog spots dolphins. It would bark and point when it saw one. Apparently, as a puppy, it got so excited the first time it saw dolphins that it jumped in the water in the middle of a pod. No one knew what to do....or what would happen. Apparently, the dolphins checked the puppy out and then moved on their way, leaving it alone. The dog grew up and learned not to jump in the water, but it never lost its love for the little creatures and now spends its days on a boat, happily watching for them in the waves.

The boat dog looked. We looked.

And what do you know....we found dolphins!

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Cpt. Tommy pointed out a mother and baby. I truly don't think I have ever seen anything cuter than a baby dolphin.

Unless maybe it was that pack of Corgis. Or that pug drinking tequila at the bar.

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When we'd had our fill of frolicking sea creatures, Cpt. Tommy asked if we'd like to go to a deserted island called Boca Grande and let the pups get out to stretch their legs.

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We pulled up to a long stretch of white sand. I made a mental note, "MUST COME BACK IN SUMMER."

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Not only was it peaceful and gorgeous, it sure made for some happy dogs!

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Cpt. Tommy brought out some chairs and we just took a load off for a while. We could have stayed longer, he had already kept us out past our charter time and made it clear we could stay out as long as we wanted, but we hadn't packed a lunch, not anticipating more than a half day, and stomachs were starting to growl.

We packed up the pups and headed back to the marina.

When we got back we were STARVING. We passed by Paseo on our way back to the house and I knew in an instant what I wanted.

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Paseo bills itself as "Caribbean" fare and serves it up in a simple shop with a counter and a few outdoor tables.

I wanted to try their famous fire roasted corn: a perfectly charred corn on the cob slathered in butter, salt, lime, cheese, and cilantro.

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I also got the Caribbean bowl: jasmine rice smothered in black beans, warm salsa, shredded cheese, sour cream, jalepenos, and one unbelievably divine chicken thigh....all served with love, peace, and a handful of tortilla chips.

Oh. My. Goodness.

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I practically needed to smoke a cigarette after eating that meal.

Our dinner plans were at 7:00, so we took it easy for the rest of the day.

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I had made reservations that night at Southernmost Cafe when I saw they had a special KWFWF dinner featuring lobster.

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Southernmost Cafe has a great location right on the ocean, so we had been several times for lunch, but we had never been for dinner. I couldn't imagine a better setting.

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The dinner started off with a lobster bisque, which I expected to be heavy on the bisque and light on the lobster. I was pleasantly surprised to find it filled with huge chunks of tender Maine lobster. This was paired with a glass of Round Hill Chardonnay. Next up was a grilled half tail on served on top of lobster mac & cheese topped with a chili lime buerre blanc paired with a glass of Mark West Pinot Noir. When I thought it couldn't get any better, I was brought a key lime mousse with a glass of Zenin Winemakers Moscato.

Heaven.

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It was time for "Let Them Eat Cake" at the Lush Bar in the Green Pineapple.

TraceyG had not originally planned to attend the KWFWF due to some trip conflicts. Disappointed, because I thought it would be great to meet her, imagine how excited I was when she told me she and her husband were going to make the trip down after all. We agreed to meet up at the Lush party (no pun intended...but wow...what a perfect name for a place to have this party....).

My group was leery of any party that I dragged them to that involved costumes. They have been that way ever since New Year's Eve 2010 when I saw that a local bar was having an "All 80's New Year's Eve" and convinced them all to go in costume. It wasn't my fault. The ad said, "Costumes Encouraged." Well....we walked into a bar filled with wall-to-wall people and.....we were the only ones in costume.

And our costumes were not such that we could blend. We had not been subtle.

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Okay, John and Teresa might have been able to blend, but Matt looked like a gay biker and I looked like some Madonna/Cyndi Lauper reject with giant hair.

They never forgave me.

So....when I knew there was a potential costume opportunity, I checked with the girl in the know, TraceyG.

"Is this a 'wear a mask' event or is this a full-on costume event?" I asked.

"I have heard from my inside sources that costumes are a GO," she replied. "It may just be me and you, but I'm going all the way."

So I pulled out my inner Marie Antoinette and let her freak flag fly.

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I was in girlie girl heaven. There was cake. There was champagne. There was a DJ pumping out dance tunes. We munched on cupcakes with glittery sprinkles and the champagne flowed. Everyone looked fantastic.

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I was finally able to meet TraceyG and she was every bit as funny in person as she is in her blog, but she really stole my heart when she started drinking out of the champagne bottle. I thought no one did that but me!

And yes, that is my real hair. I decided to forego the wig and instead employed a foolproof tactic from my 80's high school days involving a giant can of superfreeze hair spray and a hair dryer. Those of you ladies who were teens in the 80's know EXACTLY what I'm talking about.

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(Photo courtesy of borrowed shamlessly hijacked from the KWFWF and Sheelman Photography)

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(Photo courtesy of borrowed shamlessly hijacked from the KWFWF and Sheelman Photography)

Yes.....there was too much champagne consumed....but who cares. It was a great night!

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(Photo courtesy of borrowed shamlessly hijacked from the KWFWF and Sheelman Photography)

Posted by vicki_h 15:23 Archived in USA Tagged food island tropical wine key_west kwfwf Comments (1)

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