You know when your own Northern New York town officially calls it quits on its tourism page and tells you to head to Key West instead, it might be a sign that this winter is just too much. That is just what my hometown of Ithaca, New York did this past week. Normally, I’m not one to be susceptible to such enticements, but as I cleared three more feet of snow off my driveway and the weatherman said three more was coming next week, I decided maybe it was time to look into this tropical island paradise.
Everything I knew about Key West came from a three minute pop song that was over 30 years old, so I started doing some research. My first happy discovery was that I only had to change planes once to get there, and I could even drive if I wanted to. I never imagined crossing a seven mile bridge, but immediately decided that might be the best way to get into Key West. I found over a hundred different accommodations to choose from, from five star full service resorts to quirky inns in homes that were over 100 years old.
I made reservations at several Key West restaurants, scheduled a day on a fishing charter and an afternoon on the golf course, and also made sure I left plenty of time to visit the world famous bars and lay on the beach. My plane takes off about a day before the next storm comes in, which doesn’t give me much time to remember where in the basement I packed away all of my shorts, bathing suits and other summer clothes. But I’ll find them…..that’s a 100% guarantee.
Just like every year, I didn’t know what to get my husband for Valentine’s Day. There aren’t many gifts that scream “Romance” for a guy, and he can only own so many bottles of aftershave before it gets to be too much. So this year I decided to do something different. I gave us a gift: a romantic long weekend in Key West.
I gave it to him a day early, and we left for the airport first thing Friday morning. By 2pm, we were sitting at a waterfront bar, listening to live music and enjoying shrimp that had been swimming less than 24 hours earlier. The next day we were swimming in the same water, snorkeling on the reef and seeing some of the most beautiful fish I could imagine.
I scheduled us for a morning trip so we would have time to relax by the pool with a nap in the sun before joining the crowds to help celebrate the sunset. The best was we immediately afterwards found one of the amazing Key West restaurants I had been reading about. Sitting under the stars on a beautiful outdoor dining deck, we experienced what they call New Island Cuisine. Simply put, it was some of the best food we had ever eaten.
On the flight back home, I was already worried about what I could do next year for Valentine’s Day to possibly top it. Right before our plane took off, however, he turned to me and said, “Next year, we need to plan ahead and spend a week in Key West.” Looks like my gift is already in the bag.
For our birthdays, my wife and I have agreed that, instead of exchanging presents, we each provide a surprise for the other at some point during the year. It could be a surprise party, a night on the town, a day at the spa, whatever. This year I wanted to really blow her socks off. It was a special birthday (I’m not allowed to say which one) and I wanted to take us on an island vacation.
The problem with planning a tropical trip is it’s hard to casually work “Is your passport up to date?” into a conversation. Luckily, the island I was most excited about visiting doesn’t require one. I have always wanted to visit Key West, especially after I heard about how exceptional the Key West restaurants are supposed to be. Of course, since this is a trip for her, I needed to do some research to know she would approve.
The restaurant reviews I read on Trip Advisor, Yelp and Yahoo all confirmed what I had already heard, about the great service, outdoor dining and casual elegance, which meant I could leave my suit at home. I also discovered Key West has great spas, where my wife and I could pamper ourselves with a couples massage. To her, the most important aspect of any vacation is relaxation, so I even scheduled her a second full day at the spa for a mud bath, facial, the whole works. The entire experience looks like it will be just long enough for me to sneak off for the golf course. I mean, after all, it is a vacation for both of us.
My son is at that age where he knows everything and anything that he has to do with his family isn’t going to be cool enough. It’s hard to imagine that a 13 year old would be upset about taking a vacation, but when he found out we were going to Key West, he just rolled his eyes. Luckily, I know more about what Key West had to offer than he did.
The first day we were there, we went on an all-day water adventure that included snorkeling, kayaking and a trip around the island on jet skis. He quickly forgot to act cool and started telling me how cool it all was. The highlight was the look on his face after he came down from parasailing.
Once I knew I had him hooked on how much fun Key West was going to be, I knew we were free to do everything else, including visiting museums, spending time at the beach and enjoying some great meals at the amazing Key West restaurants. He got a chance to pet a shark, hold a real gold bar and watch a cat jump through a hoop, all on the same day.
My co-workers thought I was crazy to try to take a teenager on any vacation, much less one to a place that didn’t come with an amusement park attached. I think the only problem that I ran into by taking the family to Key West is now he won’t shut up asking when we can go back. My son wants to spend more time with his family? I’m okay with a problem like that.
For as much as my husband and I have in common, the things that are different tend to be very different. When I think of a vacation, I’m thinking island vacations, lounging in a hammock, watching the waves go by and relaxing. My husband likes to relax as well, but if there’s anything he can be snobbish about, it’s eating. He is very particular about the restaurants he eats at. This can make for a tricky time planning a vacation, but a few years ago, we found the perfect compromise in Key West.
I had suggested it, saying that it was close enough to Miami that we could spend a few days there to satisfy his culinary needs. Well, he got online and started looking up Key West restaurants and quickly decided that the only reason we would need to go to Miami was to change planes. Even I was surprised by the level of fine dining – casual elegance, our server called it – that we experienced on the beautiful outdoor dining decks.
Just as surprising as the restaurants was watching my husband try not just new foods, but new styles of food as well. There is such a strong Cuban and Bahamian influence on the island, there were foods we had never heard of. Usually he turns his nose up at anything that doesn’t strike him as fancy enough, but he loved it. Soon we were joining locals at some of their favorite spots, and they helped us find amazing crab cakes and what they considered the best key lime pie on the island. Now when we go on vacation, Key West gives us each everything we want.
My wife and I celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary last year, and we wanted to do something really special to commemorate the occasion. When we got married, neither of us had much money, so the ceremony was really simple and the honeymoon was just a quick weekend getaway. Over the years, we talked about all the things we would have done if we could have afforded them. She saw all these people having destination weddings and said she would have loved to have gotten married on a tropical island.
Over the years, we have taken a few trips to Key West, first as a few hour stop on a cruise and then for a few days or a week. When I got to thinking about how we could make the anniversary something special, it dawned on me: why not have the wedding my wife wishes she could’ve had? We have both been successful enough with our careers that we could easily do all the things we had to skimp on 25 years earlier.
During our trips down there, we have seen several couples getting married, so I made a few phone calls and started putting the plan together. My wife was so surprised when I told her, she started to cry. Several of our friends were able to make the trip and have destination vacations of their own. Just like she pictured it, we said our vows on a silky sand beach with a palm tree waving in the breeze, and kissed right as the sun was setting. A nice perk was not wearing a tux this time.
Part of the reason my fiancé and I chose to have a tropical island wedding was because we wanted to create a complete experience for our guests. We knew that no matter how hard we tried to recreate the feel of Key West, Florida – an island that was special to each of us even before we met – it still wouldn’t be the same as if we were there. We also knew that meant making sure the menu for our reception wasn’t full of the same choices we could have gotten at home.
Part of why we love going to visit the southernmost island is to visit the amazing Key West restaurants. The hardest part of any vacation down there is deciding which restaurants we are going to visit. There are so many great ones to discover, but at the same time, we don’t want to forget about our favorites. Let’s just say that, even though the fresh seafood is healthy for you, when we get home from eating all that amazing key lime pie, we spend a lot of extra time at the gym.
We’re making sure that our reception menu features some of those great food choices. Obviously, you can’t be in Key West and not have some conch fritters, but we are also going to have Mahi sliders, shrimp and crab cakes, and plenty of Key West pink shrimp as well. The seafood is too fresh to not make it a featured part of the menu. One thing we are not doing is having a wedding cake. We’re going to replace that with a wedding key lime pie.